Can vaccine supply keep up with demand?

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 9th of March, 2021. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: COVID-19 vaccines.

Last month, the FDA gave emergency authorization to a third coronavirus vaccine. Now, Americans can choose between two-dose vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer or a single-dose shot from Johnson & Johnson. A couple more are in the pipeline.

REICHARD: A little later in the program, WORLD’s medical correspondent will join us to talk about the physical effects of these vaccines. But first, WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg reports on the massive effort to distribute millions of doses across the country.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: A couple walks hand-in-hand into a Centerville, Utah, movie theater megaplex. They’re catching an afternoon film. 

AUDIO: [Electric doors opening]

Inside, concession workers drizzle generous amounts of butter on bags of popcorn. 

AUDIO: [Sound from lobby]

But not everyone is here to watch the latest blockbuster. 

On the right side of the lobby, a nurse in maroon scrubs sits behind a folding table. She directs elderly people through a doorway to a large waiting room with spaced out chairs. They’re waiting for their turn to get a COVID-19 vaccine shot. 

EMT Amanda Young oversees this makeshift clinic. 

YOUNG: I definitely never thought that I’d be giving vaccinations in a movie theater. But like, it’s a cool part of history.

This vaccine site just opened a couple days ago. Young says so far traffic has been slow.

YOUNG: A lot of people don’t know yet because no one would think of vaccines in a movie theater. 

But, she’s optimistic the longer the clinic is here, the more people will come. Young says other theater clinics in Utah have seen up to 800 patients a day. 

YOUNG: It’s awesome that they were able to utilize the space to get more people vaccinated.

In January, states distributed an average of 900,000 vaccines per day. Now, that number has more than doubled to 2 million doses a day. Nearly 1 in 5 American adults have now received at least one shot of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. 

David Dobrzykowski is a supply chain professor at the University of Arkansas. He says using public spaces has helped speed up distribution. 

DOBRZYKOWSKI: I think you’re seeing a lot of innovation, and a lot of creative thinking at the state level. You know, for example, in New York City they’re going to be running 24/7 mass vaccinations at athletic stadiums. Many states are using stadiums and mass vaccination types of events. 

Dobrzykowski says vaccine distribution has also sped up as states iron out delivery systems and scheduling and as they open up vaccines for middle-aged adults and more front-line workers like teachers. 

President Biden announced last week that the United States would have enough COVID-19 vaccine doses for every adult by the end of May. 

David Dobrzykowski says that the deadline is pushing pharmaceutical companies to manufacture vaccines as fast as possible. 

DOBRZYKOWSKI: Think about J&J, think about Pfizer, think about Moderna, you know, they literally have as much demand for their product as they can handle. 

David Ding is a supply chain professor at Rutgers University. He says the Biden administration is relying on the Defense Production Act of 1950 to keep manufacturing on pace. The law allows the president to direct private companies to prioritize federal government needs. 

DING: Basically, they are working closely with different pharmaceutical companies to boost up their production of vaccines.

President Biden is also encouraging pharmaceutical competitors to share manufacturing space and ingredients to speed up production. It’s called “coopetition.” 

DING: For now, those pharmaceutical companies are working with the competitors to enhance the capacity. For instance, Pfizer is working with Santa Fe, and Moderna is working with Catalent. And Johnson Johnson is working with a Merk. 

But getting everyone their initial vaccination might not be the end of this distribution challenge.

New strains of the coronavirus have emerged around the world. Dr. Amesh Adalja at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says the current vaccines still work. 

ADALJA: Our vaccines are highly effective when it comes to what matters with the variants and the original version of the virus, preventing serious disease, hospitalization, and death. 

Still, Pfizer is testing whether a third dose of its inoculation would provide even better protection. The CDC could eventually recommend coronavirus vaccine booster shots. The University of Arkansas’s David Dobrzykowki says that would create a new supply chain complexity: information management. 

DOBRZYKOWSKI: In other words, knowing that Sarah received the Pfizer vaccine, and that she received it on March 5th, and therefore she’s eligible for a booster that is compatible with the Pfizer vaccine on September 5th, right, that type of information, and also then validating that type of information is going to be critically important. 

In the meantime, healthcare workers will need enough personal protective equipment and medical supplies to distribute the first vaccine doses. Items like plastic gloves and specialized syringes that can drink up the last drops of a vaccine in a vile.

Right now, there are no immediate medical equipment shortages. Dobrzykowski says if something does arise, one positive from 2020 is American companies and healthcare workers have learned how to adjust. 

DOBRZYKOWSKI: For example, PPE, you know that never before was recycled is now recyclable through technology developed by a company named Bechtel. PPE that was never previously printed on 3d printers is now available through 3d printing types of technologies. And what we’ve seen through these innovative approaches, I think, are going to stick far into the future.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg in Centerville, Utah.

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File) In this March 1, 2021, file photo, a patient receives a shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine next to a guidelines sign at a CVS Pharmacy branch in Los Angeles. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Can vaccine supply keep up with demand?

  1. Scot Myhr says:

    A great report.

    I have a question. I listened a few times to the end of the report where the transcript says “PPE that was never previously printed on 3d printers is now available through 3d printing types of technologies.”

    It SOUNDS LIKE “EPE” and not “PPE” so I researched a bit but can’t find it. If there is something called EPE, can you explain what it is?

    A year ago I didn’t know what PPE was. If there is some medical-related material called EPE, it will be great to learn about it.

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