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5 firms tagged for virus vaccine

U.S. sees them as top prospects in developing preventative by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette staff from wire reports | June 4, 2020 at 4:33 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration has selected five companies as the most likely candidates to produce a vaccine for the coronavirus, senior officials said, a critical step in the White House's effort to deliver on its promise of being able to start widespread inoculation of Americans by the end of the year.

By winnowing the field in a matter of weeks from a pool of around a dozen companies, the federal government is betting that it can identify the most promising vaccine projects at an early stage, speed along the process of determining which will work, and ensure that the vaccine or vaccines can be quickly manufactured in large quantities and distributed across the country.

The announcement of the decision will be made at the White House in the next few weeks, government officials said. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government's top epidemiologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, hinted at the coming action Tuesday when he said at a medical seminar that "by the beginning of 2021 we hope to have a couple of hundred million doses."

The five companies are Moderna, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology firm, which Fauci said he expected would enter into the final phase of clinical trials next month; the combination of Oxford University and AstraZeneca, on a similar schedule; and three large pharmaceutical companies: Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Pfizer. Each is taking a somewhat different approach.

Fauci, who had been sounding cautionary notes, now sounds more optimistic: Among his concerns, he said during the seminar session run by The Journal of the American Medical Association, is how long immunity triggered by a vaccine might last.

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"Vaccines are coming along really well," Trump wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, hours before he was scheduled to meet with Alex Azar, the health and human services secretary. "Moving faster than anticipated. Good news ahead."

About 107,000 Americans have died from the virus.

Several of the companies said they did not want to speak before any announcement by the White House, and the others did not respond to requests for comment.

Democrats in Congress are already seeking details about the contracts with the companies, many of which are still wrapped in secrecy. They are asking how much Americans will have to pay to be vaccinated and whether the firms, or American taxpayers, will retain the profits and intellectual property.

Other countries, including China, are also rushing their own efforts to produce a vaccine, raising concerns that nationalism rather than need could drive decisions about who first gets inoculated.

Elsewhere, the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected late last year, has tested nearly 10 million people in an unprecedented 19-day campaign to check an entire city.

It identified just 300 positive cases, all of whom had no symptoms. The city found no infections among 1,174 close contacts of the people who tested positive, suggesting they were not spreading it easily to others.

That is a potentially encouraging development because of widespread concern that infected people without symptoms could be silent spreaders of the disease.

In other news, Sweden's top epidemiologist has admitted that his strategy to fight covid-19 resulted in too many deaths, after persuading his country to avoid a strict lockdown.

"If we were to encounter the same illness with the same knowledge that we have today, I think our response would land somewhere in between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world has done," Anders Tegnell said in an interview with Swedish Radio.

Tegnell is the brains behind Sweden's controversial approach to fighting the virus, and the government of Stefan Lofven has deferred to the epidemiologist in its official response to the pandemic. Gatherings of more than 50 people continue to be banned, but throughout the crisis Swedes have been able to visit restaurants, go shopping, attend gyms and send children under 16 to school.

At 43 deaths per 100,000, Sweden's death rate is among the highest globally and far exceeds that of neighboring Denmark and Norway, which imposed much tougher lockdowns at the outset of the pandemic.

Now, Tegnell has for the first time admitted publicly that the strategy is resulting in too many deaths.

"Clearly, there is potential for improvement in what we have done in Sweden," he said.

Information for this article was contributed by Noah Weiland and David E. Sanger of The New York Times; by Gillian Flaccus of The Associated Press; and by Rafaela Lindeberg of Bloomberg News.

A Section on 06/04/2020

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