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Congress Must Pass Funding for More Covid Research

Congress Must Pass Funding for More Covid Research

Sunday, 10 July, 2022 - 04:00

Political opponents are usually too quick to label each other “anti-science.” But the label is entirely deserved when it comes to the US Congress, which has spent months denying a White House request for billions in additional Covid-19 research funds.

There’s still so much to learn about the pandemic. Are grocery stores major centers of disease spread? Gyms? Many people still prefer surgical masks to N95s — but do they work? Does social distancing still matter — and in which settings? Why have some people never gotten infected? Do third shots and fourth boosters make people less likely to transmit the virus?

And there’s never been a better time to do research. Some measures, such as masks, might have seemed too important to ethically test using an unprotected control group, but now that few people are using them, such testing wouldn’t require anyone to accept risks they aren’t already taking.

It’s hard to believe, but the NIH and CDC still have not done any randomized controlled studies of so-called non-pharmaceutical measures, said Vinay Prasad, a hematologist, oncologist and associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF.

“We’re talking about literally zero studies — zero on schools, distancing, busing, cohorting, zero on masks, on plexiglass, on hand sanitizer, zero studies on social distancing, zero studies on re-opening, zero studies ... literally, zero studies will be done. I don’t know how anyone can defend zero studies as the right number,” he said. “That’s just not compatible with being a scientist.”

We also need more contact-tracing studies. While tracking down contacts of cases couldn’t contain the exploding pandemic in 2020, it can be deployed in studies to learn more about chains of transmission and super-spreading events. A few such studies, done mostly in Europe and Asia in 2020, were instrumental in helping people recognize that parks and beaches were relatively safe, and crowded parties and restaurants were not. That was late spring of 2020; we now need updated studies on vaccinated populations and new variants.

Public health officials also need a deeper understanding of the benefits of existing vaccines and boosters. In 2021, many experts held out hope that if enough people got vaccinated it would end the pandemic. Under that scenario, there was a coherent rationale for vaccine mandates. Is there still?

And what about second boosters? It’s not clear whether they cut the risk of infection a lot or only a little. Right now, the best evidence we have is research from Israel that was done when earlier iterations of the virus were circulating. If we had some approximate numbers to apply to the current variants, we could at least have a better argument over the value of boosting and the ethics of mandates.

More research funding would help us launch a new Operation Warp Speed to get a variant-proof “pan-coronavirus vaccine.” That’s the kind of vaccine we really need, said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. We’re now facing the front side of a new wave with an omicron subvariant called BA.5, which looks to be better than any variants so far at evading immunity from vaccines or past infection.

That’s to be expected. Evolutionary biologists pointed out long ago that once most of the population has developed vaccine- or infection-induced antibodies, the selective pressure on the virus favors the ability to slip past immunity.

Topol said the new Operation Warp Speed should also encourage drug companies to produce a vaccine in the form of a nasal spray, which is likely to stop the virus closer to its point of entry and thereby prevent people from getting even mildly infected and passing the virus on.

And there are other, sustainable non-pharmaceutical measures that deserve more wide adoption and more testing, such as the use of wrist-band monitors — including the fitness trackers that about 20% of Americans already own — to pick up signs of an impending infection from changes in heartbeat. It’s cheap, might prevent super-spreading events, and isn’t laden with partisan baggage.

Both sides of the political divide could be more pro-science. That starts with giving scientists the funding they need to save lives.


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