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National

How COVID-19 Vaccine Production Affects Vaccination Drives

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The U.S. is racing to vaccinate as many people as possible against COVID-19. About 31 million doses have been administered so far, which means the country still has a long way to go to contain the virus, and one limiting factor could be the supply of new doses. Now, we know the two companies that have emergency authorization so far, Pfizer and Moderna - they are supposed to deliver 100 million doses each by the end of March. That's according to their federal contracts. At the current rate, though, both companies would have to ramp up production to meet that goal. NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin is here to tell us more.

Hey, Sydney.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

KELLY: OK, so we have this goal - a hundred million doses each by the end of March. Can these companies meet that given neither is making enough right now?

LUPKIN: Well, according to the federal government, they're expected to reach that goal, but they're both going to have to make a lot more doses every week to do it. Last week each company released 4.3 million doses of vaccine to the federal government. This week Moderna is pulling ahead and releasing 5.8 million doses. That's according to allocation data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, Pfizer is lagging behind at about 4.4 million doses, only 70,000 more doses than the previous week.

KELLY: And what is the holdup? Why are they lagging?

LUPKIN: So it's not entirely clear, but I asked a Wall Street analyst named Geoffrey Porges at SVB Leerink. He says Pfizer has spread itself thinner than Moderna has. Pfizer is committed to delivering considerably more doses outside the U.S. than Moderna. In Europe, Pfizer had to cut back on weekly deliveries last month, which made some countries like Italy really angry. But Porges told me he's still confident in Pfizer's ability to hit its goals. He said it wouldn't be making these big commitments if it didn't think it could meet them.

KELLY: Yeah. But, again, if Pfizer is already behind now and they're supposed to be ramping up, how is it going to work?

LUPKIN: It's a good question because if it keeps releasing the same number of doses at the same rate as this week, the company would fall around 30 million doses short of its goal. Even Moderna will need to start releasing more doses to the United States each week on top of the ramp-up we've already seen. Andy Slavitt is a senior adviser for the White House COVID-19 response team, and he spoke about this at a briefing last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDY SLAVITT: Pfizer and Moderna are committed to delivering a total of 200 million doses by the end of March, with much of it coming at the end of the quarter. So it will accelerate.

KELLY: So that is what the White House is saying. What about the companies? What do they say?

LUPKIN: Well, when I ask them for more details, they didn't say much. Moderna reaffirmed that it will hit 100 million doses on time but didn't provide more details about production from week to week. Pfizer didn't respond to my questions. Historically, there hasn't been much transparency when it comes to vaccine supply. Here's Glen Nowak, a former director of media relations at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

GLEN NOWAK: We saw this when I was at the CDC in 2004 when we had a flu vaccine supply shortage. We had a hard time then getting accurate information about how much vaccine was going to be available when.

LUPKIN: And they had sort of similar transparency issues in 2009, when the shingles vaccine was in short supply.

KELLY: And just real quick, the other vaccines in the pipeline.

LUPKIN: There are two more that just released data this week that was pretty positive, Johnson and Johnson and Novavax. AstraZeneca is expected to release data soon. And we could be looking at, if the FDA approves these three, you know, more supply coming...

KELLY: OK.

LUPKIN: ...In the next months.

KELLY: All right - fingers crossed, fingers, toes and everything. That's Sydney Lupkin, NPR's pharmaceutical correspondent.

Thank you.

LUPKIN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.