Academic Thinking

You Would Think Academics
Would Think Straighter


Leonard Zwelling


         This is a journal pre-proof of a letter written to Cancer Cell from investigators at MD
Anderson’s Department of Radiation Oncology.

         It makes an eloquent case that decisions made by the leaders
of many academic institutions to shut, shutter, and deep-freeze a great deal of
basic, translational, and clinical research were foolish and short-sighted,
This blog, having made the same point many times, obviously agrees.

         The one thing that can be said about the decision-making by
leaders during this coronavirus challenge is that it has been based on little
to no data and there’s been a lot of CYA involved.

         First, the Chinese government and the WHO deserve black eyes
for not warning the world of what was spinning out of control in Wuhan. Whether
the origin of the novel virus was an open air animal market or a secret Chinese
lab, the world deserved to know what had occurred far earlier and China should
have quarantined itself from the rest of the world to protect its business
partners from a scourge unleashed in Wuhan. China needs to be held accountable
in the United Nations for its CYA failings. Mr. Trump was right. This is the “Chinese

         Second, countries in the west, especially the United States,
moved far too slowly to keep the virus out. Mr. Trump minimized the threat in
January and February before having to oversee the closure of the commerce of
the country in March. His job is to protect the country. He did it poorly. In
all fairness, neither he nor his government was ready for this despite having
been warned about the possibility by the key people in the prior administration
(See Crimson Contagion).

         Finally, in fear of an overwhelming drain on intensive care
resources that in fact was manifest in New York, medical centers everywhere
emptied themselves. Hospital occupancy in Texas is around 60% by the governor’s
orders. That even includes MD Anderson which makes no sense. Covid-19 patients
are not going to be admitted to Anderson, the site of many immune-compromised
patients, unless that covid-19 patient is already an Anderson patient.
Furthermore, patients who usually fly to Anderson have stopped coming leaving
great capacity in the system and great deficits on the balance sheet. Some
estimates are that there will be a $500 million shortfall to the Anderson
bottom line. All health care facilities in the Texas Medical Center will be
taking hits, but did Anderson’s need to be this large?

         Then, in an effort to make sure no one gets sick at all, the
entire research operation at Anderson was shut down. As the above letter makes
clear, valuable work has been lost and will not be easy or quick to recover. In
essence, how smart was the academic response to the covid-19 threat in Texas?
Not very.

         In addition, tenure clocks need to be stopped. Grants need
to be back-stopped because no-cost extensions are useless when the money in the
grant is being used to pay people who are idle. What’s the plan to get research
back on line and who is going to pay for it? What’s the time line and when can
it be restarted?

         In short, the response to the coronavirus has been done with
a chain saw, when a scalpel was the instrument called for. Leaders everywhere,
from Washington to Austin, have found it difficult to figure out what to do
about this unforeseen (by some) challenge. For the most part, the decisions
have not been great primarily because they were based on inadequate data thanks
to the federal government’s state of unreadiness with regard to testing and the
inadequacies of stockpiles of needed materiel. This was all in the face of ample
warnings by the prior administration that an outbreak like this could happen.

         Colbert et al have
done their fellow investigators a great service in bucking the establishment
and writing this temperate letter. The basic message is clear. Many leaders in
academia threw the baby out with the bath water and it will take years for
laboratory, translational and clinical investigators in cancer research to make
up the lost time and resources. Surely there could have been a more skillful
way to protect both individuals who work in academic centers and the work they
have toiled so hard to accomplish. Whatever that solution was, it did not occur
to some of the leaders of academia and they ought to be held accountable for
that failing.

         I am sure the research being done in the private sector has
been ramped up to a high gear. The potential profit from the discovery of an
effective coronavirus therapy or the synthesis of an active vaccine is huge.
Why couldn’t the cancer labs go on doing their research? Once a corona vaccine
is developed, cancer will still be with us. Now we will just be a few more
years away from a solution to that problem.

         As we have said before, how smart was that?

1 thought on “Academic Thinking”

  1. This article is very misleading and full of unreasonable fury. Very shocked that it was written a well trained doctor!

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