“When I came into office, the prior administration had contracted for not nearly enough vaccine to cover adults in America. We rectified that.”
— President Joe Biden, March 2 news conference
During a March 2 news conference on the covid-19 pandemic, President Joe Biden claimed that former President Donald Trump’s administration did not ensure there would be enough vaccines for the American public.
“When I came into office, the prior administration had contracted for not nearly enough vaccine to cover adults in America,” said Biden. “We rectified that.”
Biden then announced he was using the Defense Production Act to facilitate a partnership between two competing drug companies: Merck had agreed to help manufacture the recently authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The move, he said, would accelerate the timeline for the availability of vaccines: “We’re now on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May,” he said, two months earlier than he had previously projected.
It’s been a common political message since the Biden administration took office that the initial vaccine rollout under Trump was “chaotic.” PolitiFact previously rated a claim by Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, that the Trump administration left no vaccine plan behind as Mostly False.
So, we thought it was important to check whether Biden was going too far in alleging that the Trump administration hadn’t contracted for enough vaccines to cover the American public. Let’s see what the contracts, which are public documents, say.
The Operation Warp Speed Contracts and FDA’s Process
As part of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration entered into contracts with multiple drugmakers. The contracts were generally signed while potential vaccines were still in clinical trials.
Experts told us this was smart because the Trump administration didn’t know which vaccines from which drugmakers would work, how effective they would be or how quickly they could be produced.
“That was the whole approach of Operation Warp Speed,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Not knowing which one would cross the finish line, the Trump administration took a portfolio approach and invested in multiple vaccines.”
Here’s what the Trump team’s contracts called for drugmakers to supply to the U.S. government:
- Pfizer-BioNTech: 100 million doses (two-dose regimen)
- Moderna: 100 million doses (two-dose regimen)
- Johnson & Johnson: 100 million doses (one-dose regimen)
- AstraZeneca: 300 million doses (two-dose regimen)
- Novavax: 100 million doses (two-dose regimen)
- Sanofi-GlaxoSmithKline: 100 million doses (one- or two-dose regimen)
In all, the amounts agreed to under these contracts total about 800 million vaccine doses, or enough for more than 400 million people.
The U.S., based on U.S. Census estimates, has around 328 million people, of whom about 255 million are 18 or older. (Vaccines are not yet authorized for children.)
So, it appears that the Trump administration’s contracts with drugmakers did cover enough doses to vaccinate the entire U.S. adult population — and then some. By that measure, Biden’s statement is inaccurate.
An important point to remember, though, is that these contract numbers don’t necessarily represent deliverable vaccines. The contracts represent early promises. There were still important hurdles to be cleared before these possible vaccine candidates could be a reality.
Kevin Gilligan, a senior consultant with Biologics Consulting, a firm focused on pharmaceuticals, said that once drugmakers develop a vaccine they must test it through clinical trials with humans and amass enough data to show the vaccines are safe and effective and cause minimal side effects.
The data is then presented to the Food and Drug Administration, which decides whether the vaccine should be authorized for emergency use. Granting an emergency use authorization means the vaccine can then be distributed to the public.
Until recently, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were the only two that had reached that point, gaining authorization on Dec. 11 and 18 respectively.
The Trump administration announced Dec. 23 that it would buy an additional 200 million doses in total of both companies’ vaccines.
A Caveat Worth Noting: The Real Numbers Were Lower
A Biden administration press official told KHN that the president was referring only to orders for the authorized vaccines: “When the Trump administration was in office, there were only two approved vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) and the Trump administration had not contracted for enough of them to vaccinate all Americans. They only had 400 million doses of these authorized vaccines, which is only enough for 200 million Americans. Upon coming into office, one of our first steps was to ensure that we had enough supply secured for every American. We were prepared from Day One.”
On this point, the Biden White House is correct. The U.S. government had in place agreements to buy 400 million doses of the authorized vaccines, which were both two-dose vaccines — not enough for the entire U.S. adult population.
It’s also true that five days after Biden became president, he announced his administration had reached agreements with Moderna and Pfizer to buy a combined additional 200 million doses. That purchase was finalized on Feb. 11 and brought the total U.S. supply to 600 million, or enough to vaccinate 300 million people.
In addition, on Feb. 27, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was authorized for emergency use. Under the Operation Warp Speed contract, J&J is supposed to provide 100 million doses to the U.S. by the end of May, but the company is reportedly behind on production. The Biden administration’s move to get J&J to team up with Merck to achieve its production goal will increase vaccine supply.
