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Army 4-star will co-lead Manhattan Project-style effort to create and distribute COVID-19 vaccine

Kyle Rempfer

Army 4-star will co-lead Manhattan Project-style effort to create and distribute COVID-19 vaccine
The general helming Army Materiel Command will co-lead the president’s effort to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus by January 2021, President Donald Trump announced Friday.

Gen. Gustave Perna and Moncef Slaoui, a former chairman at GlaxoSmithKline Vaccines, will co-lead the project called “Operation Warp Speed," the president said in the Rose Garden of the White House.

During the announcement, Slaoui was called one of the world’s most experienced vaccine developers, whose portfolio includes a vaccine to prevent cervical cancer and one to prevent infantile gastroenteritis.

Perna, who will serve as chief operating officer, oversees 190,000 service members, civilians and contractors in his role leading Army Materiel Command. He was described Friday as leading one of the largest logistics and supply-chain operations in the world.

Together, they’re being charged with not just finding a vaccine, but also producing 300 million doses of it by early next year and distributing it across the United States. The president likened the initiative to the Manhattan Project, the secretive undertaking that built an atomic bomb during World War II.

“We’re looking to get it by the end of the year, if we can,” Trump said Friday. “That means big and it means fast. A massive scientific, industrial, and logistical endeavor unlike anything our country has seen since the Manhattan Project."

Experts have said the vaccine could take roughly 12 to 18 months to develop, or potentially longer. But the president was more optimistic, saying that the National Health Institute already started looking to develop a vaccine candidate in January of this year.

Slaoui called the president’s timeline “credible,” while adding that it will be “challenging.”

“I have very recently seen early data from a clinical trial with a coronavirus vaccine. And this data made me feel even more confident that we will be able to deliver a few hundred million doses of vaccine by the end of 2020," Slaoui added.

Before taking the new position, Slaoui was on the board of a biotechnology company called Moderna, which is also developing a COVID-19 vaccine currently in early human trials. Government experts have evaluated roughly 100 vaccine candidates from all over the world, and have so far identified 14 that they believe are the most promising, according to the president.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper promised a vaccine by the end of the year.

“We will deliver, by the end of this year, a vaccine, at scale, to treat the American people and our partners abroad,” he said at the White House press conference on Friday.

The Pentagon has played a large role in the national coronavirus response since its onset, though there has also been criticism aimed at its handling of the pandemic within its own ranks. More than “60,000 service members from all branches of the service are still out there,” said Esper, citing military doctors and nurses staffing hospitals and Army engineers building ad-hoc treatment facilities.

“We will deliver on time, bringing the full weight to bear — the full weight of the Department of Defense, all of our first-class, world-class researchers and scientists, our ability to manage logistics at scale, and our great distributional capabilities," Esper added.

Operation Warp Speed will include the NIH, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Health Department’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, as well as private sector partners, officials said Friday.

“It is going to be a Herculean task, but the combination of the two main partners — between Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense — their combined strengths, partnered with the other teammates, will ensure our success," Perna said.

“One of the great advantages that we have as a military is our ability to do logistical and sustainment operations afar,” Perna added. "We’re just going to apply those capabilities to this mission.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misidentified the acronym for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. It has been corrected.


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