The novel coronavirus that has swept across the globe over the past few months infecting millions of people remains a mystery in many ways due to the complexity of the disease.
That was the sentiment expressed by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID), during a one-on-one interview with Michelle McMurry-Heath, the new chief executive officer of Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO). McMurry-Heath and Fauci spoke for about 30 minutes during a plenary session on COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, during BIO’s 2020 virtual conference. Fauci, a longtime infectious disease expert, said COVID-19 is the stuff of nightmares in the way it has quickly spread across the globe, infected millions of people and contributed to the deaths of more than 408,000 people.
Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said he has long-feared a novel infectious disease that jumped the species barrier, targeted the respiratory system, and had a high rate of transmission and mortality rate. That’s what has been seen with COVID-19. Within months of discovery, the disease “took over the planet” and forced a reaction that shut down economies across the globe as governments united in attempts to halt the spread of the disease.
“It has devastated the world and isn’t over yet,” Fauci said from his offices at the NIAID.
Fauci pointed to the highly complex nature of COVID-19 as one of the reasons it will continue to remain a global health threat. He said researchers are still learning about the nature of the disease, particularly its long-term impact on those patients who were ill and have recovered from the disease. As an expert in HIV, Fauci said he always looked at that disease as highly complex, but in comparison to COVID-19, it’s fairly simple.
“The range of symptoms you see… make it fairly complicated,” he said. “We’re almost at the beginning of understanding the disease. There’s a lot that still needs to be learned.”
But while COVID-19 is the “stuff of nightmares,” Fauci praised the biopharma industry for its rapid response to the pandemic. He said he was heartened by the way the industry has stepped up to the plate and mobilized a rapid response that has taken some medications and vaccine candidates from discovery to mid-stage clinical trials.
When it comes to BIO member companies, which includes some of the biggest names in the pharmaceutical and biotech world, McMurry-Heath said within 16 weeks since COVID-19 began to spread, BIO member companies have launched more than 500 programs against the novel coronavirus. Those programs include vaccine candidates, antibodies and other therapeutics aimed at treating different aspects of the disease. Despite the high number of programs being aimed at the disease, Fauci said he is confident that multiple therapies will be needed to address the global issue.
“I am sure there will be more than one ‘winner’ in the vaccine world and that will be needed,” Fauci said. He added that the same will be true regarding the different therapeutics under development.
While he did not specifically address the U.S. government’s response to the virus, Operation Warp Speed, Fauci alluded to the progress each of the five finalist companies was making in such a short time. Fauci said the government has provided funding for multiple vaccine candidates in order to de-risk the investments it was making to promote the development of a vaccine. One of the companies, Massachusetts-based Moderna, moved into clinical studies for its vaccine candidate within 62 days of the virus having been sequenced. Fauci quipped that speed must have set a world record for a turnaround.
Despite the challenges and the fears of COVID-19, Fauci remained hopeful that the industry response will be able to overcome the disease and provide a solution for people across the globe.