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CDC Panel To Vote On Who's 1st In Line For COVID-19 Vaccine


Arguably, the biggest and most important puzzle facing the world right now is how to distribute a vaccine and decide who gets it first. Here in the U.S., a group of advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will vote today on who should be first in line. Two promising vaccines have been submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for review. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. is here to talk about all this. Good morning, Selena.


MARTIN: All right. So this vote today - tell us about this group that is tasked with making such critical decisions.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. This is the ACIP, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. It's made up of scientists and public health experts who review and make recommendations for all vaccines, mostly the ones that your kids get at the pediatrician. But their job today is to figure out the allocation question for the COVID vaccine. So once the FDA greenlights one or both of these vaccines for emergency use, a complicated distribution process will kick off. And the state officials in charge of distribution need to know who needs to get these first limited doses of vaccines.

MARTIN: I mean, it's going to be health care workers, isn't it?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. So those are the people who are most at risk of exposure. And there is wide agreement that health care providers will be in this very first tier. Where there's a bit of debate is whether seniors in long-term care facilities should be in the very first tier two or whether they should be vaccinated after health care providers. And some of the issues to consider are, will the vaccines work as well in older people? Because, sometimes, there are different efficacy rates in different age groups. At the same time, the burden of deaths among this group is staggering. They represent only 6% of cases but nearly 40% of deaths.

MARTIN: Right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So some members of the committee have indicated they're not in favor of this plan. So there may be some spirited discussion at today's meeting. Later tiers include essential workers like police officers, people who work in grocery stores. After that will likely be seniors over 65 and those with underlying conditions. But the vote today is just about that very, very first group.

MARTIN: OK, so what's the timing look like? I mean, when when could we actually see this first tier get vaccinated?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, both Moderna and Pfizer have submitted data from their vaccine clinical trials to FDA for review. There's an FDA meeting on December 10 to consider the Pfizer vaccine, and they'll consider Moderna's a week later. And then it will be either days or weeks until the FDA makes its decision. There's been some mixed messaging from federal officials on exactly how long that part of the process will take. When the FDA gives its OK, states will kick off their plans into gear to start distributing those very first vaccine doses.

MARTIN: I mean, and what about the states' planning? I mean, is all that laid out at this point?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, states have all crafted plans. And those plans have been reviewed by CDC. They've gotten notes back. And now several states are doing full-scale dry runs of distribution of the Pfizer vaccine. And that's the one that needs ultra-cold storage, which makes the planning super complicated.

MARTIN: Right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: I talked to Dr. Nirav Shah about this. He's the head of Maine CDC. And here's what he said.

NIRAV SHAH: We are way beyond, where are our freezers? And where is our dry ice? We did that weeks ago. We are now at the stage of what sizes of ultra-cold dry-ice gloves do we need to be ordering? Like, OK, we've got 17 people. How many are mediums? How many are larges? How many are smalls? How many goggles do we need to be ordering for people who are going to be handling the dry ice?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: He said they're literally measuring how much space is available in their ultra-cold freezers to figure out how many vials they could fit. So that's why this advisory meeting today is so critical. Officials like Shah need to know who's first in line to get the vaccine, so they know where to send those first doses once the FDA gives that green light.

MARTIN: Got it. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks for all your reporting, Selena.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.