Hopes of a surge in Covid-19 vaccine shipments under a new policy to release second doses held in reserve appear to be evaporating — with the revelation that those doses have already been distributed, contrary to recent indications by the Trump administration.
A senior administration official told CNN that when the administration announced that it would be releasing reserved doses Friday, many of those reserves had already been released into the system starting last year as production was ramping up.
When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was asked Friday whether there is in fact a reserve of second doses left to release, he said, “No. There’s not a reserve stockpile.”
“We now have enough confidence that our ongoing production will be quality and available to provide the second dose for people, so we’re not sitting on a reserve anymore,” he said in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt. “We’ve made that available to the states to order.”
The revelation appears to contradict what Azar announced on Tuesday at an Operation Warp Speed briefing, where he said the administration would be “releasing the entire supply for order by states, rather than holding second doses in reserve.”
And it adds another level of confusion for state officials, who have scrambled to distribute the vaccines after being tasked to do so by the federal government.
However, vaccine maker Pfizer said it had the doses ready to deliver. What was not immediately clear was how long it might take to get those doses to states.
The official who spoke with CNN pushed back on a Washington Post report that the second-dose supply was “exhausted,” instead characterizing the reserve as a rolling and replenished supply with new production. The source emphasized that the supply would still benefit from those extra doses already in circulation but acknowledged that this means there will not be a sudden surge in distribution numbers, as many had been led to believe.
Michael Pratt, a spokesman for Operation Warp Speed, also denied the notion the reserve was “exhausted” in a statement to CNN.
“This week, nearly 13 million total doses have been provided to states to order, millions more than other weeks, as the reserve of second doses is completely made available to order against,” Pratt said. “States have yet to fully order against their ordering caps. As stated this week, we have now moved to the phase where the full amount released to OWS is being made available to order, first to cover second doses, second to provide additional first doses.”
The news blindsided many of the officials who have been tasked with creating plans to administer vaccines at the state and local level.
“I am demanding answers from the Trump Administration. I am shocked and appalled that they have set an expectation on which they could not deliver, with such grave consequences,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, tweeted Friday. “This is a deception on a national scale. Oregon’s seniors, teachers, all of us, were depending on the promise of Oregon’s share of the federal reserve of vaccines being released to us.”
Oregon Health Director Patrick Allen, in a letter to Azar in which he recounted a call with Brown and Operation Warp Speed CEO Gen. Gustave Perna on Thursday, demanded that the HHS chief reconcile his statement about “releasing the entire supply” with this revelation.
“During that call, he informed us there is no reserve of doses, and we are already receiving the full allocation of vaccines,” Allen wrote. “If true, this is extremely disturbing, and puts our plans to expand eligibility at grave risk. Those plans were made on the basis of reliance on your statement about ‘releasing the entire supply’ you have in reserve. If this information is accurate, we will be unable to begin vaccinating our vulnerable seniors on January 23, as planned.”
In an interview with CNN, Allen described the call as an “awkward discussion” in which Perna had confirmed there was no physical stockpile of vaccine but made it seem as if states had simply misunderstood the administration’s plans.
“I do not believe I misunderstood,” Allen said. Allen confirmed that Oregon will have to delay its plan to start vaccinating seniors January 23, since no surge in vaccine is coming.
“It’s just so disappointing,” he added. “People are desperate for the vaccine, and we have worked so hard to be able to expand who’s eligible, and to not be able to do it is just crushing right now.”
Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis accused the administration of lying to state officials.
“Federal announcements that 2nd dose being held in reserve was going to be released led us to expect 210,000 doses next week, other Govs made similar plans. Now we find out we’ll only get 79,000 next week,” he tweeted.
Vaccine maker Pfizer says it has second doses of coronavirus vaccines ready to ship as needed.
“Operation Warp Speed (OWS) has asked us to start shipping second doses only recently. As a result, we have on hand all the second doses of the previous shipments to the US. We are working around the clock to produce millions more each day,” Pfizer said in a statement sent to CNN.
“We have and are continuing to work closely with OWS on our production, release and shipping schedules — to ensure Americans receive their first and second doses of the vaccine on time. We have provided OWS with a specific schedule and we foresee no issues in delivering on the commitments we have made,” the company added.
CNN contacted vaccine manufacturer Moderna, as well as Moderna’s distribution partner McKesson, and did not get a response.
The revelation that second doses weren’t strictly held in reserve was first reported by the Post, which also reported that the Trump administration had shifted its strategy to begin tapping into second doses late last year.
“We are hearing there is not a stockpile of vaccine for second dose but that it was more of a ‘paper exercise,’ ” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “The stockpile appears to be all on paper; they were tracking anticipated need but not actually holding back product.”
The bottom line, Plescia said, is the vaccine will remain scarce for at least a few more weeks.
“I think the original message got lost in a lot of overpromising,” Plescia said. “Until there is a more robust supply we need to be clear with the public that opportunity to get the vaccine is limited.”
The realization that there’s no massive tranche of vaccines coming stunned even those in regular contact with the administration’s health officials.
Lori Tremmel Freeman, the CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said her organization had not been informed about the lack of a vaccine reserve and read about it in the news.
“It was a complete surprise,” Freeman told CNN on Friday, adding, “To hear that this had been done for several weeks was actually shocking to us.”
“I don’t know if the right hand knows what the left hand is doing here,” she said, adding that there’s a risk that people will not be inoculated correctly if the federal government isn’t providing reliable numbers for its vaccine supply.
Rollout proceeding more slowly than promised
The news caps off a disappointing vaccine rollout under the Trump administration.
While vaccines were developed in record time, the process of getting them into Americans’ arms has moved far more slowly than officials promised. That’s largely because the Trump administration left it up to each state to figure out the herculean task of vaccinating its population. But the administration’s constantly fluctuating estimates about how much vaccine will be available have also made it difficult for states to craft vaccination plans, state officials have said.
“The announcement on Tuesday from Sec Azar that HHS would be releasing the entire supply for order by states, rather than holding 2nd doses in reserve led us to believe that additional doses were available and would be forthcoming,” Claire Hannan, the executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, told CNN, noting that allocations to states have not actually increased.
“State and local jurisdictions are eager for more doses to expand vaccination to older Americans while continuing to vaccinate health care and essential front-line workers,” Hannan added. “It is so critical that states get accurate estimates and allocations in advance so that they can plan for vaccine distribution and administration.”
This story has been updated with comments from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and a statement from Pfizer.