With daily COVID-19 cases on the rise again nationally and more than doubling in Wisconsin since early this month, a leading infectious disease expert said Wednesday he expects the trend to carry on.
“We are going to continue to see major increases occurring right through the fall,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said during the first day of a three-day Wisconsin Biohealth Summit. “We’re far from done with this virus.”
The online event, which continues the next two Wednesdays, is sponsored by BioForward Wisconsin, a biohealth industry group. The first day included updates on UW-Madison and industry working together to make masks, face shields and other equipment in response to the pandemic.
Osterholm presented a sobering picture of the coronavirus outbreak, saying that even with a vaccine possibly available by early next year COVID-19 could still disrupt life for a long time.
Vaccines might be only 50% effective, and polls suggest only about 50% of Americans might take them, he said. Fewer than 10% have had the disease, which could prevent them from getting it again, but re-infections have been reported.
“That means only 25% of our population will be protected,” he said. Having perhaps 75% of people unprotected “is more than enough for this virus to continue raging on well into next year and past.”
It could take until 2024 to have enough vaccine to immunize the world, making global travel a lingering risk, Osterholm said.
COVID-19 transmission likely will continue at UW-Madison and other campuses in coming weeks, but students shouldn’t return home, especially if they’re infected, he said.
“We have to ask them for shared responsibility,” he said.
Lennon Rodgers, director of the UW-Madison College of Engineering’s Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Lab, said that two weeks after UW Health asked him in early March if he could make 1,000 face shields, companies from around the country were contacting the university to use its design.
But coming up with the design — a plastic face shield, a foam brow and elastic on the back — wasn’t the only challenge, Rodgers said. The supply chain also proved to be a hurdle.
“You think elastic is easy to get, or foam; it is, if you want to make 1,000 or even 10,000 (face shields),” he said. “But when you’re talking millions, it’s truckloads upon truckloads of material.”
Nicolas Paris, CEO of Gilson, a life sciences lab tools company based in Middleton, wasn’t able to attend the meeting, but said through remarks shared by BioForward CEO Lisa Johnson that the company faced obstacles while trying to develop rapid testing for COVID-19.
Paris said the Wisconsin Department of Health Services wasn’t initially interested in rapid testing, even as European countries showed interest. Gilson has worked with UW-Madison on a saliva test, but isn’t sure how much the university might use it, he said.
“There’s a vibrant biotech community here, but our state is looking for solutions from outside the state,” Paris said through Johnson.
Biotech leaders said other successful COVID-19 partnerships, involving companies such as GE Healthcare and Aprilaire, could help Madison and the state act on a report in December putting the city No. 1 of 35 places primed to become tech hubs if they receive federal support. Milwaukee was No. 17.
“In COVID-19 examples, those connections have started,” said Jane Mahoney, director of dissemination and implementation at UW-Madison’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Research. “We can begin to deepen those and broaden those to set ourselves up for future success.”