The CEOs of Pfizer and BioNTech increased their Covid-19 vaccination production goal to 2 billion doses in 2021, up from 1.3 billion doses. The vaccine, which uses mRNA technology, was the first to be authorized in the United States.
“It was very, very challenging to be able to come to that point,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference on Tuesday, crediting a range of internal teams, third-party partners, new equipment and processes. “It’s almost equally difficult to scale up manufacturing at that level so fast as it was to develop the vaccine.”
While manufacturers are ramping up capacity, the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines in the U.S. has gotten off to a rocky start, with reports of vaccines sitting in freezers or being thrown out due to restrictive rules on who can receive leftover doses. The CDC reports that nearly 9 million people have received Covid-19 vaccines in the United States as of Monday, while more than 25.4 million doses have been distributed.
As of right now, only the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are authorized for use in the United States, and the companies have agreements with the federal government through Operation Warp Speed to each deliver 200 million doses. Every person must receive two doses approximately three weeks apart. The Trump Administration is expected to announce guidance that all Americans age 65 and older receive the vaccine and will no longer hold back the second doses to speed up the rollout, according to Axios.
Another emerging issue has been the existence of Covid-19 variants that appear to be more transmissible than existing strains, raising questions about how effective vaccines may be against them. Some preliminary research released by Pfizer on Friday suggests the two companies’ vaccines are effective against the U.K. strain B.1.1.7, but work is still ongoing.
“We will monitor these strains and we will evaluate whether our vaccine is still effective against these new strains,” BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin said at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference on Monday. Şahin added that if a new strain emerges that the vaccine is ineffective against, the company will be able to re-engineer a new vaccine in 6 weeks. “This is one of the key advantages of messenger RNA technology,” he said.
The two companies also highlight the flexibility of the mRNA platform taking on multiple diseases, not just Covid-19. “mRNA can completely disrupt the flu market, because it can do things in weeks instead of months,” said Bourla, adding that the company had already been working on a flu application for almost three years.
When asked about the price of their companies’ mRNA vaccines, which averages to $19.50 per dose based on its federal contract, Bourla said Pfizer, and other Covid-19 vaccine makers, have “priced their vaccines well below the value it brings to society.” The company will continue to watch “how things will evolve” for the continuation of the Covid-19 business after the pandemic starts to subside and reaches more normal volumes.