Biden says US on track to get enough Covid-19 vaccines for every adult by end-May

Merck & Co will help make rival Johnson & Johnson's single-shot Covid-19 vaccine in a partnership set to be announced on Tuesday by US President Joe Biden, a White House official said.

WASHINGTON (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - President Joe Biden on Tuesday (March 2) said the United States was on track to have enough Covid-19 vaccines for every adult in the country by the end of May.

Mr Biden announced that Merck & Co Inc will help make rival Johnson & Johnson's single-shot Covid-19 vaccine in a partnership that he said was similar to those seen during World War Two.

With three vaccines now available, Mr Biden said he was confident the country would reach his goal of delivering 100 million Covid-19 vaccine doses in 100 days.

Merck announced in January that it was shuttering its coronavirus vaccine programme, redirecting resources to its Covid-19 therapeutics efforts instead.

J&J's vaccine has been beset by production delays, but now could prove a major boost to the US vaccination effort - it is much easier to ship and store than the Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. products.

J&J had previously promised the US 12 million doses by the end of February, but has delivered 3.9 million so far. It says it will deliver a total of 20 million by the end of the month.

"We should all be encouraged by this news," Mr Biden said.

"The more people that get vaccinated, the faster we're going to overcome this virus," he said.

Mr Biden said he hopes the US would be back to normal "by this time next year" but said he'd been cautioned not to provide a specific date "because we don't know for sure."

Priority for educators

Mr Biden also called for state and local governments to prioritise teachers for vaccinations, as he pushes for schools to reopen safely with full-time classroom instruction.

Mr Biden’s drive to get educators vaccinated more quickly comes amid a political controversy that has pitted parents pushing for schools to reopen against the teachers unions that helped put him in the White House and say the risks are still too great.  

Mr Biden, whose new education secretary was sworn in on Tuesday, said increased production of the three vaccines would boost what he called a “national imperative” to reopen US schools given growing mental health concerns and widening disparities caused by the challenges of remote learning.  

Mr Biden said over 30 states had already taken steps to ensure educators were vaccinated and that he was using the full authority of the federal government to direct the remaining states to follow suit.  

“My challenge is this: We want every educator, school staff member, childcare worker to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March,” he said, noting that parents were exiting the labour market in “astonishing numbers” to help their children learn remotely.  

To meet that goal, Mr Biden said the federal pharmacy program would prioritise the vaccination of prekindergarten through Grade 12 educators and staff, as well as childcare workers.  

He said he was still pushing to have most schools open by the end of his first 100 days in office, but added that it required passage of the US$1.9 trillion (S$2.5 trillion) rescue plan working its way through Congress. The plan includes some US$130 billion for the nation’s schools.  

“Let’s treat in-person learning like an essential service that it is, and that means getting essential workers (who) provide that service – educators, school staff, childcare workers .... vaccinated immediately,” he said.

Vaccinations are increasing, but a decline in new cases has stalled. Meanwhile, several states are lifting restrictions as new, more contagious variants spread - threatening to reignite the pandemic before vaccines take hold.

Mr Biden's health team has been urging Americans to take whichever of the vaccines that is available to them first, in a move to head-off concerns or comparisons of their viability.

On Monday, J&J Chief Executive Officer Alex Gorsky said in an interview that the company was seeking additional manufacturing partnerships to ramp up production of its vaccine.

"We are doing everything we can partnering with the US government and other external manufacturers to see what we can do to accelerate and increase" the number of doses, Mr Gorsky said.