Healthcare

Trump administration launches 'Operation Warp Speed' to accelerate vaccine development

The Trump administration is pushing agencies to speed up the vaccine development process in the hopes of quickly coming up with an effective way to guard against the coronavirus, two people familiar with the effort confirmed Wednesday.

The push, dubbed "Operation Warp Speed," involves the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), among other government agencies, according to one official.

"Operation Warp Speed is clearly another extension of President Trump's bold leadership and unwillingness to accept 'business as usual' approaches to addressing the COVID-19 crisis," said Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary for public affairs at HHS.

Bloomberg News first reported on the effort. The project will reportedly cost billions of dollars, most of which will be shouldered by taxpayers, with the goal of having 100 million doses ready by the end of 2020.

Health officials have repeatedly said the timetable for a vaccine is between 12 and 18 months, meaning a coronavirus vaccine would likely not be ready until early or mid-2021. 

Animals would be tested first, with the doses widely produced once the vaccine moves to clinical trials, Bloomberg reported. The news outlet said there may be one large trial to test multiple vaccines simultaneously in an effort to cut down on the time needed to advance the most effective ones. 

Spokespeople for the White House and the FDA did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the initiative. 

The official who confirmed the effort to The Hill cautioned that the moonshot project still carries risks beyond the financial burden. The vaccines must prove effective enough to ensure that humans participating in the trials won't be harmed, they said.

In addition, a coronavirus vaccine will likely not be a cure-all. The annual influenza vaccine is only effective roughly 40 percent of the time, according to government data.

There are dozens of coronavirus vaccines currently in development. There are more than 3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with the global death toll reaching more than 225,000.

Many research institutions and companies are already moving quickly to clinical trials, with Oxford University among those leading the way

President Trump has pushed for drug companies to expedite their vaccine development. He asked pharmaceutical executives during a White House meeting in early March to "accelerate whatever they're doing in terms of a vaccine."

But the president appeared to initially misunderstand the process around testing and mass-producing a vaccine, forcing Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious diseases expert, and the executives to clarify that the candidates would move into new phases of testing every few months with a final vaccine potentially ready in a year or a year-and-a-half. 

Even that timetable would be remarkably fast for vaccine development. The mumps vaccine took four years to develop, and the FDA approved its first vaccine for prevention of Ebola last December, more than five years after the outbreak in West Africa.

In the meantime, health officials are looking to the development of therapeutics that can help treat the coronavirus. Fauci on Wednesday touted the results of a clinical trial of remdesivir that showed patients given the drug recovered 31 percent faster than patients given a placebo.

"What it has proven is that a drug can block this virus," he said. 

Outbrain