Andrew “Drew” Senyei, MD, is a medical physician who has spent a lot of his life beginning and rising biotechnology corporations. He spent 25 years as managing director of Enterprise Companions Enterprise Capital and was the founding investor in Nuvasive, a non-invasive orthopedic firm. At present, he serves as govt chair of NeoSeq, an organization that focuses on superior genetic testing for most cancers and different illnesses.
Senyei is a member of a dialogue group to which I additionally belong, and his wide-ranging accomplishments and interdisciplinary data are properly revered. I spoke with him just lately concerning the novel coronavirus epidemic. (Right here we use “coronavirus” to consult with each the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the illness it causes, COVID-19.) He supplied his ideas on the place issues stand right this moment and what might be finished to counteract the disaster within the coming weeks and months. His views are his personal and don’t mirror these of any establishment with which he’s related.
What follows is a evenly edited transcript of our dialogue.
Laurence B. Siegel: Give me a rundown in your fascinated by the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 state of affairs. We have now heard each doable perspective, starting from, on one excessive, simply letting it occur in order that we develop herd immunity, to, on the opposite excessive, taking draconian measures that lock folks down and cease the financial system to inhibit the unfold of the illness, or “flatten the curve.”
Drew Senyei, MD: Let me start by saying that our data of this specific virus is about 13 weeks outdated. We sequenced it, we all know a few of the proteins in it, however its biology — the way it behaves in people, who will get sick, who doesn’t, can we make a vaccine or not — all these issues are unknowns. We have now lived with varied coronaviruses for a very long time, however what’s now clear is that this coronavirus may be very completely different from the earlier coronaviruses that grew to become epidemics, akin to SARS and MERS. However we don’t know the way completely different, both quantitatively or qualitatively, so we’re coping with projections and guesses on quite a lot of main parameters.
Essentially the most instant unknown is how deadly that is. That’s associated to one thing referred to as the case fatality fee (CFR). That’s merely the quantity of people that die of the illness, expressed as a share of the quantity of people that have it. The issue is that the denominator may be very poorly estimated, for a number of causes. One is that we haven’t examined everybody, particularly asymptomatic sufferers. This virus is especially infectious as a result of many individuals who’ve it and may transmit it are asymptomatic, and we actually do not know what number of of them there are.
As well as, the reporting of deaths on this nation just isn’t excellent in that some individuals who died from this additionally produce other causes of loss of life. They usually have most cancers or coronary heart illness, so the query is, Did the virus kill them or did the most cancers or coronary heart illness kill them? That may be troublesome to determine. They’re normally coded within the medical file as viral pneumonias or acute respiratory misery. So the info are noisy.
The CFR helps us resolve, Is that this just like the common flu, with a CFR of 0.02%, or is it one thing worse? The most effective guesses proper now are that this isn’t the peculiar flu. Nevertheless it’s not SARS with a CFR of 9.6% or MERS with a catastrophic fee of 35% both. Additionally, the measured CFRs for SARS and MERS have been a lot, a lot increased within the early a part of the pandemics than they have been after the pandemic subsided.
So we’re type of constructing a airplane as we’re flying it. We simply don’t know the numbers. Once you don’t know one thing, you overreact in an abundance of warning. Proper now the perfect estimate of case fatality I’ve seen was in an unlucky Petri dish experiment referred to as The Diamond Princess.
It’s a cruise ship that had 3,711 folks onboard. Apparently, just one individual had the virus after they obtained on the ship, then a really massive quantity contracted it — 705 examined constructive — so we have now a managed experiment. The outcome was that nobody below 70 died. When you think about that they have been really in a confined situation and the way contagious this virus is — it survives on surfaces typically for days . . .
That feels like a fairly good consequence. Excellent really.
Of these 705, half have been asymptomatic. We all know that we’re not testing all of the asymptomatic sufferers right here within the US or anyplace else. So the denominator of the CFR is far, a lot bigger than the rely of individuals with energetic illness.
In order that implies that the precise CFR is far decrease than the measured CFR, doesn’t it?
