April 28, 2020
By Naomi Lopez

The 1918 flu pandemic took an estimated 50 million lives worldwide, including about 675,000 people in the United States. A big part of the reason that today’s COVID-19 pandemic can be more easily mitigated, while still deadly and tragic, is thanks in large part to 21st-century medical advances and innovation that are now being deployed.

In a look back at the 1918 pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control detail how researchers and scientists examined and answered important questions that harnessed modern medical technology to prepare for future health crises:

“The virus’ unique severity puzzled researchers for decades, and prompted several questions, such as ‘Why was the 1918 virus so deadly?’, ‘Where did the virus originate from?’, and ‘What can the public health community learn from the 1918 virus to better prepare for and defend against future pandemics?’ These questions drove an expert group of researchers and virus hunters to search for the lost 1918 virus, sequence its genome, recreate the virus in a highly safe and regulated laboratory setting at CDC, and ultimately study its secrets to better prepare for future pandemics.”

Many of the same technologies are now leading the “genomic surveillance” effort. At the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute, commonly known as “tgen,” researchers are using 21st-century science to understand and battle COVID-19. Using the genomic sequencing information of confirmed positive patients, tgen is able to identify the specific strains of virus, monitor the virus’ mutations, and track each strain’s spread.

One application of this genomic epidemiology work is to understand and estimate the level of protective immunity in a given community. For example, researchers are finding a much higher rate of virus exposure in New York City compared to some of the western states. In Arizona, for example, only about 7 percent of the suspected COVID-19 cases are positive.

Among many of its COVID-19 activities as discussed in a recent webinar, tgen is testing and monitoring the antibodies of confirmed cases over time. This effort may be crucial in understanding if and to what extent a previous exposure provides protection from future COVID-19 exposure. Genomic medicine is now playing an important role in accelerating the drug discovery process and holds the potential to eventually match each individual patient with a treatment.

As we navigate our way through the current crisis, it may be easy to forget just how important our modern technology and innovation has changed the reality of living through a pandemic. After all, grocery delivery, telemedicine, and internet streaming allow us almost immediate options for food, health, and entertainment. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the important role that healthcare innovation now plays in the re-opening of America and, more important, our overall prospects for survival.

Healthcare policy at the Goldwater Institute is aimed at getting the right treatment, to the right patient, and at the right time. The innovations and tools that are now being deployed are bringing us ever closer to that goal.

Naomi Lopez is Director of Healthcare Policy at the Goldwater Institute.

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