World News Updates: Italy Likely to Begin Easing Lockdown on May 4

michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.”

Today: Scientists are racing to make a vaccine against the coronavirus. Katrin Bennhold on how that race is not just about creating the vaccine, but about which country will own it.

It’s Wednesday, April 1.

katrin bennhold

So at the end of December, these scientists around the world were basically looking at this outbreak of the strange, mysterious illness in Wuhan, China. And at this time, the media, especially the Western media, isn’t really paying attention to this thing yet.

archived recording 1

— wildfire emergency in southeast Australia.

archived recording 2

— was killed in U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.

archived recording 3

— sending the articles of impeachment over to the Senate.

katrin bennhold

But scientists are already beginning to puzzle through what this could be.

It seemed like a respiratory thing. It reminded some of them of diseases like MERS or SARS and some of these other things that have come along in recent years. But at this stage, they’re just corresponding with each other on their social media, saying hey, what is this thing?

And that’s how this story begins for one doctor based in Germany.

katrin bennhold

Lidia Oostvogels.

katrin bennhold

Hi, Lidia. Bonjour c’est — I don’t know what language to speak to you, Lidia. This is Katrin.

michael barbaro

And Katrin, who is Lidia Oostvogels?

katrin bennhold

Das ist gut? English is good? Wonderful.

katrin bennhold

So Lidia works for this German company called CureVac. They work on vaccines as well as cancer treatments, and they do molecular therapies.

michael barbaro

Mhm.

katrin bennhold

And —

katrin bennhold

So let’s start at the beginning. Take me back to the moment when you first heard about this new virus. Do you remember that moment?

lidia oostvogels

Yeah, I mean, because of course all my social media, I’m connected —

katrin bennhold

At the end of her Christmas holiday, Lidia was seeing these posts, and she was wondering if this was maybe something she and her team could work on.

lidia oostvogels

And you think like, oh, what is this? What is happening there? Is that something that we could work on, could make a vaccine on and do —

katrin bennhold

But at that stage, she couldn’t because she didn’t have the genetic sequencing of this virus. And actually the same was true for scientists around the world, who were wondering the same thing. And so they were all kind of just wondering and waiting. And then on January 10, the sequencing was actually published by these Chinese scientists, who put it on a public page for basically all the world’s scientists to see.

lidia oostvogels

So I got the message like, OK, we have the sequence so we can go ahead.

katrin bennhold

This is kind of when the clock starts ticking. But it’s not a race yet.

lidia oostvogels

I mean, at that moment, it was not a pandemic. It was an outbreak in China.

katrin bennhold

At this point, they didn’t actually exactly know what they were racing against, so it was still kind of just a regular process. They draw up a presentation —

lidia oostvogels

So we were preparing these slides to present to say, OK, this is something we maybe could do, and we think it’s useful that we would do it.

katrin bennhold

She was creating the slides for this presentation, and as she started, there was literally one death. One known death in China.

lidia oostvogels

And by the time that we went to the meeting with the management, each day almost we had to update the number of case fatalities. And this was — I mean, this whole thing really I remember very well, that, OK, additional people died. What is this virus?

katrin bennhold

And that’s only two and a half months ago.

lidia oostvogels

Yeah. Yeah, that was January, yeah.

katrin bennhold

Eventually, management greenlighted the project. This is in late January. The funding came through.

lidia oostvogels

So let’s get going.

katrin bennhold

And that’s when they really got to work.

michael barbaro

And what did that work look like in the beginning? What does it mean to create, from scratch, a vaccine?

katrin bennhold

So remember, basically what you’re trying to achieve with a vaccine is you want to create something that mimics the pathogen, the virus. And you want to inject that into a healthy body, so that that healthy body can read that information, understand what the pathogen looks like and form antibodies to fight it and neutralize it.

lidia oostvogels

And, I mean, you have surely seen these pictures of the virus that everybody in the news and so on is always showing with this. I mean, it’s like this ball with these things that stick out of it.

michael barbaro

Mhm.

katrin bennhold

Basically, this cute little ball with spikes, right?

lidia oostvogels

And that’s actually the proteins that you have to neutralize with antibodies to fight the virus. And that’s what you actually ask the cells of the human body to make.

katrin bennhold

It’s the spikes, not actually the ball, that are bad.

michael barbaro

So this whole project is about coming up with a vaccine that will enter the body, prompt an immune response, and that response will somehow despike the spikes of the coronavirus.

katrin bennhold

That’s the idea. We’re now in February. And as they’re working on this —

archived recording 1

Well, over in the Philippines, the first coronavirus death outside of China on Sunday.

