When the White House announced on Tuesday that President Donald Trump would be hosting a summit to spotlight the progress on a COVID-19 vaccine summit, it came as news to many of the stakeholders involved in the vaccine production process.
According to three individuals familiar with the matter, including senior administration officials working on the federal government’s coronavirus response, key members of the White House’s coronavirus task force and top representatives of the pharmaceutical industry were unaware of the event before it became public.
The event, first reported by STAT News, is set to take place at the White House on Dec. 8. And it will likely include executives and representatives from the pharmaceutical, pharmacy and logistics industries. But the process by which it came together caught several individuals off guard, underscoring for them once more that the Trump White House is more concerned with the pomp and presentation of the COVID fight than the fight itself.
According to two other senior administration officials, the summit appears to have been planned at the last minute and has been largely viewed by officials working on the administration’s vaccine efforts as a public relations show designed to allow the president to take credit for the development and production of a COVID-19 vaccine. Officials said they expect the event to be largely political, with representatives of each industry feeling compelled to take time to thank the president for the vaccine development efforts that he’s delegated to others, including those working with Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership aimed to fast track a vaccine, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is leading the distribution campaign.
When asked if they would be required to attend the summit next week, one senior official working with the White House coronavirus task force said: “I hope not.”
The White House did not comment on the record for this story. Calls and emails to Pfizer and Moderna, two of the pharmaceutical companies that have submitted emergency use authorization requests to the federal government, went unreturned. STAT News reported that invitations were sent out for the event though several individuals involved in the vaccine development process say they did not receive them before the event was announced.
Officials note that the vaccine summit could come off as overly celebratory at a time when coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and related deaths are sweeping the country. On Wednesday the U.S. recorded the highest number of COVID-19 deaths—2,804—since the pandemic began, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University. Already, the White House has planned dozens of holiday parties for the upcoming weeks, where mask wearing will be encouraged but not required, despite internal administration warnings that Americans should not congregate for such gatherings.
CDC Director Robert Redfield said Tuesday during a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event that the U.S. was headed into one of the “the most difficult times in the public health history of our nation, largely because of the stress that’s going to put on our health care system.” Redfield said the U.S. could see as many as 200,000 additional deaths over the next several months.
The vaccine summit will fall two days before the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC), a committee that reviews the safety and efficacy of vaccines, meets to discuss the emergency use authorization for Pfizer and to make recommendations to the Federal Drug Administration about the authorization of the vaccine. According to a recent report by Axios, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows called FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn to the White House this week to talk about why the agency had not moved faster to authorize the vaccine. The Daily Beast previously reported that while vaccines have been flown to cities across the country ahead of the FDA’s approval, local officials are still in the midst of deciding exactly who within their communities will receive the first doses.
For the president, the development and distribution of a vaccine has become the primary focus of the pandemic fight, even though the administration’s top health officials—including Redfield; Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House COVID-19 task force coordinator; and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert—have all encouraged the public to continue practicing common health practices.
Officials met with Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday in a task force meeting to discuss the third wave of cases and which states will experience overwhelming numbers of new deaths in the coming weeks, which included states in almost every region of the country, according to one senior administration official with direct knowledge of the meeting. Trump did not attend, that official said.
—with reporting by Sam Stein