Janssen COVID-19 vaccine
Vials of Johnson & Johnson's Janssen COVID-19 vaccine. Image Credit: AP

Washington: The United States plans to double its order of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine with an additional 100 million doses, the White House said on Wednesday, building up supply in a bid to inoculate the full country soon.

President Joe Biden will direct the Department of Health and Human Services to secure the additional supply, a move the company indicated had not yet happened.

Biden is likely to highlight the issue at a meeting with the chief executives of J&J and Merck & Co later on Wednesday. Merck has agreed to partner with J&J to produce its vaccine.

"This order allows for the president to plan for the future," White House COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt told reporters. "It gives us maximum flexibility for our upcoming needs." The United States has already paid over $1 billion for 100 million doses from J&J and had an option to purchase an additional 200 million doses.

Biden has sought to speed up the vaccination process since taking office on Jan. 20. The pandemic has killed more than 528,000 people in the United States alone.

As of Tuesday morning, more than 123 million doses of coronavirus vaccines from the three authorized providers have been distributed in the United States and 93.7 million shots administered, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But J&Js manufacturing has been slower than hoped, and it was not expected to deliver any vaccine doses this week. It is expected to resume shipments later in March.

"Last August, Johnson & Johnson signed an agreement with the US government to deliver 100 million doses of our COVID vaccine, and we are on track to meet that commitment," spokesman Jake Sargent said.

"The US Government has the option to purchase additional doses under a subsequent agreement. We look forward to any future discussions with the U.S. Government and to participating in the event at the White House later today," he added.

J&J has come up short on its shipments to the United States this month, and expects to deliver only 20 million of the 37 million doses it had originally promised to have ready by now.

Merck will help with the final manufacturing steps called fill and finish - expected to be up and running in May - and production of the vaccine itself. J&J, which has committed to producing 1 billion doses this year, also said it is continuing to seek more manufacturing partners.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the recent plateau of COVID-19 cases appeared to be trending downward, while new hospital admissions and coronavirus-related deaths were also decreasing.

"While these trends are starting to head in the right direction, the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths still remain too high and are somber reminders that we must remain vigilant as we work to scale up our vaccination efforts across this country," she said.

The United States approved the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna Inc vaccines in December, and those companies have been working to increase their production since then.

Pfizer and Moderna have committed to supplying the country with 120 million doses and 100 million doses, respectively, by the end of March. They have agreed to supply 300 million doses each by the end of July.