The Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine will reach hospitals and other sites across the United States by Monday morning, a top official said, ready to be injected into the arms of millions of the most vulnerable Americans as the world’s death toll approached 1.6 million.
The imminent start of the mass vaccination campaign in the world’s hardest-hit country came as Italy overtook Britain as the European nation with the highest coronavirus death toll.
“I am worried about the two weeks of Christmas holidays. We are up against a dramatic pandemic which is ongoing – the battle still has not been won,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza told a symposium as the country recorded 64,036 deaths, surpassing Britain’s 64,026.
Regional affairs minister Francesco Boccia told Italian television that unless people adopted a careful approach, “the risk of a third wave is almost certain.”
As the world was shortly expected to cross the grim threshold of 1.6 million deaths, infections in the United States were soaring, with 1.1 million new cases confirmed in the past five days and a death toll nearing 300,000.
Doses of the Pfizer vaccine will begin leaving the company’s factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Sunday, stored in boxes containing dry ice that are capable of staying at -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit), the frigid temperature needed to preserve the drug.
General Gus Perna, who is overseeing the massive logistical operation as part of the government’s Operation Warp Speed, likened the moment to D-Day, the turning point of World War II.
“I am absolutely 100% confident that we are going to distribute safely, this precious commodity, this vaccine, needed to defeat the enemy Covid,” he told reporters.
Over the past two weeks the US has repeatedly exceeded 2,000 Covid-related deaths per day, rivalling tolls it saw in the early days of the pandemic.
Perna said hundreds of sites, including hospitals and other distribution centers, would receive the vaccines from Monday to Wednesday, which would cover the first wave of about three million people to be vaccinated.
Federal health authorities have recommended that health care workers and nursing home residents be at the front of the line, but the final decisions have been left to states.
The US is seeking to inoculate 20 million people this month alone.
The US became the sixth country to green-light the Pfizer vaccine on Friday night, after Britain, Bahrain, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.
It was a triumphant moment for the American giant and its German partner BioNTech, who started work on their product, based on experimental mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) technology, just 11 months ago.
The vaccine has been shown in a clinical trial of 44,000 people to be 95% effective in preventing Covid-19, and no serious safety concerns have been identified.
But, after two health care workers in Britain who received the injection suffered severe allergic reactions, the FDA has advised people who have known allergies to the vaccine’s ingredients to avoid getting it.
US Food and Drug Administration scientist Peter Marks voiced support for Pfizer’s plan to allow people involved in the clinical trial to find out whether they had received the vaccine or placebo.
Under this proposal, if they received the placebo, they can request the vaccine when their demographic group’s turn comes up.
Some scientists have opposed this plan because if trial participants become “unblinded” and find out what they received, they may change their behavior and this would corrupt the trial’s data.
But Marks said: “We have to balance the amount of blinded data that we receive with the need to protect people from a pandemic that’s taking thousands of lives daily.”
Two other vaccine candidates stumbled Friday: France’s Sanofi and Britain’s GSK said their vaccine would not be ready until the end of 2021.
And in Australia the development of a vaccine at the University of Queensland was abandoned after clinical trials produced a false positive HIV result among subjects involved in early testing.
Meanwhile, South Korea reported 1,030 new coronavirus cases Sunday, a record high for a second day in a row as the country struggles to tackle a third wave of infections.
The country had previously been held up as a model of how to combat the pandemic, with the public largely following social distancing and other rules.
But a resurgence centered on the capital and surrounding area has prompted President Moon Jae-in to apologize on Facebook for his administration’s failure to contain the latest wave.
On Saturday he called the situation “very grave” after authorities reported 950 new infections, the largest daily increase since the start of the pandemic.
Saturday’s record was broken on Sunday with 1,002 new locally transmitted cases, some 786 of which were uncovered in the greater Seoul area – home to half the country’s 52 million people.
The weekend numbers followed several days in which authorities reported figures ranging from about 500 to 600.
South Korea’s spike came despite the government’s tightening of social distancing rules in the capital area earlier this week.
It has never imposed the kind of lockdowns ordered in much of Europe and other parts of the world.