Early Covid-19 Vaccine Distribution Troubles Add to a Long List of Government Pandemic Failures

It’s been nearly twelve months since Covid-19 reached the United States. Since then, more than 19 million U.S. citizens have contracted the disease, resulting in just over 334,000 deaths. Well-intended but often misguided policy responses have added high unemployment, financial strife, and widespread mental health concerns to an already deeply troubling situation.

Thankfully, drug producers Pfizer and Moderna have developed highly effective Covid-19 vaccines. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for both vaccines. Both producers began distributing millions of doses immediately after receiving FDA authorization.

With two vaccines in hand, many have turned their attention to debating who should be vaccinated first. Some argue that medical professionals, who risk their health by caring for Covid-19 patients, should have access before the general public. Others hold that the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, and others who face the most significant risk of dying if infected with Covid-19 should be vaccinated first.

Some, more radically, propose that race should be a factor in deciding who gets vaccine priority. As Harald Schmidt of the University of Pennsylvania’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics argues, “Society is structured in a way that enables them [white people] to live longer. Instead of giving additional health benefits to those who already had more of them, we can start to level the playing field a bit.”

Before deciding what factor should determine who gets vaccinated first, we should ask the more fundamental question of who should be tasked with distributing vaccines. So far, the responsibility has fallen on the government, and even this early in the process there have been several red flags.

Although the U.S. government provided more than $10 billion in funding to developing a Covid-19 vaccine, it does not have a specific plan on distributing it, which has caused widespread confusion and frustration from the vaccine producers.

As one Business Insider article headlines, “Pfizer said it had millions of doses of vaccine sitting in a warehouse because the federal government hadn’t told it where to send them.” The article also noted,“Illinois, Washington, California, Georgia, Hawaii, and Nevada are getting about half the doses they expected.”:

Some errors in conducting a vaccination program of this size are unavoidable. However, the government’s woeful track record of providing and distributing urgently needed goods during the pandemic shows that such mistakes are the norm, not the exception. We should recall:

  • When Covid-19 first reached the United States, the FDA and CDC stifled the development and distribution of Covid-19 test-kits so severely that only about 1,200 patients were tested between late January and mid-March. The FDA-permitted Covid-19 test during this time was developed by the CDC, and it frequently produced false-negative results due to manufacturing errors.
  • Last March, the Trump administration offered Transportation Security Administration employees a stockpile of 5 million respirator masks. This was during a period when air travel had decreased 55 percent, and many hospitals faced crippling shortages of personal protective gear.
  • President Trump sent a naval hospital boat with a 1,000 patient capacity to help hospitals in New York City overwhelmed with Coivd-19 patients. The vessel left a month later, after treating 182 patients (30 percent of whom did not have Covid-19).
  • With federal support of $660 million dollars, the US Army Corp of Engineers constructed large-scale field hospitals across the country to prepare for hospitals becoming overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients. Unfortunately, “there wasn’t enough planning to make sure these field hospitals could be put to use once they were finished.” Many field hospitals remain empty, even when local hospitals are overwhelmed.
  • After the drug remdesivir received emergency use approval to treat severe cases of Covid-19, the U.S. government purchased almost half a million doses (a nearly three-month global supply) to distribute to hospitals across the country. However, numerous articles report some hospitals to have a severe shortage of the drug (even driving them to ration who receives treatment) while other hospitals have an unhelpful surplus.

The arrival of a Covid-19 vaccine provides hope that we may reach herd immunity without endangering millions of lives. But utilizing this pioneering medical breakthrough and truncating the length of the pandemic depends on how well the vaccines are distributed. So far, not so good.

Raymond J. March is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Assistant Professor of Agribusiness and Applied Economics at North Dakota State University.
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