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All eyes are on the race for a coronavirus vaccine, which will allow us to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic and remove the residual shackles of lockdown.
Heading into Labor Day, a holiday known for parties and travel to say goodbye to summer, cases of the virus remain high. Meanwhile, a national debate about how and whether to reopen schools continues to rage. And all the while, millions of Americans remain jobless because of the pandemic, although the unemployment rate is dropping sharply as the economy recovers.
A vaccine will cause the number of cases and deaths to plummet, but it will also accelerate the nation’s economic recovery. It can’t come soon enough.
There are reasons to be optimistic.
Recently, Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told governors to prepare for the possible large-scale distribution of a coronavirus vaccine by Nov. 1.
The CDC also notified public health officials in all 50 states to prepare to distribute a vaccine to health care workers and other high-risk groups around the same time.
Time will tell whether the CDC is being premature, but clearly progress is being made.
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No one is making more progress toward a vaccine than Moderna, a biotech company based in Massachusetts. Using cutting-edge technology, Moderna’s researchers and scientists are truly leading the race. Indeed, Moderna was the first company in the U.S. to conduct a Phase 3 clinical trial for the coronavirus vaccine.
On this week’s episode of my podcast “Newt’s World,” I speak to Moderna’s chief medical officer, Dr. Tal Zaks. We discuss the process of developing a vaccine, how close we are to the finish line, and what to expect going forward.
The most striking thing about the push for a coronavirus vaccine is its unprecedented speed. One study from 2013 found that, between 1998 and 2009, it took an average of 10.7 years to develop a vaccine.
With the coronavirus, however, experts are discussing the possibility of a vaccine in the same year that the pandemic first erupted. It seems we’ll get a vaccine sometime next year at the latest. This is truly historic for both science and medicine.
This speed is only possible because of companies like Moderna, encouraged by the Trump administration, working furiously day and night.
New technology has also helped dramatically. Zaks explains how, because of the digital revolution, Moderna didn’t even need the actual virus to begin working on a vaccine. Researchers were able to generate the sequence of the virus synthetically to initiate their work.
The ability to share information and collaboration between regulatory agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, has also allowed companies to make such quick progress.
Zaks tells me he’s working closely with mathematical modelers of epidemiology to predict and be ready to react to places where transmission of the coronavirus is high.
Perhaps most encouraging of all, Zaks is optimistic about seeing a large-scale supply of vaccines early next year, though distribution is going to be challenging.
Interestingly, one of the great tasks now for experts like Dr. Zaks is not to translate science into medicine but rather, as he says, to translate medicine into politics. Indeed, the public must understand what’s happening and accept the vaccine, seeing it as a tangible benefit.
As for how many people actually need to take the vaccine, much of it depends on how effective the vaccine is. If it’s 90 percent effective, then less people need to take it; if it’s 50 percent effective, then more people need to take the vaccine. This is why Moderna is trying to create the most effective vaccine possible to ensure high levels of protection.
I hope you will listen to this week’s episode to learn about how close we are to a vaccine and what this process will mean for public health — and future pandemics — moving forward.
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