President Donald Trump, whose prediction of a coronavirus vaccine by year’s end outpaces the outlook given by most health officials, announced the two men leading his “Operation Warp Speed” development effort during a noon event in the Rose Garden on Friday.
“We’d love to see if we could do it prior to the end of the year,” Trump said as he unveiled the project. “Operation Warp Speed,” Trump said, “means big and it means fast.”
CNN reported earlier this week that Trump was naming Moncef Slaoui, the ex-head of GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccines division, to lead the effort alongside four-star Army General Gustave Perna.
Slaoui, who has been a venture capitalist since leaving the pharmaceutical giant in 2017, will act as the chief adviser to the vaccine effort. Perna will serve as the chief operating officer overseeing logistics, White House officials said. Trump said this week he would “rapidly” mobilize the military to distribute a vaccine when it is ready.
Both men supplement the vaccine development efforts already underway by the federal government, including at the National Institutes of Health.
A leader at that agency, Dr. Anthony Fauci, also attended Friday’s event in the Rose Garden. A top White House adviser during the coronavirus pandemic, Fauci has recently come under fire by some of Trump’s allies for his caution on reopening the country, which he said would have grave consequences if not done carefully.
Fauci, whose testimony before a Senate committee earlier this week drew a rebuke from Trump, has not appeared alongside the President at the White House since April 29, when he delivered some good news on promising results of remdesivir clinical trials during a meeting in the Oval Office with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards.
However, he has been spotted at the White House multiple times, including in a Tuesday meeting with Vice President Mike Pence and other task force members.
Fauci, like other health experts, has warned that developing a vaccine could take a year at minimum and potentially much longer. He said during his testimony this week it was unlikely a vaccine would be developed in time for students to return to school in the fall.
Trump has been more bullish. On Thursday, he predicted a vaccine would be developed by the end of 2020.
“We’re going to have a lot of good things happen. We have a lot of great people working on it,” he said in an interview with the Washington Examiner. “We’re going to have a lot of good things, therapeutically and with a vaccine. And I think you’ll have it by the end of the year.”
Previewing the noon event to reporters Friday morning, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said Trump would also tout efforts already underway by the federal government to develop a vaccine.
“He’ll be unveiling two professionals leading the effort, but that comes very quickly on the heels of the (Food and Drug Administration) cutting a ton of red tape and regulations to allow us to already be developing vaccines,” Conway said.
“Today he will talk about health professionals and the military, and others (in) the private sector (and) public sector, (who) will be fully engaged in the development of this vaccine, at warp speed,” Conway continued.
The White House tapped Slaoui to lead the “Warp Speed” vaccine project after interviewing four candidates, according to a senior administration official.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, senior adviser Jared Kushner, adviser Adam Boehler, Dr. Deborah Birx, Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist, HHS deputy chief of staff Paul Mango and Fauci all participated in the interview process.
The decision to select Slaoui was “unanimous” and apparent to all of the administration panelists during the interview with Slaoui, the senior administration official said.
Slaoui met with Trump at the White House on Wednesday, the official said, and Trump signed off on his selection after getting the unanimous nod from his team.
Slaoui “feels confident” about the administration’s goal of delivering a Covid-19 vaccine by January, the official said, and is “very optimistic” about the prospects of success for the development of a vaccine.
Slaoui’s primary mission will be to determine which vaccines to bet on as the administration moves to manufacture more than one vaccine before trials are completed.
Two of the other candidates were Elias Zerhouni and Mark McClellan, the former Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services director under President George W. Bush.
Slaoui has held seats on the boards of multiple corporations pursuing a coronavirus vaccine, including Moderna. A person familiar with the matter said Slaoui would vacate his seats upon assuming his role in the vaccine effort.
Scientists who are part of the Trump administration’s coronavirus vaccine project have identified 14 vaccines to focus on for development, according to a senior administration official. Those involved in the effort expect to have six to eight of the vaccines being tested make it to subsequent rounds of trials, the official said.
Officials hope to have three to four vaccines make it through final testing and be made available, but that depends on how the testing and clinical trials proceed and how successful they are.
The HHS division tasked with vaccine development, BARDA, has seen its leadership in flux after the former director Dr. Rick Bright was ousted. Bright filed a formal whistleblower complaint alleging his early warnings about the coronavirus were ignored and that his concerns about promoting an untested therapeutic heralded by the President led to his removal.
He testified on Capitol Hill Thursday that 18 months may be an unrealistic goal for developing a vaccine.
“There is a lot of optimism. There is a lot of hope,” Bright said in his testimony. “But that doesn’t make a vaccine. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make a vaccine.”