Imagine that we were invaded by aliens. That’s easy, because we actually have been by this bizarre virus delivered to us by bats.
Remember how we survive an alien attack in the movies? The whole world pulls together as one and turns to the scientists to save us. I’m a scientist myself, at Johns Hopkins University, and my colleagues and I have made some significant contributions to understanding cancer. Now we’ve been focusing much of our effort on COVID-19, as in the U.S. alone, at least 200,000 people are likely to die by the fall.
Certainly, social distancing can check the disease, but it won’t kill it; ultimately scientists have to do that. But we are failing in the United States because our government isn’t listening to the scientists who are trying to get us what we really need: a vaccine to prevent us from getting COVID-19 and better treatments for those who do.
Rick Bright at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, the government agency with hundreds of millions of dollars to accelerate promising therapy, was fired after opposing using that money to produce hydroxychloroquine when there was no randomized clinical trial support for its use; now the FDA has revoked the drug’s emergency use authorization.
The office overseeing BARDA is also under investigation by its inspector general for possible conflicts of interest in awarding contracts.
Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s national program to accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics, which will pick likely vaccine “winners” before the results are in, has already chosen five vaccines without performing the comparative studies of the much larger number originally planned. One of the selected winners, Moderna, is the subject of improper trading allegations involving U.S. senators, and its executives made millions of dollars on their stocks after non-peer reviewed reports of potential efficacy raised the share value. Those studies were criticized by scientists shortly thereafter. Their executives continued to sell stock, and their phase 3, or definitive, trial has been delayed. The federal rush to develop vaccines has also put potentially effective alternative new treatment therapies on the back burner.
A vaccine has to be selected objectively by scientists based on data. And what if a foreign vaccine is better, like the one produced by a Chinese company with peer-reviewed supporting data? Why would the WHO or China provide us a vaccine if we are withdrawing from the former and attacking the latter?
But what about better medicines? For that, we need to understand the alien threat, and that can only come from research laboratories like mine and those of my colleagues. As an example, we know that age, male sex, diabetes, heart disease and minority status increase the risk of dying from COVID-19, but we don’t know why, and my laboratory is working on that, to design new medicines, and to know whom to treat early, when less specific medicines like remdesivir or convalescent sera work better. Other Hopkins scientists are studying healthy people who are infected but don’t get sick, to find out why and apply that knowledge to the rest of us. Unfortunately, only $3.6 billion has been appropriated by Congress for this type of work, not nearly enough for a once in a century threat like COVID-19. Research institutions have requested $26 billion in emergency appropriations to fight the COVID invasion without losing our ability to fight the diseases we already had.
This shouldn’t be a hard sale in Congress, where the average age is about 60 and over three quarters of members are men, many of whom have other health risk factors putting them at extremely high risk of dying if they get sick. But for some reason, politics is prevailing over self-preservation.
Orson Welles produced the first alien invasion blockbuster with his radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds.” Remember how it ended? The aliens died by catching a disease on Earth. If we don’t pull together and ignore politics and listen to the scientists, then the ultimate fate of Welles’ aliens will be our own.
Andrew Feinberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Epigenetics at Johns Hopkins University Schools of Medicine, Public Health and Engineering.