A Public Health Milestone: COVID-19 Vaccine Q&A With Meredith Allen, ASTHO’s Vice President for Health Security

December 17, 2020 | ASTHO Staff

The delivery of the first shipments of COVID-19 vaccines to hospitals across the country this week is a major moment in United States public health history. We sat down with Meredith Allen, ASTHO’s vice president for health security, to contextualize the significance of this achievement and what it means for the pandemic response moving forward.

Developing a vaccine for a novel virus in under a year is an incredible success. What is your message for the public health and pharmaceutical partners involved in this effort?

This indeed is a huge accomplishment—something every American should be proud of and take comfort in. We are now transitioning from the research and development phase to one where we have the first vaccine authorized for use, mass production of the vaccine is well underway, and vaccination has already begun for frontline healthcare workers!

The public health system is now focused on the details of that last tactical mile, so to speak, to bring the vaccine campaign to scale in the months ahead. We’ll do this by identifying priorities groups, enrolling and training vaccination providers, and allocating and ordering vaccine on a weekly basis to help ensure that, over time, every American who wants a vaccine get one. This is an all-of-government/all-of-nation effort.

You’ve worked in public health for 17 years. What does this moment mean to you, both professionally and personally?

Watching the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered to healthcare workers yesterday was a moment of celebration for me. Seeing the images of doctors and nurses being vaccinated made me think of the endless hours scientists, logisticians, laboratory personnel, healthcare professionals, and public health personnel have poured into not only the development of the vaccine but also the development of the critically important and necessary plans, infrastructure, and mechanisms to successfully distribute and administer this lifesaving vaccine.

The first vaccinations I saw on Monday truly signifies the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, as so many of my colleagues have stated. We still have a long way to go until things can go back to “normal”, but today we achieved a momentous milestone towards being able to safely travel, host birthday parties for our kids, and hug our loved ones

With authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine complete, attention has turned to how the vaccine will be distributed. What is the greatest need—or needs—to ensure vaccines are available to the right populations at the right time?

The entire public health enterprise has been working to ensure the right vaccine goes into the right person at the right time. This enormous endeavor is a partnership between the private sector and federal, state, and local governments. Each partner is responsible for a key step of the overall process from vaccine research, development and production; logistics such as vaccine shipping, transport and storage; accessible, efficient and equitable vaccine administration; vaccine safety monitoring, and community outreach and public education.

The two greatest needs for a successful vaccination campaign are public trust and sufficient and sustained funding for state, territorial, local and tribal vaccine distribution and administration programs. Vaccines sitting on shelves will not protect the public nor will it put us on the path to restoring everyday activities. Public health professionals, clinicians, and community leaders must garner and rebuild public trust in science.

By truthfully and effectively engaging with community partners, we will be able to communicate the safety and importance of vaccination for COVID-19 (and all of our other routine vaccinations!).

Vaccine safety remains a concern for many, especially given the speed at which the COVID-19 vaccine was developed. What is your view on the safety of this vaccine?

I have carefully read the briefing documents provided by FDA on both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. When the opportunity arises for me and my family to be vaccinated, we will be. I have trust in the career pharmaceutical researchers and public health professionals that have created, tested, and authorized this vaccine.

A new vaccine candidate from Moderna is expected to be authorized soon. What should people know about the differences between the two products?

There are slight differences between the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, not only in the storage and handling requirements, but also in the timing of which you receive the two doses and frequency of potential side effects. The Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee plans to meet today (Dec. 17) to review the data, discuss the Moderna vaccine Emergency Use authorization application, and make its recommendation to the FDA.

We will closely monitor the outcomes of this meeting and that of CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to follow where vaccine use recommendations will emerge should an EUA be issued.

What is your message to the public on how this vaccine impacts the pandemic response?

The administration of the first doses of vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel we have all been waiting for, however it will still take some months to administer enough vaccine to achieve herd immunity, significantly reduce COVID-19 illness and deaths, and end the pandemic. In the meantime, it is important for people to trust the science and continue to take necessary steps to stop the spread through social distancing, washing hands, and wearing masks.