This past Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci dropped a bombshell: No matter what we do, we may never fully eradicate the coronavirus.
Right now, the entire world is waiting with bated breath for the news that an effective coronavirus vaccine has finally been created and is ready to deploy to the public. Of course, this is a real possibility, and we have to stay hopeful. But we must manage our expectations, too.
During the past few months, Dr. Fauci has become a household name by telling people the hard truths that they don’t want to hear but need to hear. It’s Dr. Fauci’s job to remind us that there might not be a “magic bullet” to end this crisis — and even if there is, we can’t just wait around for it. We need to find other ways to make America safe.
The good news is we’ve done it before.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, isn’t the only killer virus devastating the United States at this moment. Approximately 1.2 million Americans are living with another virus that is just as deadly. Around the world, this virus has infected 75 million people and killed 32 million — a dramatically higher death rate than COVID-19.
So why haven’t you heard about it on the news? To put it simply: because it’s old news.
I’m referring to the two strains of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which cause acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV/AIDS was first reported in 1981, almost four decades ago — and after all that time it is still out there, taking lives. Our ability to treat HIV/AIDS has improved tremendously in those 39 years, and a diagnosis is no longer a death sentence as it once was.
Yet even after four decades, we have no cure. We don’t have a vaccine. And despite our best efforts, there is a good chance we never will.
President Donald Trump has set a timetable for creating a COVID-19 vaccine–that we will have one ready for widespread public use by the end of 2020. But we can’t count on this deadline. Vaccines can take years to develop, refine, approve and distribute, and one thing we absolutely can’t afford to do is to rush. Even if we develop a vaccine, it might come until well after Jan. 1, 2021 — and we must be wary of the potential risks of a vaccine that is developed, tested and approved too quickly.
But there are other sobering possibilities, too. For example, we might need more than one vaccine to fully eliminate the virus, especially to combat multiple strains. Take the influenza vaccine, for instance. Yes, the annual flu vaccine is effective and it saves many American lives every year, but it is also far from perfect; influenza mutates quickly, with multiple strains spreading every year, and we simply can’t predict all of them.
Another factor to consider is which countries would receive the vaccine first. This virus has a global scale unlike any pandemic in history, and it is paramount that everyone receives the vaccine. The international community must coordinate vaccination efforts together. Winning the battle isn’t enough; we need to win the war.
The worst-case scenario, of course, is that we find that a vaccine simply isn’t possible, at least not for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean that we are helpless, or that there is nothing we can do.
There is something that all of these scenarios have in common, even the worst and best cases: They all require that we take other measures in the meantime. Luckily, we already know how to start.
New York City, the former epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, recorded this week three straight days with zero coronavirus-related deaths. It’s hard to imagine that the country’s largest and most densely populated city is having cases fall while other states are experiencing dangerous spikes. This is proof that lockdowns work, that wearing masks work and that a slow and steady reopening can be done safely. If New York can do it, we can do it anywhere.
Wearing a mask and practicing social distancing are the best things everyday Americans can do to stop the spread of this terrible threat. Cities and states can implement intelligent, cautious policies that safeguard their residents and especially the most vulnerable Americans.
Testing is also a major step toward a safer country. This country was built on innovation, and we have adapted quickly. Coronavirus testing is quicker, easier, and more accessible now than any of us could have predicted a few months ago.
The reason I started this article with HIV isn’t that I think that it is similar to SARS-CoV-2 or that I think we need to prepare for 40 years of this. It’s because HIV teaches us that sometimes the key is to operate under the assumption that a cure or vaccine isn’t waiting around the corner.
HIV was never as contagious as the coronavirus, but it made up for that in lethality and persistence. We still don’t have a cure — but in the process of searching, we have found ways to keep HIV from becoming AIDS, to reduce rates of transmission, to encourage and facilitate testing, and to offer true treatment and relief. Even without a cure for this disease, we have worked miracles fighting against it.
We need to be ready for the worst-case scenario. A vaccine might well be around the corner, but we need to act under the assumption that it isn’t. Even as we reopen, we need to be ready to cancel our plans, put on our masks and start working remotely at the first sign that we need to lock down again. This must be done to minimize damage to the economy and to people’s livelihoods, to safeguard those for whom working from home isn’t an option and to make essential workers’ jobs safer.
Furthermore, we need to demand our leaders put concrete, comprehensive, facts-based plans in place for what to do in the case of a resurgence not months but even years down the line.
We can’t predict the future. What we can do is hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and remember that there is always something we can do to help one another.
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Commentary: America Must Rewire its Approach to Disease originally appeared on usnews.com