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The Latest Developments In Global Coronavirus Vaccine Competition


There are now close to 6 1/2 million confirmed cases of coronavirus around the world. More than a quarter of those are right here in the United States. So far, our tools to stop the virus have been blunt - shutting down the economy, closing schools, staying home. But scientists are racing to develop a more targeted weapon, a vaccine. There are now 10 in human trials, and some are nearing the point where they can be tested on tens of thousands of people. To talk more about that, we have Dr. Francis Collins on the line. He's director of the National Institutes of Health and a member of the White House coronavirus task force.

Dr. Collins, welcome.

FRANCIS COLLINS: Thanks, Sarah. It's nice to be with you.

MCCAMMON: As you know, 10 vaccines are in human trials right now. How soon will those be ready for large-scale trials, and where are those going to be conducted?

COLLINS: Well, they're at various stages. This is moving at an unprecedented speed, recognizing that we really only knew about this virus back in January. But some of the trials are getting ready to be initiated in large scale, which would be roughly 30,000 volunteers for each vaccine, half of them receiving the vaccine, half of them receiving a placebo that looks and feels just like the same thing so that we can really begin to assess whether these work. That's what you call a Phase 3 trial. And there are some of the vaccines that are ready to get started into that phase as early as the beginning of July. And that is a phenomenal thing to be able to say considering these things usually take several years.

MCCAMMON: And then who ultimately decides which vaccines move forward? Is that up to your agency or maybe what the president has called his Operation Warp Speed vaccine task force?

COLLINS: Well, these vaccines are put forward by various companies. They are in different phases of being ready. They have to first go through a Phase 1 trial to see whether they, in fact, in a small number of volunteers, do produce a decent level of antibodies, which would tend to predict that they're going to work against this coronavirus. And they have to also show in a small number of volunteers that they're safe. And not all of them have even quite yet gotten to that point.

The ones that do - we want to have a whole menu of vaccine opportunities because these don't always work despite - as much as we would like to plan for all of the scientific steps to go exactly as you would want them to, there is still a lot of unknown in this kind of science. And so it is a very good thing that we're going to end up with several different vaccines that are going through this large-scale testing in the course of the coming months. And my hope is they'll all work, and that'll be great, too. But if some of them drop out along the way, we just want to be sure that by the end of this calendar year we have at least one or maybe two or maybe three that have shown that they're both safe and they're effective.

And let me emphasize that word, safe. This word - this brand that we're using, Operation Warp Speed, is supposed to convey the speed with which we're trying to move because of this intense public health need. But it is not a means of compromising safety. We will not do that. We're just skipping over some of the steps that tend to go slowly for regulatory reasons and for business reasons and trying to make those go faster. We are not compromising on safety.

MCCAMMON: Has that term, the president's term, made it difficult for you as a public health official to message exactly how this works?

COLLINS: Not really. I kind of like the idea of conveying that we're in a hurry here. I just need to quickly then explain after I say that what that means. One of the things we're doing is to make sure that when a vaccine looks like it's got some promise, it's going into one of these large-scale trials, let's assume it might work, and let's go ahead and start manufacturing lots and lots of doses with U.S. government support so that if it does work you don't then have to wait for many months to have the vaccine ready to distribute to the people who need it. This so-called at-risk manufacturing, you wouldn't normally do that because some of this is going to go to waste. But when you consider what's happening here and the people's lives at risk, it seems like the right thing to do. That's part of the warp speed idea. And I'd rather do Operation Warp Speed than Operation Slow Boat, so I hope people do get it here. We are really urgently trying to find answers for this coronavirus.

MCCAMMON: And how will you make sure that once the vaccine is ready, it is equitably distributed, that anyone who needs one can get one? Is that even feasible?

COLLINS: Well, the first doses, assuming we have one that has been shown safe and effective, will need to go to the people who are at highest risk. So you could imagine what that might look like - particularly health care providers, people in long-term care facilities where the risks we know are particularly high. But the goal would be, certainly, to start scaling this up as soon as you know you have a vaccine that's safe and effective so that by 2021, maybe even in the first or second quarter, we would have a hundred million doses or so, so they wouldn't have to be rationed so severely.


COLLINS: But at first, there won't be enough for everybody.

MCCAMMON: That's Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Thank you so much.

COLLINS: Thank you. Nice to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.