As the United Kingdom was administering the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine, the Trump administration was dealing with fallout from a New York Times report that found the administration had declined to secure extra doses of the vaccine from Pfizer back in the summer.
In the spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic was still in its first wave throughout most of the world, President Donald Trump’s administration sought to hasten the production of a vaccine. This initiative, first learned about in late April but officially launched on May 15, was dubbed Operation Warp Speed (OWS).
The goal of OWS was “to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.”
Seven months since OWS’s launch, doses of the vaccine are being administered, with a 90-year-old British woman, Margaret Keenan, being the first person in the world to receive the vaccine developed by Pfizer. Keenan received her shot, the first of two doses, in the morning on Tuesday, December 8.
It is a milestone moment for the world, but one that cannot be credited to Trump’s Operation Warp Speed. As the United Kingdom was administering the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine, the Trump administration was dealing with fallout from a New York Times report that found the administration had declined to secure extra doses of the vaccine from Pfizer back in the summer.
A day after the Times report, Trump issued an executive order to “ensure that Americans have priority access to COVID-19 vaccines developed in the United States or procured by the United States Government.” However, it’s unlikely that Trump’s order can increase the vaccine’s availability and critics have dismissed it as a stunt to cover for missing out on the extra doses Pfizer previously offered.
Why did the Trump administration decline extra Pfizer doses?
On Monday, a day before the Pfizer vaccine was first administered in the UK, the Times reported that the Trump administration had declined an opportunity to secure extra doses of that very vaccine. The timing of the story was unfortunate for the administration, but Trump has attempted to shift focus away from it.
In July, the Trump administration and Pfizer, a New York-based pharmaceutical company, agreed upon a deal for the US government to secure 100 million doses of the vaccine for US$1.95 billion, once the vaccine was completed. Since the vaccine is designed to be given in two shots (an initial and a booster shot), 50 million Americans could be vaccinated.
However, the recent Times investigation found that multiple times between late summer and early fall, Pfizer had offered the Trump administration the chance to buy additional doses. Further reporting by The Washington Post confirms that Pfizer recommended that the administration purchase an additional 100 million doses, but the US government declined.
Two reasons were given for declining the offer. The first, according to an unnamed administration official, was that the government was reluctant to buy extra doses of a vaccine that had yet to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The second reason for declining Pfizer’s offer was that, through OWS, the US had secured a substantial supply of vaccines from other pharmacy companies, including 100 million doses from Moderna. In late summer, multiple US-based and funded companies were in the late stages of vaccine development.
Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS) Alex Azar said in July, “Through Operation Warp Speed, we are assembling a portfolio of vaccines to increase the odds that the American people will have at least one safe, effective vaccine as soon as the end of this year.”
However, Pfizer’s vaccine, which did not receive funding through OWS for its development, is the first to be approved for widespread use. In addition to the UK, it was approved in Canada on December 9 and FDA approval is expected soon.
Other countries have already bought up the company’s initial supply, including the European Union, which finalized a deal for 200 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine in November. Additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine are not expected to be available until mid-2021, when President-elect Joe Biden will be overseeing the vaccinations.
What does Trump’s vaccine executive order do?
On December 8, Trump issued the “Executive Order on Ensuring Access to United States Government COVID-19 Vaccines.” In a televised ceremony, Trump said the order was to prioritize access to the vaccine for American citizens.
Trump also said he could use the Defense Production Act, which gives the president the authority to direct private companies to prioritize orders from the US government. It wouldn’t be the first time Trump has utilized that specific act to address the pandemic. He relied on the act in April to require meatpacking plants to remain open even as workers were increasingly being infected.
On its own, Trump’s executive order cannot require any companies to provide extra vaccines for American citizens. In fact, part of the order addresses how the government can distribute extra vaccines to other countries once the demand in the US has been met.
If Trump were to call upon the Defense Production Act to forcefully acquire vaccine doses from US pharmaceutical companies, he could face legal battles from those companies and their clients. Furthermore, confiscating vaccines that were originally purchased by other countries could risk harming relations with those countries.
Trump received a rash of criticism for his executive order, with many dismissing it as ineffectual.
An official Democratic Party Twitter account stated, “Trump’s executive order does nothing to secure additional doses of vaccines needed for the U.S., an option his administration passed on months ago.”
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