How Coronavirus Is Fast-Tracking Medical Research

‘The thing that usually takes a year took one week.’


Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images

TThe first Covid-19 cases arrived at Stanford’s hospital about two weeks ago, during the second week of March, mostly from the local community. “It’s a condition that has no known definitive treatment,” says Neera Ahuja, medical professor, hospitalist, and medical director of the general medicine inpatient wards at Stanford University. The trends from China suggested to Ahuja that within two weeks, the number of reported cases in Santa Clara County, where Stanford is located, could jump to 700. Like other doctors around the world, Ahuja and her team gave people with Covid-19 who were not showing signs of improving hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that had shown some benefit, through compassionate use, which allows people to take commercially available medications for critical situations where it may help.

But concrete evidence was entirely lacking. Like other doctors around the world, Ahuja found herself confronting an irony: No treatment options and an impending onslaught of patients were the ideal combination for experimental research. Starting a clinical trial at Stanford to study treatment options made sense; it was the only thing that did.

But there was a problem: Clinical trials are not known for their speed. The average new drug takes at least 10 years to move from lab to market, with up to seven of those years spent on human testing. Even studying an already existing drug for a new disease can take years. Ethics, logistics, regulations, departments, committees, paperwork, funding, approval by federal agencies — they all turn the wheels square.

Yet alongside the tragic stories that Covid-19 is writing — the deaths, the illnesses, the isolation, the economic disaster — the virus’ willful human hosts are forging their own tales of humanity, dedication, kindness, and generosity. Inside the world of medical research, melting barriers are giving treatment discovery a chance before it’s too late. The response by a world so tightly bound by regulations is joining the ranks of so many other aspects of this pandemic in earning the title “unprecedented.”

The average new drug takes 10 years to move from lab to market, with…



Jessica Wapner, journalist, author and podcaster

Jessica Wapner writes for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Scientific American & elsewhere. She co-hosted the podcast One Click and has written two books.