Bad News/Good News: Vaccine Access Months Away, But Masks Really Help : The NPR Politics Podcast The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Congress that a widely-available vaccine probably won't be available until well into 2021. But he did say that masks are perhaps even more useful in preventing the spread. That will prove especially true if people are reluctant to take the vaccine.

This episode: White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, congressional reporter Claudia Grisales, and science correspondent Joe Palca.

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Bad News/Good News: Vaccine Access Months Away, But Masks Really Help

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Bad News/Good News: Vaccine Access Months Away, But Masks Really Help

Bad News/Good News: Vaccine Access Months Away, But Masks Really Help

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/914117386/914137329" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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CHRISTINA: Hi. This is Christina (ph) in King City, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD SCREECHING)

CHRISTINA: I'm currently working on a vineyard, where I've been hired to scare the pest birds away with my falcons. This podcast was recorded at...

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD SCREECHING)

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

It is 2:08 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 17.

CHRISTINA: Some things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll still be flying my falcons.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

RASCOE: That was a falcon death bird. That's what that was.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: I think so (laughter). I think so, but it sounds wonderful to me to be in a vineyard with falcons. I like it.

RASCOE: That's like a nightmare, but it's OK.

GRISALES: (Laughter).

RASCOE: I, you know, I don't like birds, and especially birds going around killing people. I mean, was it people or was it pests?

GRISALES: (Laughter).

RASCOE: I don't (laughter) - I'm confused. Anyway. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

GRISALES: I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.

RASCOE: And today we have a very special guest. We are joined by Joe Palca, who is on NPR's science team. Hey, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hello there. How are you?

RASCOE: I'm good.

PALCA: Bird-free over here. No birds on this side. Don't worry.

RASCOE: That is awesome. That is great news. I'm very glad to hear that. So yesterday afternoon, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, he had this to say about the timeline on vaccines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT REDFIELD: I think we're probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021.

RASCOE: Then yesterday evening, President Trump gave his own timeline.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, we're ready to go immediately as the vaccine is announced, and it could be announced in October. Could be announced a little bit after October. But once we go, we're ready.

RASCOE: So a very different message from President Trump. Joe, let's get to the actual facts here. We are not getting a widely available vaccine in October, right? Like, I'm not going to be able to go to CVS and say, hey; give me that coronavirus vaccine next month. Like, that's unlikely.

PALCA: That's - yeah, that's pretty unlikely. I think - I mean, there is a chance. There is a chance that a company - probably Pfizer, which is one of the companies that's testing their vaccine in a lot of people - there's a chance that Pfizer could say, yeah, we think our vaccine is working, and, yeah, we think it's safe. And here, FDA, here's a boatload of data that we hope will convince you not to approve the vaccine - that's a much bigger process - but to issue what's called an emergency use authorization, which means we're in a pandemic situation, it's an emergency, we wouldn't normally say you could use this without more testing and what have you, but for the time being you could use it.

But if that happens, even if it happens before the end of October, it's not like - it's not like a "Harry Potter" book where they've got the books stacked up in the bookstore waiting for people to come and get them. These vaccines are in storehouses. They're being made. They're going to take a while to roll out. So unless the president has a stock in his - in one of the rooms in the White House, I don't think they're going to be readily available.

RASCOE: With that said, Claudia, like, what has been the reaction from lawmakers to this back and forth between President Trump and his own head of the CDC? This isn't the first time there's been this sort of mixed messages from Trump.

GRISALES: Yes. And speaking of mixed messages, we're seeing a mixed reaction on Capitol Hill. For example, the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, earlier this morning was asked about this. And he was asked who do you believe more, the president or Redfield when it comes to these vaccine details? And he sided with the president. So you see some loyalists still continuing to kind of walk that line with the president.

But on the Senate side, I heard a little bit of a different reaction when I talked to Senate Republicans this morning. For example, just hearing them say that the timeline isn't that clear - that even though you have Redfield on one hand saying we could be looking at the second, third quarter of 2021; on the other hand, Trump talking about this much faster timeline - they're saying, over time, science will tell us when this vaccine is ready, and then we'll know when it's available. So kind of just saying we're going to defer to how these trials go, how they result. And so it's kind of a wait and see is what we're hearing from Senate Republicans so far.

RASCOE: Just stepping back here, normally it takes a long time to bring a vaccine to the market. But this process is being shortened because we're in this, you know, really unprecedented moment. Joe, can you talk about, like, how is the process being sped up right now?

PALCA: Well, there's a couple of ways that's being sped up. First of all, companies would take a certain amount of time just to prepare their data. And one of the companies today, Moderna, was saying, you know, we're getting all the paperwork and everything ready so that as soon as we have data - results - from our studies, we'll be able to take a whole package to the FDA. So they're doing things in parallel that they used to do one at a time. And probably the biggest thing they're doing in parallel is even though they don't know if their vaccine is going to work, they're actually making doses of it that they're prepared to distribute soon after it's approved - or at least authorized - with the idea that if it doesn't work, they're just going to have to throw these away.

And if - in normal circumstances no company would do that because why would you make something at what they call at risk if you didn't know - you know, you'd want to be pretty sure it was going to work by then. There's just a lot more hand-holding on behalf of the FDA and telling the companies, OK, here's what you're going to do. And then they go back to the FDA and say, OK, here's what we're going to try.

And then there's this understanding that instead of sort of coming to the FDA - they don't come at the end of the day, but they come multiple times and say we're making these adjustments. It's much more collaborative than I would say is usually the case. But this is all in the idea that the data will be gathered faster and the manufacturing will go faster, but not that the decision about whether it's safe or not to proceed with the vaccine.

