Moncef Slaoui, co-leader of the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed effort, is so confident that Moderna’s and Pfizer’s mRNA vaccines to prevent COVID-19 will succeed in phase 3 trials that he thinks every American could be immunized by June.
But there’s one caveat weighing down that prediction: politics. Slaoui is growing increasingly frustrated with the discussion of the pandemic in the ongoing presidential election—particularly as it pertains to vaccine and drug development.
“I think transparency and shared information is absolutely a right. I think doing it with a political objective, which then taints even the tone with which it is transmitted … is really dangerous,” Slaoui said in an interview with ABC News on Thursday.
He added that he has felt no direct pressure from President Donald Trump’s administration, but if he does, “I will say it and I will resign.”
Slaoui’s predictions about the timing of the COVID-19 vaccines have changed over the past month. In September, he said the likelihood of a vaccine being approved in early November was “extremely unlikely, but not impossible." In early October, he revised that prediction, saying Pfizer and Moderna would have efficacy data in November or December. Given that the FDA would need time to review those data, it would be impossible for any emergency approval to come by Election Day.
During the ABC interview, Slaoui said that between 20 million and 40 million doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines would be stockpiled. So, if they’re approved as predicted, “we can start immunizing the highest-risk people, the first-line workers, the healthcare workers, before the end of the year,” he said. By January, there should be 60 million to 80 million doses stockpiled, he added.
Pfizer, which is developing its vaccine with BioNTech, is widely considered the front-runner in the COVID-19 vaccine race, particularly because AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson had to pause their trials to investigate safety issues. Earlier this week, reports emerged suggesting AstraZeneca could resume its U.S. trial this week, and Slaoui told ABC he did expect that trial to start up again "imminently."
Still, the safety issue could be top-of-mind for some patients as they weigh their options for COVID-19 vaccination. Wednesday, Brazil’s health authority announced that one person in AstraZeneca’s vaccine trial died, though it wasn't clear whether that person had received the vaccine or placebo. All required processes were undertaken to investigate the death, the company said, and there were no concerns about continuing the study, which is ongoing in Brazil.
Slaoui is concerned that political rhetoric will only make worried Americans more reluctant about getting vaccinated against COVID-19, he told ABC. A recent Gallup poll revealed that the number of respondents who said they would be willing to take a vaccine now, if one were available at no cost, dropped from 66% in July to 50% earlier this month.
“I’m really worried about that,” Slaoui said. “I think, unfortunately, it’s the politics around it.”