Dr. Scott Gottlieb says Covid vaccine eligibility should be expanded now to deliver more shots

The U.S. should expand coronavirus vaccine eligibility in order to ensure more Americans receive shots in the coming weeks, Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC on Monday.

“Right now, every shot in an arm is a win,” Gottlieb said on “Squawk Box.”

The U.S. fell far short of its year-end 2020 goal of vaccinating 20 million people against Covid-19. While about 13.1 million doses were delivered to states as of Jan. 2, only roughly 4.23 million Americans actually received their initial dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, the only ones approved in the U.S. for emergency use, both require two doses a few weeks apart.

Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and a current Pfizer board member, said the federal government should stockpile fewer doses, instead of pursuing the current policy of withholding about half of the available supply with the intention of guaranteeing people get their second shots.

Because of the intensity of the current Covid-19 outbreak, with some hospital systems being strained and thousands of Americans dying from the disease each week, Gottlieb said the priority should be rolling out as many initial doses as possible. “We know getting vaccines in arms can be a partial backstop continued spread,” he added.

“I think people should be getting the second dose. They should be getting the second dose largely on time, but we can be pushing out more first doses now and using the future supply that’s going to come onto the market in January to administer some of those second doses,” he said, referring to vaccine-makers’ plans to continually ramp up supply in 2021.

“You need to stockpile something if you want to make sure there’s a smooth transition to the second doses, but putting away 50% of all the doses, I think, is denying more people access to a vaccine,” stressed Gottlieb, who led the FDA from 2017 to 2019 in the Trump administration.

At the same time, he acknowledged that one potential reason why fewer Americans have been vaccinated than expected is there is hesitancy to receive the shot among the groups of people who were given priority, such as staff at long-term care facilities. For example, Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said last week that roughly 60% of nursing home workers in the state have declined to be vaccinated.

In addition to those living and working at long-term care facilities, health-care workers also received priority in the initial rollout. A CDC advisory panel last month recommended that “frontline essential workers” and people 75 years of age and older should be next in line as supply becomes more available.

However, states have the ability to define who is eligible to receive the vaccine, and some such as Texas and Florida have already announced they will be modifying the CDC guidance for the second group. In Texas, for instance, priority will be given to people 65 years and older as well as those with certain underlying medical conditions.

Gottlieb said he believes states should be willing to expand the eligibility, including making the vaccine available at retail pharmacies, because it is important that high-risk Americans have access during what he called “the worst part of this epidemic right now.”

“If we have a group of Americans that we know wants the vaccine very badly and would take it quickly and also happens to be at the highest risk of a bad Covid outcome — and I’m thinking in particular about senior citizens in this country — I would just give it to them,” Gottlieb said.

“I would make it generally available to them, to the extent possible, while we focus on these prioritized groups. I’m not saying ignore that mission,” he continued. “That’s a very important public-health mission, but we shouldn’t be spending three weeks trying to push the vaccines into arms where you have some reluctance when we know those vaccines are sitting on the shelf and building on the shelf.”

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