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Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Reid Wilson

The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews The Hill's Reid Wilson. Read excerpts from the interview below.

 

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Clemons: With what we’re facing today, what is similar with the Ebola virus and what are the differences? 

Wilson: Well, one thing that we know about the Ebola virus is we know how to stop it. And in a lot of these West African nations, especially that suffered through the 2014 to 2016 Ebola outbreak, the way we stopped it was effectively the most fundamental building blocks of public health. And that's what we need to be doing to stop the coronavirus as well. You know, in a lot of senses, some of the developing world is better positioned to fight the coronavirus than the developed world is. You know, in the United States, we focus a lot on medicines and on expensive medical treatments to fight some disease, some outbreak. In developing countries that aren't wealthy enough to have those technologies, they have to focus on really fundamental things like contact tracing and isolation and identification of the cases and the contacts of cases to stop the future spread of a virus. That works with Ebola. It works with the coronavirus, too, and that's what we need to be doing more of. So that's why we're seeing smart states and smart cities building contact tracing armies that once we get the coronavirus under control, will be able to identify everybody who might possibly have it and keep an eye on them as soon as possible. So, we can basically test and make sure that they don't develop the disease. And if they do develop the disease, get them into treatments right away, in isolation even faster so that they don't spread it farther. We need to be learning from these developing countries. Now look, Ebola is a very different virus from coronavirus. First of all, it transmits much more difficultly; it's harder to get. Basically, you have to touch blood and guts or some bodily fluid to actually get it. Unlike the coronavirus, which you can get from aerosol droplets when somebody coughs or sneezes or sings loudly in your face or something like that, so it's more difficult to get. It's also substantially more deadly. A recent outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo killed about two-thirds of the people who contracted it, and at the end of the day, the coronavirus probably has a case fatality rate somewhere around half a percentage point, which is much, much lower than the Ebola virus. But it's much easier to get, so you combine that, the hundreds of thousands, millions of people across the world who have contracted the coronavirus with the you know, a few thousand people who have contracted the Ebola virus in modern history and the number of dead from the coronavirus are substantially higher because they’re simply more people getting it, even if it's much less deadly.

 

Clemons: When you were reporting on Ebola, did you get this sense that there was more in store for us that we weren't paying attention to?

Wilson: Yeah, I mean, they're always is. Ebola was not the first epidemic. We've gone through pandemics at a pretty regular clip, and we go through it. In a sense, we go through a pandemic every year when the flu virus begins circulating in the Southern Hemisphere and then travels to the Northern Hemisphere, or vice versa, depending on where a flu virus comes from every year. So we know that the next pandemic is always just around the corner. You mentioned the zoonotic transmission that happens when a virus jumps from an animal to a human. But that happens all the time. And as a matter of fact, we transmit viruses to animals, too. There's no reason that we're special as a species or anything like that, we’re no more immune than a bat or a cat or a dog. Cats and dogs can get the coronavirus. The thing that we did in the wake of the Ebola outbreak is we spent a lot of money creating a surveillance network across the world that was meant to find and identify these new viruses before, at the very base level, before they break out and cross international borders or get on a plane and come to the United States. That money ran out just a few years ago, and as a matter of fact, some of the researchers who were funded by that money were in Wuhan, China. And if they had been able to maintain that surveillance over a longer period of time, maybe we would have caught this thing long before that first cluster of atypical pneumonia cases that was identified by the World Health Organization on Dec. 31. So, we live in a globalized world where middle classes in the United States and Asia, Africa and South America and Europe get on planes and travel across the world. We have to recognize that a global virus can hop on a plane, whether it's Kinshasa or Wuhan or New York City and be across the world in the space of a 12-hour plane flight. Those types of surveillance that we had funded in the past and are no longer funding are the kinds of things that keep us safe. The global public health system is a chain, and that chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and there are a lot of weak links around the world. 

 

Clemons: How comfortable or confident are you that science is going to deliver in the COVID case? What was interesting to me about Ebola is that companies like Merck and others were able to put together a pharmacological response, as I understand it, to Ebola.

Wilson: Yeah, let's not give too much credit to the private sector. The first big treatment for the Ebola virus actually came out of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease up in Fort Detrick, Maryland. They then licensed it to the folks who ended up creating the vaccine and spreading it widely. So American scientists did that and got it right. But the difference is Ebola has been in our conscience. We've known about it for more than 40 years, for almost 45 years. The first outbreak was in 1976 in the small town of Yambuku in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The coronavirus has been with us for yeah, maybe eight, nine,10 months, depending on when the first cases actually came out or actually occurred. We have had treatments and vaccines in development since about January, so that's about six months of preparing the vaccine. We have learned more about this virus at a faster pace than we've ever learned about any virus in the history of the world. That's excellent. And that's really good news. But the bad news is we're also learning how much we don't know. And developing a vaccine takes a lot of time. If the fastest vaccine ever created was a vaccine for the mumps back in the 1950s, that took four years to create. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciSix notable moments from Trump and Biden's '60 Minutes' interviews Pence travel questioned after aides test positive Fauci: We'll know whether a vaccine is safe, effective by early December MORE, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said, “We're looking at a timeline of 12 to 18 months for widespread distribution of some type of vaccine.” That would be fantastic. That would be a record shattering on a monumental level, but it's also really ambitious. And though there are more than 100 vaccine candidates in various stages of testing files around the world, we won't know that we've got one that's actually effective for many more months now. And so that leaves it up to us to rely less on the science and more on the basic fundamental building blocks of public health that I talked about, the contact tracing, identifying and isolating people who either have the disease or have come into contact with someone who has the disease. And that's gonna be painful. And that really hurts and it hurts the economy, it hurts people’s psyches, but it's a lot better and a lot more preferable than having 10 million people dead. 

