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Dr. Atul Gawande: It will be 6-8 weeks before more Americans can access vaccines

One of the biggest questions facing Americans today is when they can expect to get vaccinated. The answer is hard to pin down as numerous hurdles remain, including access to vaccine sites and availability of appointments.

Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School professor, said the current priority groups, which include people 65 and older and adults 18 and with underlying health conditions are still in need of attention — so it will still take some time.

It will take "at least 6-8 weeks" to get through those groups before a larger swath of the American population can get access to vaccines," the former Haven CEO told Yahoo Finance in a recent interview.

After leaving the now-defunct joint health-care venture by Amazon (AMZN), Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A) and J.P. Morgan (JPM), Gawande served on the Biden-Harris COVID-19 advisory board during its transition. He has also co-founded a health alliance, CIC Health, which launched mass testing sites in Massachusetts and the surrounding region last year, and is now administering vaccines at the same sites.

Mass vaccination sites have contributed to the country's steady climb to an average of more than 1.5 million doses per day. Gawande said that this week's weather, which has hampered vaccinations nationwide, is only a temporary setback.

"We are now suddenly being notified that there may not be the deliveries of vaccine that we expected. This will slow down for a few days, but we will get back on track, I'm confident, in the coming days," he said.

The federal government announced an increase in supply next week, raising the weekly allocation to states from 11 million to 13.5 million. The increase has been achieved by a combination of manufacturers able to produce more, as expected with a ramp up, as well as President Joe Biden invoking the Defense Production Act to ensure manufacturers have priority access to materials and supplies.

The real issue, now that supply constraints and bottlenecks are being addressed by the federal government, is the still-overwhelming demand. States have set up call centers to address the gap in serving the less tech-savvy or overcoming language barriers, even as appointment sites remain flooded and some individuals choose to stand in lines overnight. But that isn't enough.

It's why the federal government has chipped in with standing up FEMA vaccination sites, staffed by active military members, and is looking at mobile clinics and community health centers as ways to target the hardest to reach.

"As a country we have major pockets that don't have pharmacies, don't have clinic access and don't have large centers with capacity to take on the need," Gawande said.

As a result, CIC is launching a new method to ensure the neediest have access to the vaccines. The group is making blocks of appointments available to community health workers and outreach agencies that can go door to door and get eligible individuals signed up, Gawande said.

There have been over 27 million cases in the U.S. so far. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)
There have been over 27 million cases in the U.S. so far. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

Global vaccine demand

The unprecedented demand for a vaccine is affecting all countries, but the U.S. and other wealthier countries have been accused of hoarding vaccines — in some cases committing to more than needed— while poorer countries are left waiting.

It's why countries like India, China and Russia, which have home-developed vaccines that would face significant approval hurdles in the U.S., are leading in the global vaccine race— especially through the World Health Organization's COVAX program.

"It is interesting seeing Russia, China and India, even though they are pressed for supply, are also using a certain portion of their supply for getting diplomatic advantages," Gawande said.

Which is why the Biden administration's rejoining of the WHO and commitment to transfer vaccines through COVAX is a step in the right direction.

"This is a global pandemic, it won't be solved only by vaccinating here," Gawande said.

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