My Turn: Time to cram for humanity’s final exam

For the Monitor
Published: 5/17/2020 6:20:03 AM

Nature presents us with a series of tests. Asteroid impacts, supervolcanoes, ice ages and viruses are on the syllabus.

Fortunately SARS-CoV-2 was more of a pop quiz, because if this had been a midterm exam (e.g. a modified poxvirus, Ebola/flu hybrid, or bunyavirus), no one would have “passed” except for the crews of the International Space Station and submarines.

The FDA banned all hospitals and pharma companies from providing PCR tests for the disease for the critical early months. The virus was discovered and sequenced in December 2019. But until Feb. 29 the experts at Mayo, John Hopkins, Roche, Co-Diagnostics, etc., were all legally out of action. Dr. Helen Chu in Washington State broke the regulations and began testing on Feb. 25, discovering that the virus had already become widespread.

Again, if this had been a weapon virus instead of a bat cold, we’d all be dead.

The CDC supplied a “PCR test” that not only didn’t work, but wasn’t even designed for current-generation fast PCR machines. So even if it had worked, it wouldn’t have been able to test enough people to matter. Yet this CDC product was forced into use at the very hospitals that are capable of making functional, current-technology tests.

Without detection, it’s hard to fight any disease, let alone one that can be spread for days by asymptomatic carriers. That left the basic techniques of sanitation. The CDC leaped into action, and told subway workers, meat packers, ordinary people on crowded transit, etc., not to wear masks. I was castigated by election workers in my town when I dared to wear my N95 and gloves to the voting line. They were just passing on the CDC wisdom. (I asked them how the virus would know whether I were a health worker or not.)

The CDC was worried that there would be a mask shortage. They weren’t wrong about that, since the U.S. mask stockpile hadn’t been restocked since the H1N1 epidemic. Neither political party’s administration found it expedient to spend some tiny sum on basic civil defense, when the money could be spent on interfering in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, etc.

Then there’s sanitizer, which we still aren’t allowed to purchase from the ethanol makers. On May 9, in the midst of a fuel glut so dire that the Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) are being used for oil storage, the ethanol producers can’t legally sell ethanol for sanitizer.

Even household staples fell victim to an inflexible system. Toilet paper that was approved for “commercial” use wasn’t easy to divert into “consumer” supply channels. Foodstuffs were stuck in their artificial categories. Closed restaurants have closets full of pasta and canned goods, while grocery stores are short.

And then there is the great bipartisan project to fight the virus by printing money to give the president a slush fund of hundreds of billions to hand out in corporate welfare.

Okay, seriously. We failed the pop quiz. What do we need to cram for to pass the Really Final Exam?

There are supposedly about 93 companies working on a vaccine. That’s nice for later. It’s also irrelevant to surviving the initial phase of any pandemic.

There are some promising drug trials. If we keep our attention span this time, then we might be able to react more quickly against SARS-CoV-3, but there are still all the other natural viruses, plus any artificial ones that would be designed specifically to be immune to treatments.

Improvements in overall health would help. The death rate is far higher among people who are older, obese, asthmatic, etc. While we usually think of “old age” as a constant, biochemically it’s not. Dr. Charles Brenner’s lab in Iowa has shown in cell culture that raising NAD+ levels keeps the virus from downregulating PARP10, part of the innate cellular defense. Fighting aging itself fights all pathogens.

Hippocrates said, “First, do no harm.” Before the next pandemic hits, our hospitals must be immune from political interference. The FDA and CDC should not have the power to stop Mayo Clinic, John Hopkins, et al from finding and treating disease.

And we need to stock our pantries to be ready for not just this disease, but the next one. There is no “right to infect.” Wandering around fighting in the toilet paper aisle during an epidemic is going to get our species a failing grade on our Final Exam.

(Bill Walker works for medical-imaging database company M2S in West Lebanon. He spent 2008 running q-PCR in a Mayo Clinic research lab.)


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