Biden's first priority for vaccines is getting shots into American arms: White House

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WASHINGTON — The White House is making no apologies for prioritizing Americans in its effort to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

When it comes to the pandemic, job 1 for President Joe Biden is to make sure the American people get vaccinated, press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday.

That's despite the challenges faced by other countries, including Canada, in procuring vaccine doses from outside the United States.

Psaki suggested during her daily White House briefing that the president has faced pressure from other world leaders about the country's ongoing refusal to allow the export of U.S.-made doses.

"I think the president has been clear, publicly and certainly privately, when — if the conversation comes up, that his focus now is on ensuring that the American people are vaccinated," she said.

The U.S. has rejoined the World Health Organization, and Biden sees it as "vital and essential" that as many people as possible around the world can be vaccinated, she added.

"But his first priority is ensuring vaccines are in the arms of Americans," including fulfilling his promise to administer 100 million shots in the first 100 days of his administration.

While the availability of approved COVID-19 vaccines remains vastly outstripped by demand around the world, those supply pressures are especially acute outside the U.S.

Canada has been struggling since mid-January, when Pfizer slowed production at its plant in Belgium in order to expand its manufacturing capacity.

Instead of the 1.15 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that were supposed to be delivered between Jan. 18 and this week, Canada received only 339,000 doses.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week that the supply crunch would start easing next week with the single biggest Pfizer-BioNTech shipment to date.

Nearly two million doses are expected to arrive in the next month, with hopes that the pace will reach one million per week by April.

None of it, however, is attributable to the U.S., where former president Donald Trump — an unabashed protectionist who was accused in December of lowballing his government's vaccine orders — ordered American manufacturers to prioritize domestic orders.

Trump's executive order, however, had no impact on suppliers that signed contracts for orders outside the U.S., federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand said Friday.

"Notwithstanding the decree by the previous president, our understanding is that doses that are subject to a contract between a supplier and another jurisdiction ... are able to leave the United States," Anand said.

She was talking about the two-dose AstraZeneca vaccine, which is expected to become the third one in the rotation to receive approval from Health Canada.

Two others are also in the approval pipeline, including the single-dose offering from Johnson and Johnson and the Novavax shot, which Canada hopes will be the first COVID-19 vaccine produced on Canadian soil.

Canada has an order in for 20 million doses from AstraZeneca, with as many as 500,000 doses expected in the country by the end of next month.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden's senior medical adviser and the public face of the anti-pandemic effort in the U.S., said Friday that he's hoping some semblance of normal life can resume by the fall.

That will require the U.S. to keep up a brisk pace of vaccination, he said.

"It's not going to be like a light switch that you turn on and off — now you're abnormal, then you're normal," he said.

"It's never going to be completely back to normal; there's still going to be likely a requirement under certain circumstances to wear masks. But it likely will approach normal some time as we get to the end of this year, provided the variants don't give us a problem."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2021.

— With files from Stephanie Levitz and Mia Rabson in Ottawa

James McCarten, The Canadian Press