WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden's coronavirus advisory team consulted scientists and supply chain experts about whether he should invoke a wartime production law to help produce and administer more Covid-19 vaccines, two advisers familiar with the discussions said.
President Donald Trump has already invoked the Defense Production Act, or DPA, to speed the production of medical supplies and components to test for the coronavirus, and he has raised the possibility of using the law again for vaccines. Manufacturers have said there could be a shortage of components to make the vaccines.
The DPA was enacted during the Korean War to allow the federal government to compel manufacturing production for national defense. Biden's team has explored using it soon after he takes office next month to try to meet the goal of mass vaccination by summer, the advisers said.
Biden's aides have already begun to warn that the Trump administration's timeline projecting mass vaccination in the spring may be too optimistic, carrying the risk that Biden will be blamed when expectations aren't met. Whether to invoke the DPA to speed production could be an early test for Biden.
Scientists are advising the Biden team about how the DPA could "enhance parts of the manufacturing process," one of the advisers said, declining to be more specific.
As part of negotiations to sell 100 million more vaccine doses to Americans, the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has pressed the Trump administration to activate the DPA. Pfizer, working with its partner BioNTech, and Moderna are the only companies that have been granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration to distribute and administer Covid-19 vaccines in the U.S.
A Pfizer spokesperson said the company continues to work with the government and is confident that it can "remove any obstacle that may present itself as we work to ramp up manufacturing to deliver any additional doses."
Teresa Davis, a senior White House communications adviser, said the Trump administration has already invoked the DPA for some aspects of vaccine production and is actively discussing the issue with Pfizer.
"We are working closely with Pfizer and other manufacturers to ensure that all obstacles to production are removed so that the American people receive vaccines as rapidly as possible," David said. "In addition, 23 manufacturing sites were set up just for Operation Warp Speed to help scale industrial production of the vaccine."
But Biden officials say a range of serious issues must be considered before they can use the law. A primary concern, an official said, would be how to invoke the law in an equitable way that doesn't favor one company over another.
Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, two other pharmaceutical companies, are in the final phases of testing vaccines, and they expect to be completed and apply for emergency use authorization in February.
Dr. Brett Giroir, who has been leading vaccine testing efforts for the Trump administration, said the majority of the U.S. population could be vaccinated by late spring or early summer. But Biden officials say many obstacles stand in the way, primarily a lack of vaccine supply.
Topher Spiro, vice president for health policy at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, said vaccinating 70 percent of the population by the spring, which experts say is the level required to end transmission of the virus, is unlikely without a considerable boost in supply.
"Right now, we don't have that," Spiro said. "This is about scaling production so that we can achieve herd immunity as rapidly as possible."
There are also concerns about looming syringe and needle shortages, Spiro said.
In July, Spiro co-wrote a comprehensive vaccine proposal with Dr. Zeke Emanuel, a member of Biden's Covid-19 transition advisory board. Their blueprint calls for using the DPA to "coordinate vaccine manufacturing capacity and supply chains" for glass vials, syringes, needles and other supplies.
Spiro said the law would also help companies with existing manufacturing facilities prepare to handle mass production of vaccines. He cited the pharmaceutical giant Merck as a company with vast production capacity that could be used to produce another company's vaccine.
The DPA could also be used to mass-produce the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is expected to require one dose rather than the two-shot regimen required by the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Spiro said.
Spiro said there are other ways to bolster vaccine and vaccine component supply without invoking the DPA, pointing to a facility at Texas A&M University already under contract to the government to mass-produce vaccines.