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Media Misfire: A Trump Non-Scandal on Vaccine Prioritization

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

An odd news story about Trump made the rounds on social media this week. I first saw the Stat News piece shared by a New York Times tech reporter on Twitter. He quoted an ominous-sounding passage from the article, which bore the headline, "The Trump administration quietly spent billions in hospital funds on Operation Warp Speed." My initial reaction to this was, okay, so what?


The Trump administration quietly took around $10 billion from a fund meant to help hospitals and health care providers affected by Covid-19 and used the money to bankroll Operation Warp Speed contracts, four former Trump administration officials told STAT. The Department of Health and Human Services appears to have used a financial maneuver that allowed officials to spend the money without telling Congress, and the agency got permission from its top lawyer to do so. Now, the Biden administration is refusing to say whether the outlay means there will be less money available for hospitals, physicians, nursing homes, and other providers. Several provider groups said they had not heard that $10 billion for providers was spent on Warp Speed contracts until STAT’s reporting.

Let's pause here, just before some quotes about "outrage." My reaction remains, okay, so what? In my view, the single best thing the federal government could have done with taxpayer money during this deadly pandemic was to generously bankroll the overwhelmingly urgent task of developing and producing life-saving vaccines. Funds for all sorts of other COVID-related purposes were important, but nothing was going to end this nightmare and save more lives than a cure. Prioritizing Operation Warp Speed would be defensible even if that pharmaceutical moon shot hadn't proven dazzlingly successful. Complaining about directing fungible money to a massive, historic success is a very odd choice. This was the right call by Team Trump. If there are transparency problems with the manner in which the money was moved, fine. Not ideal. And I'm not sure why the Biden crew is mum on what this actually means. Then there's this nugget, buried deeper into the piece:


In summary, Trump's administration correctly moved some money around to make sure "warp speed" had the resources it needed to pull off a modern miracle. We are all reaping the benefits of that triumph, to the tune of three wildly effective and safe vaccines, brought to market in record time. And despite the suggestion that some of the cash was repurposed at the expense of health care providers (again, a justifiable prioritization, if true), the body of the text admits that that may not have been the actual consequence here. What a bombshell. Speaking of the vaccines, this partnership announced Tuesday is certainly auspicious:


The pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co will help manufacture the new Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine under an unusual deal, brokered by the White House, that could substantially increase the supply of the new vaccine and ramp up the pace of vaccination just as worrisome new variants of the virus have been found in the United States. President Biden is expected to announced the arrangement, first reported by The Washington Post, on Tuesday, according to two senior administration officials, who confirmed the arrangement on condition of anonymity to discuss a matter that has not yet been made public. It comes just days after the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency authorization to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Merck is an experienced vaccine manufacturer whose own attempt at making a coronavirus vaccine was unsuccessful. Officials described the partnership between the two competitors as “historic”...Officials in both the Trump and Biden administrations had considered enlisting Merck’s help in manufacturing vaccines developed by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson...Under the agreement, Merck will dedicate two of its facilities to production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which unlike the other two vaccines that have U.S. emergency authorization requires only one shot.


Competitors working together to help produce as many doses as possible, as quickly as possible. Excellent. It looks like this agreement was floated by the Trump administration, then brought to fruition by the Biden administration. Kudos to everyone involved in making it happen. I'll leave you with this:

Reminder to those who need to hear it – ahem – this is all good news.


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