Opinion

The Coronavirus Is No Match for Science, But We Must Finish the Job

By Jim Greenwood
March 4, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

More than 90,000 individuals across the globe have now been infected by the novel coronavirus as of Tuesday — and that number continues to climb. 

While this global health emergency is alarming, a strong public health response combined with smart science and innovative thinking can help us win this fight. The question is whether we will learn important lessons from today’s crisis to ensure we are better prepared for future ones.

Since the coronavirus was first detected, America’s biopharmaceutical industry has stepped forward to develop vaccines and antiviral therapies to contain this quickly spreading illness. Dedicated scientists and researchers from more than a dozen companies have begun or accelerated development of vaccines and antiviral therapies.

Numerous antiviral drugs, such as HIV medicines, have entered clinical trials to test whether they can be used safely and effectively against the virus. And, work previously done on medical countermeasures against other coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS, is being tested as potential treatments.

One leading biopharmaceutical company is working with Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to develop a vaccine using a platform designed to make a licensed influenza vaccine.

A biotech innovator — in partnership with the National Institutes of Health and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations – is developing a potential vaccine using mRNA technology with hopes to begin human tests of the product in development in the coming months.

Containing an outbreak such as the coronavirus requires an all-hands-on-deck effort. Larger pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson and Johnson, AbbVie and Gilead, as well as smaller biotechs like Inovio, Moderna, and Novavax, are working closely with U.S. government agencies to identify and develop medical treatments to counter this deadly virus.

The science is galloping forward, and collaboration between the public and private sectors is vital to translating this science into solutions to combat the coronavirus. That’s why BIO is leading an initiative that will connect innovators with partners across both the industry and inside the federal government.

The effort will share information and best practices, as well as leverage the expertise of leaders with experience responding to past public health emergencies. It will include researchers and executives from our member companies, and it will be overseen by Dr. George Scangos, chief executive officer of Vir Biotechnology, who has unique perspectives serving in leadership roles at both large and small biopharmaceutical companies.

As work to address the coronavirus continues, we need to finish the job in a way that ensures we’re ready for future threats. While biopharmaceutical companies and the government do everything possible to speed the development of vaccines and therapies for coronavirus, the reality is that drug discovery is a costly process that often takes many years.

We are now experiencing the seventh major emerging disease outbreak in the past decade. The current flu season has already claimed an estimated 10,000 lives.

Meanwhile, many known and unknown chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear hazards still threaten our nation and our warfighters. It’s only a matter of when — not if — the next public health emergency will strike, which is why we must bolster our nation’s preparedness efforts.

Public-health professionals have warned for years about outbreaks like this one with the potential for global spread, the loss of many lives and widespread economic consequences. Despite these dire warnings, we continue to lurch from one crisis to the next.

As a threat subsides, we let down our guard and move on to the next emergency without completing the work we started or learning all of the lessons we can from the previous one. Precious time, knowledge and resources are wasted, which means we are not as prepared as we should be for when the next global health crisis hits. The truth is, had we finished projects on our SARS and MERS response, we might have products available today that could be rapidly tested and deployed during this outbreak.

As we witnessed recently with Ebola, it took a second outbreak to ultimately approve an effective vaccine. That’s because we didn’t finish the job the first time, in part because there is no viable commercial market for such products, which typically cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop. To ensure we are better prepared for the next unknown public health emergency, three vital steps are needed.

For starters, Congress needs to appropriately fund BARDA for the long haul. BARDA provides support for the development of new medical countermeasures that help address specific national health security issues. Providing this important agency the appropriate resources every year will help vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics being developed for both known and unknown threats move from clinical trials to approval.

Policymakers must also provide more robust assistance for key programs like the Project BioShield special reserve fund, the Strategic National Stockpile and pandemic influenza. Protection against infectious diseases requires constant vigilance, and these federal initiatives provide the research and development baseline from which we can scale up when a health emergency strikes.

Finally, it is absolutely critical to ensure that resources to develop medical countermeasures for emerging infectious diseases, pandemics and health security emergencies are not repurposed when the next catastrophe arises. Finishing the job with a steady commitment for these life-saving efforts will leave us better positioned in future pandemics.

The coronavirus is no match for science or the brilliant scientists and researchers working at America’s biopharmaceutical companies, both large and small. Let’s work with Congress to ensure our scientific ecosystem has the tools and resources available to finish this fight and ensure we are better prepared for the next one.

 

Jim Greenwood, a former six-term member of Congress from Bucks County, Pa., is the CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, the world’s largest biotechnology trade association.

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