I was asked recently when life might return to normal. The question is simple but the answer is complex, with many knowns, lots of known unknowns, and some unknown unknowns. But I'll give it my best shot.
To get the fatality rate down to flu-like levels would require that we cut Covid-19 fatalities down by a factor of 5.
Since I'm human (and thus want my life back), I might be biased toward optimism.
Here's one way to think about it: Is there another infection that causes sickness and death at levels that we tolerate? The answer, of course, is 'yes': influenza.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, from 2010 to 2019, an average of 30 million Americans had the flu each year, leading to an annual average of 37,000 deaths. This works out to an infection-fatality rate, or IFR, of 0.12 percent. We've tolerated that level of illness death from influenza for a century.
Before going on, let's get one thing out of the way: Back in March, Covid-19 wasn't, as some maintained, "like the flu," and it still isn't. Since then, the U.S. has had 3.9 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and 140,000 deaths, for an IFR of 3.6 percent. Taking all the cases — including asymptomatic patients and those with minimal symptoms who were never tested for Covid-19 — into account, the real IFR is probably 0.6 percent, or roughly 5 times that of the flu.
Nonetheless, even a partly effective vaccine, combined with moderately effective medications, could bring Covid-19 numbers down to a tolerable, flu-like, threshold. It's a goal that seems within our reach.
Chronic mask-wearing and physical distancing are not my idea of normal, nor, I would venture to guess, would most other Americans consider these desirable states in which to live. We need both now to achieve some semblance of normalcy, but they're decidedly not normal life. My notion of normal: daily life with no or minimal mask wearing, open restaurants and bars, ballparks with fans, and theaters with audiences.
My projection for when we might get there: perhaps a year from now.
To get the fatality rate down to flu-like levels would require that we cut Covid-19 fatalities down by a factor of 5, via some combination of fewer symptomatic cases and a lower chance that a symptomatic patient will go on to die. How might that happen?
First, we have to make some impact on young people – getting them to follow the public health directives at higher rates than they are currently. The main reason we need to push younger people to stay safe is that they can spread Covid-19 to vulnerable people (those who are older, with underlying health problems). But, once the most vulnerable are protected (through the deployment of some combination of effective medications and a vaccine), the fact that some young people aren't acting safely – or maybe won't take a vaccine themselves – wouldn't cause so much concern. The key is whether the people at highest risk for bad outcomes are protected.
Then there's the vaccine. The first principle: We don't need a 100 percent-effective vaccine injected into 320 million deltoid muscles (in the U.S. alone). Thank God, since it's fanciful to believe that we can have a vaccine that's 100 percent effective, universally available by next summer, and that each and every American agrees to be vaccinated.
How are we doing in our vaccine journey? We've been having some banner days lately, with recent optimistic reports from several of the vaccine companies. In one report, the leading candidate vaccine, the one effort being led by Oxford University, led to both antibodies and a cellular immune response, a very helpful belt-and-suspenders approach that increases the probability of long-lasting immunity. This good news comes on the heels of the positive news regarding the American vaccine being made by Moderna earlier in July.
While every article about vaccines sounds the obligatory cautionary notes, to date we've checked every box on the path to a safe and effective vaccine. We might not get there, but most experts are now predicting an FDA-approvable vaccine (more than 50 percent effective with no show-stopping side effects) by early 2021.
It is true that we don't know how long immunity will last, but that can be a problem to solve later. In this area, time is our friend. If we can get to an effective vaccine that lasts for a year or two, over time we should be able to discover strategies (more vaccine boosters, new and better medications) to address the possibility of waning immunity.
All things considered, I'm going to put my nickel down on the following optimistic scenario: we'll have one, and likely several, vaccines that have been proven to be more than 50 percent effective and safe by January, 2021.
If only that were the finish line.
Once we vaccinate a large fraction of high-risk patients, having a moderate number of unvaccinated people running around won't pose as much threat.
The investments in manufacturing and distribution should pay off, but it's still inconceivable that we'll be able to get vaccines to 300 million people in three to six months. For the 2009 Swine Flu, we managed to vaccinate about 1 in 4 Americans over six months.
