Both Pfizer and Moderna, the two major drug manufacturers likely to receive emergency authorizations for a Covid-19 vaccine in the coming weeks, have rejected invitations from President Trump to appear at a White House “Vaccine Summit” on Tuesday, according to two sources familiar with the event’s planning.
The Trump administration has openly feuded with Pfizer in recent weeks over its involvement in Operation Warp Speed and the timing of a data release showing its vaccine to be highly effective, but had nonetheless invited CEO Albert Bourla to appear on a panel about the vaccine development process. Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel was also invited, but neither he nor another company executive will attend.
The vaccine manufacturers’ absences will be conspicuous at a “Vaccine Summit,” an event that drug industry figures and one Trump administration official largely viewed as a public relations stunt when STAT first reported the event last week.
The event appeared to be an effort for the administration to claim credit for the rapid development of a Covid-19 vaccine and to pressure the Food and Drug Administration to move quickly on an authorization. The agency’s commissioner, Stephen Hahn, was twice called to the White House to explain the FDA’s slower-than-desired timetable for issuing emergency use authorizations for Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines, Axios and Bloomberg reported.
The White House scheduled the vaccine summit just two days before a FDA advisory committee is set to publicly examine data submitted by Pfizer. A similar hearing for Moderna’s vaccine is set for Dec. 17, one week later. Both vaccines are highly effective, according to data released by the companies, and are widely expected to receive emergency approvals soon after the FDA formally considers their applications.
Following this story’s publication, a spokesman disputed the circumstances of Moderna’s withdrawal from the event, saying the company “was contacted by OWS to be part of a meeting at the White House concerning COVID-19 vaccine plans and indicated its willingness to participate. Subsequently, Moderna learned that, based on the meeting’s agenda, its participation would not be required.”
Other companies involved in vaccine distribution logistics, but not in vaccine development itself, are still likely to attend, including FedEx, UPS, CVS, Walgreens, and McKesson. Many, however, are likely to send lower-ranking executives as opposed to their CEOs, according to the sources familiar with the event’s planning.
Another Trump administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Peter Marks, the FDA official in charge of the agency division overseeing vaccine approvals, may attend, though the agency has viewed the event with trepidation given its status as the regulator of most companies invited to participate.
In a call with reporters, White House officials acknowledged that they had initially invited drug manufacturers to the event. A spokesman, however, claimed it was Marks’ planned attendance that led the administration to rescind its invitations, as an FDA regulator’s presence alongside drug manufacturers at the event could create a perceived conflict for the agency and the companies it regulates.
Pfizer’s snub in particular is the latest in a series of skirmishes between Trump and the drug giant.
On Nov. 10, Kathrin Jansen, a Pfizer executive, attempted to distance the company from Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s hyper-ambitious coronavirus vaccine initiative. In an interview with the New York Times, she claimed Pfizer was “never part” of Operation Warp Speed, and that the company had “never taken any money from the U.S. government.”
While the company never accepted Operation Warp Speed funding to help develop the vaccine, it did agree to a $1.95 billion purchase order with the federal government, providing the company a massive guaranteed market if the vaccine proved to be safe and effective. Trump later called Jansen’s remark “an unfortunate mistake.”
Bourla later defended the decision to decline federal research and development funding, citing a desire to “liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy” and “keep Pfizer out of politics.”
In a Nov. 20 press conference, Trump accused Pfizer of delaying the release of its final-stage clinical trial data until after Election Day to avoid boosting the president’s reelection odds.
This story has been updated to reflect additional comments from Moderna and the White House.