WASHINGTON: The United States on Thursday (Dec 17) stood ready to ship 5.9 million doses of a new coronavirus vaccine that is on the cusp of winning regulatory approval, just as the nation suffered its highest daily COVID-19 death toll with 3,580 lives lost.
The tragic record set on Wednesday came while US hospitalisations rose for the 19th straight day, heightening the stakes as regulators considered whether to grant emergency use authorisation (EUA) for the vaccine developed by Moderna, a week after authorising the first vaccine from Pfizer and German partner BioNTech.
Another 232,255 US cases were reported on Wednesday, the second highest daily case load on record, according to a Reuters tally.
The United States leads the world with a cumulative 307,767 deaths and nearly 17 million reported COVID-19 cases, as many Americans and the outgoing administration of President Donald Trump have resisted calls by health experts for the stay-at-home orders and mask-wearing that have proven effective at controlling virus transmission.
But more help could be arriving soon.
An FDA panel of outside advisers is weighing the safety and effectiveness of Moderna's vaccine candidate at a meeting on Thursday, and is widely expected to vote to endorse its emergency use around 4pm EDT.
FDA authorisation could come as soon as Friday.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told CNBC on Thursday that 5.9 million Moderna doses, or enough to inoculate half that many people, had been allotted for state governors and were ready to ship nationwide.
"We're ready to start shipping this weekend to them for rollout Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of next week," Azar said.
The FDA's advisers last week endorsed the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the agency granted the EUA a day later.
The Moderna vaccine has less onerous cold storage requirements than the Pfizer-BioNTech shot, making it a better option for remote and rural areas. Both were about 95 per cent effective in preventing illness in pivotal clinical trials.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine started shipping last weekend and was still making its way to hospitals across the country and into the arms of frontline healthcare workers.
But the first major storm of the winter season could disrupt vaccine distribution in the Northeast.
Express delivery companies FedEx Corp and United Parcel Service had contingency plans to keep any delayed vaccine shipments secure until they can be delivered, US Army General Gustave Perna, head of vaccine distribution for the government's Operation Warp Speed campaign, told reporters.
With millions of Americans thrown out of work due to state and local restrictions meant to contain the virus, Congress could soon lend a hand as well.
Top Republicans and Democrats on Thursday were closer than they have been in months to approving the first coronavirus relief since April, haggling over the details of a US$900 billion package.
The legislation was expected to include individual stimulus checks of about US$600, extend unemployment benefits, funds for vaccine distribution and to assist struggling small businesses.
The additional relief cannot come soon enough as the US economy continued to suffer. Earlier on Thursday, data showed the number of Americans filing for jobless benefits for the first time unexpectedly rose last week as the pandemic further hobbled businesses.