US says it will miss vaccine distribution target

The US will miss its target of distributing enough coronavirus vaccine to inoculate 20m people by the end of the year, a senior Washington official admitted on Saturday, after underestimating how long it would take to check doses once they were produced.

Gustave Perna, the army officer in charge of the federal government’s vaccine distribution programme, said on Saturday that states would not receive 40m doses of the vaccine until the first week of January, a week later than predicted.

He said he had not understood how long it would take for the Food and Drug Administration to carry out quality control checks on Pfizer’s vaccine once it had been manufactured, leading him to be overly optimistic in his projections.

Gen Perna told reporters on Saturday: “I did not understand with exactness all the steps that have to occur to make sure the vaccine is releasable. I failed, I am adjusting, and we will move forward from there.”

Gen Perna apologised to state governors, several of whom complained this week that their vaccine allocations had been slashed by as much as 40 per cent. The vaccine distribution chief explained he had provided early estimates which had failed to account for the quality control process and so overestimated how quickly doses could reach states.

Under FDA rules, Pfizer must test all batches of a vaccine once they have been manufactured to make sure they are safe, pure, and potent. It then has to send the results of those tests to the regulator 48 hours before they can be released for distribution. Gen Perna did not say which part of that process he had misunderstood.

The admission threatened to blunt some of the optimism generated by the FDA’s approval on Friday night of Moderna’s vaccine, making the US the first country in the world to approve two different Covid-19 vaccines.

Gen Perna said doses of Moderna’s vaccine had already been sent to McKesson, the medical logistics company which is in charge of distributing them. UPS and FedEx, the delivery companies, will start shipping them on Sunday, and states will start taking delivery on Monday.

Moderna’s vaccine can be stored at normal freezer temperatures rather than the ultra-cold conditions required for Pfizer’s product, and so is a crucial part of the government’s plans for getting doses to remote communities.

Gen Perna said this would allow officials to immunise people in “hard to reach, small and more rural areas”. He added: “This is another landmark day for our nation.”

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