With COVID vaccine maker pact, Biden vows wide vaccine access by May

Today President Joe Biden announced the partnership of two pharmaceutical giants—Johnson & Johnson and Merck—who will work together to increase the supply of Johnson & Johnson's single-dose COVID-19 vaccine, which received emergency use authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this past weekend.

"This is the type of collaboration we saw during World War II," Biden said today during a formal announcement of the partnership.

J&J plants to operate 24/7

Biden will invoke the Defense Production Act to equip two Merck facilities to the standards necessary to produce the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and is asking the Department of Defense to supply logistical support to Johnson & Johnson. Biden also said Johnson & Johnson will now be operating its vaccine facilities around the clock.

Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, also announced today that the federal government was increasing states' vaccine supply next week to 15.2 million doses per week, up from 14.5 million this week. Of shots distributed this week, 2.8 million are the J&J vaccine.

"We are halfway to our goal of 100 million doses in 37 days," Biden said, while also promising that the federal government had now secured enough vaccine supply to vaccinate every American adult against COVID-19 by the end of May.

Biden also announced a new initiative that he said would help more students return to in-person learning by the end of his first 100 days in office. He said the federal pharmacy program will now be prioritizing childcare workers and educators as essential workers, and all will be able to get at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the month.

In some parts of the country, March marks 1 year since schoolchildren were offered in-person instruction.

Bipartisan call to look at spacing vaccine doses

Biden's announcement comes as the push to vaccinate as many Americans as possible continues across the country.

To that end, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD.) and Martin Heincrich (D-NM) sent a letter to White House Coronavirus Task Force Response Coordinator Jeff Zients urging the Biden administration to deploy existing second doses of COVID-19 vaccine as first doses to protect a larger proportion of the population against B117 and other coronavirus variants.

Republican lawmakers have also petitioned the Department of Health and Human Services to consider delaying the second dose. In a letter signed by six Republican physician-congressmen, the lawmakers say the strategy could save up to 40,000 American lives, citing work by the University of Minnesota's Center for Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), which publishes CIDRAP News.

"Based on all available clinical data, we ask you to consider issuing a revised EUA as soon as possible," they wrote.

Experts, including the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, have warned that variants could cause a fourth surge of COVID-19 activity across the country in the coming weeks.

The CDC COVID Data Tracker shows 96,402,490 COVID-19 vaccines have been delivered in the US, and 76,899,987 doses have been administered, with 25,466,405 Americans fully vaccinated. According to data from the New York Times, this correlates to 7.9% of Americans being fully vaccinated, and 16% having had at least one shot.

Fauci upholds 2-dose vaccine schedule

Despite some public health experts touting a vaccination strategy that would delay the second boost of mRNA vaccines to get more first doses in arms, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, maintained yesterday that the United States must stick to the two-dose schedule as has been approved by the FDA.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Fauci said there was risks with abandoning the two-dose schedule, including potentially confusing the public.

"We're telling people [two shots] is what you should do … and then we say, 'Oops, we changed our mind'?" Fauci said. "I think that would be a messaging challenge, to say the least."

After 6 weeks of declining case counts, the United States has plateaued this week at roughly 70,000 daily cases and 2,000 deaths. Yesterday the country recorded 57,439 new COVID-19 cases, and 1,431 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker.  

In total, the United States has had 28,704,758 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 515,985 deaths.

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