WASHINGTON – President Biden on Monday canceled a visit to a coronavirus vaccine facility operated by Emergent BioSolutions, and his spokeswoman announced that the administration would conduct an audit of the Strategic National Stockpile, the country’s emergency medical reserve.
Both measures came after a New York Times investigation into how the company gained oversized influence on the repository.
Instead of visiting Emergent’s Baltimore facility on Wednesday, the President will call a meeting at the White House with executives from pharmaceutical giants Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson, who should also attend the meeting in Baltimore. Merck and Emergent each work separately with Johnson & Johnson to manufacture the company’s coronavirus vaccine.
“We just felt it was a more suitable place to meet,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
Emergent has signed more than $ 600 million in contracts with the federal government to manufacture coronavirus vaccines and expand its fill-and-finish capacity to complete the vaccine and therapeutic manufacturing process. A senior administration official said only executives from Merck and Johnson & Johnson would attend the White House meeting on Wednesday.
An emergent spokeswoman did not immediately respond to questions about the cancellation on Monday. The spokeswoman, Nina DeLorenzo, had previously defended the company’s dealings with the government in written responses to questions, saying, “If almost no one else invested in preparation to protect the American public from serious threats, Emergent has done so, and the country is better prepared for it today. “
The Times investigation focused on the supply, which became notorious during the coronavirus pandemic for its lack of critical supplies such as N95 masks and other personal protective equipment.
When asked about the Times article during the White House press briefing on Monday, Ms. Psaki said, “The administration will conduct a comprehensive review and review of national inventory levels.”
Decisions about how to spend the repository’s limited budget should be based on careful assessments by government officials on how best to save lives. The Times noted, however, that it was largely driven by the needs and financial interests of a handful of biotech companies specializing in products that target terrorist threats rather than infectious diseases.
Chief among them is Emergent. For most of the past decade, the government has spent nearly half of the annual half-billion dollar inventory budget on Emergent’s anthrax vaccines, The Times noted.
In the competition for funding, pandemic preparation products – including N95 – have repeatedly been lost, according to the Times research, which was based on more than 40,000 pages of documents and interviews with more than 60 people with inside knowledge of inventory levels.
The image of some healthcare workers carrying garbage bags for personal protection has become an enduring symbol of the government’s failed response. Still, the Emergent government paid $ 626 million in 2020 for products containing anthrax vaccines to protect against a terrorist attack.
For much of Emergent’s two-decade history, the lead product was an anthrax vaccine, first approved in 1970 and purchased by the Michigan company in 1998. Over time, the price per dose that the government agreed to pay for Emergent has increased almost sixfold, reflecting inflation.
Ms. DeLorenzo previously defended the company’s pricing as fair. “You can’t protect people from anthrax for less than the cost of a latte,” she wrote in an email.
Emergent’s 2020 sales to the government included a new anthrax vaccine that has not yet been approved as safe and requires special authorization to be stocked. In the months leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration awarded the company long-term contracts worth around $ 3 billion. Last year, the government agreed to pay the company more than $ 600 million to manufacture coronavirus vaccines from other companies at its Baltimore facility. Emergent now manufactures coronavirus vaccines for AstraZeneca as well as Johnson & Johnson.
Emergent, whose board of directors is staffed with former federal officials, has allocated a lobbying budget that is more typical of some large drug companies, according to The Times. Tactics were sometimes resorted to that were considered underhanded even in Washington. For example, competing efforts to develop a better and cheaper anthrax vaccine failed after Emergent outmaneuvered its rivals, documents and interviews show.
Ms. DeLorenzo described the company’s lobbying as “educational” and “appropriate and necessary”.