Why was there no warp speed for therapeutics?

When Congress investigates our response to the coronavirus pandemic, this ought to be the first question.

COVID-19 in a blood vessel. Image courtesy of Tel Aviv University.
COVID-19 in a blood vessel. Image courtesy of Tel Aviv University.
DAVID SUISSA Editor-in-Chief Tribe Media/Jewish Journal (Israeli American Council)
David Suissa
David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp and Jewish Journal. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Nearly two years into a massive, multibillion-dollar public-health campaign to combat the deadly COVID-19 virus, deaths in the United States are still climbing. With the death count already at more than 860,000, a Jan. 19 report in The Associated Press warns that “50,000 to 300,000 more Americans could die by the time the [Omicron] wave subsides in mid-March.”

How is this possible? How could deaths continue to rise after 208 million Americans got fully vaccinated? If you listen to the mainstream media and the public health establishment, all roads and solutions lead to vaccination. If only more people were vaccinated or got booster shots, the mantra goes, we could finally tame this monster.

But this ignores a hugely important weapon in combating the virus—therapeutics. If the vaccine is a gate that tries to keep the virus at bay, therapeutics are the precision weapons that kill it once it enters. By so blatantly favoring one weapon over the other, we ended up fighting a lethal virus with one hand tied behind our back.

When Congress investigates our response to the pandemic, this ought to be the first question: Why was there no “Operation Warp Speed” for therapeutics, just as there was for vaccines?

This question is crucial for the obvious reason that countless lives could have been saved, but also because a warp-speed initiative for therapeutics might have minimized the relentless lockdowns that have devastated and divided our country, not to mention triggered a mental-health crisis and forced millions of school children to isolate at home in front of computer screens. 

A young girl quarantines in her home due to COVID-19, in Moshav Haniel, Israel, on Dec. 23, 2021. Photo by Chen Leopold/Flash90.

A lot may have changed in two years as we’ve learned more about the virus and its variants, but this one truth hasn’t changed: We should have treated therapeutics a lot more seriously from the very beginning. Why didn’t we? Congress must get to the bottom of this, but there are things we already know.

For starters, we know the elephant in the room: drug companies make more money with vaccines. That’s just a fact. Whereas vaccines aim for 100 percent of a population and have repeat doses, therapeutics aim only for those who get sick. According to Nature magazine, global sales of COVID vaccines were expected to top $50 billion in 2021. It’s no surprise, then, that the warp-speed initiative for vaccines was so speedy—the drug companies had a major financial incentive.

The hyper-focus on vaccines had repercussions. Because vaccines prioritize mass protection over treatment, we were urged to protect ourselves at all costs. This created a climate of fear, making us more willing to accept any public measure or mandate we believed would protect us. Eventually, it made us resentful of anyone who didn’t share our beliefs.

Therapeutics nurture caution but not paranoia. You know that even if you get infected, there is a treatment. In recent months, as the health establishment has tried to catch up, more and more doctors have been using different sorts of therapeutics to help treat COVID, using the best data available. Unfortunately, without a massive, concerted and credible effort behind them, therapeutics are still seen as the stepchild of vaccines.

Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines at a vaccination center in Tzfat, Feb. 22, 2021. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90.

This is tragic because with millions of lives at stake around the world, therapeutics deserve to be at least equal partners. While vaccine efficacy can wane with time, as we’re seeing now with COVID vaccines, therapeutics are precision weapons that have no such limitation.

Furthermore, assuming we can vaccinate 100 percent of the population with a vaccine that is 90 percent effective, in a country of 330 million that still leaves up to 33 million people in potential danger. If vaccines can’t help them, what weapon can? Yes, therapeutics.

The vaccine train has been so loud that many therapeutics have become a sideshow and the object of ridicule, associated with conspiracy quacks. This is unfortunate, given that therapeutics have been a lifeblood of modern medicine, successfully treating such lethal diseases as AIDS and Hepatitis C.

Ironically, back in July 2020, The Washington Post reported that “ ‘Operation Warp Speed’ is pushing for COVID-19 therapeutics by early fall.” As Janet Woodcock, who was leading the therapeutics effort under “Operation Warp Speed,” explained: “Some people may not respond to vaccines and some may not get vaccinated, so we are always going to need therapeutics.”

Empty doses of COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Jerusalem, on Jan. 28, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

Unlike vaccines, Woodcock said, “therapeutics have to be developed against multiple facets of the infection, including antiviral treatments that target the virus and medication that quells the out-of-control immune storm that causes the most severe illness.”

It’s been 18 months since that announcement. What happened to the operation? What slowed the warp speed? Since Congress is the body that approves funding, it is imperative that it find answers to these questions.

