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First U.S. immunizations could arrive mid-December

A patient enrolled in Pfizer's COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine

A patient enrolled in Pfizer's COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine clinical trial gets a shot at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in May.         Credit: AP

Life could return to normal in May if enough people get immunized against COVID-19, the U.S. vaccine chief said Sunday, as coronavirus cases have surged to record highs and officials expressed confidence that vaccination could begin next month.

Dr. Moncef Slaoui, Operation Warp Speed’s chief scientific adviser, said about 20 million Americans could be vaccinated in December if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration grants emergency authorization for two vaccines that drug companies announced this week were at least 90% effective in clinical trials.

The first immunizations could come on Dec. 11 or 12, about 24 to 48 hours after the FDA is expected to approve emergency use for Pfizer's vaccine, Slaoui told CNN and ABC Sunday.

The FDA is expected to meet on Dec. 10 to review Pfizer Inc.'s application for emergency authorization and Dec. 17 for Moderna's expected application, Slaoui told ABC. Officials are ready to ship out vaccine doses to state health departments in amounts proportional to their populations within 24 hours of FDA emergency authorization, Slaoui said.

Herd immunity could be reached if 70% of the population is immunized by May, Slaoui said.

"That's going to be critical to help us," Slaoui told CNN’s "State of the Union." "Most people need to be immunized before we can go back to a normal life."

As a recent Gallup Poll shows 40% of Americans are not willing to get a COVID-19 vaccine, Slaoui said he hopes "negative perception" of a vaccine decreases.

Slaoui said he faced no political pressure to accelerate the vaccines, adding much of the scientific research was already in place to safely speed the process along. If these vaccines had any serious issues, they would typically be seen within 40 days of immunization, and they have had "no significant serious adverse events" within 60 days, he said.

But Slaoui acknowledged, "What we are lacking is the long-term safety, just because it's a fact we can't follow up for too long on these vaccines while 1,000 to 2,000 people die every day. That's the risk we know."

The United States has nearly 200,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, and more than 250,000 Americans have died.

Within 24 hours of FDA emergency authorization, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control committee will issue recommendations to states for which groups should get immunized first, Slaoui said. Priority will likely go to "the highest-risk people," including frontline and healthcare workers. But each state will decide how to distribute a vaccine.

The vaccines likely wouldn’t be approved for children until at least the second quarter of 2021, Slaoui said. The vaccines have been tested only on those over age 12 or 14, he said. Clinical trials still need to be conducted for adolescents, toddlers and infants, and infants will probably be the last group to get approved, likely at the end of the 2021.

President-Elect Joe Biden said this week that the Trump administration’s refusal to begin the transition process could cause more COVID-19 cases and deaths because his team needs to start coordinating on vaccine distribution and other efforts.

Slaoui told NBC’s "Meet The Press" that he has been told he legally cannot tell the new administration "anything that’s confidential."

But he said the team is focused on getting a safe vaccine distributed quickly, "regardless of the political contexts."

"We would hope that transition happened quietly and smoothly, and we're here to serve the American people and the American population, and we'll do our best," Slaoui told ABC's "This Week." "So we are concerned with anything that could derail the process. As it is — as it stands now, I can't see that happening, but hopefully it doesn't happen."

The spike in coronavirus cases led the CDC this week to urge Americans to avoid Thanksgiving travel and to celebrate only with the people in their household or virtually.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the U.S. doesn’t have enough tests to fight the virus' asymptomatic spread, which would help make gatherings safe. There should be tests that people can do at home, but "we don't have that," Fauci said on NBC. "We should have that."

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday touted new legislation from Senate Democrats aimed at ensuring health care workers have enough personal protective equipment amid the resurgence of the new coronavirus across the country.

The Senate bill, introduced Friday, would allocate $10 billion for buying personal protective equipment for the national stockpile of medical supplies. It would also bolster the production of new supplies through the Defense Production Act, a 1950 law that grants the government broad powers to spur the manufacture of goods needed for national defense.

With Jesse Coburn