by Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The United States is working on a massive testing program for half a dozen experimental coronavirus vaccines in which more than 100,000 volunteers could participate, researchers with the researchers said.

The aim is to speed up research so that by the end of the year a safe and effective vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 is available by testing potential vaccines on a sample of 20,000 to 30,000 people, or " vaccine candidates ", having demonstrated their harmlessness in preliminary tests in a much smaller format.

"If we don't see a safety problem, we continue," Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), told Reuters.

The potential vaccine developed by the US biotechnology laboratory Moderna in partnership with the NIH will be the first to be tested under this program from July, he said.

It could be followed quickly by the one that the British University of Oxford and AstraZeneca are trying to develop

The candidate vaccines from J&J, Sanofi and Merck could be tested in turn this summer once the phase 1 clinical trials have been completed.

Moderna's candidate vaccine is already in the clinical trials phase on human guinea pigs. Those of Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi and Merck are a month or two behind, said Dr. Collins.

Other potential vaccines may be added to the list.

"IF ALL THE STARS ARE ALIGNED"

The idea is to reduce to a period of only a few months a process which generally takes ten years, illustrating the urgency of the health crisis which has paralyzed whole swathes of the world economy.

To achieve this, say these researchers, the laboratories have agreed to share their data and open their clinical trial networks to their competitors if their own "vaccine candidate" fails.

In order to get a faster response, these vaccines will also be tested among healthcare professionals and members of communities where the virus is still spreading to see if injections reduce the occurrence of new cases.

In total, between 100,000 and 150,000 people could be involved in this initiative, said Dr. Larry Corey, vaccine specialist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, who is participating in the implementation of these trials.

The program carries a share of risk, certain questions linked to the safety of the vaccines being able to appear only at the end of the journey, during large-scale trials.

But it is estimated that a high-efficiency vaccine could be tested in as little as six months, adds Dr. Corey.

"If all the pieces fit together and all the stars are aligned, we could have a vaccine by December or January," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases attached to NIH.

(French version Nicolas Delame and Henri-Pierre André)