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COVID-19 is a bump in the road for medical research

April 7, 2020

The coronavirus is impacting every community in our nation and is being met with a fierce fight from leaders across the U.S. On the front lines of this fight are medical professionals. The focus on this virus is leaving some medical issues on the back burner for the time being.

Fred Carlson suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). It is a disease without a cure. The marathon-running Green Beret now lives with a compromised immune system, a dangerous condition as COVID-19 sweeps through communities.

Carlson cannot risk visitors at this time. ALS requires a lot of treatment and care as the disease attacks his body. His wife, MaryJo, is the only one able to care for him during this pandemic, aside from helpful neighbors going on the occasional grocery run. Marley, his service dog, helps, too.

“My world has gotten smaller,” said Carlson.

All of his doctor’s appointments are canceled. New social distancing guidelines and competition for resources have created this new world for ALS patients. Carlson fears a setback in the fight to beat ALS will come as a consequence.

“It’ll definitely diminish the efforts and the funds for ALS,” he said.

While the quest for a cure may hit a speed bump, Neil Thakur from the ALS Association is hopeful they can drive right through it.

“We’re not slowing down. There’s no way we can slow down,” said Thakur.

He says their research relies heavily on fundraisers, many of which are canceled or postponed. According to Thakur, in addition to treatment and equipment costs, their fundraisers help to provide $17 million each year in research grants around the country.

Thakur says their researchers are trying to juggle safety guidelines while not falling behind on their trials during the pandemic. Some of the university labs they use to conduct these projects have rules in place that make it difficult to keep up to speed.

“As it continues that’s when we’ll start to see the potential impact on the research program,” said Thakur.

Research for a number of ailments and diseases is falling into the background, according to Dr. Henry Wang, a professor and executive vice chair of research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston’s Department of Emergency Medicine. He says this is taking place as the world’s brightest minds rise to meet this new deadly challenge.

“When you have a disaster of this magnitude, it’s expected that we would see some impacts on research not related to COVID-19,” said Wang.

Wang says there could be setbacks in research relating to heart attacks, diabetes, stroke, high blood pressure and other areas unrelated to the coronavirus. He says the biggest hindrance during this period is the difficulty in seeing how studies play out beyond the lab.

“Labs are still open. They’re developing vaccines and new cures. The next challenge we have is how do we test and evaluate these options in the clinical environment which is very much a battlefield right now,” he said.

But he thinks new research and science coming as a result of this pandemic will prove beneficial in the future.

“In a disaster, research is usually an afterthought and takes a second seat next to operational considerations and recovery. But in a pandemic, this is a very different situation. It’s science that is going to come up with the vaccines and cures that we need,” said Wang.

Wang says his researchers are in this fight just like those working in emergency rooms or operating rooms.

“To study these therapies our research teams are potentially at risk, being exposed to the conditions that we see on the front lines in our emergency departments. So, we have to work very hard to protect them,” said Wang.

That means trying to get personal protective equipment for researchers, precious cargo as medical workers fight for masks, gloves, and gowns across the country.

“This knowledge will enable us to develop new cures and vaccines to prevent the condition and so they’re very much very important weapons in this battle in this international war,” said Wang.

Wang says before the pandemic there were several studies underway relevant to the current fight with this coronavirus. He mentions research on acute lung injury, damage in the lungs that can also come from COVID-19.

“These studies have been ongoing and are now perfectly situated for application in this disaster,” said Wang.

He is optimistic that a vaccine for COVID-19 is coming soon, though the widespread distribution of the vaccine is several months away. More immediately, he believes treatment for COVID-19 is just weeks away.

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