‘I failed’: Operation Warp Speed leader takes responsibility for Covid-19 vaccine distribution confusion

The military leader of Operation Warp Speed, Gen. Gustave Perna, said Saturday that he takes sole responsibility for last week’s confusion over the allotment of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine to states, which led more than a dozen governors to complain that they had received far fewer doses than originally promised.

“Where I failed — I failed, nobody else failed — was to have a clear understanding of that cadence” of the vaccine distribution process, Perna said, adding: “It was my fault. I gave guidance. I am the one that approved the forecast sheets.”

The striking mea culpa — rare among U.S. officials in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic — came during a briefing in which Perna, the chief operating officer of OWS, said repeatedly that he had underestimated the time required to get the vaccine doses approved for distribution to states. The chaos over allotments followed labeling confusion that caused hospital pharmacists at several health systems to throw away one in every six doses of the first vaccines distributed.

On Friday, a day after governors in at least 14 states said that the federal government had suddenly slashed the number of vaccine doses initially planned for shipping, the Department of Health and Human Services blamed the problem on poor planning, saying in a statement that it overestimated the number of weekly allocations it could release to states.

Perna on Saturday said investigating what went wrong took several days.

Typical vaccine distribution programs, he said, involve collecting vaccines and distributing them several weeks later. The Covid-19 vaccine distribution process has been markedly more complex, as the vaccine requires two doses spaced three to four weeks apart. To provide states with a continuous supply of vaccines, OWS will not release first doses until it has second doses on hand, Perna said. Determining how to do so has been a challenge, he added. 

“It looked very good on paper,” Perna said. “Paper plans are very good. Execution is where we learn, and we adapted accordingly.”

Perna also denied there have been any vaccine production issues on the part of Pfizer and its partner, BioNTech, responding to additional concerns that emerged last week from HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis about Pfizer’s capacity to produce the necessary doses. Perna said he was confident that the rollout of the vaccine developed by Moderna, which was authorized on Friday, would go more smoothly. 

The first shipments of that vaccine — which does not require extreme cold storage — are expected to arrive in states Monday, at which time Perna said he would personally brief governors on the status of available doses. In the meantime, OWS had begun shipping the supplies required to administer the vaccine, such as syringes, Perna said.

“There is no problem with the Pfizer vaccine. There is no problem with the Moderna vaccine,” Perna said. “It was a planning error and I am responsible. I don’t know how to say it any clearer than that.”

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