How the Defense Production Act Could Speed Up Vaccine Progress in the U.S.

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Dec. 22 2020, Updated 11:17 a.m. ET

President-elect Joe Biden received his COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 21 at a Wilmington, Del. health facility. Despite this move, there are millions more Americans who require vaccination. For the Biden administration, the Defense Production Act could speed up the process.

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The existing administration under President Donald Trump has already used this wartime production law. If manufacturing shortages for the vaccine arise in the new administration, it may need to come into play again.

What is the Defense Production Act?

The Defense Production Act (DPA) in its current form gives the executive branch of the U.S. government the authority to mandate manufacturing of particular goods. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, "the president is also empowered to 'allocate materials, services, and facilities' for national defense purposes, and take actions to restrict hoarding of needed supplies." 

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In regards to the COVID-19 vaccine, the president can use the DPA to push forward manufacturing of necessary parts and implement regulations in regards to production and distribution.

Despite the fact that COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers are made up of non-governmental entities like private and publicly traded companies (such as Pfizer and Moderna), the use of the DPA can effectively institute executive orders requiring certain actions or limitations.

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A history of use for the Defense Production Act

The DPA has been used numerous times throughout the 20th and 21st centuries to facilitate production during times of crisis. It was first passed on Sept. 8, 1950 in response to the start of the Korean War. At the time, President Harry Truman used the act to mobilize defense infrastructure production.

During the Cold War in the 1950s, the DPA helped control production of domestic aluminum and titanium.

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More recently, President Barack Obama used the DPA to combat cyberespionage from China. Specifically, Obama requested telecommunication companies to provide detailed information about foreign hardware and software to the Bureau of Industry and Security.

President Trump used the DPA earlier this year to mobilize critical hospital equipment and prohibit hoarding and price gouging of key supplies. However, he hasn't used it for vaccines.

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How does the DPA work?

The act basically functions as an executive order. The sitting president and their executive branch are able to push the act through in order to mandate certain actions or inactions by corporations.

In regards to the COVID-19 vaccine, Biden could easily use the act to regulate the rate of vaccine distribution, keep companies from charging for the vaccine, and mandate production of certain materials for the vaccine. If there's a material shortage, the DPA could deem other products that use the same materials unnecessary in order to push vaccine production forth.

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According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the DPA "authorizes the President to consult with representatives of industry, business, financing, agriculture, labor, and other interests to provide for development of voluntary agreements and plans of action to help provide for the national defense."

Basically, the DPA can be a stepping stone to voluntary agreement if not used for actual executive mandating.

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