Critical decisions on who will be first to get a possible COVID-19 vaccine have yet to be made, according to the director of Operation Warp Speed, the whole-of-government effort to develop and distribute a safe and effective immunization.
Despite early indications from government officials that the military, the elderly and other groups would get priority, Dr. Moncef Slaoui said he is in the opening stages of organizing an "independent scientific summit" to make recommendations on vaccine distribution, with the goal of keeping politics out of decisions.
In an Aug. 6 American Enterprise Institute podcast, Slaoui said he has been in discussions with Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, on arranging a scientific summit.
"It's a super important question. It's a critical question. And I can tell you: First, we decided who should not do it," Slaoui said of decisions on vaccination priorities. "That's very important. I think this should not be politically motivated."
He said Collins suggested having the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine lead a summit on the "ethical, epidemiology, and virological vaccinologist discussions around how to best serve the population, with all its diversity, with a new vaccine or new vaccines against COVID-19."
"We are helping to generate the independent information to inform, and the science to inform, those important decisions" on distribution, said Slaoui, the former head of GlaxoSmithKline's vaccines department.
The summit's purpose would be to discuss "how to best introduce new vaccines, who to immunize first, what kind of performance of vaccine is best suited to what kind of population with what we know," he said.
Senior administration officials, speaking on background, have said that Operation Warp Speed would likely give priority to the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, workers in essential businesses and the military.
"Our role, as the federal government, is to ensure anyone who is vulnerable, [who] cannot afford it and desire it, can get it. Those critical to infrastructure get it, essential workers get it, and those associated with national defense get it. That's our obligation," a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in June.
"I hope we will have enough doses of [safe, Food and Drug Administration-approved] vaccines in the first two months of 2021 to immunize the at-risk populations in the U.S.," Slaoui said, though he could not rule out having it sooner.
"So the data will dictate, the facts will dictate" when a vaccine is ready, he added. "We may have the end point in October. We may have it Nov. 4 -- who knows? We may have it Dec. 15. … That's the answer and to be honest, on a personal basis, I would resign instantly if I was forced to do something that I thought would be inappropriate."
At a White House event in May, President Donald Trump named Slaoui to head up Operation Warp Speed and Army Gen. Gus Perna, a logistics expert and head of Army Materiel Command, to be its chief operating officer.
The task of overseeing the packaging, distribution and delivery of possibly 300 million doses of vaccine by early next year is enormous, but Perna has expressed confidence that the job can be done.
When his appointment was announced in May, he said, "Winning matters, and we will deliver by the end of this year a vaccine at scale to treat the American people and our partners abroad."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.