The headline on February 27 was a story that seems to be both old news and extraordinary: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved for emergency use a COVID-19 vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson after finding it to be safe and effective.
It could be considered old news because Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is the third COVID-19 vaccine to be authorized since December 2020, following those from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
Nevertheless, the successful creation of these vaccines, with possibly more on the way, remains a remarkable accomplishment. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that vaccines typically result from a process that takes ten years from the exploratory stage to large-scale manufacturing and FDA review and licensure.
In contrast, the FDA approved the first two COVID-19 vaccines only eleven months after our country recorded its first case of the coronavirus. Each vaccine dose today being administered to Americans represents a great scientific and logistical accomplishment.
As of February 26, more than 68 million doses have been administered, resulting in 13.9 percent of the total U.S. population receiving at least one dose. The United States is well ahead of President Biden’s goal of administering one million doses a day for the first one hundred days of his presidency. In fact, the country had already met that goal on at least three days before he took office.
The Trump Administration’s Operation Warp Speed, which brought together government, the private sector, and the scientific community to achieve the unprecedented feat of creating a coronavirus vaccine within a year, supported the manufacture of promising vaccines before they met with final FDA approval. As a result, as soon as the FDA signed off on a candidate, doses of it were available for distribution. Pfizer began shipping its vaccine within 24 hours of the FDA’s approval.
Operation Warp Speed offered a head start, but manufacturers now are focused on increasing capacity to keep up with demand. Vaccinating the entire eligible population of Americans, currently estimated at 260 million people, presents a great challenge. The eligible population is less than our total population because no vaccine is currently authorized for children or pregnant mothers. Also, there are people who do not want to be vaccinated, and that is their right.
During a recent Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing, we heard testimony from representatives of the companies developing vaccines that have been approved or are promising candidates. In addition to Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca may be approved in March or early April, and Novavax currently has a vaccine candidate far advanced into clinical trials.
I came away from the hearing with optimism that they would meet that challenge.
Pfizer is on track to deliver all 300 million doses that it has been contracted to deliver by Operation Warp Speed by the end of July. So is Moderna. Both of these vaccines require two doses, so that means 150 million people would be covered by each of these manufacturers.
At the time of the hearing, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine had not yet received emergency use authorization, but it nevertheless is set to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June. This vaccine only requires one shot.
Taking these three vaccine manufacturers together, enough doses have been pledged by the end of July to cover 400 million people, well over the 260 million Americans eligible for vaccination.
When I asked the panel of witnesses whether this meant the United States would have a vaccine surplus in the summer, all five agreed that it was plausible.
With a vaccine surplus after eligible Americans are vaccinated, the remainder could be distributed for use in other countries.
That will not be the end of the work. Mutations of the coronavirus threaten to prolong the pandemic, as the current vaccines may not provide as much effective protection against them. Fortunately, both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines apparently do defend individuals against emerging variants, but the companies are nevertheless studying the possibility of booster shots to maintain their efficacy.
Children are not currently eligible to receive these vaccines, so pediatric trials are under way to see whether a separate vaccine for children would be necessary.
Vaccines offer the best path to a restoration of normalcy in our lives. I appreciated the update from the vaccine manufacturers and was encouraged by their reports of progress in our effort against the coronavirus. I am hopeful that better days are on the way. Too many vaccine doses is a problem I would like to have.
For questions, concerns, or comments, call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405, my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671 or via email at www.morgangriffith.house.gov.