NIH Director: Hope for a Coronavirus Vaccine by the End of 2020

Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, sees great progress on the scientific work to develop COVID-19 therapies and vaccines even with many challenges ahead.

Photo : Andrew Harnik

While Covid-19 Cases are surging across many parts of the country, scientists are making extraordinary progress on research for treatments and vaccines to address the ongoing pandemic, according to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s medical research agency.

“I think if we can hang in there and try to save as many lives as possible by good public health measures and good medical care, we should by the end of this calendar year have a very good chance of having vaccines that can start to be distributed to the most vulnerable people,” Collins said in a July 22 webinar hosted by U.S. News & World Report.

For example, the NIH has a program called Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines, which is a partnership between government agencies, pharmaceutical companies and other organizations to coordinate research for developing treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. On Monday, biotech company Moderna officially began phase three of a clinical trial for a vaccine developed in partnership with the NIH.

“I am amazed at how far we have come,” Collins said. Scientific progress on finding potential treatments and vaccines is going “extremely well” and is “happening at a speed that we’ve never seen before in trying to address a new infectious disease,” he said. What would normally take two or three years has happened in six months, said Collins, who spoke with U.S. News Editorial Director Brian Kelly from his home office in Bethesda, Maryland.[ 

That said, Collins acknowledged the daunting challenges that remain. “Unfortunately, things are not going very well in terms of the spread of the illness in the country. Here we are now seeing a real surge of infections that are happening, particularly in the southeast and in the West.” Last week, the U.S. surpassed 4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Collins, who took the helm of the NIH in 2009 after serving as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, also cited the need for volunteers from the public to assist with ongoing COVID-19 prevention clinical trials. Some 150,000 volunteers have already signed up for the COVID-19 Prevention Network effort coordinated by the NIH, Collins said.

Collins also made clear that the rapid development does not come at the expense of safety. “The reason we’re going so fast … is not because of cutting corners on safety. It’s really cutting corners on some of the bureaucracy which otherwise slows things down,” Collins said. “I would want everybody to really look closely at this and be reassured that if we get to the end of this and say this therapy works or this vaccine works, it’s because it works.”

Collins also spoke about the challenges of reopening schools – and noted there is no easy answer.

“It’s a tough question right now because it’s going to matter a lot which part of the country you’re talking about,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine that you could do this without a great deal of care in a place where the virus is actively spreading and not have consequences.”

Collins, who said he is typically working 90 to 100 hours a week, remains hopeful that the nation will weather the pandemic.

“It is a personal responsibility,” Collins said. “If you care about your neighbors, care about your grandparents, care about any of those people that are around you, this is part of your job to take that responsibility and act on it.”