Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told Congress Tuesday that he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the development of a coronavirus vaccine, saying that he believes one could be available as soon as the end of this year, or the beginning of 2021.
Fauci’s update came during a House Energy and Commerce Committee on the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Fauci testified along with other top officials leading the nation’s efforts against the coronavirus, specifically Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Steven Hahn, and Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir.
“We feel cautiously optimistic, based on the concerted effort and the fact we are taking financial risks — not risks to safety, not risks to the integrity of the science, but financial risk to be able to be ahead of the game — so that when, and I believe it will be when and not if, we get favorable candidates with good results, we will be able to make them available to the American public,” Fauci testified Tuesday. “It would put us at the end of this calendar year and the beginning of 2021.”
Fauci referred to at least one vaccine trial, led by the biotech firm Moderna, that is expected to enter Phase 3 study by July, where a small dose of vaccine will be given to about 30,000 people to test its efficacy. Fauci said other promising vaccine candidates are just a few months behind.
The Moderna trials have gotten a lot of attention for the “positive interim” data from the firm’s Phase 1 trial, results of which were reported in May. But even as the vaccine accelerates to Phase 3, the company is still compiling data from previous trials. In the race to discover a vaccine, the FDA has loosened to rules and allowed trials to merge or run concurrently.
Fauci and his colleagues emphasized that they won’t release a vaccine until it’s safe and effective. “Acceleration is not cutting corners with respect to the assessment of safety and effectiveness,” Hahn, the FDA commissioner, testified. “The American people can rely on the fact FDA has many experts in the vaccine area.”
As Vox’s Umair Irfan has written, without available treatments for Covid-19, the entire world is racing to discover a vaccine. But there’s still a lot that’s unclear, including whether a vaccine will grant lifetime immunity or last just a couple of years. And such a rapid timeline — a vaccine by the end of the year — is unprecedented. The previous record, for mumps, stands at four years.
Some experts are still skeptical of this ambitious timeline, just 12 to 18 months after the novel coronavirus began spreading: “It’s conceivable we could have something in that timeline — if everything goes right,” Kendall Hoyt, a vaccine and biosecurity expert at Dartmouth, told Vox’s German Lopez in May.
And a newly optimistic timeline for a vaccine doesn’t diminish the current coronavirus emergency in the United States, where many states are seeing spikes in cases and positivity rates.
As Fauci testified at Tuesday’s hearing, the United States’ response to the pandemic is a “mixed bag.” Places hit hard and early by the coronavirus, such as New York City, have mitigated the spread, brought infection rates way down, and are following a phased reopening plan.
“However, in other areas we are seeing a disturbing surge of infections,” Fauci told the House panel. He said this required testing to identify and isolate cases to stop the spread, and contact tracing to understand where infections are originating, so states and localities can intervene. “Right now the next couple of weeks are going to be critical in our ability to address those surges we are seeing in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and other states,” Fauci said. “They are not the only ones having difficulty. Bottom line, it is a mixed bag.”
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