The legacy of the COVID-19 era is largely characterized by a series of governmental and para-governmental failures. The Chinese Communist Party’s failure to tackle the virus before it became a pandemic, the inability of governments around the world to curb international spread, and the World Health Organization’s concerning behavior with respect to the Chinese government turned what could have been a limited epidemic into a global pandemic of disturbing proportions.
Perhaps most concerning from an American perspective, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was seemingly unprepared for a pandemic, even in the context of two serious and global novel coronavirus outbreaks in as many decades.
The CDC stepped in early to implement widespread testing, but contaminated the very test kits they themselves produced. At every level of government, officials stood by powerless as the virus tore through the population, disproportionately affecting persons of color.
On the state level, we have seen the New York governor bungle his pandemic policies surrounding nursing homes, and then attempt to cover up the unimaginable human suffering which resulted. The Los Angeles mayor boldly declared “Snitches get rewards”, while encouraging citizens to report each other for breaking quarantine. Meanwhile, Hollywood continued business as usual: production of music, films, and television was deemed ‘essential’.
However, though blunted by the dark curtain of the ineptitude of the public sector, the light of private enterprise has continued to shine brightly. Remdesivir, a drug developed by Gilead Sciences originally for investigation in the treatment of unrelated viruses, was found in trials to yield improved outcomes when used to treat moderate to severely ill COVID-19 patients within mere months of the virus going global. The U.S. community hospital system, more than 2/3rds of which is composed of privately-managed facilities, buckled under the strain of the pandemic, but held. Other systems around the world were not so fortunate.
Any vaccine seemed far off in those first few months. The U.S. government, in “Operation Warp Speed,” tellingly turned to the private sector and not their own agencies or proxies to develop a vaccine and other desperately needed COVID-19 technologies; more than $10 Billion was spent across multiple firms. In a monumental scientific achievement, the first ever mRNA-based vaccine to receive regulatory go-ahead was approved in December 2020, just over a year after the virus first emerged. Another mRNA vaccine followed later that very month.
Many have proven squeamish about the new technology in these vaccines, but they may be relieved by recent news. Recently, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine received FDA emergency use authorization. Although another example of scientific progress in that it is one of the first adenovirus vector vaccines to see widespread use, it induces immunity through a more traditional and direct mechanism than seen in the mRNA vaccines. Administered in a single dose, it will likely see greater compliance. As added bonuses, it is easier to store and transport than the other approved vaccines, and was developed on a not-for-profit basis. As expected, the market has offered consumers choice.
That both the Trump and Biden administrations have botched the rollout of vaccines does nothing to reduce the stunning achievements they represent. The innovation and flexibility of the private sector has proven invaluable through this pandemic, not only through the development of vaccines, but also testing, treatment, and ancillary services. As we enter an era where governments are likely to play a much larger role in healthcare, we would do well not only to remember public sector failures, but also the private sector successes in this era, lest we have a rude awakening during the next global crisis.
Grant Whitmer studied biochemistry and economics at Case Western Reserve University and is currently studying at Northwestern University’s Feinberg school of medicine where he has worked clinical rotations throughout the pandemic.