The U.S. is administering roughly 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses per day, placing President Biden on track to meet his 100-day goal of 100 million shots while heaping pressure on his White House to speed the effort, as virus deaths rise and newly eligible Americans clamor to roll up their sleeves.
Scientists say 70%-75% of the U.S. population needs to be inoculated to bring the virus to manageable levels. That translates to roughly 240 million people, or 480 million doses with available two-shot vaccines — a schedule that would take until next year under the current pace.
“We need to be setting our sights higher,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrics professor at the University of Pennsylvania and member of the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory panel.
An average of 1.06 million doses were administered per day over the last week, according to a Bloomberg News tracker, as states expand eligibility to American seniors and get better at reaching people who want the vaccine.
Congressional Republicans are poking Mr. Biden, saying former President Donald Trump put the Democrat in a position to meet his pledge from the start and that he should find ways to double his goal — particularly since a growing share of available shots will be devoted to second doses, instead of expanding the number of people receiving initial protection.
The Biden team said it believes 100 million shots in 100 days remains a worthy goal but it is eyeing improvements, touting a “wartime” posture that uses the Defense Production Act to compel manufacturing of supplies for vaccines, along with tests and protective equipment.
“The fundamental difference between the Biden approach and the Trump approach is that we’re going to take responsibility at the federal government. We’re going to own this problem,” Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
“We’re going to work closely with the states, they are key partners in getting this done, but we’re also going to do the work ourselves. We’re going to set up these federal vaccination centers to make sure that in states that don’t have vaccination sites, we fill those gaps. We’re going to work closely with the manufacturers to ramp up production,” he said.
The White House gave at least one firm example of how it will use the DPA in its first days. It plans to procure more “low dead-volume” syringes, which are better are drawing a sixth dose — instead of just five — from Pfizer/BioNTech’s multidose vials.
“The current Biden administration plan is focused on scaling up production of personal protective equipment and prioritizing needed supplies to FDA approved vaccine manufacturers,” said Brook Baker, a law professor at Northeastern University who tracks the issue. “The vaccine side of the plan is quite limited in ambition. It is focused on ameliorating immediate component and equipment shortages and eliminating certain supply bottlenecks, but regrettably is not focused on truly expanding supply capacity.”
Prashant Yadav, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development who works on medical supply chains, said after the Biden administration tackles simpler things like syringes it should ensure that manufacturers can scale up critical supplies, such as lipids that play a vital role in the approved messenger-RNA vaccines.
“Third is to look for additional manufacturing sites — sites where it may be feasible to manufacture and/or fill& finish COVID-19 vaccines,” he said in an email. “This could help both the currently authorized vaccines but also help get ready with more manufacturing capacity for a future vaccine such as [Johnson & Johnson] and/or Astra Zeneca-Oxford if and when they are authorized.”
Reported U.S. cases of the coronavirus have dropped in recent days, to around 200,000 per day instead of 250,000 earlier in the month. Hospitalizations are declining, too, but scientists are worried about fast-spreading variants detected in the U.K. and South Africa, saying the problem could surge again.
The disease is still claiming 3,000 lives per day in the U.S., and states are trying to expand the categories of people who are immunized but worry they will run out of does if they overpromise.
It’s unclear whether the new administration can squeeze more vaccines out of drugmakers who are up and running, given global demands and the fact both companies say they’re running at full capacity.
Pfizer/BioNtech and Moderna say they’re doing everything they can and have raised their projections for global supply by the end of 2021. But they haven’t revealed many specifics beyond a recommitment to their contractual obligations in the U.S., with each committing to supply 100 million doses by the end of March and 100 million more by the end of June.
“We remain committed to partnering with the Biden administration to deliver our vaccine to the American people as quickly as possible,” Pfizer said in a written statement.
“Because of the urgent need to vaccinate more people, we’re already making process improvements, expanding our manufacturing facilities and adding more suppliers and contract manufacturers to our supply chain,” the company said.
Moderna said it is not sharing weekly or monthly production estimates but “we continue to be on track with our expectations of delivering 100 million doses of vaccine by the end of Q1, and 200 million doses by the end of Q2.”
“Production and releases are not linear and we have explained that we have been successfully scaling up our production yields over time,” the company said.
The U.S. is eagerly awaiting trial results from drugmaker Johnson & Johnson, which could seek approval of its one-dose vaccine by the end of the month.
Former FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan, who sits on J&J’s board, said approval of the shots would be a game-changer “if the clinical trial works out.”
“I do know that J&J is making a very large supply, going all out with its production, both here in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world, with the goal of having perhaps enough vaccines for 100 million Americans by spring, by this April or so,” he told CNBC.
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