Tarrytown-based Regeneron is working to find a drug that has the potential to not only protect a person against the COVID-19 coronavirus, but also to treat a person who is already infected, the company’s founder, president and CEO told President Donald Trump during a March 2 meeting at the White House.
Dr. Leonard S. Schleifer, the founder, president and CEO of Regeneron, was one of several heads of research and pharmaceutical companies invited to a meeting of the president’s Coronavirus Task Force in the Cabinet Room. Vice President Mike Pence, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, were among those attending the meeting.
In early February, Regeneron reached an expanded agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services to develop new treatments for combating the coronavirus that has been spreading around the world at increasing speed. Regeneron is collaborating with HHS’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).
During the meeting, Trump pressed the heads of the companies to promise a quick timeline for putting a vaccine into production. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the task force and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had previously told the president that it would take a year to 18 months to invent a vaccine, do clinical trials and, if it actually worked, get Food and Drug Administration approval to bring it to market. Schleifer raised the possibility of a briefer timeline if a number of factors fell into place.
He explained that the company worked with BARDA and came up with a cure for Ebola.
“Dr. Fauci’s group was really instrumental in testing that under unbelievable conditions in the Congo,” Schleifer told the president.
Schleifer said Regeneron can use the same technology and is working to develop something effective against COVID-19.
“We have 1,000 antibodies that are already sitting in dishes. We’re screening them. We’re selecting them. We anticipate, if all goes well, 200,000 doses per month can come out of our factory in New York, starting in August,” Schleifer told Trump.
The antibodies can block the proteins that allow the virus to latch onto human cells. Cells in the lungs are especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 strain of virus, which has similarities to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) viruses.
Trump asked, “That means you’d be able to use the vaccine that early?”
Schleifer replied, “It depends on what we see, how we work closely with the FDA, which we will do. The FDA already reached out to us, but we’ve got to work closely.”
Azar asked why Regeneron could be on a faster timetable than some other companies working on vaccines or therapies and whose representatives were in the room.
“Our drug will be able to protect you,” Schleifer replied. “Whether or not you’re infected, it will protect you from getting infected. Or if you are infected, it would treat you. We have just taken processes that normally take years – literally, years – and we put them end to end and now do them in weeks to months, which nobody else in the industry can do.”
Trump interjected, “So this would be a companion of a vaccine and also it will – to put it a different way – make you better, quicker.”
Schleifer said, “If you get immunized with one of these vaccines, you’re going to make some antibodies to protect you. We’re going to already make those antibodies and give them to you so you don’t have to go through the whole process. So, it’ll protect you. And, as we showed with Ebola, if you give enough of them … it was lifesaving – truly lifesaving. And it beat out the antivirals (a different type of drug). It … was the way to go. It’s very predictable.
“I sense the cautiousness of Dr. Fauci and he’s right to be cautious, because vaccines have to be tested, because there’s precedence for vaccines to actually make diseases worse. You don’t want to rush and treat a million people and find out you’re making 900,000 of them worse.”
“That’s a good idea,” Trump replied.
“We know that this approach worked for Ebola. We know that it worked for MERS in animals. We have a greater degree of confidence that this would work sooner, I think,” Schleifer said, “We’re going to be surprised about what happens over the next couple of months.”
Trump asked if a flu vaccine would have any impact on the coronavirus. Both Schleifer and Fauci said “no.”