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The U.S. has bought more than twice as many doses of Covid-19 vaccines over the past two years than what’s been distributed domestically, according to documents provided to Congress, raising questions about the nation’s vaccine campaign across two presidencies.
The documents, painting the clearest picture yet of the U.S. government’s vaccine-buying strategy and which companies have benefited, show the U.S. bought 1.97 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines over the past two years and spent $30.4 billion.
Publicly available reports show the federal government distributed 729.6 million doses in the U.S. and shipped 537 million doses abroad as of May 4. That leaves an apparent 703 million-dose gap between what has been distributed, and what the documents show was bought. Some of those doses are held in inventory and for future supply, according to an administration official, while more than 150 million others are unaccounted for.
“Sounds like we need to change the methodology of how we’re giving the vaccines,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), one of the senators who questioned health officials about virus spending recently.
The details of U.S. vaccine-buying emerged as President Joe Biden and senators negotiated details of a $10 billion Covid aid package. The information given to lawmakers influenced how that package was designed and where funds would be directed, if it clears Congress. The U.S. government has so far spent $3.7 trillion on responding to the coronavirus, including to buy tests, vaccines, and masks.
Burr, one of the Republicans involved in talks about the aid package, called the 1.97 billion-vaccines figure “remarkable” and questioned whether the U.S. has large stockpiles of vaccines, or has wasted hundreds of millions of doses. Other senators involved in the talks say they’re now seeking information about how the Biden administration plans to turn vaccine distribution over to the private sector.
The Department of Health and Human Services has approximately 275 million doses of Covid vaccines—about 170 million of those for adults and 105 million for children—in current inventory and future supply, according to a government official who asked to remain anonymous to discuss details of vaccine supplies.
The official said that 79% of available vaccine doses distributed in the U.S. have been administered to patients, with fluctuations expected over time as demand wanes.
The Biden administration has for months warned that without new funding, the U.S. will fall behind other countries in obtaining Covid-19 vaccines from drugmakers. White House press secretary Jen Psaki even hauled a thick binder that included the vaccine data in front of television cameras in early April, when she touted the president’s willingness to provide virus spending details to lawmakers.
Vaccinating the country has long been central to the Biden administration’s Covid response and the widespread availability of vaccines touted as a major victory against the virus.
Senate Democrats agree, and say the Covid aid package is “urgent” and needs to be approved. “We need to get this done soon,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said.
Spending in Emergency
Republican lawmakers complained in April that the White House hasn’t been forthcoming about how it’s spent billions of dollars in previously approved pandemic response funds. The White House has said it’s spent hours talking to top lawmakers and offering them a look at where the money has gone.
The documents obtained by Bloomberg showcase this back-and-forth, and outline why some senators say it could be time to stop funding pandemic response programs via emergency spending.
So far, 258 million Americans have received at least one dose of a vaccine—76.9% of the population, according to Bloomberg’s global vaccine tracker. Nearly 220 million have completed a vaccination series and 101 million have received boosters, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The U.S. is nearing 1 million deaths from Covid-19, according to Bloomberg records.
The Biden administration on March 2 sent a formal request to Congress for $22.5 billion to replenish Covid response programs, including $12.2 billion to purchase additional vaccines and other medical countermeasures.
Health Secretary Xavier Becerra in a March 7 letter to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said $37.7 billion remained unspent from the March 2021 stimulus law, but Biden health officials already had plans for how to use that money. That letter was included in the documents shared with Bloomberg.
The letter also revealed that the U.S. had bought 1.97 billion Covid-19 vaccines. A March 18 letter to Burr from Becerra showed that 1.2 billion of those doses were ordered since February 2021, and 500 million doses were ordered in November alone.
Vaccines Without Approval
In 2020, the U.S. bought 270 million doses of vaccine that never gained approval by the Food and Drug Administration, according to the documents. These purchases were part of early funding for Covid vaccine development, meant to spur rapid development of new vaccines.
The documents don’t spell out how much money each drugmaker earned.
Burr, in an interview, questioned whether the current vaccine distribution system efficiently uses doses and how many of them remain, or were wasted. He said he and other Senate Republicans designed the $10 billion Covid aid package, now stalled in the Senate, to direct at least half the money to therapeutics because he and colleagues were concerned with how the administration distributes vaccines.
“We directed it towards something that we can all agree should be our first line of defense,” Burr said.
The government official who shared details of vaccine supplies said the administration is working with manufacturers and vaccination sites to reduce unused doses. The government is committed to providing vaccines to anyone who wants them in the U.S., the official said.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who also played a key role in negotiating the Covid aid package, said he’s been in discussions with Department of Health and Human Services officials about how to shift the Covid vaccine distribution system in the U.S. to the private sector.
Blunt said the Biden administration is in the early phases of moving “all of this to the normal health care delivery system rather than have everything be a Covid emergency.”
“The Covid emergency has to and will end some time, and we’ve got figure out how to treat Covid more like the flu than a pandemic when it’s no longer a pandemic,” Blunt said.