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NIH Launches Effort To Speed Up Development Of COVID-19 Treatments

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins speak during a news conference in 2017.
Matt Rourke
National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins speak during a news conference in 2017.

In an bid to help speed up the development of potential treatment options and a vaccine for COVID-19, the National Institutes of Health on Friday announced a new public-private research partnership.

The new initiative will be spearheaded by the NIH but also include the Food and Drug Administration, other parts of the federal government and a list of 16 companies that includes some of the biggest players in the pharmaceutical industry. Among the companies participating in the effort are Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Merck.

"We need to have all hands on deck from every sector to speed up the process of identifying those treatments that are going to work and to get the vaccines also developed, tested, to make sure they're safe and effective in the maximum possible speed," said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered.

The announcement comes after President Trump and public health officials on Thursday unveiled new guidelines for states to begin reopening the country. Health experts say that in order to safely do that, there needs to be more testing, contact tracing and better drugs to treat COVID-19. Ultimately, for things to truly return to normal, an effective vaccine is needed.

Collins said there are already two vaccines in phase one trials, and behind that, a series of more than 40 other vaccines being developed as well. But he cautioned that the public should expect failures along the way.

"Somewhere in there may be a winner, even if most of them are losers," he said.

Collins also provided an update on testing of antiviral drug, remdesivir, and shared his thoughts on Dr. Anthony Fauci, the high-profile director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Here are excerpts from the conversation.

There's a lot of buzz about an antiviral called remdesivir.

Remdesivir is certainly, I think, at the top of most people's hopeful list, but not yet proven. Just to report, yesterday although not yet peer reviewed, that in a monkey model it looked as if this did provide benefit for COVID-19. ... We're running a human trial with now 800 participants enrolled more quickly than expected. We will know, I think, in the next two to four weeks whether it worked or not.

[A] question about one of the most prominent faces of U.S. anti-virus efforts, Dr. Anthony Fauci ... Have you come under any pressure to fire him?

Absolutely not. He is a wonderful public servant, an amazingly smart infectious disease expert. He and I have a nightly phone call every evening to catch up on what's happened with his life down at the White House and mine trying to manage the NIH. He's the best ally I could ever have.

Listen to the full interview on All Things Considered at the audio link above.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maureen Pao is an editor, producer and reporter on NPR's Digital News team. In her current role, she is lead digital editor and producer for All Things Considered. Her primary responsibility is coordinating, producing and editing high-impact online components for complex, multipart show projects and host field reporting.