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Has human ingenuity prevailed in the fight against COVID-19?

Has human ingenuity prevailed in the fight against COVID-19?
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Back in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic was picking up steam in the United States, I highlighted the role that human ingenuity would play in fighting the pandemic. I suggested that we should trust the private sector and its millions of innovators. Eventually, I argued, human agency would prevail.

So, after several months, has human ingenuity prevailed or has it disappointed? Although it is far too soon to declare victory, there have been some very promising developments that demonstrate how human ingenuity and human agency are meeting the challenge.

Arguably the most important front in the fight against the coronavirus is the development of an effective vaccine. There are currently 24 vaccines in clinical evaluation, with three candidates showing promising results that are headed to the last phase of trials. 

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The first candidate is the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the promising results of which were outlined in a recently released paper. This candidate has moved to large-scale trials the fastest and, if results of the already-underway third-phase trials continue to show promise, the vaccine could be in production and ready for distribution as early as this fall. Another candidate is Moderna, which recently released results from Phase 2 clinical trials that show a much higher production of antibodies from the vaccine than in recovered COVID-19 patients. Finally, more promising results have come from another leading vaccine candidate being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, which also shows high levels of antibody production.

Advances in the methods of treatment for the virus have also been encouraging. First, Remdesivir showed positive results in helping patients recover faster and with fewer instances of mortality. Another exciting development comes from the positive preliminary findings of the effects of the common steroid dexamethasone in fighting the disease in more severe patients. Preliminary results from a drug based on a protein called Interferon Beta, which is inhaled through a nebulizer, show a reduction in the severity of the illness, decreasing the need for a ventilator by as much as 79 percent. The company Synairgen also reported significant reductions in breathlessness. 

Other positive news include research showing that previous exposure to the common cold can help create immune cells (known as memory T cells) to ward off the virus and the development of new types of tests that provide faster results and can be taken at home — all of which could help us resume a more normal lifestyle.

In terms of prevention, the private sector continues to lead the charge as the economy slowly reopens. While politicians continue to engage in disagreements about mask-wearing, private businesses have stepped up and imposed their own rules to protect their employees and customers. Mask-wearing has become a contentious issue due in part to the initial confusion about its efficacy and the mixed recommendations coming from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But more recent data have shown overall efficacy in slowing the spread, despite varying results depending on the type of mask. Human ingenuity is on full display with both big-name brands and new face mask entrepreneurs producing creative designs for all sorts of masks and face coverings.

As the pandemic continues to disrupt the economy, one of the hardest-hit sectors has been the travel industry, including airlines and hospitality. But many of these companies have adjusted, and as economies worldwide continue reopening and people are starting to hit the skies again, many airlines have shown a commitment to adaptation, innovation and ingenuity. U.S airlines have implemented many policies related to aircraft cleaning and disinfection, boarding processes and more.

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A specific case of innovation is Etihad Airways. In addition to implementing strict aircraft cleaning and boarding procedures like its American counterparts, Etihad has added several technological innovations, including partnering with technology company Medicus AI to develop a COVID-19 self-assessment tool for use before flying and introducing fully automated booths in its Abu Dhabi hub. These booths measure aspects of passengers’ health, including the respiratory system, heart rate and temperature, to provide an instant “fit to fly” assessment.

If even some of these trends hold, we will see fewer and fewer deaths from the virus despite an increase in cases. Human ingenuity, as always, was up to the task of coming up with innovative ways to fight the virus, and we should do our best to highlight that progress.

Given the evidence so far, we should feel cautiously optimistic about our capacity as a civilization to achieve great things and meet any challenge when we combine innovation, persistence and hard work.

Gonzalo Schwarz is president and CEO of the Archbridge Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank focused on economic mobility.