Executives from four companies in the race to produce a coronavirus vaccine — AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna Therapeutics and Pfizer — told lawmakers on Tuesday that they are optimistic their products could be ready by the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021. All four companies are testing vaccines in human clinical trials.
Three of the firms — AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna — are getting federal funds for their vaccine development efforts. AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson pledged to the lawmakers that they would produce hundreds of millions of doses of their vaccines at no profit to themselves. Moderna, however, which has been granted $483 million from the government to develop its product, made no such promise.
“We will not sell it at cost,” said Dr. Stephen Hoge, the president of Moderna.
Many Democratic lawmakers have argued that federal funding for vaccine development should include provisions to guarantee affordability and guard against profiteering.
At the Congressional hearing on Tuesday, some House members raised concerns about Pfizer’s decision to reject federal funds, suggesting it could lead to price-gouging and a lack of transparency.
“We didn’t accept the federal government funding solely for the reason that we wanted to be able to move as quickly as possible with our vaccine candidate into the clinic,” said John Young, Pfizer’s chief business officer.
“We’ll price our potential vaccine consistent with the urgent global health emergency that we’re facing,” Mr. Young said, adding that “a vaccine is meaningless if people are unable to afford it.”
Representative Dr. Raul Ruiz, Democrat of California, also questioned whether failing to address the financial stakes of vaccine development early on could keep these products out of “the hands of the people that need this most.”
“I don’t want to look back, and then have health equity be an afterthought,” Dr. Ruiz said. “It has to be prioritized.”
The hearing held by members of the House energy committee’s oversight panel was punctuated by notes of optimism from executives from each company, several of whom referred to promising early results from studies in people. On Monday, AstraZeneca and Pfizer released data indicating that their vaccines could stimulate strong immune responses with only minor side effects.
Still, the actual effectiveness and durability of these responses against the virus have yet to be determined. No vaccine candidates have been proven effective for preventing infection by the coronavirus, or for protecting people from the severe effects of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Panel members pressed the company executives for a commitment to maintain the highest standards for a vaccine, and not sacrifice quality for the sake of expediency. An ideal vaccine, several committee members stressed, would not only be safe and effective, but also be straightforward enough to manufacture en masse and available to the public at low cost.
“It is possible that a Covid-19 vaccine may become available by the end of this year or early next year,” said Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado and the panel’s chairperson. “That’s a rare bit of good news in this harrowing time.”
But, she added, “we must remind ourselves that plenty can still go wrong. And so the anticipated timeline is not guaranteed.”
A fifth contender, Merck, painted a far less rosy picture of the vaccine development landscape. Dr. Julie Gerberding, the company’s executive vice president and chief patient officer, made no promises about when its product would be ready, citing concerns about safety should the process be rushed. “We do not expect to be able to accelerate the safety assessment,” Dr. Gerberding said.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 22, 2020
Why do masks work?
- The coronavirus clings to wetness and enters and exits the body through any wet tissue (your mouth, your eyes, the inside of your nose). That’s why people are wearing masks and eyeshields: they’re like an umbrella for your body: They keep your droplets in and other people’s droplets out. But masks only work if you are wearing them properly. The mask should cover your face from the bridge of your nose to under your chin, and should stretch almost to your ears. Be sure there are no gaps — that sort of defeats the purpose, no?
Is the coronavirus airborne?
- The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
What’s the best material for a mask?
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
- So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
Merck’s chief executive, Kenneth Frazier, has previously cautioned against coronavirus vaccine hype and warned that a hurried approval process could damage prospects for protecting the public.
In a statement released on June 30, the Food and Drug Administration noted that any vaccine candidate vying for approval would need to prevent or ameliorate disease in at least 50 percent of the people who received it. Manufacturers won’t have a good sense of these metrics until the completion of so-called Phase 3 clinical trials, which enroll thousands of participants — some of whom are vaccinated, some of whom aren’t — and track their infection status over the course of multiple months.
Federal approval isn’t the only goal of vaccine development, the executives said. Once this milestone is met, the vaccines will still need to be administered widely and also be accessible to a range of populations particularly those that have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Those would include the elderly, people with underlying medical conditions and Black, Latino and Native Americans.
In written statements to the panel, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer reaffirmed their commitment to diversity in their vaccine development pipelines to ensure that these vulnerable communities will also benefit from their products.
Dr. Macaya Douoguih, who is head of clinical development and medical affairs of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Vaccines, said at the hearing that her company would be leveraging its past experience with community outreach, noting the importance of equipping higher-risk populations with accurate information about the disease.
And Dr. Hoge, of Moderna, said that his company is actively enrolling people “representative of the diversity of America” into Phase 3 trials.
The subcommittee also stressed the importance of worldwide distribution of any vaccines proven effective against the coronavirus to ensure global health.
“None of us are safe until all of us are safe,” Mr. Young said.
Carl Zimmer and Noah Weiland contributed to this article.