U.S. Offers Billions to Drugmakers to Ramp up COVID Vaccine Supplies Locally, Abroad

The Biden administration is offering billions of dollars to drugmakers to increase production of COVID vaccine supplies to share with the world.

The government's Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority is requesting pharmaceutical companies with proven ability to produce the more-effective mRNA vaccines to apply for U.S. investment to increase their manufacturing. Moderna and Pfizer make the two U.S.-approved mRNA vaccines.

The White House hopes this will help to manufacture an additional 1 billion shots per year, the Associated Press reported.

The initiative begins as the Biden administration faces mounting pressure in the U.S. and abroad over the unfairness in the global vaccine supply. For example, the U.S. has moved to approve booster shots for all adults while people in poorer countries still await their first dose.

Only 4.7 percent of people living in low-income countries have been given the first dose, according to a study by the ONE Campaign, an international aid and advocacy organization. Low-income countries have administered around 32 million first shots while wealthier nations have already given 173 million booster shots.

The Biden administration thinks increasing the volume of COVID shots will help to alleviate the global shortage of doses, especially in lower- and middle-income countries. This will aid in preventing deaths and reducing the risk of developing new, more dangerous variants of the coronavirus.

"The goal of this program is to expand existing capacity by an additional billion doses per year, with production starting by the second half of 2022," said Jeff Zients, White House COVID coordinator.

Zients announced Wednesday that the U.S. has donated 250 million doses of COVID vaccines globally along with a goal of giving over 1.1 billion shots by the end of 2022. Out of all the nation, the U.S. has donated the most vaccines.

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below:

Biden Administration, COVID Vaccine Distribution, Global Supplies
The Biden administration is making billions of dollars available to drugmakers to scale up domestic production of COVID-19 vaccines in the hopes of building capacity to produce an additional 1 billion shots per year to share globally. A dose of a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at Lurie Children's hospital, November 5 in Chicago. Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo, File

There are no firm agreements yet with Moderna or Pfizer to take up the U.S. on the investment, but the Biden administration hopes that the enhanced manufacturing capacity, through support for the company's facilities, equipment, staff or training, will by mid-2022 allow more COVID-19 doses to be shared overseas as well as help prepare for the next public health emergency.

The administration is prioritizing the mRNA vaccines, which have proven to be more effective against preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19 than the Johnson & Johnson viral vector vaccine, which uses a harmless virus that carries genetic material to stimulate the immune system. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are made with a piece of genetic code called messenger RNA that tells the body to make harmless copies of the spike protein so it's trained to recognize the virus.

Robbie Silverman, senior advocacy manager at Oxfam America, welcomed Biden's plan to invest into vaccine manufacturing capacity but said it was nowhere near sufficient.

"What the world really needs is distributed regional manufacturing capacity of vaccines, and it sounds like this investment is focused on building U.S. capacity," he said. "We desperately need the companies who have a monopoly over the COVID vaccines to transfer their technology, and we need the U.S. government to use its leverage."

Silverman estimated that without companies transferring their knowledge of how to make COVID-19 vaccines, it would take manufacturers elsewhere double the time needed to start making doses, noting that billions of vaccines against other diseases are routinely made in developing countries.

Silverman said that while the U.S. should have negotiated more provisions about vaccine equity when it was securing its own supply, it was not too late to act. He said the U.S. should support the proposed waiver that was drafted by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organization, calling for patents on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments to be suspended. And he said the U.S. could invoke the Defense Production Act to target critical ingredients for COVID-19 shots.

"The U.S. government has lots of tools at its disposal to push pharmaceutical companies," he said, noting that it had invested billions of dollars into creating Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine. "The U.S. needs to make sure these companies, which they funded, are prioritizing public health rather than profits."

Ava Alkon, a senior policy and research officer at Doctors Without Borders, said that the billion doses that might be produced with the U.S. investment were still far from the figure needed to immunize the world. The World Health Organization has estimated that 11 billion doses are needed.

Alkon said that since any manufacturers newly drafted into making COVID-19 doses would not be able to produce any supplies for several months, a more immediate solution is needed. "We believe that the U.S. can distribute many more doses than it already has on an ongoing basis," she said, calling for the U.S. to be more transparent about how many extra doses it has. She said some estimates suggest the U.S. could have at least 500 million surplus vaccines by the end of the year.

The New York Times first reported on the new initiative.

Biden Administration, COVID Vaccine Distribution, Global Supplies
The Biden administration is offering billions of dollars to drugmakers to increase production of the COVID vaccine to supply globally. In this photo, a health worker administers a dose of AstraZeneca vaccine as part of the vaccination campaign for underage and senior citizens at Coliseo Jefferson PÈrez on November 16 in Cuenca, Ecuador. Xavier Caivinagua/Agencia Press South/Getty Images