WASHINGTON — The first doses of a coronavirus vaccine could be available before the end of the year, with mass vaccination of the American population taking place throughout the spring, according to a timeline outlined by public health officials at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta.

Citing “exciting progress,” Alex Azar, the secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, announced that “vulnerable” populations would be vaccinated before the end of 2020. The elderly, first responders and health care professionals would receive vaccinations throughout January. The general population would be eligible to receive inoculations against the coronavirus in March and April.

“There is hope on the way in the form of safe vaccines in a matter of weeks or months,” said Azar, a former pharmaceutical industry executive. That timeline clashes with President Trump’s promise of a vaccine before Election Day, as well as with CDC Director Robert Redfield’s much less optimistic projection of vaccinations continuing throughout the summer months. 

Azar’s point was reiterated by Dr. Jay Butler, the CDC’s deputy director for infectious diseases. He said he was “cautiously optimistic” about a vaccine becoming available before the end of the year. Operation Warp Speed, the federal coronavirus vaccine initiative, is working with six companies.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar at CDC headquarters in Atlanta on Wednesday. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Several vaccine trials have recently been halted because of safety concerns. A Food and Drug Administration vaccine advisory board will meet on Thursday to discuss the approval process. Public health officials have tried to use transparency to ameliorate vaccine skepticism, which stems from a distrust of President Trump on the one hand and of vaccination in general on the other.

“The American people should feel very reassured by the process that is established here” regarding safety protocols, Azar said, describing “five independent checks” to ensure a vaccine is safe. He alluded to the trials that have been paused to assess potential risk. That reminder was an implicit plea for patience from a president eager to have a vaccine he can tout. Many in the lockdown-weary U.S. are also eager to see a vaccine become available. That could eventually obviate the need for the kinds of restrictive measures that were necessary last spring.

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“The system’s working. This is being played by the book,” Azar said, adding that a vaccine would be available only if it met “FDA career scientists’ best judgment.” The agency has recently resisted pressure from Trump, who had sought a speedy approval process.

Meanwhile, states have had to file vaccine distribution plans with the federal government. And the Trump administration announced late last week it is working with pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens to provide the vaccines to people in long-term care facilities. 

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