The federal government’s “Operation Warp Speed” vaccine program, with its emphasis on quick production and testing of experimental coronavirus vaccines, is fueling fears already stirred up by vaccine skeptics, two experts said Friday.
The approach itself is not unreasonable, said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. But the way it’s being communicated is scaring people, he told CNN.
“The way the message is coming out of Operation Warp Speed creates a lot of chaos and confusion. And it is enabling the anti-vaccine movement,” Hotez said.
A White House coronavirus task force source told CNN earlier this week that the Trump Administration’s Warp Speed program had chosen five companies mostly likely to produce a Covid-19 vaccine – whittled down from 14 last month when “Operation Warp Speed” was launched.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says he expects up to 100,000 doses of one vaccine, made by biotech company Moderna, to be available by the end of the year, ready to be rolled out if it is shown to work safely to protect people against coronavirus infection in clinical trials that are now under way.
He has said one of the candidates could be ready as early as January. That is a highly accelerated schedule, as vaccines typically take years to produce.
“We think we are going to have a vaccine in the pretty near future, and if we do, we are going to really be a big step ahead,” Trump said last month.
“The way they are messaging it is a little frightening because they make a point of saying how quickly it is being done,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It makes people think there are steps being skipped.”
Hotez and Offit should know. They have both spent years fighting an organized anti-vaccination effort, and trying to educate people who have doubts and fears about vaccines. Both have written books about vaccine safety. Hotez wrote “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism,” about his daughter, and Offit has written several books, including “Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All.”
“What does the anti-vaccine lobby allege?” Hotez asked. “They say we rush vaccines, that we don’t adequately test them for safety, and that there is this conspiratorial relationship between Big Pharma and the government.”
And then vaccine makers send out news releases trumpeting incremental successes. Last month, Moderna, the US biotech company heavily promoted by the White House and the National Institutes of Health, announced promising early results, sending its share price up 30%. At the same time, two top executives sold $30 million worth of shares.
Lorence Kim, Moderna’s chief financial officer, exercised 241,000 options for $3 million, filings show. He then immediately sold them for $19.8 million, creating a profit of $16.8 million.
The next day, Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, spent $1.5 million to exercise options. He immediately sold the shares for $9.77 million, triggering a profit of $8.2 million.
It was all legal, but looked bad, Hotez said.
“They are shooting themselves in the foot,” he said.
On Thursday, National Institutes of Health director Dr. Francis Collins said he feared vaccine skepticism would make people unwilling to get the coronavirus vaccine. He also said the messaging would be important.