Novel Coronavirus and Better Unsafe than Sorry

It is possible that a known pharmaceutical called remdesivir inhibits the reproduction of the Covid-19 coronavirus. It inhibits (some) RNA dependendent RNA Polymerases — the type of enzyme the virus uses to replicated its genome and express its genes. It is known that it is a potent inhibitor of the RNA dependendent RNA Polymerases used by the MERS coronavirus

update: here is a good site for Covid-19 data.

So what will be done with remdesivir ? What should be done ? Is what will be done anything like what should be done ?

I think I can guess what will be done. Different groups will work on different projects. Some labs will attempt to produce and purify the Covid-19 RNA dependent RNA polymerase to check if remdesivir inhibits it too. The patent holder, Giliad Science will start a two Phase III trials of remdesivir. Results will be reported and then the FDA will decide whether to approve it for use.

This is good as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes close to far enough.

I think that aside from the trials, Remdesivir should be given to patients and contacts of patients. It is known to be safe (from the trial which shows that it doesn’t cure Ebola). Also a whole lot of it should be produced starting a month ago.

The first proposal implies changing the law — making an exception to the Food and Drug Act. It also requires some organization without shareholders to bear the liability for side effects (The bill should make the US Federal Government liable). It goes completely against the standard logic that it is against patients’ interests to treat them with unproven drugs. There are two reasons to abandon that logic. First it is unconvincing in general. Second the risk of reacting too slowly to a budding pandemic is huge.

The mass production of Remdesivir is a simpler decision. The risk is a high chance of wasting tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. The risk of business as usual is a small chance of tens of millions of deaths, because drug shortages prevent effective control of the epidemic.

The logic of regulation and policy is first do no harm and better safe than sorry. Safety is not currently possible. A small c conservative approach is also small c crazy.


Ah a vaccine. Yes a candidate vaccine will exist soon. Also it will be available to actually vaccinate people in a year or two. The delay will be do to required tests of safety and effectiveness and then the time it takes to ramp up production. These problems are much worse for a vaccine than for Remdesivir. Remdesivir is known to be safe, so clinical trials have begun. It will soon be known if it works.

Standard safety testing of a candidate vaccine takes a long time. Effectivness testing takes a while. Ramping up production takes a long while. Consider Ebola. Candidate vaccines already existed in 2013. A vaccine was approved by the FDA Dec 19, 2019 It was used starting in 2018 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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