As COVID-19 rages to its highest level in more than a dozen states, it is still killing as many as 1,000 Americans every single day. This isn’t going to stop until we have a vaccine.
A COVID-19 vaccine would save tens of thousands of American lives and help rescue the economy, but the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed plan is underfunded and inadequate. Yes, we need to move at warp speed for a vaccine that gets people healthy and back to work. But Trump’s plan leaves out the key steps the nation must take to pave the way for a COVID-19 vaccine without risking the outbreak of other diseases. If we don’t match this unprecedented pandemic with an equally unprecedented but methodical response, the virus will outrun our efforts.
As we race to find a vaccine, Americans need to know that our current vaccine production infrastructure is already strained and that building new infrastructure is both expensive and complicated. It costs anywhere from $50 to $700 million to build a new facility and takes years to complete. Existing production facilities are highly specialized for making a single, specific type of vaccine, like polio or measles, and they are currently reserved to make those vaccines. If those facilities are repurposed to make a new COVID-19 vaccine, it will put the supply of other critical vaccines at risk.
In addition, shortages of supplies like syringes and vials could delay the delivery of current vaccines and a future COVID-19 vaccine. Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, warned that there are only 200 million vials left in the world because they’ve all been bought up.
Meeting these enormous challenges will require three immediate steps from the federal government.
First, Congress must spread its bets and purchase up to 10 potential COVID-19 vaccines currently under development and experimentation. Some of these vaccines will be a bust. But without the funds to fully develop all the promising leads all at once, it could take up to 10 years before a single person gets vaccinated. The Trump administration has announced two such deals but given that only one in 10 new drugs make it to market, that’s too few bets on the wheel. Congress must go bigger and bolder and spend an estimated $26 billion to purchase and start producing the 10 most promising vaccines now.
Next, we cannot continue to sacrifice other urgent health care needs to COVID-19, so Congress should purchase a year’s supply of all existing vaccines. From March 13 to April 19, there was a 2.5 million-dose decline in orders of regular childhood vaccines. This is not only a significant risk to children’s health, but it jeopardizes the vaccine supply chain going forward when orders come in as the nation reopens and coincides with COVID-19 vaccine production. Purchasing a year's supply of current vaccines now would free up production and supply space and guarantee the availability of necessary vaccines down the road. The Trump administration has been silent on this problem.
Third, a vaccine is no good without the vials, syringes and storage capacity that currently does not exist. Congress should cover the costs of domestic manufacturers’ retooling as they change from their current production to mass producing COVID-related supplies. Retooling costs should also account for funding for all the needed wage, benefits and additional shifts added to existing or new facilities that are working to produce the stockpile of current vaccines, preparing the new COVID-19 vaccine, or manufacturing critical vaccine supplies.
The Trump administration has yet to provide a detailed plan about all the steps needed for a rapid development and distribution of a vaccine. Vaccines are incredibly complex — their production can require hundreds of components from all over the world. One potential COVID-19 vaccine requires oil produced in one South American tree, another requires its own device to administer, while a third requires a unique kind of lipid, an organic molecule that puts the vaccine into the bloodstream. Without adequate preparation for each of these supplies, the effort to produce a vaccine could be sidetracked.
So beyond these three measures, we will need a supply chain czar to anticipate world-wide demand and the supplies needed for the COVID-19 vaccine on top of existing vaccines as proposed in the House-passed Heroes Act.
Operation Warp Speed is a fantastic goal. It needs a plan to match it.
Kaitlin Hunter, MPH is a health policy advisor and David Kendall is a senior fellow for Health and Fiscal Policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, D.C. Follow Third Way on Twitter: @ThirdWayTweet.