"To save as many lives as possible, we are focusing on the science, the facts and the data." We hold this truth to be self-evident. We embrace this as the only way forward for the United States amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, these words were proclaimed during a widely televised national event, where few distanced and few wore masks as the best practices recommended by scientific and public health experts. Such marginalization of science, data, and facts result in an inadequate response that is detrimental to us all.
Let us do all that needs to be done, such that COVID-19 deaths, increasing by more than around 1,000 per day, will not hit the projected 250,000 by December. Had science, facts and data truly led the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic to date, the U.S. would not lead the world in cases, now approximately 6 million, and the U.S. would not lead the world in numbers of deaths, now over 182,000.
For the present wellspring of grief to abate, we must embrace the best practices drawn from science. Indeed, the approach is simple- wear a mask, do not host high-density crowds, and social distance from those outside your household. While COVID-19 is mild in the majority of healthy individuals infected, those over the age of 65 or with pre-existing conditions are at much-heightened risk for severe disease and death. Moreover, many otherwise healthy individuals, who survived the infection, will suffer long-term debilitating effects.
Virus emergence and diseases caused by viruses have plagued humans either directly, such as Ebola, smallpox, measles and HIV, or indirectly by affecting agricultural animal and crop production, such as African swine fever, tomato spotted wilt virus and papaya ringspot virus, throughout history.
Once a virus emerges, it is important to assess its pandemic potential and to act quickly as viruses spread exponentially. In order to contain and eradicate pandemic diseases, science must be allowed a clear path free of distractions and obstructions so that the steps of the scientific method, the only means to achieving eradication, can be worked. Virus emergence is never a hoax and, as long as there are susceptible hosts to infect, pandemics never go away without a strong mitigation plan guided by science.
For a virus as new as SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, the scientific community must ask many questions. Many hypotheses are formulated and tested. From the analysis of data, hypotheses are discarded, reformulated or advanced. This cycle continues for multiple rounds until the only acceptable outcome is achieved: that COVID-19 is no longer a substantial threat to public health.
Recommendations by the scientific community are as good as the data upon which they are based. Therefore, over time it appears that scientists are always changing their minds. This is indeed part of the process as we learn and gain new insights! As enigmatic as it sounds, the public health of the United States is best served when scientists are free to modify hypotheses about the diseases they are combatting as the most expedient route towards truth.
In the early days of COVID-19, there were questions about how the virus was acquired. Was it transmitted by the consumption of infected animals or direct contact with infected people? Once it was established that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted in exhaled breath and that as many as 40 percent of people shedding viruses are asymptomatic, wearing masks became a frontline defense against the spread of the pandemic that every global citizen needed to join. There is clear scientific support that an infected person standing six feet from an uninfected friend or unsuspecting stranger can reduce transmission rates if masks are worn.
The global scientific community has mobilized to produce a vaccine for COVID-19. Once candidate vaccines have passed rigorous clinical trial testing for efficacy and safety, this will be the strongest path towards protecting the population and re-opening economies. Focus on unsafe treatments, such as hydroxychloroquine, only distract from the goal of a vaccine. Until a vaccine is available, reducing transmission through distancing, masking and limiting social interactions will save lives.
We have been here before in human history. From events such as the 24 outbreaks of Ebola since its first emergence in 1976, we know how to manage these situations in the short-term: (i) rapid deployment of expert medical teams, (ii) rapid and widespread diagnostics to identify infected individuals, and (iii) strict quarantine and containment measures. In the long-term, there have been only two ways to effectively eradicate or reduce the prevalence of pandemic viruses, vaccines (smallpox, measles, polio) or antivirals (HIV, Hepatitis C). And above all else, focus on the science, the facts and the data to save as many lives as possible.
Michael Goodin is a professor of plant pathology, the 2018 American Society for Microbiology Honorary Diversity Lecturer, and author of the "Green Orange Café." Felicia Goodrum Sterling is a professor of immunobiology and a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.