CEOs give Trump ‘Biology 101’ lesson as coronavirus causes election nerves

There has been a political dimension to the coronavirus outbreak – there were the accusations of a cover-up by Chinese authorities around its epicentre in Wuhan – and in the US leaders including Trump are trying to gauge the best response in this sensitive election year.

Until coronavirus came along drug prices were a dominant issue – but Trump’s scheduled meeting this week with a gang of pharma and biotech CEOs over pricing morphed into a discussion on coronavirus therapies.

The meeting turned into a kind of Biology 101 lesson for a perplexed-looking Trump from the likes of GlaxoSmithKline’s CEO Emma Walmsley, Gilead’s CEO Daniel O’Day, Johnson & Johnson’s chief scientific officer Paul Stoffels, and Regeneron’s CEO Leonard Schleifer.

Health secretary Alex Azar kicked off the meeting by asking the pharma execs to find ways to hasten development of a vaccine.

And there was a sense of tension in the room as it became apparent that it’s unlikely one will be approved and ready to use ahead of the presidential elections in November.

In a progress briefing from Schleifer, Trump praised Regeneron for its progress so far before asking whether a flu vaccine would work against COVID-19.

Trump said: “You take a solid flu vaccine – you don’t think that would have an impact or much of an impact on corona?”

The answer from Schleifer was a flat “no”, with Anthony Fauci from the National Institutes for Healthcare softening the blow with “probably not”.

Trump asked Gilead’s O’Day to hurry trials of its antiviral drug remdesivir begun this week, telling the CEO to “get it done”.

He added: “Don’t disappoint us, Daniel. Do you understand? Great company. Really great.”

Trump also quizzed J&J’s Stoffels about the timeline for the development of that company’s vaccine and noted that the US pharma’s vaccine will not be ready until next season.

 Azar went on to lay out a time frame for development of various therapeutic options for the president, noting that antivirals will likely be ready first, ahead of monoclonal antibodies from Regeneron, followed by vaccines.

Summarising, Trump said: “I will tell you, the whole thing with therapeutics, to me, is very exciting. And, obviously, vaccines. But therapeutics is very exciting, especially when you’re so far advanced. That’s great. That’s really great. Thank you.”

In the UK, Boris Johnson’s government has published its plans to fight the infection, with up to a fifth of the workforce potentially off sick in a worst-case scenario at peak.

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