A top Biden administration official on Wednesday warned Moderna to “step up” and provide more vaccine doses for the world amid pressure on the White House to take more decisive action.
David Kessler, the chief science officer for the White House COVID-19 response team, revealed during a panel discussion that administration officials have met with the board of Moderna in “recent days” and made a request for greater steps from the company to provide doses for the world through the World Health Organization-backed organization COVAX.
He said the administration is still awaiting a response from Moderna but mentioned the possibility that the administration could use its authorities to compel greater action from the company, though he said no decision had been made.
“We’ve been in very, very intense discussions with Moderna,” Kessler said. “There is very substantial capacity through 2022 for them to close and in fact even exceed the COVAX gap, and they need to do that.”
Much of the discussion centered on Moderna, which received significant government funding and assistance in its vaccine development, but Kessler also mentioned that Johnson & Johnson could have room to increase its capacity in the coming months as well. Pfizer has entered a deal with the U.S. government to provide 500 million doses to donate to the world.
“Do not underestimate the resolve of the United States government in addressing this issue,” Kessler said. “I think these companies understand our authorities, and understand we would not be afraid to use them, but the best recourse right now is for them to step up to the plate now.”
Some experts have been calling on the Biden administration to use authorities under the Defense Production Act to compel vaccine makers to share their know-how with other countries to boost manufacturing.
Kessler’s comments acknowledging those authorities are some of the strongest that the administration has made publicly on the issue.
Kessler made the remarks while on a panel hosted by the Law and Political Economy Project at Yale Law School.
Other panelists included activists that have been pressing the Biden administration for months to take greater action on global vaccinations, and the discussion grew tense at times as the activists pressed Kessler for more action.
The activists want the administration to use its authorities to compel action from the vaccine makers, saying that months of seeking voluntary steps have not worked as thousands of people die every day from COVID-19 around the world.
James Krellenstein, co-founder of the group PrEP4All, said he had not heard any “concrete” actions from Kessler.
“We need the U.S. government to take charge,” added Zain Rizvi, of the progressive group Public Citizen.
Responding to the assertion that the administration had used a “light touch” with vaccine makers, Kessler replied: “This has been anything but light touch, let me assure you.”
After meeting with Moderna on greater steps for global vaccinations, Kessler said, “The United States government has not made a decision yet on what it would do, depending on what the answer is, but we are awaiting an answer.”
Kessler did not detail the administration’s request to Moderna, but said that “several billion” doses are needed for the world in the short term.
Kessler said that vaccine makers have been reluctant to share their closely held and valuable information on how to make their vaccines.
“Let’s not anyone kid each other, at the end of the day, this know-how is an asset to these companies that they are reluctant to give up,” he said.
Experts warn that without vaccinating the world, the virus has more chances to develop new variants that could evade the current vaccines’ protection.
A group of Democratic lawmakers earlier on Wednesday also called for the Biden administration to take greater action with Moderna.
Moderna did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Kessler’s comments.