So we'll need to prioritize. First in line will likely be the 55 million Americans over 65, and the six to eight million patient-facing healthcare workers. (How to sort priorities among people under 65 with "chronic diseases" will be a toughie.) Vaccinating 80-100 million vulnerable people, plus clinicians, might be achievable by mid-21.
If we can protect vulnerable people with an effective vaccine (with the less vulnerable waiting their turn over a subsequent 6-12 month period), that may be enough to do the trick. (Of course, vulnerable people may also be least likely to develop immunity in response to a vaccine. That could be an Achilles' heel – time will tell.)
Why might that be enough? Once we vaccinate a large fraction of high-risk patients, having a moderate number of unvaccinated people running around won't pose as much threat. Since they're at lower risk, they have a lower chance of getting sick and dying than those who received the vaccine first.
We're likely to have better meds by then, too. Since March, we've discovered two moderately effective medications for Covid-19 — remdesivir and dexamethasone. It seems likely that we'll find others by next summer, perhaps even a treatment that prevents patients from getting ill in the first place. There are many such therapies, ranging from zinc to convalescent plasma, currently being studied.
Moreover, we know that hospitals that are not overrun with Covid-19 have lower mortality rates. If we've gotten a fairly effective vaccine into most high-risk people, the hospitals are unlikely to be overwhelmed – another factor that may help lower the mortality rate to flu-like levels.
All of these factors – vaccination of most vulnerable people, one or two additional effective medications, hospitals and ICU's that aren't overwhelmed – could easily combine to bring the toll of Covid-19 down to something that resembles that of the flu. Then, we should be able to return to normal life.
Whatever the reason, if enough people refuse the vaccine, all bets are off.
What do I worry about? There's the growing anti-vaxxer movement, for one. On top of that, it seems that many Americans worry that a vaccine discovered in record speed won't be safe, or that the FDA approval process will have been corrupted by political influences. Whatever the reason, if enough people refuse the vaccine, all bets are off.
Assuming only high-risk people do get vaccinated, there will still be cases of Covid-19, maybe even mini-outbreaks, well into 2021 and likely 2022. Obviously, that's not ideal, and we should hope for a vaccine that results in the complete eradication of Covid-19. But the point is that, even with flu-like levels of illness and death, we should still be able to achieve "normal."
Hope is not a strategy, as the saying goes. But it is hope, which is more than we've had for a while.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.
Lori Tipton's life was a cascade of trauma that even a soap opera would not dare inflict upon a character: a mentally unstable family; a brother who died of a drug overdose; the shocking discovery of the bodies of two persons her mother had killed before turning the gun on herself; the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that savaged her hometown of New Orleans; being raped by someone she trusted; and having an abortion. She suffered from severe PTSD.
“My life was filled with anxiety and hypervigilance,” she says. “I was constantly afraid and had mood swings, panic attacks, insomnia, intrusive thoughts and suicidal ideation. I tried to take my life more than once.” She was fortunate to be able to access multiple mental health services, “And while at times some of these modalities would relieve the symptoms, nothing really lasted and nothing really address the core trauma.”
Then in 2018 Tipton enrolled in a clinical trial that combined intense sessions of psychotherapy with limited use of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, a drug classified as a psychedelic and commonly known as ecstasy or Molly. The regimen was arduous; 1-2 hour preparation sessions, three sessions where MDMA was used, which lasted 6-8 hours, and lengthy sessions afterward to process and integrate the experiences. Two therapists were with her every moment of the three-month program that totaled more than 40 hours.
“It was clear to me that [the therapists] weren't going to heal me, that I was going to have to do the work for myself, but that they were there to completely support my process,” she says. “But the effects of MDMA were really undeniable for me. I felt embodied in a way that I hadn't in years. PTSD had robbed me of the ability to feel safe in my own body.”
Tipton doesn’t think the therapy completely cured her PTSD. “But when I completed the trial in 2018, I no longer qualified for the diagnosis, and I still don't qualify for the diagnosis today,” she told an April workshop on psychedelics as mental health treatment by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, or NASEM.
