Drug treatment a stopgap for vaccine to eradicate COVID-19: Chief scientific officer

By JACK ARNHOLZ, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — Johnson & Johnson’s chief scientific officer said it’s unlikely the coronavirus will be eradicated without a vaccine.

Dr. Paul Stoffels, appearing on ABC’s This Week Sunday, responded to comments from President Donald Trump last week that, “With or without a vaccine, it’s going to pass, and we’re going to be back to normal.”

“(It) would be great if the disease goes away very quickly, but we don’t think so,” Stoffels told ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos. “It’s now spreading around the world so fast.”

On March 30, Johnson & Johnson announced that it had selected a leading coronavirus vaccine candidate and the company anticipates beginning human trials on it by September 2020.

Since then, the company has partnered with the U.S. government to develop a vaccine, with the Trump administration awarding a grant of nearly half a billion dollars to aid their research.

“We need these sort of efforts at J&J — and others are doing them,” Dr. George Yancopoulos, president and chief scientific officer at biotechnology firm Regeneron, said in a joint interview with Stoffels. “We need the sort of efforts that we’re doing that can provide these immediate sources of both prevention and treatment that can have an impact until we get a vaccine.”

Unlike Johnsons & Johnson, Regeneron is developing a COVID-19 antibody treatment designed to prevent and treat the coronavirus.

“What a vaccine does, as we all know, is it generates immunity in the person who gets the vaccine. What is that immunity? Those are antibodies against the virus that find and kill the virus,” Yancopoulos said.

“What we developed is technologies that allow us to make exactly these antibodies that the body makes in response to vaccine. We make them outside of the body, we scale them up in bioreactors, and then we inject them into people, and immediately it’s as if they’ve been vaccinated,” he added.

However, Yancopoulos stressed that anti-body treatments cannot be a replacement for a vaccine.

“Vaccines can provide permanent immunity to much larger numbers of people. This is why we need all of these efforts,” he said.

Regeneron is working to adapt one of their drugs, Kevzara, to treat COVID-19, and indicated it could begin clinical studies in June.

“It’s possible that within a month or two after that that we would actually have data that our antibody cocktail could be (an) important stopgap until we get an effective and safe vaccine,” Yancopoulos told Stephanopoulos.

When pressed by Stephanopoulos on whether the expedited pace of treatment development was still safe for consumers, Yancopoulos said, “I think the most important thing — you already heard from Dr. Stoffels — is that we have a strong and powerful set of technologies throughout the ecosystem in basic research and in industry that allows us to fight these battles when they appear.”

While Johnson & Johnson has said the typical vaccine development process takes five to seven years, the company has admitted they are moving on a “substantially accelerated timeframe” to find a vaccine.

Trump has said that he expects a breakthrough in vaccine development by 2021, saying in a Fox News town hall last week, “We think we’re going to have a vaccine by the end of this year. And we’re pushing very hard.”

Although he expects his company to produce a vaccine by the end of the year, Stoffels said whether it could be available for consumption would be a decision for the government.

“Clinical trials will need to be done to show that it’s effective and that will take some time. We will have some vaccine available this year but it will depend on the authorities — the FDA and all those to decide whether it can be used earlier, before clear efficacy data are available,” he told Stephanopoulos.

Stoffels also said Johnson & Johnson plans to have a billion doses of the vaccine available once it is developed.

While Regeneron is a smaller company, Yancopoulos said they too will try to ramp up production once they find a treatment.

“It might be possible that — if all goes well — hundreds of thousands of doses could be available by the end of the summer,” he said.

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