Vaccine Supply Capacity

Governors, mayors, health commissioners and others are complaining about a “vaccine shortage.”

Los Angeles County Public Health Director, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, recently told CBS-Los Angeles, “The only thing standing between us and doing more vaccination is actually getting more vaccine… We’re ready right now today, at the drop of a hat. If somebody said ‘here’s 400,000 more doses,’ we would get them into people’s arms next week.”

I’m sure that is true. It is, however, a statement that obscures rather than illuminates our current situation.

So far in 2021, roughly 10 to 12 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been filled, finished, and distributed each week across the United States. By most counts, about 14 million doses per week is the upper limit of current production capacity. (I have seen one credible estimate of 18 million doses, but this is an outlier.) During the third week in February a flow of 13.5 million doses is being projected.

Efforts are ongoing to increase this capacity. Some current constraints could be loosened (update).  Some additional production lines might be opened.  There are credible reasons to anticipate that new capacity from Johnson & Johnson and perhaps, Novavax will deliver several millions of doses by this summer. All of this is well-reported by the media and often-referenced in official statements. It is also consistent with production capacity projections originally laid out at least as early as October 2020.

There is a huge gap between the vaccine doses available today and the demand (need) for vaccinations today. Is this a shortage?

If you mean there is a deficit, then yes there is a deficit of supply. There is a scarcity of vaccines. There is a lack of vaccines to fulfill demand.

In English there is a subtle suggestion that a shortage is caused by a reduction in prior abundance. An English-speaker will hear that something has been shortened, cut, curtailed that has now resulted in a shortage. With the coronavirus vaccine, this is not true. Rather there has been an amazing production of millions of doses from absolute scratch only a few months ago. We are well on our way to having plenty in just a few more months.

Is this etymology or hermeneutics?  What I am sure about is that in discussions with both senior policymakers and vulnerable people looking for vaccinations, there is a sense of shortage that, in my judgment, unnecessarily complicates thinking about demand and supply.

We have a fairly accurate sense of demand. We have a fairly accurate sense of supply. We can be certain of a continuing but narrowing deficit of doses for the next several months. This reality should frame our expectations, preparations, and actions.