WILMINGTON, Del. – U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) joined The Hill’s Steve Clemons this week to discuss the importance of expanding our domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity to not only prepare for COVID-19, but future pandemics.
“This particular novel coronavirus that is producing COVID-19 is a double challenge in that it is something that is going to require us to develop an enormous number of individual vaccine doses,” Senator Coons said. “I think we will hopefully finally proactively invest enough [in vaccine manufacturing] because as bad as this pandemic is, it is nowhere near as bad as what has been predicted for many years, which is that we are due for a truly lethal influenza pandemic.”
“My hope is that this experience is bad enough that we finally mobilize globally the resources needed to ensure that we don't have to endure a pandemic like this one, but dramatically more lethal,” Senator Coons said.
Full video available here. Full transcript available below.
Q: How is Delaware doing given news that this weekend was the worst in terms of infections and deaths from COVID-19 in the state?
Sen. Coons: I'm grateful for the very strong and engaged leadership of our governor, John Carney, and our head of our division of public health, Dr. Karyl Rattay. Because we finally recently got up to date test results about the breadth of the infection of COVID-19 in Sussex County and in particular in the communities immediately around our poultry processing plants, our number, in terms of the number of infections, has jumped fairly suddenly and a number of us spent the last couple of days working to support the governor and our public health infrastructure and the hospitals in Sussex County to make sure that we've got the testing capacity and the treatment capacity needed to respond to this sudden surge in the number of cases in our southernmost county.
Q: You have been thinking ahead, before we have a vaccine, and have been emphasizing the need to get our manufacturing abilities in place. Can you tell us more?
Sen. Coons: Well, Steve, as you may remember, I was the chair of the African Affairs Subcommittee on Foreign Relations and met with the president of Liberia several times in advance of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-2015 and actually traveled to Liberia during Ebola. I was the only member of Congress to visit West Africa during that pandemic, and it was a result of that direct engagement, that exposure to a country that was ravaged by a pandemic where American leadership helped scale up a global response and helped strengthen the Liberian people's response to that tragic and challenging incident that got me very interested in pandemic preparedness and response. Bill and Melinda Gates have been real thought leaders, have really invested in this area, and, as you just referenced former Majority Leader and doctor, Bill Frist, former senator from Tennessee, is someone who was well ahead of his time in helping the U.S. think about and invest in pandemic response.
BARDA [Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority] is a sub-agency of Health and Human Services that makes strategic investments in biologic response and disaster response capabilities. A number of years ago, they invested in four different facilities — in Texas and North Carolina and Maryland principally — that were designed to be ready facilities to rapidly scale up large numbers of doses of vaccines or therapeutics. ... In the CARES Act, one of the things I advocated for was a significant increase in investment both in currently available private sector capabilities and in strengthening the innovation and the flexibility in our nation’s capabilities. One of the things I worked hard on, Steve, was so-called Manufacturing USA, which is a series of federal and private sector and academic partnership institutes around the country, and there happens to be one here in Delaware. It's called the National Institute for Innovation in the Manufacturing of Biopharmaceuticals, or its better known by the more memorable acronym NIIMBL. It's not really just the University of Delaware. It is dozens and dozens of academic research institutes and private sector partners that all told have put together more than $200 million in investment in trying to be flexible and agile in standing up rapid and high-quality responses to challenges like this current COVID-19 pandemic.
Q: So are you saying we should have confidence that we have a strong manufacturing infrastructure in place and can sit back and wait for all this to happen now. Or does the NIIMBL private/public network need more than it has to work and to generate vaccines and antivirals we need after they are discovered?
Sen. Coons: I have concerns that we need to invest significantly more for two reasons. One is that vaccine development is an exceptionally difficult and tricky undertaking. You have to have lots of quality control, both in the search for an effective vaccine in the human trials and then in the manufacturing of a vaccine. Second, there has never been an FDA-approved successful coronavirus vaccine. Coronavirus is an entire family of viruses. There are thousands of coronaviruses. There is obviously an annual flu vaccine, an influenza vaccine, so there is an existing backbone that is modified or developed every flu season. So how do those companies who manufacture flu vaccines do so? They work off of a known and approved backbone and then make adjustments every year because the flu mutates — it modifies. That's how it becomes newly infectious is that it changes every year, every season. This particular novel coronavirus, that is producing COVID-19 is a double challenge in that it is something that is going to require us to develop an enormous number of individual vaccine doses. And we're looking for a novel type of vaccine in that there's never been a successful coronavirus vaccine before.
