Gazette Opinion: Among COVID pratfalls, a pirouette

The COVID crisis should transcend politics.

After all, more than 60,000 Americans have died and more than 1.1 million of us have been sickened. Astonishingly, most people agree those numbers are conservative.

But of course it is political. The infighting has been intense and greatly counterproductive. On every level, too, we’ve seen examples of dubious policy decisions. Across the country, we citizens have witnessed far less reliance on public health experts and sound science than we’d like as politicians make decisions that could mean life or death.

We’ve also seen our economy, so sturdy and vibrant just a couple of months ago, contract at a near-record pace, throwing millions out of work. Worse, we’ve seen billions in aid seemingly melt away before some have received a dollar of federal help.

Yet in the midst of all that, we have seen encouraging examples of true political courage and even, in the teeth of crisis, some excellent lawmaking.

It’s important to recognize those things.

We’ve been impressed with the efforts of Gov. Steve Bullock, steering the state’s difficult course through the twin shoals of disease and economy, with lives in the balance. We’ve been not surprised but pleased with Sen. Jon Tester’s relentless advocacy for veterans, tribes and all Montanans.

But in particular, we must praise — as have others of both parties who care more about public health than politics — the singular efforts of Sen. Steve Daines in one particularly vital area: the critical need for speed in the development of treatments and vaccine.

As promising potential vaccines emerge from frenzied laboratory work — like the one being tested now by the U.S. company Moderna — one of the big things that would slow down implementation is the bottleneck of production.

Daines, working with the head of the National Institutes of Health, the FDA, and agencies like the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, was instrumental in getting a staggering $10 billion authorized for early manufacturing of potential treatments and vaccines.

The idea behind the funding, which has drawn widespread praise, is that drugs that show promise can be rushed into production before research and testing is complete, with the idea that if one or more of them wins approval, months of supply-chain delays will have been averted.

Daines has been lauded for his efforts by Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug administration.

“That means producing millions of doses while trials are under way,” Gottlieb wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “We may have to be ready to distribute a drug on a massive scale as soon as it proves safe and effective.”

Such early manufacturing is not a financial risk small pharmaceutical companies can take by themselves. But what would be a potentially backbreaking expense in the private sector becomes a very good idea indeed from the federal government. Already, BARDA, which will be a key decision-making agency in determining how to deploy the funding, has passed on nearly half a billion dollars to speed production of Moderna’s promising potential vaccine, called mRNA-1273.

Will it be the magic bullet? Maybe, maybe not. But if not one but several promising potential vaccines and treatments can be rushed into production against the chance that they will prove effective and safe, due to this “dual tracking” funding, and one or more of them do prove to work, Daines’ efforts will have saved lives and helped to restart our economy.

Good work, Senator.