’Today is a tribute to American ingenuity:’ Vice President visits Florida ahead of COVID-19 clinical trial

Vice President Mike Pence hosted coronavirus roundtable

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Underscoring the importance of Florida in the upcoming election, Vice President Mike Pence visited the University of Miami on Monday to announce the school is participating in a clinical trial to test the effectiveness of a coronavirus vaccine.

University of Miami researchers are enrolling 1,000 people in the next round of clinical trials that are hoped to lead to a vaccine that can be provided to Americans later this year or early next year. The university is one of 89 sites across the country participating in trials of a vaccine co-developed by Massachusetts-based company Moderna and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. About 30,000 people are expected to participate in the clinical trials in the coming months.

“Today is a day of hope, today is a day of promise, today is a tribute to American ingenuity,” Pence told reporters.

Pence’s visit to the university’s Miller School of Medicine with Gov. Ron DeSantis marked the third time the vice president has come to the state during the past month. President Donald Trump is widely believed to need to win in Florida as part of his reelection campaign. The vice president’s visits also have come as DeSantis has seen his poll numbers drop as numbers of coronavirus cases have surged.

Florida this weekend overtook New York as the state with the second-highest number of cases. While Florida’s number of fatalities is far lower than New York, nearly 6,000 residents have died. Miami-Dade County has been one of the epicenters of the virus in the state.

Pence and DeSantis contended in their remarks Monday that Florida’s surge had peaked, and cases were beginning to stabilize. Pence said he knew it had been a “challenging time” in the state but said “we are encouraged, Governor, by the favorable trends here in Florida.”

Susanne Doblecki-Lewis, the principal investigator for the Miller School of Medicine, said half of the 1,000 people who will be included in the clinical trial will be given the vaccine and the other half will be given a placebo. The vaccine is given in two doses 28 days apart. She said the university will track people who received the vaccine for two years following administration of the second dose to determine whether the vaccine works.

“Here at the University of Miami we are very aware of the need to shape our enrollment (in the clinical trial) to reflect our strength, which is the diversity of our population here, and particularly the diversity of the people who are at high risk for COVID-19. We take that mandate very seriously,” Doblecki-Lewis said.

Pence repeatedly noted at a press event that federal authorities had ramped up the normal time it takes to develop a vaccine, in part by assisting financially. However, Pence and Stephen Hahn, a physician and commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said that an expedited time frame wouldn’t result in an untested, unsafe vaccine. Hahn said only scientists would “call the balls and strikes” related to vaccine development.

“FDA scientists in our Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research will not cut corners. Let me just stress that --- will not cut corners in order to evaluate a vaccine,” Hahn said.

Even though Pence’s visit was focused on COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, the optics of the trip became political fodder for Republicans and Democrats. Democrats blasted Pence’s visit and continued to hammer DeSantis for pushing to reopen brick-and-mortar schools. They also faulted him for reopening the state’s economy too soon.

“The vice president’s visit is just a mere distraction, trying to highlight what they think is a Hail Mary approach to dealing with this crisis by finding a vaccine instead of doing the hard work and taking care of the basics that are absolutely essential to get this pandemic under control,” state Rep. Javier Fernandez, D-South Miami, said.

Trump’s re-election campaign, meanwhile, assailed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and other Democrats.

“Joe Biden continues to put politics first, and would rather hold our economy hostage in a last-ditch effort to win in November,” campaign spokeswoman Emma Vaughn said in a prepared statement. “Floridians will remember who put their safety and livelihoods first, which is why they will vote to re-elect Republicans up and down the ballot.”