Prospects of landing a vaccine for the coronavirus this year are “pretty good” and a top candidate may show efficacy by June, a British front-runner in the medical race said Sunday, as the U.S. and other countries clamor for ways to shield people returning to work and other normal routines.
John Bell, an Oxford University professor, said his researchers have so many people to test the vaccine that they should have a sense of its safety and effectiveness within six weeks. He said a hopeful world shouldn’t get carried away — evaluating safety takes more time — but early animal studies put them in a good position.
“I certainly wouldn’t put the possibility at 80%. That’s a pretty big number,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press” about the chances of developing a reliable vaccine this year. “But we are gradually reeling it in bit by bit, and as every day goes by, the likelihood of success goes up.”
Scientists and policymakers have pointed to a vaccine as the only true defense against the virus that has upended much of the world, shuttered major economies and taxed a U.S. supply chain that was unprepared for the crisis.
The national death toll reportedly eclipsed 66,000 on Sunday.
The U.S. is still trying to ramp up diagnostic testing and to land reliable testing for antibodies as states begin to reopen their economies.
SEE ALSO: McConnell, Pelosi ‘respectfully’ turn down Trump offer for rapid testing
Top leaders in Congress have rejected the Trump administration’s offer to deploy rapid coronavirus testing to Capitol Hill ahead of the Senate’s planned return Monday. They said key supplies should be reserved for front-line workers during the pandemic.
Given the difficulty of checking the vast U.S. population regularly or figuring out who has natural defenses to the disease, developing potential treatments or a preventive vaccine is vital.
Some people infected with the coronavirus don’t show symptoms, making it difficult to trace the pathogen and potential transmission.
“I think we underestimated very early on the number of asymptomatic cases,” Dr. Deborah Birx, U.S. coronavirus response coordinator, told Fox News Channel. “I think we’re really beginning to understand there are people that get infected that those symptoms are so low-grade that they don’t even know that they’re infected.”
She reiterated her view that the best way to eliminate the virus is to develop a vaccine.
President Trump has name-checked Oxford’s efforts in recent days and launched Operation Warp Speed to streamline cooperation between his administration and major drugmakers such as Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, which are among dozens of players in the vaccine race.
“I hope we’re going to have a vaccine, and we’re going to fast-track it like you’ve never seen before,” Mr. Trump said.
Although ongoing transmission of the virus is tragic, it is a scientific boon to researchers who are trying various candidates in real time.
Mr. Bell said the Oxford team is “pretty confident that the vector itself is safe because it’s been used in about 5,000 people already up to now.”
“So that’s allowed us to really accelerate the phase one program, and we hope that there would be enough disease that we would get evidence that the vaccine has efficacy by the beginning of June,” he told NBC.
Despite their progress, researchers have challenges. Vaccines are given to healthy people, not the sick and desperate, so safety protocols are key and might drag on. Developers are scrambling to compress into a year what can take up to five or 10, so Mr. Trump is just as eager to advance drugs that can block the virus that causes COVID-19 and help vulnerable people recover from the respiratory disease.
Clinical studies for drug treatments typically take shorter courses than those for vaccines.
The Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved a promising antiviral, remdesivir, for emergency use in patients with severe cases of COVID-19 after clinical trials showed it was able to block the virus and speed up recovery times versus a placebo.
“It’s really a very promising situation,” Mr. Trump said in an Oval Office meeting with the CEO of Gilead Sciences, the maker of remdesivir. “We have very promising studies coming out on the vaccines. We have promising studies coming out on therapeutics.”
Mr. Trump followed up the announcement with a trip to the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland. He didn’t make public appearances but used his Twitter thumbs to stoke political grievances and say he was “glad to see” North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un back in public after rumors that he was gravely ill or even dead.
He also highlighted his golf course in Scotland and boasted about his approval ratings and progress in fighting the COVID-19 outbreak ahead of a Sunday night Fox News town hall at the Lincoln Memorial on reopening America.
Over a dozen states have moved to reopen their economies. Large states such as Texas and Florida are using a phased-in approach that allows restaurants and retailers to open with 25% occupancy. A handful of movie theaters are set to reopen in Texas as well, and some reportedly are using infrared body temperature screenings and airport-style check-ins.
Michigan and some other states are contending with vociferous protests as they keep restrictions in place because of ongoing transmission.
“We are still having parts of the state that are seeing an increase in the rate of rise in cases, and we know that their hospital capacity is not what it should be. We have to get our testing up as I know people across the country are working on. So, while we are cautiously optimistic, we still think we need to be very careful,” Joneigh Khaldun, a top Michigan health official, told NBC.
The White House released guidelines that outline how states can reopen safely in multiple phases, though it’s primarily up to governors to plot the path forward.
Mr. Trump encouraged states to take the lead in testing for the virus but has pledged federal resources of late and boasted that capacity is now robust. Over the weekend, he pledged support for key players on Capitol Hill. He said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, should accept his offer of rapid coronavirus tests from Abbott Laboratories despite reticence from congressional leaders.
“No reason to turn it down, except politics,” Mr. Trump said in a Twitter message. “We have plenty of testing. Maybe you need a new Doctor over there. Crazy Nancy will use it as an excuse not to show up to work!”
In a rare joint statement, Mr. McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said they “respectfully” reject the administration’s “generous” offer to provide rapid testing capabilities to Congress.
“Our country’s testing capacities are continuing to scale up nationwide and Congress wants to keep directing resources to the front-line facilities where they can do the most good the most quickly,” Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. McConnell said.
The leaders said that consistent with federal guidance, Congress will use the testing protocols that the office of the attending physician has in place until quicker technology is more readily available.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said late Friday that the administration was sending three Abbott “point of care” testing machines and 1,000 tests to Capitol Hill as the Senate prepares to return to work Monday.
The White House last month mandated that anyone who wants to get close to Mr. Trump or Vice President Mike Pence has to take a quick coronavirus test.
Dr. Brian P. Monahan, Congress‘ in-house doctor, said he doubts he has enough rapid tests for all 100 senators and that he would likely have to limit the testing to senators and staffers who are sick or displaying symptoms.
The Democrat-led House scrapped plans to return Monday based on advice from Dr. Monahan and a rising number of COVID-19 cases in and around the nation’s capital.
Mr. McConnell expressed confidence that the Senate could reconvene safely with proper precautions in place.