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Coronavirus: health secretary Alex Azar expects US vaccine by December

Joanna Walters in New York
<span>Photograph: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA</span>
Photograph: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA

The US health secretary, Alex Azar, said on Tuesday morning that America hopes to have a coronavirus vaccine approved by December and tamped down Russia’s celebrations over unveiling its own vaccine after rapid development.

“The point is not to be first,” Azar said. “The point is to have a vaccine that is safe and effective for the American people and the people of the world.”

Related: Dying young: the healthcare workers in their 20s killed by Covid-19

Russia approved a controversial Covid-19 vaccine for widespread use after less than two months of human testing, including a dose administered to one of Vladimir Putin’s daughters.

Kirill Dmitriev, the head of the country’s RDIF sovereign wealth fund, said the vaccine would be marketed abroad under the brand name Sputnik V with international agreements to produce 500m doses and requests for 1bn from 20 countries.

The development was hailed by Putin as evidence of Russia’s scientific prowess, but the truncated testing regime has raised eyebrows elsewhere for skipping so-called phase 3 large-scale safety trials, which usually take months. Instead, phase 3 trials will be conducted in parallel with mass production of the vaccine, including in Brazil.

Azar said on Tuesday that: “We need transparent data, it’s got to be phase 3 data that shows that the vaccine is safe and effective and that’s what President Trump is leading with Operation Warp Speed.”

The project is the public-private partnership that is coordinating vaccine trials in the US. Azar told ABC’s Good Morning America show that six vaccines were in development and “we believe that we are on track towards having tens of millions of doses by December of FDA [Food and Drug Administration] gold-standard and hundreds of millions as we go into the new year”.

The top US public health expert Anthony Fauci, who sits on the White House coronavirus taskforce, has said he is “cautiously optimistic” about trials under way, but the trials would have to have their results before scientists will know if the US has a viable vaccine.

Azar was challenged by ABC on reports from analysts looking at the work of Moderna, one of the US companies with a vaccine in phase 3 trials, and concluding that trials will not show results until early 2021.

Azar said it depended on the speed with which people could be enrolled for the ongoing trials.

Azar spoke to the TV network from Taiwan, where he is on a rare official visit by a US government figure and has praised the country’s handling of coronavirus, which contrasts sharply with the situation in the US where the pandemic is out of control.

He met the Taiwanese president on Monday, with the visit threatening to escalate worsening tensions between Washington and Beijing.

The People’s Republic of China claims Taiwan, the Republic of China, is part of its territory and takes issue with any acknowledgment of Taiwan’s status as a sovereign state.

Trump on Tuesday told Fox Sports Radio that he used to have a very good relationship with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, but that changed after the pandemic and that he has not spoken to his Chinese counterpart in a long time.

Azar in the TV interview praised Taiwan’s transparency over its public health plans, while saying “China has not been transparent and has not been collaborative”.

Meanwhile, Trump will be briefed on US vaccine efforts later on Tuesday and will probably give a public update, the White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News.

Reuters contributed reporting