On Monday, the UK became the first country to begin mass vaccination against the novel coronavirus pandemic using a vaccine manufactured by Pifzer. That vaccine should begin being rolled out in the U.S. soon—though there might not be enough to go around for a while, thanks in part to the White House’s purchasing decisions.
The New York Times reported this week that sources say when the Trump administration negotiated a $1.95 billion deal for 100 million shots of the Pfizer vaccine under its Operation Warp Speed program—enough for around 50 million people, as it requires two doses—it ignored warnings that far more would be needed, and turned down an option to lock in rights to future purchases. Instead, the White House opted to sign a provision allowing the feds to place orders for up to 400 million more doses at some unspecified time in the future. Now, according to the Washington Post, Pfizer has told federal officials they won’t be able to buy another batch until at least late June or July, as other countries snatched up remaining capacity.
There are other vaccine candidates in the pipeline; one manufactured by Moderna, which is also a two-dose version, is expected to be cleared for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration in coming weeks. The feds have ordered 100 million doses, again enough for 50 million people. Other vaccines—such as ones developed by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson—are under development but are expected to take until February to ship.
The U.S. is one of a relative handful of wealthy nations hoarding vaccine supplies, prioritizing the welfare of their own citizens above equitable global distribution to those of other nations who might be at individually higher risk. The overall spending the federal government has allocated to vaccine development and procurement is unprecedented, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has committed to making initial taxpayer-funded doses free for recipients.
Still a study in Emerging Infectious Diseases in August 2020 estimated that 45.4 percent of the adult population of the U.S. may be at “increased risk for complications from coronavirus disease because of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory disease, hypertension, or cancer.”
The Trump administration is mulling an executive order to prioritize vaccine distribution to Americans, but it hasn’t explained how the order will actually secure more doses. Moncef Slaoui, the pharmaceutical executive appointed by Trump to head Warp Speed, appeared baffled and out of the loop when questioned about the order on ABC News’ Good Morning America on Tuesday.
“Frankly, I don’t know, and frankly, I’m staying out of this,” Slaoui told ABC. “I can’t comment. I literally don’t know.”
A senior administration official—albeit speaking anonymously—told the Post that they’re not miserly cheapskates, of course, but that the U.S. government had not hedged its bets on any one particular vaccine.
“Anyone who wanted to sell us … without an [FDA] approval, hundreds of millions of doses back in July and August, was just not going to get the government’s money,” the official told the paper.
Another anonymous administration official told CNN, “they shouldn’t have closed the door [to more doses]... they could have left the door open.” The official added that “it’s going to look bad” if the competing vaccines aren’t as effective.
The Post wrote that Pfizer might be able to provide 50 million more doses by the end of Q2 and an additional 50 million by the end of Q3 (the end of September):
It was only last weekend, with a Food and Drug Administration clearance expected any day, that federal officials reached back out to the company asking to buy another 100 million doses. By then, Pfizer said it had committed the supply elsewhere and suggested elevating the conversation to “a high level discussion,” said a person familiar with the talks.
Pfizer said the company might be able to provide 50 million doses at the end of the second quarter, and another 50 million doses in the third quarter, the individuals said.
The White House has splurged on other pet projects, such as unproven treatments for the coronavirus touted by Trump as potential miracle cures.
As of July, the federal government (along with some state governments) spent at least $86.5 million and likely far more researching and procuring hydroxychloroquine, an antimalarial drug with unproven efficacy in treating the novel coronavirus. Flimsy initial research was spun by right wing media reports—later echoed by the president himself—asserting that Democrats and federal scientists were holding up the drug’s distribution for political reasons. Later research indicated hydroxychloroquine is useless in the fight against the coronavirus.
The entire cost of the 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine the U.S. has purchased so far comes to just shy of between 14 and 18 F-35 fighter jets, based on figures by POGO.
Slaoui told ABC on Tuesday that the summer was the wrong time to purchase additional vaccines, according to CNN.
“Let me remind everybody what our strategy is and has always been,” Slaoui told ABC. “We selected six different vaccines to build the portfolio, to manage the risk that some may work and some may not work, but also to ensure that as more than one would work that we would accumulate vaccine doses from this portfolio of vaccines.”
“...If somebody came to us and said, ‘Let’s buy more of this vaccine or that vaccine,’ no one reasonably would buy more from any one of those vaccines because we didn’t know which one would work and which one may be better than the other,” Slaoui added.
Update: 4:15 p.m. ET: Former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb—who, it must be pointed out, is on Pfizer’s board—claimed that the White House knew that interim data from manufacturers showed Pfizer’s vaccine was likely going to be effective when it turned down an expanded allotment.