States Complain of Smaller Covid Vaccine Shipments Than Expected

The smaller number of expected doses, which appeared to be the result of a scheduling hiccup, reignited tensions between the federal government and Pfizer over vaccine supply.

Officials in several states said that they were caught off guard on Wednesday when they learned that next week’s shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would contain fewer doses than the first week.

In Oregon, state health officials said they were told they were only scheduled to get 25,350 doses of the vaccine next week, significantly less than the 40,950 doses that the state received this week. Iowa’s public health department issued a similar release, saying they were told “they will not receive the volume of vaccine initially anticipated,” and that their shipment would be as much as 30 percent less than what they received this week.

Officials with Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to distribute a Covid-19 vaccine to the public, also said Wednesday that they had allocated only 2 million doses for next week’s shipment, less than the 2.9 million that were delivered this week. The officials said they expect to ship 5.9 million doses next week of a vaccine developed by Moderna, which is expected to be authorized by the Food and Drug Administration on Friday.

The move sent some states scrambling to adjust their plans and raised questions about whether federal officials will be able to meet their goal of administering an initial shot of the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to 20 million people by January 1, just two weeks away.

The smaller shipment appeared to be the result of a scheduling hiccup created when federal officials, responding to a request by states, decided to allocate next week’s doses this Tuesday instead of on Friday, as they had planned. States had asked federal officials for more time to plan their allotments before deliveries begin on Monday, but doing so meant that the federal government could not include in that shipping estimate additional vaccine batches that were released after Tuesday, according to a senior administration official.

The batches of vaccine that were not included in next week’s allocation will be included in the shipment the following week, the official said.

How the Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine Works

Two shots can prime the immune system to fight the coronavirus.

The official, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the shipments, said it was unclear whether future weekly shipments would increase because the government did not have a good view into Pfizer’s manufacturing process. Unlike other companies that took federal funding for development and manufacturing of their Covid vaccines, Pfizer signed an advance purchase agreement in which it is only paid if the vaccines are delivered. The official also said that the company’s production estimates had fallen in recent weeks.

Pfizer said in a statement on Wednesday that the company “is not having any production issues with our Covid-19 vaccine, and no shipments containing the vaccine are on hold or delayed.” The company also said, “We have millions more doses sitting in our warehouse but, as of now, we have not received any shipment instructions for additional doses.”

The company also said it had shared with the federal government “every aspect” of its production and distribution process. “They have visited our facilities, walked the production lines and been updated on our production planning as information has become available,” the statement said.

This fall, Pfizer halved initial estimates that it could make 100 million doses by the end of the year after running into manufacturing delays caused by difficulties locating equipment and raw materials, as well as needing more doses for an expansion of its clinical trial. In November, the chief executive, Dr. Albert Bourla, said about 25 million doses would go to the United States. On Wednesday, a Pfizer spokeswoman said that the company would be able to distribute 20 million doses in December in the United States.

The controversy over short-term deliveries is playing out against a backdrop of tense negotiations between Pfizer and the federal government over a new contract for tens of millions of more doses in the first half of next year. The two sides hope to reach an agreement by Christmas, but Pfizer has said it needs the federal government to use its authority to force suppliers to prioritize its orders — a request that one person familiar with the negotiations said has been pending for months.

The government wants Pfizer to sell it 100 million more doses — enough to cover an additional 50 million Americans — between the start of April and the end of June. Pfizer has said that it can only provide about 70 million doses then because other countries have already bought its remaining stock.

The issue is especially fraught because, according to people familiar with Pfizer’s version of events, the firm repeatedly asked the Trump administration to pre-order more doses beginning in late summer but the administration failed to act until Nov. 25 — more than two weeks after Pfizer announced the results from clinical trials showing its vaccine was safe and more than 95 percent effective.

Now both sides are scrambling to figure out how Pfizer can boost its manufacturing to double the number of doses the firm can deliver for Americans in the first half of next year. So far, the Trump administration has only locked in a total of 300 million doses from Pfizer and Moderna. Because both vaccines require two doses, excluding the children and teenagers for whom no vaccine is yet approved, that still leaves more than 100 million Americans uncovered.

Alex M. Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, alluded to the friction with Pfizer in an interview on Thursday morning with CNBC, saying “I do wish we would just stop talking about this Pfizer thing.” He added that the federal government was willing to help Pfizer manufacture more “if they are willing to take our help.”

Abby Goodnough contributed reporting.

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