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We Need a Medical Revolution in the United States

Power of Ideas
We Need a Medical Revolution in the United States

The damage has been done. Hundreds of thousands of Americans perished and the pandemic took a $16 trillion toll on the US economy.

But we also witnessed a revolution in vaccine development. This merits even more attention because it changes practically everything we know—or have been told—about how treatments and cures are developed in this country and around the world.

In short: Medical research is being disrupted as never before. Moreover, during what could be an historic triumph, our system revealed much of what it has been doing wrong for many years.

This is a time to think more boldly than ever, and it should inspire our leaders to demand real change.

We were led to believe the answer to the question of how long it takes from initial research to advanced drug development: 10 years. This has been repeated—and accepted—for decades.

And yet, the race to a COVID vaccine put a lie to that long-held assumption. That 10-year timeline became nine months.

This is not because talented researchers worked longer hours. They were already doing that. And it is not just the result of federal government initiatives to provide billions in funding to private companies.

It is because our medical research ecosystem—without much fanfare and even less self-examination—adopted a more open, convergent, and information-sharing approach. Researchers didn’t just work harder—they worked smarter.

When the sprint started to develop a coronavirus vaccine, the existing process to develop cures for every known chronic disease was dispatched and replaced. So it is understandable to ask, "Were the stakes finally high enough?"

The more important question is, "Can we learn from this experience, throw off the older, slower ways, and develop in record time the treatments, cures, and vaccines Americans and the world deserve?"

The answer had better be yes. To go back to the way things were risks not only being unprepared for the next pandemic but also to lose this once-in-a-century opportunity to set a new course for medical discovery and breakthrough treatments for people who need them now.

This is a time to think more boldly than ever, and it should inspire our leaders to demand real change. Our federal government must reimagine scientific research. Fortunately, the infrastructure is already in place.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other government agencies perform vital functions such as setting treatment protocols and carrying out basic research. While they are not designed to do the work of drug companies—nor should they be—they can be reenvisioned with a new calling, consistent with the emergency mission they are now undertaking.

Alongside the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration, our nation can reap unimagined benefits from the establishment of a new National Institute of Cures, combining the best work of our existing agencies to foster innovation, but with an updated approach that makes permanent policy from the current emergency.

Let's move away from the present system, so rigged in favor of older and more conventional researchers who happen to be wise in the ways of getting and maintaining funding, and doing it over and over again.

That outdated approach has not produced nearly enough innovation. What it has done is establish a pedestrian process when we need real imagination, starved investment in early career investigators, and stifled their bolder ideas.

A National Institute of Cures could combine the current infrastructure with new architecture and put our nation on the path to unleashing a needed revolution in thinking, research, and methodology.

It is time to stop rewarding the routine and to instill the long overdue need for speed.