The power of American innovation: from outer space to COVID-19

Saturday, September 12, 2020 - 10:45am

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Earlier this year, I watched NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley blast off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in a SpaceX rocket. When the roar of the rocket’s engine filled the air, I was reminded of the boundless potential of American science as a tall, sleek spacecraft climbed past the outer reaches of the earth’s atmosphere.

As exciting as I — and so many Americans — found this SpaceX rocket launch, there wasn’t anything unusual about it. For almost 250 years, Americans have been at the forefront of science and innovation. Whether it has been exploring the depths of space, making breakthroughs in medicine or lighting up our homes and businesses, the American scientific community has made the impossible possible, transforming countless dreams into reality. 

Since public health experts first began warning of the threat posed by COVID-19, scientific communities across the country haven’t disappointed one bit. Instead, doctors, epidemiologists and others have worked tirelessly on the front lines in order to eradicate COVID-19 and get life back to normal. Whether it be right here at the University of Michigan or in labs across the country, scientists have gone to work to find safe medicines and therapeutic, plasma and antibody treatments, as well as an effective vaccine. Six months since much of the nation first went into lockdown, the fight against this invisible enemy now looks more promising than ever before.

While an effective vaccine remains one of our greatest hopes to defeat COVID-19, innovators are working on countless other fronts in this rapidly evolving battle against the coronavirus. As this vital effort moves full steam ahead, one of the most promising advancements has taken the form of monoclonal antibody treatments, which are already undergoing testing by companies such as Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Eli Lilly and Co., according to the Wall Street Journal.

At the moment, if someone contracts COVID-19 and is in need of medical attention, there are few options outside of medicines like Remdesivir, which might be somewhat effective against the coronavirus for serious cases. Therefore, these monoclonal antibodies — which can help prevent patients from developing severe cases of COVID-19 — change everything in our battle against this virus. “The drugs, which are injected intravenously or with a short needle, have the potential to work soon after someone is infected and still feeling only slightly sick, stopping the virus in its tracks before the seriously afflicted would need to be hospitalized,” the Wall Street Journal noted. 

This exciting treatment also has the potential to prevent somebody from contracting COVID-19 in the first place, serving as a “temporary vaccine.” The United States has always prevailed even in the most trying times, and it’s become clear that monoclonal antibodies are another inspiring advancement from our nation’s scientific community that could help our country turn the page on the coronavirus crisis.

Excitingly, monoclonal antibodies are just one weapon in our growing arsenal against COVID-19. Another advancement somewhat similar to these monoclonal antibodies is convalescent plasma. As scientists have discovered, a patient who has been previously infected with COVID-19 is likely to have a high concentration of antibodies in their blood. This convalescent plasma treatment takes advantage of these antibodies, transferring them to a patient who is currently ill with the virus and is in serious need of help. “Hospitalized patients who received the plasma within three days of diagnosis, are under the age of 80 and not on mechanical ventilation, benefited the most, with a 35% improvement in survival 30 days after receiving the transfusion,” the Wall Street Journal reported. While experts note that convalescent plasma treatment doesn’t mean we don’t need monoclonal antibody treatments or an effective vaccine, this is nonetheless a major step in the right direction. Even small flickers of hope delivered by treatments like convalescent plasma mark significant strides from the beginning of the pandemic, when we knew nothing about how to combat COVID-19.

Finally, beyond all of these intriguing developments, the most promising tool in our battle against this pandemic is a safe and successful vaccine, which we’re racing toward in record time. Although there are numerous vaccine candidates in development across the globe, American companies like Moderna Therapeutics and Pfizer remain at the forefront of this unprecedented effort. With the vaccine being rolled out so quickly, some people have expressed concern that medical officials are rushing the final stages of development and testing due to political pressure from President Donald Trump, who is fighting for a second term in the White House against former Vice President Joe Biden. But health officials have repeatedly reassured Americans that the final vaccine distributed to patients across the country will be safe and effective, and manufacturers have pledged that they will not release a vaccine to the general public until it is safe for all Americans. We have every reason to believe that a proper vaccine will be rolled out at the right time, whether that is at the end of this year or sometime in 2021. When that exciting moment comes, our scientific community will have once again proved its unwavering commitment to advancing the well-being of all Americans.

Ultimately, it is nothing short of inspiring to see the power of American science and innovation in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Whether the solution be promising therapeutics, antibody treatments or a vaccine, one thing is certain: We will prevail in our fight against this invisible enemy. With the successful record of scientific innovation in the U.S. spanning back hundreds of years, it is only a matter of time before our most talented doctors, health experts and innovators successfully eradicate the coronavirus once and for all.

Evan Stern can be reached at erstern@umich.edu.