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Is the CDC Director's COVID-19 Vaccine Timeline Realistic?

CDC Director Robert Redfield holding a mask

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Key Takeaways

  • The director of the CDC expects vaccination distribution to begin in late 2020 in the U.S. and widely expand by the second half of 2021.
  • A large proportion of U.S. adults report feeling skeptical about receiving a potential vaccine when it is developed.
  • Experts recommend that any news regarding a vaccine be broadcasted by scientific officials to remove politics from the equation.

Robert Redfield, MD, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Development (CDC), said he expects the United States to return to regular life by the second or third quarter of 2021.

Redfield made his projection in a Senate panel on Wednesday.

The timeline he outlined relies on the first COVID-19 vaccinations being administered in November or December of this year, but in a limited scope. According to the CDC's COVID-19 Vaccination Plan Interim Playbook, healthcare workers, high-risk individuals, and other essential employees will receive the first dosages when they’re available.

There are currently three vaccines undergoing Phase Three clinical rials in the U.S, supported by the companies AstroZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer. No COVID-19 vaccine currently exists, making a firm timeline for nationwide vaccination difficult.

Under the current administration's Operation Warp Speed, the goal is to produce and administer 300 million doses of vaccinations beginning in January 2021. This has led to an expedited vaccine development process by performing certain procedures in parallel, such as beginning industrial-scale production before fully confirming the utility of a vaccine.

William Li, MD, a physician-scientist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tells Verywell that Redfield's timeline, albeit optimistic, is at least in line with current developments of the vaccine production process.

“The expectation is that the results of clinical trials of the first vaccines will be available late fall,” he says.

If the results of clinical trials check the two required boxes for production—effective and safe—then they can begin to be distributed quickly afterward.

What This Means For You

The CDC and other health officials will continue to make statements about vaccine distribution as the clinical trials of vaccines proceed. Once a vaccine is able to pass Phase Three testing, distribution schedules and recipients will be finalized.

Factors Influencing the CDC Timeline

William Schaffner, MD, a professor in the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt University, tells Verywell he has concerns that the rush for a solution may supersede the thorough collection of the clinical data.

“The issue would come up if people wish to make an early judgment before the trial had completely run its course,” he says. “If a recommendation is made before the clinical trials are fully complete, that would engender at least some scientific and public health controversy.”

Schaffner says the current political climate, with the country a little over a month away from a pivotal general election, may be impacting some of the projected timelines. Specifically, President Trump may be pressuring the CDC and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a fast-tracked timeline during his current political term.

“There is widespread concern both in public as well as in the medical profession that these are decisions that could be influenced more by political considerations than scientific considerations,” Schaffner says.

How Does the Public Feel About a Vaccine?

Even if a vaccine is developed according to Redfield's timeline, there's a question of whether enough of the public will be willing to take it. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only a slight majority (51%) of U.S. adults would “definitely or probably get a vaccine” if it were made available to them. Nearly a quarter (24%) claimed they would definitely not receive a vaccine. Furthermore, about 80% believe the development process is moving too fast to ensure safety and effectiveness.

Schaffner tells Verywell he believes the American public can be convinced—but only if the information is coming from the right sources.

“I would think it’s very important that the politicians stand back, no matter who the politicians are, and let the public health authorities speak in their quiet, steady, science-based fashion,” he says.

Li echoes this view, remaining confident opinions will change as vaccines begin to become a reality.

“I believe people will be willing to be vaccinated," he says. "Vaccines are truly the only way to restore the sense of normalcy that everyone is craving."

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  1. Tyson A, Johnson C, Funk C. Pew Research Center. U.S. Public Now Divided Over Whether to Get COVID-19 Vaccine. Updated September 17, 2020.