So is Pfizer part of Operation Warp Speed or not? Yes and no.

WASHINGTON — After the biomedical giant Pfizer announced on Monday morning that it had developed a highly effective coronavirus vaccine in partnership with BioNTech, a German firm, congratulations poured in from members of the Trump administration.

Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and top adviser, praised “the tireless work of Operation Warp Speed,” the Trump administration’s $18 billion plan to speed development and distribution of a coronavirus vaccine.

“Great work by the administration pushing the historic and unprecedented vaccine development under Operation Warp Speed, even as cynical Democrats attempted to undermine its credibility,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, a prominent congressional supporter of President Trump.

There was only one problem with the adulation: a top scientist for Pfizer had told the New York Times that her company had not partnered with the Trump administration’s program.

A woman wearing a face mask walks past a Pfizer logo at their Headquarters. (John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A woman walks past Pfizer headquarters. (John Nacion/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“We were never part of the Warp Speed. We have never taken any money from the U.S. government, or from anyone,” Kathrin Jansen, the company’s vice president for vaccine research, told the Times.

The assertion infuriated supporters of the president, who had been promising a vaccine for months, and was also challenged by some who pointed out that the company is on track to receive almost $2 billion from the administration for production.

The row over Warp Speed is part of what will be a near-certain dispute between the Trump and Joe Biden camps over how to handle the pandemic. Trump has still refused to concede the presidential election. President-elect Biden, meanwhile, is moving ahead with a transition.

All this is happening as coronavirus cases mount across the land.

Vaccines and therapeutics could radically change the course of the pandemic, but they have to be developed, manufactured and distributed. Trump will want to claim credit for any successes in the coming months, while his detractors will point to forces — private industry, in the Pfizer case — beyond his influence.

No less a figure than the president’s former communications director Anthony Scaramucci decided to tweak his former boss by pointing out the timing of the announcement.

“Thank you @JoeBiden for developing a COVID-19 vaccine,” Scaramucci quipped on Twitter. “@realDonaldTrump had four years to do it and couldn’t.”

The message may have been intended as a humorous provocation (Trump didn’t need four years to develop a vaccine for a virus that appeared less than a year ago), but it was also a seeming sign of confidence in the president-elect’s ability to handle the coronavirus. Biden announced his coronavirus task force on Monday and has signaled that handling the pandemic would be his first priority in office.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes notes as he meets with members of the coronavirus disease "Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board," including Trump administration whistleblower Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 9, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
President-elect Joe Biden meets with members of the Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board in Wilmington, Del., on Monday. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Still, the issue is somewhat more complicated than what social media may lead one to believe.

Operation Warp Speed was started in the spring as “a public-private partnership to facilitate, at an unprecedented pace, the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 countermeasures,” according to the Trump administration’s own description of the program.

While other pharmaceutical companies did take federal funds to develop a vaccine, Pfizer declined to do so, the only one of the major prospective developers to go it alone.

At the same time, on July 22, Pfizer agreed to a $1.95 billion deal with the Trump administration “for large-scale production and nationwide delivery of 100 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States following the vaccine’s successful manufacture and approval.”

Technically, that agreement has nothing to do with the development of the vaccine. But it also appears to undermine the claim that Pfizer is operating entirely outside Operation Warp Speed.

A senior administration official told Yahoo News that since “the early days of March when President Trump convened pharmaceutical companies at the White House, Pfizer has been a part of the incredible public-private partnership forged to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, the nearly 2 billion dollars awarded to Pfizer will go a long way in the manufacturing and distribution of the Pfizer vaccine in development.”

Flanked by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (L) and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, U.S. President Donald Trump speaks  during a meeting with the White House Coronavirus Task Force and pharmaceutical executives in Cabinet Room of the White House on March 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, at the White House on March 2. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Pfizer did not respond to a request for comment.

By Monday afternoon, a dispute had developed over comments by New York’s pugilistic governor, Andrew Cuomo, who said the timing of the Pfizer vaccine was “bad news” because it meant the Trump administration would determine initial distribution. Trust in the president’s response to the pandemic has been so low that even a highly efficacious vaccine could have trouble breaking through.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., echoed the sentiment of many conservatives.

“Shamelessly politicizing this is dangerous and stupid,” Sasse said in a statement.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans exhausted by both the coronavirus and the politics of the pandemic simply await a return to normal.


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