Out of order: A season of hope

Sharing insights, stories, progress, and hope on fighting infectious diseases

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Out of order: A season of hope

As I sit here typing, many of my American colleagues and friends are weighing their Thanksgiving options. And by the time you read this, you have likely made the same risk-benefit evaluation regarding Christmas, New Year’s Eve and other year-end celebrations.

Undeniably, 2020 has been a year unlike any other.

Amid the social concerns and the economic challenges faced by many, however—not to mention the human carnage of illness and death as we have fought SARS-CoV-2—there is also room for optimism.

When I met up with my publishers and editorial colleagues in September 2019 to determine the 2020 editorial calendar, none of us had an inkling as to what this year would bring. I promise that it is pure coincidence that the Special Report staring on page 6 of this issue is focused on infectious diseases.

Rather than focus on vaccines—a topic covered over and again by every media outlet, including DDN—I decided to turn my attentions to antivirals, asking what is happening beyond remdesivir and the seemingly ceaseless back-and-forth of hydroxychloroquine.

I knew I would find researchers and executives who wanted to talk and wanted to share their stories, but I must admit that I was caught off-guard by their enthusiasm. Almost to a person, each interview subject felt like the antivirals industry’s time had come.

No one denied that vaccines were necessary or suggested that the spotlight on vaccines was unfair.

“Nothing would make me happier than to have a good, safe vaccine that took COVID completely off the table,” proclaimed James Luly, CEO of Enanta Pharmaceuticals. “Even if it took [COVID] off our pipeline slides, that would be the best possible outcome.”

But in a world of vaccine hesitancy, a world still waiting for the first doses outside of clinical trials, a world where global immunization is a multi-year undertaking, everyone touted the need for an armamentarium of antiviral treatments.

“The world could be in a much worse place if we just kick the can down the road another year or two, thinking vaccines will take care of this,” Luly continued.

In my May 2020 Out of Order commentary, I had expressed concern that we might repeat our failures of SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV, slowing our work should SARS-CoV-2 begin to subside. What I learned in these interviews, however, was that even though we did largely allow the research of those past epidemics to go fallow, those efforts did not die completely.

According to Taconic Biosciences Field Application Specialist Terina Martinez, rodent models developed in those earlier days are now providing insights to researchers working on SARS-CoV-2, whether guiding our hands in infection prevention or in treating COVID-19 manifestations like acute respiratory distress syndrome.

“We're actually getting an advantage of the investment from then for what we're doing now,” she noted.

Similarly, Cocrystal Pharma CEO Gary Wilcox pointed to our investment in rapid response and contact tracing, lessons learned from those earlier infections as well as others.

But perhaps the biggest note of hope was what Operation Warp Speed and many of these antiviral programs have been able to accomplish on such a ridiculously short timeline.

“We have the most amazing science that the world has ever seen that is being brought to bear on COVID-19,” says Wilcox, “and that should definitely give all of us optimism.”

And that same science, that same energy will need to see us forward.

“The point of a pandemic preparedness company is that we need to look beyond for the next pandemic,” offered Vikram Sheel Kumar, CEO of Clear Creek Bio. “We want to be ready for COVID-25, COVID-35.”

“There are a lot of unmet diseases out there that folks are trying to solve,” echoed Appili Therapeutics CEO Armand Balboni. “So, it’s not enough to just turn on the switch when there is a problem like this. We’ve got to invest in the companies and the science that are doing good work to try to solve these problems.”

In this season often associated with miracles, everyone’s enthusiasm and determination make me hopeful that we will.

Flipping the final page of the calendar, I look forward to new and brighter adventures, and hope that everyone in the DDN community discovers a 2021 filled with good health, good company and good science.

Randall C Willis can be reached at willis@drugdiscoverynews.com

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