Sure, however you must go somewhat deeper than simply a median CFR. You need to go to each age-adjusted and well being care–system–adjusted CFRs as a result of this virus is clearly way more deadly in folks over 70 than in folks below 70.
Okay, however earlier than you try this, are you able to clarify how this virus works and why it may be so deadly?
The liner in our lungs and intestines consists of epithelial cells that block many dangerous pathogens from coming into the physique. The brand new virus (SARS-CoV-2) developed a particular spike protein (consider it like a key) that attaches to a receptor on these cells (consider it like a lock) that permits it entry to our physique. If a virus doesn’t have the correct key, it can’t get in.
As soon as inside, it replicates itself many occasions by hijacking our cells’ regular equipment. It then bursts out to contaminate many different cells, inflicting our immune system to enter overdrive to try to fight it. Usually, our immune response stays in verify and solely kills the invader. Nonetheless, on this case our physique overreacts and begins harming our regular cells. The irritation injures primarily our lungs but in addition different organs, together with our coronary heart, main these sufferers to develop into very sick with multi-organ failure in a short time.
As soon as the lungs develop into flooded with inflammatory merchandise, they can not change oxygen very properly and require superior mechanical air flow. That is referred to as acute respiratory misery syndrome (ARDS) and requires very expert medical doctors and nurses in ICUs [intensive-care units] to handle these sufferers. The ventilators help the sufferers and permit the lungs time to heal.
Sadly, as soon as a affected person is intubated and on a ventilator, the loss of life fee may be very excessive, however we don’t but know why. Even those that survive keep within the ICU for much longer than different important sufferers. The ICU mattress turnover for these sufferers is quite a bit longer, so it isn’t simply the variety of beds accessible, but in addition the size of keep that strains well being care assets and personnel.
Let’s have a look at Italy and South Korea, the place hopefully you’ll be able to imagine the numbers. Italy and South Korea have about the identical variety of constructive sufferers. Italy’s case fatality fee was one thing like 6.6% at one time, and South Korea’s 0.2%. You go down yet one more layer and ask what the case fatality fee was for folks over age 80, and Italy’s is nineteen% and South Korea’s is 3%. However if you happen to have a look at the 20- to 29-year-olds, the case fatality in South Korea is 29% and three.7% in Italy. So it’s precisely backwards from what it’s for folks over 80.
The Italy-South Korea CFRs span a variety of 33 to 1! What good is that this measure with numbers like this? And, a CFR of 29% for folks of their 20s is big. How can that be?
Once more, these are incomplete statistics, since you don’t know the denominator. You don’t know the way most of the 20- to 29-year-olds obtained examined. There are in all probability much more of them on the market with COVID-19 than those who obtained sick sufficient to get examined.
The way in which that varied nations check is completely different too. Some, like South Korea, check all people, and a few solely check symptomatic sufferers. So the bias of your sampling is mostly a perform of the well being care system, the reporting and assets, entry to testing, and so forth.
In previous epidemics or pandemics like SARS and MERS, we noticed a excessive preliminary CFR, after which it dropped significantly. Nobody is aware of, however the numbers I’m seeing point out a CFR of 0.5% to 1%. However this will change as extra testing is finished.
Contemplating how many individuals must be contaminated to attain herd immunity, that’s nonetheless a whole lot of deaths except you imply merely the accelerated deaths of the very outdated and really sick. Let me undergo a couple of numbers. If it takes 50% of the US inhabitants, which is 50% of 330 million or 165 million folks, to attain herd immunity — that’s, the place everybody you’re more likely to meet is both recovered or immune within the first place — and also you then multiply by your low CFR variety of 0.5%, that’s 825,000 deaths.
Am I in the correct ballpark doing the calculation this manner? Are these incremental deaths, on high of the roughly 3 million individuals who die annually within the US anyway? Or are lots of them actually a reclassification of the deaths of the outdated and sick to COVID-19 who would die from another trigger, together with the flu?
An incremental 825,000 deaths could be a disaster. “Solely” 58,000 principally younger folks died within the Vietnam Battle over a interval of years and it turned the nation the wrong way up and adjusted our overseas coverage perpetually.
