The response to the COVID-19 pandemic will soon become the responsibility of President-elect Biden. As is clear to anyone who honestly looks, the past 10+ months of this pandemic have been a disastrous litany of mistakes, wrong actions, and misinformation.
The result has been the deaths of 240,000 Americans, economic collapse, disruption of routine healthcare, and inability of Americans to pursue their values without fear of contracting or spreading a deadly infectious disease. With the looming change in administration, many proposals will be suggested for the path forward.
Indeed, the Biden campaign published their own plan. This plan encompasses many of the actions my colleagues and I in the public health and infectious disease fields have been arguing for since January. Several of these points, I think, bear emphasis and should be aggressively pursued to help the U.S. emerge from the pandemic.
Support More and Faster Tests
When it comes to an infectious disease outbreak the most basic question that must be answered in any response is: "Who is infected and who is not?" Even today this simple question is not easy to answer because testing issues continue to plague us and there are voices who oppose more testing -- as if by not testing, the cases of COVID cease to exist. While testing is worlds better than it was in March – especially for hospital inpatients – it is still a process fraught with unnecessary bureaucracy and delays in the outpatient setting.
Just this past week, friends and colleagues have had to wait days upon days to get a result back, all the while having to self-quarantine pending the result. This not only leaves people in limbo, it discourages people from being tested, and renders contact tracing almost moot. A test that results in several days is almost useless to contact tracers as Bill Gates has forcefully argued.
We need more testing and more actionable rapid turn-around tests. These tests need to be deployed in healthcare facilities and beyond. Ideally, these tests should be made available for individuals to conduct on themselves at home. For some settings, such as at home, rapid antigen tests similar to those used to detect pregnancy will be suitable; for other settings, like at a doctor's office or a hospital, more elaborate PCR tests will still be key. These last have been compromised for several months due to rationing of the reagent supplies necessary to perform the test – an unacceptable state of affairs that cannot continue. Reflecting an understanding of the state of play of testing, the President-elect recently stated: "We need to increase both lab-based diagnostic testing, with results back within 24 hours or less, and faster, cheaper screening tests that you can take right at home or in school."
Roll Out Safe and Effective Vaccine(s)
Biden's plan also identifies the need to "accelerate the development of treatments and vaccines" and indeed Operation Warp Speed has been one solitary bright spot in the darkness of the failed pandemic response. It is this program that facilitated a distribution partnership with Pfizer for 100 million doses of its mRNA vaccine -- whose preliminary, and extremely positive data, was just announced today to great excitement.
Operation Warp Speed needs to be continued so that we can ensure the final development and distribution of the first-generation vaccines and treatments. When a vaccine is available, it will be a Herculean task that will span many months to actually get into the arms (twice as a 2-dose vaccine) of Americans. Vaccination may begin for healthcare workers before a change in administration, but it will continue long into 2021 and possibly longer. Vaccine distribution will be a task that demands a high degree of competence and coordination, especially with the extreme cold storage conditions needed for the vaccines.
Anticipate the Next Pandemic Now
Not only should Operation Warp Speed be supported, it needs to be expanded. For too long pandemic preparedness has been reactive and it is long past time to approach the development of medical countermeasures for pandemic threats in a proactive fashion.
What we do for other national security threats should be the paradigm for infectious disease threats that too often are subject to a mind-boggling cycle of panic and neglect. There are an estimated 200 outbreaks of viral diseases per year. Luckily and because of hard work, for many of them we have tools at our hands to control them, but for the unknown 201st virus outbreak we do not –as we've seen this year. And, the next unknown virus will likely appear soon. A new program must be constructed guaranteeing that we will never again be caught blindsided and flatfooted as we have been with the COVID-19 pandemic.
A new dedicated "Virus 201" strategy, program, and funding must be created to achieve this goal. This initiative should be a specific program focused on unknown threats that emanate from identified classes of pathogens that possess certain pandemic-causing characteristics. For example, such a program could leverage new powerful vaccine platform technologies to begin development on vaccine candidates for a variety of viral families before they emerge as full-fledged threats. Imagine how different our world would be today if this action was taken after SARS in 2003 or even MERS in 2012.
Biden should remove the handcuffs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and allow its experts to coordinate the national response and to issue guidance in the manner they were constituted to do without fear of political reprisal.
One of the most disheartening aspects of the pandemic has been the denigration and outright attacks on experts in infectious disease. Such disgusting attacks were not for any flaws, incompetence, or weakness but for their opposite -- strength and competence – and emanated from a desire to evade the grim reality. Such nihilism must end and indeed the Biden plan contains several crucial remedies, including the restoration of the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, a crucial body of experts at the White House that the Trump administration bafflingly eliminated in 2018.
Additionally, Biden should remove the handcuffs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and allow its experts to coordinate the national response and to issue guidance in the manner they were constituted to do without fear of political reprisal.
Shore Up Hospital Capacity
For the foreseeable future, as control of the virus slips away in certain parts of the country, hospital capacity will be the paramount concern. Unlike many other industries, the healthcare sector is severely constrained in its ability to expand capacity because of regulatory and financial considerations. Hospital emergency preparedness has never been prioritized and until we can substantially curtail the spread of this virus, hospitals must remain vigilant.
We have seen how suspensions of "elective" procedures led to alarming declines in vital healthcare services that range from childhood immunization to cancer chemotherapy to psychiatric care. This cannot be allowed to happen again. Hospitals will need support in terms of staffing, alternative care sites, and personal protective equipment. Reflecting these concerns, the Biden plan outlines an approach that smartly uses the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs assets and medical reserve corps, coupled to the now-flourishing telemedicine innovations, to augment capacity and forestall the need for hospitals to shift to crisis standards of care.
To these five tasks, I would add a long list of subtasks that need to be executed by agencies such as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the Food and Drug Administration, and many other arms of government. But, to me, these are the most crucial.
As COVID-19 has demonstrated, new deadly viruses can spread quickly and easily around the globe, causing significant loss of life and economic ruin. With nearly 200 epidemics occurring each year, the next fast-moving, novel infectious disease pandemic could be right around the corner.
The upcoming transition affords the opportunity to implement a new paradigm in pandemic response, biosecurity, and emerging disease response. The United States and President-elect Biden must work hard to to end this pandemic and increase the resilience of the United States to the future infectious disease threats we will surely face.