Scientists fear Trump could rush out coronavirus vaccine before it's ready

The prospect of rolling out a new vaccine before the election may be too much for the president to pass up – even if it would risk circumventing the usual standards of safety

Andrew Naughtie
Tuesday 04 August 2020 16:07 BST
Trump celebrates another candidate vaccine

Reports indicate that some American scientists involved in the US government’s pursuit of a coronavirus vaccine are worried the project may be proceeding too hastily – and even that it might be becoming politicised.

The Trump administration’s dash to create a vaccine, which it has dubbed “Operation Warp Speed”, is a highly pressurised programme intended to achieve in a few months what normally takes a few years.

And given the emphasis on speed as well as the repeated assurances from Donald Trump that the virus will eventually “disappear” or be “put out” with a vaccine, some in the US’s scientific community are worried that when it comes to rolling a vaccine out, safety and efficacy might be pushed aside by political expediency.

Dr Paul A. Offit, who sits on the vaccine advisory committee of the Food and Drug Administration, told the New York Times that “there are a lot of people on the inside of this process who are very nervous about whether the administration is going to reach their hand into the Warp Speed bucket, pull out one or two or three vaccines, and say, ‘We’ve tested it on a few thousand people, it looks safe, and now we are going to roll it out.’

“They are really worried about that, and they should be.”

Were a vaccine to be brought to market before the election on 3 November, Mr Trump would be handed perhaps the best political lifebelt he could hope for. Besides the fallout from the death of George Floyd, the campaign has so far been dominated by the coronavirus and the government’s fumbled response to it – and Mr Trump has been consistently lagging behind Joe Biden both nationally and in various crucial states.

Mr Trump himself only yesterday announced that another in a list of candidate vaccines supported by the White House has gone into testing, with massive pre-orders for others already being placed.

“We’re balancing speed and safety,” he said at a White House press conference, “we’re on pace to have a vaccine available this year, maybe far in advance of the end of the year, and we’re mass-producing the most promising candidates in advance so that we’re ready immediately upon approval.”

Concerns about the White House’s motives and methods notwithstanding, there is at least some genuine hope that a vaccine is not far off. Dr Anthony Fauci, leading immunologist and the White House’s most visible adviser during the pandemic, told a congressional committee last week that he is “cautiously optimistic” that a safe and effective vaccine could be developed by year’s end.

However, he also said that even with at least 25 vaccines in development around the world, the jab – when it arrives – will not be a silver bullet.

“I don’t think that we’ll have everybody getting it immediately in the beginning. It probably will be phased in. And that’s the reason why we have the committees to do the prioritisation of who should get it first,” he told lawmakers.

“But ultimately, within a reasonable period of time, the plans now allow for any American who needs a vaccine to get it within the year 2021.”

The Trump administration is far from the only government racing to get a vaccine rolled out in world-beating time. Russia is set to roll out a nationwide inoculation programme in October using a vaccine developed by Moscow’s Gamaleya Institute, and is aiming to produce millions of doses by the start of 2021.

However, there are serious international concerns about the vaccine, which is now in phase three large-sample population trials. There is scant publicly available data on its performance in trials so far, and reports have surfaced of subjects in one trial group suffering fevers above 38ºC.

China, meanwhile, is testing multiple candidate vaccines, but scientists there are worried that population studies are becoming difficult because of the country’s low Covid-19 infection rate, which makes it hard to recruit the tens of thousands of subjects needed for proper testing.

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