The way public life has changed in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic may feel new and frightening to many. But the older among us have lived through similar times and similar fears.
There is one thing we know that may bring solace: there will be an end to this pandemic and – if we take advantage of the most promising drug options available today – the end may come sooner than most think.
Those of us who have lived long lives can remember the intense panic that summer used to bring, as “polio season” approached. Pools were shut down, movie theatres emptied, and most of us were isolated from the majority of our friends.
Our fear was not unfounded. In 1952, nearly 60,000 children were infected with the virus and more than 3,000 died. Thousands who survived were left paralyzed by the disease.
But a year later, researchers announced a new vaccine had been successfully tested in humans. Eventually, thanks to their work and the work of many other scientists and public health leaders, the epidemic was contained.
The current coronavirus pandemic will end as well, despite how heavily it besieges us today. The only question is how. There are four possible ways:
If the coronavirus proves to be seasonal in temperate climates, meaning that new infections eventually decline on their own as the weather warms. But in this scenario, the coronavirus would return when cold weather returns – although we hope that by then our health system is better prepared to help those who fall severely ill to recover.
Through herd immunity, where a significant percentage of the population becomes infected, recovers and develops a natural immunity. The challenge is that reaching herd immunity will take a significant amount of time. While we wait, it’s possible that as many as 200,000 to 1.7 million Americans may die.
Development of a vaccine that would be made widely available. There are at least five vaccines currently in some phase of development, with one starting clinical trials just this week. That’s a promising development, but just the first phase of a lengthy process. Even in the best-case scenario, it will still be many months before a successful vaccine is available to the general public.
Accelerated development of therapeutic drugs that treat infections and, depending on the drug, prevent further infection from occurring. One option in this scenario is an antiviral drug combination that targets the RNA at the center of the coronavirus responsible for the pandemic sweeping across the world today.
In the midst of the SARS and MERS outbreaks, a number of drug candidates that target key proteins in coronaviruses underwent lengthy laboratory and preclinical study. But the drugs were never advanced to clinical trials. That’s because there was no market for them and no government was willing to step in to guarantee the market with a commitment to stockpile the drugs.
Thankfully, there is renewed interest today in these therapeutic solutions, with some antiviral drugs currently moving through clinical testing. There are also clinical studies now underway of other drugs that treat the respiratory consequences of infection but not the virus directly.
With the right leadership and opportunity on our side, we may be able to begin moving toward the end of the current pandemic. But when this happens, we shouldn’t turn away from the lessons we are learning today.
Someday there will be another lethal coronavirus epidemic. There will also be another highly lethal and transmissible strains of influenza, a global spread of antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The biological threats we face are not unknown – just like the current coronavirus outbreak was not unexpected among scientists.
This outbreak is yet another lesson from the natural world – one we have ignored in the past and ignore in the future at our peril.
If you live in an earthquake zone, you build earthquake-proof houses. If you live near a volcano, you pay close attention to the local seismometer and clear out when it goes off.
Now we are on the alert today to take actions to protect ourselves against a dangerous virus. But will we forget again tomorrow? We will we ready for the next viral epidemic or pandemic?
It is up to us to hold our leaders accountable now and in the future to step in and bring lifesaving drugs to market when others won’t or can’t.