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Update On Coronavirus Vaccine And Drugs


There is news today about the search for treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. A large study by the World Health Organization casts doubt on the value of one of the few drugs in wide use - remdesivir. And on the vaccine front, don't expect a pre-election arrival. Joining us to talk about these updates is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Hi, Richard.


SHAPIRO: Let's start with the drug remdesivir, which is now widely used in the United States. What did the World Health Organization find?

HARRIS: Well, the World Health Organization has been testing it along with other drugs to see what actually works for COVID-19. They're running a huge study involving nearly 13,000 patients in 500 hospitals all over the world. Earlier this year, that same study concluded that the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine didn't work, nor did a combination of antiviral medications. And today, the head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, added other failures to that list.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: Interim results from the trial now show that the other two drugs in the trial, remdesivir and interferon, have little or no effect in preventing death from COVID-19 or reducing time in hospital.

HARRIS: Patients have not been prescribed interferon, but the FDA did allow remdesivir to be prescribed on an emergency basis.

SHAPIRO: So if remdesivir has little or no effect on COVID-19 patients, what happens to the use of that drug in the U.S. now?

HARRIS: Well, Gilead Sciences, the company that makes remdesivir, is arguing that the WHO study isn't as good as the study that found that the drug actually helps. I talked today with Dr. Andre Kalil at the University of Nebraska, who is one of the scientists who ran that study. Among his concerns about the WHO study is that there is no information about just how sick people were when they got the drug.


ANDRE KALIL: It's very unlikely I'm going to be able to save the patient if the patient is too late and, of course, the infection is overwhelming. It's very hard to save lives when you reach that point.

HARRIS: But it's worth noting that the U.S. study didn't actually show that remdesivir saves lives. Some patients who took it spent less time in the hospital. The FDA normally reviews new data, but the WHO study isn't even published yet. So it's way too soon to say what the agency will do.

SHAPIRO: And what about the use of remdesivir in other parts of the world outside the U.S.?

HARRIS: When the WHO concluded earlier this year that hydroxychloroquine was ineffective, that had a big impact. WHO's chief scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, says they expect an expert panel will now convene to make the call about remdesivir.


SOUMYA SWAMINATHAN: That process will take a couple of weeks, and then that's the policy guidance. That's what doctors will use. Of course, countries make their own treatment guidelines as well, but a lot of countries will look forward to WHO's treatment guidelines.

SHAPIRO: OK. So we'll see what becomes of that. Meanwhile, bring us up to speed on today's news about vaccines.

HARRIS: Sure. That involves the vaccine being developed by Pfizer, which has been considered the frontrunner in the United States. The company has been saying that it could have results of its huge study sometime in October. And that's seemingly been bolstering the president's past assertions that there could be a vaccine before Election Day. But earlier this morning, the Pfizer CEO put out a statement splashing cold water on that. The statement said, you know, they might have data showing whether the vaccine will actually protect people this month, but they won't have all important safety data until the third week of November. And they can't submit their application to the FDA without the safety data.

SHAPIRO: Well, what does that tell us about when we might actually get a vaccine?

HARRIS: Well, it would be extraordinary if the FDA simply rubber-stamped whatever data a company submitted. That's especially important for a vaccine, which could potentially be given to hundreds of millions of healthy people. So at this point, we really have no idea whether the Pfizer vaccine will even work. And as much as we would all like a vaccine and could use one, it's also important that the process be credible - following the science and not political pressure. That appears to be where we are right now.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Richard Harris. Thank you.

HARRIS: Any time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

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