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COVID-19 vaccines are being developed with unprecedented speed amid some setbacks

With the U.S. about to approve emergency use for Pfizer's vaccine, there have been some setbacks with others now being tested. Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline said on Friday the launch of their vaccine will be delayed, and AstraZeneca announced confusing results for its potential vaccine. William Brangham spoke with Matthew Herper, a senior writer for STAT News, to learn more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The expected approval of Pfizer's new vaccine has stirred excitement about the first shots being delivered next week to a select number of people.

    It comes as multiple news organizations reported that President Trump's chief of staff threatened to fire the FDA commissioner if approval was not granted by the close of business today. The FDA denied that those threats were made. And, late today, the government announced that it will buy 100 million more doses of a vaccine by another company, Moderna.

    But, for all of the interest around these first vaccines, we have been learning about delays with other vaccine candidates.

    William Brangham looks at those realities.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, the speed of vaccine development has been unprecedented, but there have been some setbacks.

    Today, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline said that the launch of their potential vaccine will be delayed, after it did not generate a sufficient immune response in older people. The U.S. and other governments had expected that vaccine to be part of their arsenal.

    That news follows confusing results recently with AstraZeneca's potential vaccine and amid other questions about whether the federal government missed an opportunity to buy enough doses of Pfizer's vaccine.

    Matthew Herper is a senior writer who covers this field for STAT News.

    Matthew, thank you very much for being here.

    Let's start off, first, with this Sanofi and Glaxo news. These are two companies with a long track record of developing vaccines, so there was some surprise about these hiccups. But are these just to be expected in the normal process of vaccine development?

  • Matthew Herper:


    I mean, this is what we have been expecting all along when it comes to vaccine development. You have to remember, in drug development, it's, like, 90 percent of projects that fail. It's the norm.

    This would normally be a small hiccup, because, normally, drug companies don't have to deliver on these kind of time frames. It really is impressive that this didn't kind of thing happen with either the mRNA vaccines, either Pfizer, BioNTech, or Moderna.

  • William Brangham:

    So, as we have mentioned also, there was some trouble with AstraZeneca, and the initial doses were confused that they were giving out to patients in their trials.

    And now they might have to redo some of that. Does that mean that they're likely going to have to do a whole 'nother set of trials before that could be ready?

  • Matthew Herper:

    Well, we're going to have to see.

    We — the main trial in the U.S. of the original dosing scheme is still ongoing. It's not clear whether those results are really statistically different or whether it was the amount of vaccine or how long. But, yes, it's a potential delay. It's not great news.

    The efficacy of the dose that was being tested originally was a little more than 60 percent, which would have been good if we hadn't just heard about the Pfizer and Moderna results.

  • William Brangham:

    So, I guess it should be said that, as you were mentioning, delays should be expected. That's a normal part of the process.

    But there had been incredible hopes that some of these vaccines might be available sooner than now may be in reality.

  • Matthew Herper:

    That is a big problem.

    The ones that are most effective are not the easiest vaccines to make. And that's going to be a real — a real problem. And they're also not the easiest vaccines to distribute. The Pfizer/BioNTech in particular needs to be kept super cold. And that's going to make it hard to get those from one place to another. And it's going to be hard to make enough.

    Look, the Sanofi/Glaxo vaccine, that was going to be a billion doses next year. That's a big hit in the total number of doses available. The AstraZeneca vaccine was the easiest one to make and was the one that was going to be, without profit, distributed around the world.

    So it's not great news that those are moving more slowly than the mRNA vaccines, than Moderna and Pfizer.

  • William Brangham:

    Help me understand what might be confusing to some people watching this. If we have Moderna and Pfizer more or less in hand, and those seem to be very effective vaccines, why do we need all these other ones?

  • Matthew Herper:

    Well, the simplest answer is, we don't have enough, even for the U.S.

    You hear — the numbers sound bigger than they are, remember, because you need two doses of each. And you shouldn't assume that every dose that's made is going to make its way into an arm, just like with anything else. There's going to be things lost in transport.

    And so we need more volume. There are also maybe advantages to some of these other vaccines in terms of who they work for and how, which is one reason to develop more of them. But the big — the big answer is just that we don't have enough.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Matthew Herper of STAT News, thanks for helping us wade through all of this.

    Thank you so much.

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