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Officials dispute Trump’s claim that military is preparing COVID-19 vaccine distribution

President Donald Trump arrives to speak during a news briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, July 28, 2020. (Oliver Contreras/Pool/Abaca Press/TNS)

President Donald Trump says the U.S. military has an elaborate plan to distribute a coronavirus vaccine across the country at rapid speed. But defense and administration officials say otherwise.

It is unlikely the military will be involved, either in the distribution of a vaccine or in deciding who gets those precious initial deliveries, officials from both the White House and Defense Department said.

Two defense officials told McClatchy on the condition they not be identified that the military commands most likely to have a stake in establishing a delivery strategy — including U.S. Northern Command, which is responsible for homeland defense, or the U.S. National Guard — had not been asked to plan or prepare for distribution.

White House officials said the Defense Department stands “ready and able to assist,” but did not detail a plan for an eventual COVID-19 vaccine to be distributed by the military. And an official at the Department of Health and Human Services went further, stating that military assistance in distributing a vaccine would be the exception — not the norm.

That runs contrary to repeated statements from Trump, who said the military was being mobilized as early as May and has made similar assertions at several events throughout July, the most recent this week.

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“Logistically, we’re using our military, our great military — a group of people, their whole life is around logistics and bringing things to and from locations — and they’ll be able to take care of this locationally, and bringing it where it has to go very, very quickly. They’re all mobilized. It’s been fully set up,” Trump told reporters at a press briefing on Tuesday. “When we have that vaccine, it will be discharged and taken care of. It’ll be a very rapid process.”

Instead, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) expects to work with pharmaceutical manufacturers and their traditional distributors “to accomplish this nationwide effort,” a senior HHS official told McClatchy on the condition they not be identified.

HHS, which is planning the effort, expects to call on the Pentagon only to provide “a complementary role” to those manufacturers and distributors “where speed of response distribution to remote sites requires DoD support.”

“DoD support may not be required at all, and may be the exception, not the norm,” the official said.

Trump has appointed several generals and admirals to assist in the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. In May, he appointed Gen. Gustave Perna, a four-star U.S. Army general, to lead Operation Warp Speed, the federal program to expedite research and production spending on coronavirus vaccine candidates.

The Defense Department has also used its authorities and budget under the Defense Production Act to speed production of protective masks and equipment that will be needed to distribute a vaccine, including three contracts since May worth a total of $485 million for syringes and glass vials.

A senior White House official said that the president is committed to cutting through “every piece of red tape” to get any eventual vaccine to the public as quickly as possible.

“The United States military is always ready and able to assist the American people and respond to a crisis, and like the President and HHS have said, the military stands ready to assist with logistics and mass distribution,” the White House official said.

While the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed has set a goal of discovering, producing, and beginning to deliver a coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year, scientists who are a part of the project say it will require a flawless effort — and even if all goes right, only limited doses would be available by January.

A government watchdog group said having HHS lead the distribution effort may be more appropriate.

“Planning for distribution should be one of the top priorities,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight. However, “this is a public health mission that we should have public health agencies leading,” she said.

As HHS plans the logistics of delivering vaccines to communities across the country, they are also grappling with the ethically fraught question of who gets shipments first.

The current plan proposed by members of Operation Warp Speed is to take those decisions out of the hands of policymakers, including at the White House, HHS and the Pentagon.

The National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have delegated planning for “equitable allocation” to a panel of experts at the National Academy of Sciences, which met for the first time last week.

“Subject matter experts who are seeking input from several external parties, including medical ethicists, will propose a distribution and allocation plan for HHS approval,” the HHS official said. “(Operation Warp Speed) will not play a role in crafting this policy decision, but is committed to implementing the plan and distributing medical countermeasures as fast as possible.”

White House officials would not say whether Trump had directed his administration to defer allocation decisions to an independent panel, nor would they say he is committed to adhering the panel’s advice.

But they said that the distribution of a vaccine, whenever one becomes available, should be above politics.

“The rapid research, development, trials and eventual distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine is emblematic of President Trump’s highest priority: the health and safety of the American people. It has nothing to do with politics,” said deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere. “Any new vaccine must maintain FDA’s gold standard for safety and be thoroughly tested to ensure it is effective, which is why Operation Warp Speed is being led by expert scientists focused on saving lives.”

The independent panel includes some of the most storied bioethicists in the American medical community, including Dr. William Foege, a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom credited with orchestrating the eradication of smallpox; Christopher Elias, president of the Global Development Division at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and Saad B. Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, as well as more than a dozen other experts.

A National Academy of Sciences official told McClatchy that the panel is aiming to provide an “overarching framework for vaccine allocation to assist policymakers in the domestic and global health communities in planning for equitable allocation of vaccines” against the coronavirus.

On its website, HHS also said it will factor in “data on the virus and its impact on populations and the performance of each vaccine, and the needs of the essential workforce,” when determining how to distribute one of several potential vaccines that are currently being developed by both government and private sector labs.

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© 2020 McClatchy Washington Bureau

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.