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Vaccine makers Pfizer, Moderna pledge boost to US supply after sluggish rollout

The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.
The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON — Drug companies told lawmakers Tuesday that they project a major increase in vaccine deliveries that will result in 140 million more doses over the next five weeks, saying they have solved manufacturing challenges and are in a position to overcome scarcity that has hampered the nation’s fight against the coronavirus.

’'The United States and every other country needs more doses more quickly,’' John Young, Pfizer’s chief business officer, told members of the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee.

But achieving a surge on that scale remains daunting. Pfizer and Moderna, the companies with the only authorized vaccines in the United States, will need to increase their combined deliveries of 75 million doses to reach their promised target of 220 million shots by March 31.

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That’s a goal of 28 million doses each week on average, far greater than their performance so far. The Biden administration told governors Tuesday that doses allotted to states would grow from 13.5 million to 14.5 million per week, and it also directed 2.1 million doses to pharmacies, according to people who participated in a weekly White House call and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the conversation.

If the companies are able to meet their projections, it would signal the beginning of the end of a period of deep frustration and mark faster progress against a pandemic that has claimed 500,000 lives in the United States.

The slower-than-anticipated vaccine rollout has hampered progress toward vaccinating the 70 percent or 80 percent of the US population of 330 million people required to achieve herd immunity against the coronavirus.

The federal government has spent about $16 billion on lab and clinical development, jump-starting manufacturing, and placing advance orders of vaccine.

’'Many of these companies received significant federal investment to build their manufacturing capacity last year while their clinical trials were still ongoing, so that we would be able to rapidly deliver millions of vaccines as soon as they were authorized,’' said Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat from Colorado, the subcommittee’s chairwoman, in her opening remarks. ’'Two vaccines have been authorized and production is ramping up, but there is still insufficient supply to meet current demand.’'

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Pfizer and Moderna, which both make mRNA vaccines, fell far short of the delivery schedules set by the Trump administration in December, when their vaccines received emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. But both companies are expressing confidence in their latest promises after continuing to invest in manufacturing and steadily advancing production. Combined, the two companies have contracts to provide 600 million doses, which they say will be ready by the end of July.

Pfizer, which is partnered with Germany’s BioNTech in production of its vaccine, has laid out an aggressive timeline for boosting deliveries in coming weeks, according to Young’s advance testimony. The company has been pouring money into doubling batch sizes and adding manufacturing suites, as well as making its own supply of crucial raw materials called lipids and creating its own finish-fill capacity to put batches of vaccine into vials for shipment.

Pfizer reported last week during President Biden’s visit to its Kalamazoo, Mich., manufacturing plant that it had reduced manufacturing time from 110 days to about 60 days.

Pfizer also benefited from an FDA decision that recognized ’'overfill’' in its vials as a sixth dose, creating a 20 percent increase in its deliveries.

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Uneven weekly production is among the reasons the Biden administration has not issued new promises beyond its initial goal of delivering 100 million shots within the president’s first 100 days, despite drugmakers’ more ambitious promises, according to a senior administration official who, like other officials addressing production schedules, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

The administration is aiming to hold the companies to their commitments, the official said, while maintaining ’'collaborative enough relationships where they will share risks, as opposed to putting a gun to their head and saying, ‘You have to do X or Y and we don’t want to hear anything about it.’ ’'

Two other Biden administration officials said it was unlikely that 220 million vaccine doses would be distributed by the end of March, even if a quantity approaching that total was allocated to states and other jurisdictions without being shipped by then. One official said just shy of 200 million doses was a more realistic estimate.

Pfizer’s promise is to provide 120 million doses by the end of March, while Moderna has said it will supply 100 million doses by then. To meet its target, Pfizer would have to release more than 2 million doses a day, or more than 14 million a week, for the next five weeks. The company currently is providing about 9 million doses a week, according to one of the federal officials involved in the vaccine effort, with the expectation that it can climb steadily to about 13 million doses per week by the beginning of April. Moderna is expected to level out at about 10 million per week, the official said.

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