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White House invokes the Defense Production Act for the baby formula shortage

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The White House says help is on the way to address the nationwide baby formula shortage. The Biden administration is invoking the Defense Production Act. And it's something we last heard about when we were talking about the COVID vaccine supply. NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin is here to tell us more. Hi, Sidney.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So Sydney, remind us what the Defense Production Act entails and why it's being used to deal with the formula crisis.

LUPKIN: So it's a law from 1950 that gives the president and his administration special powers to promote the national defense. Specifically, it's been used to prioritize materials and contracts. The definition has been broadened over the years to include other things, like public health emergencies. So the Biden and Trump administrations both used the law to defend Americans against COVID-19 and get vaccine manufacturers the equipment and other tools they needed to ramp up production. Now it's being used to respond to another major public health concern, not having enough infant formula to go around.

FADEL: So how will the Biden administration plan to use this act to end the shortage?

LUPKIN: So it's more or less going to bump formula manufacturers to the front of the line when they order things from outside suppliers.

FADEL: OK.

LUPKIN: So if, for instance, a soup company and a formula manufacturer ordered the same ingredient from a third party. The formula manufacturer will now be required to get that ingredient first. And that should help speed up production.

FADEL: But isn't ingredient supply problem what led to the shortage?

LUPKIN: So no, there simply aren't many companies that make formula in the United States.

FADEL: Right.

LUPKIN: Abbott is one of the major ones. And its Michigan factory shut down and issued a recall in February after several babies became ill. Two of them died of bacterial infections. Now Abbott is working with the federal government and a third party, independent expert to get that factory back online quickly and safely. But that will take time to translate to more formula on shelves. And the situation is dire now.

FADEL: Yeah.

LUPKIN: So the administration is doing more, including invoking the Defense Production Act, which could help the whole industry ramp up.

FADEL: Is there a downside to using the Defense Production Act?

LUPKIN: There could be. Using the Defense Production Act can have ripple effects. After all, we're talking about finite resources.

FADEL: Right.

LUPKIN: When the Defense Production Act was used to ramp up COVID vaccine production in 2020, it resulted in the shortage of a thyroid drug called Tepezza. That happened because the factory contracted to make Tepezza was required, under the Defense Production Act, to package COVID-19 vaccine instead. So the Defense Production Act can be a blunt instrument. And folks wielding it try to do their due diligence to minimize those ripple effects, but they can still happen.

FADEL: And like you said, the situation is dire right now. So when can parents expect to see more formula on store shelves again?

LUPKIN: You know, unfortunately, this won't solve the formula shortage overnight. Again, hearkening back to when the Defense Production Act was used to make vaccines, it mostly shortened existing production timelines. One vaccine manufacturer told me it was able to do work that would have taken a couple of years and condense it to six or seven months. But making formula isn't like making vaccines, so it's tough to say how fast this will go.

FADEL: OK.

LUPKIN: In the meantime, the Biden administration is allowing more baby formula importation. And it's using Department of Defense planes to pick up formula from overseas and get it here, bypassing normal air freight routes to speed things up some more.

FADEL: NPR's pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin. Thank you, Sydney.

LUPKIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.