White House to Invest Billions of Dollars in Expanding US Vaccine Manufacturing – for This Pandemic and Next  
Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine during the manufacturing process.

In a bid to better respond to both domestic and global needs, as well as future threats, the Biden Administration plans to spend billions of dollars to expand US vaccine manufacturing capacity enabling production of 1 billion vaccine doses a year by mid-2022, two top White House officials told US media on Wednesday

The announcement comes just ahead of another move whereby the US Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve booster shot doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine for all adults later this week. 

Currently, boosters are only recommended for Americans age 65 and older, but as US infection rates begin to rise again, leading experts such as Anthony Fauci, chief White House Medical advisor, have said that they think booster doses for most people will be inevitable to head off a mid-winter virus surge.  

Despite rising infection rates in many countries – WHO continues to oppose boosters 

In most African countries, less than 15% of people have received even one vaccine dose, and in many countries, less than 5%.

WHO and health equity advocates have continued to strongly oppose the administration of booster doses by rich countries, saying that these rob poorer nations of doses for their first and second vaccines. 

On Sunday, WHO repeated its call for a “moratorium on COVID-19 boosters until the end of 2021” so that other countries could get first shots. 

“No more vaccines should go to countries that have already vaccinated more than 40% of their population until COVAX has the vaccines it needs to help other countries get there too,” said WHO, citing earlier remarks by WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“No more boosters should be administered except to immunocompromised people. Most countries with high vaccine coverage continue to ignore our call for a global moratorium on boosters at the expense of health workers and vulnerable groups in low-income countries who are still waiting for the first dose.

White House manufacturing expansion – focused on domestic producers  

Dr David Kessler, chief science officer for White House COVID-19 response

The White House moves to expand manufacturing should help ease supplies abroad, officials pointed out. 

However, while Africa and other low- and middle-income regions have called for more investments on the continent and in other LMICs, the planned new US new investments will be based around manufacturing by US domestic suppliers:

“This effort is specifically aimed at building U.S. domestic capacity,” White House vaccine czar Dr David Kessler was quoted as saying. “But that capacity is important not only for the U.S. supply, but for global supply.”

Kessler, who helped speed the development and approval of AIDS drugs in the 1990s, is the White House Chief Science Officer for COVID Response – the initiative the former Trump administration had called ‘Operation Warp Speed’.

Speaking with reporters at a briefing on Wednesday, White House COVID-19 Response coordinator Jeff Zients said that along with battling COVID, the programme would help prepare the US and the world for a future pandemics, enabling production:  “within six to nine months of identification of a future pathogen.”  

Initiative expands government partnerships with private sector

Insufficient progress on delivering pledged doses to COVAX – across most high-income countries

The investment in vaccine manufacturing capacity is happening in the context of a thrust by the Biden administration to both challenge and woe industry. 

On the one hand, the government has waged a high-profile battle with Moderna, contending that three scientists at the National Institutes of Health should hold co-inventor rights over Moderna’s core mRNA vaccine patent – a demand that Moderna now seems to be conceding, at least partially

On the other, the need for expanded collaboration with the private sector was also a theme of statements last week by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken after a virtual COVID-19 ministerial conference with about 40 other foreign ministers from around the world.

The investments would focus on US vaccine manufacturers with experience in producing mRNA vaccines – who need more help to scale up their capacity rapidly.  

As a first step, Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) will issue a call for inputs from experienced vaccine manufacturing companies, asking for responses within the next 30 days, Zients and Kessler said. 

Funding for the scale-up, estimated to cost “several billion” according to Kessler in an interview with the New York Times, which first reported on the initiative.  

The funding would come from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that President Biden signed into law in March.

Biden has pledged to donate more than 1 billion coronavirus vaccine doses to other countries in order to vaccinate the global population as the international community struggles to overcome the pandemic, including 800 million doses through the WHO co-sponsored COVAX global vaccine facility initiative.  However only a fraction of those donated doses – or others promised from high -income countries, have so far been delivered. 

Zients said at the COVID-19 briefing that the administration has now shipped 250 million doses to 110 countries as of Wednesday.  A little more than 100 million US doses have been delivered through COVAX, while the rest were donated in bilateral arrangements.  

Some observers say that it is stockpiling of unused doses by wealthy countries, rather than boosters, remains a bigger factor foiling attempts to distribute vaccines more equitably.

In either case, it’s clear that vaccine hoarding is also a powerful driver.  According to independent reports by both civil society groups like Medicins Sans Frontiers, as well as industry observers such as AirFinity, between 600-900 million excess vaccine doses are currently languishing in rich country stockpiles – after existing vaccine priorities and boosters are considered. At least 241 million of those doses will also expire by the year’s end.

The excess doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2021 after vaccinating people ages 16 and up in ten high-income countries.


Image Credits: NBC, Pfizer, Twitter , https://covid19globaltracker.org/, MSF.

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