MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The U.S. will donate 500 million doses of COVID vaccine to the rest of the world. President Biden made that announcement today in Cornwall, England.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And in this moment, our values call on us to do everything that we can to vaccinate the world against COVID-19. It's also in America's self-interest. As long as the virus rages elsewhere, there's a risk of new mutations that could threaten our people.
KELLY: Well, to help answer some of the questions raised by this plan, let's bring in the man in charge of it. Jeff Zients is the White House coronavirus response coordinator. He's traveling with the president, and we've got him on the line now from Cornwall, England. Mr. Zients, welcome.
JEFF ZIENTS: Well, please, Jasmine (ph), it's a pleasure to be with you.
KELLY: Glad to have you with us. All right. Let's walk through this - 500 million doses that the U.S. will give to the rest of the world. The first 200 million to be distributed this year, the rest next year. It sounds like a lot, but, of course, 200 million doses this year will only vaccinate fully the population of a country the size of Egypt, maybe Ethiopia. How much of a difference are you hoping this will make?
ZIENTS: Well, I want to start by saying all of these doses are going to be donated to 100 of the lowest-income countries. And this is the largest purchase by far and donation of COVID-19 vaccine by any country. This is in addition to the 80 million doses that the president announced a few weeks ago that we will be donating from the U.S. supply of vaccines, and we're going to continue to donate doses across the summer months. So all of this adds up to more than a half-billion, and this is not the end of the effort by any stretch.
KELLY: Right. I will note that these 500 million doses announced today, these are from Pfizer. Are you all looking at similar agreements with Moderna, with Johnson & Johnson?
ZIENTS: Yeah. We are in discussions with Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, and we will continue to do everything we can working with those two companies. You're right that today is 500 million doses from Pfizer. That's the mRNA vaccine which has proven to be highly effective and safe and so far has worked against all of the variants. So this is really important to have 500 million doses - 200 million doses, as you said, available by the end of this year with the other 300 million by mid-next year.
KELLY: Now, the U.S. is asking other rich countries to pony up, too, and I'm seeing that G-7 leaders say they will announce more COVID plans on Friday. Can you give us a preview?
ZIENTS: I don't want to get ahead of the G-7 announcement, but I think it'll be clear that American leadership, working with other democracies and partners around the world will really help to lead us out of - the globe out of this pandemic.
KELLY: Safe to say more vaccines are coming for the developing world?
ZIENTS: Yes. And, you know, I think that's really important, and it's made possible in part because of how far along we are in our own vaccination efforts. I want to emphasize that we have enough vaccine for all Americans, and 64% of adults at this point have at least one shot. I would encourage everybody who only has one shot to get fully vaccinated and anyone who hasn't started their vaccination routine to do so because when fully vaccinated, Americans are protected. And when you're not fully vaccinated, you're not protected.
KELLY: The president's goal that he's announced is 70% of Americans at least partially vaccinated by July 4. Is the U.S. going to meet that goal?
ZIENTS: Well, we're doing everything we can to make it easy for all Americans to get the free vaccinations, including walk-up, no appointments at pharmacies and other locations, 24-hour service. As you know, there's even incentives for people to get vaccinated. We also want to make sure that those who have questions about the vaccines, that we're answering those questions and that we continue to do this in a fair and equitable way.
KELLY: Yeah. And just to - can you give me a yes or no? Or do you know at this point - 70% by July 4?
ZIENTS: We're at 64%, and we're pushing hard. And we would encourage all Americans to get vaccinated. The more Americans that are vaccinated, the safer we are as a country. And individually, you're only safe if you're fully protected by getting vaccinated.
KELLY: One piece of this that I'm curious about as you talk about the U.S. being able to give doses to other countries - there are millions of doses sitting in U.S. states right now that were shipped, that haven't been used. They may be expiring. Two questions - one, was that a mistake to send so much out in the U.S. when the demand doesn't seem to be there?
ZIENTS: Well, I want to emphasize that there - we've given over 300 million shots. And yes, there are inventories of first and second shots in the states. Those inventories vary, but they, for the most part, are not terribly significant. For the most part, states have ordered what they've needed. On the Johnson & Johnson doses that have near-term expiration, we've been talking to governors, local leaders, local health officials about prioritizing getting shots in arms. And that has been used by our partners in the states and elsewhere. And at the same time, there is positive potential news about extending the shelf life of those Johnson & Johnson vaccines so they don't expire in the near term.
KELLY: This is because you're learning more that they may last longer than you than you initially understood.
ZIENTS: Yeah, there are stability studies that are underway with a company working with the FDA.
KELLY: If that doesn't work, can you go and get them, collect them and send them to, I don't know, say, Mexico?
ZIENTS: Right. These extended shelf life and they're not near-term expiration, then we do have the ability to export all three vaccines - Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. And we'll be doing that - have already started to do that on the 80 million doses, and we'll be shipping those doses across the next several weeks.
KELLY: Last thing on the situation here - booster shots. What is your most up to date understanding of when we're going to need them, how long we are protected by the current vaccines?
ZIENTS: Well, that's something that, you know, we look to the scientists for, the medical experts - Dr. Fauci, Dr. Walensky. I don't think there's been - last I talked to them a few days ago, there has not yet been definitive work completed on that at this stage. We will be prepared from an operational perspective. We will have the supply as we have for, you know, planning for all contingencies. But there is no news on the need or timing for boosters at this stage. And we'll look to the medical experts for their advice on that front.
KELLY: Jeff Zients is the White House COVID-19 coordinator, and we caught him traveling today with the president in England. Thank you so much.
ZIENTS: Thank you. Bye-bye.
KELLY: And this update - after we spoke with Zients, we got word that the FDA did indeed extend the shelf life for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from three months to four and a half months, which may help salvage some vaccines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.