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More U.S. Pharmacies to Start Vaccinating High-Risk Groups

The European Union approves the Moderna vaccine after criticism for being too slow. As the virus variant makes inroads in the U.S., there is no good system to track it, experts warn.

As the lagging rollout of coronavirus vaccines begins to pick up its pace in its fourth week, the Trump administration this week will launch a federal program to give out vaccines at pharmacy stores to high-risk groups, including older people and frontline workers, federal health officials said at a news conference on Wednesday.

“The next big push is to bring those online and make sure the governors have those available really to hopefully expand out to much larger swathes of individuals,” said Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services.

Some states, such as Louisiana, have already begun using their pharmacies to give out vaccines, mainly to health care workers and older people. The program being activated this week, which was announced in November without a time table for its launch, is a partnership with 19 pharmacy chains and associations, including Walmart, CVS, Walgreens and Costco.

States will be able to allocate doses of vaccines directly to these pharmacies, which can then give out the vaccines to high-risk groups designated by each state. Across the country, 40,000 pharmacy locations have enrolled to participate in the program, although in the first days of the program, only a few thousand pharmacies are expected to begin giving out vaccines.

More than 21 million coronavirus cases and more than 357,000 virus-related deaths have been reported in the United States. Even as the vaccines have started becoming available, the virus continues to spread at an alarming pace.

So far, most vaccines have been given out at hospitals and other health care settings, such as clinics and nursing homes. As of Wednesday morning, nearly 17.3 million doses of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna had been shipped out across the country. But according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,, only 5.3 million people have received their first shots.

The rollout is beginning to accelerate: More first shots were reported given in the third week of the vaccine drive than in the first two combined, and the C.D.C.’s count increased by 470,000 between Tuesday and Wednesday. Still, the number of vaccinations is far fewer than the 20 million people that the Trump administration hoped would get their first shots by the end of 2020.

Pharmacies in the program will face the challenge of verifying that the people they give vaccines to are eligible to receive them because of their age, job or medical conditions. Mr. Azar said on Wednesday that verification is a less urgent concern than getting out doses quickly.

“We need to not be overly prescriptive in that, especially as we see governors who are leaving vaccines sitting in freezers rather than getting it out into people’s arms,” Mr. Azar said. “The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good here.”

Other vaccines nearing the final stages of development could increase the supply of vaccines and help accelerate their distribution.

Johnson & Johnson is on track to file by the end of this month for emergency authorization for its vaccine, said Moncef Slaoui, the chief scientific adviser for Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to fast-track vaccines. That vaccine only involves a single dose, which will be easier to deliver than all the other leading vaccines, which require two shots.

Another vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, is being tested in a late-stage trial in the United States that is nearing its final stages. It is right around its goal of recruiting 30,000 participants, though a few sites are still recruiting minority populations, Dr. Slaoui said. He said AstraZeneca could seek emergency authorization as early as the first week of March. Dr. Slaoui said last month that the AstraZeneca vaccine — which has been authorized in BritainIndiaMexico and several other countries — likely will not be available in the United States until at least April.

Dr. Slaoui confirmed on Wednesday that he will stay on as a consultant under the new Biden administration, though he suggested the role would be more limited than his current position.

— Rebecca Robbins

Information sited from: https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/01/06/world/covid-19-coronavirus