Q: As a legislator concerned with planning for the future, do you worry that we will forget now about the pain from this coronavirus and not make needed investments in future protection? When I interviewed in the past Anthony Fauci and recently talked to Sen. Frist, they both have said we need to be proactive. We need to begin thinking about vaccine development across a spectrum of possible viral risks for humans and not just be reactive to the latest attack. Your thoughts?
Sen. Coons: I certainly hope so. Steve. One of the things that really haunted me during the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa was hearing that there had been a potential Ebola or Marburg virus vaccine in development in ... the NIH but that it had been shelved due to budgetary constraints and budgetary concerns, due to a lack of proactive investment in the development of a vaccine. As you know, there's been a significant Ebola outbreak in the northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that was grinding away last year. A key difference in last year's response to the Ebola outbreak in central Africa to the six years ago previous response is that now there are two functional vaccines that are in trials that are providing critically needed protection to public health workers who are responding to the current Ebola outbreak. What's the point in response to this novel coronavirus outbreak? Yes, Steve, I think we will hopefully finally proactively invest enough because as bad as this pandemic is, it is nowhere near as bad as what has been predicted for many years, which is that we are due for a truly lethal influenza pandemic. COVID-19 is highly transmissive, like any influenza, and it is relatively lethal, but it is not very highly lethal. So, imagine something that spreads as easily as the seasonal cold or flu, but is as lethal as Ebola. If that were to happen, we would face massive human losses globally, as happened in 1918 where tens of millions of people died. I hate to draw your attention to an even more grim scenario.
Q: You're saying this is a foreshock of some far worse pandemic — is what you're saying?
Sen. Coons: That's correct. My hope is that this experience is bad enough that we finally mobilize globally the resources needed to ensure that we don't have to endure a pandemic like this one, but dramatically more lethal.
Q: What are your thoughts on how equipped President Trump, or former Vice President Joe Biden, are to deal with this kind of unconventional national security threat?
Sen. Coons: Well, Steve, remember that the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States were, for the vast majority of Americans, a shocking, utterly unexpected wake-up call. But for those who had been in the intelligence community, in our national security community, there were plenty of warning signs. There was a previous attempt at attacking the World Trade Center. There were attacks on the United States Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Salaam, in Kenya and Tanzania. There was the attack on the USS Cole. There were a whole series of attacks that showed that al Qaeda was becoming gradually more competent, more lethal, and more intent on killing Americans in a spectacular style. But we had a variety of challenges and problems in terms of our ability to gather the intelligence and respond in a timely way. The 9/11 Commission, after the 9/11 attacks, looked backwards at how we failed to be fully prepared for and respond to all of those clear signals. And so we gradually made massive investments in changing the structures of how intelligence is coordinated, changing the training and the doctrine that a preparation of our military forces to respond to asymmetric attacks by terrorist groups. We must do the same thing in response to this pandemic, Steve. We need a similar commission that on a bipartisan basis will look at how our pandemic response was flawed. How this administration has failed to see the moment and to grasp it and to rapidly scale up highly effective testing, contact tracing, and then to manage the distribution of badly needed supplies from personal protective equipment to ventilators to other critically needed material that would have made our testing and tracing more responsive. We will have a much longer recovery from this pandemic and many more lives lost to the pandemic than was necessary because of a disjointed and at times chaotic federal response. So my hope and expectation is that in a bipartisan way, moving forward from here, we will see a competent federal response inspired by a broad review of the ways in which the response to date has left many governors in many states struggling to find the resources and the response material that they need.
Q: Senator, we did have a surprising moment last week when the president suggested that perhaps we could inject disinfectants to kill the virus. Do you think that that odd moment may be in the long run helpful in getting doctors and scientists more in the right policy tracks in our federal response?
Sen. Coons: Any of us in elected leadership who have served in executive posts get training in how to get out of the way. One of the things I've never forgotten about the training I got as a young county executive nearly 20 years ago — about how to handle incident response — was to be engaged and be responsive, but to also know what you don't know, and to rely on the public safety experts, the public health experts to guide tough decisions. That's what our governor has done here in the state of Delaware. He's relied on critically needed professional advice and response, and that's what our president should have done. But frankly, has not done — is to allow Dr. Fauci, Dr. [Deborah] Birx, Dr. [Robert] Redfield and others at the CDC, NIH, and in the Department of Health and Human Services federally to inform and guide response. He should be at these daily briefings. Our president should be at these daily briefings briefly to introduce the experts and to provide them with the support and coordination they need, rather than using daily briefings as a several hours-long running, feuding session with the media that is utterly unconstructive. So, my hope is that after this past week's disconcerting incident that President Trump will allow his briefings to turn more towards the sorts of briefings that are science driven, public health led and will help us move towards a more fact and science based federal response — something that all Americans need as we make very challenging decisions about how and when to reopen.