NIH Head Francis Collins Sees ‘Hope for Humanity’ in Pandemic Response

Dr. Francis Collins

Title: Director, National Institutes of Health

Location: Bethesda, Maryland

The National Institutes of Health is the largest biomedical research agency in the world. In April 2020, NIH launched a public-private partnership to coordinate a research strategy for speeding development of the most promising treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. As agency head, Collins led that unprecedented initiative.

As told to Lisa Esposito, as part of U.S. News & World Report’s “One Pandemic Question” series. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What have you found most hopeful and most concerning throughout the pandemic?

I’ve spent my whole life working to be part of how science can help the human condition. As dark and dreary and awful as the last 18 months have been, science has really risen to that challenge.

I am feeling remarkably fortunate to have been part of the challenge where the scientific community was asked to step forward at unprecedented speed, accuracy and safety to save lives — and we have done that. Probably hundreds of thousands of lives will be saved by the vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostic tests that we at NIH have been right in the middle of producing.

I wish that we didn’t have to do this. I wish we hadn’t had a pandemic. But since it happened, it was a great honor to be able to stand at the helm of the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world and utilize all of those skills, all that dedication and all that great science to make this an outcome where lives are saved.

[Read: Questions to Ask Your Doctor About the COVID-19 Vaccine.]

There have been many scary moments throughout the pandemic. Probably, for me, the most frightening was in April of 2020, when the pandemic was spreading rapidly in New York and surrounding areas. We all saw refrigerated trucks pulling up outside of hospitals, trying to make extra space for the bodies to be placed. Until then, maybe, we all had hopes that this pandemic might be possible to get control of quickly. And then it was clear: It wasn’t going to be.

To me, a sign that we’ve turned the corner is that those of us who are fully immunized can take off our masks indoors with other people who are immunized, share a meal together and hug each other at the end of the evening. And we’re there!

We’re a lot better prepared for the next pandemic by having gone through this experience. But we need to be careful not to slip into complacency as we begin to put COVID-19 behind us. And let’s be clear: We’re not there yet, either.

We’ve learned a lot. We’ve identified ways that we could do better preparation if we knew, for instance, what the likely next infectious agent for a future pandemic would be. We could start now to develop at least the first steps in vaccines and therapeutic drugs. And we should probably do that because we have a pretty good idea of the list of most likely candidates, maybe 20 or so of them.

We don’t know precisely what will arise. Just like coronaviruses are a family, it doesn’t mean you will know what specific virus might emerge in that family, but you could get started with a pretty good sense of the kinds of therapeutics and vaccines you would need to develop and get those first steps taken care of. Why not get started now? We’ve talked about it in the past but we’ve haven’t really done it. Maybe this time we’ll be motivated.

We’ve also learned that testing is critical to find out who has the infection in order to quickly get them isolated and stop the spread. We got off to a rough start with testing this time. One of the lessons we have learned over the last 16 months is that we need to support that area scientifically, as well.

Thanks to NIH’s RADx project, there’s now a wealth of new technologies for testing, including the ability to do this at point-of-care and not have to send samples off to a central lab and wait days for the results. Even home testing is now possible for COVID-19. The same technologies that work for this virus should be readily adaptable for almost any other respiratory virus. So, we’re in a much better place now, if this were to happen again, to bring testing forward quickly.

We’ll also need to continue reinforcing the things that we’ve known all along: If you have an airborne infectious disease you need to keep people from being close to each other, especially in indoor spaces if that disease is spreading. Unfortunately, those simple rules have gotten all tangled up with a lot of political considerations. As a nation, we didn’t do a very good job this time of applying those basic principles. Actions were always more controversial than they needed to be for simple measures like physical distancing and mask wearing.

[SEE: What to Say to Friends or Family Members Who Hesitate to Wear a Mask.]

Another lesson from the pandemic has caused me as a scientist to recognize just how critical partnerships are. One of the things we have done is bring together scientists — from across all the sectors — to figure out: How can we go faster than we ever have? How do we break down all the usual barriers that keep us from being as efficient as we might be? To address COVID-19, everybody was willing to do that.

So I learned the value of building teams in ways that would not have been thought possible but made things happen more quickly than ever. And we all built scientific relationships that before might have seemed impossible.

A good example is the ACTIV partnership that I’ve had the chance to co-lead involving 20 pharmaceutical companies and multiple government agencies — all working together in a seamless fashion to produce the vaccines and test the treatments, not worrying about who’s going to get the credit. I will remember that when somebody says, ‘Well, you just can’t do things that quickly.’ Oh, yes you can — when it really matters, it’s possible.

It also gave me great hope for humanity that you could see such willingness of people to set aside their own personal concerns and ambitions and just do everything they could to try and provide some answers to the terrible suffering and death that COVID-19 has brought down upon the whole world.

My heart still breaks for the rest of the world, even as we celebrate the improved circumstances in the U.S. — and we’ve waited a long, hard time to get there. But much of the rest of the world is still in serious trouble. And, so, we have to turn our eyes toward those who are less fortunate and figure out how we, as a country that has resources, technologies and skills, will vigorously reach out to offer help.

More from U.S. News

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