The United States government plans to stockpile hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines that are under development to combat the novel coronavirus with a goal of having one or more vaccines ready to deploy by the end of the year as part of “Operation Warp Speed”, administration officials said on Friday.
“We think we’re going to have a vaccine in the pretty near future,” President Donald Trump said at a news conference. If there is no vaccine by the end of the year, the problem “will go away at some point … It may flare up … but we’re gonna put out the fire.”
Trump named Moncef Slaoui, former pharmaceuticals executive, and Gustave Perna, a four-star US general, to head the project.
Efforts to develop a vaccine began in January, Trump said during the news conference when asked how a vaccine – which most health experts have said would to take up to 18 months to develop – could be deployed so quickly.
Administration officials are hopeful. “We’ve got over 100 vaccine candidates that have been discovered,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Fox Business Network.
“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.”
The disease caused by the coronavirus, COVID-19, has killed nearly 86,000 people in the US as of May 15, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally. There are more than 1,420,000 people infected there.
Dr Anthony Fauci speaks remotely during the Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing on the coronavirus [Win McNamee/Reuters]
The White House has set a target of having 300 million vaccine doses by the end of 2020. No such vaccine for this pathogen has been approved, though a number are under development, and producing and distributing an effective vaccine are seen as key steps to jumpstarting the US economy.
The US is facing unemployment rates that rival the Great Depression as businesses have shed jobs at unprecedented levels since March and retail purchasing has plummeted.
Fringe and far-right groups have organised protests across the US, demanding an end to lockdown restrictions intended to slow the spread of the virus. Many are armed and some bear racist imagery.
Trump has acclaimed efforts to reopen, calling protesters “good people”.
The Trump administration is championing its partnership with the private sector in efforts to fight the virus in order to reopen sections of the country, including schools and universities, by the fall (which starts in September).
“We’ve got to use the full power of the US government and the private sector here to compress all of those (drug trial) timelines, reduce inefficiency in development and use the power of the US government to produce at risk, scale hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines even while we’re running the clinical trials to prove they’re safe and effective,” Azar said.
However, infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in Senate testimony on Tuesday the idea that there will be a vaccine available by next fall, when schools and universities resume classes, was “a bridge too far”.