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The New York Times
Biden got the hum of the vaccine rollout with Trump’s help
WASHINGTON – When President Joe Biden promised last week that he would collect enough vaccines by the end of May to vaccinate every adult in the United States, the statement was hailed as a triumphant acceleration of a vaccination campaign that seemed to have stalled only weeks earlier. And it’s true that production of two of the three federally approved vaccines has been sped up in part due to the requirements and guidelines of the new president’s coronavirus team. But the announcement was also a triumph of another kind: public relations. With Biden dampening expectations early on, the faster vaccine production schedule conjured up the image of a White House running on cylinders, leaving its predecessor’s efforts in the dust. Sign up for the New York Times morning newsletter. A closer look at the ramp-up announced last week offers a more mixed picture, in which the new administration has expanded and stepped up its efforts to manufacture vaccines, the key elements of which were in place when Biden took over for President Donald Trump. Both administrations deserve recognition, although neither wants to give the other much. The Biden government has taken two important steps to accelerate vaccine production in the short term. Even before Biden was inaugurated, his staff discovered that the federal government could rely on the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to help procure the heavy machinery needed to expand its Kalamazoo, Michigan facility. The Trump administration had invoked this bill repeatedly, but its order for Pfizer included only single-use items such as plastic liners, not permanent factory equipment. Crucially, Biden’s top advisors got another vaccine maker, Johnson & Johnson, to force a key subcontractor to run 24/7 so their vaccine could be bottled faster. This company was behind on the production targets set in its federal contract. It was only after Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s chief pandemic advisor, and Dr. David Kessler, who oversees vaccination efforts that urged the company to allocate more resources, publicly promised to meet an important deadline in May. At a vaccine summit in the White House on Wednesday afternoon, Biden will announce that he intends to raise an additional 100 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson single vaccine by the end of this year with the aim of having enough vaccines available to children and, if necessary, Give booster doses or reformulate the vaccine to control newly emerging variants of the virus. At the same time, however, Biden benefited hugely from the waves of vaccine production set in motion by the Trump administration. When both Pfizer and Moderna found their manufacturing base, they were able to double and triple the output of their factories. Biden had been in office for less than a month when Moderna announced it could deliver 200 million cans by the end of May, a month ahead of schedule, simply because production had gotten faster. Pfizer was able to save even more time and postpone the schedule for dispensing its 200 million doses by a full two months, partly because of a new level of efficiency, partly because it counted six instead of five doses per vial. All of this enabled Biden to announce that by the end of May, his government would have enough doses to cover all 257 million adults, two months earlier than he had promised just weeks earlier. His aides found the nation hit a daily record of 2.9 million shots on Sunday, 3 1/2 times as many as on the day of inauguration. “During our response, we provided clear timetables based on the available, approved vaccines,” said Kevin Munoz, Assistant Secretary of the White House. “We’re not just planning to meet these schedules, we are planning to exceed them.” The crowing of the new president sounds wrong to Trump administration staff. Biden proclaims victory over his predecessor’s accomplishments while mistakenly grumbling over a mess he says he inherited, it is said. “They criticize what we did, but they use our game book every step of the way,” said Paul Mango, Trump Administration’s deputy chief of staff for health and senior officer in the development of crash vaccines, then called Operation Warp Speed Was known. He said Trump’s team oversaw the construction or expansion of nearly two dozen facilities involved in the manufacture of vaccines and used the Defense Production Act 18 times to ensure those factories had adequate supplies. The Biden team “maintains a very nice trajectory,” said Mango. “But don’t criticize us to make you look better.” Still, corporate, state and federal officials agree that Biden’s White House has been more active than its predecessor in building the country’s vaccine inventory. The new administration’s relationship with Pfizer is much better. Trump and his aides had accused the company of slowing vaccine development in order to interfere with Trump’s re-election offer. The company announced that its vaccine was effective on November 9, almost a week after election day, and then filed its application for emergency approval on November 20. Pfizer officials privately suggested that the Trump administration not only unfairly bad mouthed the company, but he had also refused for months to invoke the Defense Manufacturing Act to mandate suppliers to prioritize Pfizer’s needs like this was also the case for the other vaccine developers under a federal treaty. Biden’s employees began talking to Pfizer executives about what the company needed to give more doses before inauguration day. When Biden traveled to Michigan on February 19 to visit the Pfizer plant, Dr. Albert Bourla, the company’s executive director, called the new government a “great ally,” saying officials helped the company secure critical materials and equipment. The largest piece, sealed in enough doses to cover the nation’s adults before June, was Johnson & Johnson. Just two weeks ago, Dr. Richard Nettles, Johnson & Johnson’s vice president of medical affairs in the US, only said the company would ship 20 million doses by the end of March and 100 million doses by the end of June. This means that the contract for 37 million cans by the end of March and 87 million by the end of May was not met. Reuters reported Tuesday that Johnson & Johnson had informed European Union officials that manufacturing issues could delay shipping, and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he had heard similar warnings from the company. In the US, the company’s main concern was having two subcontractors bottling the vaccine. This fill-and-finish work is split between a Michigan facility operated by Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing (GRAM) and a facility operated by Catalent in Bloomington, Indiana. The Biden team urged Johnson & Johnson to instruct GRAM to move from normal business hours to 24-hour operations, a senior administration official said. Another federal official said Johnson & Johnson was largely on track but “grew a little faster” under pressure. Officials also brokered an unusual partnership between Johnson & Johnson and a long-time competitor, Merck & Co. The Trump administration repeatedly investigated the use of Merck plants to promote vaccine production, but never reached an agreement. Zients, the pandemic advisor, said Sunday that the new alliance had helped the Biden government set its new May target. In fact, by then, Merck will likely only fill a few million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to people familiar with how it works. The main benefit of the partnership will come later in the year, when Merck retrofits a huge facility with a capacity of up to 100 million vaccine doses per month. Manufacturing basics aside, Biden’s White House pursued a completely different messaging campaign than Trumps: sub-promises and then trying to over-deliver. Trump routinely bragged about upcoming achievements, including a vaccine launch before election day, just to miss out. In contrast, health professionals, at least initially, complained that Biden was overly cautious. When the vaccine rollout began in December, Biden vowed that his government would fire an average of 1 million shots a day for the first 100 days of his tenure – enough to vaccinate 50 million people by the end of March. After less than a week in office, he increased the target by 50% to 1.5 million shots a day. The nation exceeded Biden’s initial target about a month ahead of schedule, and now averages 2.17 million doses per day. Carefully calibrated goals “avoid losses,” said David Axelrod, chief strategist for President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. “You must have learned that lesson from Trump.” one can achieve. Outwardly, you establish a floor that you are pretty sure you can reach, ”he said. This article originally appeared in the New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company