WASHINGTON — Speaking from the Rose Garden on Friday afternoon, President Trump announced the launch of Operation Warp Speed, an initiative to “finish developing, and then manufacture and distribute, a proven coronavirus vaccine” on an accelerated schedule, perhaps as soon as the end of 2020.
Such a vaccine would inoculate people against the coronavirus, making a return to ordinary life possible. But given the clinical trials and logistical challenges of inoculating more than 300 million people, not to mention the rest of the world, most experts do not believe a mass vaccination program will take place for another 18 months.
There are numerous vaccines in various stages of development and testing, but approval for any of them will likely take several months at least.
But the drug industry executive Trump tapped as a co-director of the effort, while acknowledging that deploying a vaccine by the end of the year was an aggressive schedule, called it a “credible objective.”
Standing behind Trump was Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases and a member of the White House coronavirus task force. Testifying before the Senate earlier in the week, Fauci said that even once a vaccine has been developed, there was “no guarantee that the vaccine is actually going to be effective” when deployed in the general population.
President Trump speaking about the coronavirus, while Dr. Anthony Fauci listens at left. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Trump said the project would be “big” and “fast,” and likened it to the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. He suggested that a vaccine could begin to be available to the public by the end of this year.
Fauci has previously said that it was “doable” to have a vaccine by January. But others are skeptical of Trump’s timeline. “I don’t see a path by which any vaccine is licensed — whether it’s emergency use or otherwise — until the third quarter of 2021,” Dr. Peter Hotez, a Baylor College of Medicine epidemiologist who is working on a vaccine of his own, told CNN shortly after Trump made his remarks. “I just don’t see how you collect enough safety and efficacy data to say that we can have a vaccine for general use by the end of the year.”
Trump provided few details about the new initiative, though he did announce that it would be headed by Moncef Slaoui, a pharmaceutical executive, and Gustave Perna, commanding general of United States Army Materiel Command. (Slaoui will oversee the medical research, and Perna will supervise the logistics of manufacturing and distribution.) Details of the project had emerged in recent days, suggesting the kind of public-private partnership that Trump has endorsed in other aspects of the coronavirus response. Some two dozen private U.S. companies are now working on a coronavirus vaccine, as is the U.S. military.
A coronavirus response event at the White House on Friday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Trump was at pains to say that regardless of when a vaccine was developed, the nation was already returning to normal. “I want to make one thing clear: Vaccine or no vaccine, we’re back,” the president said. He has previously described himself as the nation’s premier cheerleader, arguing that optimism was necessary at a time of crisis.
That optimism was also apparent on Friday afternoon when the sound of honking from long-haul trucks parked along Constitution Avenue disrupted the Rose Garden press conference. Trump acknowledged the sound, then claimed that they were “protesting in favor of President Trump.”
In fact, the truckers were in Washington to protest what they say is continuing hardship in their industry, including low rates set by freight brokers.
Trump’s assertion of victory comes after an economically devastating stretch during which at least 20 million Americans have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus. Even so, most Americans support the continuation of such measures, apparently because they fear contracting the coronavirus more than they do the economic effects of pandemic-related shutdowns.
So far, complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have killed 87,000 Americans. Although thousands continue to become infected with the disease each day, some believe reopening the country is necessary.
Many epidemiologists believe COVID-19 cases may decline in the summer, following the pattern of other respiratory infections, but could return by the fall, when the disease’s impact could be reinforced by the concurrent flu season.
Trump has contradicted that view frequently and publicly. He did so again on Friday. “It may flare up and it may not flare up, we’ll have to see what happens,” he said. “But if it does flare up we’re going to put out the fire, and we’ll put it out quickly and efficiently.”
In testimony the day before, former Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority director Dr. Rick Bright — who alleges he was demoted for running afoul of Trump — testified that time was running out for the nation to prepare for a second wave of coronavirus cases in the fall.
“Our window of opportunity is closing,” Bright told Congress, urging the Trump administration to follow the guidance of scientists.
As Bright was testifying, Trump dismissed him as a “disgruntled employee.”
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