Road to COVID-19 vaccine is fast, safe

Image of Dr. Moncef Slaoui.

Operation Warp Speed Chief Science Advisor Dr. Moncef Slaoui discusses the Operation Warp Speed mission in a conference room at Emory Children’s Center. Dr. Evan Anderson, pediatrician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and principal investigator for the Moderna and Janssen vaccine trials at Emory Children’s Center, is in the foreground. (Photo by Jack Kearse)

Image of Dr. Moncef Slaoui.

Operation Warp Speed Chief Science Advisor Dr. Moncef Slaoui visits a clinical trial site at Emory Children’s Center. (Courtesy photo)

Going fast doesn’t mean going dangerous.

With recent reports that show Pfizer and Moderna vaccine candidates are more than 90% effective, Operation Warp Speed’s Chief Science Advisor Dr. Moncef Slaoui compared the rapid search for a vaccine to driving a racecar.

“It’s about understanding the safety limits of how fast we can go,” said Slaoui, a 30-year veteran of the pharmaceutical industry who was involved with the development of 14 approved vaccines.

“We’ve analyzed the process of developing a vaccine, and determined the parts we can accelerate and those we shouldn’t,” Slaoui explained.

Operation Warp Speed launched in May 2020 as a collaborative effort between the federal government - namely the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense - in collaboration with industry and academia.

While Slaoui wears the scientific hat at Operation Warp Speed, Army Gen. Gus Perna is the chief operating officer. Perna, a 39-year veteran and military logistician, is leading the effort to scale up manufacturing and provide vaccine distribution solutions.

Both leaders are quick to note the operation is not cutting corners on safety, but is taking significant risk financially. Operation Warp Speed funded the production for five of its six vaccine candidates while they were simultaneously being tested to determine safety and effectiveness.

“Our mission is about saving lives,” Perna said. “We determined early on where we could take risk and where we couldn’t.”

Slaoui expressed optimism that a vaccine would be available soon, calling the recent efficacy reports “transformational.”

“We have now demonstrated that a vaccine against COVID-19 is possible, and the choice we made for the antigen is appropriate,” he said.

“Fortunately, the very same kind of antigen is present in the six vaccines we have selected as part of the operation, so the expectation is that the others will work and we will have many vaccines in the coming months.”

To those who express hesitancy about taking a COVID-19 vaccine, Slaoui points to the science.

“The safety of COVID-19 vaccines will be demonstrated in facts and data through the clinical trials we’re conducting,” Slaoui said. “The outcome of these clinical trials will be analyzed by independent committees and the independent scientific communities that advise the FDA before a vaccine is approved. So the true performance will be available for the public to judge.”

With thousands dying daily from COVID-19, Slaoui noted it would be unethical not to use a vaccine that is known to work.

“I think these vaccines, as they become available, will demonstrate the capacity of our country, our innovation and our industry ecosystem, to take the best science we have to design, develop and make available a vaccine,” he said. “That, I believe, is one of the cornerstones of how we are going to be able to manage and control this pandemic and hopefully go back to our normal life.”

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