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Following the road to Coronavirus, USA, we have arrived at the intersection of science and politics — right here in Tennessee.

First, the context: In the past decade, politicians — mostly Republicans — have treated science both as a joke and as the starting block for budget cuts:

* In Feb 2016, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, threw a snowball on the Senate floor in a feeble effort to disprove what he saw as alarmist conclusions about man-made climate change. "We keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record. I ask the chair, do you know what this is? It's a snowball." Yes, it was, and for the record, 2014 is now only the fifth warmest year on record — followed, in warmest ranking order, by 2018, 2017, 2015, 2019 and 2016.

* Just last March, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said during a hearing focused on vaccines and the rise in preventable disease outbreaks: "I believe that the benefits of vaccines greatly outweigh the risks, but I still do not favor giving up on liberty for a false sense of security."

* Earlier this March, Rep. Matt Gaetz wore a gas mask to a House vote on the $8.3 billion bill for emergency funding to tackle coronavirus. Ultimately he and 414 other representatives voted to approve the bill, but Gaetz said he "didn't feel good about it" because, as he tweeted, it was "$8Billion+ in spending without offsets." Five days later, Gaetz and several other Congress members and Trump aides were forced to self-quarantine themselves after coming into contact at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference with a person who had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Now that "joke" science will have to save our lives and our bacon. And the GOP's.

By the way — much of this important "science" is here in Tennessee.

Let's start with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Even before Gaetz's stunt, researchers at the Department of Energy's ORNL had begun to use the world's most powerful and smartest supercomputer, dubbed Summit, to sort through more than 8,000 small-molecule drug compounds — all already FDA approved — thought to possibly have the ability to bind to the spikes on a coronavirus, making it unable to infect us or other hosts.

The team found 77 small-molecule compounds — known medications and natural compounds — that might warrant further study in the fight against the COVID-19 global pandemic.

"Summit was needed to rapidly get the simulation results we needed. It took us a day or two, whereas it would have taken months on a normal computer," said Jeremy Smith, holder of the Governor's Chair at the University of Tennessee and director of the UT/ORNL Center for Molecular Biophysics.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Oak Ridge National Laboratory National Center for Computational Sciences Director James Hack tours the Summit supercomputer on the campus of ORNL on Monday, June 10, 2019 in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The Summit is currently the fastest computer in the world.

The results don't mean we have a cure or treatment for COVID-19. Not yet, anyway.

Now experimentalists — also in Tennessee — will work with some 50 of ORNL's list of most promising medications and compounds on live virus to see what, if any, will work.

"In a secure laboratory in Memphis, researchers are preparing to test samples of the novel coronavirus against drugs that could, potentially, block the virus from being able to enter the human cell," The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported Tuesday.

Dr. Colleen Jonsson, director of the regional biocontainment laboratory at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, told the Appeal: "If you can block virus entry, then you can theoretically block infection and spread."

Read that again: Block infection and spread.

The regional biocontainment lab is one of just 12 in the country. Supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, it allows for testing and evaluation of small molecules, vaccines and diagnostics to protect from infectious diseases and bioterrorism.

Jonsson and her crew of three will grow cells in plastic plates, infect them with the virus, then test them with the ORNL's short list of hopeful drugs.

Normally, the virus would destroy the cells in two days, but if the researchers find a drug that seems to inhibit virus growth and stop cell damage, they will take it through additional and different levels of testing. Each test takes three to four days. Every week, they can learn something new, Jonsson told the newspaper.

The fact that the test drugs have already been approved by the FDA means the COVID-19 inhibitor could potentially be fast-tracked into being tested and repurposed to treat the coronavirus in a manner of months, rather than years,

That, oh ye doubters and politicians, is science at work.

Jonsson's career began in 1993 with the outbreak of hantavirus. She also worked on the 2002-2003 outbreak of SARS, the West Nile virus and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

"All along my career I've been trying to help out as I can with these various emerging viruses in terms of discovering new drugs or trying to understand how they emerge in the environment," she told the Commercial Appeal. "It's a lot, but each time we become more prepared and more resilient. That's what we're trying to do, create resiliency in what we have and what we're prepared to do, and pass it down to the next generation."

The biocontainment lab itself is important, too. In 1993, when the outbreak of hantavirus occurred, there were no labs in the U.S. prepared to do this kind of work, Jonsson said. And although it is expensive to operate and maintain a regional biocontainment laboratory, it means a trained workforce is immediately ready when something like the coronavirus arises.

"It's an investment," Jonsson told the Memphis paper. "It's a tremendous resource for the country for this and whatever comes next."

It's science at work. Science that will save and improve the lives of Americans — even the politicians who mock it.

(Read more coronavirus coverage here) 

 

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