Editorial: Abbott Labs’ breakthrough and the national race to defeat coronavirus

Tribune Content Agency

No magic wand exists to end the coronavirus pandemic, but as of this week there is a portable diagnostic test from Abbott Laboratories to detect COVID-19 within minutes. We’re impressed, not surprised. America will get through this crisis only in an intense national effort that combines commitment and creativity.

So much dedication is on display, beginning with the brave work of doctors, nurses and first responders caring for highly contagious patients. Then there are the hospital, office and public cleaning crews risking their health to fight COVID-19. What also catches our eye is the aggressive burst of energy from American medical companies pursuing coronavirus tests, treatments, vaccines and cures.

Two months ago, COVID-19 was a mystery ailment that had infected hundreds of people in central China. On Monday, Johnson & Johnson said it would begin human testing of a vaccine in September that could be ready for emergency use in early 2021.

Two weeks ago, General Motors was idling its Kokomo, Ind., plant as part of the broad shutdown of U.S. industry to fend off the virus. GM is now working 24/7 to turn the Kokomo facility that manufactures electrical parts for cars into a ventilator assembly line in collaboration with Ventec Life Systems, a medical instrument company. Ventec normally makes 200 toaster-sized ventilators a month. With GM’s manufacturing and supply chain know-how, executives think they can ramp up to 20,000 units a month, according to a New York Times report. That’s ingenuity for which GM says it seeks only to recoup costs.

Not that there’s anything wrong with profits. Medical companies such as Abbott are built to discover cures and treatments. They take the financial risks and when their investments pan out, they stand to earn the reward.

Abbott is ramping up production of its COVID-19 test to 50,000 units a day to be allocated first to front-line workers. But that’s just the start. “We have multiple R&D teams at work” on a variety of different coronavirus tests, including a version that can operate like a pregnancy test, Abbott CEO Miles White told CNBC. “All of those are a matter of weeks to a couple of months away.”

Government leaders and health officials carry the primary responsibility for combating COVID-19 in Illinois. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot closed the lakefront to enforce social distancing rules. Gov. J.B. Pritzker initiated the conversion of a backup field hospital at McCormick Place. These are extraordinary efforts.

What has been more challenging for Pritzker and other governors is obtaining enough disposable masks, gloves and other privately manufactured hospital gear to treat patients. The Tribune’s David Heinzmann reported that supply chains have been severely disrupted by the virus: Production of equipment has plummeted while demand has reached unprecedented levels. Understandably, this has led to purchasing scrambles.

Pritzker and others have called on President Donald Trump to use his power under the federal Defense Production Act to require numerous companies to supply governments with gear. Perhaps that will become necessary, but as of now we’re not aware of widespread resistance from manufacturers. Quite the opposite. When Trump said last week that he had ordered GM to work on ventilators, the company responded that it already had been working around the clock for a week.

The coronavirus pandemic is a fast-evolving crisis. The federal government has an important role to play in purchasing and distributing equipment, but so do the states. State officials know best the needs of their states and should be working the problem as hard as they can alongside the feds, and in cooperation with the private sector because it has the expertise.

That will be the only way to defeat COVID-19 — a total effort by all.


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