What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Progress on COVID-19 testing, treatments critical to resuming American life

Dr. Mark McClellan and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, both former commissioners of the FDA, have been planning how to reignite a U.S. economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. But the gradual reopening they lay out would happen only after several key milestones are reached. McClellan, now director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return tonight to the question of how and when we might reopen the country, or big parts of it, and return to something closer to normal.

    Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan has been working on a major road map to gradually reignite the economy. But that reopening would happen only after several important milestones are reached.

    Lawmakers and the White House are looking at the framework he proposed with former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

    Dr. McClellan served in the George W. Bush administration. He is now director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.

    Mark McClellan, welcome back to the "NewsHour." It's so good to have you with us.

    I think, understandably, Americans right now want to believe we are about to go back to normal within a matter of a few weeks. But it's not going to be quick and it's not going to be simple, is it?

  • Mark McClellan:

    It's not.

    We are doing a great job, our health care systems dealing with the surge in cases and Americans across the country taking important steps that have definitely slowed the spread of the virus.

    So, we're getting past this initial surge, but this is really just the end of the beginning. The virus is going to be with us for a while. We can take steps to reopen our economy and get back toward normal, but it's going to be a new normal, and we need to put some real protections in place to harden our communities against the virus ever spreading like it has again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just as an example, social distancing is something people are going to be living with for a while.

  • Mark McClellan:

    And maybe even more.

    The steps that New York has recommended around wearing face coverings when you're in close quarters with other people, and steps in our businesses, in our schools to make it harder for the virus to be transmitted, we're going to see more of that in the months ahead.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Your report says that, in order for this economy to be reignited, so to speak, that there has to be serious and comprehensive rapid testing, ample testing around the country.

    Tell — give us a sense of what percentage of Americans would need to have this and how fast the results would have to come before we can talk about anything close to normal.

  • Mark McClellan:

    Well, Judy, the goal here is to go from reacting to a spread of the virus that we really don't understand and haven't controlled well, except for these really extreme measures, to being able to identify any new outbreak very quickly, and then take local, right around it, steps to contain it before it spreads further.

    And that means testing and tracing every case, if possible. That's the goal. So, that means diagnostic tests available quickly to everyone who might have symptoms that reflect COVID-19. And that's respiratory symptoms, fever, things like that, as well as people who are working in environments where there's a high chance of transmission, like a nursing home, for example.

    So we think that's on the order of a million tests or more per week across the United States, and it's not just having that many tests nationally. It's being able to get them quickly to every community in the country, so that each community can keep the virus under control.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how long is it going to take? I mean, is it even possible to say at this point?

  • Mark McClellan:

    Absolutely. And this is what we should be building for right now. It doesn't need to be that far off.

    The test capacity in the United States today, which includes public health lab, hospital labs that have expanded, commercial labs that have expanded, and other point-of-care testing, with new testing mechanisms coming onto the market that can sometimes get test results quickly right into the community, that can meet this capacity.

    But what we also need is the ability at the state and local level to make sure everyone has access and then also make sure that we have the test materials we need to go along with the tests themselves, like swabs for tests that need to be done through the nose.

    We're working on new tests that can be done by spitting. That will be easier to use.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But we know those things are not available right now, and it's going to take some time before they are where — everywhere they need to be.

    What about therapy for — in addition to testing. At what point — and where are we in terms of coming up with a therapy that could be administered to people if they start to come down with coronavirus?

  • Mark McClellan:

    There are some very promising antiviral treatments that are in clinical testing now, for example, the drug Remdesivir from Gilead, that could be available within a matter of a couple of months.

    There are other promising drugs that are already on the market or have been used for other purposes. There are efforts under way at FDA to speed the development of those drugs.

    And I think one additional step we could look at is going ahead with increasing their production, so that they can be available in large quantities to help really support these steps to reopening sooner, rather than later.

    A vaccine is a little ways off. But there too there are unprecedented efforts taking place, not only in the United States but in collaboration with other countries, to do large-scale clinical testing fast, to get manufacturing done fast, and hopefully to make vaccines available in the next year or less as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's the timeline we hear, that at least a year, or even a little beyond, before — before there's a there's a vaccine that can be widely available, not just in this country, but around the world.

    But there's also this — what's so-called contact tracing, surveillance, being able to identify when people have been in touch with someone, who they — who they have been in contact with, rather, who might have been infected.

    We're hearing from the tech companies like Google and Apple. They're trying to come up with an app. But we know that's complicated, too, isn't it, Mark McClellan?

  • Mark McClellan:

    It is.

    But I think, once again, we can take some steps now to be ready for that surge in testing capacity that we're going to need in a matter of just a few weeks. So steps to make those test supplies more widely available, that's something that the government can be working on with the private sector now.

    And in terms of doing contact tracing, that is going to take more people. But this is a great area for further federal support to put those people in place, working with mayors, working with governors, to ramp up the ability to track down people who may have been in contact, in close contact, with people who test positive.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Mark McClellan, when you look at all the things that are needed, we're talking about several months. We're not just talking about next month, May or June, are we?

  • Mark McClellan:

    Well, I think it depends on how fast areas can put together these capabilities and how hard-hit they are now.

    Many areas of the country have been lucky. They haven't had very many cases. So, for them, it will be relatively easy to put in place testing and tracking. It is not going to take as many people, not going to take as much resources. Still very important.

    People there are still vulnerable to the virus, but it could happen quickly. And throughout the country, I think this is going to happen in a stepwise fashion, with maybe some limited reopening first. Schools should be a priority, businesses that can make the steps to harden their ability to resist infection transmission.

    So, I think you will see progress within the next month, but it will happen at different paces across the country. And it really depends on getting these key capabilities in place to give people confidence they can go out and get back towards normal without risk of contracting the virus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mark McClellan, we hope to — we certainly do hope to stay in touch with you as progress is made in this direction that everybody so badly wants.

    Thank you very much.

  • Mark McClellan:

    Thank you very much.

Listen to this Segment