WASHINGTON – President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Tuesday criticized the speed of vaccine distribution under the Trump administration and vowed to step up the pace when he takes office, while issuing a sober warning on the record of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Biden offered a grim assessment of the months ahead, saying it would be “a very difficult time for our nation,” and he urged Americans to make the sacrifices necessary to overcome the devastation of the virus.
“It will take all the courage and determination that we have as Americans to make it happen,” he said.
He warned that if the current pace of vaccine delivery under President Trump continues, “it will take years, not months” to vaccinate the country. And he said he asked his team to prepare for a more aggressive effort once he takes office in three weeks, pledging to “move heaven and earth to put us in the right direction” .
“This will be the biggest operational challenge we’ve ever faced as a nation,” Biden said during a speech in Wilmington, Delaware, “but we’ll get there.”
Mr Biden will assume the presidency amid a health crisis that has already killed more than 336,000 people in the United States and inflicted widespread economic disruption. The distribution of vaccines to the American people will pose a first test.
Earlier this month, federal officials said their goal was for 20 million people to receive their first vaccines by the end of the year. As of Monday morning, 11.4 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines had been sent across the country, but only 2.1 million people in the United States had received their first dose, according to a dashboard updated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. , which most likely reflects a notification delay of several days.
Mr. Biden has pledged to get 100 million vaccines into the hands of Americans in his first 100 days in office; vaccination currently requires two injections, which would suggest that around 50 million people would be vaccinated during this time.
On Tuesday, Mr Biden announced new members of his Covid-19 response team, including coordinators to manage vaccinations, testing and supply chain management.
Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s effort to accelerate vaccine development and deployment, spent billions of dollars to help pharmaceutical companies test and manufacture their vaccines and ensure they had a buyer. These investments have helped vaccines become available much faster than many experts anticipated.
Yet the firing of these vaccines got off to a slower start than federal officials had hoped.
“We’re certainly not at the numbers we wanted to be at the end of December,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s senior infectious disease specialist, told CNN on Tuesday. But he added, “I believe that as we begin January we are going to see an increase in momentum.”
Moncef Slaoui, the scientific advisor for Operation Warp Speed, said just last week that the odds were high that the first 100 million people in the United States would be vaccinated by the end of March.
Michael Pratt, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services, defended the pace of the vaccine rollout. He said in a statement that it was “a testament to the success of Operation Warp Speed” that 20 million doses had already been made available to states and other jurisdictions. (Not all doses have been shipped.) And Mr Trump said in a Tweeter that it was up to “the states to distribute the vaccines once brought to the areas designated by the federal government”.
The pace of inoculation in the United States is expected to accelerate during the first months of next year as the vaccine supply becomes more available and more facilities begin to distribute it to a greater number of Americans. Until now, vaccines have mainly been administered to health workers in hospitals and residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Mr Biden said he could “see a return to normalcy next year,” but he also offered a worrying forecast for the near future. “We need to strengthen our thorns for what lies ahead,” he said, adding that the next few months could be “the most difficult of this whole pandemic”.
“I know it’s hard to hear, but it’s the truth,” he said.
He expressed hope that Mr. Trump, who resisted wearing a mask and mocked Mr. Biden during the campaign to wear one, could still influence the public in a positive way.
“It would make a huge difference for President Trump to say, ‘Wear masks,’” Mr. Biden said. “I hope the president will clearly and unambiguously urge all Americans to take the vaccine once it becomes available.”
Hours before Mr Biden spoke, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris received her first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. The shot was administered on live television, as was Mr Biden’s shot last week when he received the Pfizer vaccine at a Delaware hospital.
Ms. Harris received the Moderna vaccine at United Medical Center, a public hospital in southeast Washington. She encouraged Americans to get vaccinated as well, saying, “It’s relatively painless. It happens very quickly. That’s for sure. ”Her husband, Doug Emhoff, also received the vaccine on Tuesday.
National and local authorities have long said they needed more money to distribute and administer vaccines. The $ 900 billion relief package Mr. Trump enacted on Sunday spends more than $ 8 billion on vaccine distribution, roughly matching the $ 8.4 billion health departments have requested in Congress. The CDC in September sent states $ 200 million for the effort, followed by another $ 140 million this month.
The government said the goal was to allow anyone who wants a vaccine to get one by June, but it has yet to get enough vaccines that have been approved for use. The United States has pledged enough vaccine to immunize 200 million of the approximately 260 million adult Americans eligible for inoculation.
Moderna has agreed to deliver 200 million doses of its vaccine to the United States, the first half at the end of March and the second at the end of June.
Pfizer has also agreed to provide 200 million doses. With each person needing two injections, that leaves 120 million doses short.
Over the summer, before its vaccine proved effective, Pfizer agreed to deliver 100 million initial doses to the United States. At the time, the government forwarded an offer from Pfizer to lock in additional supplies.
But as it became clear that more doses were needed, the government resumed talks with Pfizer. In an agreement announced last week, Pfizer agreed to provide an additional 70 million doses by the end of June and an additional 30 million by the end of July.
As part of the deal, the government agreed to invoke the Defense Production Act, a Korean War statute that allows the government to secure key supplies more quickly by forcing suppliers to prioritize orders. of a specific entrepreneur. Operation Warp Speed has so far used the Defense Production Act 18 times, including to help produce glass vials and syringes, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Mr Biden said on Tuesday he would also use the Defense Production Act as soon as he takes office, saying he would “order the private sector to speed up the manufacture of materials needed for vaccines as well as protective gear. “.
The government has some means of providing vaccines to the 60 million American adults not covered by existing agreements with Pfizer and Moderna.
He may be able to exercise options to purchase more doses from Pfizer or Moderna. The government could also look to vaccines from other manufacturers who are expected to release late stage results in the coming weeks. Johnson & Johnson expects results at the end of next month from a trial of its single-injection vaccine, a format that would make it easier to administer than vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. And a US trial evaluating a two-dose vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford could have results in February.
On Tuesday, Mr Biden admitted he was not yet in control of the government’s viral response, saying, “My ability to change the direction of this pandemic begins in three weeks.” And he made it clear that he would need help from Congress next year to provide additional funding to carry out his plans.
But even though he warned of the difficult weeks and months ahead, he took a long-term optimistic note.
“We’re going to get through this,” he said. “Better days are coming.”
Thomas kaplan reported from Washington, and Rebecca robbins of Bellingham, Washington.