The Biden Administration is planning to invest billions of dollars to expand US manufacturing capabilities of coronavirus vaccines to increase the supply of doses for poorer nations and better prepare the country for future pandemics. The White House will aim to spur the production of at least 1 billion doses a year by investing in companies that make mRNA vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna, and helping them expand capacity by funding facilities, equipment, staff, and training. Pfizer and Moderna said that they are reviewing the government’s proposal and while open to the idea, made no commitments to working with US officials on this effort.
The announcement received mixed reactions from global health activists, who lauded the investment but raised concerns about the speed of its implementation and the latitude that could be given to pharmaceutical companies. For months, the US has been under pressure to play a larger role in sharing vaccines with the world, but one administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private conversations, said some of the advocacy groups specifically lobbied an investment on the scale the US is making.
The Biden Administrations’ announcement marks the latest partnership between the federal government and pharmaceutical companies to bolster vaccine production during the pandemic. “The goal is to guarantee capacity to produce approximately 100 million mRNA vaccines a month against covid or other pandemic viruses upon demand for the United States or global use,” said David Kessler, the administration’s chief science officer who oversees vaccine distribution. “We are looking to enter into a historic partnership with one or more experienced pharmaceutical partners. This partnership will be used for COVID and any future pandemic viruses with the goal of having enough vaccines available within six to nine months of the identification of the virus.” Kessler said the funds for the effort have already been allocated as part of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that President Biden signed into law in March.
The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) has published a “request for information,” seeking proposals from companies that have experience using mRNA technology. BARDA, which is housed within the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for developing vaccines and other medical countermeasures. “It would combine the expertise of the US government in basic scientific research with the robust ability of pharmaceutical companies to manufacture mRNA vaccines,” Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator, said at the White House’s coronavirus news briefing. “We hope companies step up and act quickly to take us up on this opportunity to expand production of mRNA vaccines for the current pandemic and set us up to react quickly to any future pandemic threats.” Zients also touted the country’s effort to share vaccines globally, saying the US has already donated 250 million doses and has committed a total of $1.1 billion. He said the US has already donated more vaccines than all other countries combined.
Vaccine manufacturers said they were open to the Biden administration’s new plan but were also seeking further details. In an interview, Moderna President Stephen Hoge said that his firm was reviewing the government’s request for information. “We haven’t talked about it, but the concepts we’re definitely supportive of and would expect to participate in,” Hoge said. Amy Rose, a spokeswoman for Pfizer, said the company appreciates the administration’s focus on ensuring long-term supply, and the company would review BARDA’s “request for information.” “Pfizer is proud to be a strong and reliable partner to the U.S. government with vast capacity and capabilities that create solutions,” Rose said in a statement. “As we consider the White House’s proposal, we will come to the table with how we can best contribute to the ongoing global fight against the coronavirus.”
Despite support for President Joe Biden’s plan to expand the manufacture of coronavirus vaccines, current, and former government health officials raised questions about the administration’s newest vaccine manufacturing proposal, suggesting that the White House still needed to flesh out its plan. “How long will this take — at least nine months? Is it really necessary or will we already basically be done with the need by the time it’s online?” asked one former official who previously worked with BARDA and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the government’s plan.
Since the US started distributing vaccines, activists have criticized the Biden administration for failing to scale up domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity to boost the global supply of vaccines. Protesters have gathered outside the homes of top officials in Washington in recent weeks, including Jeffery Zients and White House chief of staff Ron Klain, demanding the Biden administration do more to share vaccines with the world. In September, activists gathered outside Klain’s house and set up a 12-foot pile of fake bones they said symbolized American inaction in combating the global coronavirus crisis.
The US has also faced criticism for moving forward with booster shots for Americans while many countries are struggling to provide the first round of vaccines to its citizens. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize booster shots of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine for all adults this week after some state officials already widened eligibility in recent days. The FDA approved booster shots for some Americans in September, but the agency is likely to broaden access as evidence shows waning effectiveness of the vaccines over time.