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If Pfizer Vaccine Is FDA Approved, What's Trump Administration's Plan For Buying It?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

An FDA advisory panel is meeting right now to consider Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. If the panel likes what it hears, they could vote to recommend its use in the U.S., and the first doses could be given in a matter of days. But the initial supply is limited, and there's some concern about when the U.S. will buy more and whether the Trump administration already missed its chance.

NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin is here to talk about all of this with us. Hey, Sydney.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So as we mentioned, there is a possibility the Trump administration has missed its chance to buy more of the Pfizer vaccine for Americans. Can you just tell us more about what that means?

LUPKIN: Yeah. Well, back in July, the federal government agreed to buy 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine - that's if the FDA authorizes it - for nearly $2 billion. But it's a two-dose vaccine, which means that it only inoculates 50 million people. The U.S. population is more than 300 million, so that doesn't nearly cover everyone.

CHANG: Right.

LUPKIN: The government has the option to buy more, but negotiations with Pfizer seem kind of bumpy. It's not entirely clear what happened.

CHANG: OK, so what do we know?

LUPKIN: Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was offered the chance to buy more doses but turned it down. And because other countries want the vaccine, too, the federal government might not be able to get more until next June. Senior administration officials almost immediately said the report was inaccurate. Then Pfizer board member Scott Gottlieb said on CNBC that Pfizer offered to sell the government more doses multiple times. But an agreement for a second allotment never happened.

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SCOTT GOTTLIEB: So Pfizer has gone ahead and entered into some agreements with other countries to sell them some of that vaccine in the second quarter of 2021.

LUPKIN: And that could mean there's less available for the U.S. government to buy when it's ready to do so.

CHANG: You would think. OK, so what does the Trump administration say? I mean, did they turn down more doses?

LUPKIN: So not necessarily. Alex Azar, who oversees the Department of Health and Human Services, went on PBS Tuesday. He said there was no offer for the federal government to turn down. Pfizer never gave them a definitive number of doses or when they would be delivered. So he says there really was nothing to pass on.

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ALEX AZAR: I'm certainly not going to sign a deal with Pfizer giving them $10 billion to buy a vaccine that they could deliver to us five, 10 years hence. That doesn't make any sense.

LUPKIN: But Azar says they're still negotiating and making progress.

CHANG: OK. Well, ultimately, how big of a deal is this? Like, should we be worried there won't be enough vaccine?

LUPKIN: I think it's important to remember that the federal government made agreements to buy doses of six different coronavirus vaccines that are being developed, not just Pfizer's. That means we're buying 800 million doses in all.

CHANG: OK.

LUPKIN: Of course, these vaccine candidates might not all be proven safe and effective, so some may never get used. That's why a lot of these contracts include options that allow the government to get more doses. The Pfizer contract has the option to buy 500 more doses, but it requires a separate agreement. So we'll just have to wait and see how this plays out.

CHANG: All right. Let's just turn now to this FDA meeting that's happening right now. Can you just tell us how it's going so far?

LUPKIN: It's going well. This is a panel of outside experts. They're meeting to advise the FDA on whether to authorize the Pfizer vaccine. They started early this morning, and they've heard from the company, government officials and members of the public. So far, it's been mostly positive, with some discussion about side effects and how to monitor study volunteers going forward. But basically a recommendation for authorization seems all but certain.

CHANG: OK. And then once the panel makes that recommendation, what happens next?

LUPKIN: After that, it's up to the FDA to authorize it, and then distribution can start pretty quickly.

CHANG: Hope so. That's NPR pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin.

Thanks, Sydney.

LUPKIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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