archived recording 2

The second death from coronavirus outside of mainland China. Hong Kong health officials saying a 39-year-old man —

archived recording 3

The potentially deadly coronavirus has turned up in a new country this morning. Belgium reported its first case.

katrin bennhold

Coronavirus is beginning to spread across the world, and CureVac puts this vaccine development ahead of any other projects.

michael barbaro

So this is now becoming a major priority within this company. This is an urgent project.

katrin bennhold

Yeah. And they’re not the only ones. You’ve got companies all over the world — in China, in the U.S., across Europe. Everybody is now looking at this as a high priority. So Lidia and her team basically are working on a number of prospective vaccines. They have these different combinations that they’re trying out.

lidia oostvogels

This one, this one, this one, this one.

katrin bennhold

And in early March, they’re beginning to actually inject them into mice to see what the effect is.

lidia oostvogels

As we always say, mice are of men. If something doesn’t work in mice, then you don’t even have to test it in men, because —

katrin bennhold

And they narrow it down.

lidia oostvogels

In the beginning, we had seven. And then we downselected to four. And then we further downselected to two.

katrin bennhold

Two sort of most promising prospective vaccines. And this is a time when the cases are spiking in Italy. The number of deaths are rising, including in Germany, where the lab is based. And they’re going up in the U.S. as well.

michael barbaro

So this is basically now in Lidia’s backyard.

katrin bennhold

It’s now in her own backyard.

lidia oostvogels

Everybody is working from morning to evening, and then having — I mean, still trying to get some sleep, because it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. We are not yet there, so we should not be exhausted now.

katrin bennhold

She’s being told by the government to work remotely. She has to sort of direct this team of lab scientists, who are still going into the lab, working carefully and trying to practice social distancing.

lidia oostvogels

It is nonstop phone calls from morning to evening, so you have to struggle to find the time to run to the kitchen to get something to eat.

katrin bennhold

It’s logistically incredibly difficult, but it’s also emotionally incredibly straining. She said every time she watches the news, it fills her with dread.

lidia oostvogels

And I see, ah, compared to yesterday, now X people have died, and X people are infected. I mean, just to tell you, I never have nightmares, but now recently, I was dreaming that I was sitting with my preclinical colleague, and then there was a flock of bats that flew over our heads. And then I woke up, and I was thinking, no, am I really dreaming about this now?

katrin bennhold

Wow.

lidia oostvogels

That I’m going to vaccinate bats, too?

katrin bennhold

So the sheer strain and the stress of this work, in the circumstances of an actual outbreak in her own country, is intense.

katrin bennhold

I mean, it must be tough. I mean, you’re living and, as you just revealed, dreaming this. I mean, I have to imagine that that comes with this sort of feeling of enormous responsibility. I mean, we’ve talked to a lot of doctors recently, who have had very vulnerable moments, broken down, crying in hospitals with a flood of patients coming in, some of whom they can’t help. I mean, is there anything like that happening with your colleagues?

lidia oostvogels

As far as I know, not. And I think the difference is that if you see a patient coming in that you know you will not be able to save because he is already so sick, and you cannot save him and you see him dying under your hands, that’s an enormous frustration. But our part of the work is to bring something to prevent that anybody ever has to live this. So that’s not the same kind of emotional pressure, I would say. I mean, we have the pressure that we have to go quick, because we have potentially something that can save this from happening. But we are building something that will give hope to the people.

michael barbaro

Katrin, you mentioned that Lidia and her team are testing potential vaccines in mice. But how soon do they expect that they would have a final vaccine ready for humans?

katrin bennhold

So the next very important step will be to actually test this thing in clinical trials, meaning injecting it into actual humans.

michael barbaro

Mhm.

katrin bennhold

And at the moment, they’re sort of hopeful that the human trials can begin in June or July. And that, Lidia says, would put them on track for developing an actual vaccine that can be used for mass consumption early next year. Which kind of sounds far away, but it’s incredibly fast. Normally, vaccines can take a decade, even 15 years to develop. So they’re really speeding up this process.

michael barbaro

And how does that timeline stack up against other companies around the world, potential rivals to Lidia?

katrin bennhold

You’ve got a lot of companies speeding things up around the world. I mean, you’ve got governments trying to remove bureaucratic hurdles and speed up approvement procedures. There’s a Chinese company that is already moving into the clinical trial phase and recruiting for human trials. They’re all moving at an incredible, unbelievable clip. Because now they are in a race against time. And CureVac, they’re considered to be among the leading eight companies to be working on this.

michael barbaro

Mhm.

katrin bennhold

Do you think it’s possible that your team could be the first to develop an actual vaccine on the market?

lidia oostvogels

That could be. That could be. I mean, that you cannot know at this moment, because I think there are other — when I see the data from other companies, I think there’s a lot of very promising approaches. But ours is also, so, yeah.

katrin bennhold

And do you think that that’s why President Trump tried to buy your company?

