- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2020

Drugmakers are racing to land a vaccine or treatment for the new coronavirus, but the science takes time, meaning Americans are left with an onslaught of canceled parades, suspended sports leagues and school closures while they wait for next season’s cures.

The U.S. official in charge of infectious diseases told Congress that, within a few weeks, he may be able to announce that someone has received the first trial shot for the virus that popped up in China in December and has caused worldwide havoc.

That’s good news.

However, “that doesn’t mean we have a vaccine that we can use,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the House Oversight Committee on Thursday.

“It’s record time to get [the vaccine] tested. It’s going to take a year to a year and a half to really know if it works,” he said.

Likewise, the top scientists are figuring out whether any existing drugs work against the illness known as COVID-19. An anti-viral drug known as remdesivir shows promise and is being used in emergencies in hard-hit Washington state, though the results of clinical trials at home and abroad won’t be clear until April.

The upshot is that Americans face an outbreak without a pharmaceutical solution. Instead, government and business leaders are scrambling to increase testing, root out cases and disrupt chains of transmission by scrapping large gatherings and sports events, while asking churches and universities to move their operations online.

“We need something for today, which is social distancing, and for next year, which is a vaccine,” said Gerard Anderson, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The U.S. had recorded more than 1,300 cases and nearly 40 deaths as of late Thursday, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.

Tours of the Capitol and White House in Washington have been suspended, while New York postponed its famous St. Patrick’s Day parade for the first time in more than 250 years.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also instituted a mile-wide containment zone Thursday surrounding a hard-hit synagogue in the New York City suburb of New Rochelle. Large gatherings are banned, and the National Guard is cleaning public areas.

Mr. Trump said he’s open to the idea of restricting travel to parts of Washington state and California, which are seeing local transmission.

“We haven’t discussed that yet. Is it a possibility? Yes. If somebody gets a little bit out of control, if an area gets too hot,” he said.

Mr. Trump late Wednesday decided to ban foreign nationals in dozens of European nations from traveling to the U.S. for 30 days, starting Friday. He cited the rapid spread of the virus abroad and fears that travelers were bringing cases despite his previous efforts to block cases from east Asia.

Italy remains in lockdown, ordering its 60 million residents to avoid travel except for work, emergencies or food supplies.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on her nation to rally to the fight, estimating that up to 70% of the German population could be infected because the virus is new and there is no treatment or vaccine.

Barry R. Bloom, a professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, said without those two tools, there is only a pair of things the U.S. can do: “testing, testing, testing — and rolling out social distancing interventions in a thoughtful manner, reducing unnecessary large aggregations of people, including events, concerts and entertainment, worship services.”

Dr. Fauci on Thursday acknowledged the U.S. is far behind on that first item — testing.

“The system is not really geared to what we need right now,” Dr. Fauci told House lawmakers. “That is a failing. It is a failing, let’s admit it.”

Dr. Fauci offered blunt testimony as members of Congress fume over the lack of testing at hospitals and nursing homes back home, saying it’s held back the domestic response while such nations as South Korea are offering drive-in service.

“The idea of anybody getting it, easily, the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that,” Dr. Fauci said. “Do I think we should be? Yes, but we’re not.”

Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he would like to see coronavirus testing used for broad “health surveillance” to get a clearer picture of how the virus is spreading.

Dr. Fauci agreed, saying the CDC is conducting COVID-19 surveillance tests in six cities in the U.S. with hopes to expand further in the coming months.

Under surveillance testing, the CDC allows anyone who walks into a clinic or hospital to be tested for the virus, but Dr. Fauci said the U.S. is unable to administer this practice universally at this point.

“The system right now, as it exists, of [having] a much broader capability of determining what the penetrance [of the virus] is in society right now, is not operational for us. … We hope to get there reasonably soon, but we are not there now,” Dr. Fauci said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said the lack of capacity is scrambling the ability to contain the virus effectively.

“If they had the tests, they’d know who had the virus. They could quarantine at home, and others could go out and about with their lives, and shop in the stores, go down the streets and go through their normal activities,” the New York Democrat, said. “The lack of testing has forced many in containment areas to quarantine themselves when they may not have the virus at all.”

Administration officials have assured the public that millions of test kits are being sent out to public health labs around the country, after early stutter steps in manufacturing and accuracy. They’ve tapped the private sector to significantly ramp up production.

Democrats are worried that patients won’t be able to afford a test once it is available.

Rep. Katie Porter, California Democrat, prodded officials into an impromptu game of “Price is Right,” telling them to guess the cost of testing and related services. She then used extensive questioning to force Dr. Redfield to commit to making sure the COVID-19 test is affordable while the crisis persists, citing CDC authority to do so.

She seized on the concession, declaring. “Excellent, everybody in America hear that? You are eligible to go get tested for coronavirus and have that covered regardless of insurance.”

Mr. Trump continued to strike an optimistic tone from the White House, saying “the testing has been going very smoothly.”

“If you go to the right agency, if you go to the right area, you get the test,” he said during a meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

Mr. Varadkar praised America’s ability to lead the way on a long-term solution, as countries around the world struggle to stamp out a virus that’s sickened over 127,000 people and killed more than 4,000.

“You’ve got great scientists, great companies, great universities, and we need them working on treatments, working on tests, and working on a vaccine because that’s — that’s what will get us on top of this,” Mr. Varadkar said.

“Right. And we’re making great progress there, I will say,” Mr. Trump said.

On a potential vaccine, Dr. Fauci said it was relatively easy to grab sequencing information from China and develop a trial shot.

“We knew the gene that would code for the protein we wanted to make our vaccine,” Dr. Fauci told Congress. “All we did was pull the information right out of the database. We made it synthesized it very easily overnight, stuck it into our platform and started making it.”

“That doesn’t mean that we have a vaccine we can use,” the doctor warned, saying it’s important not to hurt healthy people by giving them unvetted vaccines.

Drug therapies, by contrast, are given to people who are already sick.

The most promising drug, remdesivir, is made by Gilead Inc.

CEO Daniel O’Day told Mr. Trump on March 2 that it expected information from clinical trials in China by April, noting its product has been wielded against other coronaviruses.

“The same family as SARS and MERS, and we’re hoping it has the effect now against COVID-19,” Mr. O’Day said. “So we know, in vitro, that is has a very high effect.”

University of Richmond biology professor Eugene Wu said the drug does show “strong potential” as an antiviral amid the outbreak, though conditions for stress-testing it could be better.

“Scientists at Gilead do not yet know if remdesivir is safe for widespread human use,” he said, “and the middle of a large outbreak of a potentially lethal infection is not the ideal time to perform a carefully controlled clinical trial.”

Madison Hirneisen contributed to this report.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide