The Biden administration on Tuesday announced that the federal government intends to purchase 200 million additional doses of two federally approved COVID-19 vaccines, potentially creating a stock large enough to reach nearly the entire U.S. population.
The U.S. has already purchased 400 million shots from manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna, both of which use a novel mRNA vaccine that has proven highly effective in trials but that also requires two doses, spaced weeks apart. With the extra shots that the Biden administration intends to purchase, there would, in theory, be enough to vaccinate 300 million people fully against the coronavirus ― more than enough, according to most experts, to achieve “herd immunity.”
Just how far along discussions with the two manufacturers have gone is not clear. A background briefing paper for reporters said that the administration is “working to purchase” more vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. It did not indicate whether the two companies have the capacity to deliver the extra quantities by the end of the summer, as the administration hopes.
But Biden, speaking from the White House on Tuesday afternoon, said that “we believe we will soon be able to confirm” the new purchases. One reason for that confidence may be the discovery that the vials of vaccine contain enough extra liquid for extra doses. If every vial the companies produce actually provides more shots than they initially anticipated, then the pace of production has effectively increased.
Pfizer’s chief executive officer had said earlier on Tuesday that the company would be able to deliver its initial shipment of 200 million doses by the end of May ― two months ahead of schedule.
Pfizer and Moderna are currently the only companies manufacturing vaccines that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has authorized for use. But other companies are developing their own and one, Johnson & Johnson, has a single-dose vaccine that has shown promising results in early trials.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could get emergency authorization within as little as two weeks. If so, that could increase the nation’s supply further.
The Biden administration’s announcement comes at a pivotal moment ― with people across the country frustrated at the pace of vaccination and the appearance of new, more communicable variants of the coronavirus making the need to protect Americans even more urgent.
The pace of vaccination has been picking up and that trend is likely to continue, as local and state authorities get past initial glitches and work out new distribution channels ― and as the federal government under Biden offers more logistical support and stands up its own mass vaccination centers.
But already there are pockets of the country where the limiting factor in vaccine distribution isn’t too few vaccinators. It’s too few vaccines. That’s why increasing the supply is so critical.
The planned purchase from Pfizer and Moderna is one of several major policy directives announced Tuesday, as part of Biden’s ongoing strategy to increase the federal role in managing the nation’s COVID-19 response.
Another was a decision to increase the supply of vaccines distributed to the states, so that they will be getting a total of 10 million doses a week instead of 8.6 million, at least for the next three weeks. The administration informed state officials of the increase on a conference call earlier in the day, as The Wall Street Journal first reported.
The ability to forecast supplies for three weeks, rather than one, is significant because state and local authorities have said that distribution efforts have been hindered by their inability to make advance plans about where to run clinics and how many appointments to offer.
Of course, an equally big problem has been the inconsistency of previous forecasts. A test for Biden will be whether the latest forecasts turn out to be accurate or whether, as under the Trump administration, they change frequently.
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