By: Becki Gray
Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic include the importance of keeping money in savings to cushion an economic shutdown. Accurate and transparent data, we’ve learned, is critical. Restrictions to freedom must be temporary.
Emergency calls for innovation, whether that’s receiving health care through telemedicine, learning and working online, or expanding opportunities by lifting long–held restrictions. By making strong fiscal principles work within a tight budget, North Carolinians have responded to uncharted challenges in unprecedented ways. We’ve learned that, in many cases, the way we did things is no longer the way we should do things. Through innovation, we can do better today and be better prepared for tomorrow.
Gov. Roy Cooper issued his statewide stay-at-home order March 23. Cooper said it was necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19. Almost three months later, North Carolinians are still living under restrictions, many businesses still aren’t open, and we’re still living under the threat of the coronavirus. Data shows we flattened the curve.
We’ve slowed the spread, but there’s still no vaccine or proven treatments. The economy is decimated, mental health issues and depression have escalated, domestic violence is on the rise, and health screenings and preventive treatments are delayed.
We can’t get past the pandemic until there’s a vaccine and effective medications to treat the virus. The economy continues to sputter along, and people are living in fear and anxiety. Pre-pandemic regulations pose barriers and uncertainty, and complex approval processes slow progress. Innovation and market forces are needed now.
We need to develop new drugs to combat illness and improve health, but we also must have assurances these drugs are safe and that we’re protected from any damage they might cause. The global pandemic calls for removing barriers to quickly find that balance.
A new area of biomedical research can take 30 to 35 years to mature and produce new medicines. If scientists, investors, and businesses can better coordinate their efforts, the time to get lifesaving medications to market could be considerably shorter. A vaccine typically takes 10 years to develop. Trials begin with animals, then with small select groups of humans, and finally to larger, more expansive groups, all carefully monitored along the way. Government review takes at least two years.
The pandemic, which led to the complete shutdown of the economy, called for quicker action. Fighting the virus head–on meant government, scientists, and drug companies had to act rapidly to find medications to treat symptoms and a vaccine to prevent the spread.
Pharmaceutical companies are racing for answers. None of the research and development of these drugs would be possible without the private market looking for innovative solutions and providing necessary investments. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has granted emergency authorizations so pharmaceutical companies can get critical products to market. Abbot Labs got a rapid nasal–swab test out quickly, and Cellex developed a blood test for antibodies. Pfizer has four vaccines in trial, and biotech company Moderna has a promising vaccine in early human trials, all in a matter of months as opposed to years. Private drug companies are entering into agreements and setting up manufacturing so that, when a proven vaccine is available, they can quickly bring to market millions of doses.
A National Institute of Health grant is spurring research and development at the Gilling School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel. That research centers on a pill, EIDD-2801, to treat lung damage associated with the coronavirus. UNC scientists are working on anti-viral drugs, a vaccine, and antibody treatments.
With innovation from private companies, scientific and academic research, philanthropic support and private investments, a vaccine could soon be available. Testing, too, is more accurate and widespread. Medicine will be readily available.
Researchers believe a vaccine would require two doses for full immunity, and maybe a booster a year or two later. North Carolina, like most states, has a registry that keeps records of immunizations. The N.C. Immunization Registry tracks all recorded immunizations, with access limited to medical providers. Tracking the success of newly developed treatments will help refine treatments and further development of new medicine.
As we struggle to find ways to live with the virus, allowing the economy to slowly pick back up, social distancing and wearing masks in public are is key. Scientists, pharmaceutical and drug companies, philanthropists, and investors are racing to find a shield against the constant threat of COVID-19.
The need for innovation extends beyond the immediate crisis. Current data suggest racial and ethnic and minority groups are more adversely affected; addressing the underlying health issues of vulnerable populations means more innovation in the care for diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
Screenings for cancers, dental treatments, and other elective health concerns were put on hold, yet these diseases aren’t going away. Experts say an estimated 2 million people will be diagnosed with cancer in 2020. Breakthroughs in cancer treatments using innovative therapies, such as immunology drugs, have helped reduce the cancer mortality rate in the U.S. since 1991 by almost 30%.
Free markets drive innovation. We’ve learned from the pandemic that, in drug manufacturing, that innovation can make the difference between life and death.
Becki Gray is senior vice president of the John Locke Foundation.