In Episode 64 of The Workplace podcast, CalChamber President and CEO Allan Zaremberg and Richard Moscicki, M.D., chief medical officer and executive vice president of science and regulatory advocacy for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), discuss how increased testing, medical treatments and vaccines can provide short-, middle- and long-term solutions to battling the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and reopening the economy.
Below is a condensed summary of the podcast. To hear the full discussion of each topic, visit the time stamps noted in the article below.
Short-Term Solution: Testing
(Time Discussed: 03:30)
The answer to the question of how the economy can effectively be reopened will come through science, Zaremberg says.
In the short term, widespread testing is needed to not only determine where the virus is, but also where the virus has been, Zaremberg explains.
In the early days of the pandemic, Moscicki tells listeners, COVID-19 testing was more “artisanal,” being done by laboratory personnel by hand. But once industry takes over, it will be a different game, he comments.
“One of the things that industry does extremely well is to move into the mass production capability of industry,” he says.
Technology can now automate much of the testing process, and new machines made by Abbott and Roche can process thousands of tests at a time. Whereas weeks ago it would take days to determine if someone was positive for COVID-19, new technology can now process results in between 15 and 45 minutes. Emerging technology will potentially be able to process tests at the point of care, such as doctor’s offices, or even at home, Moscicki explains.
Zaremberg points out that, while some businesses are checking their employees’ temperatures when they come into work, that form of testing is not fail-safe.
Moscicki agrees, saying that the COVID-19 virus can be spread by respiratory droplets from infected people who do not exhibit obvious symptoms, like coughing or fever. With the advanced testing technology that is expected to become available, workers can be tested with a blood pinprick, either at home or onsite, detecting sick workers before they go in to work.
Middle-Term Solution: Treatment
(Time Discussed: 11:50)
The lack of effective treatment for COVID-19 is one of the aspects that makes the disease so scary, Zaremberg says. A treatment that prevents sickened people from having to use ventilators or which helps those with severe disease fight off the infection would be a game-changer, Moscicki adds.
Currently there are more than 300 clinical trials worldwide on potential treatments, with most trials using existing agents that already are on the market, Moscicki explains. In Japan, for example, a clinical trial is underway using an existing flu medication.
Although it takes time, properly testing treatments and going through clinical trials is critical, Moscicki stresses. For example, much attention has been given to antimalaria drugs such as hydroxychloroquine, but very serious side effects have been seen at the dosages needed to treat COVID-19.
Uncontrolled studies (where there is not a comparison group) on remdesivir have shown promise, and data from controlled studies on the drug should come in at the end of the month, Moscicki explains. If the drug can treat COVID-19, approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may come by summer.
Moscicki remarks that he has never seen anything like the amount of cooperation between labs, pharmaceutical companies and research organizations. Researchers and companies are not interested in patents and are actively working together. They share data from early experiments and clinical trials, and are even opening up their molecular libraries.
“It’s quite astounding,” he tells Zaremberg.
A treatment that shows promise and can be a bridge until a vaccine is developed is treatment made from the donated antibodies of people who have recovered from COVID-19, Moscicki says. The treatment has been highly effective, and it can treat those who are very sick or insulate high-risk patients, such as nursing home residents, through monthly infusions.
Long-Term Solution: Vaccines
(Time Discussed: 22:07)
Ultimately, however, a vaccine is needed.
“Vaccines are the real answer and the best answer,” Moscicki says, because the long-lasting protection from one injection or series of applications provides the opportunity to create “herd immunity.”
A vaccine, however, is likely a year out from coming to market due to the lengthy clinical trials that are needed to ensure that the treatment is not worse than the disease, Zaremberg says.
Vaccines are different than therapeutic drugs because they need to be given to healthy people, Moscicki explains. First, a potential vaccine needs to be created—a process that could take as long as a year, or, thanks to recent advancements, months. Once a potential vaccine enters clinical trials, scientists need to sift through data from thousands of people to determine if the vaccine works when a person is exposed to the virus, and whether those who receive the vaccine have more or fewer symptoms compared to unvaccinated people.
While vaccines may not be available in the short term, Zaremberg says, we are on the path to mitigate the risks of COVID-19.
“It will take a little bit of time, but science is how we get back to normal,” Moscicki says.