The Trump administration will host a “Vaccine Summit” today at the White House. But notably absent from the vaccine-centered event will be any companies that actually make vaccines—including the companies leading the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, Moderna, Pfizer, and Pfizer’s partner BioNTech.
The companies reportedly declined to attend or withdrew, which is seen as a snub to lame-duck President Trump. Senior officials for the Trump administration, meanwhile, said the administration decided to go “in a different direction.”
The Trump administration has pitched the unusual event as a way to educate the public about vaccine development, regulatory approval, and distribution processes and to congratulate the many players helping to develop COVID-19 vaccine candidates. The event includes a “fire-side chat” with top vaccine regulator Peter Marks from the Food and Drug Administration. There will also be talks with representatives from FedEx, UPS, McKesson, CVS, and Walgreens, who will all help get any FDA-approved vaccines to people’s arms.
But outside the administration’s sphere, the event is largely seen as nothing more than a public-relations stunt to give Trump credit for the speedy vaccine development. It is also seen as a way to put pressure on the FDA to approve a vaccine equally quickly. The summit is planned just two days before the FDA will publicly convene an advisory committee to decide whether to grant an Emergency Use Authorization for Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine.
According to reporting by STAT news, Pfizer and Moderna both rejected invitations to attend the White House event. In a response to that reporting, a spokesperson for Moderna clarified that the company had “indicated its willingness to participate” but subsequently determined that “its participation would not be required.”
On a call with reporters Monday, senior Trump administration officials acknowledged that vaccine-makers were initially invited to the event. But they said they decided to rescind the invitations after including the FDA’s Marks. Having a vaccine regulator in the same room with vaccine developers who have pending reviews with the FDA could create the appearance of a conflict of interest, the officials said.
However, having Marks—a top non-politically appointed regulator at the FDA—be a prominent feature of such a political event just days before the FDA is to make critical decisions on a COVID-19 vaccine has already raised its own questions. Senior administration officials said on Monday that Marks’ involvement in the event was voluntary.
The Vaccine Summit planning is just the latest in a string of skirmishes between the Trump administration and Pfizer. Last month, Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. both publicly suggested—without evidence—that Pfizer delayed the release of positive vaccine trial results until after the presidential election in a deliberate effort to avoid boosting Trump’s reelection chances.
Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, claimed that the success of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was in part due to support from Operation Warp Speed, a federal program to aid the swift development and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and therapies. But Pfizer quickly worked to break that link and distance itself from the Trump administration. “We were never part of the Warp Speed… we have never taken any money from the US government, or from anyone,” Kathrin Jansen, a Pfizer executive who heads vaccine research and development, said in an interview with The New York Times.
Pfizer did ink a $1.95 billion deal with the federal government to provide 100 million doses of vaccine—enough to vaccinate 50 million people—with an option to acquire an additional 500 million doses. But even that deal has become the center of another controversy. According to a report in The New York Times Monday, Pfizer approached the Trump administration about locking in a deal for additional doses, but the Trump administration declined, allowing other countries to snap up preorders. Now, there is concern that additional doses won’t be available in the US until later in 2021.
Though the Trump administration has disputed the report, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who is now on Pfizer’s board, confirmed Tuesday that the Trump administration repeatedly declined deals to secure additional vaccine orders. Gottlieb noted that the offered deals wouldn’t have necessarily required up-front payments; they would have instead simply locked in purchase agreements if the vaccine gained FDA approval.