One doctor's thoughts on a hopeful future
Washington, August 21, 2020
Originally published in The Hill.
Before the polio vaccine was developed in the 1950s, Americans across the country feared the effects of the crippling and often-deadly disease. No one was immune. Thousands of children, adults, and even an American president suffered from the impacts of polio. When an effective vaccine was developed, in part by my hometown of Cincinnati's own Albert Sabin, it was heralded as one of humanity's greatest achievements. At the time, the major funding for vaccine development also spurred the creation of research labs in major universities around the country, laying the foundation for America’s global leadership in science.
Today, our nation faces a very different battle in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the globe. Yet, I believe the same tools that have fueled America's competitive engine and enabled historic scientific breakthroughs in the past will empower us to overcome the challenges we face today. These tools include medical research, private and public collaboration, and American ingenuity.
We can see this in action today. From a medical standpoint, what researchers, scientists, and doctors have been able to accomplish through Operation Warp Speed in record time is nothing short of remarkable. Typical vaccine development takes 10-15 years, with each step occurring sequentially. The federal government has mobilized an expansive partnership between the private and public sectors and the scientific community to simultaneously accelerate the process for COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.
Already, Operation Warp Speed is yielding promising early results: dozens of potential vaccines are in clinical development testing and, as of early August, at least three promising vaccine candidates have begun Phase III trials – the last stage of clinical trials before FDA grants approval. These potential vaccines will be tested on thousands of volunteers for effectiveness and safety. While there are no guarantees of success with trials, if Phase III trials are successful, we could be only months away from a safe, effective vaccine.
Additionally, there have been major investments in manufacturing and distribution capabilities as multiple pharmaceutical companies have been identified and are preparing for the safe production of as many effective vaccines as possible. To shorten the timeline for manufacturing a widely available vaccine, the U.S. government is funding the simultaneous production of doses as we complete testing. This will ensure a vaccine, if proven safe, is ready to distribute as fast as possible.
Effectively combatting COVID-19 must be a multi-pronged strategy that includes both preventative measures as well as innovative therapeutics to treat COVID-19 that can improve outcomes, mitigate effects, and help patients recover faster. A number of anti-viral therapies for COVID-19, like Remdesivir, have been identified and are already in use. Since February, the medical community has made great advances in treating symptomatic COVID-19 patients and has decreased the overall mortality rate by approximately 40 percent.
That is because, as we continue to learn more about this virus, best practices are being refined, determining when and how a patient should be treated in order to achieve the best outcomes. Often, early interventions can save lives. Low blood oxygen levels have been identified as a possible early sign that a patient may develop more debilitating symptoms. Health care professionals are now using pulse oximeters to help COVID-19 patients self-monitor their blood oxygen saturation levels. Patients can monitor at home and, if they are getting worse, they should seek treatment sooner rather than later.
Scientists have long known that convalescent plasma, which contains antibodies from those who have recovered from an illness, can be used as a successful treatment for patients currently battling that same disease. As we have found initial promise in fighting COVID-19 with plasma, gathering a large supply of convalescent plasma through donations has become increasingly critical in order to continue implementing it for treatment as well as to study its effectiveness. I have been urging donations since March and introduced bipartisan legislation with Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) to spread awareness and encourage those who have recovered from COVID-19 to donate their plasma to help others who are fighting the virus. I am grateful that the administration has launched a nationwide effort coordinating with collection centers and hospitals to monitor and expand capacity for plasma donations. So far, over 1.5 million Americans have recovered from COVID-19, according to the latest data available from Johns Hopkins University. Every single one of them is a source of hope.
Moving ahead, we must continue to prioritize developing commonsense solutions that protect our most vulnerable populations from the threat of COVID-19 – such as our elders, minority communities, and people with underlying health conditions – while working to restore our way life by safely and responsibly reopening our schools, small businesses, and socie
Much has been accomplished; much work remains to be done. COVID-19 is an unprecedented global challenge, a pandemic that no one has faced in our lifetimes. Yet, as we work together towards a safe path forward, we must not lose sight of the positive progress that is occurring, the people who have recovered, the treatments being tested, and discoveries being made. We must not lose sight of hope.
There is a path forward. As a doctor, I firmly believe that the same spirit that has fueled our ability to eradicate diseases and bring hope to millions across the globe in the past will enable us to overcome this obstacle. By continuing to unite over scientific solutions, invest in medical research, and harness the abilities of our greatest innovators, we are charging towards what will hopefully become humanity’s next great breakthrough.
Brad Wenstrup, D.P.M., represents Ohio’s 2nd District.