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COVID-19 Vaccine Shows Promise, Trump Takes Hydroxychloroquine


We're seeing signs of progress in the search for a COVID-19 vaccine. An American biotech company Moderna says preliminary results show it has a vaccine that is safe. That's one step. In a small trial, eight people developed antibodies to the virus which could make them immune. That's another step. Now, in the meantime, President Trump said yesterday he is taking an anti-malarial drug as a preventative measure despite the fact that that drug hasn't been proven to work in that particular capacity.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The front-line workers - many, many are taking it. I happen to be taking it. I happen to be taking it.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Hydroxychloroquine?

TRUMP: I'm taking it, hydroxychloroquine. Right now, yeah. Couple weeks ago, started taking it. 'Cause I think it's good - I've heard a lot of good stories. And if it's not good, I'll tell you right - I'm not going to get hurt by it.

KING: Now it's important to note there is no evidence that hydroxychloroquine can prevent or treat the coronavirus. Dr. Tim Lahey is with me now on Skype. He's an infectious disease doctor. He's also a vaccine researcher who leads the ethics program at the University of Vermont Medical Center. Good morning, Dr. Lahey.

TIM LAHEY: Good morning.

KING: I want to start with President Trump because he really surprised some people yesterday. He says he's been taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventative measure. What is the scientific consensus on whether or not that is safe?

LAHEY: The scientific consensus is that we don't know yet whether it helps to fight COVID-19. And we know that it has risks. And so I think President Trump is coming to a common misconception that lots of people have, which is if it's in an experimental trial, it must help me and it can't hurt. And that's just not true.

KING: But could the president be putting himself in danger?


KING: OK. OK. Let's talk about Moderna. The company says its initial vaccine trials on this small group of people showed promising results. Now, a lot of people got very excited. The market shot up yesterday. What did you think when you heard about this trial?

LAHEY: You know, I had mixed emotions about this trial. On one hand, it's exciting to see some forward motion. This is one step on a thousand-mile road to finding a vaccine, but it's nice to take the first step. On the other hand, I mean, I feel a little worried about all of the hype around this and all of the money swirling around this. And it makes me worry about the quality of science.

KING: Talk about what makes you worried exactly.

LAHEY: So typically, if you really want to have trustable science, you release the full information in a published article that's reviewed by peers and has gone through careful safeguards against problems. Here, this is just a press release from the company without enough detail to really dig your teeth into it. And so - seems like it might be nice, but we need to see the details.

KING: OK. So what details are you going to be watching for next? What would you like Moderna to say or to release publicly?

LAHEY: So to the question of whether these are - you know, they really show what the company thinks they show, you need to get a sense, in detail, of what - how big were the immune responses that were made and exactly how safe was this? And did everybody get exactly the same really great immune responses or only some? These are the kinds of questions you can get at when you look at the details. And they're just not available to us in any trustable, unbiased way.

KING: OK. So you want to see the fine print. What does Moderna say that they are going to do next?

LAHEY: So Moderna is excited about a couple of things. One is they make the argument that these interim data make a good argument for them to be able to move forward into bigger trials. And if these data are true, then they probably should move forward. It's - you know, let's have them take the second step. They are going to need to raise some money in order to take those steps. And I would imagine that it is no coincidence that they opened up new stocks for trading on the same day as these results were announced. And so I would imagine they're also interested in raising money. And I always get a little bit worried when scientific results are released in the same breath as solicitation for funds.

KING: OK. Just briefly, don't companies want to make money, though? I'm just trying to figure out what the concern is.

LAHEY: Yeah. I mean - and I think a company that does make a good vaccine should make money. That seems great to me. But I'd like to see them prove that they have a good thing with trustable results and then get the money as opposed to putting out a press release and then trying to get the money before the details are out.

KING: That is a very fair point. Let me ask you something that goes to the question of speed. The Trump administration has been pushing to get this done fast, and that is understandable - Operation Warp Speed. We all want a vaccine. Could doing this faster present any risks? And if so, what risks are there?

LAHEY: I think the way to think about it is that we should go faster than usual. But how we go fast is critically important. You can imagine that there are unnecessary delays in the usual vaccine development process that we could skip. You know? So why wait for a long time in between a Phase 1 to phase trial? You should just go there rapidly. But if you rush too fast and you don't make sure the details are right, if you prioritize money over the quality of science, if you don't really carefully watch into (ph) safety, you could really make a huge mistake.

KING: OK. It sounds like you're saying we all need to read the fine print, huh?

LAHEY: Take a deep breath, and get the science right. And then we'll be OK.

KING: Dr. Tim Lahey is a vaccine researcher at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Thank you, Doctor, for joining us.

LAHEY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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