At this moment, no one knows when the Coronavirus pandemic will end, or what the eventual cost to the United States or world economy will be. Already, the virus has sickened thousands, and a great many of those have died. Likely, many thousands more will get sick and die — and we may not even have hit “peak” yet. It is a tragedy of enormous proportions.
Seeing any good coming out of this disaster presents great difficulty for most of us. But I believe that there is good here, if only we take advantage of it. We are being taught a very valuable lesson; whether we learn is entirely up to us.
We live in a world today that has the capacity to feed, clothe, and shelter every single human being. The fact that anyone anywhere goes without food is due entirely to distribution failures caused by wars and despotic governments. In only one area are we unable to provide all that is needed: curing disease. Despite all that we currently have achieved in the area of medicine (such as raising American life expectancy by some 30 years over the course of a century), there is so much that we still do not know, and still cannot do.
What we do know is that investing more in medical research could save lives. If only we knew more about viruses, how they mutate, how to stop the spread, and how to develop vaccines for new viral strains, we might be able to prevent another pandemic such as we are now combating.
With the benefit of hindsight, we see that perhaps a mere fraction of what this pandemic is costing us today could have been spent to find an effective vaccine or cure had we invested in research.
I believe that we can, if only we are willing to pay the price to do so. We have already seen how rapidly global researchers have joined the fight to develop a vaccine for the Coronavirus. With the benefit of hindsight, we see that perhaps a mere fraction of what this pandemic is costing us today could have been spent to find an effective vaccine or cure had we invested more in research.
Obviously, we could not have predicted this particular virus, and developed a specific vaccine and cure. But we could probably have learned more about viruses and how to defeat them, if we had spent more money in the effort. Medical research has aided us to defeat many bacterial illnesses (like the black plague and typhus), but viral diseases still pose a grave threat to humans. Cancer and bacterial resistance to antibiotics are also areas of medical concern that will benefit from increased medical research.
The money to do so is there. We just spend it on other things. Walk through any large mall in America, and recognize how little of what is being sold is necessary. Many stores are selling jewelry, cosmetics, fancy clothing, sporting goods, and innumerable other luxuries. We spend many millions on sporting events and entertainment. We have reached a level of productivity that it takes very few people to produce the necessities of life. Thus, we are able to enjoy having a great deal of those things that we really don’t need for survival.
My point is not that we shouldn’t have these things, but that all of that is at risk when a pandemic such as we are presently experiencing arises. If we do not allocate enough of our wealth to preventing and eradicating disease, it could happen again. We are a very rich nation, but we are witnessing how rapidly that wealth can disappear as a result of a single disease.
If we do not allocate enough of our wealth to preventing and eradicating disease, this could happen again.
History demonstrates that we can accomplish great things when we devote ourselves to the task. In less than 70 years after the first flight of an airplane, we sent men to the moon and brought them safely home. Consider what we accomplished during World War II when our survival as a nation depended upon our victory. We fought two enemies of freedom on opposite sides of the world, and in less than five years defeated them both. In record time, utilizing some of our smartest scientists we harnessed the power of the atom and developed a weapon that enabled us to bring the war to an end.
We have in recent years made great strides in combating disease. We have managed to develop vaccines against some of the worst diseases known to man. When I was a child, polio struck fear into the hearts of parents across our nation. Today, it is rare due to medical research that led to a vaccine. When HIV and AIDS first appeared not too long ago, there was little hope for those infected. Today, as a result of medical breakthroughs, treatment and survival is possible.
We have also come to realize that new diseases can arise as viruses mutate. We have learned that a virus that previously affected only a certain animal can “jump” to humans, and be spread from person to person. The present COVID-19 is one such example, though H1N1 and SARS before that followed the same deadly trajectory.
We are also witnessing how rapidly our various institutions of medical research are able to mobilize to find a cure and a vaccine. But without spending enough on research, we will delay achieving the goal we seek. I have no doubt that we will succeed, but much damage will be done before then. If we are to prevent a repeat of these events down the road, we need to act now. Once this virus is brought under control, we need to increase our commitment to medical research. We need to do that now while we still feel the pain of our present situation. If, when life returns to normal, we go back to our old ways, we will not have learned the lesson.
Just days ago our government committed more than two trillion dollars in an attempt to rescue the economy from the devastation of the battle to keep the virus at bay. There is a saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We must be willing to invest more in prevention by investing more in medical research. The money to do so exists. We simply need to redirect it from other less necessary endeavors. Whether we do or do not is up to us.
Howard Lurie is an Emeritus Professor of Law, Charles Widger School of Law, Villanova University.