Gilead Sciences’ antiviral drug remdesivir showed “quite good news,” according to White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci. Assistant Professor in Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard Global Health Institute Dr. Tom Tsai joins Yahoo Finance’s Seana Smith to discuss the latest developments.
SEANA SMITH: Let's turn to the latest on coronavirus. Now following news yesterday that a trial for remdesivir showed positive results on recovery time, the "New York Times" is now reporting that the FDA will soon announce an emergency-use authorization for the drug.
And for more on that, I want to bring in Dr. Tom Tsai, Assistant Professor in the Department of Health, Policy, and Management at Harvard's Global Health Institute. And Dr. Tsai, thanks again for taking the time to join the show.
I want to get your thoughts on the promising treatment, remdesivir, the fact that it can potentially speed up recovery time. Now the drug has not yet been [AUDIO OUT] and Trump wants the FDA to approve it as soon as possible. What can you tell us about remdesivir and the potential benefits outweighing maybe some of those possible risks?
TOM TSAI: Hi, Seana. Great to be back. I think the data yesterday were encouraging, and the way to think about it is there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we're very still much still in the tunnel.
I say that because, in addition to the trial results that were announced yesterday, there were also disappointing results from a similar trial that were announced out of China regarding remdesivir. So what we do know is from the US trials is that it does seem to decrease the duration of the symptoms, but they were not statistically significant, although there was a trend toward significance in terms of improvement to mortality.
So I think the way to think about this is that there's encouraging data, and it's just refreshing that we're at a stage in the pandemic where we're no longer worried about the number of ICUs and ventilators and now we can start thinking about potential treatments.
SEANA SMITH: And when we talk about treatments, there there's also the discussion about possible vaccines. And there are scientists out of Oxford saying that they could have a vaccine ready by September, which is only a few months away. Then we also had the news from Pfizer saying that they're aiming to make 10 to 20 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine that it's developing with another company by the end of the year. When you take a look at those timelines, how realistic do you think they are?
TOM TSAI: I think they're optimistic. And the WHO is tracking over 80 different vaccines that are currently in development, but I think it's important for folks to keep in mind that there are phases of approval that vaccines have to go through, typically three phases but still even the fourth phase once they're out on the market so we can track the safety and the efficacy of these vaccines where they're still in play.
So I think it's encouraging that there's a lot of trials that are in play now, but I think it's too early to tell whether or not we'll be able to have a vaccine up and running overall for the whole population.
SEANA SMITH: Dr. Tsai, but we don't have any clear timeline, like you're saying, on a vaccine or treatment at this point. So do you think that it's too early for the majority of these states to begin reopening their economies, and do you think that-- or do you think it's supported at all by the scientific data? Because the doctors that we have talked to over the past couple of days, they're saying that it's not, in fact, supported by any scientific data.
TOM TSAI: Right. I think we need to return, instead of to our gut, intuition, and instincts, and to what the data show. The data show that for many states, even though, if they're past the peak of the infection, we're still in the plateau phase where there's still a consistent burden of new cases, hospitalizations, and, unfortunately, fatalities.
So I still think it's too soon in lots of states to think about reopening the economy. We have spent a lot of effort and at enormous cost to lives and economy to buy this time to flatten the curve. Let's use this time now to build up our testing infrastructure and our ability to do contact tracing so when we do open down the road that we can stay open. So I'd rather do that than open too soon and have to shut down again.
SEANA SMITH: Yeah, Dr. Tsai, what do you think-- you just mentioned contact tracing there, and we had at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo today saying that it's key to monitor and also control the virus, the coronavirus infection rate. How important do you think contract-- contact tracing is just playing into our containment measures at this point?
TOM TSAI: It's a huge part of our strategy moving forward. We are learning that there's a high degree of patience who may be spreading coronavirus who may not have symptoms, which argues we have to-- need a way to surveil the population. So if we can start with possible cases and trace their contacts-- an individual that they've been close to, friends, and family members, and test those individuals, that's a rational strategy to both increase the number of tests but be able to pick up some of these asymptomatic individuals.
SEANA SMITH: Dr. Tsai, there's been lots of talk about whether or not we could see a second wave and how bad that second wave could be. Now the WHO, they were out there saying earlier this week that there's no evidence that contracting the coronavirus makes you immune from a second infection. How does this change the way we think about coronavirus and those containment measures that we were just talking about?
TOM TSAI: I think continued vigilance is critical. That's why we need to have that testing infrastructure in place not just now but continue the emphasis over the next weeks to months, build up the contact-tracing infrastructure so when that second wave does happen, those new cases do occur in the late summer or early fall or winter that we can actually not repeat the mistakes of February and March. We can actually go back to a containment strategy, meaning quarantining those cases and their contacts instead of relying on a mitigation strategy, which is the big societal moves in terms of staying at home.
SEANA SMITH: Dr. Tsai, the White House laid out their test guidelines earlier this week, and in that they were talking about the importance for states to test, obviously. And in that they said that states need to test 2% of their population. Now 2% to me seems like a pretty low number. From your perspective, from a health-care perspective, is that nearly enough just in terms of the number of people that we should be testing at this point?
TOM TSAI: I think we may be testing more. With our research from the Harvard Global Health Institute, we've been estimating that we need to be doing at least 500,000 tests per day on the national level. We've gotten that up to 200,000, 250,000, so it's an improvement from a few weeks ago when we were stuck at 150,000 tests per day, but that's just a start.
You know, the way we think about it is we all agree we need to score a touchdown, but we also need to make sure we get to the next set of downs, and we're at third and 2. We've got to increase the number of tests so we can get to next to the downs, and then let the dead to guide us then to see what the next testing threshold should be. But we have to make incremental progress, and that means testing more every single day.
SEANA SMITH: Dr. Tsai, before I let you go, what is the feeling right now on the front lines? Has it improved since last time we spoke a couple weeks ago?
TOM TSAI: Yeah, I think it has. But in certain areas, you know, even though we're breathing a sigh of relief that the peak may have been passed in certain states, but we're still in this period where there's still a plateau of cases. And now there is not just the next wave of coronavirus, you know, in the fall/winter. Now we have to go back and take care of those patients without coronavirus who had postponed their surgeries or delayed seeing their doctors and seeking medical care.
So there's going to be a second wave, and that wave is the noncoronavirus patients. So physicians and hospitals and nurses from around the country are now gearing up and making sure that we're not forgetting those individuals too.
SEANA SMITH: All right, Dr. Tom Tsai of Harvard's Global Health Institute, thanks so much for taking the time once again to join us.
TOM TSAI: Of course.