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US COVID-19 Resurgence: Epidemiologist Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding

COVID-19 Insights Healthcare July 06, 2020
COVID-19 Insights Healthcare July 06, 2020
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As part of its fifth annual Prescriptions for Success Healthcare Conference, BMO Capital Markets hosted Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, renowned Epidemiologist and Health Economist at The Harvard Chan School of Public Health, and Senior Fellow, Federation of American Scientists, to talk about the global dialogue around COVID-19 and other pressing issues in global health. BMO Capital Markets Chief Executive Officer Dan Barclay opened the keynote panel by noting that the silver lining emerging in the crisis is, “that people across the globe are more in tune to what leading scientists have to say.”

In an hour-long conversation with BMO healthcare sector analysts, Dr. Feigl-Ding, an early whistleblower on the pandemic, opened his remarks to state that COVID-19 continues to rage on whilst causing the world to rethink every dimension of healthcare. Citing from his group’s original research, Dr. Feigl-Ding debunked public misinformation to say that the surge in cases cannot be explained away with the increase in testing.

“I want to…emphasize that you have to look at both the growth in testing volume and the growth in the number of cases together. And then, if case growth is outstripping the testing growth, you know the pandemic truly is rising,” Dr. Feigl-Ding said, sounding the alarm on a clear resurgence of cases in many U.S. states, including the obvious Florida, Texas, Arizona and less obvious Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oklahoma.

Despite the resurgence, Dr. Feigl-Ding noted that lockdowns are not sustainable and that mask use is proving to be the easiest way to mitigate transmission of the virus.

“If we have 95% compliance on the cloth masks, we can shrink the epidemic down to below R-1, ‘R’ being every infected person and how many additional people they infect,” he said.

Dr. Feigl-Ding said AI is also being put to use in the fight against COVID-19, like the use of the U.S. government’s second-fastest supercomputer – one that fills entire rooms – to search the NIH’s database of three billion compounds to identify ones that bind to coronavirus.

“And after running three billion compounds from it, so far they've actually found 250 hits of potential compounds that actually bind to coronavirus … and many of them are actually already approved and 10 of them already can be fast-tracked through safety testing, because they're already existing drugs,” he said.

Vaccination timing

The global race for a vaccine is also cause for optimism. Dr. Feigl-Ding said, noting global efforts that extend from the U.S. to the W.H.O. to China. He pointed to work done by the Oxford Group, which is applying technology used to treat other viruses to COVID-19, as one potentially promising example.

Dr. Feigl-Ding said a vaccine could be ready within five to six months, when it could be available for front line workers, although it might not be until the spring of 2021 before it can be produced in sufficient quantities to distribute to the broader public and allow for herd immunity.

“You have to vaccinate basically four out of five people to in order to protect the remainder, and to get to 80% of the world vaccinated or immune is going to require billions and billions of doses,” he said.

Knock-on Effect

As resources are reallocated from regular vaccinations into pandemic funds and the race for a COVID vaccine, Dr. Feigl-Ding noted there may be broader repercussions in healthcare, like reduced awareness initiatives for the influenza vaccine.

“It's almost like a cannibalism situation in which we're destroying another part of public health in order to fuel either research or implementation programs into COVID,” he said.

This, combined with the growing “anti-vaxxer” movement that opposes vaccinations in children for common preventable childhood illnesses, like measles or whooping cough, is cause for concern, Dr. Feigl-Ding said.

The Wider Global Health Panorama - NCDs

Even as the world focuses on halting the coronavirus, Dr. Feigl-Ding said that chronic, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), like obesity and diabetes, are reaching near-epidemic proportions in the U.S. and China as well as developing countries, like the Middle East and Africa.

He called for new financing mechanisms for the most common NCDs, suggesting they should be treated as equally essential as many of the infrastructure projects that receive funding in these countries. One solution may be found in blended financing, a combination of private sector investments into government and public health programs that lower the incidence of chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, or heart disease risk factors.

He pointed out that the increasing prevalence of these diseases is a function of economic maturity. As populations become more able to fend off infectious diseases, they live longer and more sedentary lifestyles, and become more prone to chronic ailments.

“These NCDs are diseases of economic development…and bridging the finance gap is critical.”

Healthcare Access

To fight the rise in chronic disease, developing nations who have a deficit of healthcare professionals need to make greater access to healthcare paramount, he said. Some countries have responded to this deficit by growing mobile health and e-health capabilities. Similarly, they have loosened restrictions that have proven quite effective and which allow nurses to prescribe medication.

Sometimes, however, solutions to fight chronic disease can be quite a bit simpler.

“What is critically needed are targeted community intervention programs - and special financing vehicles to drive such investments, such as done by the nonprofit Health Finance Institute,” he said.

Silver Lining

As BMO Capital Markets CEO Dan Barclay stated in opening the keynote panel, one clear silver lining to emerge from the pandemic so far has been that the world is more in tune with what leading scientists have to say, whether it’s about COVID-19 or other pressing aspects of the healthcare system.

Even as scientists and governments continue to wrestle with how best to address aspects of the outbreak, whether it’s dealing with asymptomatic transmission or incubation periods and the incidence of immunity, governments and the healthcare industry are uniting to face this common global crisis.

“It's the first time in the world in which everyone is actually paying attention to every single argument that scientists have, where previously all that was kept behind academia walls or research labs,” said Dr. Feigl-Ding. “Everything has come to the forefront very quickly.”

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