The High-Tech Outlook for the Coronavirus Crisis: Part 1

Millions of Americans found yesterday’s headlines about the coronavirus more than a little disturbing.

After all, the number of U.S. cases has climbed above 10,000. And while that sounds like a lot from the standpoint of raw numbers, I believe at a time like this, it’s important to keep this kind of news in context.

In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that the total number of infected Americans will be much less than what Big Media would have you believe.

I realize that many folks are scared and frustrated because the $1.2 trillion life sciences sector has not yet released a vaccine.

With that in mind, I am starting the first of a two-part series on that very subject.

Today, I will walk you through why we still use 1950s technology in the search for a vaccine.

And on Tuesday, I will reveal some of the fascinating breakthroughs, including drug treatments that President Trump has touted, that are almost within reach…

Living at the Forefront

Now then, I realize the coronavirus has a much higher mortality rate than the seasonal flu. So, I don’t want you to think I’m being naive by casting a bit of a skeptical tone about the medical impact from Covid-19, the scientific name for this novel new virus.

And in no way am I making light of the fact that nearly 190Americans had died as of my deadline last night.

But I literally am in a place to make this kind of analysis. I live about 10 minutes from Oakland’s Chinatown and about 20 minutes from the one in San Francisco.

This is the part of the Gateway to the East, with Los Angeles serving the same role for Southern California.

To get a sense of what we are up against, I spoke with my niece, who is an emergency room doctor in Los Angeles. She has been working with sick people for some time now and says she expects the number of cases there to increase significantly over the next two to three weeks.

I’m a dead certain she is right. But I want to put it all in context for you so you and your family can take comfort from empirical data.

California is home to roughly 4.8 million Asians out of a population of 40 million. Not only that but because Silicon Valley relies on China for tech sales, workers and product sourcing, thousands of local executives fly there and back every year.

What happens in the Golden State is crucial for the nation. This is not just the country’s most populous state, it’s also one of the world’s top tourist destinations, with much of that travel coming from Asia.

That’s why I think the Trump administration’s decision to severely restrict travel from China on January 31 is so important. No doubt, it roiled global supply chains and helped set up the bear market for stocks that started less than three weeks later.

The Numbers in Perspective

But the good news is the disease doesn’t seem to have come anywhere close to critical mass in the U.S. nearly three months after breaking out in Wuhan, China. Just yesterday, China said there were no new domestic cases for the first time since the virus struck.

Against that backdrop, California has so far reported 978 cases as of late yesterday.That breaks down to an infection rate that is just 0.002% of the state’s overall population.

But let’s say the number of cases in California soars 10-fold to 10,000 over the next three weeks. That’s still a ratio of justis conte 0.02%.

And from a national perspective, I believe it’s very important to keep this in context. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says the flu season that began last October 1 could produce up to 51 million cases.

From that data, the CDC is predicting flu deaths of between 22,000 and 55,000.

My gut tells me it will actually be on the low end this year if for no other reason than that much of the nation is already on lockdown. You may be in the same situation as my wife and I – we’re basically stuck in our home here in the Oakland Hills.

In our area, restaurants and bars are closed. Alameda County officials have even said that we’re not supposed to drive our cars except for “essential” reasons.

As I see it, the measures we have taken, like canceling large events and restricting travel, will limit not just the number coronavirus cases but those of the seasonal flu as well.

The Search for Treatments

Now then, there’s no doubt we are making great progress in medical and biotech discoveries. And there have been a few very promising developments of late.

Nevertheless, at a time like this, I caution against getting overly optimistic about finding a true Covid-19 vaccine in a few days’ time.

Here’s the thing. Most flu vaccines still come from viruses grown in chicken eggs. It’s basically science from the 1950s, which explains why it takes so long from discovery to treatment.

We’re talking about up to 10 to 12 weeks just for scientists to fully understand the makeup of the virus and to cross-check for possible mutations. A complex virus, like Covid-19, could have 144 variations of proteins known as A and H.

In the meantime, in a process scientists call “antigenic drift,” the genetic structure of the virus can change. This may lead to the virus launching new subtypes that could escape damage caused by the vaccine that scientists originally intended to create.

Once a successful antigen is found, the vaccine has to be purified and strengthened. Then clinical trials can begin.

No doubt, hundreds of scientists around the world are working around the clock to find a vaccine. And while there may be other drugs used to treat the disease, recent history shows getting an actual vaccine out to the public will probably take at least another three months.

We have lots of data from the last pandemic to hit the U.S back in April 2009, when the first cases of H1N1 flu, or swine flu, were reported. The resulting vaccine took half a year to get out into the field for treatment.

But as I write this note to you, biotech companies, drug firms, and academic scientists are scrambling to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.

They’re also testing a cocktail of various drugs that, used together, can treat the disease in an infected patient.

Some of these discoveries are fascinating and potentially very lucrative.

And the federal government is open to trying one or two of these new options. President Trump said as much in a press conference just yesterday.

So, check back with me on Tuesday as I share with you the developments at the leading edge of coronavirus science.

Cheers and good investing,

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Michael A. Robinson

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