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Despite Biden's Executive Orders, Vaccine Production May Be Hard To Ramp Up

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Pharmaceutical companies are working at full capacity to try to produce COVID-19 vaccines, but the hard truth is that many Americans will die from the coronavirus before they can be vaccinated. President Biden's been signing executive orders to try to ramp up vaccine production and supplies, but Sarah Jane Tribble of Kaiser Health News says these new measures, which include invoking the Defense Production Act, will not necessarily mean more vaccines anytime soon. Sarah Jane Tribble joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

SARAH JANE TRIBBLE: It's good to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: The Defense Production Act, of course, gives the president sweeping authority to try and speed up the supply of materials and services from domestic industries. What could it do and where does it fall short when it comes to increasing the supply of vaccines?

TRIBBLE: So the thing it can do immediately is really make it possible for glass vials and the production of the materials for that to come in and be laid out for the manufacturers. The other thing the DPA can do is it can help the companies discuss what kind of supply needs they have and get those on market. So far, with Pfizer and Moderna, what we've seen is them announcing big ramp-ups in the second half of the year, and we're going to see a lot more vaccines coming out.

SIMON: What about the vaccine itself? How do you convert an industrial system for making all kinds of stuff to making room for 300 million doses of vaccine?

TRIBBLE: Well, it's not easy. You can't force these companies to produce more vaccine necessarily. They have to repurpose facilities. That can take months. Making new plants can take years. Also, part of the challenge relates to the vaccines themselves. The messenger RNA data - that vaccine itself is fragile and breaks down easily. So it needs to be handled with a lot of care, with specific temperatures and humidity levels. There's also massive quality control needs that need to happen, and scientists and engineers are needed to run it. So there are a lot of factors at play.

The other thing I think a lot of folks don't think about is the supply chain - the upward supply chain that it takes for these companies to make them. These vaccines aren't made in one plant in, say, Kalamazoo, Mich. These vaccines are produced by multiple plants around the globe. And we're talking about shipping and filling. It takes many different parties to make one vaccine.

SIMON: Does the Defense Production Act permit an American president to compel Pfizer, an American company, to provide the vaccine for Americans first?

TRIBBLE: I think that's very questionable, highly questionable. Biden could use it to force private pharma companies to transfer their technology to either another company or to just make more, because what we're talking about is companies that actually tap into contract manufacturers across the globe. Not all the parts of these vaccines are being made here on American soil. So to say you must make it just for America, that gets pretty tricky and dicey from a political standpoint.

SIMON: Sarah Jane Tribble of Kaiser Health News, thanks so much for being with us.

TRIBBLE: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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