President Donald Trump said on Friday the U.S. government would invest in all the top coronavirus vaccine candidates and said a list had been narrowed to 14 promising possibilities with a plan to narrow further.
At an event in the White House Rose Garden to promote what the U.S. has called “Operation Warp Speed,” Trump expressed his hope that a vaccine would be in place before the end of the year and said his administration would mobilize its forces to get a vaccine distributed once one was in place.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Fox Business Network earlier in the day said the White House had narrowed down a list of “over 100 vaccine candidates.”
“What we’re doing now is we’re narrowing those down to the core group that we’re going to place huge multi-hundred-million-dollar bets on and scale massive vaccine domestic production so that we, by the end of the year, we hope, would have one or more safe and effective vaccines and hundreds of millions of doses,” said Azar.
Azar said the administration was using “the full power of the U.S. government and the private sector here to compress all of those [drug trial] timelines.”
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Azar and infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases, were both in attendance at the Rose Garden. Trump had expressed displeasure after Fauci said in Senate testimony on Tuesday the idea that there will be a vaccine available by the fall, when schools and universities resume classes, was “a bridge too far.”
Fauci and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnunchin were among a number of administration officials who wore masks at the news conference, while Trump and Azar did not. The White House ordered the wearing of masks to stepped up in the wake of positive tests last week for Vice-President Mike Pence’s press secretary as well as a valet who had spent time in the Oval Office.
Scientists are rushing to find treatments and vaccines for a disease that has killed over 300,000 people worldwide, including nearly 86,000 in the United States and over 5,570 in Canada as of early Friday. Even as nations grapple with the ongoing pandemic, experts are weighing the impact any potential vaccine may have on a disease that has already laid bare the world’s inequities and power struggles.
‘No ego’ in global vaccine competition: Trump
World leaders in April pledged to accelerate their work on COVID-19, the disease caused by the highly contagious novel coronavirus, but the United States did not participate.
The Trump administration also ignored a pledge last week by world leaders and organizations to spend $8 billion US to manufacture and distribute a possible vaccine and treatments.
Despite that, Trump said Friday that the world was co-operating to develop a vaccine.
“We’ve got countries that are allies — we have some countries, frankly, that are not allies — where we’re working very closely together,” Trump said. “We have no ego. Whoever gets it, we think it’s great. We’re going to work with them. They’re going to work with us. Likewise, if we get it, we’re going to be working with them.”
When asked by a reporter if the U.S. would have access to a vaccine if it was first developed in China, Trump gave a one-word answer: “Yes.”
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Chinese company CanSino Biologics is already conducting human clinical trials for its potential COVID-19 vaccine. The National Research Council of Canada said this week it is working with CanSino to try to develop it more quickly.
It is one of a number of joint initiatives around the globe, potentially complicating how and where a vaccine would first be delivered.
“A vaccine against COVID-19 should be a public good for the world,” French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Thursday, noting that “equal access of all” was “non-negotiable.”
Philippe was speaking after CEO Paul Hudson of Paris-based pharmaceuticals giant Sanofi told Bloomberg News on Wednesday: “The U.S. government has the right to the largest preorder because it’s invested in taking the risk.”
Hudson apologized on Thursday, saying it was vital that any coronavirus vaccine reach all regions.
Differing opinions on realistic timeline
Experts have warned that it would likely take 12-18 months or more to get a vaccine ready for the public, but the president has sought to speed up that time frame while also playing down the need for a vaccine as he encourages U.S. states to reopen their economies.
Dr. Rick Bright, the U.S. whistleblower who was removed last month as the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), told a U.S. House of Representatives committee on Thursday that he was concerned about U.S. coronavirus preparedness, including vaccination efforts.
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“A lot of optimism is swirling around a 12- to 18-month time frame [for a vaccine], if everything goes perfectly,” Bright said. “We’ve never seen everything go perfectly.”
“Normally, it takes up to 10 years to make a vaccine,” he said at another point.
The World Health Organization also sounded a cautious note on Thursday.
Spokesperson Margaret Harris told a briefing in Geneva that while some treatments in very early studies seem to help, “we do not have anything that can kill or stop the virus.”
There is still no vaccine for HIV, which emerged in the early 1980s, or SARS, a coronavirus that hit Asia in 2002.
But Trump and Azar have expressed confidence that progress would be made before the end of the year, as did former GlaxoSmithKline executive Moncef Slaoui, who the U.S. president has tapped to help spearhead the U.S. vaccine effort.
“I have very recently seen early data from a clinical trial with a coronavirus vaccine. These data made me feel even more confident that we will be able to deliver a few hundred million doses of a vaccine by the end of 2020,” said Slaoui.
Slaoui did not mention which vaccine, but one developed by Moderna Therapeutics with help from the National Institutes of Health recently won approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to advance to the next phase of clinical trials.
In addition to supply, there are questions about vaccine price, but one expert said Friday the huge scale will help keep costs down and supply up.
Adrian Hill, director of Oxford’s Jenner Institute, which has teamed up with the drugmaker AstraZeneca to develop a vaccine, said ensuring wide distribution and low cost have been central to the project from the start.
“This is not going to be an expensive vaccine,” Hill told Reuters in an interview. “It’s going to be a single dose vaccine. It’s going to be made for global supply and it’s going to be made in many different locations. That was always our plan.”
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