States and localities are beginning to lift shelter-in-place orders and allow businesses to reopen. Policymakers will set criteria for when and how businesses can resume, but the private sector holds the real key to getting society back up and running. We need new strategies and innovations that will limit the risks of transmitting the virus, better treat those who do contract coronavirus, and still allow people to work, gather, and enjoy life again.
We’ve seen already how some of the most recognized companies in the world are repurposing their operations to address society’s most pressing needs. Anheuser Busch and the Distilled Spirits Council are now producing hand sanitizers rather than just drinks; Hanes, Jockey, Brooks Brothers, Under Armour, Nordstrom, and MyPillow are all making face masks, in addition to clothes and bedding; Exxon Mobil and Dupont are increasing the creation of materials for personal protective equipment; Toyota, Ford, and Xerox are now making ventilators, in addition to cars and office equipment.
We don’t need a government agency to get into the business of manufacturing essential products and devices and placing them where they are needed. That’s because America’s manufacturing and consumer services sector is nimble enough to fill those needs on its own.
We’ve seen this before: With Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wasn’t best positioned to get supplies to flood zones immediately during the crisis: Instead companies already on the ground, with an infrastructure of supplies and a fleet of delivery trucks, filled this critical gap. As The Independent Institute’s Steven Horwitz wrote in Wal-Mart to the Rescue: “In the three weeks following the storm’s landfall, Wal-Mart shipped almost twenty-five hundred truckloads of merchandise to the affected areas and had drivers and trucks in place to ship relief supplies to community members and organizations wishing to help.”
Today, in addition to supplies, companies are developing the protocols and processes that will enable businesses and other enterprises to open and function in the future. This includes developing widespread testing protocols. Unfortunately, we saw in the early days of the coronavirus’s appearance in the United States how the lack of adequate testing capabilities fueled the rapid spread of the virus. We now know that testing for the novel coronavirus is particularly important and challenging since, while the virus is debilitating and even deadly for some, many people can carry the virus without showing any symptoms. They won’t know that they ought to stay home to avoid infecting others absent a test.
Amazon is one company working to fill this gap: Amazon is repurposing resources to create a widespread testing initiative, including standing up their own labs and planning for how to utilize their cutting-edge procurement and delivery system to deliver and rapidly test workforces. They hope to begin testing their own front-line employees soon, and ultimately to create a scalable system in which employees are tested regularly in an efficient and economically-feasible way so that workers who are carriers of the virus are immediately identified and can be treated and quarantined, while others can resume work and everyday life.
Most importantly, of course, is the race for a treatment and vaccine, which is being led by the private sector. The National Institute for Health (NIH) is helping to coordinate and facilitate these private-sector efforts, seeking to expedite and simplify the approval process, so people will have access to new therapies as quickly as possible. The federal government is also providing significant funding, but private industry is also pouring in its own resources: For example, Johnson & Johnson is providing about half of a billion-dollar investment to work toward a coronavirus vaccine.
Some projects are already showing promise: The preliminary results of a study of the drug Remdesivir, developed by Gilead, suggest it can help hospitalized patients suffering from coronavirus recover more quickly. While many remain cautiously optimistic, more trials will need to be done in order to determine the drug’s efficacy and in which stage of treatment it is most effective. Yet it’s encouraging to see potential solutions coming on the horizon, and to know that dozens of other biotech firms, large and small, are similarly working to find their own answers to coronavirus.
This is America’s strength: Our private sector specializes in efficient problem solving, which is now being redirected to tackling coronavirus and the disruption it has caused. In a battle between this virus and the full-strength of American ingenuity and creativity, it’s a safe bet that sooner or later, the private sector will win.