The End of Vaccines at ‘Warp Speed’

Financial and bureaucratic barriers in the United States mean that the next generation of Covid vaccines may well be designed here, but used elsewhere.

Operation Warp Speed, the Trump-era program that poured billions of dollars into developing Covid shots, seemed to signal a new dawn of American vaccine making, demonstrating how decades of scientific grunt work could be turned into lifesaving medicine in a matter of months.

But as a third pandemic winter begins in the United States, its vaccine-making effort has lost steam. Efforts to test and produce next-generation Covid vaccines are bogged down by bureaucratic problems and funding shortfalls. Foreign rivals have raced ahead in approving long-awaited nasal-spray vaccines, including one invented in St. Louis, creating a scenario in which Americans would have to travel abroad for the latest in American vaccine technology.

The Biden administration has launched a last-ditch effort to restore the country’s edge. In a bid to resurrect Operation Warp Speed, President Biden asked the lame-duck session of Congress this week for $5 billion for next-generation vaccines and therapeutics, as part of a broader $9.25 billion pandemic spending request. But Republicans, having blocked requests for next-generation vaccine funding since the spring amid complaints about how the White House spent earlier pandemic aid allocations, have shown no signs of dropping their resistance.

As a result, even with the pandemic still taking a heavy toll, prospects have dimmed for the two most coveted kinds of next-generation vaccines: nasal sprays that can block more infections, and universal coronavirus shots that can defend against a wider array of ever-evolving variants.

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In the coming months, scientists project that Covid could kill tens of thousands of Americans. The cost of infections keeps piling up, too: Long Covid sufferers are battling persistent health problems. And millions are missing work because they catch the virus, exacerbating labor shortages.

No next-generation vaccines are as close at hand, or as likely to reduce the spread of the virus, as those that can be inhaled or sprayed into the nose.

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By generating immunity in people’s airways, where the coronavirus first lands, those vaccines can potentially help extinguish infections before they begin. Immunity delivered by a shot in the arm, on the other hand, takes longer to attack the invading virus, giving people good protection against serious disease but not to the infections that spread the virus and let it evolve.

China, India, Russia and Iran have all approved vaccines delivered through the nose or the mouth, even though they have not released much data about how the products work.

In the United States, nasal sprays have been held back by the same funding constraints and logistical hassles that, before the pandemic, often made developing vaccines a decade-long ordeal. The delay could not only weaken the country’s defenses against a more lethal coronavirus variant but also hurt preparations for a future pandemic, depriving the world of an oven-ready nasal vaccine platform that could be adapted to a new pathogen.

“It went back to the prepandemic speed of vaccine development,” said Florian Krammer, a virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. His team’s nasal vaccine has undergone its most advanced testing in Mexico; collaborating with a pharmaceutical company there offered the fastest path to clinical trial funding. In the United States, he said, “The funding situation is pretty dire.”

The problems are not only financial. The best next-generation vaccine studies often depend on using existing mRNA shots, like the Covid vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna. In some cases, that is because researchers want to compare nasal sprays to injectable vaccines. In others, it is because scientists need to know how well nasal vaccines boost immunity after an earlier mRNA shot.

But scientists aiming to develop nasal vaccines as boosters have discovered that they are barred from using leftover Pfizer or Moderna doses in their studies, despite tens of millions of unused doses having been thrown away.

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  • Long Covid: People who took the antiviral drug Paxlovid within a few days after being infected with the coronavirus were less likely to experience long Covid months later, a study found.
  • Updated Boosters: New findings show that updated boosters by Pfizer and Moderna are better than their predecessors at increasing antibody levels against the most common version of the virus now circulating.
  • Personality Changes: New research suggests that Covid’s disruption of social rituals and rites of passage have made people less extroverted, creative, agreeable and conscientious.

Purchase agreements with the federal government prevent doses of the two vaccines from being used for research purposes without the companies’ approval, scientists said. Those types of provisions are generally intended to protect companies from the risks of a poorly run experiment hurting their product, though they can also help insulate firms from head-to-head studies that may flatter a competitor.

Because the government controls the supply of Pfizer and Moderna shots, nasal-vaccine makers cannot independently purchase them. Instead, scientists have had to pay outside manufacturers to make imitations.

Among the researchers in that position is Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, whose experimental nasal vaccine is intended to boost immunity in those previously injected with mRNA shots. Her team’s vaccine appears to reduce viral transmission in hamsters, a promising sign. But Dr. Iwasaki has not been able to get Pfizer or Moderna shots for studies on monkeys, creating less reliable conditions for measuring how animals receiving mRNA shots respond to nasal boosters.