[music]
lidia oostvogels

Yeah, it was like, oh, where is this coming from? Yeah, this was really a surprise.

katrin bennhold

And that’s probably why President Trump approached that company and made a really unusual offer.

[music]
michael barbaro

We’ll be right back.

So, Katrin, what was this unusual offer from the Trump administration?

katrin bennhold

Yeah, it was a very unusual offer. So it started a couple weeks ago when I was home on a Sunday with my family. And I checked my social media, just sort of checking what’s going on. And this story was making the rounds about the American president having approached this German vaccine maker. So I called my editors, and we decided to look into it.

michael barbaro

And what did you find?

katrin bennhold

So we learned that one day in early March, there’s this meeting at the White House.

archived recording (donald trump)

Well, thank you very much. Today, we’re meeting with the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies — the biggest in the world, most prestigious, the ones that get down to the bottom line very quickly to discuss how the federal government can accelerate the development of vaccines and therapeutic treatments for the coronavirus.

katrin bennhold

The White House basically invites two dozen companies to a roundtable discussion about the prospects of developing a vaccine against Covid-19, the coronavirus.

archived recording (john shiver)

I’m John Shiver, I head vaccine research and development for Sanofi vaccines.

archived recording (dr. leonard schleifer)

I’m Len Schleifer, the founder and C.E.O. of Regeneron.

archived recording (stéphane bancel)

Stéphane Bancel. I’m the C.E.O. of Moderna.

katrin bennhold

And these companies were all American, all except one.

archived recording (dan menichella)

Thank you, Mr. President, Mr. Vice President. Thanks for having me here. Good afternoon. I’m Dan Menichella, C.E.O. of CureVac. We’re a clinical stage biotech company.

katrin bennhold

CureVac.

michael barbaro

So Lidia’s company.

katrin bennhold

Right.

archived recording (dan menichella)

The key point here being that we believe we can develop the vaccine for Covid-19 very, very quickly, and we have the wherewithal to manufacture it. Although we would like some additional help on our largest GMP IV facility. Again, we appreciate the opportunity to be here today, and thank you very much.

archived recording (donald trump)

Thank you. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

[music]
katrin bennhold

And we don’t know the exact sequence of events, but two weeks after this meeting —

archived recording

President Trump has been accused of trying to lure a German pharmaceutical company working on a coronavirus vaccine to the U.S.

katrin bennhold

— this German newspaper reports that Trump offered the company $1 billion to relocate to the United States.

michael barbaro

Wow.

katrin bennhold

It quotes an unnamed German government official, who said he worries that Trump wants exclusive access to a future vaccine. That he basically wants to secure access to this vaccine for Americans first.

So in Germany, you can imagine this obviously sets up a stir. And you basically have people scrambling to get the narrative right. You have American officials saying that the reports were, quote, “overblown.”

archived recording

Responding to the report, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, wrote on Twitter, “The Welt story was wrong.”

katrin bennhold

Then the company rejects the claim outright, although its majority shareholder pretty much confirms that an approach had been made. So no one really knows what exactly happened, except that the C.E.O. of the company, an American, who had run it for two years, leaves the company.

michael barbaro

Hm.

katrin bennhold

And he’s replaced by a German just a few days after that meeting.

And then, two days later, this Chinese company offers $133 million to another leading German company also working on a vaccine.

michael barbaro

And, Katrin, what is your understanding of the logic from both China and the United States? What are they trying to accomplish?

katrin bennhold

So behind this race is a pretty harsh but pretty simple reality. And it’s one that Lidia herself talked about. Any new vaccine that is effective against the coronavirus is certain to be in short supply initially.

michael barbaro

Hm.

katrin bennhold

So those who develop it first will try to ensure that their own people are first in line for it.

michael barbaro

So whoever controls the company nationally controls that early distribution of the vaccine, whether that’s Germany or China or the United States.

katrin bennhold

Exactly. And people actually remember —

archived recording (dr. margaret chan)

The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic.

katrin bennhold

— the swine flu.

archived recording

The government said today that H1N1 flu has caused more than 1,000 deaths. And has spread —

katrin bennhold

When the swine flu came along in 2009 and an Australian company was the first to bring a single-dose vaccine to market, it was obliged at the time by its own government to service the Australian market first before honoring export orders to the United States and other countries.

