Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Maybe Doctors Shouldn't Need the Government's Permission To Fight Coronavirus

By Robby Soave - March 17, 2020 at 09:39AM

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Monday that it would permit states to create laboratories for designing COVID-19 tests, and that two private companies—LabCorp and Hologic—had won approval to provide manufacturing and distribution, according to Stat. The FDA has also decided to permit pharmacists to make their own alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

This is great news that nevertheless raises an obvious question: Why do the people who are working hardest to fight the coronavirus have to ask a slow federal bureaucracy for permission to save lives?

We are just beginning to understand the extent of the damage done (and lives lost) because the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actively thwarted private-sector efforts to produce coronavirus testing.

A German company run by a man named Olfert Landt, for instance, was able to produce more than a million tests for the World Health Organization in late February. Over the same period of time, the U.S. had access to merely 4,000 tests—largely due to a bottleneck created by the CDC and FDA, according to The Washington Post:

"The United States' struggles, in Landt's view, stemmed from the fact the country took too long to use private companies to develop the tests. The coronavirus pandemic was too big and moving too fast for the CDC to develop its own tests in time, he said.

'There are 10 companies in the U.S. who could have developed the tests for them,' Landt said. 'Commercial companies will run to an opportunity like this.'

As the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States, causing more than 80 deaths and over 4,000 confirmed cases, the struggles that overwhelmed the nation's testing are becoming clearer.

First, the CDC moved too slowly to tap into the expertise of academia and private companies such as Landt's, experts said. For example, it wasn't until last week that large companies such as Roche and Thermo Fisher won approval from the Food and Drug Administration to produce their own tests.

Moreover, while FDA and CDC officials have attributed some of the testing delays to their determination to meet exacting scientific standards they said were needed to protect public health, the government effort was nevertheless marred by a widespread manufacturing problem that stalled U.S. testing for most of February."

Every time a rule is relaxed during a crisis, we should ask whether the rule was necessary in the first place. (For example, if oversized bottles of hand sanitizer are suddenly safe enough for the Transportation Security Administration, they were probably fine all along.) We should ask whether it is really necessary—or even desirable at all—to give a giant federal bureaucracy the power to single-handedly derail private efforts to combat a global pandemic.

It's important to remember that bureaucracy is not some mere inconvenience. Jumping through government-mandated hoops is expensive and time-consuming. It destroys value. And dealing with red tape makes people more likely to get frustrated and give up.

When the country's very fate depends upon government forces getting out of the way of non-government forces so that they can create better testing, and eventually a cure for COVID-19, toiling under powerful and incompetent regulatory agencies is quite literally a health hazard. That's the case for shrinking them, even when we're not in the midst of a crisis.

Time for some permissionless innovation.

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President Donald Trump vowed to offer "powerful support" to industries affected by COVID-19.

This is a bad idea. It doesn't make much sense to give specific bailouts to airline companies. Americans everywhere, and in all employment sectors, are reeling from the economic impacts of the epidemic.

Parsing the responses on Twitter, many people who disliked the tweet were angrier about Trump calling coronavirus "the Chinese virus" than they were about the possibility of corporate cronyism. It is quickly becoming a rule for the progressive left and media liberals that acknowledging coronavirus's Chinese origins is de facto racist. This rule has materialized just recently, which means that some people who are now condemning the term as problematic had themselves used it only weeks before. For instance, CNN's Jim Acosta accused Trump of xenophobia for using similar phrasing, when he called COVID-19 a "foreign" virus. But Acosta himself called it "the Wuhan virus" earlier this year.

Similarly, The New York Times recently pondered whether politicians' use of the term "Wuhan virus" was opening up a debate that "health experts want to avoid." Never mind that it was not politicians but the Times itself that opened up this debate.

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As for the substance of Trump's tweet about bailing out the airline industries, Rep. Justin Amash (I–Mich.) put it best in his response: "There's lower demand for air travel because of COVID-19. Giving corporate welfare to a few big companies cannot revive demand. We should provide relief to all Americans during this pandemic. When the emergency ends, demand will revive. When demand revives, air travel will revive."

To that end—relief to all Americans—Sen. Rand Paul (R–K.Y.) has a good idea:

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