Gottlieb calls for more “bespoke” efforts to get vaccine to underserved communities

Washington — Former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb suggested Sunday the Biden administration undertake more “bespoke” efforts to ensure coronavirus vaccines are getting into the arms of Americans in underserved communities.

“I would be taking the federal resources and the state resources and creating more bespoke solutions that can be used in some of the hard-to-reach environments, some of the underserved communities, whether you can move mobile vans into those communities, try to work through community groups, local providers, church groups, community health centers to try to get harder-to-reach populations vaccinated,” Gottlieb said in an interview with “Face the Nation.” “That’s a very difficult effort. It’s expensive. It’s a bespoke effort.”

Gottlieb, who led the FDA for nearly two years under former President Donald Trump, said the new administration is “taking an all-of-the-above approach” to vaccine distribution, from supporting vaccination sites to sending vaccine doses directly to retail pharmacies. But he cautioned against devoting too many federal resources to mass vaccination sites, as Americans going there to get their COVID-19 shots can likely be served by pharmacies at Walmart, Rite Aid, CVS and Walgreens. 

“I’d be marshaling the federal resources towards that kind of a mission, and letting Walmart work off the easy demand and Rite Aid,” he said of reaching underserved communities.

While the Biden administration has taken steps to accelerate the pace of vaccine administration, Gottlieb and other public health experts have stressed new coronavirus variants first identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil amplify the need for Americans to get vaccinated as quickly as possible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are roughly 1,000 reported cases of the U.K. strain, B.1.1.7, in 39 states, and more than a dozen reported cases of the South African variant, B.1.351, in at least five states.

Emergence of the new variants has prompted vaccine makers such as Pfizer and Moderna to begin developing new booster vaccines to address them. Gottlieb said drug makers should decide when to begin shifting their manufacturing to the boosters by July and August.

“You don’t want to throw all your eggs into that basket, but you do want to create some supply that you’ll have it on-hand come the fall if you need those vaccines,” he said. “So I think that’s about the point where you’re going to make that decision. The time to starting the manufacturing process and actually getting finished vaccine off the line is about two months. So if you start manufacturing in July, you’ll start getting vaccine off the line in time for the fall.”

While drug makers in the U.S. are working on shots that protect against the new coronavirus strains, officials in the U.K. have decided to continue administering a vaccine developed by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca, though it has been shown not to be as effective in early trials against the South African variant. 

Gottlieb said he understands the decision to continue using the Oxford/AstraZeneca shot, as it’s cheap, accessible and can be more easily stored. But he suggested there be a “plan B” of another shot to send to regions where the South African variant becomes the dominant strain.

“If you’re putting a vaccine into those markets that we know does not cover B.1.351, the South African variant, very well, if at all, you have the risk that you could select for that variant in those markets,” he said. “And so you need a plan B on what vaccine you’re going to deploy to those regions if in fact B.1.351 becomes prevalent in those regions after you vaccinate with the AstraZeneca vaccine.”

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