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Questions About How Crash Program Is Picking Coronavirus Vaccines To Back


There are more than 100 experimental COVID-19 vaccines being developed all across the world. The U.S. government is working to speed a few of them along. It's called Operation Warp Speed. And our pharmaceuticals correspondent Sydney Lupkin is here to tell us about it. Hi, Sydney.


KING: What is the point or the goal of Operation Warp Speed?

LUPKIN: Sure. Well, in this case, the goal of Operation Warp Speed is to have a coronavirus vaccine ready by January, which is really fast. It usually takes years to research and develop a safe and effective vaccine. So they started with 14 candidates and will eventually have to pare that down to just a few finalists that will get, you know, the most support. The winnowing process is already underway. And we've learned that there are seven that have made the cut so far.

KING: Just quickly, who's running Operation Warp Speed? Is it scientists or government officials?

LUPKIN: It's both. But really, the short answer is there's a lot that we don't know about this program.

KING: Interesting. OK. So the people who are running it, about whom we don't know much, they're the ones choosing potential vaccines to weed out and potential vaccines to really invest in. How are they choosing?

LUPKIN: So again, there's a lot that we don't know about this. We don't know, really, who is making the final, final decisions at Warp Speed or how they're deciding which vaccines to ultimately back. They haven't made their vaccine list public. The challenge here is that vaccine-makers need to gear up manufacturing, really, right away if they're going to produce enough supply to vaccinate hundreds of millions of Americans next year. So they'll need to start, really, before we know whether those vaccines really work. And that's expensive and risky, which is why the U.S. government is helping to foot the bill. But it's also why it needs to whittle down the list.

KING: Is all of this - I know COVID-19, obviously, is a very different situation than one we've experienced in this country before. But is this typical?

LUPKIN: So there isn't really a precedent for this. So it's kind of hard to say what's normal. But former HHS officials tell me that a lack of transparency could cause problems when it's time to actually ask healthy Americans to roll up their sleeves and get this vaccine. Here's Dr. Peter Lurie, former associate commissioner for public health strategy and analysis at the Food and Drug Administration.

PETER LURIE: Let's remember that this is a product line that is mired in all kinds of controversy created by people who question the science of vaccines. And so in this case in particular, it's important to have full public trust in the process.

KING: OK. Let's talk about public trust and how we get it. What do we know for certain?

LUPKIN: So we know that five companies have gotten HHS contracts for development of vaccines starting with Johnson and Johnson. And that was months before Operation Warp Speed was even announced. In all, those contracts total more than $2 billion. And the companies are mostly big names in pharmaceuticals.

Moderna is really the only kind of relative unknown that got one of these contracts. And it had kind of a head start because the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is headed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, is working with the company. That said, there are other contracts out there beyond the HHS ones. So we're kind of reading the tea leaves until we really get told what's going on.

KING: Interesting. NPR pharmaceutical correspondent Sydney Lupkin. Thanks, Sydney.

LUPKIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sydney Lupkin is the pharmaceuticals correspondent for NPR.