WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the United States was “on track” to have enough supply of coronavirus vaccines “for every adult in America by the end of May,” accelerating his effort to deliver the nation from the worst public health crisis in a century.
In a brief speech at the White House, Biden said his administration had provided support to Johnson & Johnson that would enable the company and its partners to make vaccines around the clock. The administration had also brokered a deal in which the pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. would help manufacture the new Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine.
Merck is the world’s second-largest vaccine manufacturer, although its own attempt at a coronavirus vaccine was unsuccessful. Officials described the partnership between the two competitors as historic and said it harks back to Biden’s vision of a wartime effort to fight the coronavirus, similar to the manufacturing campaigns when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.
“As a consequence of the stepped-up process that I’ve ordered and just outlined, this country will have enough vaccine supply — I’ll say it again — for every adult in America by the end of May,” Biden said. “By the end of May. That’s progress — important progress.”
He also said he wanted all teachers vaccinated by the end of this month.
The president’s timetable, if it comes to pass, provides a bright light at the end of a long, dark tunnel, although he acknowledged that the nation remained in a tenuous situation. The announcement Tuesday came days after the Food and Drug Administration gave Johnson & Johnson emergency authorization for its vaccine, which, unlike the two others that are available, requires just one dose.
Public health officials fear a fourth surge of the coronavirus pandemic, fueled by worrisome new variants, as states like Texas and Mississippi rush to fully reopen. While daily caseloads have undergone a steep drop since January, the decline appears to be leveling off, and top federal health officials warned governors last week against relaxing coronavirus restrictions.
“We cannot let our guard down now or assure that victory is inevitable,” Biden said. “We can’t assume that.”
He had previously said that there would be enough coronavirus vaccines for every American by the end of July. While the president’s remarks Tuesday set a new marker against which he will be measured, his administration and his predecessor’s had already laid the groundwork to cover the 260 million eligible adults by the end of May.
Two other vaccine manufacturers, Moderna and Pfizer BioNTech, pledged last month to deliver together enough to cover 200 million Americans by that date. Johnson & Johnson’s $1 billion contract, negotiated last year when Donald Trump was president, calls for the company to deliver enough doses for another 87 million Americans by the end of May, which would have given the country enough vaccine for all adults 18 and older.
But Johnson & Johnson and its partners fell behind in their manufacturing. The company was supposed to deliver its first 37 million doses by the end of March, but it has said it would be able to deliver only 20 million doses by that date, which made Biden aides nervous.
In late January, Jeff Zients, Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, and Dr. David Kessler, who is managing vaccine distribution for the White House, reached out to top officials at the company, including Alex Gorsky, its CEO, with a blunt message: This is unacceptable.
That led to a series of negotiations in February in which administration officials repeatedly pressured Johnson & Johnson to accept that they needed help, while urging Merck to be part of the solution, according to two administration officials who participated in the discussions.
In a statement Tuesday, Merck said the federal government would pay it up to $269 million to adapt and make available its existing facilities to produce coronavirus vaccines. Michael Nally, executive vice president of human health at Merck, said in an interview that the company had been in talks with multiple companies and governments, including officials in the former Trump administration.
“I think we all recognize that every day counts,” he said.
Nally declined to provide an estimate for how many doses of vaccine the company could ultimately produce, saying only that it would be “substantial.” The expanded supply from Merck, though, is not likely to become available for months.
One federal official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said other steps the administration took would move up Johnson & Johnson’s manufacturing timeline.
Those steps, said Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, included providing a team of experts to monitor manufacturing and logistical support from the Defense Department. In addition, the president will invoke the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era law, to give Johnson & Johnson access to supplies necessary to make and package vaccines.
Biden said he would also invoke the law to help Merck retrofit one of two manufacturing plants that would be used in the production process.
Vaccine manufacturing is a notoriously finicky and unpredictable process, especially in the early stages. Merck makes vaccines for 11 of the 17 diseases on the federal government’s immunization roster — including measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox — and the company has been searching for a role to play in the coronavirus program for nearly a year.
“The only party that really understood vaccine manufacturing and had a stellar record of it is now having to be brought in to manufacture someone else’s vaccine,” said Steve Brozak, president and managing director of WBB Securities, which invests in companies that focus on infectious diseases.
Trump and Biden administration officials had explored enlisting Merck’s help in manufacturing vaccines developed by other companies. Federal officials said talks about a possible partnership between Merck and Johnson & Johnson had been underway for months. But Psaki said the Biden White House deserved credit for getting the deal “across the finish line.”
The arrangement is not without precedent. Johnson & Johnson signed a deal late last month with the French manufacturer Sanofi, which is also developing a coronavirus vaccine, to help fill and pack the Johnson & Johnson vaccines in Europe. Sanofi and Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis have also signed deals with Pfizer to help manufacture its vaccine in Europe.
“This is a type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War II,” Biden said at the White House. He thanked Merck and Johnson & Johnson for “stepping up and being good corporate citizens during this crisis.”
Under the agreement, Merck will dedicate two of its facilities to production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
One will provide “fill-finish,” the final phase of the manufacturing process during which the vaccine is placed in vials and packaged for shipping. The other will make the “drug substance”: the vaccine itself.
Biden has already committed to purchasing a total of 600 million doses — enough for every American — of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, and said those doses would be available by the end of July.
If Johnson & Johnson shipments come in later, and the United States ends up with a surplus, the administration could sell or donate doses to other countries where supply is scarce. That would be in keeping with Biden’s publicly stated commitment for the United States to take a stronger leadership role in fighting the pandemic.
But giving away vaccines too quickly, before all Americans have access, would carry a substantial political risk. Psaki said the president’s current priority was to vaccinate all Americans.
After that, she said, “of course we want the global community to be vaccinated. That makes us all safer.”
The pace of the nation’s vaccination effort has been steadily accelerating. As of Tuesday, about 51.7 million people had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, including about 26.1 million people — about 8% of Americans ages 18 or older — who have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines both require more stringent storage conditions than Johnson & Johnson’s, which can also keep for three months at normal refrigeration temperatures, making it easier to distribute and easier for pharmacies and clinics to stock. At $10 a dose, it is also cheaper than the other two.
This week, states will receive 3.9 million Johnson & Johnson doses that were manufactured at a Dutch plant and bottled in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Johnson & Johnson is expected to mass produce the vaccine at a new plant in Baltimore that is operated by a company called Emergent BioSolutions. Catalent, a pharmaceutical company, will bottle the doses in Indiana.
The FDA’s authorization for emergency use, granted late Saturday, covered the Dutch production lines and the Grand Rapids bottling operation. In about two weeks, federal regulators are expected to decide whether to amend that authorization to include the plants in Baltimore and Indiana, according to two people familiar with Johnson & Johnson’s operations who were not authorized to speak publicly.
At least until then, they said, supply would be uneven and limited.
If all the anticipated doses come through, the United States could have a glut of vaccines by the summer. In the next few weeks, Moderna is expected to submit a formal proposal to the FDA to put as much as 50% more vaccine into each of its vials, a simple and comparatively quick way to bolster supply. In behind-the-scenes discussions with the company, the FDA has recommended an increase of up to 40%.
On the other hand, the nation’s needs could rise. The emergence of worrisome variants of the virus could require booster shots for those who have already been vaccinated. And federal health officials are hoping that continuing tests will show the vaccines are safe for children, which will mean tens of millions of more shots are needed.
Regardless of how the additional supply of vaccines is used, shoring up manufacturing for the long term is a smart move, Brozak said. “This is going to be a long and rugged war,” he said. “You’ve got to be prepared, not just for the next iteration, but the next-next iteration.”