Defense secretary: We will deliver a vaccine at scale to the American people -- by the end of this year

A big, bold, brassy promise from Mark Esper at this afternoon’s press conference to introduce the new head of Operation Warp Speed, pharmaceutical exec Dr. Moncef Slaoui. I’ve heard other professionals, including Scott Gottlieb, suggest that a vaccine could be available later this year for emergency-use authorization, i.e. for rapid deployment to a city where there’s a major outbreak. But I think this is the first time someone in a position of influence has suggested delivering a full batch for the entire nation by year’s end.

Yesterday Dr. Rick Bright, the former head of the federal government’s top vaccine agency, said that even the now-familiar 12-to-18-month timeline was unrealistically optimistic. And he stressed that 12 to 18 months wasn’t the timeline from initial development to FDA authorization and delivery to the public; it was the timeline from initial development to results from clinical trials proving that the vaccine was safe and effective. Esper seems to be imagining 12 months from initial development to the vaccine being ready to roll out to pharmacies and doctor’s offices nationwide. God willing, he’s right, but that really would be “Manhattan Project”-type results.

How many different “timelines” for a vaccine are the feds on right now, by the way? I can think of at least four.

Timeline one: 12 to 18 months, just as the experts — including Fauci — keep saying.

Timeline two: ~12 months or slightly less for full-scale delivery. That’s Esper’s timeline, per the clip.

Timeline three: By Election Day. That’s Trump’s timeline, whether he admits it or not. It’d be spectacular if he and Operation Warp Speed could deliver a vaccine by New Year’s, but it’s not going to do him much good politically if he’s a lame duck at that point. At a minimum, there’ll be tremendous pressure within the White House on Slaoui to deliver encouraging news about the vaccine before Election Day. If Trump can announce in late October that the top vaccine candidate is safe and effective, that may be worth a meaningful number of electoral votes in November even though the vaccine itself will still be a few months away from widespread availability.

On the other hand, science done under political pressure isn’t optimal:

Timeline four: Before China announces a vaccine. We’re in an arms race here with our enemies in Beijing, who want to win this competition to produce the first viable vaccine both as a matter of prestige for their totalitarian system of government and so that they can use the vaccine to extort weaker nations. If China unveils a viable vaccine before we do, they’ll crow that it’s further proof that America can’t handle major challenges anymore, or at least not as well as communism can. They’d love to have their vaccine ready before Election Day in the U.S. too in hopes of embarrassing Trump and costing him electorally. A plausible scenario is that the ChiComs don’t manage to develop a viable vaccine before Election Day but decide to claim that they have anyway, with their cronies at the WHO giving them cover. Then Trump will be forced to either say that we lost the arms race or call BS on their propaganda, which will mean more antagonism between the U.S. and China.

Or would we … ask China for access to their vaccine?

Elsewhere in vaccine news, the researchers at Oxford are speeding ahead with trials of their candidate, which is on a slightly accelerated timetable relative to the competition. They reported their findings on rhesus monkeys in a paper published a few days ago. Verdict: Looking good so far.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) emerged in December 20191,2 and is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic3. Vaccines are an essential countermeasure urgently needed to control the pandemic4. Here, we show that the adenovirus-vectored vaccine ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, encoding the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, is immunogenic in mice, eliciting a robust humoral and cell-mediated response. This response was not Th2 dominated, as demonstrated by IgG subclass and cytokine expression profiling. A single vaccination with ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 induced a humoral and cellular immune response in rhesus macaques. We observed a significantly reduced viral load in bronchoalveolar lavage fluid and respiratory tract tissue of vaccinated animals challenged with SARS-CoV-2 compared with control animals, and no pneumonia was observed in vaccinated rhesus macaques. Importantly, no evidence of immune-enhanced disease following viral challenge in vaccinated animals was observed.

Slaoui said today that he’d recently seen clinical data from a trial involving an unnamed vaccine candidate that made him even more confident that they’ll be able to meet Esper’s timetable of delivering a vaccine at scale by the end of the year. He didn’t say which candidate that was but he sits on the board of Moderna, which is developing one of the leading candidates here in the U.S. Moderna just announced last week that it was done with “phase one” human trials and was moving to phase two, with 600 participants lined up. If everything goes well, their vaccine could be ready by early next year.

Hey, if it doesn’t work, there’s always daily mouthwash. I’ll leave you with Trump reiterating that he supports reopening with or without vaccine because we can always just go for herd immunity or something.