archived recording

Well, the World Health Organization says there is not enough swine flu vaccine for everyone.

katrin bennhold

That really rattled the United States. It kind of spurred this outrage.

archived recording (greg walden)

Well, thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for convening this important hearing. H1N1 has been dominating the news.

katrin bennhold

You had congressional hearings. Everyone wanted to know why there was this shortfall.

archived recording (greg walden)

From the folks I hear from in my district, they can’t find the vaccines. When I called the 18 hospitals in my district, each one of them asked, where’s the vaccine that we were told was coming?

katrin bennhold

And, you know, swine flu is not on the same scale as this coronavirus. So this could potentially be a lot more serious. And all of a sudden, that’s the urgency that we see unfolding. And that’s the urgency that has now led to this kind of nationalist, patriotic instinct to come out in several countries.

michael barbaro

Mhm.

katrin bennhold

You’d think, Michael, that everybody would benefit if we would just work together and made sure that this vaccine was produced and then dispersed kind of to the people who need it most first, and so on. The problem is that there is going to be a shortage. And so there is a certain amount of rationality in trying to get your hands on it first by governments who represent their own people. Even more so as we find ourselves in this historic moment where nationalism, populism have been on the rise, and where the trust level between governments are pretty low.

michael barbaro

So in that sense, the fight over this vaccine is a bit of a proxy for a larger question, right? Which is, will this become a nationalist moment — this pandemic — despite the fact that it’s also an incredibly global moment and a reminder of our connectedness?

katrin bennhold

Exactly. And it’s actually good to come back to the scientists for a moment, because the scientists have a very clear answer to all of this. They think this is about global cooperation. They think this is a global problem that needs a global solution. And even though they all work for companies that, you know, in normal times are in competition with one another, they are adamant that they want to work together. It all started, in fact, if you go back to January 10, with the publication of the genetic sequencing of this virus. That was a Chinese scientist that posted this genetic code online for every scientist in the world to see. And that’s when scientists across the world started working toward a common goal, in their view.

[music]
lidia oostvogels

I can, again, I can understand that individual governments are thinking first about their population, because that is their job. But, I mean, my job is to make a vaccine that can protect people worldwide. I mean, I’m not making a vaccine that can only protect Europeans or Americans. So my job is to get a good vaccine out.

So why would I first want to vaccinate somebody in my country, who anyway is a very low risk, versus somebody in another country who is perhaps protecting and trying to cure other people with a risk of his life? So make the decisions based on medical need and common sense and not on political agenda.

katrin bennhold

Lidia, thank you so very much. You’ve already done so much important work, and I wish you guys the best of luck. And stay healthy!

lidia oostvogels

Yeah, you, too. Stay at home, and don’t meet too many people, and stay in good shape. So that we are all ready to be vaccinated when the vaccine is ready and can go back to normal life and the normal world.

[music]
michael barbaro

On Wednesday, The Times reported that the global scientific community has overwhelmingly rejected the U.S. and Chinese government characterization of coronavirus research as a biotech arms race. Never before, those researchers say, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single scientific quest with so much urgency, exchanging information as it becomes available and launching clinical trials that rely on laboratories and hospitals from around the world.

[music]

We’ll be right back.

michael barbaro

Here’s what else you need to know today.

archived recording (donald trump)

Thank you very much, everyone.

Our country is in the midst of a great national trial, unlike any we have ever faced before.

michael barbaro

During a briefing on Tuesday from the White House, President Trump issued his most dire warning yet about the pandemic, telling Americans that it would ravage the country for the next few weeks.

archived recording (donald trump)

I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead. We’re going to go through a very tough two weeks.

michael barbaro

The president then turned over the podium to public health officials, who revealed estimates of the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus with and without attempts to keep Americans at home based on multiple academic studies.

archived recording (dr. deborah birx)

In their estimates, they had between 1.5 million and 2.2 million people in the United States succumbing to this virus without mitigation. Yet, through their detailed studies and showing us what social distancing would do, what people — what would happen if people stayed home, what would happen if people were careful every day to wash their hands and worry about touching their faces. And that takes us down to 100,000 to 200,000 deaths, which is still way too much.

There’s no magic bullet. There’s no magic vaccine or therapy. It’s just behaviors. Each of our behaviors translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic over the next 30 days. Thank you.

michael barbaro

On Tuesday, several more states and cities ordered residents to remain in their homes, including Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland.

archived recording (larry hogan)

This is a deadly public health crisis. We are no longer asking or suggesting that Marylanders stay home. We are directing them to do so.

michael barbaro

That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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