Coronavirus Update: Vaccine Developer Reports Early Results

May 18, 2020
Originally published on May 18, 2020 8:28 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Health officials in the U.S. have now reported more than 1.5 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 90,000 deaths. Those numbers continue to climb, though for the moment, at least, at a slower rate. And there are glimmers of hope. Today a vaccine developer reported some encouraging, though early, results. NPR science correspondent Richard Harris and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez join us now to bring us up to date on that and other coronavirus news.

Hey to both of you.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: Hello. Well, Richard, let's first talk about this vaccine. What were these early results?

HARRIS: Well, this morning, the vaccine company Moderna reported results from an experiment that has so far involved just 45 healthy individuals who volunteered to get injected with their experimental product. The company results now - are talking about results from a handful of those people, and they report that the vaccine stimulated their immune systems to produce antibodies against the virus. Now, here's Dr. Tal Zaks, the chief medical officer of Moderna, on a call this morning with investment analysts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TAL ZAKS: These data today take off the table the risk of not being immunogenic or the risk of the antibody type being wrong. No, it works. And it's - you see demonstration of neutralizing activity, so I think that the major risk as I look ahead is just operationally being able to demonstrate clearly that there's safety and efficacy in a large randomized trial.

CHANG: He says it works. He sounds quite optimistic. So how big a deal is this?

HARRIS: Well, Wall Street loved the news. But you know, really, the - his last line is the most important. The huge challenge ahead is to show that the vaccine is both safe and effective in a study that will involve many more people than these 45 - probably thousands. And not only does this vaccine have to protect people from the coronavirus, but remember; safety is so important because an approved vaccine will be given to hundreds of millions of healthy people, maybe billions of people. So...

CHANG: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Even a rare side effect is of concern.

CHANG: Very true - OK. Well, the Trump administration is pushing to have a vaccine out there as soon as possible. We have heard that there are - what? - dozens of potential vaccines in the works. So where does this one fit into that?

HARRIS: Well, very early on, the National Institutes of Health partnered with this company to fast-track this product. And it is an intriguing idea. Instead of promoting the immune system to mount a response by using a small piece of the virus the way many vaccines work, this concept uses a small piece of genetic material. When that's inserted, the body reads this genetic code and starts producing what amounts to a fragment of the virus. The company has been pursuing this concept for other diseases, but, you know, so far, nothing has been approved to be and - nothing is approved to be safe and effective. So this is a gamble. They do hope to do much larger studies in July.

CHANG: OK - still a gamble. Well, I want to bring in Franco Ordoñez here and turn from vaccines to treatments because one of the earlier thoughts was that a drug that was used to treat malaria might help people with COVID-19 infections. I mean, this was something that President Trump was pushing for a while, but there was not much evidence that that would be effective. I understand that the president brought this up again today.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, President Trump really stunned reporters by revealing that he is taking hydroxychloroquine and zinc. He said he's been taking it once a day for about a week and a half. He said he'd heard good things from people he knows and that doctors and health care workers were taking it as a preventative measure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Yeah, I've taken it for about a week and a half now. And I'm still here.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, he knew this was going to shock some people. He said he was waiting for people's eyes to light up when he said this.

CHANG: OK.

HARRIS: Yeah. And I'm sure medical researchers' eyes will light up. This is used experimentally to protect people. But the FDA says it should really be limited to carefully controlled studies - preferably in hospitals - because it does occasionally have side effects. You know, there are always risks along with the benefit of a drug.

CHANG: Right. Well, Franco, I want to turn the corner a little bit here. The president was also asked today about why he fired the State Department's inspector general. How did he explain this decision?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, the president said that Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, asked him to do it. He said he did not know the inspector general at all. He had never even heard of him. The president emphasized that he had the, quote, "absolute right" to do this but that he also never, you know, had contact with the inspector general. He complained that in general, inspectors generals are too political. He was asked about reports that this inspector general had been looking into Pompeo's use of federal employees to walk his dog and pick up dry cleaning. Trump said he didn't have any issue with that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: They're bothered because he's having somebody walk his dog, as you're telling me. I didn't know that. I didn't hear that. I didn't know about an investigation. But this is what you get with the Democrats. Here's a man supposed to be negotiating war and peace.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, so he's suggesting that Democrats are being petty for complaining about something like this.

CHANG: And, Richard, finally, back to you, I understand that we are learning more about a mysterious disease that's affecting children. It's a disease that's actually related to the coronavirus. Can you just tell us a little more about this?

HARRIS: Right. We've been hearing a little bit - dribs and drabs about this for the past couple of weeks. And in general, children are far less susceptible to getting really sick with the coronavirus.

CHANG: Right.

HARRIS: We already know that. But, you know, starting out of New York - and actually, starting out at the U.K. a few weeks ago, doctors started noticing an unusual condition in a few children who had contracted the coronavirus. It causes fever. Their blood pressure can drop. They can have heart and stomach problems and problems in other organ systems, and it is tied to inflammation.

And once doctors started looking for it, they found it in a number of cases, especially in New York. But it's now more than - in a bunch of states - about 145 cases known thus far. Most of these children recover, but, you know, there have been a couple of deaths. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization now recognize this as a condition and - that is related to coronavirus. And they're calling it multisystem inflammatory syndrome. Doctors who suspect this is causing illness in their patients are now being asked to report it to health officials.

CHANG: That is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris and White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Thank you to both of you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.