The Pentagon general spearheading President Trump’s drive to ensure a coronavirus vaccine gets to the American people in record time said Tuesday that Operation Warp Speed can only work if there is full buy-in from the public when the vaccine becomes available.
Army Gen. Gustave Perna, a military logistics specialist who got a shoutout from Mr. Trump himself at last week’s presidential debate, described his mission at a session organized by the conservative Heritage Foundation was “our world’s best scientists and doctors working beside the world’s best military with the support of American industry and academia.”
“It’s the collective effort that will ensure we’re successful. I’m proud to be a part of it,” Gen. Perna said.
Operation Warp Speed is pushing ahead in the face of an at times angry political debate over the government’s handling of the virus crisis and whether the urgency of the mission will affect the safety of the process.
Thousands of volunteers will be needed after pharmaceutical giants AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson announced this week they were restarting U.S. clinical trials on their coronavirus vaccine candidates following a temporary stand-down over possible safety issues. Officials at Operation Warp Speed — a public-private partnership to develop therapeutics and ultimately a vaccine for COVID-19 — said locating a large number of volunteers for the trials is absolutely crucial.
In the past, about 5,000 to 8,000 people agreed to take part in clinical trials, Dr. Matthew Hepburn, head of program’s vaccine development, told the Heritage gathering.
“Our standard has been 30,000 volunteers for our clinical trials. We want to gather as much safety information as we possibly can,” Dr. Hepburn said Tuesday. “We want to know if [the vaccine candidates] work. The more people you enroll, the sooner you’re going to be able to evaluate the effectiveness.”
Dr. Hepburn said biotech firm Moderna has already completed its Phase 3 clinical trials with more than 30,000 volunteers enrolled in the testing. The New York-based pharmaceutical company Pfizer has signed up more than 40,000 people to take part in currently ongoing testing.
“That shows me that over 60,000 Americans have decided to say, ‘I will volunteer. I don’t know if I’m going to receive the vaccine or if I receive a placebo. But I’m going to do my part,’” Dr. Hepburn said. “We’re very proud of the spirit of volunteerism that we see in America.”
Medical researchers will be keeping in contact with those who received the initial COVID-19 vaccine candidates.
“The people that are vaccinated in the clinical trial now, our intention is to follow them for up to two years so we can get a better idea on that critically important question of duration of protection,” Dr. Hepburn said.
Past campaigns against viruses such as smallpox, polio and the measles made it possible for researchers to move more quickly to the coronavirus finish line, officials said.
“These efforts have gone on for decades. We stand on the shoulder of giants,” Dr. Hepburn said. “There was massive progress even before we started Operation Warp Speed.”
VA medical centers around the country will be enrolling military veterans who want to take part in the testing program.
“This is another way they can continue to serve by fighting the pandemic as a volunteer,” Dr. Hepburn said. “But it’s a personal choice. Everyone makes that choice individually.”
U.S. troops won’t be administering any COVID-19 vaccines to American residents once the vaccines are approved for use. Most will get a vaccine that no federal employee — including the military — has ever touched, authorities said.
Dr. Hepburn acknowledged that some people might even be hesitant about taking the vaccine.
“For product development, this is why we don’t cut corners,” he said. “This is why we make sure we maintain the highest ethical quality and regulatory standards and that we’re transparent throughout the process,” he said. “It would just be shameful if we get a vaccine out to the American people and they don’t take it because there are doubts or concerns.”