Your calculations are mathematically right however are related provided that your beginning assumption of CFR is right and social distancing has zero affect. However social distancing is having a really constructive affect!
My wager is that the CFR will fall under what we’re guessing now, however we have no idea how far under. It is going to be decided by how properly we forestall overwhelming our well being care amenities and personnel and the way quickly we develop a therapy. The seasonal influenza CFR is round 0.1% and 20,000 to 60,000 folks die in a given yr, but we don’t shut the financial system down due to it. Nonetheless, as a result of COVID-19 has already unfold to so many locations, we would like the density of latest instances presenting in any geographic space at any given time to be as little as doable and over as lengthy a time interval as doable to forestall a surge on the well being care system.
I need to point out testing as a result of that’s what I’ve been doing most of my life. There was a whole lot of mishandling within the early a part of this by the federal government. The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] wouldn’t settle for the World Well being Group (WHO) check, which was developed in Germany, as a result of they didn’t really feel it was correct sufficient. That is likely to be true and it might need been the correct factor, however doing the correct factor meant that we delayed testing considerably. So we couldn’t estimate the denominator very simply. And we’re nonetheless behind. That’s Level 1.
Level 2 is that the FDA [US Food and Drug Administration] issued what’s referred to as Emergency Use Authorization, which suggests labs might develop their very own home-brewed assessments, so we’re getting all kinds of various gear and assessments. I predict there can be extra testing within the US within the subsequent month than there was on the planet within the final month, due to the variety of producers who’re arising a variety of assessments.
They usually all have what’s referred to as analytical validity, which the FDA requires. Because of this if you happen to do the check in your lab on a specimen 100 occasions, you then get the identical outcomes 100 occasions.
However we don’t know what the scientific validity is — which is, How does this check behave in the true world? So for instance, while you pattern your nostril and the again of your mouth, how is that pattern finished by completely different people? Some go increased, some go decrease. How lengthy is that pattern sitting round earlier than it’s shipped to the lab? Does it go someplace the place it will get frozen, then heated? How a lot degradation of the RNA virus takes place earlier than it’s analyzed?
Then we have now to know that the affected person you took it from is a real constructive. The third downside is that reporting differs throughout states. Some states report positives solely, some report positives and negatives. We have now a patchwork of data programs — the Nationwide Influenza Database, CDC/NIH, personal monitoring of these items. So we don’t have a single uniform nationwide customary that everybody is adhering to.
Why is it thought-about acceptable to report positives and never negatives? In any investigative subject, if you happen to search for one thing and don’t discover it, you’re purported to report that to avoid wasting different folks the difficulty of happening the identical lifeless finish. Whether or not your report ever will get printed is, in fact, one other matter . . .
Welcome to the true world. There’s a whole lot of point-of-care testing happening, utilizing many various programs. There are over 100 corporations now began for testing for coronavirus. We could not want all of those 100 corporations, however we’ll in all probability want 20 — as a result of we’re going to want to repeatedly check. Not only for this virus, however for all of the respiratory viruses as a result of it’s so laborious to discriminate between an everyday flu and COVID-19 on preliminary presentation. The signs overlap. So you must check for influenza A/B, parainfluenza, all of the respiratory viruses on the market, ideally on the identical time, so we can assist with the differential prognosis of COVID-19 versus different respiratory viruses.
If we really have been ready to try this, it could be probably the most helpful strategy to check since you might then attribute the incremental fatality that’s due solely to COVID-19. The issue with that’s co-infections: You may get each the common flu and COVID. After which, to complicate it extra, there are secondary bacterial infections. You’re compromised to battle a bacterium, so folks usually die of bacterial sepsis as a substitute of the virus. So we want higher testing and extra testing, primarily for triage functions. We have to know the way a lot of the illness is on the market so we will have the well being care assets and physicians to reply to that surge, the place and if it happens.
The priority that retains me up at night time just isn’t getting the illness, however the social prices of the “treatment.” Opinion appears to have crystalized into two camps. One says that we have now to forestall or sluggish the unfold of the illness in any respect prices. However I need to know, What are the prices?
