WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Friday rolled out a hyper-ambitious plan to develop and manufacture hundreds of millions of Covid-19 vaccine doses by the end of 2020, outlining an aggressive process that, if successful, would shatter conventional wisdom about the typical process for developing vaccines for emerging infectious diseases.
At a Rose Garden press conference, the president and his deputies acknowledged their goal, dubbed “Operation Warp Speed,” was lofty. Trump said the project was “risky and expensive.” Gustave Perna, a four-star general who oversees logistics for the U.S. Army, called the task “Herculean.” Moncef Slaoui, the pharmaceutical executive Trump has appointed to lead the initiative, said the goal was “extremely challenging.”
But they allowed themselves little ambiguity. Mark Esper, the defense secretary, pledged to deliver a vaccine “at scale” to the U.S. and its foreign partners by the end of the year.
The rollout highlights an overt shift in the White House’s messaging on vaccines. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease researcher, has long warned Americans that, even optimistically, developing a Covid-19 vaccine would take between 12 and 18 months. Even that timeline, Fauci has said, would represent something of a biomedical miracle.
The Trump administration’s scientific muscle, however, was notably silent. During his remarks, the president was flanked by three physician-researchers: Fauci; Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator; and Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health.
The three doctors were the only federal officials who appeared on stage wearing masks. None spoke at any point during the press conference.
Instead, it was Slaoui, the former GlaxoSmithKline executive who Trump has appointed to lead the vaccine initiative, who delivered yet another strikingly confident prediction.
“Mr. President, I have very recently seen early data from a clinical trial with a coronavirus vaccine,” he said to applause. “These data make me feel even more confident that we will be able to deliver a few hundred million doses of vaccine by the end of 2020.”
Slaoui, who resigned his position on the board of the drug manufacturer Moderna to accept the government appointment, was likely referencing the company’s Covid-19 vaccine candidate, which was the first in the U.S. to enter a Phase 1 clinical trial.
According to federal financial disclosures, he still holds over 156,000 Moderna stock options, worth over $10 million at the company’s current stock price, creating a potential conflict of interest if the company’s vaccine is the first to be proven effective. Numerous progressive groups in Washington have already criticized Trump over Slaoui’s appointment.
The project will rely in part on allowing drug manufacturers to begin scaling up their manufacturing efforts prior to receiving approvals regarding a potential vaccine’s effectiveness, officials said.
Trump, separately, delivered a markedly optimistic message in terms of the vaccine’s price.
“The last thing anybody’s looking for is profit,” he said.
Nonetheless, the vaccine’s price has been a consistent topic of debate among Democratic lawmakers in Washington, some of whom have attempted to pass new laws that would include affordability requirements for any vaccine developed via taxpayer-funded research.
Trump also downplayed concerns about whether, as some public health experts have feared, the race to develop a vaccine could devolve into an international showdown that leaves foreign governments to compete to secure vaccine allotments for their populations.
He said that the U.S. would work with foreign governments to distribute a Covid-19 vaccine regardless of which companies, or which countries, are first across the finish line. The federal government, he said, has “no ego” regarding vaccine development.
“We want to get to the solution,” Trump said. “We know exactly where the other countries are, and we’ll be very happy if they are able to do it. We’ll help them with delivery, we’ll help them with it in every way we can.”
The pledge, he indicated, even applies to China, the country where Covid-19 was first identified. Trump has repeatedly expressed anger over China’s handling of the outbreak in early 2020, casting doubts on its reported death toll, blaming its government for not containing the virus within its borders, and even labeling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus.”
The new initiative is the latest sign of the federal government’s far-reaching efforts to accelerate research into coronavirus tests, treatments, and vaccines. Those initiatives, in some cases, have tested the practical boundaries of biomedical research. To date, the U.S. government has announced a “Shark Tank”-like competition to develop new Covid-19 diagnostics and a series of partnerships with drug companies on both therapeutics and vaccines.
Yet Trump also warned that his plans to reopen the U.S. economy are not contingent on the development of a vaccine.
At one point, he repeated the unscientific claim that the virus will “go away” even without a vaccine. Separately, he attempted to downplay the severity of the coronavirus, noting that despite nearly 90,000 recorded U.S. deaths to date, many Americans who contracted the virus displayed few symptoms and are likely now immune.
“We think we’re going to have a vaccine in the pretty near future,” Trump said. “If we do, we’re going to really be a big step ahead. If we don’t, we’re going to be like so many other cases where you had a problem come in. It’ll go away at some point. It’ll go away. It may flare up, and it may not flare up. We’ll have to see what happens.”
Damian Garde contributed reporting.