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Science to drive vaccine efforts, not politics, general nominated to lead the effort pledges

Gen. Gustave F. Perna, Commanding General of U.S. Army Materiel Command, Redstone Arsenal, AL, poses for a command portrait in the Army portrait studio at the Pentagon in Arlington, VA, Sept. 20, 2016.

MONICA A. KIN/U.S. ARMY

By ANDREW CLEVENGER | CQ-Roll Call | Published: June 18, 2020

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WASHINGTON — The Army general tapped to lead the federal government’s efforts to develop and mass-produce a coronavirus vaccine by the end of the year pledged Thursday to base his decisions on science and not politics.

Gen. Gustave Perna, nominated to be the chief operating officer for Operation Warp Speed, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he thinks it is possible that the government will be able to produce 300 million doses of a vaccine by Jan. 1.

“What I thought was an aspirational goal 30 days ago when I was announced by the president, I have now come to the conclusion that it is more and more likely to occur,” he said.

Several Democrat senators, including Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii, pressed Perna on whether the U.S. would welcome cooperation from countries that are not traditional allies.

“I commit to working with all nations that we deem are friendly to our national security,” Perna said. Blumenthal noted that the U.S. often cooperates on a limited basis with hostile governments, including on trade deals, but Perna would not budge.

“I commit that I will give my best military advice so that we can achieve our mission of obtaining a safe and effective vaccine,” he said.

Blumenthal called the answer insufficient. “I would like to see a much more robust commitment to cooperation with other nations, which I think serves our national interest,” he added.

Hirono asked Perna specifically whether the countries he envisions working with include China.

“Right now, for me, it does not. It would be my best military advice,” said Perna, who has served as the Army’s top logistician.

But Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., one of the panel’s top China hawks, did not press Perna for a commitment that he would not share information with Beiijing.

Other senators raised the issue of political interference with Perna. Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the committee, warned against rushing for approval, only to have to withdraw the medication once more testing calls its safety into question, as happened with hydroxychloroquine. President Donald Trump touted hydroxychloroquine and even said he took the anti-malaria drug before the Food and Drug Administration said it was not a recommended treatment for coronavirus.

“We want a vaccine, not a headline,” Reed said.

“I’m concerned that Operation Warp Speed will be under pressure to release a vaccine before the election but before adequate trials and research testing has been completed,” added New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand.

It will be up to the FDA to determine whether the vaccine is ready for distribution, Perna said.

“We must make sure that science leads us to our conclusions and that we assess the risk accordingly so that we can determine the effectiveness of the vaccine, because it must be safe, first and foremost, and then effective,” he added.

The panel also considered the nomination of Lt. Gen. Daniel Hokanson of the Army National Guard to be chief of the National Guard Bureau. If confirmed, Hokanson will join the Joint Chiefs and become a four-star general.

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