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Science will save us in our battle against COVID-19

Science will save us in our battle against COVID-19
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In the history of mankind’s battles against deadly disease, our first line of defense has always been public health. Quarantines, border controls, sanitation, disinfection — these have been the tools used over hundreds of years to ward off death. As our knowledge evolved, so too did our methods. The importance of testing, contact tracing and isolation rose to the fore. But even as our technique improved, the approach remained the same: Public health has always manned the frontlines.

In the United States, we were late to send our soldiers into battle. Our testing program was non-existent, no army of contact tracers was deployed and far too many of us refused to volunteer, shrugging off requests to wear masks or avoid large groups. By the time our attitude shifted and troops arrived, any chance of holding the line was long gone. We’ve paid the price in more than a half million dead and hundreds of thousands more wounded.

Today, our second line of defense – vaccines – has moved to the front and is on the attack. But as hopeful as we once were of their success, the virus may have already mutated its way around us. The Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines are more than 90 percent effective against the original type of coronavirus. But some of the new variants (the B.1.135 South African variant in particular) have shown an ability to neutralize the power of the vaccines by nearly two-thirds. Some of the other vaccines in the pipeline have also fared poorly against the variant. The efficacy of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines was just 57 percent in South Africa, and the Novavax vaccine was less than 50 percent effective in preventing disease.

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Given how quickly SARS-CoV-2 can adapt and the potential variations it has yet to unleash, the possibility that our second line of defense will someday be overrun is strong. What then is left to save us?

Thankfully, science. Recently there has been a spate of new scientific discoveries that hold real promise for a second generation of vaccines and treatments.

First, are two studies (one in mice and one in monkeys) that show that vaccines using nanoparticle technology may be effective against SARS-CoV-2, its variants and perhaps more broadly against other coronaviruses. These vaccines essentially combine bits and pieces of several different coronaviruses into a single mix, one that helps the vaccine reach an optimal level of compatibility with our immune system. Taken together, the studies show that this type of vaccine can produce a robust immune response that rivals current vaccines. More importantly, they can produce a response that could protect us from not just the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, but also its variants and new and emerging coronaviruses.

Scientists have also made real progress on new antiviral drugs to treat COVID-19. In a recent joint press release, two pharmaceutical companies released results from a Phase 2a trial for a new oral antiviral drug, molnupiravir. The study was done in a group of 182 people who had tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week. Of those who received the drug, not a single one tested positive for the virus after five days. In those who didn’t receive the drug and received a placebo instead, 25 percent tested positive after five days. 

These preliminary results are not without caveat — the drugmakers have yet to prove it can prevent severe illness or the long-term effects seen in many of those who had asymptomatic infections. Additionally, with a virus like this one, we need to be careful about the virus’s ability to find a way to overrun us again by developing resistance. Still, the findings give us hope of a treatment that can work better than Tamiflu — something more like Xofluza, which protects both those infected and those around them.

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Since the beginning of the pandemic, the virus has had us on the run. But Operation Warp Speed brought the best of science to battle. What started as isolated labs working on a scientific solution to COVID-19 has become an unprecedented and almost unimaginable global collaboration.

If people aren’t willing to take the steps necessary to protect themselves and all those around them, then science is our last and only hope. Thankfully, the scientific community has committed itself to saving us, and their efforts are finally beginning to pay off. The tragedy, of course, is in the hundreds of thousands of casualties we suffer in the meantime, nearly all of which could have been avoided had we acted more prudently from the beginning.

William A. Haseltine is president of ACCESS Health International. An infectious disease expert, Haseltine was formerly a Harvard Medical School professor and founder of the university’s cancer and HIV/AIDS research departments. His latest book is titled “Variants! The Shape-Shifting Challenge of Covid-19."