By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration said on Monday it had secured commitments from top pharmaceutical companies to work together to develop a vaccine and treatments to fight the coronavirus.
At a meeting with industry executives at the White House, President Donald Trump exhorted the companies to collaborate to speed the process of getting a vaccine and therapeutics to victims of the virus.
The company leaders indicated a willingness to cooperate with one another, but did not lay out how that would happen.
The White House, which has clashed previously with the pharmaceutical industry over high drug prices and has been struggling in recent weeks to show it is on top of the virus response, saw the meeting as a victory.
“This is all hands on deck. And the news out of this meeting that you’ve already formed a consortia … now we know they will be working together to create therapeutics and ultimately a new vaccine,” Vice President Mike Pence said as the session drew to a close.
The global death toll from the illness caused by the new coronavirus now exceeds 3,000, with more than 60 countries affected. In the United States, there have been more than 90 cases, with six deaths.
Trump pressed the representatives at the table about their timeframes for getting a vaccine ready and took upbeat comments from some of the company leaders to mean that it could be ready to deploy within months.
“You seem to know what the answer is to this,” Trump said. “Get it done. We need it.”
Pressed on whether the vaccine would be ready in the short timeframe he desired, Trump said he had heard from the leaders at the table a range of three to four months to a year. But Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases, stepped in and urged those at the table to correct the president’s impression.
“He’s asking the question: When is it going to be deployable? And that is going to be at the earliest a year to a year and a half,” Fauci said.
Trump, who has sought to suggest a vaccine would be ready before health professionals have indicated, followed up after Fauci’s comments: “You think that’s right?”
Attendees assured him that treatments, rather than a vaccine itself, could be ready before that.
Attendees included the chief executives of Gilead Sciences Inc, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc, Moderna Inc and GlaxoSmithKline Plc as well as research and development executives from Pfizer Inc, Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi SA, all of which are working on vaccines or treatments for the virus.
Even with Trump voicing hope that the companies can accelerate their development as much as possible, executives and other experts have suggested that clinical trials to guarantee a vaccine is safe and effective could mean that it could take a minimum of 12 to 18 months to hit the market.
Antiviral treatments could possibly move faster toward approval.
Pfizer’s chief scientific officer, Mikael Dolsten, told Trump the company had identified compounds that had a high probability of being effective against the virus.
After the meeting, Pfizer said in a statement it had identified some antiviral compounds it owns as potential treatments for coronaviruses and was working with a third party to evaluate them.
It said if they proved to be good candidates and passed toxicology studies, it hoped to start testing them clinically by the end of the year.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Michael Erman; Editing by Peter Cooney)