The coronavirus outbreak has the makings of a political thriller, and perhaps someone, somewhere is already writing a book in which world leaders are brought down after bungling in the face of an international public health crisis. China lost face when the world learned that the administration had initially tried to cover up the original outbreak in Wuhan, by censuring a whistleblower for posting online about a new, SARS-like disease. Despite the rapid state response which followed, including the magical appearance of hospitals and wards where none existed before, the world’s press had begun to speculate that the initial mishandling had undermined the credibility of Xi Jinping. Now, the US is giving China stiff competition, with a little help from its free press, which is exposing epic stupidity in high places.
Fox News covered a visit to the National Institutes of Health made by President Trump and Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services. Azar dramatically announced that he had learned from the “actual bench scientists” (whatever that means) that they had “developed a potential vaccine for the novel coronavirus in just three days.” Alchemy meets Indrajaal. The president had been informed of something very important, “that yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration authorised it for entry into phase one safety clinical trials.” Azar made it sound like it would be available over the counter in CVS and Boots by March, right next to the antacids. Well, he used to be a pharma lobbyist and president of Eli Lilly, so what do you expect?
A video on social media bearing the logo of the American Independent Institute is just as damaging. In it, Trump is seen bargaining for time with pharmaceutical executives. They tell him that testing a candidate vaccine would carry on into June. “In a couple of months?” the president coaxes. “I like the sound of a couple of months better.” Someone has to explain to him that there is a history of poorly tested products actually triggering new diseases, and that the mistake should not be repeated. “Good idea!” the president interjects in a droll sort of way, and people titter politely. Other news reports had medical and pharma experts patiently explaining to Trump that his idea of using the common flu vaccine against the novel coronavirus would not work. “Not just a little?” he wheedled. Not only is the chief executive of the US unfamiliar with the rudiments of the life sciences, but also with the principle that specialised matters should be left to specialists.
Repeatedly, it has fallen upon leading immunologist and HIV researcher Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to save America from the exuberant ignorance of his CEO. At the NIH, after Azar’s dramatic speech, Fauci told the press of a timeline of 12 to 18 months for developing a vaccine. Upon which, a disgusted Trump interjected with a waggled forefinger: “You wanna tell them about therapeutics?”
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Certain therapeutics are being discussed in India, too. The department of Ayush of the health ministry earned much opprobrium in the press for promoting alternative therapies for prophylaxis and the reduction of symptoms. It may have been acceptable if they were clearly defined as alternative, and if the priority of the widely publicised strategies to prevent and contain infection had been stressed. But what was on TV surpassed all nostrums: “Does a peg of liquor finish off coronavirus?” It was sanitised with a question mark signifying journalistic scepticism, and at least it didn’t promote gaumutra as the universal specific, but what the hell?
But India’s campaign against the virus has a natural advantage: the health minister is a doctor himself. So it is all right if the prime minister, who is a non-technical person, spends the week wondering what to do with his social media accounts on Sunday. Unlike the US Centers of Disease Control, which has been accused of limiting the publication of data to make the numbers look more palatable, the Indian government has promptly confirmed community transmission, which indicates that the superbug is now free to travel and needs no external impetus.
But enough of this new plague. Space.com reported this week that Nasa had opened astronaut recruitment to the public with an ad on usajobs.gov. Only US citizens are eligible, naturally, but the news was picked up everywhere. Because it contained two deadpan sentences displaying the comic genius of the copywriter: “Extensive travel required,” and “Telework eligible: No.” By Jupiter!
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