President Trump on Tuesday took a victory lap at a White House “Summit” meant to celebrate his administration’s remarkable sprint to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, using the event to claim credit for the effort and deride the experts who initially expressed skepticism at the government’s hyper-aggressive timetable.
An introductory video clip featured early 2020 quotes from figures including President-elect Biden; Anthony Fauci, the government researcher whose agency helped to develop and test Moderna’s vaccine candidate; Rick Bright, the ousted director of a federal pandemic-response agency; and Irwin Redlener, a pandemic-response expert and vocal Trump critic. In the video, each expressed doubt that Operation Warp Speed, the federal vaccine initiative, could succeed in developing, testing, approving, and beginning to distribute a vaccine by the end of 2020.
“It’s another day of POTUS in Wonderland, here,” said Redlener, in a months-old MSNBC interview. “It is preposterous.”
Trump’s remarks overshadowed the event’s next three hours of programming, which figured a slate of government officials and private-sector executives explaining the development and distribution process in an effort to bolster Americans’ vaccine confidence.
The president also said that when it comes to the Food and Drug Administration that will ultimately issue emergency approval for the new vaccines, he is “pushing them hard.” The agency will hold a hearing Thursday to evaluate the safety of the vaccine developed by the partnership of Pfizer and BioNTech, and another next week to discuss the Moderna vaccine. Once an authorization is issued, Trump said, the government “will immediately begin mass distribution.”
Other federal officials who spoke, including the FDA’s top vaccine regulator, Peter Marks, emphasized the pains taken to ensure the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. They also tried to assure the public that no corners had been cut, despite the urgent pace of development.
Gen. Gustave Perna, the program’s head of logistics, delved into the government’s detailed allocation plans for the Pfizer vaccine, which he said included specific planned allocations for individual states, cities, and even the addresses of distribution centers.
At no point during Trump’s triumphant remarks did the president acknowledge the U.S. Covid-19 death toll, which is likely to reach 300,000 by the end of 2020. Instead, he attempted to spin the country’s immense infection rate as a positive, echoing elements of the “herd immunity” strategy pushed by a libertarian think tank and a trio of controversial university researchers, which has been widely condemned by other experts as unscientific and deadly.
“You do have an immunity develop, immunity over a period of time,” Trump said, in an apparent reference to the Covid-19 immunity that typically develops in people who have recovered from the disease. “I hear we’re close to 15%, I’m hearing that, and that is terrific. That’s a very powerful vaccine in itself.”
At the event, Trump signed an executive order declaring that U.S. policy was to preserve vaccine supply for Americans prior to allowing manufacturers to export vaccines. The order, however, appears largely nonbinding, and was issued in the wake of a New York Times report that the U.S. government declined Pfizer’s offer to purchase additional supply of the vaccine, which could lead to a slower-than-necessary U.S. vaccination process.
Trump said he would invoke the Defense Production Act, a federal power that allows the government to compel manufacturers to produce goods in the national interest, if necessary.
In addition to the FDA and Operation Warp Speed figures, the White House enlisted the help of three Southern governors to assure the residents of their own states of the vaccines’ safety. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said that while he believed most Texans would take the vaccine, doing so wasn’t mandatory. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said the state’s vaccine distribution planning was months in the making, and had included discussions of how to distribute vaccines equitably.
Though the event featured a wide range of public officials and private-sector players, it took place against the backdrop of several conspicuous absences: that of Pfizer and Moderna executives and of Fauci.
STAT reported last week that many of the companies invited to participate in the “Vaccine Summit” were reluctant to attend, as they feared the event would take a political tone. Moderna and Pfizer later bowed out of the event, leaving the logistics and pharmacy companies FedEx, UPS, CVS, Walgreens, McKesson, and Thermo Fisher Scientific as the lone industry representatives.
Trump officials said Monday that the drug companies did not attend because Marks’ presence would create a perceived conflict between a government regulator and the vaccine manufacturers seeking approvals from his agency.
Fauci, meanwhile, said in a taped video appearance at Biden’s simultaneous rollout of his top health care officials that he’d been unable to attend either event because he was attending a colleague’s Nobel Prize ceremony. Other than his appearance in Trump’s early-event video montage, he went largely unmentioned.