 

Clemons: What is going on in the country today with the resurgence of COVID-19 and what worries you? 

Wilson: So a lot of things worry me. We could go state by state if you like. But broadly speaking, this has been a virus that had an epicenter in the big cities that you mentioned first, you started in Seattle, New York City, the Bay Area. Those three cities have gotten their viruses largely under control, and now we're seeing smaller case counts in all of those areas, as lockdowns continue. By the way, they have opened up at a much slower pace than some of these other states. But because of the connections to other cities and states around the country, just the natural travel that we do as Americans. The virus was always going to spread to smaller communities, and that's exactly what it's done. It's now spread to Florida, to Arizona and to Texas. Those are the three hot spots in the U.S. right now, but I don't want to overlook the other emerging hot spots because those three states are reporting massive numbers that are just eye popping and they demand your attention. But they also take away from significant outbreaks that are happening in other states. Places like Alabama and Mississippi are reporting thousands of new cases. … The Carolinas are mess, more than 1,000 cases a day in South Carolina. North Carolina has been suffering more than 1,000 cases a day for a couple of weeks now. We've seen increases in places like Oklahoma and Nevada, which opened up its casinos after shutting down for more than a month. Those places are still, I mean, thousands of people are still suffering and becoming infected by this virus. They’re just not the eye-popping numbers of Arizona, Texas and Florida. Now we should be paying attention to Arizona because something really terrifying is happening there, and that is, the hospitals are running out of space. The same thing is happening in Houston, and the same thing may be happening 10 to 15 days from now in cities like Dallas and Austin and San Antonio. Now what happens when those hospital beds fill up.  We're getting a lot better at treating the virus. The death rate among confirmed cases is falling in most places relative to a month or two months ago. That's excellent news. We're getting better at treating the virus. The bad thing is, when those beds fill up, other people stop seeking treatment for stuff they really need to seek treatment for. People who have heart attacks, people who have strokes. Hypertension is a huge problem in this country, diabetes. Somebody who breaks their leg may not go seek treatment in the ER because they're afraid of catching the coronavirus. When those beds fill up, it's not like people have fewer heart attacks on a daily basis. So that's what I'm really worried about. If our health system gets overwhelmed, it's not going to be the deaths from coronavirus that really ramp up the numbers of avoidable deaths in this situation. It's going to be the number of deaths from everything else. The same thing happened in West Africa during Ebola, when people stop seeking treatment for malaria, for cholera, these treatable diseases that were no longer treatable because those people weren't entering the health system. As Tom Frieden, the old CDC director, used to say, “a lot more people died because of Ebola, than from Ebola.” I'm worried that that may be the case with the coronavirus as well.

 

Clemons: Who are the winners and losers likely going to be politically in say,­ six months, not even a presidential level?

Wilson: Well, the winners are going to be the governors who paid attention to science and to public health experts. And let's make this a completely nonpartisan thing. So I'll talk about three Republican governors who are doing an excellent job, who are maintaining the lockdowns and therefore seeing their case numbers collapse and getting this virus under control. Gov. Larry Hogan in Maryland, Gov. Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Gov. Chris Sununu in New Hampshire have all done an excellent job, and their case counts are very low and trending downward. Excellent news all across the country. The losers are us. The losers are the people who are still vulnerable to this virus, who are still suffering through not just the potential for becoming infected, but for the economic crisis that continues. Let's be very clear here. This is something that public health experts and economists agree on across the board. You cannot solve the economic crises until you solve the public health crisis, and if we had more time, I could go into how we could talk about using the health crisis to bolster the solution to the economic crisis. But the fact is, we have to get this thing under control. If we don't, it's not just going to be a governor who might lose reelection. It's going to be the thousands of his constituents who get deeply, deeply sick or even die because they didn't take the authoritative steps to require people to wear masks, to stay far apart, to stay out of congregant areas like bars and movie theaters and gyms and places like that, and just to use the common sense that we have to be able to use to protect ourselves and to protect everybody else. Let's be very clear about the masks, the science is in, they work. They reduce transmission by about 85 percent. If we do that, we let the difference just in a simple bandanna over your face. That's the difference between 1,000 cases becoming 30,000 or 40,000 by the end of the month and 5,000 by the end of the month. This is a massive difference. It costs us nothing, and we need to adopt it nationwide.