'Misery for Many People': Local Leaders Decry Federal Government's Slow Distribution of Monkeypox Vaccines

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

A box and small bottle.
Detail of the serum being administered at a vaccine clinic for monkeypox in Washington, D.C.  (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post via Getty Images)

Thousands more doses of monkeypox vaccine are expected to soon begin shipping to the U.S. after federal health officials said they had completed an inspection of the overseas manufacturing plant.

The update from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration comes amid soaring demand for the two-dose vaccine, as thousands of people in New York City, California and other parts of the U.S. wait to get the shot.

On Wednesday, the San Francisco Department of Public Health announced it had quickly run out of the vaccine after receiving just over 2,300 doses the previous week — far short of what it requested.

There are currently 80 confirmed cases of monkeypox in San Francisco, according to the department.

SFDPH released a statement Wednesday acknowledging that "there are many gay and bisexual men, transgender people and others in the LGBTQ+ community who need protection from monkeypox, and that vaccine supplies are inadequate."

That announcement prompted an outcry from some local and state officials, who criticized the initial federal response as inadequate and called for government officials to step up production and distribution of the vaccine.

"Failure to control this outbreak will result in intense — and completely unnecessary — misery for many people, particularly gay and bisexual men," state Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, said in a statement. "We need to be very clear where the responsibility lies for this completely avoidable situation: the federal government."

Monkeypox has existed for decades — the first case was detected in 1970 — but multiple outbreaks currently are occurring across the U.S., with more than 1,000 cases reported nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's likely an undercount because testing is still ramping up.

Most of the cases reported in the U.S. have been detected among sexually active gay and bisexual men, but public health experts have made clear that monkeypox is an "equal opportunity disease," meaning that anybody is susceptible to infection.

At a press conference on Wednesday, San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman introduced a resolution asking the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to accelerate the distribution of the vaccine.

"There’s an element of PTSD in the sense that we know there’s a problem, we see the problem, it’s in plain sight, it’s impacting people," he said. "There’s a way to respond. We could be acting effectively to deal with it, and our federal government is not giving us the help that we need."

Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco's director of public health, said his team has asked for 35,000 vaccines.

"We are literally begging our federal partners," he said. "Every day on the phone, our teams are working with so many different partners to get vaccines into arms."

SFDPH said on Wednesday that San Francisco General Hospital only had 50 remaining doses of the vaccine, forcing it to temporarily close its monkeypox clinic for the rest of the week and turn away hundreds of people who had spent hours waiting in line, amid conflicting information about supplies.

Ulad Skoblia, a Berkeley resident, said he had first tried to get the vaccine in Berkeley, but the line at the clinic was several blocks long. He then travelled to SF General after hearing it had more vaccines available.

"I was immediately told that they have 50 vaccines available today and people who came earlier already got it," he said. "It disappeared in just a second and they're not sure about a new shipment."

To date, the U.S. government has purchased more than 1.1 million complete doses of the vaccine, which is produced by Bavarian Nordic in Denmark. But the company said earlier this week it needed authorization from on-site FDA inspectors before it could begin shipping most of them.

An FDA spokesperson said late Wednesday that regulators had "expedited and completed an inspection of the company's plant."

"We do not expect any delay in vaccine availability due to this process," she said in an emailed statement.

Bavarian Nordic has already shipped to the U.S. 300,000 doses that were made at a third-party facility that had previously been inspected by the FDA.

The U.S. government has shipped 132,000 doses of the vaccine to health departments, including more than 21,000 to New York City and nearly 27,000 to California. Federal officials are distributing the vaccines based on each area's case numbers and the portion of the population that is at higher risk from the virus.

But those limited vaccine supplies aren’t keeping pace with the growing number of people seeking appointments, fueling growing anxiety about the virus, according to health officials in areas of the country where demand has spiked.

"The demand has been very, very high — overwhelming, at this point," said Dr. Mary Foote, of the New York City Health Department. "We just want to make clear: If we have the vaccine, we can administer it. The critical issue here right now is supply."

Earlier this week, the city's website for scheduling vaccination appointments crashed due to huge online traffic.

White House officials have promised more supplies, chiefly from the Bavarian Nordic stockpile. The U.S. recently ordered 2.5 million more doses for delivery later this year or early next year. And the company says it has enough bulk ingredient to make roughly 15 million more doses for the U.S.

Monkeypox is "rarely fatal," according to the CDC, which says that "over 99% of people who get this form of the disease are likely to survive." Most patients experience some fever, body aches, chills and fatigue. People with more serious cases may develop a rash and lesions on the face and hands that can spread to other parts of the body.

U.S. officials are now partnering with several large commercial testing laboratories and say they expect to be able to process 70,000 tests per week by the end of the month.

Bavarian Nordic's Jynneos, one of two monkeypox vaccines approved for use in the U.S., is considered to have fewer potential side effects and has been the primary weapon against the outbreak.

The CDC recommends the vaccine for people who have already been exposed to the virus and their presumed contacts. That includes men who have recently had sex with other men they've recently met, in cities where monkeypox cases have been identified.

Health experts say they eventually hope to see a broader vaccination campaign to preemptively protect people at high risk.

"There is not enough vaccine to vaccinate the entire population, but definitely categorizing higher-risk groups and prioritizing them will be essential to use our resources wisely," said Dr. Lilian Abbo, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Miami.

This story includes reporting from Matthew Perrone of The Associated Press, and KQED's Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí, Vanessa Rancaño and Spencer Whitney.