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HHS whistleblower Bright cites safety risks in questioning coronavirus vaccine timeline

Amid widespread speculation on COVID-19 vaccine timelines, former Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) chief turned whistleblower Rick Bright, M.D., joined the skeptics discounting the idea that immunizations could be made available in 12 to 18 months. 

At a House of Representatives hearing focused on Bright’s whistleblower complaint against the Trump administration, he told lawmakers current vaccine expectations require everything going “perfectly” in the R&D process during the first go-round. But “we’ve never seen everything go perfectly,” he added.

Americans have routinely been told COVID-19 vaccines could be available in 12 to 18 months—with that timeline starting from January when scientists began R&D work. A federal “Operation Warp Speed” group is racing promising programs ahead—with the goal of delivering vaccine doses by the end of the year.

For his part, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases chief Anthony Fauci testified this week that he’s “cautiously optimistic” about one of the leading vaccines succeeding. At least eight are already in human testing, he said.

At Thursday’s hearing, Bright raised safety concerns about moving vaccines ahead at unprecedented speeds. In all, Bright said an 18-month timeline is “aggressive,” and he believes the process will and should take longer.

“My concern is if we rush too quickly, and consider cutting out critical steps, we might not have a full assessment of the safety of the vaccine,” he told lawmakers Thursday.

The congressional hearing came after Bright said he was involuntarily transferred from his BARDA director post to a new position centered on COVID-19 testing. In a whistleblower complaint, Bright alleged the transfer was a retaliation for his disagreements with Department of Health and Human Services officials throughout the pandemic response. 

He’s not the only expert who believes current timelines are optimistic. In a note to clients, SVB Leerink analyst Geoffrey Porges has said creating a vaccine within 12 to 18 months would be as tough as hitting a bull’s-eye with a dart from 24 feet on the first try.

But leading programs are pressing ahead, with work at Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and other drugmakers generating considerable interest in recent weeks and months. Even as the teams conduct their research and development, they’re also planning huge capacity ramp-ups to prepare for a possible rollout as quickly as possible.