Julie Gerberding, vice president and chief patient officer for Merck, is shown testifying before a Congressional Committee hearing on the coronavirus on June 23. She testified again Tuesday on progress toward a COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo by Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images)
Leaders of the companies working on some of the top candidates for COVID-19 vaccines predict they should have shots available by early 2021 but said they will rely on the federal government to determine how to distribute them.
The heads of five biopharmaceutical companies with promising vaccine candidates told members of Congress on Tuesday they think they will be able to produce a safe and effective vaccine by next year.
“Unfortunately, today the pandemic is far ahead of us, but we in the biopharmaceutical industry are closing in faster than we ever imagined possible,” said Julie Gerberding, a vice president and chief patient officer at Merck.
Gerberding, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control from 2002-2009, said there has been no political pressure to lower standards to speed up the vaccine and she was “relieved” by the rigor of the Food and Drug Administration’s guidelines for COVID-19 vaccine development.
“Speed is important but we will not compromise careful scientific efficacy, quality and above all safety as we evaluate the candidates, despite the emergency we all feel,” Gerberding said.
Lawmakers heard from the vaccine developers at a virtual hearing in the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Colorado Democrat Diane DeGette, the chairwoman of the committee, said the updates on vaccine development is a “rare bit of good news in a harrowing time.”
Six months into the national public health crisis, she told the panel, COVID-19 case numbers continue to climb at a staggering rate and more than 140,000 Americans have died from the disease.
“As long as the Trump administration continues to shirk their responsibility to lead a coordinated national response effort, sickness and deaths are going to continue to mount,” DeGette said. “It is also clear we are not going to be able to contain this without a rapid and robust deployment of public health measures and medical countermeasures, including a safe and effective vaccine.”
The hearing came as President Donald Trump shifted his tone on the virus Tuesday, telling reporters it would “probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better,” according to the Washington Post. The United States has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world.
In Kansas, health officials have recorded 23,000 infections and 307 deaths from the illness. The state Board of Education was expected to vote Wednesday morning on Gov. Laura Kelly’s orders to delay in-person instruction in public schools and require daily temperature checks and the wearing of masks inside schools when they open.
‘Encouraging, early signs’
There is a massive worldwide effort to develop vaccines and treatment for COVID-19. There are more than 660 unique compounds in various stages of development, including 173 vaccine candidates, 196 antivirals and 292 treatments, according to Gerberding.
The United States already has invested nearly $2.3 billion in the effort to find a vaccine.
The five companies that testified before House lawmakers Tuesday have each had promising responses in early trials for their vaccines. Several, including AstraZeneca and Moderna, have begun to test the vaccines on humans and published positive results. They both found creation of COVID antibodies and a T-cell immune response that could help fend off future infections.
“Everybody knows time is of the essence in the search for a vaccine and obviously everybody wants one as quickly as possible, but we need to make sure it is going to be safe and effective,” DeGette said.
She asked the medical executives for a “quick and honest assessment” on the likelihood of success and timeline for the vaccines.
Most said they expect to have millions of doses available by 2021, depending on the success of their phase three trials. The first two trials of vaccines focus primarily on smaller groups of volunteers that are healthy. Phase three will branch out to test tens of thousands of volunteers representing a spectrum of ages, races and risk groups.
The executives testifying before DeGette’s committee were largely optimistic.
“We have a line of sight on a clear, critical path to be able to deliver up to 100 million vaccines on a commercial scale in 2020 and up to a billion in 2021,” said John Young, chief business officer for Pfizer, the only company at the hearing that did not take federal research money. “There are encouraging early signs but there is much work left to do.”
Once a vaccine is approved, there remains the question of how to get it to the people that need it. Each of the company executives said they would rely on the government to allocate and distribute the vaccines — an approach that concerned some Democrats.
“The availability of ancillary supplies for a vaccine will require coordination. … Past supply failures by this administration make me wary,” said Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY).
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) asked each company if they would make their vaccine available at cost. Most replies were in the negative.
“We will not sell it at cost, no ma’am,” said Moderna president Stephen Hoge. Moderna received $480 million from the U.S. government to help speed its research on a vaccine.
Gerberding said Merck also would not offer its vaccine at cost.
Mene Pangalos, executive vice president at AstraZeneca, said under the terms of its agreement with the U.S. government his company would offer the first 300 million doses to the government without making a profit. And Johnson & Johnson’s head of clinical development, Macaya Douoguih, said it plans to offer the vaccine at a “not for profit price during the emergency pandemic.”
John Young, chief business officer at Pfizer, said his company would charge a price “consistent with the urgent global health emergency” during the pandemic.
‘Not loosening any standards’
Trump has promised a vaccine by the end of the year, also raising concerns among some Democrats that his administration would rush to approve one. But company executives said there has been no political pressure to speed up a vaccine and compromise safety or efficacy.
“The FDA is not loosening any standards,” Gerberding said.
Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat who represents Maryland’s 3rd District, was skeptical.
“There is a tension between safety and speed,” Sarbanes said. “Tell me why it is you are able to move so fast without sacrificing safety, when we lay that against what the normal procedures would be?”
Company executives replied that their unusually fast timelines for vaccine development are a result of collaboration, extra funding for research, and prioritization from the FDA, including clear guidelines ahead of time on what will be needed for approval.
AstraZeneca’s Pangalos said the global nature of the vaccine creates many backstops. His company this week published a new study that shows promising early findings on its vaccine candidate.
“Remember this is going to be a vaccine that is going to be used globally, so every regulatory authority is going to have a view on the safety and efficacy of our vaccine,” Pangalos said.
He said the FDA’s guidelines “do not lower standards in any way.”
FDA released detailed guidance at the end of June detailing what would be necessary for a vaccine to be approved. One requirement is that it must be at least 50% effective at preventing COVID-19 infections.
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