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Update On A Timeline For When A Coronavirus Vaccine Might Be Available To Americans

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The rate of infection and the death toll keep climbing, but for the second time in a week, there is also some good news about the coronavirus. The pharmaceutical company Moderna announced this morning that its vaccine is 94.5% effective. This comes on the heels of Pfizer announcing last week its vaccine is more than 90% effective. So just how promising is this? And what is the update on a timeline for when a vaccine might be available to all Americans? Questions to put to Dr. Moncef Slaoui. He is chief scientific adviser for the coronavirus vaccine development program Operation Warp Speed.

Dr. Slaoui, great to speak with you again.

MONCEF SLAOUI: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: What is your reaction to today's news? Ninety-four-point-five percent effective in preventing COVID sounds pretty great.

SLAOUI: Well, frankly, I would say ecstatic. As you know, I was involved in Moderna prior to the operation.

KELLY: Yes.

SLAOUI: And I'm very familiar with this vaccine and its wonderful data. And what's really great is that the data are highly similar to those that Pfizer has announced last week. These are two vaccines that - totally independently developed and independently tested in large phase three trials. And to come with such similar data, I think, gives great confidence that this data is real, that these vaccines are highly effective and efficacious and their safety profile is, to the best that we have been able to see up to now, very satisfactory.

KELLY: You said you were ecstatic. It also sounds like you're a little surprised that these numbers have come in quite so good.

SLAOUI: Well, I'm surprised in the sense, frankly, that they look similar. I have said early on in June that I was expecting the vaccines to be 80% to 90% efficacious, and I remember that many people questioned that. I'm glad they are 90% or 95% efficacious. This is what the world needs to control this pandemic. And it also means and suggests that the other vaccines that we have in our portfolio and others that are working on vaccines are very likely to be very effective. This is apparently a virus that is particularly susceptible to a good immune response, and that's good news for the world.

KELLY: Lay out briefly for us what you see as the key differences between these vaccines. One that immediately leaps out is the Moderna vaccine has to be kept cold but not nearly as cold as the Pfizer one, which might make it a little easier to distribute.

SLAOUI: Yes, I would say the biggest difference here is indeed around the cold chain. The Pfizer vaccine requires a minus-80 degrees Celsius temperature for its storage. Transportation can sustain a few hours. On the other hand, the modern vaccine requires also significant cold chain, but not as cold - minus-20 Celsius, which is more common. Those are most of the freezers that people have in their homes - are minus-20.

And it can actually be stable and kept at 2 to 8 degrees, which is a fridge temperature, for up to a month. That is really a big plus in terms of being able to immunize individuals, for instance, that come from time to time to a CVS or a Walgreens and ask to be immunized.

KELLY: Right. You could get it at your regular doctor's office.

SLAOUI: Yeah, exactly. The Pfizer vaccine will probably be more compatible with what I would call mass immunization kind of setting. You would go to a hospital and immunize all the health care workers, or you would go to a seniors care center and immunize all the seniors in that care center - things like that, where you immunize hundreds of individuals at the same time.

KELLY: As the person in charge of the science, what do you say to people worried about vaccine safety who say, make all the vaccines you want - I'm not going to take it?

SLAOUI: I have a plea, which is - please, just listen and open up your mind to hear the transparent data and information - because that's our commitment, to share absolutely everything and have independent experts describe the data. It is unfortunate that there was so much politics in the context that we were in that has, I think, exacerbated certain reservations.

People need to realize there's only one way to protect yourself and also protect people around you, on top of wearing your mask and washing your hands and keeping your distance - it's true vaccination. And if enough of us gets vaccinated, there is a good chance that we keep this virus at very, very low levels, which means we can go back to normal life.

KELLY: When I last spoke to you, Dr. Slaoui, you told me that you're looking at middle of 2021 for a vaccine that is safe, effective and widely available. Does that timeline hold, or does this news of the last week, does that bump things up any?

SLAOUI: I think my statement has always been that by the middle of 2021, we would be able to have vaccinated the U.S. population. And I think that statement remains in a worst-case scenario, if we only have these two vaccines that work, we may not be able to have produced 600 million doses between now and June. So it may extend by a quarter or so.

But all in all, I think the - I feel more comfortable now saying the vaccines are possible, vaccination is possible, and not only is possible, can be incredibly effective, efficacious. And that's great news. So it gives me great optimism that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, finally.

KELLY: It's so nice to talk to somebody about the coronavirus and hear the words great news and later at the end of the tunnel.

SLAOUI: Yes, we need that.

KELLY: That is Dr. Moncef Slaoui. He used to sit on the board of Moderna. He is now the chief scientific adviser to Operation Warp Speed.

Dr. Slaoui, thank you.

SLAOUI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.