Daines, Montana health care leaders talk vaccine, drugs for COVID-19

Montana health care leaders asked questions Wednesday about how a COVID-19 vaccine is being developed, how it’ll be distributed and what’s being done to ramp up testing as positive case numbers continue to surge.

Over Zoom, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Anand Shah, deputy commissioner for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, fielded those questions and gave an update on efforts to provide immunity to and treatment for the virus.

Daines said that the federal government has made significant investments in vaccine and drug development. He cited his support to help secure $10 billion in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act for accelerated development of a vaccine and drugs.

He said he believes that money “will have significant payout for the American people because it will help stop the pandemic sooner.” Daines said he’ll be pushing for money to contribute to the effort as Congress considers the next round of CARES Act funding.

Daines also noted that the federal government announced Wednesday that it’ll pay two companies $1.95 billion to produce and deliver 100 million doses of their COVID-19 vaccine if it proves safe. Daines said the hope is that the first round of doses will be available by the end of this year.

Shah said there are 144 clinical trials for drug therapies in the works right now, and that the FDA is working to expedite the process without compromising the safety or efficacy of treatments. However, there’s yet to be a drug found that cures the virus.

“But there are some very promising developments,” Shah said.

Jason Smith, chief advancement officer for Bozeman Health, asked during the call how a vaccine will be distributed once available. He said the question is top of mind given that there have been significant challenges in nationwide distribution of other supplies needed to combat the virus, like personal protective equipment.

Daines said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is working on a plan right now to decide how to prioritize who receives the first vaccines. First in line could be frontline workers and vulnerable populations, he said.

“My responsibility will be to ensure that Montanans have access to that vaccine as quickly as possible,” Daines said.

John Hill, CEO of Bozeman Health, brought up recent research that shows a person who recovers from COVID-19 may lose the antibodies that fight off the infection fairly quickly. He asked how that’s affecting vaccine research given that recovered patients have been key to understanding immune responses to the virus.

Shah said the FDA is following that research closely, and that it also affects the development of therapeutic drugs. He said the FDA is in touch with developers and manufacturers about this issue, and that more data is needed.

The other implication of this research is that it’s possible for recovered patients to become reinfected with the virus.

Jay Evans, director of the University of Montana’s Center for Translational Medicine, also took a stab at the question as his team is working to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Evans said a group in his lab is specifically studying the duration and durability of immune responses to COVID-19.

Evans said the vaccine for pertussis, or whooping cough, provides a good example of how to address waning immunity. The pertussis vaccine is potent for the first two years, but eventually loses strength.

Evans also asked a question of Daines and Shah in regards to testing. Evans said he’s concerned about the possibility of someone on his team contracting the virus and the potential for that to shutdown the lab’s work and impede progress. It’s also been a burden for staff to wait for test results to come back, he said.

“It seems like testing continues to be a bottleneck,” Evans said.

In the last few weeks, wait times for test results have been lagging, sometimes for more than two weeks, as labs face increased demand and backlogs. Labs are also still struggling with a national shortage of the supplies needed to run tests.

Evans asked what’s being done to ramp up testing.

Shah said the FDA is working with developers to try to make more rapid turnaround COVID-19 tests available. Daines said he hoped to provide better forecasts about when supplies will be available.

“I can assure you that we are actively working through these issues,” Shah said.