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US officials offer conflicting coronavirus vaccine timetables

A health worker injects a person during clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine at Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Florida.
A health worker injects a person during clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine at Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Florida.Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg

Top U.S. health officials offered conflicting estimates Wednesday of when Americans should expect coronavirus vaccines to be widely available, with one saying in an interview that every American should be able to get a shot by the end of March.

That timetable, offered by Paul Mango, deputy chief of staff for policy at the Department of Health and Human Services, is more ambitious than those of drug company executives, most public health experts and some other top U.S. health officials.

"We are under contract to get enough doses, and we have line of sight right now into the clinical trials such that we believe" the Food and Drug Administration will approve shots before the end of the year, Mango said in an interview. "The combination of those two will permit us to vaccinate every American before the end of first quarter 2021."

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The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, was less optimistic than Mango, in Senate testimony given Wednesday.

"If you're asking me when is it going to be available to the American public," Redfield said to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing, "I think we're probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021," which would suggest some time in late spring or summer of next year.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has likewise said Americans shouldn't expect a vaccine to be widely available before mid-2021.

Mango said the administration is confident it will have 100 million doses of an effective vaccine for elderly people, who are more vulnerable to the virus, available before the end of the year. He stressed that "there's never a 100% guarantee" that timelines will be met.

If a vaccine is approved in October, only about 20 million doses will be ready, he said.

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"Whether that happens in October, November or December is a bit out of our hands," Mango said. "I would say it's possible, it's certainly possible, it happens in October. It's more likely it happens in November or December."

President Donald Trump said Tuesday during a televised town hall event hosted by ABC News that a vaccine could be approved in three or four weeks -- even faster than the goal Mango described. Public-health experts and drugmakers have expressed alarm that the White House is placing extraordinary pressure on the FDA to clear a vaccine before Trump stands for re-election on Nov. 3.

Earlier this year, the president ordered a program called "Operation Warp Speed" to greatly accelerate development and production of a coronavirus vaccine. The medicines typically require years to develop before they're approved for sale.

Trump, Mango said, “has assembled an unbelievable team of some of the world’s best scientists, manufacturing experts, logisticians, public health experts. And what we’re doing is maximizing the probability that the American people will have a safe and effective vaccine as quickly as possible.”