Coronavirus vaccine tsar says discovery of virus by January is “credible” goal

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The former pharmaceutical manager has chosen this week to conduct an emergency program to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus said Thursday that the development and mass production of a successful vaccine by January 2021 is a “credible goal” , but recognized that it would be difficult.

Moncef Slaoui, former president of vaccines at GlaxoSmithKline, who runs the program, conceded in an interview that even the time frame repeatedly cited by Dr. Anthony S. Fauci as necessary to develop the vaccine, which President Trump rejected, would be always exceed what many scientists believe is possible.

“Frankly, 12-18 months is already a very aggressive timeline,” said Mr. Slaoui. “I don’t think Dr. Fauci was wrong. “

But Mr. Slaoui said he was not intimidated by the president’s goal.

“I would not have signed up without thinking it was doable,” Slaoui said, adding that he told the president that when he first met him on Wednesday at the White House and that Trump had asked if the goal was realistic.

The Warp Speed ​​project has been described by administration officials as an organizing mechanism for an already fierce race for a vaccine, involving major pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and a handful of government agencies.

Mr. Slaoui will be the chief adviser of the effort, and General Gustave F. Perna, a four-star general who is responsible for the state of readiness of the army at the head of the command of military equipment, will be the chief of operations.

Their appointments will be officially announced at the White House on Friday.

Slaoui and General Perna met for the first time on Wednesday, and have been in frequent contact since then, the general said in a separate interview. They will have offices at the Department of Health and Human Services, where the secretary, Alex M. Azar II, helped design the program at the request of Mr. Trump.

Slaoui said he had discussed the work with Jared Kushner, son-in-law of the president and senior adviser, who was looking for a so-called Czar for therapy and vaccine development, and Dr. Deborah L. Birx, of the House White. coronavirus response coordinator.

Most questions about how the program works remain unanswered, including the cost of it, whether the Defense Production Act will be used to pressure companies to produce a vaccine developed by another company, or if groups individuals may have access to the initial doses of a vaccine.

But public health experts have said the program may be the only way to keep the United States on a quick timeline in a health crisis as complex as the coronavirus pandemic.

Several experimental vaccines are already being tested in humans, including one that Dr. Fauci told lawmakers on Tuesday that his institute, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, was heavily involved, manufactured by the biotechnology company Moderna.

Scientists hope that several of the vaccines will work, and for different parts of the population. But even if a vaccine candidate looks promising this year, it may not be easy for many Americans to produce.

“If there is only a small amount of vaccine, a million or 100,000 doses, it will be very difficult to decide who will receive the vaccine first,” said Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Research on vaccines from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. and a professor at Harvard Medical School who is also working with Johnson & Johnson on his coronavirus vaccine. “Are these people at high risk, different racial groups, different socio-economic groups? These discussions will be difficult. “

The Pentagon will be heavily involved in the Warp Speed ​​effort, in the hopes that it will facilitate the rapid distribution of a vaccine if it is found to be effective.

“The Defense Ministry will put incredible resources into all sectors of industry, in all private companies, behind the process, development, manufacturing and distribution of the vaccine,” said Mr. Slaoui.

General Perna said he was preparing to retire on July 1 after 37 years of active service, but agreed to be part of the effort and echoed Mr. Trump in describing what he considered to be his mission.

“I believe we are at war with this virus, and when you are at war, then you have to win,” he said.

But Dr. Adalja said that by the time a vaccine is ready by January, “everything should be fine.”

“Vaccine development does not always go as planned,” he said. “There are a lot of hiccups in the production process. We are going faster than ever with a vaccine, but we must be ready to slow down once we have progressed. “

Mr. Slaoui, who has been a venture capitalist since leaving GlaxoSmithKline in 2017, has worked for the company for 30 years, helping to lead the development of dozens of vaccines. He has a PhD in molecular biology and immunology and studied at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.

Slaoui said he had informed Moderna of his intention to retire from its board of directors and suggested that he divest himself of its equity.

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