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PolitiFact: Biden’s Criticism of Trump Administration Vaccine Contracts Too Broad To Be Accurate

President Biden at podium
President Joe Biden speaks during an event to commemorate the 50 millionth COVID-19 shot, in the White House campus on Feb. 25, 2021, in Washington. (Photo: AP/Vucci)

This article by Victoria Knight is posted as part of VPM's partnership with PolitiFact.

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 to the American public: "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 what 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 administration’s initial contracts called for drug makers to supply to the U.S. government: 

In total, the amounts agreed to under these contracts equal 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 older than 18. (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 that had 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 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. 

The 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 1." 

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 doses of authorized vaccines, 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 the Kaiser Family Foundation. "I think the question is should they have purchased it earlier?" 

The New York Times reported on Dec. 7 that before Pfizer’s COVID-19 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 non-governmental organization that obtained copies of COVID-19 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. 

Our ruling:

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’s less than the U.S. adult population. 

However, KHN/Politifact reviewed the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed contracts, and found that those included enough vaccine doses that, once cleared for use by the FDA, could 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.

Our Sources: