News on the COVID vaccine front has been overwhelmingly positive for months. Messiness surrounding the AstraZeneca candidate aside, the rollout has accelerated in the United States under President Joe Biden, and the shots themselves keep proving effective. Even amid a disturbing uptick in cases, there’s cause for measured optimism as each new jab brings us closer to getting this pandemic under control. Which is part of what made Wednesday’s news of a mix-up at a Johnson & Johnson production facility in Baltimore, which left about 15 million doses of the single-shot vaccine unusable and will delay future shipments, such a bummer. It’s not clear how much of an impact the error will have, but it’s a frustrating setback nonetheless—and, more maddening still, one that the Biden administration apparently knew about but didn’t publicly disclose.
According to Politico, the White House learned two weeks ago of production problems with Emergent BioSolutions, the contractor that mistakenly mixed ingredients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine with that of the AstraZeneca, rendering 15 million doses unusable. The Biden team did not initially appear to be aware of the specifics of the issue, Politico reported Thursday. But, senior officials told the outlet, the White House was broadly aware of problems at the Baltimore facility—and last week learned about the “human error” that ruined the doses and delayed shipments. “It was no secret that Emergent did not have a deep bench of pharmaceutical manufacturing experts,” a senior Health and Human Services official said.
It’s worth noting that none of the contaminated vaccine was put into distribution, and the J&J vaccine that has been sent to states is safe. This should not be cause to doubt the safety of vaccines or the process by which they’re produced; in fact, as physician and MSNBC contributor Kavita Patel pointed out Wednesday, it is actually a testament to the safeguards the U.S. has in place. “The fact that these errors were caught,” Patel tweeted, “is proof of the incredible oversight and safety checks in place in the US.” It’s a troubling mistake—but one that officials don’t expect to derail Biden’s plan to make vaccines available to 90% of American adults who want one by the end of next month, according to the New York Times, which first reported the incident. (Johnson & Johnson has since confirmed the error, but said it is still on track to meet upcoming deliveries. A U.S. health official told the Washington Post Thursday that the government is working to “make sure that we understand what happened.”)
But the administration’s failure to be forthcoming about the incident could be its own problem. Vaccine hesitancy, particularly among those on the right, remains a major hurdle. Errors at a production facility are already sure to fan the flames of vaccine skepticism—but the administration apparently knowing and not immediately making it public could pour lighter fluid on anti-vax sentiment. It’s not clear how the decision to keep mum was made, but the seeming lack of transparency continues a somewhat questionable pattern for the Biden press shop. In February, it duffed its response to threats former deputy press secretary T.J. Ducklo leveled at a Politico journalist who was writing on his relationship with then-Axios reporter Alexi McCammond—an incident first reported by my colleague Caleb Ecarma. Though Biden had promised on his first day in office to immediately fire any staffer who treated others with “disrespect,” Ducklo was initially suspended for one week before ultimately resigning. Then, last week, there was the ill-advised decision to have Vice President Kamala Harris sit down for a conversation about women’s empowerment with, of all people, Bill Clinton. Throw in a media blackout at the border, and you have a White House press office that is quickly becoming a story unto itself.
No, the Biden comms team is not waging open warfare on journalists the way Trump’s was, or brazenly lying and acting like reporters are the assholes for calling them out. But its obsession with avoiding drama at all costs could wind up producing its own drama, opening it up to questions about transparency and judgment. The public may overlook the nuances of media access in most circumstances—especially when the Washington press corps gives onlookers real reason to question its judgment. But the lack of candor on the part of the White House, real or perceived, hits a different note when it comes to the pandemic, which the last administration lied about reflexively, and which remains a subject of confusion and misinformation. Biden’s record, particularly compared to his predecessor, has been good, and he doesn’t appear to have anything to hide. The last thing the administration should want is to make it seem like he does.
— Wyoming Tells Donald Trump Jr. to Sit Down and STFU— A Wave of Displaced New Yorkers Is Upending the Hamptons Social Order— How a Group of Rich Memphians Acted on Trump’s Big Lie During Capitol Attack— Prosecutors Are Lining Up Witnesses in Trump Investigations— Republicans Brave Plan to Stop Mass Shootings: Do Nothing— Next-Level Harassment of Female Journalists Puts News Outlets to the Test— Six Photographers Share Images From Their COVID Year— From the Archive: American Nightmare, the Ballad of Richard Jewell— Serena Williams, Michael B. Jordan, Gal Gadot, and more are coming to your favorite screen April 13–15. Get your tickets to Vanity Fair’s Cocktail Hour, Live! here.