The White House is working with seven pharmaceutical companies as part of its “Warp Speed” coronavirus vaccine program, including a bet on a rapid genetic technology.
The companies include Johnson & Johnson, Merck & Co., Pfizer Inc., the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech Moderna Inc., and the University of Oxford in collaboration with AstraZeneca Plc, as well as two other firms, according to two people familiar with the matter. President Donald Trump was briefed Tuesday on the latest details on the project, according to one of the people.
Drug companies and university researchers are investigating more than 130 experimental inoculations, though fewer than a dozen candidates are currently being assessed in human trials. Moderna, Pfizer and Oxford have already started studies of their vaccines in healthy patients, while J&J and Merck intend to launch trials later in the year.
Operation Warp Speed seeks to compress a process that is typically years long into a matter of months, in part by spending as much as $10 billion on research, manufacturing and agreements to guarantee purchase of the vaccines, according to one of the people. The effort is being led by General Gustave Perna, who directs the U.S. Army Materiel Command, and former GlaxoSmithKline Plc executive Moncef Slaoui.
Moderna and Pfizer’s candidates rely on a new genetics-based technology called messenger RNA. J&J and the University of Oxford are using engineered viruses called adenoviral vectors, another new approach best known for their use in an Ebola vaccine.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins said last month that the U.S. believes it’s important to have a mix of vaccine candidates that use promising new technologies like mRNA, and others that use already-proven platforms.
“I think we have exactly the right mix in this case: A couple of platforms that are very rapid, but potentially riskier, and also, as very solid backups, other platforms that we know can work for other viruses,” Collins said on May 11. “It’s a horse race. We want all the horses to win, but we want to be sure there’s plenty in the field.”
Moderna’s vaccine has entered phase 2 trials, with the hope of a wider test in thousands of people that will determine whether or not it’s effective. Pfizer is developing its shot with German company BioNTech SE and is also in human trials. Merck unveiled its vaccine program late last month.