President Biden has promised enough doses for all American adults by this summer. There’s not much even the Defense Production Act can do to deliver doses before then.
President Joe Biden has ordered enough vaccines
to immunize every American against COVID-19, and his administration says it’s using the full force of the federal government to get the doses by July
. There’s a reason he can’t promise them sooner.
Vaccine supply chains are extremely specialized and sensitive, relying on expensive machinery, highly trained staff and finicky ingredients. Manufacturers have run into intermittent shortages of key materials, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office
; the combination of surging demand and workforce disruptions from the pandemic has caused delays of four to 12 weeks for items that used to ship within a week, much like what happened when consumers were sent scrambling for household staples like flour
, chicken wings
and toilet paper
People often question why the administration can’t use the mighty Defense Production Act — which empowers the government to demand critical supplies before anyone else — to turbocharge production. But that law has its limits. Each time a manufacturer adds new equipment or a new raw materials supplier, they are required to run extensive tests to ensure the hardware or ingredients consistently work as intended, then submit data to the Food and Drug Administration. Adding capacity “doesn’t happen in a blink of an eye,” said Jennifer Pancorbo, director of industry programs and research at North Carolina State University’s Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center. “It takes a good chunk of weeks.”
And adding supplies at any one point only helps if production can be expanded up and down the entire chain. “Thousands of components may be needed,” said Gerald W. Parker, director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at Texas A&M University’s Scowcroft Institute for International Affairs and a former senior official in the Department of Health and Human Services office for preparedness and response. “You can’t just turn on the Defense Production Act and make it happen.”
The U.S. doesn’t have spare facilities waiting around to manufacture vaccines, or other kinds of factories that could be converted the way General Motors began producing ventilators last year
. The GAO said the Army Corps of Engineers is helping to expand existing vaccine facilities, but it can’t be done overnight.
Building new capacity would take two to three months, at which point the new production lines would still face weeks of testing to ensure they were able to make the vaccine doses correctly before the companies could start delivering more shots.
“It’s not like making shoes,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with ProPublica. “And the reason I use that somewhat tongue-in-cheek analogy is that people say, ‘Ah, you know what we should do? We should get the DPA to build another factory in a week and start making mRNA.’ Well, by the time a new factory can get geared up to make the mRNA vaccine exactly according to the very, very strict guidelines and requirements of the FDA ... we already will have in our hands the 600 million doses between Moderna and Pfizer that we contracted for. It would almost be too late.”
Fauci added that the DPA works best for “facilitating something rather than building something from scratch.”