The Biden administration is trying to figure out exactly what's holding up the national Covid-19 vaccine rollout, searching for any hiccups in the manufacturing process, suppliers and distribution networks, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday.
President Joe Biden has vowed to have 100 million shots of vaccine administered in his first 100 days in office, a task that would require the U.S. to modestly accelerate the current rate of vaccination. Some large states, though, are telling the federal government they have capacity to vaccinate even more people but aren't getting enough doses.
Walensky said the administration is looking into what could be constraining the supply of doses and is prepared to use the Defense Production Act, a wartime measure used to force U.S. companies to make supplies deemed crucial to national security, to boost production.
"We are working closely with Gen. [Gustave] Perna, with the manufacturers, with the states to understand exactly where the supply is," Walensky said Thursday on NBC's "TODAY." Perna was charged with overseeing logistics for President Donald Trump's vaccine program, Operation Warp Speed.
"The president has a plan to use the Defense Production Act to see exactly what it is that are the resources that we need, either in the vaccine production or in the vaccine distribution, or in the vaccine administration. Do we need syringes, or do we need chemical products?" Walensky added. "We are working towards the answer to those questions. We're day two in the driver's seat."
In Biden's Covid-19 response plan, which was released earlier Thursday, his administration said it will direct agencies to invoke the DPA if necessary to ensure it has supplies needed for the pandemic response. That could include protective equipment such as masks as well as supplies needed for Covid tests and to administer and manufacture vaccines.
The Trump administration invoked the act last year to get U.S. manufacturers to make ventilators and other supplies but was hesitant to use the wartime act to procure supplies for vaccine manufacturers such as Pfizer.
Even as the administration probes the supply chain to see if it can boost production, distribution and administration of shots, Walensky said she still believes some doses are sitting unused. Nearly 36 million doses had been distributed to states as of Wednesday, according to the CDC, but only about 16.5 million have actually been administered.
Walensky said the administration is looking at opening more vaccination centers in places such as stadiums and gyms, as well as mobile vaccination units, to get those doses into arms. She said the administration is working with states on adjusting eligibility requirements for the vaccine to match demand with supply.
The administration is trying to enlist more people to administer the vaccine, such as dentists and veterinarians, she said.
But Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said the appearance that many of the doses have not been used is due to lags in local data reporting and is not reflective of reality.
He said some doses might not have been used yet because they are allocated specifically to federal programs such as the partnership with retail pharmacies, including CVS and Walgreens, which aren't fully up and running yet. But, he said, most states, counties and hospitals are quickly administering the shots they get and in fact need more supply from the federal government.
Asked about the long-term vaccination timeline, Walensky said the administration is sticking to its goal of 100 million doses in its first 100 days, but acknowledged that "after 100 days there are still a lot of Americans who need vaccine."
She noted that the Food and Drug Administration is expected to soon receive data from Johnson & Johnson on the safety and efficacy of its Covid vaccine. Public health officials have high hopes for that vaccine as it's a one-shot regimen, simplifying the process of getting it out to the public. The vaccine has been shown in early clinical trials to be safe and appears to generate a promising antibody response, but data from the phase three trial has not yet been released.