A coronavirus vaccine could be widely available to much of the American public as early as April of next year, Operation Warp Speed chief Dr Moncef Slaoui told Business Insider in an exclusive interview.
His program aims to have a shot anytime between then and June, which Dr Slaoui believes will make it possible to life to return to some semblance of normality by the second half of next year.
Data on whether or not the six leading vaccine candidates appear to work should be available by the end of the year, he said.
Of course, Dr Slaoui has skin in the game. A former executive at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which is making working on one of the vaccines, Dr Slaoui only accepted the position in the Trump administration task force on the condition he got to keep his shares in his former company.
A vaccine may be ready by then, but that doesn’t mean everyone will get it, even if it’s available to the public. Dr Anthony Fauci said on Wednesday that there will not be a federal mandate that the general public get vaccinated during a talk with George Washington University.
Both Moderna and Pfizer are in late-stage trials, meaning that, if all goes well, they could have data on whether or not their coronavirus shots work by October and ready to apply for Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.
‘I would not be surprised if we have data before the end of the year,’ Dr Slaoui said in a rare interview with Business Insider.
That would mean their shots could be ready to ship as early as the end of the year or beginning of next.
AstraZeneca (whose shot is the lead candidate in UK, and considered the global leader by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Johnson & Johnson are set to start their own phase 3 trials in the coming weeks.
Merck is also making a coronavirus vaccine, but lags behind the other four candidates.
Everything hinges on the data from those trials. If they show the shots are safe and at least somewhat effective – Dr Fauci has said he’d settle for a shot that was 50 percent effective at blocking coronavirus – then the process of allocation and getting the shots to health workers, at-risk Americans and then the general public can begin in earnest.
‘I feel pretty confident we will be there,’ Dr Slaoui said.
Developing a safe and effective shot is really only half the battle, however.
Public health officials also have to convince people to get it.
It’s not clear how much of the population needs to be immune to COVID-19 – either by developing antibodies after infection or by getting vaccinated.
Earlier estimates suggested that herd immunity was a long way off, as experts said 70 percent of the population need to have some immunity to the virus.
Only about one in five people in hard-hit New York City currently have antibodies against coronavirus.
Now, research suggests that number may be closer to 50 percent – and some puts the herd immunity as low as 10 or 20 percent of the population.
The US will have to hope it’s closer to that range, as less than half of Americans currently intend to get a coronavirus vaccine, according to a recent NBC/Surveymonkey poll.
In fact, other polls have found that many Americans are wary of a coronavirus shot precisely because of Operation Warp Speed, and would be more so if President Trump endorsed one.
In a country where vaccine skepticism was already rampant, the pandemic, which experts only believe will relent with a shot, has only more deeply entrenched distrust of vaccines.
However problematic it might be from a public health standpoint, Americans can rest assured that the government is unlikely to force them to get a shot – at least at the federal level, Dr Fauci says.
‘You don’t want to mandate and try and force anyone to take a vaccine. We’ve never done that,’ said Dr Fauci.
‘You can mandate for certain groups of people like health workers, but for the general population you can’t.
‘It would be unenforceable and not appropriate.’
However, he noted that a hands-off federal approach would not stop states from passing their own COVID-19 vaccination mandates.