This past December, a coronavirus outbreak emerged in China that has since spread to more than 60 countries including South Korea, Japan, Italy, Iran, France and the United States, infecting more than 800,000 people worldwide (160,000 in the United States while claiming the lives of more than 3,000 individuals).
Much like SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which originated in China during the early 2000s, this viral respiratory illness spreads via person-to-person transmissions.
The public health community, particularly at the state level and at medical centers, has supplied the public and the medical community with important information regarding safety, self-quarantine, who is at risk, and what public measures need to be taken. In the absence of federal interest, states have even started their own testing protocols.
Mass testing is essential for learning about the spread, infection rate and morbidity/mortality of COVID-19, as the disease spread by this virus is now called. Massive testing is also required if we are ever going to end this pandemic in a timely way.
I am confident that a vaccine will be developed as a result of the strength of American innovation and our biopharmaceutical industry. They have risen to the occasion with collaboration with the NIH and the university community before. Both the extraordinary success of reducing HIV transmission and more recently Merck’s coming to market with the Ebola vaccine are examples of this.
The recent announcements about vaccines may be cause for relief. They should not be. Whatever vaccine discovery may occur will require at least 12 months of testing for two reasons.
The first is that extensive testing is needed to prove a vaccine works. The second, from a safety point of view, is to prove that the vaccine does not kill or injure people.
As we await the invention, development and marketing of a vaccine, we will have to focus intensely on prevention of spread in order to avoid overloading our health system as well as to save lives. Follow the advice of the public health community about exposure and about self care.
Call your congressional representative and demand testing be expanded dramatically. Right now we’re flying blind on other countries data.
Finally, in this political year, I’d like to suggest an unpopular idea. I am the first to say that insulin prices should come down, intermediaries such as Pharmacy Benefit Manufacturers and insurance companies should not be running up the prices of drugs, and out-of-pocket costs and drug prices themselves need to be reassessed.
I would like to also say that I’m damn glad we have the best and most innovative pharmaceutical and bio-pharmaceutical industries in the world. As we try to figure out how to make drugs more affordable, let’s also think about how to maintain the incredible innovative capacity that has saved people on every continent from truly horrible deaths.
The Gates Foundation, which has probably done more research and fieldwork to fight malaria than any group in the world, could not do so without the innovative capacity in the American pharmaceutical industry. Yes, there are bad actors. Yes, Americans’ out-of-pocket costs are restricting their access to some of these incredible discoveries.
As we fix these problems, and rein in costs, let’s do so in a way that preserves the remarkable innovation which ultimately will end the COVID-19 crisis, as it did the AIDS crisis decades ago.