President Biden said on Wednesday that he was directing the federal government to secure an additional 100 million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 single-shot vaccine, a move the White House said could help the country vaccinate children and, if necessary, administer booster doses or reformulate the vaccine to combat emerging variants of the virus.
Mr. Biden made the announcement during an afternoon event at the White House with executives from Johnson & Johnson and the pharmaceutical giant Merck, where he praised them for partnering to ramp up production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — a deal brokered by the White House.
“During World War II, one of the country’s slogans was, ‘We are all in this together,’” Mr. Biden said. “And the companies took that slogan to heart.”
In announcing the agreement between Merck and Johnson & Johnson last week, Mr. Biden said that the United States would now have enough vaccine available by the end of May to vaccinate every American adult — roughly 260 million people. But Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Wednesday that the administration was trying to prepare for unpredictable challenges, from the emergence of dangerous virus variants to manufacturing breakdowns that could disrupt vaccine production.
“We still don’t know which vaccine will be most effective on kids,” she said at the White House’s daily briefing. “We still don’t know the impact of variants, the need for booster shots and these doses can be used for booster shots, as well.” She said the decision to purchase a surplus of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was driven by a desire for “maximum flexibility.”
“It’s a one-shot vaccine,” she said. “It can be stored in the fridge and not a freezer. It’s highly effective as the others are as well against hospitalization and death.”
Mr. Biden said on Wednesday he was directing the White House’s pandemic response team and the Department of Health and Human Services to finalize the supply increase.
The White House had initially intended to hold Wednesday’s event at the Baltimore manufacturing facility of Emergent BioSolutions, another company that partners with Johnson & Johnson to make coronavirus vaccine. But Mr. Biden canceled his trip after The New York Times published an investigation into how Emergent used its Washington connections to gain outsize influence over the Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s emergency repository of drugs and medical supplies.
Ms. Psaki has since said that the administration will conduct a comprehensive audit of the stockpile.
Emergent officials did not attend Wednesday’s session. In explaining the change in plans, Ms. Psaki said that the administration thought the White House was a “more appropriate place to have the meeting,” which it is billing as a celebration of what Mr. Biden has called the “historic” partnership between Johnson & Johnson and Merck.
Last August, Johnson & Johnson signed an agreement with the government to deliver 100 million doses of its coronavirus, and in an emailed statement on Wednesday the company said it is “on track to meet that commitment.” The government has the option to purchase additional doses under a subsequent agreement.
The administration says the collaboration with Merck will increase manufacture of the vaccine itself, and will also bolster Johnson & Johnson’s packaging capacity, known in the vaccine industry as “fill-finish” — two big manufacturing bottlenecks that had put the company behind schedule.
Wednesday’s announcement is in keeping with Mr. Biden’s aggressive efforts to acquire as much vaccine supply as possible, as quickly as possible. Before Mr. Biden took office, he pledged to get “100 million shots into the arms” of the American people by his 100th day in office — a timetable that seemed aggressive at the time, but more recently has looked tame. He has been trying to speed it up ever since.
At the time, two vaccines — one made by Moderna and the other by Pfizer-BioNTech — had been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use. In January, Mr. Biden said the administration would have enough vaccine to cover every American by the end of summer. Last month, the president announced his administration had secured enough doses from those two companies to have enough to cover every American by the end of July.
The recent addition of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which received emergency authorization in late February, opened a path for the administration to move up the timetable yet again. But Johnson & Johnson and its other partners, including Emergent, were behind schedule, which prompted the administration to reach out to Merck.
Noah Weiland and Annie Karni contributed reporting.
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