The Trump administration passed up a chance last summer to buy millions of additional doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, a decision that could delay the delivery of a second batch of doses until the manufacturer fulfills other international contracts.
The revelation, first reported by the New York Times and confirmed to the Associated Press on Monday, came a day before Donald Trump aimed to take credit for the speedy development of forthcoming vaccines at a White House summit.
Pfizer’s vaccine, one of the leading Covid-19 vaccine contenders, is expected to be approved by a panel of Food and Drug Administration scientists as soon as this week, with delivery of 100m doses – enough for 50 million Americans – expected in coming months.
Under its contract with Pfizer, the Trump administration committed to buy an initial 100m doses, with an option to purchase as many as five times more. This summer, the White House opted not to lock in an additional 100m doses for delivery in the second quarter of 2021, according to people who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Days ahead of the vaccine’s expected approval, the administration is reversing course, but it is not clear that Pfizer, which has since made commitments to other countries, will be able to meet the latest request on the same timeline.
The Pfizer vaccine is one of two on track for emergency FDA authorization this month, the other coming from drugmaker Moderna.
The Trump administration insisted late Monday that between those two vaccines and others in the pipeline, the US will be able to accommodate any American who wants to be vaccinated by the end of the second quarter of 2021.
Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar told NBC the administration is “continuing to work across manufacturers to expand the availability of releasable, of FDA-approved vaccine as quickly as possible. We do still have that option for an additional 500m doses.”
The “Operation Warp Speed” summit on Tuesday will address the Trump administration’s plans to distribute and administer the vaccine. But officials from president-elect Joe Biden’s transition team, which will oversee the bulk of the largest vaccination program in the nation’s history, were not invited.
Both the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines have been determined to be 95% effective against the virus that causes Covid-19. Plans call for distributing and then administering about 40m doses of the two companies’ vaccines by the end of the year – with the first doses shipping within hours of FDA clearance. Each of the forthcoming vaccines has unique logistical challenges, including storage, distribution and administration.
The news comes as states across the US continue to experience some of the worst surges since the pandemic began. On Monday, millions in California went back under the nation’s harshest lockdowns, as Covid-19 cases hit record levels. New York is also weighing further restrictions as hospitalisations climb.
Health officials are warning Americans not to let their guard down, even with a vaccine on the horizon. Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said that “without substantial mitigation, the middle of January can be a really dark time for us”.