Americans will have to wait “months” before everyone who wants a Covid-19 vaccine can get one and funding from Congress is “essential”, the White House coronavirus taskforce has warned – in its first public briefing under Joe Biden.
The sober assessment came as the taskforce aimed to set a new tone of transparency after last year’s televised briefings became notorious for then president Donald Trump’s political grandstanding, claiming the virus would “go away” and promises of “miracle cures”.
Biden, by contrast, was not present on Wednesday. “The White House respects and will follow the science, and the scientists will speak independently,” Andy Slavitt, the White House senior adviser for Covid response, told reporters.
“Right now, I want to level with the public that we’re facing two constraining factors. The first is getting supply quickly enough and the second is getting the ability to administer the vaccines quickly once they’re produced and sent out to the sites.”
Slavitt added: “We are taking action to increase supply and increase capacity but, even so, it will be months before everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one.”
Biden is under pressure to accelerate vaccinations nationwide after a sluggish start under Trump. So far this week the government had been hitting its target of one million vaccinations a day, the taskforce said. Overall it has delivered 47m doses to states and long-term care facilities and administered about 24m so far.
On Tuesday the president announced plans to buy an extra 200m vaccine doses from Moderna and Pfizer. And Slavitt said the taskforce had identified 12 areas where Biden has authorised use of the Defense Production Act – a law that directs private companies to prioritise orders from the federal government – to boost production. But the White House says it cannot resolve the crisis alone.
Biden has proposed $1.9tn coronavirus relief bill to Congress that includes funding to administer vaccines, increase testing and help schools and businesses reopen. But numerous Republicans have already raised objections, raising fears of political gridlock stalling the rescue effort.
Jeffrey Zients, coordinator of the taskforce, said it is “essential” that Congress pass the act. “In order to get all Americans vaccinated, we need Congress to provide funds for vaccinations. We still do too little testing in this country; we need to ramp up testing significantly. We need Congress to fund more testing in order to reopen schools and businesses.”
He added: “Furthermore, believe it or not, we still have shortages of PPE and other critical materials. We need emergency funds in order to make sure that we have those materials. So those are just three of the key areas that need to be funded by Congress in order for us to execute on the president’s national plan.”
The pandemic remains Biden’s most urgent priority. The US now has more than 25m cases and 425,406 deaths. Rochelle Walensky, the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said her agency’s latest forecast indicates the country will record between 479,000 to 514,000 deaths by 20 February.
The taskforce urged people to continue to wear masks, wash hands and physically distance to mitigate spread of the virus as cases remain “extraordinarily high”.
Wednesday’s briefing was conducted virtually, rather than in person at the White House, to allow for questions from health journalists, but suffered some technical glitches. When the infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci’s turn came, the screen showed the words “Science Update by Dr Anthony Fauci” with the White House logo but there was a long silence. Six colleagues could be seen in windows on the side of the screen. One held up a sign that said, “We can’t hear you.”
Fauci, who has admitted feeling liberated from Trump’s carping and disinformation, said there was cause for concern about the so-called South African variant of the virus, because lab tests have shown that it can diminish the protective power of the vaccines approved to date. But Fauci stressed the level of protection provided was still well within what he called the “cushion” of vaccine effectiveness.
One vaccine still in testing is being measured for effectiveness against the South African variant and another strain that has emerged in Brazil, Fauci added. “We will always want to be a step or two ahead of what might be a problem in the future.”
The US ranks only 43rd in the world in terms of tracking genetic variants of Covid-19, however, a situation described by Zients as “completely unacceptable”.
In another break from Trump, the taskforce briefings will happen regularly, with the next one on Friday. Biden told reporters this week: “We’re bringing back the pros to talk about Covid in an unvarnished way. Any questions you have, that’s how we’ll handle them because we’re letting science speak again.”