Nature is teaching us a heavy lesson with this latest coronavirus outbreak. It warned us first with SARS and then with MERS, but we didn’t heed the warnings. If we willfully ignore nature this third time, our global community risks paying an unimaginable price.
In 2003, when SARS was first reported, the origins of the virus were a mystery. Scientists suspected it may have come from bats, but it wasn’t until 2012, when the second major coronavirus outbreak was spreading across borders, that researchers confirmed its provenance. At the time of their discovery, they warned us of the outbreak potential of coronaviruses, urging the global community “to learn from our past to help us prepare.”
But we didn’t pay attention. In the wake of the previous outbreaks, we scrambled to find a vaccine to prevent SARS and MERS specifically. But the coronavirus, much like the flu, is constantly evolving. In the same way that a flu vaccine doesn’t work across multiple strains over multiple years, a vaccine for one coronavirus outbreak is unlikely to help us stop a new one.
What was needed then and what is needed now is not just a new vaccine, but a drug — or more likely a combination of drugs — that can act against the family of coronaviruses.
Since the SARS and MERS outbreaks, scientists have decried the lack of interest and funding for the study of coronaviruses as whole. While financing was available in the midst of the outbreaks, it petered out after each outbreak ended. Funding from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for example, leveled off at around $27 million a year — peanuts in the world of drug development.
The biopharmaceutical industry could have stepped in, but, so far, it has been loath to act. The intermittent nature of the outbreaks and the relatively small market for an anti-coronavirus drug means pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to pursue a solution.
With scientists and researchers shackled by a lack of funds, and biopharmaceutical companies unwilling to step in without potential for profit, the government is the only one with the agency to act.
There are concrete actions our government can take today to drive progress against the current coronavirus epidemic and to prevent future epidemics from occurring — a near certainty now according to scientists and researchers.
The first step toward a solution is to list the coronavirus under the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) and its Project BioShield. BARDA presides over the discovery, development and stockpiling of medical countermeasures to protect Americans against health security threats. This includes not just biological agents of warfare, but new and emerging infectious diseases — such as the coronavirus.
BARDA bypasses the laws of supply and demand by allowing the federal government to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into procuring and advancing promising products. Listing the coronavirus as an emerging biothreat will create a market for an anti-coronavirus drug that doesn’t currently exist.
In the wake of the 2001 anthrax attacks, I worked through Project BioShield to develop ABthrax, a drug to treat and prevent anthrax infections. I can say with confidence that the U.S. government is fully capable of acting swiftly in the face of a public-health crisis.
But it must choose to act now. To date, we have been lucky — insofar as one can use that term when lives are on the line — as none of the coronaviruses that have jumped to humans have been both highly transmissible and highly lethal.
There will come a time though when a coronavirus outbreak will spread quickly and kill abundantly. When that happens, we will not be talking about deaths in the hundreds or thousands, but in numbers far greater. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that our government leverages the rapid response capabilities at its disposal to protect the health of our nation, now and for generations to come.