The U.S. Just Ordered a Massive Increase in Vaccines

    A medical staff member receives the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Fla., December 15, 2020. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

    This announcement from President Biden yesterday is good news.

    Two weeks ago, I directed Jeff Zients, who’s here with me — my COVID-19 Response Coordinator — to work with the Department of Health and Human Services to purchase more vaccines.

    Just this afternoon, we signed the final contracts for 100 million more Moderna and 100 million more Pfizer vaccines.  And we’re also able to move up the delivery dates with an additional 200 million vaccines to the end of July — faster than we expected.

    And in further good news, both companies agreed — and we’re now contractually obligated — to expedite delivery of 100 million doses, that were promised by the end of June, to deliver them by the end of May.  That’s a month faster.  That means lives will be saved.

    That means we’re now on track to have enough supply for 300 million Americans by the end of July.

    But this step now envisions almost everyone in the U.S. getting either the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. As of now, the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine is apparently not part of the plan, even though the Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve it shortly after its February 26 meeting. And AstraZeneca hasn’t even submitted an emergency-use application yet, so who knows when or if that vaccine will start getting injected into Americans’ arms. Remember, there’s a warehouse in Baltimore with “tens of millions of doses” of the J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines ready to be used, just sitting there, waiting for FDA approval.

    Is the AstraZeneca vaccine safe and effective? The United Kingdom approved it six weeks ago, and it has since been approved in more than a quarter of the countries in the world, including India, Mexico, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. The European Union also approved it, although almost half the EU countries  aren’t using it on senior citizens. (The World Health Organization has given its approval, although you can be forgiven for not always trusting the WHO’s judgment lately.)

    Signing a contract to deliver 100 million more doses by the end of July isn’t a bad move, but it seems likely that the tail end of that order will arrive well after the Johnson & Johnson doses start being used. The company says it can deliver 100 million doses of their one-shot vaccine by that same deadline. On its recent earnings call, an AstraZeneca executive said “data readout from the U.S. trial is anticipated before the end of this quarter,” which would be the end of March. Based upon the experience of previous COVID vaccines, FDA approval could take three weeks or so.

    Wait, there’s more. Novavax says its vaccine is 89 percent effective against the U.K variant and 60 percent effective against the South African variant, and that company announced it’s in a “rolling review” process with the FDA — meaning that as test results come in, they’re sent to the FDA to give them a head start. Novavax says it can produce 110 million doses by the end of June.

    If everybody hits production projections — a big if — then by the end of July, the United States would have 600 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna, 110 million doses of Novavax, 100 million doses of Johnson & Johnson, and some portion of ‘tens of millions’ of doses of AstraZeneca. That adds up to at least 710 million two-shot doses (for 355 million people) and 100 million one-shot doses, more than the U.S will need for its 253 million adults. (Keep in mind, no one has studied the effectiveness of the vaccines on children.) Of course, the world will have plenty of people beyond our borders who can use any vaccines we can spare.

    Also note that while this isn’t a particularly big factor in the pace of the FDA’s decision-making, Biden has yet to name a nominee to be FDA commissioner.

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