As Coronavirus Spreads, Private Sector Offers Hope—And Treatments
Optimism is in short supply as the coronavirus pandemic grows deadlier by the day. COVID-19 has taken thousands of lives around the world and upended nearly every aspect of daily life.
But there is at least one bright spot in this global public health emergency. That’s the astounding speed with which private firms have begun tackling the problem. While federal regulators have exacerbated the crisis at seemingly every turn, private firms have rolled out promising new therapies and technologies that could help mitigate the pandemic—and save lives.
The stats are grim. In less than three months, the virus has surged from Wuhan, China, to infect more than 430,000 people across 168 countries worldwide, according to official counts as of the morning of March 25. Many more people may have the virus and not know it. More than 18,000 people have died.
Here in the United States, the first coronavirus case appeared north of Seattle on January 21. Just over two months later, more than 53,000 cases—and 728 deaths—have been reported.
The federal government’s efforts to combat the pandemic have been—less than stellar. Early test kits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were flawed and unusable. Federal regulators initially refused to use tests from the World Health Organization and other foreign countries. And the Food and Drug Administration has been slow—slow to review and approve new tests developed by private labs, slow to relax regulations on the production of new ventilators, and downright hostile to potential at-home tests for COVID-19.
Private firms, by contrast, have provided a rare source of hope in the midst of the pandemic.
Just last week, Massachusetts-based biotech firm Moderna launched clinical trials for the first-ever COVID-19 vaccine. The company managed to identify the trial compound in just 42 days. Other firms—including Inovio, Sanofi, Vaxart, GlaxoSmithKline, and Johnson & Johnson—are also working on potential vaccines.
Other firms are testing potential treatments. Gilead Sciences is investigating whether remdesivir, an antiviral that has previously shown promise against SARS and MERS, could be effective against the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Regeneron is conducting trials to see if its arthritis treatment kevzara can fight COVID-19. Abbvie, another biopharmaceutical firm, is doing the same with its HIV drug Kaletra.
Similar progress is finally happening in the testing market. Last week, two separate commercial COVID-19 tests won approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
Several companies are trying to offer at-home testing for the novel coronavirus. For example, Austin, Texas-based Everlywell is already producing at-home test kits for COVID-19. ScanWell Health, a Los Angeles firm, has promised a direct-to-consumer test kit that takes only 15 minutes to deliver results.
The FDA has made clear that it hasn’t approved any at-home coronavirus tests. They’d be wise to figure out how to do so.
It isn’t just bioscience firms snapping into action. Google recently launched a website with authoritative information about the virus. Amazon will soon provide at-home testing to Seattle residents, with funding from Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Philanthropic groups backed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are also working to boost testing in the San Francisco Bay Area.
At the same time, American automakers have offered to use their facilities to make the ventilators that are crucial to treating COVID-19.
All of this is a testament to the vitality of America’s market-based economic system. Such breakneck innovation and adaptability is a regular occurrence in a dynamic market economy. And as we’re finding out on a seemingly daily basis, government bureaucracies serve as a brake on such innovation.
The breakthroughs coming from the private sector are our best hope for overcoming not just the global health emergency created by COVID-19 but the economic crisis the pandemic has unleashed. It’s reasonable to assume that, once effective treatments and vaccines are available, a return to normalcy won’t be far behind, and our economy will once again open for business.
Even as the number of COVID-19 cases ticks up around the world, the dynamism and ingenuity of the private sector’s response offers some much-needed hope that America—and humanity—will soon end this pandemic.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All, Encounter Books, January 2020. Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes.