The White House, under pressure to increase the supply of coronavirus vaccines to poor nations, plans to invest billions of dollars to expand U.S. manufacturing capacity, with the goal of producing at least one billion doses a year beginning in the second half of 2022, two top advisers to President Biden said in an interview on Tuesday.
The investment is the first step in a new plan, announced on Wednesday, for the government to partner with industry to address immediate vaccine needs overseas and domestically and to prepare for future pandemics, said Dr. David Kessler, who oversees vaccine distribution for the administration, and Jeff Zients, Mr. Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator.
“This is about assuring expanded capacity against Covid variants and also preparing for the next pandemic,” Dr. Kessler said. “The goal, in the case of a future pandemic, a future virus, is to have vaccine capability within six to nine months of identification of that pandemic pathogen, and to have enough vaccines for all Americans.”
The move comes as the Biden administration also plans to buy enough of Pfizer’s new Covid-19 pill for about 10 million courses of treatment to be delivered in the next 10 months, paying over $5 billion, according to people familiar with the agreement. The government has also pledged $3 billion for rapid over-the-counter tests, which are needed to detect the virus early for the Pfizer drug to work.
Taken together, the investments amount to an aggressive effort to vanquish a pandemic that is heading into its third year. When given promptly to trial groups of high-risk unvaccinated people who developed symptoms of the disease, the Pfizer drug sharply reduced the risk of hospitalization and death. Pfizer applied on Tuesday for federal authorization of the drug on an emergency basis.
The antiviral drugs have helped inspire hope among senior administration officials that the United States will be able to curb the devastating toll from the virus. Their promise depends in part on access to testing, because the pills have proved to work in five days or less after symptoms develop.
But the tests are pricey. While federal regulators have cleared a dozen of them, a test typically costs about $12 and not everyone can easily obtain one. One of the newest rapid tests costs $7, though, and by the end of the year the overall supply is projected to be nearly 10 times what it was in August, federal officials said.
The idea for the new public-private vaccine partnership is still in its early stages, and the price tag is uncertain. Dr. Kessler, who has been working on the proposal for months, estimated it at “several billion.” The money has been set aside as part of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that Mr. Biden signed into law in March.
The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency intends to issue a “request for information” to solicit ideas from companies that have experience manufacturing vaccines using mRNA technology. Mr. Zients said that officials wanted responses “in a very short period of time, 30 days, to understand how most efficiently, effectively and reliably we can increase manufacturing.”
Activists, many of them veterans of the AIDS epidemic, have been demanding for months that Mr. Biden do more to scale up global vaccine manufacturing capacity. Some, furious with what they regard as the administration’s slow progress, turned up at the home of Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s chief of staff, in September and deposited a fake mountain of bones on the sidewalk in protest.
At the same time, the administration is offering booster shots to millions of vaccinated Americans, despite criticism from World Health Organization officials and other experts who say the doses should go to low- and lower-middle-income countries first. The Food and Drug Administration is aiming to authorize booster doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid vaccine for all adults as early as Thursday, according to people familiar with the agency’s plans.
Whether the new Biden plan will satisfy the administration’s critics is unclear. Many activists have demanded that the administration build up manufacturing capacity overseas, particularly in Africa, but the Biden plan is focused on building capacity among domestic vaccine makers. “This effort is specifically aimed at building U.S. domestic capacity,” Dr. Kessler said. “But that capacity is important not only for the U.S. supply, but for global supply.”
James Krellenstein, a founder of Prep4All, an AIDS advocacy group, called the Biden plan “a step in the right direction,” but suggested the government build its own vaccine production facility, so as not to depend on the private sector, and hire a contract manufacturer to run it.
“It’s the only way you can leverage the unique skills of the private sector while protecting the taxpayer investment,” he said.
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