President Biden wants to use the full weight of the federal government to speed up the COVID-19 vaccine campaign, but he faces a problem that won’t be solved overnight — there are only so many doses to go around.
The president wants to dispatch mobile vaccination units to far-flung areas and create 100 immunization centers through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He’s enlisting pharmacies to serve more communities while appointing federal coordinators to work with each state.
Those efforts may pay off over time, or boost states struggling to administer the doses they have. Yet many governors and experts say limited supply is the biggest obstacle to expanding state-by-state vaccine drives that began under former President Donald Trump.
“The frustrating thing is it’s not ramping up — that’s not happening. States have not seen their allocations increase,” Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, told The Washington Times. “The president can say he wants to set up 100 vaccination centers but there just aren’t doses to do that.”
Mr. Biden on Tuesday said help is on the way.
The weekly allocation of vaccines will grow from 8.6 million doses to 10 million, a 16% increase, for at least the next three weeks. The doses are distributed based on population to each of the states, plus eight territories and six metropolitan areas.
The president also said his administration will give states a three-week “look ahead” at their anticipated supply, instead of one week, to help them plan.
“Lives are at stake here,” Mr. Biden said from the White House State Dining Room. “This is a wartime effort.”
Additionally, he said the administration is in talks with Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to purchase an additional 100 million doses from each vaccine maker, a development that would raise the supply from 400 million to 600 million — or enough to vaccinate 300 million Americans, or 90% of the population, by the end of summer.
Mr. Biden‘s team is procuring special syringes to draw an additional dose from the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and looking to clear “bottlenecks” in the supply chain. But efforts to radically expand the immunization campaign through federal centers and pharmacy partnerships will likely depend on the addition of new vaccine makers.
All eyes are on Johnson & Johnson, which plans to report results from its 45,000-person vaccine next week. Its vaccine requires just one dose instead of two, so its approval would speed up the effort.
Former Food and Drug Commissioner David Kessler, a key Biden adviser, said this week the Biden team is still “gearing up” and Americans should see the impact of his changes over the next week or so. But “a lot that is dependent on whether the Janssen vaccine hits,” he told SiriusXM Radio, referring to the subsidiary of J&J making its vaccine.
Even if the vaccine is 80% effective, compared to the 95% rate demonstrated by the existing vaccines, “we can get out of this pandemic, at least what we’re dealing with, much sooner. So I hope Janssen hits,” Dr. Kessler said.
If J&J reports solid data, pressure will pivot to federal regulators, who must review the results and decide whether to approve the vaccine for emergency use.
Pressure will then flip to Mr. Biden to implement his big federal plans and hit his targets.
Mr. Biden wants to allocate 100 million shots in his first 100 days. Republicans said the U.S. was at or near that level of daily vaccination when Mr. Trump left the White House last week, though Mr. Biden insists the vaccine campaign was in “worse shape” than he anticipated.
Mr. Biden said he is sticking to his goal but it is “not the endpoint, it’s just the start.”
He recently said he’ll push for 1.5 million doses per day, a 50% increase, though some say that’s still half of what’s needed.
“We need to be giving about 3 million doses a day to get to 70% population protection by the late summer. And we are far below that,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrics professor at the University of Pennsylvania and member of the Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine advisory panel. “The biggest hang-up right now is production. More vaccine makers involved will help.”
AstraZeneca, which developed a vaccine with Oxford University, is operating in Europe and is expected to seek U.S. approval in the first quarter, though J&J is next in the pipeline.
“We plan to report out by early next week in terms of our results,” J&J Chief Financial Officer Joseph Wolk told CNBC as he discussed fourth-quarter earnings that beat expectations.
He said the trials should include data on how the vaccines interacted with fast-spreading variants of the virus.
“It’s a very robust, 45,000-person study across eight countries in three different continents,” he said. “We do have some of these new strains potentially captured in our data as we had sites in South Africa as well as Brazil. So we’ll let the scientists do their work there.”
Mr. Wolk said J&J plans to offer a large supply of its vaccine, including 100 million doses to the U.S. by the end of June, 200 million to the European Union by the end of the year and 200 million doses to developing countries, which will begin shipping in the second half of the year.
Vaccine managers say until governors get more doses, they’ll be in a tough spot.
“Governors want to set up some of these large-scale events. If they do it, it’s taking doses away from a smaller community,” Ms. Hannan said. “They’re having to make difficult decisions. They don’t want to overpromise.”