The opposite camp focuses on the financial system, psychological well being, morbidity, longevity, and the cash accessible for fixing long-term issues. This second camp argues that we should always ease up comparatively shortly on insurance policies that discourage work and earnings and social interplay, in any other case we are going to severely injure the financial life that gives the assets to battle disasters like this, in addition to the on a regular basis wants that folks have.
The issue is that in any dichotomy like this, it appears to me to be poorly framed. There’s an optimum or steadiness someplace between the 2 extremes. You want to steadiness your accountability to the affected person in entrance of you and the well being of the society, together with future sufferers. Or serving to folks sooner or later not develop into sufferers. For those who have been answerable for this, what would you do? And why?
Okay, so I’m king for a day? First, due to all of the unknowns, I might attempt to err extra on the facet of warning somewhat than what the UK tried to do initially, which was to maintain a stiff higher lip and get to herd immunity as shortly as doable. That coverage modified quickly as soon as they realized the surge it could produce on well being care assets.
So I believe I agree, there’s a rational center floor and that’s: We have now to first perceive if that is peaking. And bear in mind while you have a look at new case charges, you’re really lagging by two weeks.
I’m conscious of that.
I might have a look at these [new case rates], after which at hospitalizations and intensive care utilization, and see if that’s peaking as a result of that’s the most urgent downside. Then I might have a look at the charges by inhabitants density and see the place the wave is going on extra domestically and usher assets there.
New York is a canary within the coal mine. However there are different locations: New Orleans, Washington, DC’s type of arising. So I might, initially, mandate a standardized check, everybody’s serum to see if they’ve antibodies in opposition to COVID-19. Which means testing everybody, which might be impractical however . . .
To get a stratified pattern, couldn’t you check a tenth of the inhabitants and even one one hundredth of the inhabitants, chosen to be consultant of your entire inhabitants?
Sure, I might do an influence calculation to find out pattern dimension. That is an estimate of how correct your check is and determines the minimal required pattern dimension wanted to attain statistical significance.
I might try this with one standardized check so we all know who’s already had the an infection and who hasn’t. That offers you instant triage for who might go to work and who can’t. That is particularly important for well being care suppliers as a result of, when you get one physician contaminated, it turns into a “care multiplier,” lowering the quantity of people that can attend to those that are sick. So well being care suppliers are actually not an incredible inhabitants to contaminate.
Please proceed describing what you’d do.
I might, first, get serology testing on a consultant inhabitants in a standardized check. There are some complicating components, however this may get you a greater sense of who’s had the an infection, who’s over it, and who’s protected no less than for some time. We don’t find out about reinfection as a result of the biology of this illness is just 13 weeks outdated, however no less than these knowledge offer you a place to begin.
So the primary precedence is triage. You would want serology testing — that’s, a check counting on a blood pattern to establish neutralizing antibodies to the brand new coronavirus — to show that a person is already immune and never more likely to get contaminated or infect others. Such folks might return to work. The second is to take a look at the density of the aged and ensure assets are enough for that exact area — not simply gear and provides, however personnel. Lastly, I might make investments actually closely within the primary biology and in vaccine improvement which is 2 years out. I believe you’re going to want a vaccine and also you’ll in all probability want a brand new vaccine such as you do for the flu yearly. This virus will mutate.
Now all that takes cash, time, and coordination — however persons are engaged on it and I believe, if we did that, we might kind of get again to the financial system being an financial system. In any other case we’re going to be within the Darkish Ages.
Sure — we’re going to develop into very poor in a short time. I used to be questioning: is there some kind of final phrase you’d like so as to add?
That is one other chapter within the viral wars on the human race. We have now had many assaults in previous eons. In the present day, fortuitously, we have now the instruments to raised characterize them on the molecular stage. Sooner or later, we must be earlier in turning into conscious of their arrival, to forestall them from getting uncontrolled. We have now already eradicated another viruses from the world, together with smallpox and polio, that are nearly gone. We now have vaccines for influenza, although they might be higher.
Given the advances in medical data and molecular biology, particularly within the final decade, and with the total focus of the world on this one problem — we are going to get by means of this.
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