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American innovation helps patients beat coronavirus

By Kenneth E. Thorpe | 5/29/2020, 6 a.m.
American scientists are working furiously to develop treatments for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
American innovation helps patients beat coronavirus Konstantin Kolosov

American scientists are working furiously to develop treatments for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

No group of patients needs a vaccine more than those with chronic conditions.

Patients with just one chronic disease who contract COVID-19 are 80 percent more likely to experience a "poor outcome"— like hospitalization or death— than those without any chronic conditions, according to recent studies.

Fortunately for Americans living with chronic disease, the United States leads the world in medical innovation. As long as policymakers protect this innovation ecosystem, U.S. scientists will surely produce vaccines and treatments relatively quickly— and keep our nation healthy through this crisis and for years to come.

Americans are rightly worried about COVID-19. More than 100,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and nearly two million have tested positive for the disease.

Patients with chronic diseases are particularly vulnerable. Forty percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients have some type of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease. Other chronic conditions— like arthritis, diabetes and cancer— could make it harder for the body to fight the virus.

But our scientists will rise to this challenge and invent new therapies, just as they have countless times in the past. Heart disease death rates have declined 36 percent since 2000, largely thanks to new and better medicines. Similarly, cancer death rates have declined 27 percent since the 1990s.

Health gains like this come at a hefty price. It takes up to 15 years and $2.6 billion to develop just one new medicine. And only 12 percent of drugs that begin clinical trials ever make it to pharmacy shelves. Drug companies and their investors will only roll the dice on novel research projects if they have a chance of recouping their development losses and earning a return.

Because the United States fairly values medicines, scientists have a strong incentive to launch research projects here. All told, American firms develop half of the world's new medicines.

Researchers tend to flee countries whose governments arbitrarily cap prices of new medicines. Consider that in the 1970s, Europe produced more than half of the world's new medicines. But throughout the 1980s, many European countries imposed increasingly strict price controls on drugs. As a result, today Europe produces only 33 percent of all new drugs.

Unfortunately, some lawmakers want to implement similar price controls in the United States. A few members of Congress attempted to slip a price control into one of the first COVID-19 spending packages. The provision would have allowed the government to dictate the price of any COVID-19 vaccine that resulted from the emergency funding.

Congress wisely stripped out that provision, which would have discouraged investments into COVID-19 cures, vaccines, and therapies. Congress' decision is great news for every American hoping for a COVID-19 vaccine, especially those living with chronic disease.

COVID-19 poses an enormous threat to American society -- but our smartest scientists are already on the case. Let's hope our policymakers don't put any stumbling blocks along their path to a cure— whether for coronavirus or any other dangerous disease.

Kenneth E. Thorpe is a professor of health policy at Emory University and chairman of the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease