World should have been more prepared for coronavirus, says US scientist William Haseltine

He says the US government can act quickly when it wants to, and that it needs to in this case

William Haseltine attends the Hegra Conference of Nobel Laureates in Saudi Arabia.
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Preventive medications should have been stockpiled before coronavirus appeared but were not because generally people “don’t consider nature to be our enemy,” an American biologist, entrepreneur and philanthropist has said.

People should have learnt their lessons from Sars and Mers but were seemingly caught unprepared following the outbreak of the virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, but has since swept across the globe.

Dr William Haseltine, a former professor at Harvard Medical School and founder of Human Genome Sciences, said the US government spends a lot of money on bio-terrorism, but needs to channel some of that budget into "stockpiling" cocktails of drugs that are preventive.

"I'll give you a number to think about," he said to The National, on the sidelines of the Hegra Conference of Nobel Laureates in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia at the weekend.

"In the past 20 years, the US has spent $50 billion dollars in preparation for a bio-terrorist attack. But the coronavirus isn’t on that list because we don’t consider nature to be our enemy, but nature is our enemy in this case.

"I have a very specific ask of the US government, which is to include the coronavirus on the list of organisms for which we have bio-preparation. It's not on there. It should be."

The anthrax antidote we invented took two years, from conception to FDA approval to purchase. Usually it's 15 to 20 years. When they want to speed it up, they can

Dr Haseltine, who was a professor at Harvard for two decades, and founded the university's HIV/AIDs and cancer research departments, said "China and perhaps India", and in fact any country with major population centres should do the same.

"You can prevent a person who is exposed to HIV from contracting HIV with antiviral drugs," he said.

"Those drugs work against most viruses. Especially if there’s a combination of those drugs."


'I've worked on the flu, and we're due a much worse epidemic'

Dr Haseltine, who founded several bio-technology companies, said he would like to see the same preventive measures taken for the flu.

"I've actually worked on the flu, and we're due a much worse epidemic.

"We're about 20 years overdue for a really nasty flu that will make the coronavirus look mild," he said, saying he is almost certain there will one day be a virus that spreads easily and is highly lethal.

"Our brains are keyed to understand difference, if you actually look at numbers in terms of what kills people, in the US in the past 10 years we’ve had between 12 to 15,000 people die of flu each year. So that’s a much bigger number, but we’re used to it. You believe you’re going to survive the flu, but this is new and unknown which is why there’s a greater fear factor."

He said the major economic impact the coronavirus has had worldwide keeps the disease in the mind’s eye.

"It’s shutting down China and airports, and that has a huge impact on our life. It’s changing our lives in a way the flu doesn’t. Now, should we quarantine flu because it kills on average 25,000 Americans a year? We don't because we know its limits. Or we think we know its limits."

Dr Haseltine said it was difficult to predict what the trajectory of the coronavirus will be but he expects the infection will not "burn out quickly, it's going to be a matter of months."

More than 14,000 people have been infected since the outbreak began in December, with cases in more than 20 countries. Of those thousands of cases, more than 300 have died.

Dr Haseltine said he does not expect the virus to change too much — in contrast to the flu.

"This class of virus isn't highly mutable from person to person. We know it's highly transmissible, but it's sort of intermediate in its variability.”

One thing Dr Haseltine knows for sure is that "face masks don't work" — another reason prevention is so important.

"A Hepa filter mask might work a little bit, but really, try to stop touching your face. That is one of the ways you get ill. You touch a door handle and you then touch your face, but then it’s almost impossible not to touch your face, you’d have to bind your hands almost."