RASCOE: People generally want a vaccine as soon as possible for this. You know, I think you can definitely say that. But there's also this concern about safety. And it's interesting the way that it's - this is a tricky topic for politicians to grapple with. You had Joe Biden at one point, you know, expressing concern that maybe Trump would push a vaccine to be released before it's safe.

GRISALES: Yeah. That's interesting. I spoke to Sen. John Barrasso. He is a physician, a Republican who represents Wyoming here on Capitol Hill. And he was saying that's irresponsible. He also pointed to the candidate in North Carolina, the Democrat running for the Senate seat there who also made some comments questioning the vaccine. And he says that's not the path folks need to be on in terms of raising any questions about these vaccines just because they're being worked on under the Trump administration. So it's an interesting, different kind of turn in the conversation when it comes to the vaccine conversation and whether it's safe or not and Republicans saying we're on the right path here and we think that this could end with a really positive outcome by year's end and next year.

RASCOE: All right. Let's take a quick break, and we'll talk more about this issue when we get back.

And we're back. Claudia, what else did Redfield talk about yesterday?

GRISALES: Well, there was another fascinating moment during the hearing yesterday when he talked about masks. There's all this excitement and buildup to the vaccine coming out in the coming months, year. And he said all along we've had something that could protect us more than the vaccine because we don't know what that level of protection will be once it is approved and it's released. The mask gives us such protection that perhaps this is what we need to hold onto no matter what happens with this vaccine, that the mask is what's going to be key for protecting each other from spreading this illness even further.

RASCOE: You know, yesterday President Trump once again made fun of Biden for wearing a mask, and he pushed back on what Redfield had to say. But, Joe, can you talk about why officials now are saying that it's so important to continue to wear a mask or, if you're not wearing masks, to start wearing them?

PALCA: Right. Well, one of the things you have to keep in mind about the vaccine is that the FDA has said, we will consider giving authorization or approval to a vaccine that's only 50% effective, which means 50% better than not getting anything. But that's not the same as 100% protective, where you take the vaccine and your chances of getting sick from COVID are zero. So even then, if you have been vaccinated, you still need to protect yourself. And that's the usual measures of washing your hands and wearing a mask.

The other part of it is that the mask isn't just for your protection. Even if the vaccine prevents you from getting sick, it may not prevent you from becoming infected. So you might have a case of the sniffles instead of a hospitalization. OK, the sniffles aren't bad except that you might be putting virus out into the air. And if you're doing that and you're not wearing a mask, the chances of it infecting someone else are still present. So you've got a vaccine that's not 100% protective and a vaccine that may not prevent you from transmitting the disease. You can see where additional measures are going to be important.

RASCOE: Another question that I have for you, Joe - last month we did this poll asking people about vaccines, and only two-thirds of Americans overall said they were planning to get the vaccine. It seems like for it to work, you probably would have to take the vaccine, right?

PALCA: (Laughter) That's undeniable.

RASCOE: That's undeniable, right?

PALCA: I'm not going to deny that, no (laughter).

RASCOE: So that's where we're at with that. So what happens if people will not take this vaccine, which seems to be a real concern especially if people won't even wear a mask? To go out and get a vaccine seems, to me, to take more of a commitment than necessarily just wearing a mask.

PALCA: Yeah. I think from a public health standpoint, it's a concern that's very much top of mind on the vaccine manufacturers and government officials that I've spoken with. They know that this exists, and really, all they can think of to do is to try to reassure people by making the process as open and clear as they can. It's a strange thing that people are polarized about, you know, whether something that's intended for public good would be intentionally done something that's not for public good. But strange times is all I can say.

RASCOE: Once we do get a vaccine available and, presumably, at some point, a good number of people will have taken it, Joe, is it going to be like a light switch once we hit this magic number of people who've taken the vaccine? Life will be back to normal. Everybody will be back in school, back at work and back at the ballgames. Is that what will happen, please?

PALCA: No. No, I don't think the light switch analogy really works. There's a couple problems. First of all, it's going to roll out over time. There's some question about how long the protection will last for, so you may need to get re-vaccinated. Then there's the question of the rest of the world. I mean, this is a global problem. If we don't protect every single person on the planet, that means that somebody somewhere could get infected and bring the virus back into this country under some circumstances.

So it's kind of like a new reality. Now, I don't think that the reality going forward will look particularly strange, but we may find that we've gotten accustomed to wearing masks or gotten accustomed to washing our hands more frequently or gotten accustomed to avoiding big crowds. That may be bad for some things, but we may find that in the end, that's a little bit of a change in our normal social structure that we're going to have to live with.

RASCOE: All right. So it'll be a new normal, as we continue to say over and over again.

PALCA: But you're 100% safe when you're listening by yourself to a podcast.

RASCOE: Yes.

PALCA: I mean, that's one of the things that doesn't present any danger except for the dangerous ideas that we're suggesting right here.

RASCOE: That - see; that is very true. And I think that's a good place to end it. Joe, thank you so much for joining us today.

PALCA: You're very welcome.

RASCOE: You can find all the ways to stay connected with us by following the links in the description of this episode, including our private Facebook group - it's very exclusive; you got to get in there - and also our newsletter and a workout playlist, which I have not contributed to. But, I mean, is any "Hamilton" on there? I think we need to look that up because I want to add that in there. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I cover the White House.

GRISALES: I'm Claudia Grisales. I cover Congress.

RASCOE: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

RASCOE: Work. Work.

GRISALES: Yes (laughter).

RASCOE: (Singing) Angelica.

Yes (laughter).

GRISALES: Yes.

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