When will things finally return to normal? That’s one of the biggest questions on the minds of Minnesotans as Vice President Mike Pence visits the Mayo Clinic Tuesday.
There is really only one answer: Normal life will return when medical science delivers a vaccine for COVID-19.
Helping researchers develop a vaccine — and ensuring they can deliver it to patients — should be Washington’s top priority. Yet, inexplicably, several political leaders are pushing policies that would instead impede this effort.
Minnesotans should be proud of our state’s fight against the novel coronavirus. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota are making encouraging progress with antibody tests to detect prior exposure to the virus. And just last week, Gov. Tim Walz announced an ambitious testing plan to diagnose every case in the state.
Large-scale testing is critical to reopening the economy. But ending this pandemic completely will require vaccines and treatments that don’t yet exist.
Understanding this, our own University of Minnesota quickly launched into testing whether hydroxychloroquine — a drug most often used to treat lupus or malaria — can ward off COVID-19. The Mayo Clinic is also pursuing studies to evaluate how Gilead’s antiviral remdesivir impacts patients with severe coronavirus disease. And according to infectious disease expert Dr. Stacey Rizza, Mayo is also “heavily involved” in developing a COVID-19 vaccine.
Across the country, biotech firms have pulled out all the stops to develop new medicines to prevent COVID-19. Scientists at Moderna, a small company in Massachusetts, developed the first vaccine candidate just 42 days after the virus was genetically sequenced. At last count, a whopping 70 different vaccine candidates were in the works at firms around the country — and six are already in human trials.
Companies are also ramping up their manufacturing operations. Pfizer has even promised to help manufacture any successful candidate from any drug company.
For a disease that didn’t emerge until late last year, the speed of this response is astounding. But a widely available vaccine could still be more than a year away. That’s why leaders in Washington need to avoid policies that would needlessly delay research and development.
Consider an effort by some members of Congress to strip intellectual property (IP) protections from any coronavirus vaccines and therapies. Supporters of this proposal believe it will prevent drug companies from “price gouging” patients.
What this ignores is that IP protections give investors the confidence they need to fund scientific research in the first place. Further, there’s no plausible scenario in which patients will lack access to a COVID-19 vaccine. Johnson & Johnson has pledged to make its potential vaccine available on a not-for-profit basis.
There is also a shortsighted push by others in Washington to “onshore” all medical supply chains by mandating that federal agencies only purchase domestically manufactured medicines, drug ingredients and medical equipment. Proponents of this idea say such restrictions will make our nation more resilient by ending our reliance on foreign supply chains.
But such barriers would actually lead to widespread shortages of the ingredients that are vital to manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
Plus, one of the emergency measures that was recently signed into law — the CARES Act — appropriately tasks our leaders with evaluating the nation’s medical supply chains and developing a plan to address current and potential vulnerabilities.
The biotech sector is working around the clock to bring the COVID-19 pandemic to an end. Those efforts need Washington’s thoughtful support, not obstruction.
Erik Paulsen, a Republican, represented Minnesota in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2009 to 2019.