At its most severe, coronavirus attacks a patient’s lungs and fills them with fluid, causing a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). But the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a federal health agency, recently halted funding for lung therapy treatments.
The policy change was announced quietly on a government website on June 3. The agency said it would no longer accept research proposals “immunomodulators or therapeutics targeting lung repair. This area of interest is suspended until further notice.”
Funding for vaccine research has taken priority. Out of the $6.5 billion allocated to BARDA by Congress, the agency has pledged more than $2.2 billion to partnerships with five biomedical manufacturers working on developing a coronavirus vaccine and only about $359 million toward COVID-19 treatments.
The new policy is indicative of how the Trump administration has favored the development of vaccines over treatments for the sickest, most vulnerable patients.
Some clinicians and researchers support the shift away from lung treatments because a vaccine would be most effective at stopping the global spread of the virus. Other experts believe that failing to fund treatment research will result in unnecessary deaths.
“We think failing to focus on lung repair is not wise,” Janet Marchibroda, president of the Alliance for Cell Therapy Now, told the New York Times. “The majority of patients who are in hospitals are dying because of lung injury.”
The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 118,000 people in the United States and 450,000 people worldwide. There is a significant correlation between patients who develop ARDS and those who die.
Physicians and researchers still know very little about how to help coronavirus patients. There is evidence that remdesivir, an experimental antiviral drug initially developed to treat MERS and SARS, is effective at treating coronavirus patients with severely low oxygen levels. It is currently the only drug with emergency use authorization from the FDA.
Earlier this week, the FDA pulled its emergency use authorizations of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, the controversial antimalarial drug President Donald Trump falsely claimed could be used to treat coronavirus.
There are currently more than 200 experimental coronavirus treatment trials underway. Most of the lung treatment studies involve stem cell regeneration therapies, the effectiveness of which is disputed.
According to Dr. Mangala Narasimhan, the director of critical care medicine at Northwell Health in New York, studies for lung therapies are essential to prevent coronavirus deaths. Most of the patients admitted to intensive care for COVID-19 have serious respiratory distress.
“You’re going to need other forms of treatments for a lot of those people, and I feel like that’s where there’s going to be a gaping hole,” Narasimhan said.
She also noted that people will continue to contract coronavirus even if a vaccine is developed and approved quickly because not everyone can be immediately vaccinated. In the meantime, people will continue to get seriously sick and die from COVID-19.
Sources: New York Times 6/19/2020; Alajazeera 6/19/2020; Politico 6/16/2020