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New COVID-19 Strain, Moderna Vaccine, CDC Vaccination Guidelines

NOEL KING, HOST:

There's mixed news on the coronavirus this morning. There's a new strain of the virus in the U.K. It's spreading quickly, and it's worrying people. Some European countries are banning travel to and from the U.K. Now, in the U.S., we're on week two of our vaccination campaign. Shipments of the second vaccine that was authorized will be arriving across the country. This is the Moderna vaccine. NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: Can we start with what's going on in the U.K. and this new strain there? What's happening?

AUBREY: You know, scientists in the U.K. say this new strain accounts for more than 60% of recent cases identified in London. And the concern, Noel, is that it's more contagious. I spoke to Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University, about this.

ANGELA RASMUSSEN: It does look to me that this may be more transmissible. But it's important also for people to understand that that doesn't mean that it's being transmitted in a different way, and it also doesn't seem to be associated with any increase in virulence, meaning that people might be more likely to get it but they are not going to get more sick.

AUBREY: She says there's still a lot more to learn about this mutation.

KING: Do we know if it's made it to the U.S.?

AUBREY: Well, it is possible that this strain could make it to the U.S., Rasmussen says. It's really not known at this time, so she says it's one more reason to be vigilant.

RASMUSSEN: If it is more transmissible, that means that it could result in more COVID cases. Right now our health care system is strained to its limits, and an additional surge in cases could really put us over the top.

KING: And, I mean, big question here - will the vaccine that people have been getting be effective against this strain?

AUBREY: Well, you know, Admiral Brett Giroir, a top administration official, said yesterday that they have not seen a single virus mutation yet that would evade the vaccine.

KING: Good news. OK, so over the weekend, there's a CDC advisory committee that issued some guidance on which people are next in line to get the vaccine. Let's bring people up to date. Who's first? Who's getting it first?

AUBREY: Sure. So the next group will include people aged 75 and older - also frontline essential workers. So this would include police, firefighters, teachers, prison guards, postal workers, bus drivers and grocery store workers.

KING: And we've got both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines going out this week. How many doses - do you know? - are we talking about?

AUBREY: Sure. A combined 7.9 million doses are ready to be distributed this week, and this is very welcome news, Noel. Everyone knew that vaccine supplies would be very tight to begin, but many sites have not received as many doses of the Pfizer vaccine as they had been told to expect. Over the weekend, Operation Warp Speed officials acknowledged fewer doses were released to start these first few weeks.

I spoke to Mike Brownlee. He heads vaccine distribution efforts at the University of Iowa Health Care. He says they're on track to get about half of what they had been told to expect by year end.

MIKE BROWNLEE: We were hoping to get, by the end of the year, 10,000 doses so that we can keep moving through our staff, but we understand the challenges. So I think we're trying to be patient with the process. And the Moderna approval will help. And we're just ready. Whenever we get doses, we are ready every single day to give vaccine.

AUBREY: So a bit slower than expected, but not a surprise that the first couple of weeks would be a little bumpy. I'll point out, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have agreed to provide more than $30 billion for vaccine purchases and vaccine distribution and COVID testing as part of this new coronavirus relief package.

KING: And from 3,000 feet, how has this vaccination campaign - which we keep describing as historic - how has it been going?

AUBREY: You know, in the words of Dr. Gabe Kelen, who is overseeing the rollout at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, he says it's going amazingly smoothly. He says they've seen no adverse events, only very, very mild side effects, if any, and an overwhelming response in terms of people wanting the vaccine now.

GABE KELEN: There's a certain miracle to this, right? Like, a vaccine in the midst of a world pandemic was developed in under 10 months. We thought there'd be a lot of vaccine skeptics or people who would say, well, I'm willing to go second; you go first. But people want it now. The demand actually has way outstripped our best expectations.

AUBREY: And as to when it's available to all, well, President-elect Biden's pick for surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, says it could be midsummer to early fall when the vaccine is available to all lower-risk people in the general public.

KING: OK, that's interesting. So the numbers change day to day, but we have obviously seen a surge this winter. Is the surge slowing down at all?

AUBREY: You know, not really, Noel. The U.S. is averaging about 215,000 new cases a day, and cases continue to increase in many parts of the country. Look at California, Arizona, many southern states - Georgia, Tennessee. Now, there are places where new cases have begun to decline in the Midwest - Iowa, Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky, too. Doctors in that state tell me the restrictions put in place by Governor Andy Beshear seem to be helping.

KING: OK. And what about death rates? Are they still going up?

AUBREY: Death rates have increased about 20% in the last two weeks. And while it is true the oldest Americans are at highest risk, there was a very touching photo of a couple that died together last week, Noel. They reportedly held hands as they were dying from COVID. He was 62. She was 65. And a new study from Andrew Levin, a professor at Dartmouth College, finds that the risk of dying from COVID for even middle-aged people who get infected is much higher than the risk of dying in a car crash.

ANDREW LEVIN: COVID is dangerous, much more dangerous than driving a car. So we do things like wearing our seat belts, driving at safe speeds, and we need to do more of that, 100 times more of that, in terms of trying to make sure that we don't get infected with COVID and that we don't pass it on to someone else.

AUBREY: And amid this holiday season, the CDC continues to recommend that people postpone travel, stay home. I know it can be disappointing to cancel your plans. But as one psychologist put it, Noel, disappointment does not kill, but COVID can.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you.

AUBREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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