Taxpayers, for example, deserve to know why only 1% of the $1.9 trillion in last March’s COVID relief cash went for treatments, as reported by The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 12 in an editorial titled, “Biden’s Operation Snail Speed on Covid Therapies.”

“About as much money was given last year to New York’s financially ailing transit system as the Administration spent procuring Covid therapies,” the Journal reported. “The result: A persistent treatment shortage and countless preventable deaths.”

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks from the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., on, April 6, 2021. Credit: Nick Raille/Shutterstock.

Because of the “snail speed” that has plagued COVID therapeutics from the start, efforts to catch up have been clearly inadequate. The Biden Administration recently ordered another 600,000 doses of GlaxoSmithKline and Vir Biotechnology’s monoclonal antibody. But the problem, as the Journal notes, is that “these treatments will probably arrive after the Omicron Covid variant crests. Why didn’t it order more treatments sooner?”

This lack of urgency is a recurring theme. The administration waited until November to order 10 million courses of Pfizer’s Paxlovid after trial data showed it reduced hospitalizations by nearly 90%. Again, the problem, as the Journal notes, is that “manufacturing the pills takes six to eight months so supply has been very limited. Had the Administration ordered more treatments sooner, more would have been available this winter.”

Not surprisingly, a report in The Washington Post on Jan. 24 noted that “several doctors and hospitals have noted that some of the Covid treatments, including the Pfizer pill and Sotrovimab, are in short supply.”

Airport workers unload packages of Pfizer’s COVID-fighting Paxlovid pill at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Dec. 30, 2021. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.

According to a prominent epidemiologist I spoke to, Pfizer had Paxlovid sitting on the shelf for years. It only started studying it and applying for Emergency Use Authorization after it saw its vaccine sales decline because of waning efficacy and the unlikeliness of selling four or five boosters. Congress should investigate and, if that is accurate, ask: Why didn’t Pfizer bring Paxlovid to market in 2020 and why didn’t our task forces push them to do so?

In short, even if you’re radically in favor of vaccines, it’s hard to dispute that our leaders have failed us royally when it comes to delivering on therapeutics. This lack of urgency with an indispensable tool has led not only to needless deaths but to the undermining of COVID therapeutics in general. Bring up a therapeutic on social media these days and you’re likely to be called a conspiracy nut job from the far right.

I’ve spoken to enough epidemiologists to recognize that several of the early studies touting the benefits of one therapeutic or another had holes in them. Some were sketchy; others more reliable. But that’s precisely the point: Had we brought the same urgency and resources to therapeutics that we brought to vaccines, therapeutics would have been embraced as legitimate life-savers rather than a source of ridicule.

Few people know that there are clinical trial networks ready to jump on studies to provide reliable data on treatment efficacy. In 2017, Michigan Medicine launched a comprehensive network to improve patient outcomes from emergency conditions. The point is that the infrastructure and clinical networks are there. Had our government provided significant resources to immediately activate these networks at the beginning of the pandemic, reliable data on COVID therapeutics would have come at warp speed. Now, two years and 860,000 deaths later, we’re trying to catch up.

The price of this neglect has been immense, both in lives lost and in the devastation caused by lockdowns. The massive school closures are Exhibit A.

New York magazine’s progressive commentator, Jonathan Chait, acknowledged on Jan. 17 that closing schools “did little to contain the pandemic” and that it’s time progressives come to terms with the fact that mass school closures were “catastrophic.”

An editorial in the BMJ, a British weekly peer-reviewed medical trade journal, concluded in early 2021 that “Children have least to gain and most to lose from school closures. This pandemic has seen an unprecedented intergenerational transfer of harm and costs from elderly socioeconomically privileged people to disadvantaged children. The UN convention on the rights of the child and the duty on the government to respect, protect and fulfill those rights have largely been overlooked.”

Los Angeles Unified School Bus in Hollywood, Calif., on Orange Drive. Credit: Walter Cicchetti/Shutterstock.

It shouldn’t surprise us that school closures have resulted in an unprecedented mental health crisis for young people. As far back as February 2021, Axios reported that “Hospitals have seen a significant increase in mental health emergencies among children, and federal officials have acknowledged that prolonged school closures have deprived students of both formal services and simple human interaction.”

Even the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has taken up the issue of prolonged school closures, noting: “School closures carry high social and economic costs for people across communities. Their impact however is particularly severe for the most vulnerable and marginalized boys and girls and their families. The resulting disruptions exacerbate already existing disparities within the education system but also in other aspects of their lives.”

