The federal government's efforts to combat the ongoing coronavirus pandemic illustrate why we shouldn't put our full trust in government to find a cure. After all, they badly botched the testing, costing valuable time in identifying new cases and limiting its spread.
Fortunately, private-sector innovators are leading where government has underwhelmed, conducting speedy research and development into potentially life-saving cures, while providing critical support in other areas where government action was lacking.
The first version of test kits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were flawed and unusable. Finally, after a lengthy delay, the CDC shipped a new version of the test, but it required a second component that was in short supply. Government bureaucracy added to the problem when federal regulators initially refused to accept tests from the World Health Organization and foreign countries.
Worse, the Food and Drug Administration was slow to review and approve new tests developed by private labs and to relax regulations on the production of desperately needed new ventilators.
The testing fiasco made COVID-19 containment impossible and required adoption of a mitigation strategy instead. With the availability of rapid tests limited even now, the U.S. death toll continues to rise even as restrictions on Americans' movements and activities upend nearly every aspect of our daily lives and the economy.
The statistics are grim. In less than three months, the virus has surged from Wuhan, China, to infect more than 750,000 people across 203 countries, areas, and territories. As of March 31, the death toll is over 36,000, including over 2,800 in the U.S., and the number of infections is currently accelerating in New York City, Atlanta, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Government officials' mantra: "It will get worse before it gets better."
Many others have had asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic viral infections but haven't been counted. Several modelers estimate that more than half of all COVID-19 infections have been undocumented, or covert. We will know better once new serological tests that measure antibodies to the virus in blood become available. Those data will be critical to understanding the penetrance of the infections in the population; the true infection and death rates; and whether there is an invisible sub-population who have been infected, recovered, are immune to re-infection, and could be released from "shelter in place" orders.
The astounding speed with which private firms have begun tackling the coronavirus offers a stark contrast. While federal regulators have bumbled, private firms in Europe, Asia, and North America have rolled out possible new therapies and technologies that could save lives. A list of more than a hundred vaccine and therapeutic candidates has been compiled by the Milken Institute. They include both new and "repurposed" products, with scores of controlled clinical trials – the necessary gold standard for regulators – already underway by academic groups and private companies.
It isn't just academics and pharmaceutical and bioscience firms joining the fray. Google recently launched a website with authoritative information about the virus. With funding from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Amazon will soon make COVID-19 testing available to Seattle residents. Test deliveries and pickup will be done via its existing Amazon Care arm, an internal healthcare platform typically dedicated to just Amazon employees and their families. Philanthropic groups backed by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are also working to boost testing in the San Francisco Bay Area.
American manufacturing is showing muscle and flexibility not seen since America's entry into World War II. Aerospace manufacturer Honeywell will hire 500 workers at its Rhode Island plant, which is shifting production from safety goggles to N95 face masks for medical professionals. 3M has doubled its global output of N95 masks and will soon send 500,000 respirators to affected U.S. communities.
Ford has said it will assemble plastic face shields and work with 3M and GE to make more respirators and ventilators, while General Motors is also exploring how to use its global automotive supply chain to make ventilators.
All of this shows the vitality of America's (and certain other countries') market-based economic system. Rapid innovation and adaptability are hallmarks of dynamic market economies. Government bureaucracies not only can't compete, but they often serve as a brake on such innovation.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, and other progressives who constantly bash corporate America should take note.
Private-sector breakthroughs will be essential for overcoming the global health emergency created by COVID-19 and the accompanying economic crisis. Getting them to patients will require the active cooperation of regulators to accept "rolling New Drug Applications" – accepting and rapidly reviewing various portions of the applications as they're available, instead of only after the dossier is complete.
Once effective treatments become available, we can hope that our economy will once again open for business, and that a return to something resembling normalcy won't be far behind.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Sally C. Pipes is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow in Health Care Policy and President & CEO of the Pacific Research Institute.