Data-driven science is the only way to beat COVID-19

Data-driven science is the only way to beat COVID-19
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The bad news is obvious: COVID-19-related deaths have surpassed 200,000 and infection is still spreading rapidly, and a second wave this fall is all but certain. But there is important good news obscured by these grim facts: We have the tools to manage new outbreaks and more quickly develop treatments than at any other time in human history. 

Why? Because governments around the world, in concert with private philanthropies, universities and biotech industries, have invested over the past decades in science: epidemiological models of pandemics, molecular studies of viruses, and strategies to develop and deploy new technologies to treat emerging threats. It is also because there are protocols for well-scripted, meticulously-controlled clinical trials to yield safe and effective treatments and vaccines. 

To best position us for a second wave this fall and winter, we need to stay the course and stick with the scientific process. In the case of COVID-19, the catch is that we still lack ample and reliable data. And it is precise data — carefully, rigorously, scientifically attained — that is the key to minimizing further loss of life and damage to the economy. If we proceed without the right data, in a mad dash to complete this process quickly, we’re likely to fail. 

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Why is data so important? First, data that comes from a methodical, wide-spread approach to testing will provide a means to know whether the virus is receding and whether people can return safely to work. Tracing of hantavirus and Ebola outbreaks saved lives, demonstrating the power and importance of a well-orchestrated epidemiological response. Similarly, we must determine who has COVID-19 and who has been exposed to it already. This data will allow us to understand where the disease has spread if long-term immunity is possible and who is most likely to get sick and require hospitalization.  

Second, we must have a rigorous, scientifically-based approach to identifying potential treatments. Evidence tells us that pursuing possible drugs based on gut feelings, hunches, or anecdotal evidence is a fool’s errand, as 90 percent of drugs entering Phase I trials ultimately fail. Instead, we must use the tried and true approaches to conduct meaningful clinical trials that also address patient safety, such as those that led to successful antiviral treatments for hepatitis C

In parallel, we must continue basic science studies to understand this coronavirus and determine, for instance, why it is lethal in some patients. Fortunately, we can take advantage of the recent very positive steps that the FDA has taken to fast-track some of the regulatory steps. But only through well-controlled, randomized and sizeable studies will we truly know if a drug is effective against this virus and safe during various stages of the disease. 

Third, we must take the necessary scientific steps to develop, test and deploy a vaccine. It must be accessible worldwide, especially because we live in a globalized world and this virus spreads so easily between asymptomatic people. Without question, the process of testing and validating a vaccine takes time, as does the massive scale-up needed to produce and distribute seven billion vaccines. Yet, we are poised for rapid progress because we can build on advances that already exist, such as nucleic acid-based vaccines originally developed for the MERS coronavirus.

To be sure, science is not foolproof, and it is sometimes a slow process, which feels frustrating for everyone during this dark time. But taking a data-driven and methodical approach ultimately is the fastest route to achieving success while maintaining safety. Further, hurtling toward normalcy for the sake of the economy, without a data-driven approach, is a false choice. A strong economy depends on people feeling safe enough to go out and earn money and then spend it. It also requires the stability of our health care infrastructure, which could crack under the pressure of resurgent outbreaks, especially with a potential concurrence with the next flu season.

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Scientists from around the world must be free to share the data that we collect and must work with leaders at the federal, state and local levels if we are to address this crisis with the speed necessary to save lives. An open letter (signed by nearly 5,000 scientists, engineers, doctors and health care professionals) calls on the government and the people of the country to unify around this idea: our country must have public policy based on objective, data-driven facts and predictions.

For our part, we commit to using our skills to erase this pandemic with all the creativity and effort it requires. We are a country that has time and again been unified by the spirit of hard work, innovation and scientific excellence. That is the American way, and this time should be no different.

Jonathan N. Sachs, Ph.D., is a professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Minnesota and is a member of the Public Affairs Advocacy Committee of the American Society of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology.