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Working Together to Beat COVID-19

posted: August 25, 2020

By Michael Ybarra, MD, FAPCR

The fight against COVID-19 takes place both in the clinical setting and in the research lab. As a practicing emergency physician and vice president of medical affairs at the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), I have a unique vantage point to see both of these battlefronts.

Clinically, I practice emergency medicine in Washington, D.C. I witness firsthand how critical it is that we have accurate, accessible and rapid testing widely available to understand and slow the spread of the virus, particularly for vulnerable populations. At the outset of the pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry began working in conjunction with other life sciences companies to rapidly develop new diagnostics to test for the virus. Companies are using their specialized research laboratories to analyze samples taken in health care facilities and turn around results in a clinically meaningful timeframe. Since I began seeing patients with COVID-19 in March, we’ve made progress in diagnosing the virus quickly and accurately.

At PhRMA, the trade association in Washington, D.C. that represents the biopharmaceutical companies leading the charge to find new therapeutics and vaccines, I get to see firsthand the around-the-clock efforts that companies are undertaking to fight the pandemic. The biopharmaceutical industry is rapidly screening its vast global libraries of medicines to identify potential treatments and make those medicines available to patients through clinical trials and compassionate use, as well as developing new medicines and vaccines.

Research and development for COVID-19 therapeutics largely fits into four broad buckets: antivirals, anti-inflammatories, antibodies and vaccines. As our knowledge of the virus has progressed, we’ve come to learn of the importance of two more categories of medicines for certain patients: anticoagulants and antibiotics. At my own medical center, we are participating in a number of these clinical trials to better understand which of these therapies should form the cornerstone of care for patients with COVID-19. All of these efforts, from the lab to the frontlines, are helping to build our arsenal against the virus.

Biopharmaceutical companies are also working to develop a vaccine for COVID-19: the north star to prevent future infections and ultimately end the pandemic. They are also exploring a variety of approaches to vaccine technology, including novel approaches like mRNA vaccines. While companies are advancing these efforts at an unprecedented speed, vaccine candidates are still undergoing a extensive clinical testing and review process to ensure safety and efficacy and will continue to be monitored long after they are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Many companies have also committed to manufacturing billions of doses of vaccines, which will help ensure that vulnerable patients, as well as the general public, can receive vaccines as soon as possible.

As the outbreak of COVID-19 developed in the United States, we saw a need for the public and private sector to work hand-in-hand to solve issues facing patients and clinicians beyond the development of medicines. Right now, PhRMA is working with Healthcare Ready – a non-profit founded after Hurricane Katrina to help patients access medicines following natural disasters – to provide financial support and in-kind donations of personal protective equipment, medicines and critical medical supplies to areas in need. Many biopharmaceutical companies contributed masks and other equipment to the hardest hit parts of the country in addition to significant financial aid. In turn, Healthcare Ready has served as a central coordination point between the health care supply chain and government agencies to use these donations to build and enhance the resiliency of these communities.

I’ve also seen first-hand the reality of disparities for patients infected with COVID-19, and have watched as the pandemic has been particularly challenging for older individuals, people with chronic diseases and minority populations. While we are just beginning to understand why these disparities exist, it is clear that the status quo must change.

Each day, I’m inspired as I work with my colleagues in the emergency department and at PhRMA to fight COVID-19. Since March, the health care industry has been working in lockstep to beat COVID-19, and these collaborative efforts continue to bring us closer to that goal.