But, is it fair for Biden to blame the Trump administration for not buying more of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines once they became authorized for emergency use?
The answer to that isn’t clear-cut, said the experts.
“It’s not totally fair to say the prior administration didn’t purchase enough, since they did move to purchase more doses after the vaccine was authorized,” said Jennifer Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at KFF. “I think the question is should they have purchased it earlier?”
The New York Times reported on Dec. 7 that before Pfizer’s covid vaccine was shown to be highly effective in clinical trials, the company had offered the U.S. government the option to buy additional doses, but the Trump administration declined. Former Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar disputed the news report, saying during a TV interview that Pfizer hadn’t agreed to a production amount or delivery time for the additional vaccine, so he couldn’t agree to the deal: “I’m certainly not going to sign a deal with Pfizer giving them $10 billion to buy vaccine that they could deliver to us five, 10 years hence. That doesn’t make any sense.”
James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, a nongovernmental organization that obtained copies of covid government contracts, agreed that once it was clear the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were likely to receive FDA authorization, the Trump administration could have taken action to make competing drug companies increase their vaccine manufacturing capacity in the way Biden did with Merck and J&J.
“The U.S. could have forced technology transfer between companies, which meant they would have been assured of additional vaccine manufacturing capacity,” said Love. “The agreements we have now about scaling manufacturing are coming pretty late actually. It takes several months to get stuff up and running.”
But Gilligan noted that the Biden administration had the advantage of hindsight. “Biden inherited the success of vaccine development done under Trump and then expanded on it,” said Gilligan. “And the Biden administration has the benefit of looking back at what was done well and what wasn’t and making the appropriate corrective changes. Hindsight is 20/20.”
Overall, there are questions around whether the Trump administration could have acted more quickly to buy doses or increase vaccine manufacturing capacity. And the Biden administration has certainly taken significant measures to expand supplies.
But it’s stretching the truth to say the Trump administration hadn’t contracted for enough covid vaccines to inoculate the U.S. adult population.
Biden said the Trump administration “had contracted for not nearly enough vaccine to cover adults in America.”
While Trump was still in office, his administration had agreements in place to buy 400 million doses of authorized vaccine, or enough to inoculate about 200 million people. That wouldn’t cover the U.S. adult population.
However, KHN-PolitiFact reviewed the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed contracts and found those included enough vaccine doses that, once cleared for use by the FDA, would inoculate about 550 million people — more than double the U.S. adult population.
Biden’s statement contains an element of truth but ignores facts that would give a different impression.
We rate this claim Mostly False.
Census Bureau, National Population by Characteristics: 2010-2019, accessed March 5, 2021
Department of Health and Human Services, Novavax contract, July 6, 2020
Department of Health and Human Services, Pfizer contract, July 21, 2020
Department of Health and Human Services, Sanofi contract, July 30, 2020
Department of Health and Human Services, Janssen contract, Aug. 5, 2020
Department of Health and Human Services, Moderna contract, Aug. 9, 2020
Department of Health and Human Services, AstraZeneca Contract, Oct. 28, 2020
Department of Health and Human Services, “Trump Administration Purchases Additional 100 Million Doses of COVID-19 Investigational Vaccine From Pfizer,” Dec. 23, 2020
Department of Health and Human Services, “Biden Administration Purchases Additional Doses of COVID-19 Vaccines From Pfizer and Moderna,” Feb. 11, 2021
Department of Health and Human Services, “Biden Administration Announces Historic Manufacturing Collaboration Between Merck and Johnson & Johnson to Expand Production of COVID-19 Vaccines,” March 2, 2021
FactCheck.org, “Biden’s Misleading Vaccine Boasts,” Feb. 23, 2021
Food and Drug Administration, “FDA Takes Key Action in Fight Against COVID-19 by Issuing Emergency Use Authorization for First COVID-19 Vaccine,” Dec. 11, 2020
Food and Drug Administration, “FDA Takes Additional Action in Fight Against COVID-19 by Issuing Emergency Use Authorization for Second COVID-19 Vaccine,” Dec. 18, 2020
Food and Drug Administration, “FDA Issues Emergency Use Authorization for Third COVID-19 Vaccine,” Feb. 27, 2021
KFF, Distributing a COVID-19 Vaccine Across the U.S. — A Look at Key Issues, Oct. 20, 2020
Knowledge Ecology International, Moderna contract, Dec. 11, 2020
The New York Times, “Trump Administration Passed on Chance to Secure More of Pfizer Vaccine,” Dec. 7, 2020
PBS NewsHour, Alex Azar interview, “Britain Rolls Out a Vaccine, but What Will Distribution Look Like in the U.S.?”, Dec. 8, 2020
Phone interview with James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, March 4, 2021
Phone interview with Kevin Gilligan, senior consultant with Biologics Consulting, March 4, 2021
Phone interview with Jennifer Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at KFF, March 4, 2021
Phone interview with Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, March 3, 2021
PolitiFact, “Trump Vaccine Plan Left Logistics to States, but It Did Exist,” Jan. 27, 2021
The White House, Remarks by President Biden on the Administration’s COVID-19 Vaccination Efforts, March 2, 2021
Subscribe to KHN’s free Morning Briefing.
