The White House is working with seven pharmaceutical companies as part of its “Warp Speed” coronavirus vaccine program, including a bet on a rapid-but-unproven genetic technology.
The companies includeJohnson & Johnson,Merck & Co.,Pfizer Inc., the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotechModerna Inc., and the University of Oxford in collaboration withAstraZeneca Plc, as well as two other firms, according to two people familiar with the matter. President Donald Trump was briefed Tuesday on the latest details on the project, according to one of the people.
Drug companies and university researchers are investigating more than 130 experimental inoculations, according to the World Health Organization, though fewer than a dozen candidates are currently being assessed in human trials. Moderna, Pfizer and Oxford have already started studies of their vaccines in healthy patients, while J&J and Merck intend to launch trials later in the year.
Operation Warp Speed seeks to compress a process that is typically years long into a matter of months, in part by spending as much as $10 billion on research, manufacturing and agreements to guarantee purchase of the vaccines, according to one of the people. The effort is being led by General Gustave Perna, who directs the U.S. Army Materiel Command, and former GlaxoSmithKline Plc executive Moncef Slaoui.
Representatives for the companies didn’t respond to requests for comment or declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment.
Moderna and Pfizer’s candidates rely on a new genetics-based technology called messenger RNA that has yet to lead to an approved vaccine. J&J and the University of Oxford are using engineered viruses called adenoviral vectors, another new approach best known for their use in an Ebola vaccine. While it has been more widely tested in people than mRNA vaccines, it has been used in few commercial products.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collinstold Bloomberg in an interview last month that the U.S. believes it’s important to have a mix of vaccine candidates that use promising new technologies like mRNA, and others that use already-proven platforms.
“I think we have exactly the right mix in this case: A couple of platforms that are very rapid, but potentially riskier, and also, as very solid backups, other platforms that we know can work for other viruses,” Collins said on May 11. “It’s a horse race. We want all the horses to win, but we want to be sure there’s plenty in the field.”
The New York Times firstreported the White House’s selection of vaccine finalists on Tuesday, citing senior officials. Operation Warp Speed’s goal is to have some 300 million doses of a shot available by the end of the year. The program offers government resources to drugmakers involved, and could help speed trials by having pharmaceutical companies collaborate on those efforts.
Moderna’s vaccine has entered phase 2 trials, with the hope of a wider test in thousands of people that will determine whether or not it’s effective. Pfizer is developing its shot with German company BioNTech SE and is also in human trials. Merckunveiled its vaccine program late last month, though has warned that the U.S.’s stated goals of having a shot by the year’s end are optimistic.
Administration officials and billionaire Bill Gates have said its possible a vaccines will be developed before year-end, particularly for emergency use among health workers and vulnerable populations. That would be a remarkable feat, given the process of bringing a conventional vaccine from inception to regulatory approval takes more than a decade on average.
— With assistance by Robert Langreth, and John Lauerman
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