Biden prepares for 'challenges' with extra 100 million doses of J&J COVID-19 vaccine

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden on Wednesday directed his administration to procure 100 million more doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine to boost U.S. supply in the event of “unexpected challenges” in the pandemic.

FILE PHOTO: A vial of the Johnson & Johnson's coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine is seen at Northwell Health's South Shore University Hospital in Bay Shore, New York, U.S., March 3, 2021. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The White House order comes as it seeks to speed up the process of inoculating people to curb the spread of COVID-19, which has killed more than 528,000 people in the United States alone.

Biden highlighted the move at a meeting with the chief executives of J&J and Merck & Co. Merck has agreed to partner with J&J to produce its vaccine.

“We need maximum flexibility. There’s always a chance that we’ll encounter unexpected challenges,” Biden said. “A lot can happen, a lot can change, and we need to be prepared.”

The president has said previously that the United States will have enough supplies to vaccinate the U.S. population by the end of May.

But the White House is eager to have more on hand.

If the country had additional supply, it would be shared, Biden said. “If we have a surplus, we’re going to share it with the rest of the world,” he said.

The United States has already paid over $1 billion for 100 million doses from J&J and had an option to purchase an additional 200 million doses.

As of Tuesday morning, nearly 128 million doses of coronavirus vaccines from the three authorized providers have been distributed in the United States and nearly 96 million shots administered, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But J&J’s manufacturing has been slower than hoped, and it was not expected to deliver any vaccine doses this week. It is expected to resume shipments later in March.

A J&J spokesman, Jake Sargent, said the company was on track to deliver the first 100 million doses of the vaccine ordered by the United States, but the company has come up short on its shipments this month, and expects to deliver only 20 million of the 37 million doses it had originally promised to have ready by now.

Merck, meanwhile, will help with the final manufacturing steps called fill and finish - expected to be up and running in May - and production of the vaccine itself. J&J, which has committed to producing 1 billion doses this year, also said it is continuing to seek more manufacturing partners.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the recent plateau of COVID-19 cases appeared to be trending downward, while new hospital admissions and coronavirus-related deaths were also decreasing.

“While these trends are starting to head in the right direction, the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths still remain too high and are somber reminders that we must remain vigilant as we work to scale up our vaccination efforts across this country,” she said.

The United States approved the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Inc vaccines in December, and those companies have been working to increase their production since then.

Pfizer and Moderna have committed to supplying the country with 120 million doses and 100 million doses, respectively, by the end of March. They have agreed to supply 300 million doses each by the end of July.

“We want to be oversupplied and overprepared,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said earlier on Wednesday.

Reporting by Jeff Mason, Michael Erman and Andrea Shalal; additional reporting by Steve Holland, Manas Mishra and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Bill Berkrot and Marguerita Choy