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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 3/13/20

Call for a 'Manhattan Project' against Epidemic Disease

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The Manhattan Project's First Atomic Explosion
The Manhattan Project's First Atomic Explosion
(Image by (From Wikimedia) FEMA News Photo, Author: FEMA News Photo)
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Fareed Zakaria interviewing medical expert Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN on March 1st remarked that our response to the coronavirus seems to be little different from measures taken to combat plagues of the Middle Ages dating back 600 years or more: quarantine and cleanliness. He could also have noted that similar to the panic reactions to plagues of the Middle Ages-- despite all our great scientific advances--the world population today feel as vulnerable and helpless with no sure method of escaping contagion in facing the coronavirus.

Dr.Gupta didn't dispute Zakaria's observation but added: "We have better answers today but they take time--time to develop effective treatments and vaccines."

So the challenge is how to cut the time.

When posed that way our answer to potential pandemics has been inefficient if not plain dumb, considering their extreme threat to life and the world economies.

Every time a new dangerous virus with pandemic potential arises we default to the market model of asking individual biotech companies to compete for a solution. Not only is this a fragmented approach, but precious time is lost while they gear up to for the monumental task?

Imagine if it were a life and death matter for you to get to a destination and your response was to dust off and crank up your old jalopy hoping to get it back on the road in a timely fashion.

That pretty much characterizes how the U.S. government fumbled in cranking up its response to the coronavirus crisis when there is a proven method for solving "the impossible."

Rattled by the coronavirus reversing "his" stock market surge, a furious Donald Trump declared springtime for health and germ-free America--promising that the arrival of warm weather will kill or scare off the coronavirus. However, his more immediate plan invoked the knee-jerk business-as-usual "leave it to the market" model.

That's why he called a meeting at the White House on March 2nd (two months after the world learned of the outbreak in Wuhan China) of the leading biotech companies. He pushed them to gear up for a winner-take-all competition. And gear up they will to capture the prize of substantial profits for getting to the finish line first.

But there's a hitch. Not all companies will jump in. Some are already backing off. The sticker price for research and development is scaring them. They fear if they don't win their losses will adversely affect company earnings and drive down the share prices of their stocks.

So competition that looks appealing at first blush may have serious flaws that compromise public health. And companies that don't participate in the competition may be eliminating talented scientists from the quest for effective treatments and a vaccine.

The success of the Manhattan Project in developing the atomic bomb offers a compelling reason why "leave it to the market" is not in the best public health interest for addressing potential pandemics.

In 1939 little was known about atomic fission. But Albert Einstein's work indicating that splitting the atom could unleash unimaginable destructive power prompted the scientist to warn President Franklin Roosevelt that Germany was possibly working on an atomic bomb. Perhaps because it sounded like science fiction, it wasn't until 1942, when the U.S. was well into WWII that FDR fully acted on that warning, fearing that Germany might get a bomb first and win the war.

To develop the bomb, FDR didn't call a meeting of representatives of tech companies with the prompt: "Compete: there are big bucks for the winner." Instead, he established the Manhattan Project located mainly in Los Alamos New Mexico where the greatest scientists from around the world were assembled. General Leslie Groves, the overall manager, was an "imposing personality who knew how to get things done." The brilliant physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was appointed to oversee the science side of the project. Starting from scratch, they achieved their goal in four years at a cost of $2 billion ($24 billion in today's dollars)--an amount or more that will be spent on defensive measures in response to the coronavirus, not a cure or future protection. The success of the Manhattan Project was a remarkable feat that could not have been accomplished by the market model of individual companies working independently.

Today we know much more about viruses and their related biology and chemistry than the Los Alamos scientists knew about atomic fission.

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Bernard Starr, PhD, is author of The Crucifixion of Truth, a drama set in 16th century Italy and Spain. Starr is a psychologist, journalist, and professor emeritus at CUNY, Brooklyn College. At Brooklyn College Starr taught developmental (more...)

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