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The Nation's Coronavirus Vaccine Rollout Plan Faces Another Obstacle

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What does it take to get much of this country vaccinated in 100 days? President Biden promised 100 million shots in that time, which is an enormous logistical task. And it also involves supply. You need enough vaccines to distribute. Pfizer and Moderna each promise to deliver 100 million doses by the end of March. But we've learned the companies might fall short. NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin is on the line. Good morning.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So how far behind are they?

LUPKIN: So they each have agreed - both Pfizer and Moderna have agreed to deliver 100 million doses to the federal government in the first quarter of the year - so by the end of March. Both companies are delivering about 4.3 million doses a week. We know that because we can see how many doses the government is allocating to the states. But these companies need to start delivering about 7.5 million doses a week if they're going to reach that 100 million dose mark by the end of March.

INSKEEP: Oh, so the math does not favor them. They'd have to almost double their rate of production.

LUPKIN: Mmm hmm. And I asked several people, you know, can they do that? - including John Avellanet, who's been consulting for drug companies since the 1990s.

JOHN AVELLANET: I think it's going to be a real challenge for them to hit that contracted target. There's just no question about that.

LUPKIN: Basically, everything has to go right for these companies to pull it off, and a lot can go wrong. Equipment is expected to break and need repairs. The vaccines have to pass inspections before they can be shipped. And, of course, vaccine production also depends on an ample supply of chemical ingredients, vials and skilled workers. Basically, Avellanet says it's a miracle these companies have been able to deliver the doses they have so far.

INSKEEP: Does the type of vaccines make this even more complicated?

LUPKIN: It does. So these are mRNA vaccines. They've been studied for a decade, but this is the first time they're being made on a large scale. I spoke with David Gortler, who until this week was the senior adviser to the now-former FDA commissioner Steven Hahn. Gortler says that Pfizer and Moderna are working at top capacity already.

DAVID GORTLER: I'd rather hear the companies have fallen short of their production goal but managed to maintain their quality control.

LUPKIN: Basically, we don't want to rush that process because then the vaccines might not work.

INSKEEP: Well, what are the government and the companies saying when you reached out to them with this information about the math you did?

LUPKIN: An Operation Warp Speed spokesman under the Trump administration told me last week that they're still expecting to hit 100 million doses for each company by the end of March. Pfizer didn't get back to me, though it slashed deliveries to some European countries this week. Moderna says it's still on track to meet the goal, but they don't really disclose more production details than that.

INSKEEP: You said the Trump administration got back to you, but now there's a new administration in the last couple of days. What do we expect from them?

LUPKIN: Well, you know, this came up at a White House press conference yesterday. Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked if the Biden administration is trying to increase vaccine production.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

ANTHONY FAUCI: Yeah, as well as to utilize what we hope will be another player in the field, the J&J Janssen, as well as other of the companies.

LUPKIN: He's referring to other vaccines that are next in line for the FDA's green light. The new administration has also committed to being more forthcoming with information. And that's something that would please Dr. Luciana Borio, a former acting chief scientist at the FDA.

LUCIANA BORIO: You know, it'd be nice to be able to have a lot more transparency around the projections with the understanding that so many things can go wrong at any given time.

LUPKIN: And Biden may pull - build on the Trump administration's use of the Defense Production Act.

INSKEEP: NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin, thanks so much.

LUPKIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.