WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has selected five companies as the most likely candidates to produce a vaccine for the coronavirus, senior officials said, a critical step in the White House’s effort to deliver on its promise of being able to start widespread inoculation of Americans by the end of the year.
By winnowing the field in a matter of weeks from a pool of around a dozen companies, the federal government is betting that it can identify the most promising vaccine projects at an early stage, speed along the process of determining which will work and ensure that the winner or winners can be quickly manufactured in huge quantities and distributed across the country.
The announcement of the decision will be made at the White House in the next few weeks, government officials said. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top epidemiologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, hinted at the coming action Tuesday when he told a medical seminar that “by the beginning of 2021 we hope to have a couple of hundred million doses.”
The five companies are Moderna, a Cambridge-based biotechnology firm, which Fauci said he expected would enter into the final phase of clinical trials next month; the combination of Oxford University and AstraZeneca, on a similar schedule; and three large pharmaceutical companies: Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Pfizer. Each is taking a somewhat different approach.
President Trump has been eager to show rapid progress as the nation slowly emerges from lockdown and as he faces the growing challenge of winning reelection in the midst of national upheaval: more than 106,000 Americans dead from the virus, unemployment at record levels, and now discord and violence in the streets.
Despite promising early results and the administration’s strong interest in nurturing a government-industry partnership, substantial hurdles remain, and many scientists consider Trump’s goal of having a vaccine widely available by early next year to be optimistic, if not unrealistic. Vaccine development is notoriously difficult and time-consuming; the record is four years, and a decade is not unusual.
Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca group have already received a total of $2.2 billion in federal funding to support their vaccine programs. Their selection as finalists, along with Merck and Pfizer, will give all five companies access to additional government money, help in running clinical trials, and financial and logistical support for a manufacturing base that is being built even before it is clear which, if any, of the vaccines in development will work.
More funding is likely to be announced soon, officials said. Earlier this week, the Department of Health and Human Services added $628 million to a contract with Emergent BioSolutions, a Maryland firm, to expand development of vaccine manufacturing capacity.
The project — called Operation Warp Speed — amounts to a sprawling, on-the-fly experiment in industrial policy by a Republican administration that has been dedicated to giving private industry a free hand.
Democrats in Congress are already seeking details about the contracts with the companies, many of which are still wrapped in secrecy. They are asking how much Americans will have to pay to be vaccinated and whether the firms, or American taxpayers, will retain the profits and intellectual property.
Other countries, including China, are also rushing their own efforts to produce a vaccine, raising concerns that nationalism rather than need could drive decisions about who first gets inoculated.
Two of the vaccine candidates selected by the Trump administration — developed by Moderna and scientists at Oxford — are already in phase two trials, meaning their effectiveness is being tested on scores of human subjects.
They will likely shift to large-scale human trials, called phase three, as early as July, two senior administration officials said.
While Johnson & Johnson has said it would begin phase one trials by September at the latest, that now appears likely to be sped up considerably, officials said. Phase one focuses on testing for safety, a particularly important factor for vaccines since they are administered widely to healthy people.
Several of the companies said that they did not want to speak before any announcement by the White House, and the others did not respond to requests for comment. Moderna, Merck, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are based in the United States. AstraZeneca is based in Britain.