Health and Science

Operation Warp Speed at a crawl: Adequately vaccinating Americans will take 10 years at current pace

Joe Murphy and Corky Siemaszko
Seniors and first responders wait in line to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at the Lakes Regional Library on December 30, 2020 in Fort Myers, Florida.
Octavio Jones | Getty Images

The Trump administration's Covid-19 vaccine distribution program needs a major shot in the arm because at the current rate, it would take almost 10 years to inoculate enough Americans to get the pandemic under control, a jarring new NBC News analysis showed Tuesday.

The goal of Operation Warp Speed, a private-public partnership led by Vice President Mike Pence to produce and deliver safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines to the public, is to ensure that 80 percent of the country's 330.7 million people get the shots by late June.

To meet that goal, a little more than 3 million people would have to get the shots each day, the math shows.

But so far, only about 2 million people — most of them front-line health care workers and some nursing home residents — have gotten their first shots of the 11.5 million doses that were delivered in the last two weeks, a review by NBC News of data from federal and state agencies showed.

"I don't think we're going to be able to distribute the 20 million doses that were promised" this year, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under President Donald Trump and a Pfizer board member, said Tuesday on CNBC.

"Georgia, for example just started vaccinating nursing homes yesterday, and the vaccine has been on the market, right now — been authorized for almost three weeks," Gottlieb said. "So we're late getting into some of these facilities."

But once people start getting the first shot, he said, "you will start to see an impact on the most vulnerable population, I think, soon."

The data, said Gottlieb, who ran the FDA from 2017 until 2019, show that the vaccine "is partially protective after the first dose."

"We don't know exactly what the magnitude of that protection is and how long it lasts," he said. "But there is evidence that there's partial protection after the first dose."

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Later Tuesday, Biden blasted the Trump administration for "falling short" on how quickly people are being vaccinated.

"We are grateful to the companies, doctors, scientists, researchers and clinical trial participants and Operation Warp Speed for developing the vaccines quickly," he said. "But as I long feared and warned, the effort to distribute and administer the vaccine is not progressing as it should."

A short time later, Trump tweeted that it is "up to the States to distribute the vaccines" and repeated the false claim that Biden "failed with the Swine Flu."

"Nearly 20 million first doses have been allocated to States for immediate delivery and administration at their direction, and this process is progressing rapidly," the White House said in a statement Tuesday night. "Hundreds of millions of doses have been secured to be delivered over the months to come."

"The President has used the Defense Production Act 18 times in connection with Operation Warp Speed and will continue to employ it wherever possible to accelerate vaccine manufacturing and save lives," the statement said.

Dr. Celine Gounder, a member of Biden's Covid-19 advisory board, and Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, have warned that the U.S. will come up far short of projections by Trump administration officials that every person who wants a shot would be able to get one by the spring.

Seniors and first responders wait in line to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at the Lakes Regional Library on December 30, 2020 in Fort Myers, Florida. There were 800 doses of vaccine available at the site.
Octavio Jones | Getty Images

Pence, who got his first shot this month, is on vacation in Colorado. In a statement, Operation Warp Speed spokesman Michael Pratt insisted that "there is an expected lag between shots going into arms and the data being reported."

Trump, who for months downplayed the danger of the pandemic, which has infected more than 19.4 million people and claimed more than 336,000 lives in the U.S., vowed in September that 100 million doses would be shipped out by the end of the year.

But in December, when the first doses were delivered, Operation Warp Speed's top scientist, Dr. Moncef Slaoui, cut the projection to 20 million.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's leading epidemiologist, told CNN on Tuesday, "Well, we certainly are not at the numbers that we wanted to be at the end of December."

The Trump administration's Covid-19 testing czar, Dr. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of health and human services for health, told NBC News' Andrea Mitchell on Tuesday that the reported 2 million shots given already is "an underestimate."

But he agreed that the government won't meet the goal of inoculating 20 million people before the New Year.

"Again, we were over the Christmas break last week, even for hospitals that slows things down," he said. "And it's only 15 days since the first vaccines were given."

That having been said, more vaccines are getting to more people, Giroir said.

"We want to do it faster," he said. "I'd love to have everybody vaccinated by now. We'll have another 30 million doses in January, another 50 million doses in February, and that's going to add up pretty quickly into impact, particularly in our vulnerable communities."