We are facing new infectious disease threats — from the currently rampant respiratory syncytial virus that is sweeping through schools nationwide to the Ebola outbreak in East Africa that’s keeping health authorities up at night.
The good news is that our scientists are well-equipped to handle these threats — for now, at least.
The bad news is that our politicians seem determined to erect new barriers that could prevent researchers from quickly responding to emerging public health disasters.
Consider just a few recent threats. Last summer, as we continued to battle COVID-19, the monkeypox virus appeared in countries where it seldom had before. The first U.S. case was identified in mid-May, and by August we were seeing more than 400 additional cases a day, with patients experiencing rashes, lesions, fever and more.
Public health officials braced for catastrophe. Thankfully, the worst didn’t come to pass. New infections have been on the decline since August, though around 30 cases are still reported daily.
Now we’re headed into flu season, with cases spreading at a historically high rate. The respiratory syncytial virus — RSV, a virus that causes cold-like symptoms in healthy adults but can cause serious respiratory illness in infants — is also spiking.
Meanwhile, outbreaks overseas show that more threats are on the horizon. Since last year, West Africa has seen its first cases of the Marburg virus, first in Guinea and then in Ghana. While the disease remains rare, it is highly infectious, and fatality rates in earlier outbreaks have ranged from 24 percent to 88 percent. We have no vaccine or antiviral treatment for it yet.
And now in East Africa, Uganda is facing an outbreak of the Ebola virus. Like Marburg, Ebola causes fever, vomiting, diarrhea and pain. It can also cause internal and external bleeding. A West African Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2016 killed more than 11,000 people. The United States has imposed special screening on travelers from Uganda. Traveling by airplane has become shorter, and the borders are open.
As humans, we’re always confronting some new, re-emerging or evolving threat from contagious disease. The infectious agent is inseparably intertwined with human nature.
Thankfully, we’ve developed a robust system to counter infections. COVID-19 can be managed thanks to vaccines, tests and treatments. When monkeypox, a cousin of smallpox, first arrived on U.S. shores, we already had a highly effective vaccine, which helped contain its spread. An RSV inoculation is in development.
We also have vaccines that work well against the Ebola strain that caused the West African outbreak. There exists currently no vaccine against the variant present in Uganda, but researchers are about to launch trials of a candidate shot.
It’s no accident that we’ve been able to develop such sophisticated disease-fighting tools. None of this would be possible without a robust biopharmaceutical industry, collaborating with academic research and the biotech industry — and the laws that support it. Unfortunately, that system is under threat from policymakers.
For instance, drug development relies on strong legal protections for intellectual property, without which it would receive little private investment. But in June, the World Trade Organization agreed to waive patent rights on COVID-19 vaccines — with U.S. support. (The organization decides by consensus.)
Now, the WTO is considering expanding the waiver to include tests and treatments. The White House has decided to investigate the “market dynamics” of the expanded waiver before pledging support — but this is far from the outright condemnation that the proposal deserves.
The Biden administration also pushed through the Inflation Reduction Act over the summer, which introduces price controls on popular drugs covered by Medicare. Like gutting IP rights, price controls tend to slash re-investment in drug research, reducing our ability to find future cures. Eli Lilly, Alkermes and other biotech companies have already announced significant cuts to their cancer research and development because of the law’s perverse incentives. Capital is shy like a deer.
Scientific research needs a protected sphere and freedom to blossom. The present global political upheavals demonstrate that we depend for our survival on our leadership position in the life sciences and a strong defense, especially when nuclear and biological warfare have become daily threats.
The constant emergence of new infectious disease threats needn’t be a crisis. We currently have the tools to fight these scourges. But if we start to throw those tools away, the future will begin to look much bleaker.