Mostly false? How about a lie!
Joe Biden cracks me up. Better then watching Saturday Night Live. LOL
OK, so the previous administration contracted for X amounts of vaccine. Fine. The ex-presidents lies and misinformation about COVID19 in the beginning is nothing less than a criminal offense against the health and welfare of all Americans and humanity. This inaction has caused 10’s of thousands of deaths, countless numbers of avoidable sickness.
So you want to praise him for purchasing some vaccines after the intentional carnage he inflicted on Americans?
David Schaefer says
I disagree. Trump screwed up period……
OK. . . the bottom line appears to be that the trump administration “technically” purchased enough “future prospective” vaccine doses to provide inoculations to all Americans. HOWEVER:
1. Only two of those vaccines were “approved” during trump’s tenure = 200 million doses of vaccines that require 2 doses per person= 100 million people completely inoculated. Far short of what will be needed!
2. The trump administration FAILED to purchase MORE of the “approved” vaccine during his tenure!
3. The trump administration had “ZERO” plans on how to actually get the vaccines into the arms of our citizens!
While the pharmaceutical companies did an outstanding job of developing the vaccines in record time, the ball was dropped in a catastrophic way by an incompetent federal government under the failed leadership of one donald j trump!
@Thank God for the immigrants and scientists – and all the other honest AND competent human beings in our society and our federal government.
Sherry says, “…While the pharmaceutical companies did an outstanding job of developing the vaccines in record time, the ball was dropped in a catastrophic way by an incompetent federal government under the failed leadership of one donald j trump!”
I would disagree. The “incompetent federal government” (and the best free press in the world) were the only things standing between us and MORE battle tanks ON our streets – and military helicopters OVER our streets.
Sherry, the senile dead-enders who write the typical letter-to-the-editor to this site are the same chuckle heads who read dog-eared and broken spine copies of paperback editions of Ayn Rand’s schlock romance novels with one hand… They’ve voted for the John Birch Society, the KKK, Wallace (George – not William – hell, they think they are William), Nixon, Reagan, trump et. al. and every other bad idea you can name.
Operation Warp Speed deserves its due for what it accomplished in spite of trump and his family. But so do others that the brain dead audience of AM hate radio and Fox have never heard of:
Immigrant-Founded Moderna Leading The Way In Covid-19 Response
Stuart AndersonSenior Contributor
“Moderna, the first company to ship a vaccine for testing against the novel coronavirus, was founded by an immigrant. Not only did an immigrant found Moderna but many of its key leadership positions, including its CEO, are immigrants. The story of how Moderna rose to its position in helping to lead the fight against Covid-19 and other medical threats is uniquely American, a story of welcoming talent from all over the world.
Noubar Afeyan, co-founder and chairman of Moderna, is a two-time immigrant. He was born to Armenian parents in Lebanon and immigrated with his family in his early teens to Canada. After attending college, Afeyan came to the United States and earned a Ph.D. in biochemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He started his first company at age 24 and ran it for 10 years, during which time he founded or co-founded five additional companies…”
The Founder Of Pfizer Was An Immigrant, Too
Stuart Anderson Senior Contributor
“In a recent speech, Vice President Mike Pence said, “Only in America could you see the kind of innovation that’s resulted in the development of a vaccine in record time.” The reason for this innovation, it turns out, is America historically has not followed the type of immigration policies in place over the past four years. Moderna’s leaders, two cofounders and critical scientific personnel are immigrants, as are the chief executive of Pfizer and a key scientist (Katalin Karikó) who made a crucial breakthrough on messenger RNA. One immigration detail has gone unnoticed in the press coverage of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines – the founder of Pfizer was an immigrant, too…”