WASHINGTON — FDA chief Scott Gottlieb outlined steps the agency is taking to address ongoing requests for help with COVID-19, the latest strain of the deadly Nipah virus that has been reported in the Philippines and Pakistan.
Chief among the agency’s challenges, said Gottlieb in remarks Thursday before an audience of infectious disease experts at the annual meeting of the International Society for Infectious Diseases, is a “heavily mutated” virus that is largely inaudible.
The 28-person panel, which included representatives from the World Health Organization, CDC and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agreed that more needs to be done, he said.
“It is really imperative that all of our work be done collaboratively, engaging as many perspectives as possible,” said Gottlieb.
Meanwhile, it will be some time before scientists are able to figure out what makes the virus particularly dangerous. COVID-19 presents a “double-edged sword,” said Gottlieb. The genes of this outbreak differ from other cases and no one understands the genetic connection between COVID-19 and other Nipah viruses, he said.
There is also no evidence yet that the virus affects humans differently than pigs, Gottlieb said.
If COVID-19 were to spread in humans, however, Gottlieb said the agency would work with the public health and vaccination communities to develop vaccines. In the meantime, the agency is conducting regular surveillance with 10,000 officials and working with manufacturers to build a stockpile of antiviral drugs.
Scientists are increasingly worried about global spread of the virus.
“Some sense of serendipity doesn’t alleviate the seriousness of the threat that COVID-19 represents,” said Edward A. Record, chief of global influenza at the CDC.
In a paper published Monday in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Ben Hayworth of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health and the university’s Infectious Disease Institute said COVID-19 is unique in the sense that it emerged in the middle of the year and may be in the midst of “an aggressive pandemic cycle.”
Nipah causes only one to three mild and fairly easy-to-treat cases per year in South Asia, the authors said. Until the discovery of COVID-19 in Pakistan in March, “there had not been any deaths from Nipah infections in 15 years,” they wrote.
“The use of novel virus-like particles in humans, combined with ongoing transmission among pigs, as well as recent reports of infection in humans, … should cause all of us to redouble our efforts to develop appropriate strategies to effectively prevent a future global infectious disease outbreak,” they wrote.