White House’s chief Covid-19 science officer calls on Moderna to ‘step up’ global vaccine efforts

The White House’s top scientist focused on Covid-19 sought to ratchet up pressure on Moderna, saying the pharmaceutical giant needs to “step up” to provide more of its Covid-19 vaccine to the world in the urgent race to get the pandemic under control.

While public health experts have been calling on Moderna to boost its production and distribution of its vaccine to low and middle-income countries, or to share their proprietary technology, for some time, the remarks from Dr. David Kessler — chief science officer of the White House Covid-19 response team — mark an escalation in the Biden administration’s public comments on the matter.

“We expect that Moderna will step up as a company. We expect — we have asked them, they need to step up as a company and join other companies, such as Pfizer, and provide COVAX (Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access, the global vaccine sharing program) with doses for the AMC92 (the COVAX Advance Market Commitment for 92 low- and middle-income countries) at not-for-profit prices at a quantity — substantial doses that will help close that gap,” Kessler said Wednesday in a panel with the Law and Political Economy Project on vaccinating the world.

He continued, “There is very substantial additional capacity at Moderna that has been invested in. Now the question is to get that commitment done at a not-for-profit price and in substantial quantities, as a failure to do that would be unconscionable, in my view.”

Kessler’s comments come after the Biden administration has pledged to significantly increase the amount of Covid-19 vaccines it is sending to foreign countries next year, with President Joe Biden announcing last month that the US would purchase an additional 500 million Pfizer shots for low- and lower-middle income countries around the world on top of 500 million doses the US had already committed to sharing. A majority of the doses the administration has shipped abroad so far are Pfizer, though Biden announced in June that 20 million doses of a combination of Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson’s vaccines would be sent overseas.

Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a letter to investors last week that Moderna’s goal is “to help protect as many people as possible around the globe,” noting that the company has a five-pillar strategy to increase access, including plans to build a production facility in Africa, its intent not to enforce Covid-19-related patents, and investing in its capacity to deliver another 1 billion doses to low-income countries in 2022. And on Tuesday, Moderna announced that COVAX purchased an additional 176.5 million doses of its vaccine, with 116.5 million doses expected to be delivered in the first quarter of 2022 and 60 million doses expected to be delivered in the second quarter of 2022.

But Dr. Thomas Frieden, former head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is among those top public health experts repeatedly calling on both Pfizer and Moderna to transfer their technology to other manufacturers to boost the production and distribution worldwide.

“Pfizer and Moderna have made fundamental missteps that must be corrected or their reputation for this work will be irreparably tarnished, and, more importantly, millions of lives will be put at risk. First, Pfizer and Moderna have focused on selling expensive doses to rich countries and have done nothing or next-to-nothing to scale up production to meet the global need,” Frieden said in a series of tweets earlier this month.

He continued, “This has led to the shocking and unacceptable situation we’re in now. More than 6 billion doses have been administered globally— less than 4% to people in low-income countries. Not only is this a moral failure, it’s also epidemiologically perilous — fewer people vaccinated globally means higher risk new variants will emerge that are more contagious or escape our immunity, either from vaccines or infection or both.”

Kessler said Wednesday the Biden administration has met with multiple leaders at Moderna “in recent days” to press them on the matter.

“We can’t wait. We don’t have months to wait. I think that we have called the question, we have met, I’ll say it here, we have met with members of the board of Moderna, not just the CEO, we met with the chair of Moderna, members of the board in recent days. They understand what we expect to happen,” he said.

The US government, he said, “has not made a decision yet on, you know, what it would do, depending on what the answer is, but we are awaiting the answer … but I can assure you there is full resolve on everyone in the administration to bringing doses to low and middle income countries as soon as possible.”

He praised Pfizer for its “track record” and said he had “no doubt” that the company would deliver on its own commitments to sharing vaccines globally at cost.

But he was much less confident in Moderna’s ability to do so, adding, “Moderna can speak for itself. We’ve been in very, very intense discussions with Moderna.”

Pressed by the panel’s moderator on why the administration is not exerting more leverage over Moderna, Kessler said, “I think these companies understand our authorities, and understand that we would not be afraid to use them. But the best recourse right now is for them to step up to the plate now, and make sure they provide COVAX at not-for-profit prices as substantial basis to close that gap.”

Kessler pointed to a “specific request” from the US government to do so, and warned, “They understand our authorities.”

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