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COVID-19 vaccine should be ready for most vulnerable late this year, for everyone by spring, HHS Secretary Alex Azar says

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/22/2020 Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY
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At least one COVID-19 vaccine should be available as soon as the end of this year, and the general public should be able to get vaccinated by early spring, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday.

“There is hope on the way in the form of safe and effective vaccines in a matter of weeks or months,” said Azar, speaking in Atlanta at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At the rare public briefing, Azar laid out a specific timetable that didn't exactly match what the government has previously said. 

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“We expect that we would have by end of this year enough vaccine that is FDA-authorized to be able to vaccinate the most vulnerable individuals,”  he said. “Then, by end of January, we’d expect we’d have enough to vaccinate all seniors, as well as our health care workers and first responders.

“And by the end of March to early April, enough for all Americans who would want to take a vaccine.”

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That timetable differs from one recommended earlier this month by a federal advisory panel to CDC and the National Institutes of Health, which called for first vaccinating health care workers and first responders, followed by those most vulnerable to infection.

Azar said the availability of vaccines may also depend on how quickly they can be produced, a process which has already begun. “I wish I could say everything is going to go 100% according to plan, but we also have to be ready in case it doesn’t,” he said.

Azar appeared with Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, and Dr. Jay Butler, the agency’s senior career official. All three men wore masks the entire time they spoke, not taking them off at the podium as has been the practice at other government news conferences during the pandemic. It was the first time the CDC had held a media call on COVID-19 since Aug. 21.

All three emphasized basic public health measures.

“For anybody reconnecting to school, reconnecting to work, going back to worship or reconnecting to health care or engaging in the political or civic life of our country, our advice remains the same: Wash hands, watch your distance, wear face coverings when you can’t watch your distance, avoid gatherings where you aren’t going to be able to do those things,” Azar said.

a person holding a sign: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaking at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Oct. 21. © USA TODAY Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaking at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta on Oct. 21.

They commented on the rise in COVID case numbers across three-quarters of the country, with cases reaching 60,000 a day on average over the last week and about 700 deaths a day. 

“We are seeing a distressing trend here in the United States,” Butler said.

Butler said he understands people are getting tired of wearing masks and taking other protective measures, but “it continues to be as important as it’s ever been, and I would say it’s more important than ever as we move into the fall season.”

More: USA TODAY's experts say securing a COVID-19 vaccine in record time could be easy, but distributing it won't be

He said people should be particularly careful around the holidays and urged them to consider four risks when gathering with others: the closeness of the interaction, how long it lasts, whether it’s indoors or outdoors (outside is safer), and the number of people involved. People should do what they can to minimize those risks both for themselves and to protect their loved ones and the larger community, he said.

Azar also said the government is considering changing quarantine requirements for people exposed to the virus.

Under current CDC guidance, those exposed to someone with COVID-19 should stay at home for 14 days, the period during which symptoms are expected to show. Now, the agency is studying whether testing an exposed person 5 or 7 days after exposure could allow their quarantine period to be shortened.

“Obviously, we don’t want people to be quarantined for 14 days unnecessarily,”  Azar said.

Azar also stressed the process of developing a vaccine against COVID-19 has been very deliberate, scientific and “by the book.”

He pointed to the fact that two vaccine trials and a treatment trial are currently on hold. In all three trials, a volunteer has become ill and the study has been paused while the illness can be investigated to determine if it is related to the vaccine or drug.

“The system’s working,” Azar said.

He also listed five checks and balances in place to ensure any shot that receives federal approval will have been carefully vetted for safety and effectiveness:

  1. Each trial has an independent data safety and monitoring board to keep track of any side effects the vaccine may trigger, and to ensure effectiveness goals are met. The board holds onto the data until it is sure the standards have been reached.
  2. Each company has its own independent process for deciding when it has enough data to submit an application for approval.
  3. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has published guidance that companies must meet before their vaccine can be considered for authorization. 
  4. The FDA has an outside advisory committee that holds public meetings to review trial results. 
  5. And FDA's career scientists will review all trial data before issuing an emergency use authorization or final approval for a vaccine.

Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY.

Contact Karen Weintraub at kweintraub@usatoday.com

Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 vaccine should be ready for most vulnerable late this year, for everyone by spring, HHS Secretary Alex Azar says

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