President Trump hoped very much to be able to deploy an effective vaccine this year and probably hoped even more that he could announce a successful vaccine before last week’s election. For months, he hinted that a vaccine was all but imminent, hyping his administration’s effort to rapidly deploy inoculations, a push dubbed “Operation Warp Speed.” The emergence of a vaccine or a successful therapeutic has been almost the sole focus of the White House for several months as it has prioritized a resumption of normal economic activity over containing new infections.
So when news broke early Monday that Pfizer’s vaccine had yielded a better-than-90-percent success rate, a first step toward approval and rollout, members of the administration were quick to claim credit.
Vice President Pence, for example, sought to give his boss credit for Pfizer’s effort.
Others specifically touted the success of Operation Warp Speed in making the vaccine happen.
But it didn’t.
In July, Pfizer did agree to partner with the government on distribution of a vaccine, leveraging what will be a massive, complicated effort run by the federal government to ensure that as many people as possible can be immunized. But its development efforts weren’t part of the government’s program.
“Pfizer, unlike its competitors, did not join Operation Warp Speed, the government initiative designed to erase the financial risk of vaccine and therapeutics development by providing funding to companies and helping coordinate the trials,” The Washington Post’s Carolyn Y. Johnson reported Monday. “Instead, Pfizer plowed $2 billion of its own money into the project and then struck a $1.95 billion contract with the U.S. government to provide 100 million doses, contingent on the vaccine being effective.”
“We were never part of the Warp Speed,” Pfizer vice president Kathrin Jansen told the New York Times. “We have never taken any money from the U.S. government, or from anyone.”
The Department of Health and Human Services website makes the distinction clear. In March, HHS gave $456 million to Johnson & Johnson as it pushed to find a vaccine. In April, it gave $483 million to Moderna. In May, it announced that it would provide up to $1.2 billion to AstraZeneca’s effort.
Then, in late July, that agreement with Pfizer, described by the company as an agreement to “begin delivering 300 million doses of a vaccine for COVID-19 in 2021.”
“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense (DoD) today announced an agreement with U.S.-based Pfizer Inc. for large-scale production and nationwide delivery of 100 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States following the vaccine’s successful manufacture and approval,” the HHS news release read. Distribution, not development.
To be clear, the Pfizer announcement is good news. (“The results are really quite good, I mean extraordinary,” Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert, told The Post.) If it means that an effective shield against the virus can begin distribution shortly, there’s no cause for complaint.
The issue is, instead, accuracy. While the administration’s response to the pandemic has been dubious in any number of ways, the prioritization of vaccine development has been important. In this case, though, it can’t claim credit for that work.
It could claim credit for the successful distribution of a Pfizer vaccine, of course, given the agreement between the company and the government. But whether that rollout is a success — or even happens — remains to be seen.
In September, the CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, appeared on CBS News’s “Face the Nation,” where he was asked about not accepting government funding for development.
“The reason why I did it was because I wanted to liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy,” Bourla explained. “When you get money from someone that always comes with strings. They want to see how we are going to progress, what type of moves you are going to do. They want reports. I didn’t want to have any of that. I wanted them — basically I gave them an open checkbook so that they can worry only about scientific challenges, not anything else.”
“And also,” he added, “I wanted to keep Pfizer out of politics, by the way.”
So much for that.