President Joe Biden toured a state-of-the-art coronavirus vaccine plant Friday as extreme winter weather across broad swaths of the US handed his vaccination campaign its first major setback, delaying shipment of about six million doses.
The disruptions caused by frigid temperatures, snow and ice left the White House and states scrambling to make up lost ground as three days’ worth of vaccine shipments were temporarily delayed. The president’s trip to see Pfizer’s largest plant had been pushed back a day due to a storm affecting the nation’s capital.
At the Michigan plant, Biden walked through an area called the “freezer farm”, which houses some 350 ultra-cold freezers, each capable of storing 360,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine. Double-masked, the president stopped to talk with some of the workers.
After the tour, Biden took the time to encourage Americans to get the vaccine, especially Black Americans who continue to voice scepticism about the vaccine’s safety.
“We all know the history in this country of having subjected certain communities to terrible medical abuses in the past,” Biden said, likely referring to the notorious 1930s secret US government “Tuskegee experiment” on 600 Black men that left them untreated with syphilis for decades.
“But if there’s one message to cut through to everyone in this country it’s this: The vaccines are safe. Please, for yourself, your family, your community, this country, take the vaccine when it’s your turn and available. That’s how to beat this pandemic,” Biden said.
Biden has set a goal of administering 100 million shots in his administration’s first 100 days, and it seemed likely that could be easily accomplished before the storms.
The United States had administered an average of 1.7 million doses a day in the week that ended on Tuesday, but bad weather forced many injection sites to temporarily close, from Texas to New England, and held up shipments of needed doses. It remains unclear how long it will take to recover from the effect of the weather-related delays.
The White House is encouraging states to extend hours for vaccination clinics once they reopen and to swiftly rebook postponed appointments.
Speaking after the tour, Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla said Biden had challenged the company to increase its production and he expects to be able to double the weekly number of doses of vaccines it will supply to the US in the next few weeks.
“We have improved our processes to double the batch size and increase yield and we have deployed more efficient lab test methods to reduce release times,” Bourla said in his remarks.
He said those measures allowed the company to reduce the time it takes to make the vaccine from 110 days to 60 days.
Bourla said Pfizer was currently sending out an average of five million doses a week.
The company has agreed to supply 300 million doses to the US by the end of July.