President Biden’s pandemic response team announced plans on Friday to use the Defense Production Act to help Pfizer manufacture more of its COVID vaccine, produce 61 million rapid at-home COVID tests over the next six months, and address shortages of personal protective equipment for health care workers.
The Defense Production Act gives the president emergency powers to compel private companies to prioritize supply lines and manufacturing for the benefit of national defense, in this case against coronavirus. Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to use the 1950 law shortly after his inauguration.
The announcement is the new administration’s latest departure from COVID policy under President Donald Trump, who was criticized by Biden and the media for taking a hands-off approach to deploying the Defense Production Act and largely ignoring the pandemic during his final months in office.
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Tim Manning, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator serving as Biden’s pandemic supplies coordinator, told reporters on Friday that limited supplies of ingredients and equipment are currently straining a push to speed up production of the Pfizer vaccine. The federal government is expanding “priority ratings” under the Defense Production Act, giving the company “first access” to components for filling pumps and tangential flow filtration skid units needed to scale up vaccine manufacturing.
“It’s actions like these that will allow Pfizer to ramp up production and hit their targets of delivering hundreds of millions of doses over the coming months,” Manning said.
The Biden administration is also working to increased production of rapid COVID tests that can be taken at home without a prescription. On Friday, Manning announced that the Defense Production Act will be used to contract with six companies to produce at-home tests, but he did not release the names of the companies due to ongoing contract negotiations. Manning said the government will help the companies build new production plants and supply lines in the United States, reducing “vulnerabilities” in the supply chain.
Under most insurance plans, at-home tests are only free of charge for people experiencing symptoms or exposed to COVID-19 and can cost $129 or more out of pocket.
“The country is well behind where we need to be in testing, particularly the rapid at-home test that will allow us all to get back to normal activities like work and school,” Manning said, adding that 60 million at-home tests would be available by the end of the summer.
Manning said the U.S. is nearly 100 percent reliant on overseas manufacturers to export personal protection equipment, notably surgical gloves, which is “unacceptable.” The government will use the Defense Production Act to invest in private companies building plants and factories for producing raw materials and manufacturing surgical gloves. By the end of the year, Manning expects the U.S. to be producing one billion gloves per month.
“We’re already working to increase the availability of N95 masks to frontline workers but another critical area of concern we hear over and over is surgical gloves,” Manning said. “Right now, we just don’t have enough gloves.”
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control, said the U.S. is coming off a “case bump” from the holidays and has seen a 61 decrease in new COVID-19 cases since infection rates peaked on January 8. Over the past week, rates of COVID-related deaths and hospitalizations fell 11.9 percent and 15 percent respectively, according to the Washington Post.
“The data moving is in right direction, we will know in the next week if it is really going down,” Walensky said on Friday.