Vaccines, treatments still a bridge too far, says US expert

Updated 13 May 2020

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Researchers are also working on eight possible vaccines and hoped to have results by late fall or early winter but marketing a vaccine could take longer. ⁠— AFP/File
Researchers are also working on eight possible vaccines and hoped to have results by late fall or early winter but marketing a vaccine could take longer. ⁠— AFP/File

WASHINGTON: The top US expert on infectious diseases told a Senate panel on Tuesday that it’s still too early to expect a coronavirus vaccine or treatment.

“The idea of having treatments available or a vaccine to facilitate the reentry of students into the fall term would be […] a bridge too far,” said Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Coronavirus: How long before we have a vaccine?

He was responding to a Republican senator, Lamar Alexander, who asked if a treatment or a vaccine could be made available to allow schools and colleges in America to reopen this fall.

Dr Fauci and a panel of other experts appeared before the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday to testify on US efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 82,000 people and infected more than 1.39 million in this country.

Most of these experts are also associated with the White House Coronavirus Taskforce, and the Trump administration had earlier stopped them from appearing before a House panel, arguing that the lawmakers wanted to use the session to target President Donald Trump.

The experts also submitted a 25-page written statement to the Senate panel, reminding Americans that the medical community cannot start prescribing medicines or vaccines until it was safe to do so.

“Even at top speed that we’re going, we don’t see a vaccine playing in the ability of individuals to get back to school, this term,” Dr Fauci said. “What they really want is to know if they are safe.” Other experts also endorsed Dr Fauci’s views and urged authorities across the globe to continue focusing on more widespread testing, social-distancing and good health practices, such as washing hands with soaps.

Dr Fauci explained that Remdesivir, a medicine now being used in many countries for treating Covid-19 patients had showed "significant, but modest” results. He said that patients treated with Remdesivir recovered 31 per cent faster than others and hoped to “build on that modest success through a combination of drugs.” He said researchers were also working on eight possible vaccines and hoped to have results by late fall or early winter but marketing a vaccine could take longer.

“There’s also the possibility of negative consequences, with certain vaccines can actually enhance the negative effect of the infection,” he warned.

“Almost all of us — the United States and almost every country, so far as I can tell — underestimated this virus,” said Senator Alexander while explaining why the virus has continued to spread.

The joint statement submitted to the panel went a step ahead and warned that the situation could get worse if precautionary measures were abandoned to reopen the economy in a haste.

“All of our efforts now are to prevent the sustained spread of this virus in our communities, but we need to be prepared for the possibility that it will spread,” the statement said.

“If we skip over the checkpoints in the guidelines to ‘Open America Again,’ then we risk the danger of multiple outbreaks throughout the country,” Dr Fauci warned. “This will not only result in needless suffering and death but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal.”

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2020