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NPR Coronavirus Updates

Defense Production Act Speeds Up Vaccine Production

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Biden is promising Americans vaccinations sooner than we thought.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We'll have enough vaccine supply for all adults in America by the end of May.

SIMON: But after the slow and often confounding rollout this winter, is that goal realistic? NPR's pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin joins us now with an update. Sydney, thanks for being with us.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Yeah. Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And how's the Biden administration trying to make good on this promise?

LUPKIN: Well, it looks like Pfizer and Moderna are going to meet that first milestone. They both initially promised to deliver 100 million doses each by March 31. And distribution's had been slow, but they've really picked up lately, and vaccine output should grow even more. Here's the president's COVID czar, Jeffrey Zients.

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JEFFREY ZIENTS: The next couple of weeks of supply overall are relatively flat before supply really starts to accelerate towards the end of the month, and then into April and into May.

SIMON: And that certainly sounds encouraging. We keep hearing about the Defense Production Act. Explain what that is once again, if you could.

LUPKIN: Sure. It's a 1950 law that gives the president and his administration powers to allocate materials, services and facilities and award contracts that take priority over any other contract to promote the national defense, which, in this case, is defending against the virus. So not only did the vaccine makers need to put the COVID-19 vaccine first, but in many cases, so did their suppliers.

SIMON: And how has the federal government used this act to speed vaccine production?

LUPKIN: The Trump administration has used the law to provide vaccine production 18 times, and now the Biden administration is building on that. For instance, it used the law to get Pfizer some equipment it wasn't able to get under the Trump administration. And, of course, the act is being used to help Merck get up to speed making Johnson & Johnson vaccines. But it's important to remember that the Defense Production Act isn't like flipping on a light switch.

SIMON: Well, (laughter) what is it like then?

LUPKIN: I spoke to folks at Emergent BioSolutions about this. Emergent is making the vaccine for Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. And the Defense Production Act has helped it get equipment like bioreactors, which look kind of like fermenting tanks at a brewpub. Here's the company's head of manufacturing operations, Sean Kirk.

SEAN KIRK: They still had to build the equipment for us. They still had to ship the equipment to us. We still had to install it and qualify it and get it operational. And that just takes time.

LUPKIN: The act ultimately took a process that would normally take two or three years and condensed it down to six or seven months.

SIMON: Sydney, is that fairly typical? Do we know how much the Defense Production Act has sped things up overall?

LUPKIN: We don't. The Government Accountability Office has done some research on how it's been used, but it needed to go through press announcements and contracts by hand, and that's pretty tedious. The office actually recommended developing reporting guidelines to promote greater transparency. Right now, there's no central database of Defense Production Act uses to track how much it helped or how much it hurt.

SIMON: Hurt meaning what in this case?

LUPKIN: There have been some ripple effects. For instance, the company that makes a thyroid drug called Tepezza said in December that it would be in short supply. That's because the factory contracted to make it was required under the Defense Production Act to package the COVID-19 vaccine instead. The company is working on alternatives. But, you know, it turns out that funneling finite resources to vaccine development can have consequences beyond COVID-19.

SIMON: NPR's pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin, thanks so much.

LUPKIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.