US Troops Would Be Among First to Get a Working COVID-19 Vaccine, Officials Say

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Marines receive Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals for their role in Operation Gotham.
Marines with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2d Marine Division, receive Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals for their role in Operation Gotham, on Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, June 16, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Stormy Mendez)

U.S. service members would be among the first Americans to receive the vaccine against COVID-19 if one is proven to be safe and effective, senior administration officials told reporters Tuesday.

Speaking about the Trump administration's effort to develop, make and distribute a working vaccine against the deadly coronavirus by early next year, officials said those likely to receive it first include the most vulnerable, such as the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, workers in essential businesses and the U.S. military.

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"Our role, as the federal government, is to ensure anyone who is vulnerable, cannot afford it and desire it can get it, those critical to infrastructure get it, essential workers get it, and those associated with national defense get it. That's our obligation," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak in an official capacity.

Operation Warp Speed, as the administration's initiative to deliver a vaccine against the coronavirus is dubbed, is simultaneously supporting efforts to develop, manufacture and distribute 300 million doses of a prophylactic if an effective one is found.

The goal is to have an effective vaccine by January, 2021. But urgency and speed will not eclipse safety in the effort, the officials said.

Seeking to quell concerns over the potential risks of a vaccine developed in months, rather than the years it normally takes to field immunizations and medications, the officials said the Operation Warp Speed coalition is mindful of the calendar but safety and efficacy comes first.

"As you all know, there are no sure things in science," said an official. "What we can tell Americans is that we've taken every possible step to maximize the probability of success and shorten the timelines to getting safe and effective vaccines and therapeutics."

Fourteen candidates have been selected from more than 100 candidates and will be narrowed to a field of seven, with large-scale randomized trials proceeding for the most promising.

Operation Warp Speed, led by Moncef Slaoui, former chairman of global vaccines at GlaxoSmithKline, and Army Gen. Gustave Perna, head of U.S. Army Materiel Command, is spearheading simultaneous efforts to develop, manufacture and distribute a vaccine.

As part of the effort, HHS has awarded nearly $1 billion to pharmaceutical companies Johnson & Johnson and Moderna to support their vaccine candidates, which have started early clinical trials or are about to start them.

In May, HHS awarded $1.2 billion to AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, which is expected to conduct a clinical trial this summer with 30,000 volunteers in the U.S.

The government also has partnered with companies to improve manufacturing capabilities and capacities and contracted with companies to provide syringes and vials to store and administer the vaccines.

Acknowledging the small but growing and vocal anti-vaccination movement that is seizing the opportunity to unite and protest any future mass inoculation effort, the officials stressed the importance of the research and development process, which they say is occurring carefully, albeit at warp speed.

"We are well aware of the crisis of vaccine confidence in recent years in the U.S. and around the world, and the Department of Health and Human Services has undertaken significant efforts to fight back against these trends," said the officials. "The same steps we will take to ensure the safety of vaccines that protect millions of American lives every day will be required."

Despite a massive effort that involves public and private ventures and support from HHS, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Agriculture and others, the officials said they can't promise "a hundred percent chance of success."

"We've made investments, we've mitigated risks, we've seeded options to maximize the probability of having a vaccine by year's end," an official said.

The COVID-19 coronavirus has infected more than 8 million people worldwide and killed at least 438,000. In the U.S., 2.1 million people have been diagnosed with the illness and more than 116,000 have died.

Officials also said an economic analysis of stay-at-home orders across the U.S. cost the economy $20 billion per day.

The U.S. military has taken a significant role in Operation Warp Speed, with Perna as chief operating officer and Army generals leading both operational directorates within the organization: Army Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski leading the supply, production and distribution directorate; and Army Brig. Gen. Michael McCurry leading the security assurance directorate.

Another three dozen DoD personnel also are working on the project within HHS.

The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research announced last week that it has selected a lead vaccine candidate from among the ones that Army researchers have been working on since January.

It narrowed down its most promising as well as two backups from a field of more than two dozen prototypes, according to a release from the Army's Medical Research and Development Command.

WRAIR plans to test its leading vaccines in humans later this year.

Army officials said their design, which uses a type of nanoparticle that introduces pieces of the spike protein seen on the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus to the immune system, may eventually lead the way to development of a universal vaccine against other coronaviruses, including those that cause the common cold, as well as SARS and MERS.

"USAMRDC is moving at unprecedented speeds in the effort to prevent, detect, and treat COVID-19. We are supporting the whole-of-government response with the scientific knowledge and expertise to combat this world-wide challenge," said Brig. Gen. Michael J. Talley, commanding general of the USAMRDC and Fort Detrick, Maryland. "With the recent selection of this vaccine candidate, we believe we are one step closer to that goal."

As of Monday, 12,152 service members, dependents and civilian DoD employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 36 have died. The U.S. Navy has been hardest hit among the services, with 2,756 cases; followed by the Army, with 2,245 cases; the Marine Corps, with 729; and the Air Force, with 700.

The National Guard Bureau, which saw thousands of its members called up to respond to the national emergency declared over the pandemic, has had 1,532 cases.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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