Our president — the current one, not the incoming presidential one — wants credit for COVID-19 vaccines.
And he deserves some credit. Some. And not all of it good.
Take for example the Trump administration's decision to turn down additional doses of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine. Pfizer multiple times offered first dibs on the purchase of additional doses — to the tune of 100 million to 500 million doses over the 100 million the administration did order months ago as part of a $1.95 billion deal.
But our leaders said we didn't need the extra ones.
Please bear in mind that the vaccine is two-dose treatment, meaning 100 million doses will vaccinate only 50 million Americans. The U.S. has a population of 331 million.
So now, while it's true that the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which was reported to be 95% effective during clinical trials, are expected to arrive in Tennessee in mid-December, there will only be enough to inoculate between 40,000 and 50,000 people, and those shots will rightly go to front-line medical personnel and people in nursing homes. Did we mention that Tennessee has nearly 6.9 million people?
It is unclear how many more vaccines will be available in Tennessee this year or next because officials are not talking with any specificity about how the distribution will go.
On Tuesday, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, now a member of the Pfizer board of directors, confirmed the news report in The New York Times on Monday that told of the spurned offers. He also confirmed that additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine may not be available in the U.S. until June because, after the Trump administration turned them down, they were committed to other countries.
"Pfizer did offer an additional allotment coming out of that [Michigan] plant, basically the second quarter allotment, to the United States government multiple times, and as recently as after the interim data came out and we knew this vaccine looked to be effective," Gottlieb said on CNBC.
The Trump administration had denied all this just the day before.
The Times report states: "As the administration scrambles to try to purchase more doses of the vaccine, President Trump plans on Tuesday to issue an executive order that proclaims that other nations will not get the U.S. supplies of its vaccine until Americans have been inoculated."
Trump did sign that order Tuesday. He said it gives Americans "first priority" for coronavirus vaccines produced in the U.S.
But as the Times already had noted, the order "appears to have no real teeth and does not expand the U.S. supply of doses."
At the signing Trump was asked about the Times report that he passed on a chance to secure additional supplies. He pushed back and said he'd invoke the Defense Production Act if more vaccines were needed.
On Monday, administration officials, during a background call with reporters, said the U.S. strategy had been to spread their bets across six different companies working on vaccines, not just Pfizer.
That's reasonable. But turning down additional offers to purchase legitimate vaccines anywhere we can get them isn't. Unless those calling the shots can't do basic math. Or unless they were just going through the motions to appear as though they were doing something to fight COVID-19 besides mocking masks and social distancing.
Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser for the administration's Operation Warp Speed, told reporters Tuesday that the country is "still on track" to vaccinate the U.S. population by the "middle of 2021.
"We have two more vaccines from [Johnson & Johnson] and AstraZeneca that will be completing their phase 3 trials in January, and most likely, I hope, be approved for use in February," he said, adding that the administration would work with Pfizer to try to increase its capacity.
Meanwhile, folks in the United Kingdom are already being vaccinated with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
We're truly happy for them, but yes, it's possible some of those Pfizer shots are some of those made in the U.S. — shots which the Trump administration turned down. What's more, Canada expects to get the first small delivery of its six million Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines by the end of this month. (BioNTech is the German company that, in partnership with Pfizer, developed the vaccine.)
"Bear in mind, the countries that the vaccine was sold to are our close allies," Pfizer's Gottlieb said.
He added that the federal government may be able to force Pfizer to provide additional doses if the U.S. does end up needing them, but that would mean breaking agreements with other countries. What's more, he said, the U.S. also relies on other countries for vaccine supplies, including the initial doses it is getting of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
A Food and Drug Administration advisory committee will meet Thursday to decide whether to authorize the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Then the decision moves to the FDA itself.
An Operation Warp Speed document obtained by NBC News refers to a four-day window — Dec. 11-14 — for a possible emergency use authorization, with distribution of the vaccine beginning Dec. 15, although the dates may be subject to change.
Once again, it seems, Trump is trying to fix something he and his administration broke. Let's give him credit where credit is due.