Vaccinations against Covid-19 may be accelerating in the United States, but the Biden administration’s intervention at a troubled plant that ruined millions of vaccine doses, along with the continuing threat of dangerous variants of the coronavirus, suggest that the road to defeating the virus is likely to take many unpredictable twists and turns.
Saturday marked the first time the country reported over four million Covid-19 doses in a single day, bringing the average to more than three million people for the first time, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On the same day, the fallout continued over a debacle at a Baltimore contract plant that ruined 15 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The Biden administration put Johnson & Johnson in charge of the facility and moved to stop the facility from making another vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca, senior federal health officials said.
The move comes as Mr. Biden has aggressively pushed to produce enough vaccine doses to cover every American adult by the end of May. It will leave the Baltimore facility solely devoted to making the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine and is meant to avoid future mix-ups, according to two senior federal health officials. Johnson & Johnson confirmed the changes, saying it was “assuming full responsibility” for the vaccine made by Emergent BioSolutions, its manufacturing partner, which accidentally mixed up the ingredients from the two different vaccines.
Federal officials are worried that the mix-up will erode public confidence in the vaccines, just as there’s been a steady increase in the capacity of states to deliver shots into arms. In early March, the nation surpassed an average of two million doses administered each day, up from around 800,000 doses a day in mid-January. Nearly a third of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine as more states expand eligibility and production ramps up.
And while new virus cases, deaths and hospitalizations are far below their January peak, the average number of new reported cases has risen 19 percent over the past two weeks. Cases are increasing significantly in many states, particularly in the Midwest and the Northeast, as variants spread.
As some governors relax mask mandates and other restrictions, federal health officials fear that complacency about the virus could bring on another severe wave of infections. Officials in states like Connecticut and Colorado have tried to head that off by accelerating their rollout schedules.
The end of the pandemic could also be postponed by the spread of variants that are potentially more contagious or even deadlier, with new ones appearing in California, New York and Oregon in recent months.
At the moment, most vaccines appear to be effective against the variants. But public health officials are deeply worried that future iterations of the virus may be more resistant, requiring Americans to line up for regular rounds of booster shots or even new vaccines.
“We don’t have evolution on our side,” said Devi Sridhar, a professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “This pathogen seems to always be changing in a way that makes it harder for us to suppress.”