Robert Redfield, the top US public health official, has called on state governors to speed up the opening of new vaccine distribution centres as the federal government presses ahead with plans to launch an immunisation against Covid-19 before the election.
Dr Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, has written a letter asking governors to waive requirements that might slow down the granting of permits for the new facilities, which will be tasked with distributing vaccines to health providers.
“The normal time required to obtain these permits presents a significant barrier to the success of the urgent public health programme,” Dr Redfield wrote in a letter sent to governors on August 27, which has been seen by the Financial Times.
“CDC urgently requests your assistance in expediting applications for these distributions and, if necessary, asks that you consider waiving requirements that would prevent these facilities from becoming fully operational by November 1,” he added.
On Wednesday a CDC official confirmed the authenticity of the letter.
The missive from Dr Redfield is the latest sign that the Trump administration is preparing to authorise a coronavirus vaccine for emergency use and to start distributing it before voters head to the polls on November 3.
Last week the FT reported that the administration was considering granting emergency use authorisation to a vaccine being developed in a partnership between AstraZeneca and Oxford university.
The letter from Dr Redfield was sent in the same week that Stephen Hahn, the head of the US Food and Drug Administration, told the FT that he was willing to bypass the normal approval process to authorise a Covid-19 vaccine as soon as possible.
There have been concerns that the regulator could cut corners if it rushes through an approval in time for President Trump to claim that he has turned the tide against the pandemic before the election.
At a campaign event on Thursday, Joe Biden, Mr Trump’s Democratic opponent, accused the administration of putting “tremendous pressure” on public health officials to quickly approve treatments and vaccines, warning that it could backfire by eroding public trust.
“When we get a vaccine that’s good and works, why do we think the public is going to line up and be willing to take the injection?” he said. “We’ve lost so much confidence in what’s said.”
Mr Biden also referred to reports that the FDA had approved convalescent plasma as a treatment for coronavirus following pressure from the Trump administration. On Tuesday the National Institutes of Health warned there was not enough evidence to support the use of plasma to treat the virus.
Norman Baylor, who was previously director of vaccines research and review at the FDA, said: “There is a review committee and it needs to do its work, we can’t rush.”
The letter from Dr Redfield describes a “massive task” ahead in which hundreds of millions of vaccine doses will be distributed across the US. The process has been outsourced to the US pharmaceuticals distributor McKesson Corporation, which will have to gain permits and licences to “quickly” open new centres.
On Tuesday the strategic intelligence group Ergo, whose Covid-19 task force is chaired by the former White House national security adviser HR McMaster, said it was relatively confident that a vaccine would be authorised in the next two months.
It said it believed there was a 60 per cent chance that at least one vaccine will be proven to be safe and effective and will receive emergency use authorisation between October 22 — when there is an FDA vaccine advisory committee meeting — and the presidential election on November 3, according to an internal note sent to clients.
The intelligence group also said it believed there was a strong possibility that the US government would distribute at least 10m doses to high-priority population groups by December 31.