Rick Doblin has been a catalyst behind much of the contemporary research into psychedelics. Prior to the DEA clamp down, the Boston psychotherapist had seen that MDMA and other psychedelics could benefit some of his patients where other measures had failed. He immediately organized efforts to question the drug rescheduling but to little avail. In 1986, he created the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which slowly laid the scientific foundation for clinical trials, including the one that Tipton joined, using psychedelics to treat mental health conditions.
Now, only slowly, have researchers been able to explore the power of these drugs to treat a broad spectrum of severely debilitating mental health conditions, including trauma, depression, and PTSD, where other available treatments proved inadequate.
“Psychedelic psychotherapy is an attempt to go after the root causes of the problems with just a relatively few administrations, as contrasted to most of the psychiatric drugs used today that are mostly just reducing symptoms and are meant to be taken on a daily basis,” Doblin said in a 2019 TED Talk. Most of these drugs can have broad effect but “some are probably more effective than others for certain conditions,” he added in a recent interview with Leaps.org. Comparative head-to-head studies of psychedelic therapies simply have not been conducted.
Their mechanisms of action are poorly understood and can vary between drugs, but it is generally believed that psychedelics change the activity of neurons so that the brain processes information differently, says Katrin Preller, a neuropsychologist at the University of Zurich. A recent important study in Nature Medicine by Richard Daws and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain and found that “functional networks became more functionally interconnected and flexible after psilocybin treatment…implying that psilocybin's antidepressant action may depend on a global increase in brain network integration.”
Rosalind Watts, a clinical investigator at the Imperial College in London, believes there is “an overestimation of the importance of the drug and an underestimation of the importance of the [therapeutic] context” in psychedelic research. “It is unethical to provide the drug without the other,” she says. Doblin notes that “psychotherapy outcomes research demonstrates that the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the patients is the single most predictive factor of outcomes. [It is] trust and the sense of safety, the willingness to go into difficult spaces” that makes clinical breakthroughs possible with the drug.
Excitement and Challenges
Recurrent themes expressed at the NASEM workshop were exciting glimpses of the potential for psychedelics to treat mental health conditions combined with the challenges of realizing those potentials. A recent review paper found evidence that using psychedelics can help with treating a variety of common mental illnesses, but the paper could identify only 14 clinical trials of classic psychedelics published since 1991. Much of the reason is that the drugs are not patentable and so the pharmaceutical industry has no interest in investing in expensive clinical trials to bring them to market. MAPS has raised about $135 million over its 36-year history to conduct such research, says Doblin, the vast majority of it from individual donors and none from foundations.
The workshop participants’ views also were colored by the history of drug crackdowns and a fear that research might easily be shut down in the future. There was great concern that use of psychedelics should be confined to clinical trials with high safety and ethical standards, instead of doctors and patients experimenting on their own. “We need to get it right this time,” says Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine. But restricting access to psychedelics will become even more difficult now that Oregon and several cities have acted to decriminalize possession and use of many of these drugs.
The experience with ketamine also troubled Grob. He is hoping to “mitigate the rush of rapid commercialization” that occurred with that drug. Ketamine technically is not a psychedelic though it does share some of their potentially euphoric properties. In 2019, soon after the FDA approved a form of ketamine with a limited label indication to treat depression, for profit clinics sprang up promoting off label use of the drug for psychiatric conditions where there was little clinical evidence of efficacy. He fears the same thing will happen when true psychedelics are made available.
If these therapies are approved, access to them is likely to be a problem. The drugs themselves are cheap but the accompanying therapy is not, and there is a shortage of trained psychotherapists. Mental health services often are not adequately covered by health insurance, while the poor and people of color suffer additional burdens of inadequate access. Doblin is committed to health care equity by training additional providers and by investigating whether some of the preparatory and integration sessions might be handled in a group setting. He says it is important that the legal aspects of psychedelics also be addressed so that patients “don't have to go underground” in order to receive this care.