WASHINGTON — President Biden on Monday canceled a visit to a coronavirus vaccine plant run by Emergent BioSolutions after The New York Times published a lengthy investigation into how the company gained outsize influence over the nation’s emergency medical reserve.
Instead of visiting Emergent’s facility in Baltimore on Wednesday, the president will convene a meeting at the White House with executives of the pharmaceutical giants Merck & Co. and Johnson & Johnson, who were also to attend the session in Baltimore, White House officials said. Merck and Emergent are each separately partnering with Johnson & Johnson to manufacture that company’s coronavirus vaccine.
“We just felt it was a more appropriate place to have the meeting,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters.
Emergent has more than $600 million in contracts with the federal government to manufacture coronavirus vaccines and to expand its “fill-and-finish” capacity for completing the process of manufacturing vaccines and therapeutics. A senior administration official said only executives from Merck and Johnson & Johnson would attend the White House session on Wednesday.
An Emergent spokeswoman did not immediately respond on Monday to questions about the cancellation. The spokeswoman, Nina DeLorenzo, had previously defended the company’s business with the government in written responses to questions, saying, “When almost no one else would invest in preparing to protect the American public from grave threats, Emergent did, and the country is better prepared today because of it.”
The Times investigation focused on the emergency reserve, the Strategic National Stockpile, which became infamous during the coronavirus pandemic for its lack of critical supplies such as N95 masks and other personal protective equipment.
Decisions about how to spend the repository’s limited budget are supposed to be based on careful assessments by government officials of how best to save lives, but The Times found that they were largely driven by the demands and financial interests of a handful of biotech companies that have specialized in products that address terrorist threats rather than infectious disease.
Chief among them is Emergent. Throughout most of the past decade, the government has spent nearly half of the stockpile’s half-billion-dollar annual budget on Emergent’s anthrax vaccines, The Times found.
In the competition for funding, products for pandemic preparedness — including N95s — repeatedly lost out, according to the Times investigation, which relied on more than 40,000 pages of documents and interviews with more than 60 people with inside knowledge of the stockpile.
The image of some health care workers wearing trash bags for personal protection has become an enduring symbol of the government’s failed response. Yet the government paid Emergent $626 million in 2020 for products that included vaccines to protect against a terrorist attack using anthrax.
For much of Emergent’s two-decade history, its primary product has been an anthrax vaccine, first licensed in 1970, that the company purchased in 1998 from the State of Michigan. Over time, the price per dose that the government agreed to pay Emergent increased nearly sixfold, accounting for inflation.
Ms. DeLorenzo previously defended the company’s pricing as fair. “You can’t protect people from anthrax for less than the cost of a latte,” she wrote in an email.
Emergent’s sales to the government in 2020 also included a new anthrax vaccine that has yet to be approved as safe and needed special clearance to be stockpiled. In the months leading up to the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration awarded about $3 billion in long-term contracts to the company; last year, the government agreed to pay the company more than $600 million to manufacture other companies’ coronavirus vaccines at its facility in Baltimore. Emergent is now manufacturing coronavirus vaccines for AstraZeneca as well as for Johnson & Johnson.
Emergent, whose board is stocked with former federal officials, has deployed a lobbying budget more typical of some big pharmaceutical companies, The Times found. It has sometimes resorted to tactics considered underhanded even in Washington. Competing efforts to develop a better and cheaper anthrax vaccine, for example, collapsed after Emergent outmaneuvered its rivals, documents and interviews show.
Ms. DeLorenzo characterized the company’s lobbying as “education-focused” and “appropriate and necessary.”