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Containing COVID-19: Reasons for Optimism?

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Even as the COVID-19 crisis continues to rock global markets, there is reason for some optimism about measures to track and contain the spread of the disease, treat its symptoms, and eventually arrive at a vaccine, Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer for WebMD, told a BMO conference call this week.

“We’re doing what we need to do, we really are. We are taking all the steps we need to be taking to really be prepared for this pandemic,” Dr. Whyte, who prior to WebMd served as the Director of Professional Affairs and Stakeholder Engagement at the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the USFDA, said on a call of BMO experts to discuss the impact of the coronavirus on global markets.

“We’re using the public health strategies that have proven to work, we’re making progress in testing, we’re making progress in therapeutic intervention, we’re putting in the time and the effort needed in vaccine development and we’re implementing social distancing, which we need to do in order to bend that curve, while at the same time building surge capacity.”

While the numbers are clearly changing daily, at the time of the call, there had been 174,000 cases of the disease reported worldwide, with about 6,600 deaths. Of the global cases, 80,000 had been in China. There were some 3,800 cases – including 68 deaths - reported in the U.S., where cases had been reported in every state except West Virginia, but a majority of cases were concentrated in Washington, New York and California. Canada had reported 324 cases – with one death - across ten provinces, and nearly half of the cases were in Ontario.

For Dr. Whyte, there are number of recent developments that afford some optimism.

New Testing

One reason for optimism came over the weekend, when the United States announced measures to dramatically increase testing over coming days, weeks and months, focusing initially on healthcare workers, first responders and the elderly before being rolled out to the broader population. The new commercial testing will likely see a dramatic increase in the number of reported cases, Dr. Whyte said, but that that should not be cause for alarm.

“The reality is up to now probably only about 22,000 people have been tested in the United States. It's almost the same in Canada with a smaller population. So we're now (going to be) doing 10,000 tests a day, instead of 20,000-plus tests over several months, and the numbers are going to increase dramatically, but people should not become alarmed by that,” he said.

“This is good news because we will better understand the extent of the pandemic, its virulence and how dangerous it really it is, so that we can get a much better sense of the denominator of who’s infected – because we do believe there is community spread, so we believe that number is higher – and whether mitigation strategies are working,” he said.

Vaccine Development, Therapeutic Treatments

As of Monday, 35 companies in the United States had announced plans to actively work on a vaccine for the disease, and the first study has begun in humans relating to vaccine development, representing an important step forward in what will likely be at least an 18-month endeavour.

“We are also making some progress on therapeutic inventions, treating people who have the virus,” he said, pointing to existing drugs that can be repurposed to treat the three classic symptoms of the coronavirus: fever, cough and shortness of breath. “We're starting to see the surge capacity increasing, and that's a good thing.”

Whether Weather

Dr. Whyte said experts hope coronavirus may act like other respiratory viruses that dissipate during the warmer and more humid summer months, when the current social distancing measures implemented to restrict public gatherings – including school suspensions - are set to expire in Canada and the United States.

“There’s less sneezing and coughing; humidity often affects the distance a virus can travel; there’s some belief that UV sunlight may help kill viruses on surfaces which can be a means of transmission; and we know that heat and humidity make it harder for a virus to attach to cells in the lungs,” Dr. Whyte said.

Lessons Learned

Dr. Whyte said people should take comfort that the world has learned from the experiences of combatting other viruses that have crossed international borders, like SARS and Ebola.

 “It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of information that is coming out, and, let’s be honest, a lot of it is wrong. A lot of it is pure conjecture. We really have to be sure of the sources of information that we are consuming,” he said. “The point is, let's focus on what we can control and what we can do now.”

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