The U.S. vaccine program is expected to be boosted by the end of March as manufacturers ramp up production to almost triple the output achieved in February, raising hopes the nation can move faster to get jabs into arms and avoid the spike in cases that is being caused by new variants in Europe and elsewhere.
The U.S. is expected to manufacture 132 million vaccine doses in March, compared with 48 million in February, according to estimates from Evercore analysts. That’s after companies, with help from the federal government, were able to raise output and scale up production by taking steps such as making certain raw materials themselves, as the Wall Street Journal reported.
Pfizer Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE +6.11% , for example, has started to recycle special filters needed for the manufacturing process, while Moderna Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA +20.57% has shortened the time needed to inspect and package new vials, the paper reported. The government has helped companies access supplies using the Defense Production Act, providing $105 million in funding to help Merck & Co. /zigman2/quotes/209956077/composite MRK -3.79% make the Johnson and Johnson /zigman2/quotes/201724570/composite JNJ -0.65% vaccine in a deal brokered by the Biden administration.
There was good news on the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca PLC /zigman2/quotes/203048482/delayed UK:AZN -1.14% and Oxford University, in the shape of a U.S. clinical trial involving more than 32,000 people that found it to be safe and 79% effective in preventing symptomatic disease.
AstraZeneca said it would continue to analyze the data and prepare its request for emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a move that, if approved, would add a third jab to the existing program of the Pfizer and Moderna ones, as the Journal reported.
The news comes after several countries temporarily halted use of the AstraZeneca jab due to serious blood clotting in a very small number of patients in Europe who received the shot. The U.S. trials identified no increased risk of serious blood clotting. European and U.K. medicine regulators had already endorsed the shot and said the clotting issues were not proven to be linked to it.
Raymond James analyst Chris Meekins said there is a race happening, between vaccines and variants.
“As we warned months ago, some variants of the virus are concerning,” Meekins wrote in a Monday note to clients. “While our nationwide case, hospitalization, and death counts remain encouraging, warning signs from new variants in Michigan and New York bear watching. Other nations trailing the U.S. on vaccinations, face significant surges due to variant strains. “
The global tally of COVID cases rose for a second straight week, averaging 459,000, a six-week high, said Meekins. Brazil, which is grappling with the highly infectious P1 variant , added as many cases as the U.S. and India combined, and cumulative case count topped India’s to become number 2 globally.
“Europe’s situation also deteriorated: from France in the West to Ukraine in the east, there is a third wave,” he wrote.
Germany and France are extending lockdowns, while Brazil is urging local authorities to give more people a first jab, instead of preserving doses for second jabs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that as of 6.00 a.m. ET Sunday, 156.7 million doses had been delivered to states, 124.5 million doses had been administered and 81.4 million people had received at least one dose, equal to 24.5% of the population. A full 44.1 million Americans had received two doses, equal to 13.3% of the population.
The U.S. added at least 34,217 new cases on Sunday, according to a New York Times tracker, and at least 444 people died. Those numbers may be underreported given reduced staffing at hospitals on weekends. The U.S. has averaged 54,404 cases a day in the past week, down 7% from two weeks ago.
The U.S. continues to lead the world by cases, at almost 30 million, or about a fifth of the global tally, and deaths at 542,524, or about a quarter of the global number.