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OPINION

We need a Manhattan Project to fight the coronavirus pandemic

We need to bring the full power of the federal government to bear in responding to COVID-19 global health crisis. We need all hands on deck now.

This aerial photo on January 24 shows excavators at the construction site of a new hospital being built to treat patients from a deadly virus outbreak in Wuhan, China. China rushed to build a new hospital in a staggering 10 days to treat patients.
This aerial photo on January 24 shows excavators at the construction site of a new hospital being built to treat patients from a deadly virus outbreak in Wuhan, China. China rushed to build a new hospital in a staggering 10 days to treat patients.AFP via Getty Images

They pump hand sanitizer into their palms, then don gowns, gloves, masks, and eye protection. Suited up, they march purposefully into battle against a formidable pathogen, doing the best they can to manage symptoms with fluids and compassion. There is no medication yet that can stop the spread of COVID-19. No vaccine to prevent its locust-like rampage across the continents. There is just personal protective equipment — PPE — the uniform that helps keep safe the caregivers on the front lines of a burgeoning global crisis.

The alarming reality is, however, that we are at grave risk of running out of these protective items. Hospitals across the country can’t get enough of the basic supplies they need as they test and care for a steadily growing number of patients who show up with symptoms that could indicate COVID-19. How could this happen? Why don’t we have the tools necessary to wage this war effectively?

The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that our health care system could need as many as 3.5 billion respirator-type masks — called N95s — during the next year. The nation’s stockpile, distressingly, contains only 12 million. In addition, there are shortages of protective eyewear and face shields, surgical masks, gowns, and hand sanitizer.

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There also is increasing concern about the supply of ventilators that may be needed to support the most critically ill patients. At the peak of the looming health crisis, the number of patients requiring ventilation is likely to stretch far beyond our ability to provide this technology. We’ve seen the agonizing impact of an overwhelmed health care system in China, Italy, and Iran, and now in Spain and France. We can’t let that happen here.

Big problems call for big ideas and big solutions. That’s why we believe now is the time to call for the launch of a Manhattan Project-type approach to fight the pandemic and be ready and able to tend to the needs of patients and keep our health care workers safe. Just as the Manhattan Project engaged the expertise of academia, science, industry, military, and government in a massive effort that led to the development of the atomic bomb, we, too, can marshal the kind of far-reaching collaboration that can produce meaningful results — and masks.

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Daunting perhaps, but there are impressive examples of times when a serious threat to a nation inspired patriotism and led to creative thinking and achievement. In 1943, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt was shoring up the country for battle during World War II, he established the War Production Board to coordinate the retooling of American industry, moving from manufacturing consumer goods into producing military equipment. This Herculean effort resulted in an increase in military aircraft from 6,000 in 1940 to 85,000 in 1943. It also resulted in silk ribbon factories producing parachutes, car makers building tanks, typewriter manufacturers making machine guns, and undergarment producers creating mosquito netting.

Another example comes from Great Britain during that same war. In 1940, as France was falling to Germany and as England was growing increasingly anxious about German superiority in the air, it took audacious measures to turn the situation around. Winston Churchill, the recently named prime minister, established the Ministry of Aircraft Production, calling upon Lord Beaverbrook to lead an all-out push to strengthen the Royal Air Force. By setting ambitious goals and repurposing manufacturing, Britain’s production of airplanes doubled to nearly 4,600 in a mere four months, augmented by nearly 2,000 additional aircraft that were repaired and returned to service.

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Clearly, Roosevelt and Churchill were visionary leaders who understood the need, took bold measures, and accomplished the impossible. And this is the kind of leadership we need right now as we struggle in the midst of a pandemic.

We’re calling on President Trump to take the same kind of bold and urgent steps to mobilize industry and work with hospitals and public health officials to overcome the coronavirus pandemic. The Defense Production Act authorizes the president to facilitate and support increased private production of PPE medical supplies and devices such as ventilators and diagnostic testing supplies. In the absence of any such executive action, we urge any company that can retool its capabilities and produce these desperately needed supplies to do so quickly. In addition, we ask that the National Institutes of Health allow researchers to repurpose equipment and resources toward COVID-19 diagnostic testing.

Roosevelt and Churchill’s efforts took months to realize results, but given our current battle, we don’t have the luxury of that kind of time. We have only days or weeks before our health care system may reach a dangerous breaking point. We need to bring the full power of the federal government to bear in responding to this global health crisis. We need all hands on deck now.

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We have recently seen how resourceful China was in building a 1,000-bed COVID-19 hospital in a mere 10 days. Surely the United States has the resources and the will and the passion to rise and meet the same kind of challenge. As with the Manhattan Project of the 1940s, we as a nation must come together in 2020 to take the kind of sweeping actions that will enable us to defeat this indiscriminate and uncompromising viral enemy.

Senator Edward J. Markey is the junior senator for Massachusetts. Dr. Peter L. Slavin is the president of Massachusetts General Hospital.

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