Vaccine makers deny political pressure in race for safe, effective shot

Five companies testify to promising early results

Merck Executive Vice President And Chief Patient Officer Julie Gerberding is seen on a screen as she gives an opening statement during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss the lessons learned during the coronavirus to prepare for the next pandemic on Capitol Hill on June 23, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (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 Tuesday that 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 Dr. 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.   -Dr. Julie Gerberding, a vice president and chief patient officer at Merck

“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 chair of the committee, said the updates on vaccine development is a “rare bit of good news in a harrowing time.”

“We’re now six months into this national public health crisis and COVID-19 case numbers are  continuing to climb at a staggering rate. Today more than 140,000 Americans have lost lives to this disease,” DeGette told the panel. 

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) speaks in March 2014 while flanked by colleagues on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“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. 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,” DeGette said. 

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 Colorado, the daily count of positive COVID-19 cases has been on a steady rise since mid-June. The state had 384 new cases in its three-day moving average on July 19, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health

There are more than twice as many new cases per day in Colorado now as there were on June 15. The hardest hit counties when adjusted for population are Logan, Morgan and Mineral, according to state data.

In response to the growing caseload, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced a mask mandate last week. State health experts warned that at the current rate of transmission, need for Colorado’s intensive care beds could exceed capacity by September.

‘Encouraging, early signs’ on vaccine timelines

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 has already 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 who are healthy. Phase three will branch out to test tens of thousands of volunteers representing a spectrum of ages, races and risk groups. 

Researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital are participating in a phase three trial of Moderna’s vaccine. They plan to recruit 1,000 patients who are considered high risk either because of age, ethnicity, occupation or health condition, and monitor them for a year for side effects and whether or not they become ill with COVID-19, according to a news release from UCHealth.

According to the release, the Moderna trial is one of more than 15 COVID-19 clinical trials the nonprofit health system is participating in. And while Dr. Thomas Campbell, an infectious disease physician at the CU School of Medicine, said in the release that he was elated by the progress, he also noted that “the sad reality is that most vaccine candidates don’t turn out to be successful so we have to be prepared for failures as well.”

The executives testifying before DeGette’s committee, however, 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 who need it. Each of the company executives said they would rely on the government to allocate and distribute the vaccines — an approach that concerned several 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).

“I am encouraged by some of the early trials and am hopeful that the later phase trials will prove safe and effective for mass production. However, the accessibility of vaccines for Americans from all walks of life is critical,” said Arizona Democrat Tom O’Halleran.

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 Dr. Stephen Hoge. Moderna received $480 million from the U.S. government to help speed its research on a vaccine.

Gerberding said Merck would also not offer its vaccine at cost. 

Dr. Mene Pangalos, executive vice president at AstraZeneca, said that 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, Dr. Macaya Douoguih, said it plans to offer the vaccine at a “not for profit price during the emergency pandemic.” 

John Young, of 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,” said Gerberding. 

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 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.