Biden got the vaccine rollout humming, with Trump’s help

The New York Times
Washington, United StatesWritten By: Sharon LaFraniere © 2021 The New York TimesUpdated: Mar 10, 2021, 09:21 PM IST
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A man getting vaccinated in California, United States Photograph:(AFP)

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A closer look at the ramp-up announced last week offers a more mixed picture, one in which the new administration expanded and bulked up a vaccine production effort whose key elements were in place when Biden took over for President Donald Trump

When President Joe Biden pledged last week to amass enough vaccine by late May to inoculate every adult in the United States, the pronouncement was greeted as a triumphant acceleration of a vaccination campaign that seemed to be faltering only weeks earlier.

And it is true that production of two of the three federally authorized vaccines has sped up in part because of the demands and directives of the new president’s coronavirus team.

But the announcement was also a triumph of another kind: public relations. Because Biden had tamped down expectations early, the quicker timetable for vaccine production conjured an image of a White House running on all cylinders and leaving its predecessor’s effort in the dust.

A closer look at the ramp-up announced last week offers a more mixed picture, one in which the new administration expanded and bulked up a vaccine production effort whose key elements were in place when Biden took over for President Donald Trump. Both administrations deserve credit, although neither wants to grant much to the other.

The Biden administration has taken two major steps that helped hasten vaccine production in the near term. Even before Biden was inaugurated, his aides determined that by invoking the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, the federal government could help Pfizer obtain the heavy machinery it needed to expand its plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The Trump administration had repeatedly invoked that law, but its order for Pfizer only covered single-use supplies like plastic liners, not durable factory equipment.

Crucially, Biden’s top aides drove another vaccine manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, to force a key subcontractor into round-the-clock operations so its vaccine could be bottled faster. That company had fallen behind on the production targets laid out in its federal contract. Only after Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s chief pandemic adviser, and Dr. David Kessler, who oversees the vaccine effort, demanded the company commit more resources did it publicly pledge to meet a crucial deadline in May.

At the same time, though, Biden benefited hugely from the waves of vaccine production that the Trump administration had set in motion. As both Pfizer and Moderna found their manufacturing footing, they were able to double and triple the outputs from their factories.

Biden had been in office less than a month when Moderna announced that it could deliver 200 million doses by the end of May, a month earlier than scheduled, simply because it had become faster at production. Pfizer was able to shave off even more time, moving up the timetable to deliver its 200 million doses by a full two months, partly because of newfound efficiencies and partly because it was given credit for six doses per vial instead of five.

All this enabled Biden to announce that his administration would have enough doses in hand by the end of May to cover all 257 million adults, two months earlier than he had promised just a few weeks earlier. His aides noted that on Sunday, the nation hit a daily record of 2.9 million shots, 3 1/2 times as many as were given on Inauguration Day.

“Throughout our response, we’ve provided clear timelines based on the available, authorized vaccines,” said Kevin Munoz, a White House assistant press secretary. “We don’t plan to just meet these timelines, but rather to overperform them.”

To Trump administration aides, the new president’s crowing rings off-key. Biden is proclaiming victory off his predecessor’s achievements while wrongly grumbling about a mess he says he inherited, they say.

“They criticize what we did, but they are using our playbook every step of the way,” said Paul Mango, the Trump administration’s deputy chief of staff for health policy and a senior official in the crash vaccine development effort then known as Operation Warp Speed. He said Trump’s team oversaw the construction or expansion of nearly two dozen plants involved in vaccine production and invoked the Defense Production Act 18 times to ensure those factories had sufficient supplies.

The Biden team is “maintaining a very nice trajectory,” Mango said. “But don’t criticize us to make yourselves look better.”

Still, corporate, state and federal officials agree that Biden’s White House has been more active than his predecessor’s in trying to build up the nation’s vaccine stock.

The new administration’s relationship with Pfizer is markedly better. Trump and his aides had accused the company of slow-walking its vaccine development to hurt Trump’s reelection bid. The company announced its vaccine was robustly effective on Nov. 9, nearly a week after Election Day, then filed its application for emergency use authorization on Nov. 20.

Pfizer officials privately suggested that the Trump administration not only was wrongfully bad-mouthing the company but also had refused for months to invoke the Defense Production Act to order suppliers to prioritize Pfizer’s needs, as it did for the other vaccine developers under federal contract.

Biden’s aides started talking to Pfizer executives about what the company needed to make more doses even before Inauguration Day. When Biden traveled to Michigan on Feb. 19 to visit Pfizer’s plant, Dr. Albert Bourla, the company’s chief executive, effusively praised the new administration as “a great ally,” saying officials had helped the company secure critical materials and equipment.

The biggest piece of locking in enough doses to cover the nation’s adults before June was Johnson & Johnson. As recently as two weeks ago, Dr. Richard Nettles, Johnson & Johnson’s vice president for medical affairs in the United States, would say only that the company would supply 20 million doses by the end of March and 100 million doses by the end of June. That fell short of its contract for 37 million doses by the end of March and 87 million by the end of May.

Reuters reported Tuesday that Johnson & Johnson had informed European Union officials that production problems might delay shipments, and Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said that he had heard similar warnings from the company.

In the United States, the company’s biggest worry was getting the vaccine bottled by two subcontractors. That “fill-and-finish” work is divided between a plant in Michigan run by Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing, or GRAM, and a plant run by Catalent in Bloomington, Indiana. The Biden team pushed Johnson & Johnson to order GRAM to move from normal business hours to 24/7 operations, one senior administration official said. Another federal official said Johnson & Johnson was largely on track but did “scale up a bit faster” under pressure.

Officials also brokered an unusual partnership between Johnson & Johnson and a longtime competitor, Merck & Co. The Trump administration repeatedly explored using Merck’s plants to bolster vaccine production but never reached an agreement.

Zients, the pandemic adviser, said Sunday that the new alliance had helped the Biden administration set its new May goal. In fact, though, Merck is likely to bottle only a few million doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine by then, according to people familiar with its operation. The main benefit of the partnership will come later in the year, when Merck will have retooled a huge plant with the capacity to produce as many as 100 million doses of vaccine a month, they said.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of production, Biden’s White House has pursued a starkly different messaging campaign than Trump’s: underpromise, and then try to overdeliver. Trump routinely boasted of imminent achievements, including a vaccine rollout before Election Day, only to fall short. By contrast, health experts complained, at least initially, that Biden was overly cautious.

When the vaccine rollout began in December, Biden vowed that his administration would average 1 million shots a day during his first 100 days in office — enough to vaccinate 50 million people by the end of March.

After less than a week in office, he raised the goal by 50%, to 1.5 million shots per day. The nation passed Biden’s initial target about a month ahead of schedule and is now averaging 2.17 million doses per day.

Carefully calibrated goals “avoid losses,” said David Axelrod, the senior strategist for President Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012. “Certainly they must have learned that lesson from watching Trump.”

“Internally, you drive to the highest possible goal you can make. Externally, you set a floor that you are reasonably confident you can achieve,” he said.