Pfizer CEO Supports Expanding Covid Vaccine Eligibility, Describes Supply of Doses as Adequate

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  • Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said expanding Covid vaccine eligibility is "exactly what needs to be done."
  • The Trump administration is reportedly set to start pushing states to make everyone who is 65 years old and up eligible to receive the shot.
  • "I think the main bottleneck right now is to make sure we ramp up our prioritization so we can administer more vaccines," Bourla told CNBC.

Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla cheered reports on Tuesday that the U.S. government was pushing to expand eligibility for Covid-19 vaccines, telling CNBC the U.S. drug giant has adequate supply to support such a decision.

"If this is true what we're hearing, it is very positive," he said on "Squawk Box," as media organizations including CNBC reported that the Trump administration planned to issue guidelines Tuesday that urges states to make everyone age 65 and older eligible for coronavirus vaccines.

"I think this is exactly what needs to be done," said Bourla, whose New York-based company makes one of the two vaccines cleared for emergency use in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration. The other was developed by Massachusetts-based Moderna. Both inoculations are designed as two-doses regimes.

The vaccine rollout has been underwhelming based on goals set by the Trump administration last year. It had hoped to have 20 million Americans vaccinated against Covid by the end of 2020. However, as of Tuesday morning, just under 9 million people have received their first shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly 25.5 million doses have been delivered to states.

Health-care workers, along with staff and residents of long-term care facilities, received initial priority after the FDA issued limited clearance for the two vaccines in December. However, there has been some hesitancy, particularly from nursing home staff, to receive the vaccine, which has complicated the rollout.

Some states had already begun vaccinating additional groups of people. In New Jersey, for example, police officers and firefighters are now able to get shots. Florida already had expanded eligibility to include people age 65 and older, and there were reports of elderly residents in the state waiting hours in line to be vaccinated and reports of others from out of state traveling to get the shot.

West Virginia, which has one of the best administration rates in the U.S., is vaccinating members of the general public 80 years old and up, along with K-12 teachers and staff who are at least 50 years old. "We don't have vaccines in a warehouse sitting on a shelf," Republican Gov. Jim Justice told CNBC on Monday. "Now, what we need in West Virginia, we need more vaccines," he said.

An initial concern around the deployment of coronavirus vaccines was inadequate supply — and that was expected, at least early on, to be one factor limiting the number of people who could be vaccinated against Covid-19, which has killed at least 376,295 Americans, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

However, Bourla said that inadequate supply is not what's holding back vaccine administration right now in the U.S. and other nations where Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech are supplying shots.

"So far, I don't think that we have any issue of offering less vaccines in the country or the countries, frankly," said Bourla, who has led Pfizer since January 2019. "We have much more than they can use right now, so I think the main bottleneck right now is to make sure we ramp up our prioritization so we can administer more vaccines."

Bourla said he had faith the challenges state and local governments across the U.S. are facing would be addressed. "Bottom line, they are all trying to improve right now ... because everybody feels this is way behind what they wished to be," he said. "I feel confident that within, let's say a month or so, we'll be able to reach the level that we always wanted."  

This week, former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb told CNBC he believes the current intensity of the U.S. coronavirus epidemic requires a great sense of urgency around vaccine distribution. Also a Pfizer board member, Gottlieb cited a lack of interest in taking the vaccine as a key reason to offer it to more groups of Americans.

"We're living in this sort of belief that the demand here is endless, and it's not," Gottlieb said on "Squawk Box" on Monday. "I think by the end of February, we're going to find that we have to open up eligibility pretty wide to get people to come in to get inoculated. We're not going to be in this rationing situation. I think it's going to end sooner than we think."

Bourla expressed confidence about Pfizer's ability to ramp up the production of additional vaccine doses, as well. He noted that BioNTech announced Monday it has hiked its manufacturing target for 2021 to 2 billion doses, up from 1.3 billion. Pfizer has agreed to supply the U.S. government with 200 million doses of its vaccine, which is enough for 100 million people to be inoculated.

"What our manufacturing team did was almost another miracle, following what our research team did to bring this vaccine in such record time," Bourla said. They are scaling up manufacturing in speeds we didn't think were possible."

Disclosure: Scott Gottlieb is a CNBC contributor and is a member of the boards of Pfizer, genetic testing start-up Tempus and biotech company Illumina. He also serves as co-chair of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings' and Royal Caribbean's "Healthy Sail Panel." 

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