Biden Sets May Goal for Adult Shots, Gives Teachers Priority

President Joe Biden called for states to give all teachers and child-care workers at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine by the end of the month in a fresh drive to re-open schools, and said there will be enough doses for all American adults by the end of May after the authorization of a new shot.

Biden announced a contract with Merck & Co. and said the company would work with Johnson & Johnson to increase production of its single-shot vaccine. The new vaccine, authorized Saturday for use in the U.S., will speed up the overall timetable for most Americans to be vaccinated. Biden also said J&J’s previous delivery timetable is being accelerated.

“We should all be encouraged by this news,” Biden said Tuesday at the White House. “The more people that get vaccinated, the faster we’re going to overcome this virus.”

The Department of Health and Human Services said J&J would deliver “at or near” 100 million doses by the end of May, compared with a previous pledge of 100 million doses by the end of June. That acceleration -- further details of which weren’t provided -- along with J&J’s vaccine authorization led Biden to say there’ll be enough shots for all U.S. adults by the end of May, rather than the end of July. The previous timetable didn’t include the J&J vaccine.

The Biden team pointed to several factors in the ramp-up. Biden said J&J would begin manufacturing “24-7” and that the Department of Defense is partnering with the company to smooth out problems where it can. The White House has invoked the Defense Production Act, a wartime power, to prioritize certain supplies, but hasn’t specified which products are being targeted.

Merck announced deals with the government to produce Covid-19 “vaccines and medicines,” and a separate one with J&J, for which terms were not immediately disclosed. It will take a few months or more for Merck to get its J&J support up and running.

Biden combined those elements at Tuesday’s announcement to pledge a faster timeline resulting from increasing U.S. vaccine availability.

Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., which make the other two vaccines authorized in the U.S., have said they’ll deliver doses for 200 million Americans by the end of May. The U.S. expects enough doses for 400 million people by the end of July -- more than its population, and far more than are currently eligible, as none of the shots is authorized for anyone younger than 16.

Virus Variants

Biden’s administration is racing against the mutation of the virus. New variants are proving more contagious and undercut the efficacy of vaccines. New U.S. virus cases have halted their decline over the past week, stalling at a stubbornly high number.

Meanwhile, some states are taking steps to reopen. Texas Governor Greg Abbott said Tuesday that he’d fully reopen the state and rescind its mask mandate. Polls have shown that a sizable portion of the U.S. public is skeptical about the vaccine or won’t take it.

Biden warned that a faster pace of vaccinations doesn’t mean the pandemic will soon end. He said he hopes the U.S. will be back to normal “by this time next year” but said he’d been cautioned not to provide a specific date “because we don’t know for sure.”

Biden also moved to steer shots toward educators. Biden called for state and local governments to prioritize teachers, school support staff and child-care workers for vaccinations, as he pushes for schools to reopen safely with full-time classroom instruction. He also said he’d use a system of pharmacy vaccinations, over which he has more direct control, to prioritize the vaccines for teachers, school workers and child-care workers.

“We can reopen schools if the right steps are taken even before employees are vaccinated,” Biden said. “But time and again, we’ve heard from educators and parents that have anxieties about that.”

“My challenge to all states, territories and the District of Columbia is this: We want every educator, school staff member, child-care worker to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March,” he said.

J&J Delays

J&J’s vaccine has been beset by production delays, but now could prove a major boost to the U.S. vaccination effort, as the shot is much easier to ship and store than the Pfizer and Moderna products.

Merck announced in January that it was shuttering its coronavirus vaccine program, redirecting resources to its Covid-19 therapeutics efforts instead.

The U.S. government is awarding Merck a $269 million contract to adapt facilities to boost coronavirus vaccine and therapeutic production, according to a company statement.

Merck will support J&J by conducting two parts of the manufacturing process: It will create the active ingredient in J&J’s vaccine, and fill vials with that substance in what’s known as the final-stage “fill-finish” process.

Preparing the fill-finish sites will take a few months, Chief Marketing Officer Michael Nally said in an interview, yet producing the drug substance will require a longer lead time. Merck will not likely make J&J’s drug substance until the second half of the year.

“But getting the fill-finish piece up and running is ultimately what gets doses out the door,” Nally said. “We’re getting that piece sorted out as quickly as possible, and we’d love a way to be able to contribute to J&J’s timeline,” he added, referring to the delivery of 100 million doses near the end of May.

Merck’s suppliers of equipment and materials are subject to the Defense Production Act, while the company itself is not. As result, Merck is not limited to aiding J&J with building out supply only for the U.S. “More capacity is a good thing for all parts of the world,” Nally said.

The U.S. funds given to Merck will also go toward expanding its manufacturing capacity to produce a Covid-19 therapy called MK-7110. That candidate, however, has faced a regulatory setback, and likely won’t reach patients until the end of the year or beyond.

‘Open Mind’

Should the company see the right opportunity to collaborate with other vaccine makers, while still having bandwidth to manufacture MK-7110 and other therapeutics, it would pursue it. “We keep an open mind,” Nally said.

J&J had previously promised the U.S. 12 million doses by the end of February, but has delivered 3.9 million so far. It says it will deliver a total of 20 million by the end of the month.

Biden’s health team has urged Americans to take whichever of the vaccines that is available to them first, in a move to head off concerns or comparisons of their viability. While the J&J shot is less effective than Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines at preventing infection entirely, clinical trials have shown it effective at stopping hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19.

On Monday, J&J Chief Executive Officer Alex Gorsky said in an interview that the company was seeking additional manufacturing partnerships to ramp up production of its vaccine.

“We are doing everything we can, partnering with the U.S. government and other external manufacturers, to see what we can do to accelerate and increase” the number of doses, Gorsky said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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