Operation Warp Speed Promised Vaccines In The Fall. Here's What Caused Delays : Shots - Health News Immediately after the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer's vaccine, the company delivered fewer doses than its government contract projected. Federal officials say they didn't know why.

The U.S. Paid Billions To Get Enough COVID Vaccines Last Fall. What Went Wrong?

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The Trump administration fell short of its promise to deliver a few hundred million doses of a COVID vaccine by the end of 2020, and that's despite spending billions of dollars in an effort called Operation Warp Speed. Reaching that goal would have required an unprecedented scale-up of vaccine manufacturing. And NPR's pharmaceutical correspondent Sydney Lupkin reports on the challenges, including a complicated relationship between federal officials and Pfizer.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: When the Trump administration announced Operation Warp Speed in the White House Rose Garden in May of 2020, vaccine veteran Moncef Slaoui was introduced as the project's chief scientific adviser. And he said this about vaccine data he'd seen earlier that day.


MONCEF SLAOUI: This data made me feel even more confident that we will be able to deliver a few hundred million doses of vaccine by the end of 2020.

LUPKIN: But producing that many doses that fast was a fantasy from the outset, according to pharmaceutical manufacturing consultant John Avellanet.

JOHN AVELLANET: Anybody who was involved who had experience in this probably cautioned people to say, look; you know, you're making a big, ginormous assumption of everything going right, which it's not going to in the middle of a pandemic.

LUPKIN: What's more, Operation Warp Speed's contracts with pharmaceutical manufacturers turned out to be a lot more conservative, too. The bulk of the doses were to come from Pfizer by the end of 2020. But Pfizer's contract estimated it would only deliver 40 million doses in that timeframe. Even that didn't happen. Still, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar went on the "Today" show on November 10 and said the vaccine doses were on their way.


ALEX AZAR: So the timeline is Pfizer will be producing and delivering to us approximately 20 million doses of vaccine each month starting at the end of this month, in November.

LUPKIN: Why did he make that promise? According to Azar's chief of staff, Paul Mango, Azar didn't know Pfizer was behind.

PAUL MANGO: I can assure you that Alex Azar always conveyed the truth as he knew it. It's just that the truth was being concealed from us.

LUPKIN: He tells NPR transparency was a big issue. Pfizer lowered its projections multiple times and didn't tell Operation Warp Speed why. Pfizer disputes this, saying it was transparent. What's more, the company wasn't obligated to hit the contract due dates because they were estimates, a company spokesperson said. Mango says Operation Warp Speed didn't have any leverage when Pfizer's 2020 delivery projections dropped.

MANGO: What are we going to do, refuse to take doses at any time from the only manufacturer that has an EUA? That didn't make sense.

LUPKIN: The FDA granted an emergency use authorization, or EUA, for Pfizer's vaccine on December 11, 2020. Pfizer CEO told Slaoui the company was doing everything in its power to speed up manufacturing. Slaoui tells NPR he doesn't doubt that, but he wishes Pfizer had been more forthcoming.

SLAOUI: And when we were frustrated with Pfizer, it's just - it was more complicated to plan not knowing than knowing. It's just a fact.

LUPKIN: Even so, Slaoui says the fact that any vaccine was available within a year of the virus's genetic code being sequenced was an unbelievable accomplishment. But more vaccine early on might have helped alter the trajectory of the pandemic in the U.S. Dr. William Moss of Johns Hopkins.

WILLIAM MOSS: I think if we had more doses earlier, we may have been able to have an impact on the mortality rates - I think in the nursing home population in particular. But it is more than just having doses.

LUPKIN: He says it's possible that public health workers wouldn't have been able to get so much vaccine into people's arms right away. Since the end of last year, Pfizer's factories moved into high gear, and the company says it delivered 300 million doses to the United States government. The current challenge is that vaccine supply in the U.S. exceeds demand.

Sydney Lupkin, NPR News.


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