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Address Manufacturing Challenges of Accelerated COVID-19 Vaccine Development

Operation Warp Speed was a partnership between the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Defense (DOD) that supported multiple COVID-19 vaccine candidates to speed up development.

The Government Accountability Office analyzed the program’s vaccine candidates and found that their development followed traditional practices, with some adaptations. For example, some clinical trial phases overlapped with each other and with animal studies to accelerate development. Two vaccines were authorized for emergency use—GAO’s tracker shows all the candidates.

GAO also found that agencies are working to help mitigate vaccine manufacturing challenges. For example, agencies have taken steps to require contractors to prioritize vaccine production supplies.

GAO found that OWS and vaccine companies adopted several strategies to accelerate vaccine development and mitigate risk. For example, OWS selected vaccine candidates that use different mechanisms to stimulate an immune response (i.e., platform technologies; see figure). Vaccine companies also took steps, such as starting large-scale manufacturing during clinical trials and combining clinical trial phases or running them concurrently. Clinical trials gather data on safety and efficacy, with more participants in each successive phase (e.g., phase 3 has more participants than phase 2).

As of January 30, 2021, five of the six OWS vaccine candidates have entered phase 3 clinical trials, two of which—Moderna’s and Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccines—have received an emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For vaccines that received EUA, additional data on vaccine effectiveness will be generated from further follow-up of participants in clinical trials already underway before the EUA was issued.

Technology readiness. GAO’s analysis of the OWS vaccine candidates’ technology readiness levels (TRL)—an indicator of technology maturity— showed that COVID-19 vaccine development under OWS generally followed traditional practices, with some adaptations. FDA issued specific guidance that identified ways that vaccine development may be accelerated during the pandemic. Vaccine companies told GAO that the primary difference from a non-pandemic environment was the compressed timelines. To meet OWS timelines, some vaccine companies relied on data from other vaccines using the same platforms, where available, or conducted certain animal studies at the same time as clinical trials. However, as is done in a non-pandemic environment, all vaccine companies gathered initial safety and antibody response data with a small number of participants before proceeding into large-scale human studies (e.g., phase 3 clinical trials). The two EUAs issued in December 2020 were based on analyses of clinical trial participants and showed about 95 percent efficacy for each vaccine. These analyses included assessments of efficacy after individuals were given two doses of vaccine and after they were monitored for about 2 months for adverse events.

Manufacturing. As of January 2021, five of the six OWS vaccine companies had started commercial scale manufacturing. OWS officials reported that as of January 31, 2021, companies had released 63.7 million doses—about 32 percent of the 200 million doses that, according to OWS, companies with EUAs have been contracted to provide by March 31, 2021. Vaccine companies face a number of challenges in scaling up manufacturing to produce hundreds of millions of doses under OWS’s accelerated timelines. DOD and HHS are working with vaccine companies to help mitigate manufacturing challenges, including:

  • Limited manufacturing capacity: A shortage of facilities with capacity to handle the vaccine manufacturing needs can lead to production bottlenecks. Vaccine companies are working in partnership with OWS to expand production capacity. For example, one vaccine company told GAO that HHS’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority helped them identify an additional manufacturing partner to increase production. Additionally, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing construction projects to expand capacity at vaccine manufacturing facilities.
  • Disruptions to manufacturing supply chains: Vaccine manufacturing supply chains have been strained by the global demand for certain goods and workforce disruptions caused by the global pandemic. For example, representatives from one facility manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines stated that they experienced challenges obtaining materials, including reagents and certain chemicals. They also said that due to global demand, they waited 4 to 12 weeks for items that before the pandemic were typically available for shipment within one week. Vaccine companies and DOD and HHS officials told GAO they have undertaken several efforts to address possible manufacturing disruptions and mitigate supply chain challenges. These efforts include federal assistance to (1) expedite procurement and delivery of critical manufacturing equipment, (2) develop a list of critical supplies that are common across the six OWS vaccine candidates, and (3) expedite the delivery of necessary equipment and goods coming into the United States. Additionally, DOD and HHS officials said that as of December 2020 they had placed prioritized ratings on 18 supply contracts for vaccine companies under the Defense Production Act, which allows federal agencies with delegated authority to require contractors to prioritize those contracts for supplies needed for vaccine production.
  • Gaps in the available workforce: Hiring and training personnel with the specialized skills needed to run vaccine manufacturing processes can be challenging. OWS officials stated that they have worked with the Department of State to expedite visa approval for key technical personnel, including technicians and engineers to assist with installing, testing, and certifying critical equipment manufactured overseas. OWS officials also stated that they requested that 16 DOD personnel be detailed to serve as quality control staff at two vaccine manufacturing sites until the organizations can hire the required personnel.

Read the GAO report

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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