Top Emory biotech expert on coronavirus: ‘Efforts should be made to keep business on track’

A top biotech expert at Emory University says U.S. businesses should think twice before shutting down facilities over coronavirus fears. 

“Certainly I think efforts should be made to keep business on track. I don’t think wholesale shutdowns in the absence of reasoned probability of spreading the disease is advisable,” said George Painter in a Feb. 25 interview with Atlanta Business Chronicle. “It just causes panic.”

Painter is CEO and president of the Emory Institute of Drug Development (EIDD), which is part of the Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory (DRIVE). Along with researchers at UNC Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt University, he has been working on a drug that could combat coronaviruses since 2013. 

Painter encouraged business leaders to remain calm and reasoned in their response to the spread of the virus.  

“I would recommend minimizing contact with areas with a high hit-rate of infection. I would advise my employees on precautions to take, but I’d think pretty critically about how actions can shut down and impact markets on an emotional level,” he said. “You have to put a lot of consideration into what you say.” 

As a growing number of U.S. coronavirus cases seem imminent, precautions like good hygiene, washing hands and using hand sanitizer, wearing masks and even working from home may help slow the spread. Painter points to South Korea, Italy and China, as the country re-opens various facilities near Wuhan, as examples of how effective these simple containment methods could be. 

Coronavirus fears reached stock markets around the world this week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average saw its third-largest points drop in history on Monday and the largest two-day percentage dip in two years on Tuesday. 

But Painter thinks the Dow drop may not be warranted, noting some of the media coverage of the virus has been “more onerous” than it needs to be.


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“I don’t think that the virus is going to impact operations as much as the market would suggest,” he said.  

On Tuesday, health officials announced Americans should begin preparing for an outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States. 

“It’s difficult to accurately and in a balanced way address the fact that despite what [The World Health Organization] says, there actually is a pandemic. The virus is moving,” Painter said. 

Atlanta companies have already felt the effects of the coronavirus spread. Delta Air Lines said Wednesday it will reduce its flight schedule to South Korea. The Coca-Cola Co., kids clothing maker Carters Inc., flooring giant Interface Inc., and furniture chain Havertys have all warned of possible supply-chain disruptions from the outbreak in China. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has 1,336 staff members involved in the COVID-19 response in the U.S. and globally. 

Painter said the efforts from the U.S. government to combat the virus happened more rapidly than he expected. 

“I think things have come together much more quickly than I would have anticipated,” he said. “There’s a lot of action inside of our government to try and coordinate a response and to quickly develop and to fund the development of countermeasures both antivirus and vaccines.”

He noted that even before Congress began asking the feds for funds, other government agencies took action. 

“The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority opened a portal asking for input into potential countermeasures and diagnostics, etc. The National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease is opening a 50-site clinical trial to look at potential therapeutics,” Painter said. “That’s pretty quick action.”

He called the new coronavirus a reality of our global society and economy.

“I think people should take notice of how quickly new viruses can emerge in this world we live in that’s very highly interconnected, that things can move quickly,” he said. “It’s very difficult to respond in real-time to a newly emerged pathogen.”

Luckily, Painter and his team have been working for more than three years on an oral drug to treat coronaviruses.

“We got a $16 million development contract from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease to move the compound forward into medical trials,” he said. “So we were busy doing that when the SARS CoV-2 virus (the virus that causes COVID-19) emerged.”

He and his team are now working alongside the Food and Drug Administration to fast-track the testing of EIDD-2801, which has shown promise in treating Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. He expects to see human trials in the next two to three months.

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