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COVID-19 variant first identified in U.K. now found in 26 states, says CDC director

Biden's new COVID-19 vaccine plan
Biden's new COVID-19 vaccine plan aims to accelerate progress 11:29

The new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that a COVID-19 variant first detected in the United Kingdom has now been found in 26 states. The variant appears to be 50% more contagious than other strains of the virus.   

Another variant first identified in South Africa, that has shown some resistance to antibodies, has not been identified stateside, according to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who spoke with other health officials Wednesday about the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci said a Phase 3 Johnson & Johnson vaccine study is looking at its effectiveness against the variant found in South Africa, which will be useful if the variant ever arrives in the U.S. 

He said that while scientists are working on booster shots for the existing vaccines intended to target the new variants, the vaccines that currently exist are "well within the cushion of protection."

President Joe Biden announced plans this week to ramp up the weekly supply of COVID-19 vaccines to states and territories in the coming days. Officials said Wednesday that every avenue to speed up production and distribution is being explored, including retrofitting factories used by other vaccine manufacturers to produce the approved Pfizer and Moderna vaccines faster. 

"This is a national emergency, 400,000 people have died, everything is on the table in terms of the supply chain," said White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients. 

Zients said it's critical for Congress to pass President Biden's American Rescue Plan in order to vaccinate everyone. Slavitt noted multiple times that the plan will provide funds necessary to enhance vaccine distribution, and increase testing to reopen schools and businesses.   

About 47 million vaccines have been delivered to states so far, and about 6% of the U.S. population has received one or more doses of vaccine, said Andy Slavitt, who is senior advisor to the White House COVID-19 Response Team.

Improved production capabilities have allowed the Biden team to do away with a national stockpile of vaccine maintained by the Trump administration to ensure second doses would be available. Any stockpile that existed previously no longer exists; Slavitt explained, instead, the federal government now maintains a rolling 2-3 day inventory, with the rest shipped to states immediately after it is procured from manufacturers, he said.

Mr. Biden said the federal government is planning to secure 200 million more doses of COVID-19 vaccines — 100 million of Pfizer's vaccine and 100 million of Moderna's vaccine — bringing the government's total vaccine order to 600 million doses, up from 400 million. With 600 million doses, 300 million Americans will be able to receive vaccinations by the end of the summer, as both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots. 

Slavitt said 500 million shots are necessary to vaccinate all Americans 16 and older.

Officials could not offer an exact date, or month, for when the estimated 300 million Americans would be vaccinated. Slavitt stressed that, even though manufacturing dates are set, they don't ensure that every dose will be in a person's arm. He said other hurdles, such as acceptance of the vaccine and reaching people in remote communities, are just as critical to vaccination as production.

Mr. Biden has been blunt in warning of the difficulties facing the country as the coronavirus crisis rages on. The U.S. surpassed 25 million confirmed cases of the virus this week, and experts predict the death toll will top 500,000. The president has signed a series of executive actions designed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, including requiring masks in certain places, and pledged to administer 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in his first 100 days in office.

The vaccine rollout, however, has been rocky, and Mr. Biden has acknowledged meeting his vaccination goal will be a challenge. 

To accelerate the pace of vaccinations and ramp up supply, the White House announced Tuesday that federal weekly allocations of vaccines to states, territories and Native American tribes will increase from 8.6 million to 10 million beginning next week. That rate will continue for the next three weeks. Governors will also start receiving a three-week forecast of their vaccine allocations, which will provide additional time for them to prepare their distribution plans, the White House said.

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