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Federal Government To Invest Over $2 Billion Into Coronavirus Vaccine Development

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One point six billion dollars to a company to manufacture a vaccine for the coronavirus - the federal government announced that today along with another $450 million to a company to produce a new therapy for COVID-19. But neither company actually has a product that has been shown to work - not to treat COVID-19 nor to prevent it. Here to help explain why the government is doing such a thing is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca.

Hi, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So why? Why is the government spending all this money when it sounds quite possible they may be throwing that money right down the drain?

PALCA: Yeah. Well, it's a conundrum, but here's the thing. Let's say that Regeneron, which is making the treatment - it works, or Novavax, which is making the vaccine says, yeah, we tested it; it's working great - OK. What do you do? Well, we don't have any to give to you. We only made enough to test. No, that's not going to work. So what they've done is they're saying, OK, well, look. We have to do what's called at-risk manufacturing. We have to assume it's going to work, make it, have it ready to go out the door in the hopes that the testing will show that it actually does work.

KELLY: The - from the department of optimism and hedging your bets, it sounds like. OK. Well, let's talk about...

PALCA: Well, exactly.

KELLY: ...Both of them. Yeah. The treatment - start there. What is it? How does it work? Why does the government think this is the one that they should be investing in?

PALCA: Well, I mean, they're investing in several. This one in particular is with Regeneron. The company has had - they've had a good track record. They made a successful drug for Ebola. Their drug is based on something called antibodies. You remember when someone gets infected, their body makes molecules called antibodies, which fight off the disease. Regeneron finds one or two of these potent antibodies and turn - purifies them, turns them into a drug and makes them into a synthetic product. It's actually, in this case, a cocktail of two different antibodies.

KELLY: Have they actually tested this on anybody yet?

PALCA: Yup. They are - they have done preliminary testing in 30 patients. It looked good. They're going forward. They're going to be doing 3,000 sick people, some in hospital, some not in hospital, all with COVID. And they're actually also testing people who are simply exposed to someone else who's got the COVID virus - COVID-19 virus to see if it'll prevent them from getting infected.

KELLY: Speaking of prevention, let me flip you to the other matter here - the vaccine. What one is the government picking to back?

PALCA: Well, they backed, actually, several. This - but this is the Novavax vaccine. It's been through initial testing also. And the money is so that they can make millions, hundreds of millions of doses and actually have syringes filled, ready to go. And as I said, this isn't the only vaccine that's being supported. There's five or so.

But as we said at the top, the government is hedging its bets. And all of these vaccines are trying to do essentially the same thing. They're, like - they show the immune system something that looks like a virus but is essentially harmless. And the idea is that that will prime our immune systems so that they'll be ready if the real virus ever comes along.

But each of the companies uses a slightly different approach to get the immune system ready. And some of them use a viral vector, and some of them use virus genetic material. And Novavax uses, actually, bits of protein that are representative of what the virus shows when it infects somebody. Now, what's interesting and a little scary is that although Novavax has several vaccines in development, including a flu vaccine, they haven't yet produced a vaccine that's been approved for general use by the FDA. So, you know...

KELLY: Right.

PALCA: You were saying it's the department of optimism. Yeah, I think we can call it that. Optimism is called for.

KELLY: Thank you, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Joe Palca. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.