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U.S. COVID response turns political

Yahoo Finance Editor-in-chief Andy Serwer, HuffPost Washington Bureau Chief Amanda Terkel, Yahoo News Editor-in-Chief Dan Klaidman, and Scripps Research Translational Institute Founder Dr. Eric Topol look at how the U.S. responded to the coronavirus since the pandemic began to spread in February.

Video Transcript

- So scientists have criticized President Trump's handling of the coronavirus. But isn't it the case that, in a country like the United States, which is so big, so diverse, and has such a love of individualism, if you will, it's actually kind of a tough job to do that in this country.

ERIC TOPOL: Well, not at all, really. Because the first step would be to have the testing capacity from the get go in January, so you get ahead of the outbreak, so you don't have, you know, millions of cases like we do now. So the problem we had from the beginning was not taking this very seriously.

And so once you get in a hole, a deep hole that we're in, it's much harder to get out. So many countries around the world, not just island nations, were able to do this very effectively. And when they started to see cases, they were able to suppress that and get containment.

- Hi, doctor. I was wondering if you could talk more about how you think a potential vaccine would play out, and how it would be received. You know, we have people on the right, polls show that there's growing skepticism of the medical community and experts. But you also have people on the left who believe that Trump has politicized the CDC and many scientific agencies and health agencies in the federal government. So how worried are you that, if there is a vaccine, you know, how sound would it be? And would people be willing to get vaccinated?

ERIC TOPOL: Well, the vaccine programs are really exciting. Because in such a short time, I mean, truly unprecedented, we've made so much progress on vaccines that will induce a really strong antibody response. Some of which will also engender good T cell response. So that part's looks great.

In these trials, ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 participants are going to get definitive answers, as long as they go to completion. And that's the problem, is that we have a president who is saying that we would have a emergency approval, even before, potentially, the election. And we also know that that's not possible to do. That would be cutting corners. That would be shortcuts.

It's going to take well into the rest of this year to get the answers on multiple vaccine trials. But hopefully by the end of the year, or beginning of the next year, we'll have safe and effective compelling evidence. And that will be really important for us to be able to get an exit strategy out of the pandemic.

- Dr. Topol, we've already talked a lot on this show about distrust in science, polarization. Denialism. All of these issues that, frankly, Donald Trump and his White House has, you know, I think kind of raised for a lot of people and a lot of health professionals. Donald Trump may lose the election on November 3. So the question I have is, you know, these are forces that are coursing through American society and politics. And so, I guess at a slightly more cosmic level, how do you think about, you know, beyond the Trump administration, dealing with these challenges going forward?

You know, public health professionals-- I mean one of the strengths of our system is that public health has not been politicized. And we've seen the impact when it is. So what do we do about it?

ERIC TOPOL: Well, the point you made earlier is, you know, how would we have navigated through this effectively. If you look at all the places around the world that have done really great in terms of their performance against the virus, they had science lead the way. They had the right-- whole strategy of getting the virus under containment, and then the economy follows.

So here we had a flip of that. And that is a real problem. The other issue is, even if there is a change of leadership, we still have a critical time of four months to go, to see that leadership take hold. No less to see it start to affect the changes of letting science lead the way.

So you know, this is a real problem. Because there's nothing going on right now that's going to help us get suppression of the infections and the spread. It's starting to surge again just now, in recent days. And you know, we really have so many things that need to come into play in order for us to achieve a much better status in this country that's taking on this virus effectively.

ANDY SERWER: Dr. Topol, let me ask you, if you were the moderator of the debate this evening, what question would you ask President Trump and Joe Biden?

ERIC TOPOL: Well, I guess the first thing would be, you know, what are the immediate strategies that you have in place? Or would put in place right now to get this pandemic under control. I'd like to hear about having home rapid testing in every household. A supply of masks for every household.

I'd like to hear about revving up these neutralizing antibodies and other treatments that look promising. And of course, you know, getting the vaccines with compelling evidence, and not having any shortcuts. Those are the sort of things I'd be looking for from both candidates.

- Dr. Topol, so we now know what you would ask the candidates at the debate. I'm wondering, what would you say, or what do you say-- maybe you have these conversations-- to people who are a little bit skeptical of public health and say, you know, I don't need a mask. You know, it's not-- it's not any worse than the flu. So what do you say to people to try to convince them that you should pay attention to science?

- Right. Well, you know, unfortunately some of this, what you're asking about, is the modeling of our president and some of the people that have been supporting that that are in governmental capacity. So normally, if we had the usual CDC, FDA, NIH-- all these government public health agencies that are leading the way, we wouldn't have such questioning.

So it's hard at this point to undo these questions like you're asking. Are masks helpful? They're not just helpful, they're one of our principal, if not the principal strategy. And we're going to need masks even during the vaccine implementation phase next year.

Because masks are really important. This is a respiratory transmission virus through speech and breathing. And that's how we get the virus from one person to another, or potentially, even beyond to many people. So they're so simple to wear a mask, yet there's so many people that refuse. And that's something that we have to get over.

Because the idea is we're trying to work together, a social contract to help each other. And so we need each other to do that, just as we need, eventually, a vaccine to support by the vast majority of people because these are the types of strategies, ranging from the lowest tech of a mask, to the most advanced tech of a vaccine. That if we do this together, we will put this pandemic behind us much faster.

- Dr. Topol Andy asked you what you would ask the candidates at the debate tonight. Let me ask you this, if one or the other becomes president, and you had the opportunity to give that new president advice on how to avoid the next pandemic or medical catastrophe, what would you say? Give us a couple of things that you would say, coming out of this one. Lessons learned. What to do to prevent the next one, or be prepared for--

ERIC TOPOL: Well, yeah, we [INAUDIBLE] pandemic readiness, that's for sure. Had we done that back in December, we would have already had testing capacity built so that we would have been all over this before it spread throughout the country. So we do need a pandemic awareness program. Prevention.

And that means investment in public health resources. And in fact, just the opposite was occurring. We were actually taking away funding of these important groups. So we need to go all in on that. And there will be more pandemics in the years ahead. Hopefully nothing like we're going through right now.

So we should do everything possible to prepare, detect them at the earliest time. Get all over it aggressively. Not try to be complacent, or try to minimize it, or playing it down. That's just the opposite of what we need to do.