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Why I Feel Hopeful That We'll Get COVID-19 Under Control

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Michael  W. Smith, MD - Blogs
By Michael W. Smith, MDBoard-certified internistApril 06, 2020

Even with the tragic news that we face each day, I can’t help but be hopeful. I’ll admit it – I’m an eternal optimist, but I have no doubt that we will find our way out of this.

How can I be hopeful in the face of such tragedy? Because there are amazingly smart people who are incredibly dedicated to ending this thing as soon as possible.

Advances in medical treatment take time. Most of this happens behind the scenes with scientists working diligently, often for many years, to discover new treatments. By the time you hear about them, they’re often nearing FDA approval.

While it may feel like nearly a lifetime at this point, we’ve known about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 for only 4 months. In this short amount of time, I’m quite impressed with the medical advancements we’ve already seen.

We have clinical trials already underway for treatments like hydroxychloroquine, with results likely coming in the next few months. That’s incredibly fast! And even though they’re not yet approved for general use, this drug, along with its sister drug, chloroquine, have already been given special approval from the FDA for use in treating COVID-19 patients in the hospital. Doctors are also already seeing promise with the HIV drug, remdesivir. Clinical trials are already underway, and researchers are working furiously on dozens of other antiviral drugs.

Another exciting treatment is the use of convalescent serum, which is blood from people who have recovered. When you have COVID-19, your immune system produces antibodies against the virus to help combat it. Those antibodies can treat someone who has an active infection – another promising strategy that doctors are currently testing. One disadvantage is that you’re dependent on the blood of past patients.

To help counter that, researchers are creating synthetic antibodies that could be used to both treat the infection and potentially help prevent it in someone who hasn’t yet been infected. This approach was used to fight past outbreaks like Ebola. While this strategy might not be used widespread, it could be useful to decrease the risk among those who are at particularly high risk, such as healthcare workers or those whose immune systems are suppressed, like cancer patients on chemotherapy.

I know we want – and need – these treatments now, but developing safe and effective medical treatments takes time. While I am confident and very hopeful these tools will help bring this pandemic to a close sooner than later, they aren’t the key to getting this under control.

These medicines buy us some very important time while we wait for the development of a vaccine – another medical advance that typically requires years of work to discover a safe and effective way to prevent an infection. It’ll take at least 12 to 18 months and scientists on the frontlines of this research say we’re on track so far to hit that mark. Again, that’s incredibly fast!

While there’s no doubt we need more testing, it has come a long way in a short time. One of the latest developments is a new antibody test. The nasal swab test that’s currently used detects the virus’ genetic material – called a PCR test. It diagnoses an active infection. The antibody blood test is different in a very important way. It detects the antibodies that our bodies create in response to the virus. Those antibodies stick around after we’re better and likely provide immunity.

Testing for these antibodies will help us identify people who already had COVID-19. That’s important given that at least 25% of people appear to have no symptoms. This will give us important perspective on how widespread the infection is. It may also identify people that can safely go out to start getting the economy back on track (we’re not 100% sure about the level of immunity provided by previous infection but those incredibly smart people are working on this too).  

Despite the medical advancements in testing, treating, and prevention, none of this is the key to ending the outbreak. That’s up to us. Social distancing and other behaviors, such as wearing cloth masks (not medical masks) are the cure for what ails us most immediately. And thankfully we have a lot of very special people – you – helping us get there.

Look at what’s going on around you every day in every American community and across the globe. People on lockdown making noise to celebrate healthcare professionals as they change shift. I get chills and tears when I hear the raucous.

Before this outbreak, nothing got me more choked up than seeing a soldier return home and surprise their family. Now, it’s seeing a loving family outside a nursing home with Happy Birthday signs, singing at the top of their lungs for their grandma. People are good.

Right now, it may look like this virus has the upper hand, but we are going to prevail. And when we do, I believe that we’ll be better as a community and closer as a nation because of it.

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About the Author
Michael W. Smith, MD

Michael Smith, MD, CPT, is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and WebMD’s Chief Medical Editor. He is also an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer with a passion for helping people live a healthy, active lifestyle. He appears regularly as an expert on national and local broadcast media.

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