NOEL KING, HOST:
When the time comes to vaccinate the world against COVID-19, will there be enough glass vials and syringes to get it done? The Trump administration appears to have a backup plan in case there aren't. Later today, it's expected to announce that it will loan about $600 million to a company in Connecticut that makes an injection device that can be mass produced. Here's Dina Temple-Raston of NPR's investigations team.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY WHIRRING)
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: That's the sound of a COVID-19 vaccine backup plan.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY WHIRRING)
TEMPLE-RASTON: It's a production line in Columbia, S.C., that's churning out a novel injection device that the Trump administration is counting on to help deliver the COVID-19 vaccine as early as this spring. NPR has learned that later today, the administration will add to its already hefty investment in a company called ApiJect Systems America and extend more than half a billion dollars to its effort to backstop the country's COVID-19 vaccine program.
JAY WALKER: I'm Jay Walker, and I am the chairman of ApiJect Systems.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And you founded another company we've heard of, right?
WALKER: Yes. I am best known as the founder of Priceline.com.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The founder of Priceline, the man who put William Shatner back on the map, is now producing a single-use self-contained injection device that's designed to be an alternative to glass vials and syringes.
WALKER: We call it a syrette.
TEMPLE-RASTON: It's a little bigger than your thumb, and it looks a little like those single doses of eye drops that you get from the eye doctor. It has a hypodermic needle that you screw into the end like you do when you screw in a nozzle on a tiny bottle of Krazy Glue. Only in this case, it would carry any number of approved COVID vaccines. Walker said it's that effort that the U.S. International Development Finance Corp. is funding with a $590 million loan.
WALKER: The U.S. government is announcing a plan to support the biggest and fastest vaccine syringe filling factory - up to 3 billion doses a year.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's billion with a B, even though the injection device has yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which worries Nicole Lurie. She served at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration.
NICOLE LURIE: The challenge that I see is that it is a completely untested technology. What testing of the ApiJect product has been done to ensure that the materials inside the ApiJect containers don't interact with the components of the various vaccines?
TEMPLE-RASTON: The vaccine being produced by Pfizer, for example, needs to be kept at arctic temperatures. Walker says the ApiJect devices can handle that, but the FDA has yet to certify that that's true.
But then you can say that about a lot of the projects funded by the Trump administration to try to combat the virus. Tens of billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent to fund a roster of vaccines, some of which are bound to fail. The point is to try and find a solution.
Darin Zehrung is the global program leader for medical devices at PATH, which is focused on improving global public health in developing countries. And he's been tracking ApiJect's progress for a while. And he says it's hired some people who are really good at prefilled technologies.
DARIN ZEHRUNG: From our perspective, a low-cost prefill is something that we've always been aiming towards for low- and middle-income countries.
TEMPLE-RASTON: He doesn't think the administration is making a particularly risky bet.
ZEHRUNG: I'm excited about what could be. I mean, we could truly have a low-cost, scaled-up prefilled system that could be used for a number of different drugs or vaccines, biologics that could benefit low- and middle-income countries.
TEMPLE-RASTON: ApiJect is getting a cash infusion. Now it needs FDA approval to become the backup plan the Trump administration is banking on.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
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