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Trump challenges companies to 'get it done' on coronavirus vaccines, drugs

SNL Image

NIAID Director Anthony Fauci with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence

Source: AP Photo

President Donald Trump told executives from large and small biopharmaceutical companies to move as expeditiously as possible to develop vaccines and treatments for the new coronavirus — a disease that killed a half dozen people in the U.S. over a few days.

Leaders from pharma giants Gilead Sciences Inc., GlaxoSmithKline PLC, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer Inc., Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Sanofi, as well as small biotechs CureVac AG, Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc., Moderna Inc. and Novavax Inc. sat down with Trump and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force to discuss what steps the U.S. government could take to help speed the companies' work.

Trump has frequently clashed with drugmakers over the high prices of their medicines, accusing the companies of "getting away with murder."

But at the March 2 White House meeting, he pleaded with the drug company executives to focus on making coronavirus products and to "get it done" as quickly as possible.

"We're moving as fast as we can. I think everybody around the table is moving as fast as we can," Gilead CEO Daniel O'Day told Trump.

The president said he was surprised to learn so many of the biopharmaceutical makers were already well into pursuing drugs and vaccines for coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19.

Worldwide, COVID-19 has infected about 91,000 people and killed more than 3,100, according to Johns Hopkins University's Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

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GSK CEO Emma Walmsley
Source: GlaxoSmithKline PLC

"We know we have a responsibility and a vital role to play," GSK CEO Emma Walmsley told Trump.

Walmsley noted that GSK is making its pandemic vaccine adjuvant platform technology available to any company "with a highly promising vaccine."

John Shiver, senior vice president of global vaccine research and development at Sanofi's vaccine unit, said his company is leveraging its recombinant DNA platform to produce a coronavirus vaccine candidate.

Shiver noted Sanofi markets a recombinant influenza product in the U.S. — Flublok.

Sanofi is collaborating with the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, to develop the coronavirus vaccine.

"It has the potential to be applied very readily," Shiver said, noting the technology had been used in some early work for a vaccine candidate targeting severe acute respiratory syndrome, a related coronavirus.

"Because we are a major flu vaccine producer, with this technology, we have the ability to produce large amounts of vaccine," he said. "We predict, depending on the final formulation, 100 million to 600 million doses per year made in New York and Pennsylvania."

Johnson & Johnson and Moderna are also partnering with the U.S. government on vaccines, while Regeneron is collaborating with BARDA on an antibody product that would protect against and treat COVID-19.

"I hope everybody succeeds here," said Regeneron CEO Leonard Schleifer. "This industry is really talented as an industry. Sometimes we run astray, but we're going to get this done."

O'Day noted that Gilead's experimental intravenous medicine remdesivir is already being tested in clinical trials in COVID-19 in China and the U.S. with other studies planned.

At an early evening news conference, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci told reporters it was "very gratifying" to see the "enthusiasm" of the company executives "about getting involved in helping us along in the development of products."

Accelerating testing

At the briefing, U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn said he anticipates commercial and academic laboratories will have 1 million COVID-19 tests available by the end of the week under a new policy from his agency.

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President Donald Trump and CMS
Administrator Seema Verma
Source: AP Photo

The administration has been criticized for initially only letting the COVID-19 test from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention be used — a diagnostic that was later found to be flawed.

Officials cautioned that with more testing available, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is expected to rise — an outcome they said they anticipated.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. shot up in a matter of days after a number of patients at a Seattle area hospital and residents at a nearby long-term care facility became infected. All six of the Washington state deaths occurred at that hospital or long-term care facility.

Also at the news conference, Vice President Mike Pence revealed that he had added Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma and Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to the White House Coronavirus Task Force — a group that has grown to 22 members, all but two of them men.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who is chairing the task force, said he wanted Verma as part of the group because her agency oversees the government's healthcare coverage for the elderly and medically frail — populations that are being hit the hardest by COVID-19.