Operation Warp Speed Set To Miss Initial COVID Vaccine Distribution Goal

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: Moncef Slaoui, the former head of GlaxoSmithKlines vaccines division, listens as U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks about coronavirus vaccine development in the Rose Garden of the W... WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: Moncef Slaoui, the former head of GlaxoSmithKlines vaccines division, listens as U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks about coronavirus vaccine development in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. Dubbed "Operation Warp Speed," the Trump administration is announcing plans for an all-out effort to produce and distribute a coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2020. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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December 28, 2020 11:08 a.m.

Operation Warp Speed is set to miss the first distribution goal it laid out, Trump administration officials said last week, saying that getting the vaccines to people has been “slower than we thought it would be.”

Trump administration officials had promised to vaccinate 20 million Americans by the end of 2020, meaning that 40 million doses would be distributed by Jan. 1.

But Gen. Gustave Perna, chief operating officer of the Trump administration’s effort to accelerate vaccine development, said that the government would only have allocated 20 million doses by Jan 1. — far fewer than promised.

“We have allocated 15.5 million doses of vaccine and we are on track to allocate another 4.5 to 5 million next week, which will bring us to 20 million doses of vaccine allocated to America before the end of the year,” Perna said in a Dec. 23 briefing with reporters. “We’ll finish those deliveries in the first week of January.”

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Perna’s remarks suggest that the Trump administration will not complete delivery of half of its projected estimate of vaccine until the first week of January. State and local governments will then oversee the vaccine’s distribution.

Michael Pratt, chief communications officer for Operation Warp Speed, told TPM in a statement that distribution falls to the states and that the effort will “allocate 20 million doses for first vaccinations by the end of December 2020, with distribution of the first 20 million doses spanning into the first week of January as states place orders for them.”

“These doses are being distributed at states’ direction to the American people as quickly as they are available and releasable, and the rapid availability and distribution of so many doses – with 20 million doses expected to be allocated for distribution just 18 days after the first vaccine was granted emergency use authorization – is a testament to the success of Operation Warp Speed,” the statement reads.

It’s a retrenchment in ambition and scale for the effort, which has achieved unprecedented success in accelerating vaccine development but is running into delays in getting the shots into people’s arms.

And it comes as Trump administration officials have boasted of mass vaccine availability on a timeframe that medical supply chain experts say is unrealistic.

In November, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that 40 million doses of the vaccine would be available by the end of December — “enough to vaccinate about 20 million of our most vulnerable Americans.”

Since then, Azar and other top Trump administration officials have reiterated that estimate while also hyping an unrealistic timeline for widespread availability of the vaccine.

Azar has said that the vaccine could be as widely available as the flu shot by February, while HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir has said that the majority of the population could be vaccinated by late spring.

These promises set up expectations that are impossible for the incoming Biden administration to meet. Lower-level Operation Warp Speed officials have contradicted the rosy timeline put forward by top officials.

Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed, made similar remarks to Perna at the Dec. 23 briefing, defining down the Trump administration’s initial commitment

On Dec. 2, Slaoui said that he was “confident” the government would be able to vaccinate 20 million Americans by Dec. 31 — a task requiring 40 million doses.

“And end of February, we will have potentially immunized a 100 million people, which is really more or less the size of the significant at-risk population, the elderly, the health-care workers, the first line workers, people with comorbidity,” he added.

But on Dec. 23 — less than three weeks later — Slaoui said that “the commitment that we can make is to make vaccine doses available.”

He added that “that commitment is met,” but that getting “shots in arms” had been “slower than we thought it would be.”

“That objective is not met,” Slaoui said.

Cracks have shown both in Operation Warp Speed’s ability to deliver the weekly cadence of vaccine that the Trump administration has promised to the states and in the capability of overstretched state and local public health departments to quickly inject the shots.

The first week of distribution saw states complain that their allocations had been cut and Pfizer, the manufacturer of one of the two vaccines currently available, claim that it had millions of doses sitting in its warehouse waiting for distribution orders.

Separately, state health officials have said that absent additional funding, they will lack the capacity to quickly distribute the shot itself — particularly when it comes to mass vaccinations scheduled for the spring and summer.

President Trump signed relief legislation on Sunday that allocated at least $4.5 billion to state and local public health departments to distribute the vaccine. That will help states meet vaccine demand, though some experts say the lack of funding until this week — combined with the time it will take to distribute the money allocated by Congress — has already caused delays.

Perna, the Operation Warp Speed general, said that some issues had been due to quality control checks on the vaccine shipments.

“We have had to adjust our timelines,” Perna said.

This story has been updated. 

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