Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR Health

Coronavirus Update: President Trump Announces 'Operation Warp Speed'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today, President Trump officially unveiled his plan to fast-track a coronavirus vaccine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's called Operation Warp Speed. That means big, and it means fast, a massive scientific, industrial and logistical endeavor unlike anything our country has seen since the Manhattan Project.

KELLY: The president said a former drug company executive and a four-star general will quarterback the new operation.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Meanwhile, the coronavirus has now killed at least 86,000 Americans, and it has put 36 million more out of work. Even as that devastation grows, the political fight about further economic aid is getting more and more bitter. Democrats have assembled yet another relief package, this one with a price tag of $3 trillion. But Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican, has slammed it, calling it a, quote, "left-wing wish list."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: This week, the speaker published an 1,800-page seasonal catalogue of left-wing oddities and called it a coronavirus relief bill.

CHANG: All right. For more on that political fight and the rush for a vaccine, I'm joined now by NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis and health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin. Hey, to both of you.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey there.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. Selena, let's start with you. Operation Warp Speed - what a name. Tell us a little more about what this is exactly.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: This is a project that puts these incredibly ambitious goals for coming out with a working vaccine and treatments and diagnostics and puts military organization behind them. So the two men in charge are Moncef Slaoui, formerly of drugs company GlaxoSmithKline, and U.S. Army General Gus Perna. It's a nearly $10 billion effort. And a lot of the focus is on getting a coronavirus vaccine really fast. President Trump wants one by the end of the year. And he's talking about beginning to manufacture promising vaccine candidates before they're approved. Here's what Trump said about that today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: It's risky. It's expensive. But we'll be saving massive amounts of time. We'll be saving years if we do this properly. And that's what we're doing.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Another interesting thing to note - the Trump administration says it's promising the vaccines and treatments created with support from Operation Warp Seed will be affordable and some amount of it will need to be donated.

CHANG: Well, what are public health experts saying about the feasibility of this operation, especially the timeline that the president laid out?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, I reached out to a few former federal officials who worked on pandemic preparedness, and I heard some skepticism that this is actually going to come into fruition or whether the Trump White House was overpromising. The officials also questioned what corners would have to be cut in order to compress the usual timeline. You want to be very sure a vaccine is safe before you start vaccinating millions of people.

CHANG: Right.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: And the testing to establish that safety takes time. And I should also say that less than a year to develop a vaccine would be way, way faster than has ever happened before. One piece of historical context - Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist professor at Yale, has pointed out the HIV vaccine was supposed to take two years to develop, and of course, decades later, we still don't have one. Of course, this is a different kind of virus. It's a different era. Science has advanced. But for a lot of reasons, it's really hard to know if this timeline will be possible, and it's definitely risky to promise that it will happen.

CHANG: Right. OK. Well, Sue, turning to you. Democrats have, meanwhile, put together their own $3 trillion package, which would make it the single largest economic stimulus package ever. How did this bill get to that size?

DAVIS: Well, in defending this legislation, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi all week has been repeatedly pointing to comments from Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, who told Congress to, quote, "think big" about what it's going to do in terms of economic stimulus, mainly because interest rates are so low right now. And, I mean, Democrats leaned in. They've accepted this challenge.

CHANG: (Laughter).

DAVIS: I mean, this is - as you noted, it's just a behemoth of a bill. There's never been anything like it. About a third of it, a trillion dollars, is for state and local governments who have seen their budgets decimated because of the health care costs of the pandemic. And, you know, they're doing things like extending some of the really popular stuff Congress has already done. It's got another round of those $1,200 direct payments, and it's - the beefing-up of employee benefits, that extra $600 a month, they extend that for another six months.

CHANG: Well, while both President Trump and Republican lawmakers are saying that more legislation will be needed to address the pandemic, what they are saying now is just not this bill by Democrats. What exactly is their opposition to this bill?

DAVIS: They have a lot of reasons for it. One is just the size and scope of it. There's just real skepticism among Republicans that this kind of spending is necessary right now to keep the economy afloat. Republicans also see it as sort of a backdoor attempt by Democrats to try to forever-enact policies that they've wanted to do for years - higher federal minimum wage, paid family leave, student loan debt forgiveness and more support for mail-in ballot elections this November.

The House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, today said he does expect Congress to pass more coronavirus relief measures, but it's just not really clear what Republicans believe is going to be necessary. You know, Ailsa, as you well know, on Capitol Hill, you usually need a pressure point for - to get Congress to act. And one thing that people refer - constantly say to me is, the current unemployment benefits run out in late July, and if the economy hasn't rebounded by then, I think that's when you're going to see real pressure to act.

CHANG: Right. OK. Well, Selena, back to you now. Last night, the Food and Drug Administration warned that Abbott's rapid coronavirus tests could be unreliable. Now, this is the test that apparently has been used on a daily basis on White House officials. So what's been the reaction to all of this today? And we should note that Abbott is an NPR funder.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So President Trump was asked about this today and whether this news has raised concerns for him, and here is what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: It's a great test. It's a very quick test. And it can always be very rapidly double-checked. If you're testing positive or negative, it can always be double-checked. But it's a very good test. It's very portable, very quick.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So there have been a series of studies on the reliability of this test, including one from the Cleveland Clinic that found the false negative rate was about 15%. Another study from New York University found the false negative rate could be even higher, as high as 48%.

CHANG: Wow.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So what this means for symptomatic people who are trying to figure out if they have COVID-19 or not is if they get an Abbott test and it's negative and there's good - there's a good reason to try to get a different, second test if possible to figure out if they really have the coronavirus or not.

But for the White House and other workplaces that are trying to use this test to screen people, to clear them to be at work, this FDA warning really underscores that the test alone isn't going to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, necessarily. Workplaces and other group settings will still have to do all these other things to mitigate the spread - cleaning surfaces a lot, washing your hands for 20 seconds, staying 6 feet apart, wearing masks - because the test is no guarantee that nobody who's at work is infectious.

CHANG: And, Sue, really quick - I mean, the House, I understand, is making some history today when it comes to how members can vote for legislation during the pandemic. How will it work?

DAVIS: Yeah, Democrats are changing the rules of the House that will now allow for proxy voting. Essentially, it would allow one member of Congress to cast votes for other lawmakers if they can't physically be present in the House chamber. Republicans largely oppose it. They're arguing that lawmakers should just get back to work, as so many essential workers are on the front line. The rules change will take effect immediately, and it will remain in place as long as there's a pandemic.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis and health policy reporter Selena Simmons-Duffin. Thanks to both of you.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.