The Biden administration is planning to dedicate billions of dollars to build up vaccine manufacturing in the US to produce at least a billion doses each year, in an effort to shore up global Covid-19 supply for poorer countries while also pre-empting future pandemics.
As part of a public-private partnership, the government will draw on knowledge from companies that already use mRNA technology to make vaccines. Its ambitious goal is to get to a point where the US can produce at least a billion doses each year starting around mid-2022, according to the New York Times, which first reported the news.
“This is about assuring expanded capacity against Covid variants and also preparing for the next pandemic,” David Kessler, who leads vaccine distribution for the White House, told the Times.
“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.”
A billion vaccines could also boost availability around the world, fighting the stark inequities that have so far plagued Covid-19 vaccination campaigns.
“This effort is specifically aimed at building US domestic capacity,” Kessler said. “But that capacity is important not only for the US supply, but for global supply.”
The initiative – which Kessler said will likely cost several billion dollars – relies on funding from the $1.9tn American Rescue Plan, pandemic relief that was signed into law earlier this year. Roughly 59% of eligible people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated and nearly 16% have received booster shots.
The White House said Wednesday that about 10% of eligible kids aged five to 11 have received a dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine since its approval for their age group two weeks ago. That equates to at least 2.6 million kids, said Jeff Zients, the White House Covid-19 coordinator. The pace of vaccination for that age bracket over the last week is more than three times faster than the rate adults were vaccinated at the start of the country’s vaccination campaign 11 months ago.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is trying to expand eligibility for boosters to all adults in the coming days, providing Americans added protection during the holiday season.
But many global citizens have yet to access a single shot, much less a full dosage or booster. Across Africa, for example, only 6% of the population has been fully vaccinated, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported in late October.
These yawning disparities have incited pushback from global health leaders, who are urging policymakers to consider the bigger picture instead of focusing on domestic safety alone.
“In the context of ongoing global vaccine supply constraints, broad-based administration of booster doses risks exacerbating inequities in vaccine access by driving up demand and diverting supply while priority populations in some countries, or in subnational settings, have not yet received a primary vaccination series,” the WHO said in a statement.
“I made – and I’m keeping – the promise that America will become the arsenal of vaccines as we were the arsenal of democracy during World War II,” the president said during a Covid-19 summit in September.
“To put it another way: for every one shot we’ve administered today in America, we have now committed to do three shots to the rest of the world.”
Yet critics have warned that the administration’s commitments abroad lack the urgency a deadly virus demands. Whether its new plan to increase manufacturing capacity will substantively address those concerns remains to be seen.
“Purchasing doses for donation sometime next year is helpful, but it does not meaningfully expand the global supply,” Peter Maybarduk, who works for the non-profit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, previously told the Times. “And it is not justice.”