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Trump applauds speed of coronavirus vaccine development in Morrisville visit

Posted July 27, 2020 2:48 p.m. EDT
Updated July 27, 2020 10:44 p.m. EDT

— President Donald Trump made a quick visit to the Triangle on Monday to tout his administration's efforts to produce a vaccine for coronavirus.

Trump toured the Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies plant in Morrisville that is manufacturing a potential vaccine.

Diosynth, a contract manufacturer for vaccines and gene therapies, is working with Maryland-based Novavax, which recently won a $1.6 billion federal contract to develop a vaccine. Diosynth has already started production of the first batch of Novavax's NVX-CoV2373 vaccine candidate.

Company executives walked Trump through the facility, explained their manufacturing process and gave him a chance to talk with some of the employees involved, Chief Executive Martin Meeson said.

"Unfortunately, he can’t be in the manufacturing room that the process is going on, but we’ve been able to put together some really nice mock-ups for him to look at and see as he walks around. I think he’ll get a really good idea of the excitement, the technical expertise and the capabilities that we’ve got here," Meeson said before the president's visit.

Dr. Gregory Glenn, head of research and development for Novavax, said his company has replicated the "spike protein" on the coronavirus, which Diosynth will mass produce for a vaccine. Exposure to the protein triggers an immune response in people, he said.

Novavax Chief Executive Stan Erck said the platform has been used several times before to fight everything from seasonal flu to Ebola.

"The data are going to tell us how our product is differentiated from the other vaccines that are out there," Erck said. "We very optimistic."

Federal officials "have asked us to make 100 million doses by the end of the year," Glenn said. "There's going to be so much vaccine and a very efficient delivery system that there won't be too much debate about prioritization. It will get out and get out fast."

Meeson agreed, saying Diosynth plans to make "tens and tens of millions of doses per month" as soon as the vaccine gets U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

The company is looking to hire 60 people to meet its production needs, he said.

Before his tour, Trump held a brief news conference at the plant to proclaim the success of Operation Warp Speed, the collaboration between his administration and the private sector to rapidly develop a vaccine and ensure accelerated manufacturing and distribution once ready.

"We will achieve victory over the virus by unleashing America's scientific genius," Trump said, noting that some other vaccine candidates are entering Phase III clinical trials, the final step before possible approval.

"We've shaved years off the time to develop a vaccine," he said. "This is the fastest a vaccine for a novel pathogen has ever gone."

Novavax's vaccine is in a Phase I clinical trial and is expected to progress into Phase II in mid-August and Phase III in the fall.

"Not only is Operation Warp Speed accelerating the development of a vaccine, we're also directing a colossal industrial mobilization to ensure its rapid delivery. Nothing's happened like this since the end of World War II," Trump said.

That aspect is where Diosynth comes in, he noted, as millions of doses of potential vaccines are produced while the various drugs are still in testing. Then, once one is approved, the vaccine can immediately be distributed nationwide.

Trump also noted his administration is working on various treatments for COVID-19, from antibodies to convalescent plasma. He said the success of these efforts has cut the mortality rate for adults with the illness by 85 percent since April.

The president also touted his administration's efforts to expand virus testing and that the U.S. has "completely rebuilt our stockpile" of protective gear and ventilators.

He urged people to practice social distancing and good hygiene and "where appropriate," wear masks in public. Neither he nor several North Carolina members of Congress who were with him on Air Force One were wearing masks when the president's plane landed at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

"We need all Americans to be conscious about their actions and to exercise extreme vigilance," said Trump, who did wear a mask while touring the Diosynth plant.

At the same time, he said, "I really do believe a lot of governors should be opening up states that they're not opening."

WARNING: This video contains profanity. Viewer discretion is advised.

Hundreds of Trump supporters and some opponents gathered along Davis Drive, along the president's route from RDU to Diosynth's plant. Shouts of "Four more years" mixed with "Black lives matter" chants in the crowd.

"He's here, so it's an opportunity to show support. It's a physical opportunity, you know, power in numbers," one woman said. "Silent majority no more. I wanted to show that we're here to support him."

"We just want to be here to maybe catch a glimpse of our president," Tyler Wozniak said. "It's not every day that somebody comes to Raleigh [who's] that big."

After the motorcade passed and the president was at the plant, the number of supporters dwindled. But opponents maintained a presence near the drive to the plant, shouting the names of people who died because of police use of force, as well as "Keep NC schools closed" in reference to Trump's push to reopen schools nationwide next month.

During his news conference, Trump expressed optimism about his re-election campaign, stating that he's seen polls that show him leading former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in North Carolina, Florida and other swing states.

"There's more spirit now than there's ever been for my campaign," he said.

When asked about North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper's stance against a full-scale Republican National Convention in Charlotte in August, which led to an aborted effort to move much of the convention to Jacksonville, Fla., Trump declined to say that Cooper was right.

"I think we did the right thing," he said of his decision to call off all events planned for Jacksonville. "I'm happy having a piece of [the convention], a very important piece, in North Carolina."

Once a vaccine is approved and distributed, he said, the economy will rebound and the country will return to its previous track.

"We made and brought this country to the greatest point in its history," he said. "We never had numbers like it. We are going to have them again. Everyone knows I'm going to rebuild it."

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