WASHINGTON — President Trump had billed the meeting with pharmaceutical executives as a scolding waiting to happen. The gathering was intended to pressure the industry to bring drug prices “way down,” he said on Friday, suggesting it had only later morphed into a “convenient” opportunity to discuss the development of a coronavirus vaccine.
But seated across from 10 pharmaceutical executives in the Cabinet Room on Monday, Trump’s long-simmering contempt for the drug industry melted away. Trump told executives from Gilead, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer that they worked for a “great company.” He affectionately referred to Leonard Schleifer, the CEO of Regeneron, as “Lenny.” At one point, Trump referred to the assembled drug executives as “geniuses.”
The meeting signified a remarkable shift in Trump’s view of the pharmaceutical industry. After years of maintaining that drug companies charge “ripoff” prices, Trump appeared floored by the executives’ progress reports. He alternatingly praised CEOs and egged them on to lay out shorter and shorter timelines for bringing a vaccine to market. Trump, throughout the meeting, appeared so blown away by the drug companies’ claims that his deputies struggled to rein in his expectations.
“Like I’ve been telling you, Mr. President,” Tony Fauci, the director of the National Institute on Allergy and Infectious Disease, interjected at one point. “A year to a year and a half,” he said, referring to the amount of time it will likely take to deploy an effective vaccine to large populations.
Undeterred, Trump continued to ask various versions of the same question: “So what do you think in terms of timing?”
The executives largely told the president what he wanted to hear — that for both therapies and vaccines, companies could enter early testing within months, with the aim of reaching the market in time for peak season in a year’s time.
“It was: Tell us how fast you can go, but let’s keep safety in mind, and let’s make sure we create something manufacturable,” said Dan Menichella, CEO of CureVac, who was among the executives seated before Trump. The company, headquartered in Germany and Boston, uses messenger RNA to produce protective antibodies inside patients’ bodies, thereby preventing infection. CureVac expects to start testing its coronavirus vaccine in healthy volunteers by June, with further trials to come if the injection proves safe.
But even as Fauci and health secretary Alex Azar interrupted to caution the president that most therapies and vaccines were nowhere near ready, the president leaned into the executives’ positive spin.
“That’s very exciting,” Trump said at one point to Daniel O’Day, the CEO of the biotech giant Gilead Sciences, after he described progress on a therapy that could be used to mitigate coronavirus symptoms. “Get it done, Daniel. Don’t disappoint us.”
Fueling Trump’s optimism: When questioned by the president, drug company representatives often struggled to differentiate between projections for bringing drugs to late-stage trials and bringing them to market — so much so that Fauci became a de facto referee.
At one point, he responded to Stephane Bancel, the chief executive officer of Moderna, with a stern clarification: “You won’t have a vaccine — you’ll have a vaccine to go into testing.”
But he immediately pivoted to Regeneron’s Schleifer.
“But Lenny is talking about two months,” Trump replied. “I mean, I like the sound of a couple of months better.”
This time, it was Azar who interjected to clarify that Schleifer’s aggressive projection was for a phase I trial — not for a market-ready vaccine.
Only once did Trump admonish drug companies at all, in response to a question about whether the federal government would provide financial assistance to companies investing heavily on vaccine development.
“I think they’re so rich — I know the companies very well — some of them are so rich I think they could actually loan money to the federal government,” Trump said. “They don’t need money, they need time.”
Trump, who last week acknowledged he was “shocked” to learn the flu typically kills over 30,000 Americans annually, also displayed a surprising lack of scientific savvy. At one point, he asked the executives and federal researchers whether they believed existing flu vaccines could prove effective in halting COVID-19’s spread.
“You take a solid flu vaccine,” Trump asked, “you don’t think that would have an impact, or much of an impact, on corona?”
Fauci’s understated reply came quickly: “Probably not.”
The pharmaceutical industry gathering was the Trump administration’s latest effort to reassure the public that it is taking aggressive measures to prevent further coronavirus spread. During a press briefing later on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence argued that the risk to the general public remains low, noting that confirmed community spread is happening in limited areas in California and Washington state. Health Secretary Alex Azar said federal officials had spoken with local and state counterparts in those areas about mitigation strategies, including the potential of suspending school.
Pence, like Trump, also sang the drug industry’s praises following the meeting.
“Our pharmaceutical companies, which are recognized as the greatest in the world, have already formed a consortium to work together, to share information in the development of therapeutics and vaccines,” he said at a Monday press briefing with members of the White House coronavirus task force.
Pence, who will be visiting the National Institutes of Health and the CDC this week with the president, also said that authorities would start screening passengers coming to the United States from South Korea and Italy for signs of the virus, which include fever and cough. Federal authorities have already urged Americans not to travel to those two countries, as well as Iran and China.
Pence also highlighted the role that Ambassador Deborah Birx, a physician and public health expert, will play on the task force as its coronavirus response coordinator.
Andrew Joseph and Damian Garde contributed reporting.