Coronavirus pandemic: Experts call for Manhattan Project-style approach to fight virus in the US

The Manhattan Project was a US-led program for developing the first two atomic bombs that were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War 2

                            Coronavirus pandemic: Experts call for Manhattan Project-style approach to fight virus in the US
(AP Photo)

The American Medical Association (AMA) has called for a war against COVID-19 akin to the Manhattan Project which produced the first nuclear bombs during World War 2. So far, over 19,620 cases have been reported from across the US and 260 have died.

"The AMA continues to hear from physicians across the country about short supplies and limited access to personal protective equipment (PPE), which is necessary to keep the healthcare workforce safe and to protect the health of patients. Physicians are reaching out to their state and local health departments, but their supplies of PPE are also inadequate," Dr James L Madara, executive vice president and CEO of AMA wrote to US Vice President Mike Pence.

Personal protective equipment can include respirators (for example, N95), coveralls, gloves, gowns and goggles. The AMA said that the association had reached out to the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) and were informed that there is limited PPE available in the strategic national stockpile (SNS) and that it will not be able to meet the needs of our nation’s health workforce.

"While we know that efforts are underway to increase the production of PPE and components required for testing, we are concerned that this is not happening quickly enough. We strongly urge you to strengthen these efforts and undertake a "Manhattan Project" type effort to expand manufacturing capacity and produce the supplies needed to ensure the health security of our country during this national emergency," the letter said. 

Healthcare professionals prepare to begin testing at a drive-thru testing site for COVID-19 at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The US dropped two atomic bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The Manhattan Project was a US-led program for researching and developing these first atomic bombs.

"The Manhattan Project was the result of an enormous collaborative effort between the US government and the industrial and scientific sectors during World War 2. It was officially created on August 13, 1942. The name itself, Manhattan Project, is commonly thought to be a misnomer, but its first offices were actually in Manhattan, at 270 Broadway. General Leslie R Groves, who was appointed to head the project, decided to follow the custom of naming Corps of Engineers districts for the city in which they are located. The atomic bomb project thus became known as the Manhattan Engineer District (MED), or Manhattan Project for short," says the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

In an article published in theBoston Globe, president of Massachusetts General Hospital Dr Peter L Slavin and junior senator for Massachusetts Senator Edward J Markey had also called for the launch of a Manhattan Project-type approach to fight the pandemic. "Just as the Manhattan Project engaged the expertise of academia, science, industry, military, and government in a massive effort that led to the development of the atomic bomb, we, too, can marshal the kind of far-reaching collaboration that can produce meaningful results — and masks," they wrote.

A technician prepares COVID-19 coronavirus patient samples for testing at a laboratory in New York's Long Island (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

As the number of confirmed cases and the death toll mounts in the US, doctors and nurses have sounded warnings about the shortage of critical supplies such as masks and ventilators. Experts have also warned that US hospitals are not prepared. To tide over the shortage, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have also issued guidelines, which call for using homemade masks such as scarf or bandana to care for COVID-19 patients as a last resort.

The AMA letter also said that the Association is "deeply concerned" about reports of short supply of components required for diagnosing COVID-19. "Reports from our physicians and our laboratory colleagues are that essential testing components such as reagents used in RNA extraction are in severe shortage," it said.

The AMA said that shortages of these essential supplies are forcing physicians to severely restrict access to testing services with "significant concern" that they will no longer be able to offer testing in the near future. It explained that physicians on the frontlines are currently prioritizing PPE such as N95 respirators for those procedures that are at high risk for spreading COVID-19. Even regular surgical masks and gowns are reportedly in short supply. "The administration's effort to increase access to testing will be critically hampered if there is a reagent shortage," said the letter.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump announced plans to invoke the Defense Production Act to expand funding for producing masks and respirators. Trump also signed an executive order formalizing the same on March 18. "Under the delegation of authority provided in this order, the Secretary of Health and Human Services may identify additional specific health and medical resources," said the order.

After the announcement, the AMA said it is a critical step toward ensuring vital needs are met and will help bolster the supply of PPE, ventilators and tests to help with diagnosis.

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