Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How The White House Got 2 Pharma Rivals To Work Together On COVID-19 Vaccine


News in the last day seems to bring the possible waning of the pandemic in the United States a little bit nearer. President Biden says that by the end of May, vaccines should be available for every American adult who wants one. That is sooner than expected. Not that everybody will be vaccinated, but supplies should be on hand at least. So what changed? Let's begin our coverage with NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Good morning.


INSKEEP: How did the date move up from July to May?

KEITH: Last night, I spoke with two senior officials who were deeply involved in the negotiations that are making this happen. First thing they did was renegotiate the contracts for the two vaccines that were already approved when they came into office. That's the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. So they increased the number of doses and moved up the timeline for when they would be delivered. One of the officials told me that these were the hardest talks he's ever been involved in and that none of it was simple.

And then there were more tough talks with Johnson & Johnson. They had - they got emergency use authorization from the FDA over the weekend for their vaccine. But J&J has been running behind schedule and wasn't going to meet its contractual obligations. So the White House stepped in with significant interventions to speed up production.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about what that intervention was. The White House says, Johnson & Johnson, you're going to bring in Merck, your rival, to help produce your vaccine. How'd that come about?

KEITH: It wasn't exactly dictated quite like that, but this is a really unusual partnership. There had been preliminary talks between the two companies that broke down before Biden came into office. Merck had been trying to develop its own vaccine but gave up on that on January 25.

And a little backstory - the administration officials knew the CEOs of both companies, and there were a lot of phone calls and check-ins and constant urging to go bigger. But they credit this call on a Sunday in February as a turning point. It was between administration officials and Johnson & Johnson. It was only supposed to last 15 minutes, but it went more than an hour. And the officials said that in the end, J&J knew that this was their time, their legacy. They had to think bigger, be bolder.

Here's how President Biden put it yesterday.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As I've always said, this is a wartime effort. And every action has been on the table, including putting together breakthrough approaches.

KEITH: There was a bit of help from the Defense Production Act to accelerate the contract. And the federal government is giving Merck up to $269 million to work with J&J on getting its vaccines out. But this is all more medium term. The immediate stuff is the renegotiation of those contracts to speed up deliveries.

INSKEEP: OK, so this all sounds very good, but we've got to be very clear - this is prospective. It's in the future. It's officials saying what they think will happen. What could go wrong?

KEITH: There could certainly be production problems. And as you mentioned before, there's going to need to be a massive ramp-up to get these shots into people's arms. Still, this is really good news, and it's something to be a bit hopeful about a year into this really terrible pandemic.

INSKEEP: Tam, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.