Congress must approve funding for more Covid research


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

There is still so much to learn about the pandemic. Are grocery stores the main centers for the spread of disease? Gyms? Many people still prefer surgical masks to N95s – but do they work? Does social distancing still matter – and in what contexts? Why have some people never been infected? Do third injections 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 be ethically tested using an unprotected control group, but now that few people are using them, such tests would not require anyone to accept risks they do not take. not already.

It’s hard to believe, but the NIH and CDC still haven’t done 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 are literally talking about zero studies – zero studies on schools, distancing, buses, cohort, zero studies on masks, on plexiglass, on hand sanitizer, zero studies on social distancing, zero studies on reopening , zero studies…literally, no studies will be done. I don’t know how anyone can defend zero education as the right number,” he said. “It’s just not compatible with being a scientist.”

We also need more contact tracing studies. Although contact tracing of cases could not contain the explosion of the pandemic in 2020, it can be deployed in studies to learn more about chains of transmission and superspreading events. A few such studies, conducted mostly in Europe and Asia in 2020, helped people recognize that parks and beaches were relatively safe, and parties and crowded restaurants were not. It was late spring 2020; we now need updated studies on vaccinated populations and new variants.

Public health officials also need to better understand the benefits of existing vaccines and boosters. In 2021, many experts hoped that if enough people were vaccinated, it would end the pandemic. In this scenario, there was a consistent rationale for the vaccine mandates. Are there any more?

And what about second boosters? It is not clear whether they greatly or slightly reduce the risk of infection. 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 ballpark numbers to apply to current variants, we might at least have a better argument about 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.” This is the kind of vaccine we really need, said Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. We are now facing the front of a new wave with an omicron sub-variant called BA.5, which seems to be better than all variants so far at evading immunity from vaccines or past infections.

This is to be expected. Evolutionary biologists pointed out long ago that once most of the population has developed antibodies induced by a vaccine or infection, the selective pressure on the virus promotes the ability to override immunity.

Topol said the new Operation Warp Speed ​​should also encourage pharmaceutical 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 prevent thus people from even being mildly infected and transmitting the virus. on.

And there are other sustainable, non-pharmaceutical measures that deserve wider adoption and more testing, like using wristband monitors — including fitness trackers that about 20% of Americans already own — to spot the signs. of impending infection. heart rhythm changes. It’s cheap, it could prevent events from spreading, and it’s not laden with partisan baggage.

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

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science. She hosts the “Follow the Science” podcast.

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