- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2020

President Trump said Monday his administration is “unleashing America’s scientific genius” to land a coronavirus vaccine that could restore a sense of normality by the end of the year, as Moderna Inc., and government partners launched a massive trial that will test their shots on 30,000 adults.

Mr. Trump hailed the launch and similar efforts by Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, a lab in North Carolina that is working on elements of a vaccine candidate from Novavax. He said the pharmaceutical industry is on pace to deliver a vaccine in “record time.”

“Nothing even close,” Mr. Trump said after a tour of the Fujifilm site in Morrisville, North Carolina. “We’ve shaved years off the time it takes to develop a vaccine.”

A vaccine is considered the most crucial weapon in the fight against the coronavirus, which has disrupted everyday life and economic activity since March.

Mr. Trump, donning a mask, visited the site hours after the White House confirmed that National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien had tested positive for the coronavirus, underscoring the reach of the pathogen while the world awaits a vaccine that can provide widespread immunity.

Mr. O’Brien, the highest-ranking member of the administration known to have tested positive, has “mild symptoms” and is working from a secure location off-site. The White House said there is no reason to believe the adviser exposed Mr. Trump or Vice President Mike Pence to the virus.

Elsewhere, at least 14 members of the Miami Marlins baseball team tested positive, forcing it to remain in Philadelphia and postpone its home opener against the Baltimore Orioles, while raising doubts about Major League’s Baseball’s relaunch.

The Phillies postponed a home game against the New York Yankees because the Marlins just used the visitors’ clubhouse.

The Minnesota Vikings, meanwhile, announced that Eric Sugarman — the football team’s head athletic trainer and infection control officer — has tested positive along with members of his family. The team said Mr. Sugarman hadn’t been in recent contact with players and no additional cases have been detected.

The high-profile cases threatened to overshadow Mr. Trump’s trip to North Carolina — a state he won by nearly 4 points in 2016 — to highlight progress on a vaccine.

Battered by claims he fumbled the virus response, Mr. Trump rattled off his administration’s push to build life-saving ventilators and replenish the federal stockpile of personal protective equipment, while distributing point-of-care testing machines to nursing homes.

But a vaccine, he said, is the ultimate prize. The administration is doling out billions to support the pharmaceutical endeavor, which would normally take several years.

“We will defeat the virus. We will have it delivered in record time,” Mr. Trump said.

The coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, in December and swiftly spread around the world, prompting onerous societal lockdowns and economic upheaval.

There have been more than 16 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. Over 650,000 have died, including more than 147,000 in the U.S.

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the coronavirus pandemic has been “easily the most severe” international health crisis the agency has ever seen — and that it continues to accelerate.

“In the past six weeks the total number of cases has roughly doubled,” he said at a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

Even places that limited the virus’s spread early on are seeing flare-ups. Hong Kong decided to limit gatherings and close in-restaurant dining after it reported 145 cases Monday, a single-day high since the start of the pandemic.

The outbreak among Marlins players highlighted Major League Baseball’s fraught attempt to stage a 60-game season in parks across the U.S., rather than a form of centralized “bubble” that other major pro team sports are using.

The Toronto Blue Jays plan to host many of their games in Buffalo, New York, after Canadian authorities barred them from holding games in their home city.

Mr. Trump vocally defended his response to the U.S. outbreak Monday, complaining that “suppression polls” and “fake news” are making him look bad ahead of his November matchup with former Vice President Joseph R. Biden.

The president often points to progress on therapeutics, which help patients survive the disease, and the number of vaccine candidates from leading drugmakers, as states grapple in the meantime with rising infections, hospitalizations and deaths and reimpose a carousel of restrictions on gatherings and bars and restaurants.

A surge in cases across the Sun Belt struck in mid-June, stressing hospital and leading to an uptick in hospitalizations and deaths. Daily coronavirus deaths in the U.S. exceeded 1,000 four times during the past week.

Deaths are considered a “lagging indicator,” however, so the tally of fatalities tends to surge a few weeks after spikes in reported infections.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the surge in cases on the front end appeared to be easing in his state.

“If you look at visits to the emergency room for COVID-like illness, they’re at the lowest levels that we’ve seen since the middle of June, here in the state of Florida. Admissions to hospitals for COVID patients is at its lowest that it’s been since June,” said Mr. DeSantis, a Republican and close ally of the White House, said during a visit from Mr. Pence. “If you look at our test positivity rate, that is slowly but definitely declining.”

Mr. Pence had flown to Miami to discuss the situation with the governor and pledge the administration’s support.

The University of Miami is one of multiple sites where researchers will be administering Moderna’s vaccine to up to 30,000 adults as part of the phase-3 human trial.

“It’s a historic day, a day when we begin in earnest to work on a vaccine,” Mr. Pence said, before thanking trial volunteers. “All of us have a role to play.”

All told, there are over 100 vaccines in development, including over 20 in human trials.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said early trials involving the messenger-RNA vaccine from NIH and Moderna — based in Cambridge, Massachusetts — indicated the shots were safe and produced an immune response.

“This scientifically rigorous, randomized, placebo-controlled trial is designed to determine if the vaccine can prevent COVID-19 and for how long such protection may last,” Dr. Fauci said.

Dr. Susanne Doblecki-Lewis, the principal investigator at the Miami site, said her team has been “amazed and humbled by the amount of volunteers who have stepped forward” to participate in the trial, during which 500 people will receive the Moderna vaccine and 500 will get a placebo.

The vaccine is administered in two injections, 28 days apart. Dr. Doblecki-Lewis said researchers will do follow-up assessments “to make sure we completely understand the efficacy of the vaccine.”

Food and Drug Commissioner Stephen Hahn said the trial will include participants from “from all walks of life.”

He expects additional vaccine candidates to enter phase-III trials within the next several weeks, though insisted that regulators “will not cut corners” in evaluating a vaccine for the COVID-19 scourge.

“We must maintain the confidence of the American people in the scientific process,” he said.

In that vein, Mr. Biden’s campaign called on the president to let scientists guide the process, release clinical data to public scrutiny and let career FDA staff — in addition to the Trump-appointed commissioner — weigh in through a written report.

“The American people’s health depends on confidence in the safety of any vaccine,” Mr. Biden said. “As we enter the height of election season, President Trump should assure us all that the White House will respect the independent authority of the [FDA] to decide, free from political pressure, if the vaccine is safe and effective.”

• Lauren Meier contributed to this report.

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