Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb (my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute) has powerfully laid out the case for hope about effective drug treatments. As he notes, there are basically two categories of potential drugs to watch: antiviral drugs, which would attack the virus’s ability to replicate, and antibody drugs, which would reinforce the defenses of infected patients. Both involve well-trod research paths, and America’s academic and pharmaceutical research enterprises know the work required to develop them.
But they need two forms of assistance that only the federal government can give them. The first would involve rapid coordination of funds and research work on a massive scale. Some pharmaceutical companies have significant experience with the kinds of drugs required to treat COVID-19 patients, and are aggressively pursuing those drugs now. Some academic and government researchers are experts in this area too. But the usual protocols of corporate, academic, and public medical research stand in the way of robust cooperation on this front.
Only one entity has any chance of quickly breaking through these barriers and coordinating ongoing work while also assuring the researchers involved that the credit (and intellectual property) will end up where they belong in the end: The National Institutes of Health. In normal times, the NIH itself can be quite slow and bureaucratic. But it has the requisite standing with all involved, the capacity to facilitate investigation and optimize clinical trials, and the necessary experience coordinating public and private work to take this on.