Some countries have made it past the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. But others still face serious challenges. In the United States, the number of COVID-19 infections is rapidly increasing. Nine states just reported their highest hospitalization rates since the pandemic started. Some hospitals could run out of beds.
As communities worldwide try to strike a balance between stopping the virus and reopening economies, we must take special care to protect the populations still vulnerable to infection. COVID isn’t as deadly as initially feared, but it still presents an acute threat to people suffering from pre-existing conditions.
So it’s crucial that public officials and health care professionals boost their access to medical care safely, effectively, and with all due haste.
I come at this issue from a unique vantage point. I’m the chair of the World Patients Alliance, a global advocacy organization comprised of patient groups. I’m also the co-founder of the biggest U.S. advocacy organization for colorectal cancer patients — a disease that kills 50,000 Americans every year.
Long after most people get back to “normal,” the patients my organizations represent will still have to practice extreme social distancing, wear masks in public, and avoid large gatherings. Those measures alone won’t be enough — patients will need help from health systems and governments.
Hospitals will need to prioritize treating people with pre-existing conditions. Many people were denied important medical procedures during the lockdown. Hospitals delayed or canceled millions of “elective” procedures to make room for an expected flood of coronavirus victims.
That strategy was intended to provide hospitals with breathing room, but it may have failed patients. Colon cancer patients may have had chemotherapy and surgeries delayed. Some people suffering from stage 4 cancer were unable to participate in promising clinical trials. And tens of thousands of people who had to postpone colon cancer screenings now face longer odds of survival if they’re diagnosed.
As hospitals resume procedures, they’ll need to focus on patients who were denied treatment during the lockdown and suffer an especially high risk of COVID-19 infection and death.
The pandemic has thrown nearly 30 million Americans off their employer-sponsored coverage and into the ranks of the uninsured. Without proper coverage, many patients, even those suffering from life-threatening diseases, will skip doctors’ visits and stop filling prescriptions.
Prevention is particularly important for colorectal cancer, since the early stages of the disease are entirely treatable.
Failure to detect the disease early leads to preventable tragedies. I’ve sadly witnessed this firsthand — 20 years ago, my mother was suddenly diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. She died nine months later.
Early detection can save other families a similar heartbreak. But it’s only possible if patients aren’t scared away by the price tag of treatment. Governments needs to step in and fill the coverage void — we need a once-in-a-generation public investment in health.
Policymakers would also be wise to defend the intellectual property protections that drive innovation.
Some lawmakers, driven by an understandable urge to ensure breakthrough treatments are widely affordable, have proposed weakening patent protections to create cheap, knockoff versions of brand-name medications.
This would be a fatal mistake. Drug makers are racing to develop COVID-19 vaccines; at least five are now in clinical trials. Under normal circumstances, drug development is an enormous undertaking, requiring billions of dollars and a decade of work. Now, under a compressed timeline, development is even more difficult.
For colorectal patients, drug innovation has been a miracle. Cutting edge “biologic” drugs, derived from living organisms, represent profound advances in care. Thanks to medical developments, the five-year survival rate for patients with advanced colorectal cancer has increased nearly 40% from 1996 to 2016.
IP rights reward such innovation. They drive discovery. Weakening them would disincentivize the creation of breakthrough new treatments in the fight against COVID and other diseases. That would devastate patients in America and worldwide, particularly in developing countries, who are counting on U.S. scientists to discover a vaccine.
It’s possible to reopen the economy without putting patients at undue risk — but it’ll require health systems and governments to step up.
Andrew Spiegel is the executive director of the Global Colon Cancer Association and chair of the World Patients Alliance.