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Biden to use Defense Production Act for gloves, COVID-19 vaccines

60 million more at-home tests will be available by end of summer, administration says

Nurse Rishea Casselle prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at the Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill Medical Center in Washington on Jan. 25.
Nurse Rishea Casselle prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at the Kaiser Permanente Capitol Hill Medical Center in Washington on Jan. 25. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The White House COVID-19 task force announced Friday that the Biden administration plans to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines, surgical gloves and at-home testing kits as part of an effort to increase supplies and reduce long-term dependence on foreign suppliers.

The administration said it will use the DPA to contract with six more COVID-19 at-home test suppliers, which should result in more than 60 million at-home tests becoming available by the end of the summer. This news comes just days after the administration announced a $231.8 million deal with at-home COVID-19 test-maker Ellume to produce 100,000 test kits per month for the United States from February to July, with a goal of ramping that number up to 19 million tests per month by the end of the year.

The COVID-19 task force did not yet disclose who makes the tests or how much the tests will cost, as the contracts aren’t final. COVID-19 Response Team Supply Coordinator Tim Manning said the U.S. would work with these companies to construct new domestic plants and production lines.

The administration also plans to help Pfizer ramp up its COVID-19 vaccine production by expanding the priority rating on Pfizer’s vaccine production contract to ensure the drugmaker gets first dibs on specific products and materials it needs to produce vaccines. This will now include filling pumps and tangential flow filtration skid units, two critical components of vaccine manufacturing. This action should have an immediate impact, officials said.

This move could help Pfizer reach its production goals of delivering 200 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine to the U.S. by May. Since Jan. 20, the new administration has increased vaccine supplies to states by more than 20 percent. Right now, one of the factors restraining manufacturing is limited equipment and ingredients, Manning said.

Finally, the administration said it will leverage the DPA to increase the production of surgical gloves, something the country needs more of now. Currently, the U.S. is nearly completely reliant on overseas manufacturers of surgical gloves, Manning said. So, the United States will build plants to produce the raw materials for surgical gloves so they can be produced in the U.S. By the end of the year, the administration hopes to make 1 billion nitrile gloves per month in the U.S, although this will satisfy only half of the country’s demand for surgical gloves.

Due to procurement law restrictions, the task force cannot say who it is contracting with until the contracts are finalized. Manning said the contracts usually take about four to five weeks to finalize and officials are roughly halfway through the process, so more details are expected to be released in the coming weeks.

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci told reporters he found recently announced early clinical trial results from Johnson & Johnson to be encouraging. The drugmaker recently announced that its one-shot, COVID-19 vaccine candidate was highly effective at keeping people out of the hospital and preventing death, even in South Africa and the United Kingdom, where more contagious virus mutations are prevalent. But, Fauci warned Americans to continue to take caution while awaiting their shots.

“Viruses will not evolve and mutate if you don’t give them an open playing field to replicate and replicate in an unbridled fashion,” Fauci said.

Michael Mina, a Harvard University assistant professor of epidemiology, says the U.S. shouldn’t have to wait months to make at-home, rapid tests widely available.

“We don’t have to wait until the summer to get these tests out to people,” Mina said. “We could be doing this today.”

He pointed to one test in particular, from U.S.-based Innova, that is exporting tests to the United Kingdom. Mina said the company has the capacity to quickly scale up production.

The company has not received an emergency authorization for its rapid antigen test from the Food and Drug Administration for reasons Mina disagrees with. Rapid antigen tests are very good at identifying people who are infectious, while PCR tests often identify noninfectious patients who still have remnants of the virus in their systems, he said.

“The government sees this as non-sensitive,” he said. “That’s the wrong way to look at a test like this. It’s not that this test is not sensitive enough. It’s that the PCR test is not specific. And what I mean by that is that the PCR test is not specific to infectious virus.”

Lauren Clason contributed to this report.

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