MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Operation Warp Speed - that is the name of a new White House project to develop a coronavirus vaccine and to do it fast. On the "Today" show, Dr. Tony Fauci said hundreds of millions of doses could be ready as soon as January by fast-tracking the vaccine's manufacturer.
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ANTHONY FAUCI: You start making it, assuming it's going to work. And if it does, then you could scale up and hopefully get to that timeline.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The White House is putting a big emphasis on pushing forward the vaccine and other treatments for the virus, this during a week where the president took a step back from his nightly appearances at the coronavirus task force briefings. To talk more about all of this, we're joined now by NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca and White House correspondent Tamara Keith.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hello.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hey there.
CHANG: Joe, let's start with you. We're going to talk about vaccines in a bit. But before we get there, I understand there was a bit of news today about a COVID-19 therapy.
PALCA: Yes, that's right. The Food and Drug Administration announced what's called an emergency use authorization for the drug remdesivir.
CHANG: Oh, yes. OK.
PALCA: That's a drug made by Gilead Sciences we've been hearing about. It's not approval for the drug. It just makes it a lot easier for doctors to give it to their hospitalized patients. And this wasn't really a surprise because earlier in the week, preliminary results from a large clinical trial - randomized, placebo-controlled gold standard clinical trial - showed that it shortened the time patients spent in the hospital from 15 days to 11 days and maybe prevented them from dying as well.
CHANG: Tam, the president talked in the Oval Office about this remdesivir news, but there wasn't actually a coronavirus task force briefing today. What's going on there? Is this part of a new strategy to not have these briefings regularly?
KEITH: Yep, absolutely. And I will say we did have a briefing, though, from Kayleigh McEnany, the new press secretary, the first one in a very long time.
KEITH: You know, this whole week is part of a shift in strategy for the White House, where they are trying to move on from the public health crisis phase of the coronavirus response and move on to the economic recovery phase, move the attention of the nation as well. McEnany wasn't joined at her briefing by any of the public health experts or administration officials that we've come to recognize at these briefings. And the last real coronavirus task force meeting happened a week ago. Here's McEnany explaining this.
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KAYLEIGH MCENANY: Americans are looking to reopening the country. We've had Dr. Birx at several events this week. They've been - Dr. Birx and Fauci out on the airwaves. They're really incredible people and have done a great service for this country. But we allow the news of the day to guide us, what the American people need to hear. And right now, we're in a reopening phase, which is why you've seen the president this week with CEOs. You've seen him with small business owners.
KEITH: So she says she'll be holding more briefings, and the president will be doing more events like the one we just saw in the Oval Office, where he goes out to promote some positive news, tries to put the focus on that, may take a few questions. The president is traveling next week to Arizona, his first trip in more than a month. This is all about an administration trying to project an image that it has moved into a new phase.
CHANG: I'm curious. For you, personally, what was that briefing like? I mean, to see a press secretary at the helm after so long at one of these briefings.
KEITH: And due to social distancing, I wasn't physically there. A lot of reporters weren't physically there. It's a different time. But yeah, it's been 417 days since the last time a White House press secretary held a briefing in that briefing room.
KEITH: She is - McEnany is the president's fourth press secretary. The third one never held a single briefing. But in a lot of ways, this was pretty standard. She came prepared. She had a binder that she flipped to at various points to get notes on topics that she was asked about. And she included lines that other press secretaries have long used when they don't want to get into the details of something.
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MCENANY: Look. I won't get ahead of any announcements from the president.
CHANG: Familiar - OK.
KEITH: At one point, she was also asked a question about aid to states. The reporter asking the question mentioned Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. She took that as an opportunity to mention a great quote from Cuomo about President Trump. She also got into the president's ratings. And she had an answer ready when she was asked this question that has become something of a recent tradition.
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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Will you pledge never to lie to us from that podium?
MCENANY: I will never lie to you. You have my word on that.
KEITH: The briefing covered a wide range of topics. It wasn't fully focused on the coronavirus. And it lasted about 30 minutes, so on the short side but not record-setting.
CHANG: Right. OK. Well, Joe, let's circle back to you on the development of a vaccine. I mean, how does one make a vaccine at warp speed?
PALCA: Well, that's an interesting question. The good news about the coronavirus is that it's not as devious as some viruses, so scientists are reasonably confident they can do it. And there is experience making coronavirus vaccines against other diseases caused by a coronavirus. Peter Hotez runs a vaccine program at Baylor College of Medicine, and he made a vaccine against SARS. And Hotez wasn't the only one working on a coronavirus vaccine, so he says there's a lot of experience in designing vaccines for a virus like the one that causes COVID-19.
PETER HOTEZ: That's the good news. The bad news is it still takes time to show that all the stuff we're doing in - pre-clinically in laboratory animals still applies to humans. And that's the tough part to accelerate.
PALCA: And once you have a vaccine, you still have to make enough of it to give to everyone in the country.
CHANG: Right. Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked about that yesterday, and he said you could have hundreds of millions of doses ready by January. But what are you hearing from other experts about that timeline?
PALCA: Well, I'd say there's some skepticism just because getting a vaccine at all is pretty optimistic. Carlos Del Rio is a professor at the Emory Vaccine Center in Atlanta. And Del Rio is cautiously optimistic that one of the vaccines that's being tested now or will be tested shortly might turn out to work well enough to give to humans.
CARLOS DEL RIO: But producing 300 million doses of the vaccine to immunize everybody in the U.S. - it's not an easy task. It's going to take some time. So even if you have a vaccine approved by next January, getting all the doses you're going to need may take another year.
PALCA: Another year, he said.
CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Joe Palca and Tamara Keith.
Thanks to both of you.
KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.