Coronavirus Pandemic Tests US Science Policy Response

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Publication date: 
18 March 2020
Number: 
30

With the White House’s early response drawing broad criticism, top government officials are scrambling to mobilize scientific expertise and resources to blunt the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

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A scanning electron microscope image of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, colored orange, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19.

A scanning electron microscope image of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, colored orange, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19.

(Image credit – National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases / Rocky Mountain Laboratories)

As the coronavirus respiratory disease COVID-19 spreads across the U.S. and the globe, the apparatuses of American science policy are being called into action. Top government officials are scrambling to integrate expertise in biomedicine and public health into the U.S. response, with the White House’s early efforts broadly criticized as confused and insufficient. Meanwhile, federal science agencies are mobilizing to understand and address the threat at scales ranging from the epidemiological to the molecular.

White House ramps up response amid criticism

The focal point for the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic is its Coronavirus Task Force, which the White House established on Jan. 29. Among its key members are Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield, and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci.

Three weeks ago, on Feb. 26, the White House stepped up its efforts when Vice President Mike Pence took over leadership of the task force from Azar. The next day, the White House named Debbie Birx, a career civil servant who is the State Department’s special representative for global health diplomacy, as its coronavirus response coordinator.

The administration’s efforts to date have drawn extensive criticism for being slow and poorly coordinated. In particular, although the World Health Organization (WHO) and countries such as China and South Korea developed testing capabilities during the early phases of the outbreak, the U.S. is struggling to ramp up its own testing capacity, leaving the country with little data on the virus’ spread. Late last week, the U.S. established a special team to help tackle the problem.

Another criticism has revolved around inconsistent messaging, with President Trump often contradicting statements made by experts such as Fauci, who has been praised for his forthrightness. Throughout January and February, Trump consistently downplayed the threat from the virus, suggested tests would soon be widely available, and said a vaccine would arrive “very quickly.” Science magazine editor-in-chief Holden Thorp criticized Trump’s rhetoric in a scathing editorial last week, writing that he should “start treating science and its principles with respect.”

There have also been questions about the White House’s general ability to mobilize resources and plan effectively. These include whether or not the National Security Council’s disbanding of its dedicated biodefense office in 2018 detracted from preparedness, and what role the president’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner is playing in shaping White House actions.

President Trump ultimately declared a state of national emergency on March 13, two days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by WHO. “This is a pandemic,” Trump acknowledged yesterday, claiming, “I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

Agencies prioritizing COVID-related research

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President Trump toured NIH’s Vaccine Research Center on March 3 with NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, center, and NIH Director Francis Collins, left.

President Trump toured NIH’s Vaccine Research Center on March 3 with NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, center, and NIH Director Francis Collins, left.

(Image credit – NIH)

Among federal science agencies, CDC and NIH are playing the lead role in the federal government’s response to the pandemic. CDC is focused on expanding testing capacity, monitoring COVID-19’s spread, and preventing new infections. NIH’s efforts, concentrated in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, are focused on studying the characteristics of the virus and developing vaccines and treatments.

On March 16, NIH initiated a six week clinical trial of a new vaccine developed in collaboration with the biotechnology company Moderna. The aim of the “phase 1” study is to evaluate different doses for safety and the ability to produce an immune response. NIAID Director Fauci said the trial was launched with “record speed,” though he has noted new vaccines will likely not be available to the public for at least a year. NIH began another clinical trial in February to test the safety and efficacy of an experimental antiviral drug that could be used in treatments of individuals who already have COVID-19.

Congress has provided federal agencies with additional resources through an initial $8.3 billion emergency spending package enacted on March 6 that includes $2.2 billion for CDC and $836 million for NIH. Much larger spending bills currently working their way through Congress will focus on mitigating the pandemic’s impacts on the economy and medical infrastructure. The Trump administration is also preparing a supplemental budget request for fiscal year 2021 that walks back its proposed cut to NIAID and seeks an 8%, $635 million boost for CDC. 

Various agencies have issued special funding opportunities to support coronavirus research, including NIH, CDC, and the National Science Foundation. NSF announced on March 4 it is accepting applications for “non-medical, non-clinical-care” coronavirus research through a rapid response funding mechanism that it activates in the wake of major disasters. The agency is also considering proposals for relevant software development activities and access to its advanced computing resources. Among the first RAPID grants is one going to a team of physicists that will study how the structure of the coronavirus is affected by changes in temperature and humidity.

Although DOE is curtailing activities at many of its facilities to guard against spread of the virus, it is making resources available for work related to COVID-19. For instance, scientists at Oak Ridge National Lab have used the Summit supercomputer to model molecular interactions between the virus and over 8,000 drug compounds, and Argonne National Lab’s Advanced Photon Source was used to map the virus’ protein structure to identify potential drug targets. Last week, DOE issued a request for input on how these and other facilities, such as its Joint Genome Institute and Environmental Molecular Science Lab, could further support research on the coronavirus.

OSTP works to facilitate exchange of research

To complement research already underway, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has focused on tapping external experts to shape research agendas and increase access to relevant publications. Just prior to joining the administration’s coronavirus task force on March 1, OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier asked the National Academies to establish a standing committee on emerging and infectious diseases. Per Droegemeier, the committee will quickly respond to government information needs and inform future planning “well beyond the current crisis.”

The committee is chaired by former National Academy of Medicine President Harvey Fineberg. At its first meeting on March 11, it scoped out a broad range of short and long-term research needs related to the pandemic. Some of the more pressing topics of discussion focused on the research needed to fully understand the virus’ geographic distribution among the population, its incubation period and potential for spread, and persistence of the virus on surfaces, which will inform decontamination and social isolation efforts.

On March 13, OSTP joined with science advisers from 11 other countries to request that scientific publishers make all COVID-19-related papers freely accessible and associated data available in a machine-readable format. The same day, the International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers, which represents organizations publishing about two-thirds of all journal articles, announced it would work to create centralized collections of relevant articles and increase access to the underlying data where possible. It also noted its members had already moved to open up and aggregate such articles. On March 16, additional publishers committed to making coronavirus-related papers and associated data immediately accessible through public repositories. 

Also on March 16, OSTP announced that the National Library of Medicine, Microsoft, and several non-profit groups have partnered to create a new open COVID-19 dataset. OSTP asked the artificial intelligence community to leverage the dataset, guided by the research questions identified by the National Academies committee and WHO, which created a Global Research Roadmap in February identifying key knowledge gaps.

Anthony Goldbloom, CEO of Kaggle, a platform that will aggregate the tools and insights AI researchers develop, remarked in a statement on the new dataset, “It’s difficult for people to manually go through more than 20,000 articles and synthesize their findings. Recent advances in technology can be helpful here.”