Three Texas A&M University policy experts hosted an online forum Tuesday evening and discussed a variety of topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service hosted the virtual discussion, during which the trio of academics stressed the continued importance of social distancing and noted that about 20 vaccine candidates are under examination — though testing and distribution of an eventual successful vaccine is almost certainly more than a year away.

The panelists also provided numerical updates and reflections on the multifaceted governmental responses in the United States and beyond, among other topics. The panel came as the U.S. neared 400,000 confirmed cases and 13,000 deaths from the coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Christine Crudo Blackburn, deputy director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program at the Bush School, said several different types of potential treatments are under investigation.

She noted that the one most often discussed at present, hydroxychloroquine, is under a medical trial — with results potentially three to five months away.

“We need to be cautious about which treatments we want to go with before we know side effects or other implications,” Blackburn said. “Some of them look promising, but there is a process they have to go through to make sure that they are safe and effective.”

Gerald Parker, director of the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program within the Bush School of Government and Public Service, said that even an 18-month time frame on discovery and eventual distribution of a vaccine would be scientifically “remarkable.”

Andrew Natsios, a Bush School professor who is the director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs, also provided data and analysis.

“We have not reached our peak yet,” Natsios said, echoing words from Brazos County Alternate Health Authority Dr. Seth Sullivan, who said in a Monday press conference that Brazos County’s overall trend of coronavirus cases continues to rise. Sullivan said a handful of recent models analyzed by health officials indicate that Brazos County’s number of COVID-19 cases may surge in the next two to six weeks.

“Just because New York reaches its peak over the next few weeks does not mean that that’s the end of it for the rest of the country. There will be rolling, cascading local outbreaks in the United States at different times,” Natsios said, noting the country’s large geographic size.

Natsios also noted that the federal system of government, with federal, state and local jurisdictions and officials, presents challenges in terms of presenting clear instructions for the nation’s residents on how to respond to the pandemic.

“Our system — because it’s so decentralized, because it’s a federal system — there are mixed messages. Sometimes the president says one thing and governors say a different thing, and that confuses people,” he said. “The public would like to know what they’re supposed to do.”

Parker provided both praise and criticism of the wide-scale pandemic responses to this point.

“I think the response has been nothing short of phenomenal across the board,” he said. 

“We’re gonna look back and do some after-action and do some critiquing at the appropriate time, but right now, we need to stay focused going forward on making sure that we get on the other side of the peak, and that we jump-start the economy in a way that’s safe for our communities,” Parker said. “If I were to say that there is one strategic disappointment, though, I have to point to our laboratory testing capabilities. ... We were slow out of the gate rolling out laboratory diagnostic capabilities.”

“Even before this current response, I wished that we as a society would’ve taken pandemic preparedness a little bit more seriously before this crisis began, because I think we all realize now that it is a national security issue — and going forward, I think we need to treat it as such,” he added.

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