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The Biden administration is exploring whether factories can be retrofitted to produce more of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 mRNA vaccines to speed up vaccination of the vast majority of Americans.
The announcement comes as the nation is on track to see 479,000 to 514,000 deaths by the end of February, said Rochelle Walensky, MD, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Walensky, speaking to reporters Wednesday in the first briefing from the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said that 1.6 million COVID-19 shots had been administered each day over the past week and that 3.4 million Americans have been fully vaccinated with two doses.
More than 500 million doses will be needed to vaccinate every American older than 16 years, Andy Slavitt, the senior advisor to the COVID-19 response team, told reporters. Pfizer and Moderna are due to deliver an additional 200 million doses near the end of March, and Biden is seeking to purchase another 200 million doses from the companies, said Slavitt.
But it may not be enough. Whether companies can retrofit factories to produce vaccines is “something that’s under active exploration,” Slavitt said.
“This is a national emergency,” said Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator. “Everything is on the table across the whole supply chain,” he said. He noted that the administration was also buying low-dead-space syringes to help extract an additional sixth dose from every Pfizer vial.
Slavitt said the team had identified 12 areas in which Biden was authorized to use the Defense Production Act to spur the manufacture of items such as masks and COVID-19 diagnostics.
More Sequencing Needed
As new variants emerge, vaccine makers and the CDC are racing to stay a step ahead. “RNA viruses mutate all the time ― that’s what they do, that’s their business,” said Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Biden’s chief medical advisor, in the briefing.
Three concerning variants have emerged: the B117, which is circulating widely in the United Kingdom; the B1.351 in South Africa; and the P.1 in Brazil. As of January 26, no cases involving the B1.351 variant have been detected in the United States; one person with the P.1 variant was identified in Minnesota. The CDC has identified 308 cases of the UK variant in 26 states, said Walensky.
The United States is dismally behind in surveillance and sequencing of variants, said Zients. “We are 43rd in the world at genomic sequencing,” which he said was “totally unacceptable.”
Walensky said the CDC is working on improving data collection and sequencing, but she said more money is needed to “do the amount of sequencing and surveillance that we need in order to be able to detect these when they first start to emerge.”
Both she and Zients called on Congress to pass Biden’s proposed American Rescue package, which includes more money for sequencing.
Fauci said the National Institutes of Health was collaborating with the CDC to determine whether other newly emerging variants pose any threat — such as increased transmissibility or lethality or some other functional characteristic. Scientists will also monitor “in real-time” whether current vaccines continue to make neutralizing antibodies against these mutants, said Fauci.
“With the UK variant, what we’re seeing is a very slight, if at all, impact on vaccine-induced antibodies and very little impact on anything else,” he said. With the South African variant, there is “a multifold diminution in the in vitro neutralization by vaccine-induced antibodies,” but “it still is well within the cushion of protection” for the current vaccines, said Fauci.
But, he added, “We have to be concerned looking forward of what the further evolution of this might be.” The anti-COVID monoclonal antibodies — bamlanivimab and the combination of casirivimab and imdevimab — are “more seriously inhibited by this South African strain,” which is spurring development of new monoclonals, he said.
Fauci also noted that the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine that is in development — for which phase 3 data may be released within days — was tested in South Africa and Brazil in addition to the United States. The comparative data could help researchers and clinicians make better-informed decisions about what vaccine to use if the South African variant “seeds itself in the US,” he said.