President-elect Joe Biden's Covid advisory board member Dr. Atul Gawande told CNBC that the Covid-19 vaccine rollout "is a Herculean operation" with potential hitches along the way as Pfizer's Covid vaccine just took a big step toward FDA approval for emergency use.
"The biggest challenge is going to be both production and then getting it into people's arms," Gawande said. "The whole chain of getting it out on those trucks, but then, the whole chain of getting them into hospitals."
A panel of scientists recommended that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks in a 17 to 4 vote during Thursday night's Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory committee meeting. The FDA is now set to give the final OK for emergency use authorization, which could come in either a couple of hours or a couple of days. Once that happens, however, the rollout kicks into high gear.
According to Operation Warp Speed, it will take 24 hours of prep time to load boxes of the vaccines into trucks and get moving with 2.9 million doses shipped to 636 distribution sites across the country. Hospitals will get it first, then state facilities and pharmacy distribution centers, and finally, health clinics and drug stores.
Mark Levine, Chair of the NYC Council Health Committee, told WNBC that the first recipients of the vaccine will probably be next Wednesday or Thursday.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar estimated that 20 million Americans "could be" vaccinated by the end of December and another 50 million "could be" vaccinated by the end of January. He added that "we expect" 100 million vaccinations total by the end of February.
Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan highlighted that Congress will play a big role in efficiently distributing Covid vaccines.
"Congress is considering another bill to provide assistance with vaccine distribution, with testing, with helping businesses that have been affected by this latest surge," McClellan said in a Thursday evening interview on "The News with Shepard Smith. "Those steps are going to make the distribution go better, they're going to help us get the surge in cases down faster, and that means significantly faster recovery, getting back to normal, getting back to business as usual."
Gawande noted that the federal government will also be key in helping to disseminate the vaccine in less-populated areas across the country.
"Rural hospitals in the smaller settings, these are in packages of 975 doses, and those have to go to places that can do larger distributions, we'll have to work on getting it down to the rural areas as fast as possible and I hope that the [Trump] administration is prepared to do that soon," Gawande said.
The vaccine news comes after the United States suffered its deadliest day yet of the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday, killing more than 3,000 Americans. More than 21,000 Americans have already died this month alone, according to a CNBC analysis of Johns Hopkins data.
Gawande said that while the effectiveness of the vaccine makes him hopeful, it does not mean that Americans will automatically be back to "normal" and that people can immediately stop wearing masks.
"What we know is that the vaccine keeps people from getting sick with symptoms, and so that's great when you have the vaccination, but we don't know that it prevents you from carrying an asymptomatic infection that could infect others," Gawande said. "People getting the vaccine will need to keep wearing a mask, and that's going to be a challenge to convince them that for the benefit of others, they need to keep doing that."