A cohort of the federal government’s top health officials received shots of the coronavirus vaccine on stage Tuesday alongside a half-dozen frontline health care workers.
The event was equal parts a public endorsement of the safety of the vaccines, two of which have been authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration this month, and a celebration of the National Institutes of Health’s influential role in developing the inoculation created by U.S. pharmaceutical company Moderna.
“When we need a medical miracle, we know where to look,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said. "It fills me with pride that the NIH and other parts of HHS played a significant role in developing this vaccine, which will save thousands and thousands of lives and help bring this dark chapter to an end.”
In addition to Azar, the list of dignitaries included National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci.
“What we’re seeing now is the culmination of years of research, which have led to the phenomenon that has been truly unprecedented,” Fauci said, remarking on the ability to stand up and deploy effective vaccines against a novel virus in less than a year.
Fauci was introduced as “America’s doctor” by the event’s master of ceremonies — NIH Office of Research Services Director Colleen McGowan, who also received a shot Tuesday — and has been one of the most widely trusted voices on Covid-19 in the United States. President-elect Joe Biden consulted with Fauci earlier this month while fleshing out plans for his own vaccination, which he and incoming first lady Jill Biden received the first dose of Monday afternoon.
“I feel extreme confidence in the safety and the efficacy of this vaccine, and I want to encourage everyone who has the opportunity to get vaccinated, so we can have a veil of protection over this country that would end this pandemic,” said Fauci, who qualified for early vaccination not only because of his governmental responsibilities but also because he is a frontline health care worker who sees patients at the NIH’s research hospital.
The group was vaccinated after six NIH clinical health care workers received inoculations, the initial step in a two-dose process space weeks apart.
Everyone who received shots at the event received doses of the vaccine manufactured by Moderna, the company NIH collaborated with to help develop the breakthrough. Collins lauded the “fundamental research conducted right here at NIH” as well as the institutes’ “crucial role in supporting other Covid-related research across the U.S.”
The vaccine uses similar mRNA technology to the other FDA authorized vaccine, which is produced by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
The NIH was notified last week that it would be excluded from the allocations of vaccines sent to other federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention despite playing a direct hand in developing Moderna’s vaccine. That forced the institutes to spend days haggling with officials in Maryland, where the NIH is based, to receive doses. The White House told reporters recently that NIH officials and staff would be prioritized, although an NIH official said on Friday that there was no definitive plan to ensure that would happen.
The hang-up led to the questionable optics of rank-and-file congressional lawmakers receiving shots while NIH scientists, including Fauci, were left waiting. Similar dilemmas about who deserves to be placed at the front of the line for the vaccine while supplies remain scarce have played out in hospitals and other venues across the country as various professions and interest groups jockey for their place in line.
The group vaccinated on Tuesday joins a growing list of high-profile government officials who have received the vaccine, including Senate Majority Leader
(R-Ky.), House Speaker
(D-Calif.) and Vice President Mike Pence.
Outgoing President Donald Trump, who was hospitalized for Covid-19 in early October, has not definitively stated whether he would get vaccinated while still in office, despite public health experts — including those within the Trump administration — saying it would improve trust in the vaccine among his considerable political base.
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