WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s coronavirus response team thought it had found a quick fix to increase the nation’s supply of Pfizer vaccine doses. The question is whether the pharmaceutical company will go along with it.
The new president took executive action last week ordering manufacturers to increase the production of hyper-efficient syringes, after health care workers around the country discovered last month that vials of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine contained six vaccine doses instead of five — more than Pfizer had anticipated.
The Food and Drug Administration, under former President Donald Trump, authorized the use of those extra doses. But common syringes used to extract the vaccine and to inject individuals often had too much “dead space” in them — filled with excess vaccine meant to prevent air bubbles — that prevented collection of those extra shots.
To address the issue, Biden used powers typically reserved for wartime last week to compel the production of “low dead space” syringes, virtually guaranteeing the extra doses won’t go to waste.
But an agreement between Pfizer and the FDA made shortly before Biden took office may offset any supply gains the new administration was hoping to achieve with the new syringes.
The president’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, said on MSNBC that the executive order “actually increases our supply effectively 20%.”
But Pfizer charges the U.S. government for its vaccine by the dose — and negotiated with the FDA last month to release fewer vials after it was discovered that each vial could provide more doses than expected.
Pfizer had committed to providing the U.S. government 200 million doses, and will now count the extra doses that were discovered in its vials against that goal.
If Pfizer does not end up cutting its vials shipment, as first reported by The New York Times, then the syringes will allow health care workers to extract more doses out of each vial — increasing supply by 20%.
Biden administration officials are now in talks with Pfizer on ways they can maintain the size and pace of vial deliveries. While the details of those conversations are not publicly known, the White House is expressing confidence that Klain’s projection of a 20% increase in supply is still achievable with the new syringes.
“We’re talking with Pfizer and we’re confident they share our desire to increase supply as much as possible,” a White House spokesperson told McClatchy.
Pfizer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Producing more advanced syringes are important no matter what Pfizer does, the White House spokesperson said.
If Pfizer does cut its shipments, then the syringes become all the more important to make sure that every full dose of vaccine available can be extracted.
“The syringe helps you get that sixth dose because of the design,” said Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. “Previously, if you were lucky, you could get a sixth dose. But there wasn’t any special technology or equipment to do that. Now they’ll have hyper syringes to do it.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki was not able to identify which companies would be compelled, under the Defense Production Act, to begin producing the advanced syringes.
“It’s one of the simpler sets of things that can be done to improve vaccination rates, and I also think it’s feasible in a very short time span – other things will require longer periods of time,” said Prashant Yadav, a supply chain expert at the Center for Global Development and former supply chain strategy leader at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “This can be put in place very quickly.”