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In the coming weeks, the U.S. will offer nearly 300,000 doses of monkeypox vaccine

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Biden administration is stepping up its response to the growing outbreak of monkeypox in the U.S. On Tuesday, top health officials laid out their plan to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of Americans who are at high risk of getting the disease. More than 300 cases have been reported in the U.S., but experts fear that's a big undercount. NPR's Pien Huang joins us now with the latest.

So what's new about this plan?

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Well, up until now, access to the monkeypox vaccine has been very limited. It's been given only to people who are known contacts of confirmed cases. And now the White House is expanding access. It can be given not only to those with a known case, but also to a presumed exposure. That's because the government's been growing its vaccine supply. And over the next few weeks, it will be sending out nearly 300,000 doses to states.

Now, this is what's known as the Jynneos vaccine. It's a newer vaccine. It was approved in 2019, and it has fewer side effects than the other vaccine used for monkeypox. If it's given within a week or two after someone gets exposed, it may help prevent the disease altogether or at least lessen the symptoms. So the White House is sending this vaccine out to states, and those with more cases and more high-risk people will get more of it.

MARTINEZ: So how exactly is this virus spreading? I mean, how would you even know if you've been exposed?

HUANG: Well, so far there have been only a few hundred cases confirmed here, but there hasn't been nearly enough testing. So there's likely a lot more cases. And the way it spreads is through contact with infectious rashes or fluids. The virus might linger on some clothing or services, but in this particular outbreak, health officials are stressing that it seems to be primarily driven by intimate or sexual contact. So far, many of the cases both here in the U.S. and abroad have been found in men who have sex with men. So that's why health officials are really focusing on this population. They're now offering the vaccine to those who've had sex with multiple partners and have been somewhere where monkeypox is known to be spreading.

MARTINEZ: All right. So how big of a difference, then, will this strategy make as the U.S. tries to slow it all down?

HUANG: Well, I asked a former CDC official that very question - Dr. Ali Khan. He's a currently dean of public health at the University of Nebraska. And he says that everything the CDC is doing now should have started a while ago. I mean, the first case in the U.S. was found six weeks ago. Still, Khan says he's glad that they're doing this now.

ALI KHAN: I think this goes as far as you would go based on all the available information. So, you know, you target the high-risk groups. You make sure they're quickly identified. You make sure you treat them. You make sure you vaccinate their contacts.

HUANG: Khan says the thing that the Biden administration has done really well so far is outreach - working with LGBTQ organizers during Pride Month to educate people and to help them party more safely.

MARTINEZ: You know, I got to say, a lot of the sounds like the challenges with COVID and the response to COVID earlier in the pandemic. I mean, is that a fair comparison?

HUANG: Well, some are worried that the response has been slow. And, yes, there have been problems with testing. But let's be clear, experts stress that this is not COVID. We've known we've known about monkeypox for a long time. We already have an approved vaccine. And monkeypox does not spread as easily or mutate as quickly as the coronavirus. So there's real hope right now that we can get a handle on this outbreak.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Pien Huang, thanks a lot.

HUANG: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF KING LUAN SONG, "WOOLLY MAMMOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.