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'Planet Money': What Will It Take To Speed Up The Vaccine Process?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Businesses and corporations have been hit hard by the pandemic. They may also be the key to bringing it under control. There are all kinds of efforts out there to develop a vaccine. Stacey Vanek Smith and Cardiff Garcia from our daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money look into whether money can speed up the process.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: Dr. Stanley Plotkin has developed vaccines for some of the world's deadliest modern viruses. He's very familiar with the cost and the process of producing vaccines. And he says the process tends to be slow and very expensive.

STANLEY PLOTKIN: Developing a vaccine is likely to cost something in the order of $500 million.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Five hundred million dollars to get a vaccine. If a COVID-19 vaccine can't be found or if it takes decades, the social, economic and cultural impacts would be devastating. So the White House has done something pretty unheard of. It's created a plan called Operation Warp Speed to try to speed up the vaccine process. The White House says it's already invested more than $12 billion in the plan.

GARCIA: And here's how the plan works. The White House has basically created contracts with drug companies like Pfizer, Novavax, Moderna Therapeutics and AstraZeneca, among a few others. And those contracts promise these companies billions of dollars if they can get a vaccine ready to go and have 100 million doses at the ready by the first part of next year.

VANEK SMITH: With so much money being funneled toward the problem, I'm wondering if that will, do you think, speed up the process of getting a vaccine, or does it just take the time it takes or...

PLOTKIN: It definitely speeds things up.

VANEK SMITH: Stanley says with a strong cash incentive like this and so much support, companies can try out a bunch of different tactics in their search for a vaccine. He says there are more than a hundred different approaches that scientists know of, and they can try a bunch of them.

GARCIA: Labs all over the world flooded with resources racing for a vaccine - that should help speed up the arrival of the vaccine. At least, that is the hope.

PLOTKIN: If everything goes well, I think having a vaccine by the end of the year is not impossible. But it's based on everything going well.

VANEK SMITH: Stanley says even with all the money in the world, getting a vaccine ready for the public quickly is really hard. There are parts of the process that you cannot speed up, no matter how much money you have. Stanley says trials for vaccines, for instance, typically take longer than trials for regular drugs because vaccines will be used on much larger swaths of the population, so you have to test the vaccine on all different kinds of people - different ages, ethnicities, people with different underlying health conditions. Also, you have to give the vaccine time to work, time to assess side effects. Many vaccines fail in this trial phase.

GARCIA: And there's a danger in going too fast.

PLOTKIN: Of course, the need is to avoid making mistakes while you're speeding up.

VANEK SMITH: Mistakes in research or in manufacturing the vaccine or in not taking enough time to test - these things can have major consequences, he says.

GARCIA: Stanley says rushing a vaccine is a balancing act between good science and good economics.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: Cardiff Garcia, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.