like many of you I have been grounded at home and I am trying to make sense of the experience.
It is great to have some friends and clients who understand what is going on and who dedicate their lives to advance science to the benefit of humankind. One of them is Vas Narasimhan, CEO of Novartis, and at an earlier stage of his career head of vaccines development. The article he published last night is very encouraging which is why I felt you might appreciate getting the link.
Stay well, bleib gesund und munter (as my German grandma used to say).
Choosing optimism in the face of crisis
During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, also known as swine flu, I helped lead the efforts at Novartis to develop and distribute a vaccine for the world. I remember watching the case numbers rise, particularly in children and pregnant women. I remember the sense of urgency that turned into a sense of possibility as our teams organized what would become a remarkable global scale-up of vaccine development and manufacturing. And I remember feeling a deep sense of worry, as my wife was pregnant with our second son and we had a two-year-old going to school. (In the picture above, she’s holding our newborn son as I testify to the U.S. House of Representatives on the H1N1 response.)
As a physician-scientist, and as the father of a growing family, I was asking myself: Would we be able to respond? Would the world respond? Would my family be ok?
Today, many of us are asking similar questions as we watch Coronavirus case numbers rise, experience massive social distancing efforts, and see devastating images of hospitalized patients. What I learned during the H1N1 crisis holds true as we face a perhaps more concerning pandemic: Human resilience and science-based action rise to the occasion when humanity is most in need.
Right now, I see resilience everywhere I look. Heroic health care workers are giving of themselves to care for patients, working long hours and determined to save lives. People around the globe are self-quarantining, sometimes in seemingly impossible situations, to ensure they don’t spread the virus to those most vulnerable. In the face of certain massive economic and public health impact, governments across continents are implementing social distancing policies to flatten the curve of the epidemic. Companies are doing their part by asking associates to work from home, providing support to local communities, and voluntarily closing retail locations. At Novartis, our associates are working around the clock, often in very challenging circumstances, to ensure a steady supply of our medicines, maintain open lines of communication with our stakeholders in doctor’s offices, hospitals, and government, and advance our R&D efforts.
All of that is happening as the world unites behind—and depends on—the power of science. The biopharmaceutical industry and scientists around the globe are racing to find better diagnostics, therapeutics, and eventually vaccines for COVID-19. Across industry and academia, there is a nearly unprecedented willingness to share compounds, assays, manufacturing capacity, clinical trial capacity, and human capital to ensure we find solutions quickly. Nearly one-hundred and fifty clinical studies are already listed on the U.S. database clinicaltrials.gov, which is an exceptionally high number given the timeline of events, and there are more ongoing in China. The first candidate vaccine is already being tested in humans. This is by far the largest and fastest mobilization of global scientific capabilities against a public health crisis.
There are of course many reasons we must remain concerned and vigilant. This epidemic has not yet peaked in many countries. Despite the fact that the data tell us COVID-19 causes mild illness in the vast majority of people, many more lives will be lost in the weeks to come. The developing world, and particularly Africa, will struggle to cope if the pandemic takes hold. Longer-term, the economic impact on communities will be substantial and will require governments to ensure significant long-term financial support. And governments and health systems will once again, as is the case after every pandemic, be forced to reckon with their preparedness and resolve that next time will be different.
Despite the challenges, we are living in an era of unparalleled scientific capabilities, with globally networked experts and leaders and real-time data availability. Now that the full force of medical technology is being brought to bear, we are seeing the rapid scale-up of testing. While we are far from optimal in our response to pandemics, today’s technology is enabling us to respond faster and more effectively than ever before.
Perhaps most importantly, as human beings we have limitless possibilities for compassion. That compassion for our fellow man is fueling the heroic actions happening all around the world at this very moment. As it has with every pandemic our species has ever faced, it is that deep compassion that will see us through this one and through every pandemic to come.
Humanity is truly coming together—showing the incredible power of our collective action, and reminding us that no challenge is insurmountable when we do. Imagine if we brought this collective power to the challenges of climate change or extreme poverty or global health. We could completely reimagine the future of our planet.
Better yet, we could realize it.