There is a direct link between the mass closures and the emphasis on vaccines at the expense of therapeutics. Because vaccines aim for mass inoculation, anything that falls short triggers mass anxiety. This makes it easier to impose draconian measures like mandates and closures.

Therapeutics aim for precision, which makes mass closures a tougher sell. If you catch it, you can be treated. Imagine what a difference widely available and effective therapeutics would have made over the past two years in the overcrowded emergency rooms dealing with hundreds of thousands of infected people.

I say all this as a big fan of vaccines. The key benefit of vaccines is that they mitigate damage should one get infected. That is indeed what happened to me after I tested positive for Omicron in December—I felt congested for a few days and it was gone. Along with millions of others, the vaccines became our seat belts and airbags when we crashed with the virus.

A health worker prepares a dose of Pfizer’s BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Jerusalem on Feb. 8, 2021. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

But just as I appreciate the value of vaccines, I also recognize their limitations. Because vaccine success relies so much on mass acceptance, it was always unrealistic to expect such unanimity in a free country, especially with a public health bureaucracy with such low credibility.

We also know that evidence of the vaccines’ side effects was consistently downplayed or suppressed, both by the legacy media and the health establishment. Given the mainstream obsession with jabbing everyone, this suppression of unwelcome news should surprise no one.

Needless to say, I’m fully aware that the majority of severe COVID patients have been unvaccinated. But while it’s easy to castigate those patients for not getting the shots, we must not let our health establishment off the hook for failing to deliver the therapeutics that would have treated those unvaccinated patients.

On a societal note, without the equal partnership of therapeutics, the widespread emphasis on vaccines has divided our nation. Whereas precision treatments treat everyone equally—whoever gets the virus gets the treatment—vaccines split the population in two—the jabs and the jabs not. This has exacerbated the political polarization already plaguing our country.

Looking back, it’s clear that our leaders made a series of missteps in their handling of the pandemic, as James Meigs succinctly summarized in Commentary:

“At a time when we needed our officials to respond nimbly to a rapidly evolving threat, our health agencies proved slow and inflexible. When it came to providing workable tests for the virus, speeding up deliveries of protective equipment, or simply communicating clearly and honestly with the nation, our public-health establishment failed. It wasn’t just a matter of moving too slowly. At times, our health bureaucrats actively obstructed doctors, researchers, private companies, and others trying to fight the pandemic. They even tried to limit the range of permissible scientific discussions about COVID-19, shutting down inquiries into the origins of the virus and debates about how it spreads.”

Take all those missteps, however, and they still don’t equal the singular meta-failure to invest massively and urgently in precision therapeutics.

In the end, perhaps the most tragic aspect of our war against COVID is simply that we abandoned common sense. Beating the virus always required a one-two punch, not one punch. As powerful as vaccines are, they needed the partnership of powerful therapeutics to win the war. We haven’t stopped paying the price for this tragic miscalculation.

It should never have been about being “pro-vaccine” or “anti-vaccine” or being “pro-vaccine” or “pro-therapeutics.” It should always have been about an equal partnership between the two. That would have lessened the acrimony spreading throughout our country.

Many of us have forgotten that in his 2015 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama launched the Precision Medicine Initiative, for “health care tailored to you.” The goal was “to give medical professionals the resources they need to target the specific treatments of the illnesses we encounter.”

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks on the phone to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on June 8, 2009. Credit: Pete Souza/White House.

When Congress investigates our response to COVID, they must ask: “What happened to the Precision Medicine Initiative? Where was the precision in our fight against COVID? And why has it taken so long to get approval for therapeutics?”

Books will be written about this epic breakdown in the years and decades ahead. Through in-depth and bipartisan investigative reporting, we will learn more about bureaucratic incompetence, conflicts of interests, and the price that we and our children have paid for this colossal failure.

But we can’t wait for those books. COVID is still killing people, and it may have more lethal variants in store. The need for effective therapeutics is as urgent as ever, especially since we’re seeing evidence of the waning efficacy of vaccines.

In the face of our historic failure to deliver on live-saving therapeutics in the same way we delivered on vaccines, all roads now lead to Congress. If our elected representatives launched a Commission of Inquiry after the 9/11 disaster that killed 3,000 Americans, they must launch an even more urgent inquiry about a disaster that is on track to kill a million Americans.

As 2,000 of our fellow Americans die each day, as fear continues to paralyze and divide our nation, as our mental-health crisis accelerates, and as we desperately try to catch up to deliver vital treatments, this is one investigation that merits warp speed.

David Suissa is editor-in-chief and publisher of Tribe Media Corp, and “Jewish Journal.” He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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