Infectious diseases have killed tens of millions of people since the earliest pandemic was recorded in Athens, Greece, in the year 430 B.C.
Dr. Larry Schlesinger, an infectious disease expert and CEO of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, said it’s estimated that infectious diseases will be the number one killer by 2050, exceeding cardiovascular deaths, at a cost of approximately $100 trillion dollars.
In a conversation Thursday with former Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus as part of the Witte Museum Conference on Texas, Schlesinger spoke about the importance of continued funding for infectious disease research since outbreaks have tripled since the 1980s and continue to pose substantial threats throughout the world.
Not including COVID-19, there are more than 26,000 daily deaths due to infectious diseases, Schlesinger said, and 30 new infectious diseases have emerged in the last 20 years alone.
While progress has been made on treating these diseases – including malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, and Ebola – funding shortfalls have significantly slowed progress in finding both treatment and cures.
While COVID-19 is “rightfully top of mind” when it comes to currently infectious diseases, Schlesinger said, “these other diseases haven’t gone away.”
“It’s clear that science is under a pressure cooker right now – we know this,” Schlesinger said. “But we must not only stop COVID-19, we need to develop a better proactive way to handle infectious disease threats.”
Since the World Health Organization received the first reports in January about a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, significant progress has been made in researching treatment and vaccines due to funding from the federal government and private philanthropy.
“But while the resources provided by the government as well as the private sector are extraordinary for this pandemic, time is a challenge,” Schlesinger said, because it takes a long time to get treatment and vaccine trials running. “Being reactive in a crisis mode is never good compared to being proactive and prepared.”
Because Texas BioMed is a freestanding institute not affiliated with any government or educational institution, researchers have been able to develop new diagnostics, therapies, and vaccines for infectious diseases at a quicker pace than similar institutions, Schlesinger said.
Texas BioMed is currently researching four coronavirus vaccines that are being tested in animal models and doing ongoing work on Ebola and tuberculosis. The organization is also partnering with a pharmaceutical company and is in early-stage research on medication to treat COVID-19.
“Our success in stopping the many new emerging diseases that will inevitably occur is definitely not assured” despite having many tools, Schlesinger said. “Each new disease brings new challenges, forcing us to continually adapt to these ever-changing threats. Thus, the battle against infectious diseases is a continual process.”
Schlesinger pointed to a shortage of funding, which will be a crucial point of focus as researchers and doctors work to treat outbreaks of multiple diseases at the same time “as all the data today is telling us that COVID-19 virus will be with us for a very long time and will not just die out in the population.”
“Winning does not mean stamping out every disease, but simply getting ahead of the next one,” Schlesinger said.