President Donald Trump on Friday piled pressure on the US drug regulator to quickly approve the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine as America readied to roll out mass immunizations.
The Washington Post reported that the White House told the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief Stephen Hahn to submit his resignation if the agency does not clear the vaccine by the end of the day.
Hahn later disputed the characterization of the call, but the alleged threat came as Trump tweeted that the agency was a “big, old, slow turtle” and told Hahn to get the “dam” vaccines out immediately.
An expert committee had already voted to grant an emergency use authorization, which was expected within days, as the FDA worked to iron out last-minute details with Pfizer.
These included a fact sheet for doctors. The FDA has said it wants to warn people with severe allergies to avoid the shots for now.
Trump’s intervention reinserts politics into the scientific process, which could undermine vaccine confidence in the world’s hardest-hit country, where the death toll is nearing 300,000.
It was also not clear whether having an EUA a day or two earlier than expected would change when the first Americans — nursing home residents and health care workers — would get their injections, which is expected Monday or Tuesday.
The country hopes to have 20 million people inoculated this month.
The government also said Friday that it is buying 100 million more doses of the Moderna vaccine candidate, amid reports the government passed on the opportunity to secure more supply of the Pfizer jab.
The purchase brings its total supply of Moderna doses to 200 million, enough to immunize 100 million people with the two-shot regimen, which is yet to be green-lighted by authorities.
Two other vaccine candidates stumbled Friday.
France’s Sanofi and Britain’s GSK said on Friday their vaccine would not be ready until the end of 2021.
New results showed a low immune response in older adults, researchers said.
And in Australia, the development of a vaccine at The University of Queensland was abandoned Friday after clinical trials produced a false positive HIV result among subjects involved in early testing.
The mixed news on the vaccine front comes as infections accelerated fast in North America and parts of Africa but started to stabilize in Europe and drop in Asia and the Middle East.
Around the world more than 1.58 million lives have been lost to Covid-19 since it emerged in China a year ago, according to an AFP tally from official sources.
The World Health Organization warned Friday that Christmas celebrations could turn to tears if people fail to keep up their guard against Covid-19 during the festive season.
Britain this week became the first Western country to roll out the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, which Canada, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have also approved.
The first vaccine shipments to 14 sites across Canada are scheduled to arrive Monday with people receiving shots a day or two later.
Israel, which accepted its first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine on Wednesday, is targeting a rollout on December 27.
And Hong Kong said Friday it had struck deals for two vaccines — one from Pfizer and the other from Beijing-based Sinovac — with plans to launch a campaign in early 2021.
A new combined approach is also being tested by AstraZeneca, whose Russian operation said it would mix its shot with the locally-made Sputnik V vaccine in clinical trials.
Russia and China have already begun inoculation efforts with domestically produced vaccines that have seen less rigorous vetting, while EU countries are eagerly awaiting clearance on two options.
The EU’s watchdog said it would deliver decisions on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in late December and early January respectively.
Yet many lingering questions about the vaccines remain.
Key issues include whether more side effects will emerge with longer follow-up, how long the vaccine remains effective, whether it will limit transmission and how it will work in children, pregnant women and immunocompromised patients.
As Europe’s surge eases off slightly, France is planning to lift a six-week-long lockdown from Tuesday but impose a curfew from 8.00 pm, including on New Year’s Eve.
Greece also announced new plans Friday to slash quarantine time for incoming travelers and reopen churches for Christmas.
But Switzerland, which is seeing a sharp resurgence in cases, announced a 7.00 pm curfew for shops, restaurants and bars.
“Our hospitals and our health workers are being stretched to the limit. We couldn’t wait any longer,” President Simonetta Sommaruga said.
While lockdowns have brought economic pain, boredom and myriad other woes, the effect on the environment has been more positive.
The biggest drops were recorded in the US, down 12 percent, and the European Union, down 11 percent.