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Crisis shows importance of basic research

W. Lowry Caudill wrote this op-ed for Higher Ed Works, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that promotes investment in the UNC System. He is the former worldwide president of pharmaceutical development at Cardinal Health. In 2002, it acquired Durham-based Magellan Laboratories, which Caudill had co-founded in 1991. A member of the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees from 2011-2019 and chair from 2013-2015, he co-chairs the $4.25 billion Campaign for Carolina capital campaign.

CHAPEL HILL – We need an answer for coronavirus in a hurry.  Scientific research generally doesn’t happen in a hurry.   

So thank goodness for the work Ralph Baric has done for the past six years in a secret lab at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. Baric and his 30-member team have worked with Gilead Sciences Inc. to develop remdesivir, the drug the World Health Organization views as the most promising to treat the new virus.

There currently is no FDA-approved drug available to treat the virus. “So, basically we have no weapons in our arsenal,” says Tim Sheahan, a virologist in Baric’s lab.

For almost 30 years, Baric has studied coronaviruses that include SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which may derive from bats; and MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which may derive from camels. His work with Gilead has focused on drugs to combat such emerging viral diseases.

Baric’s work is a great example of why we need substantial and sustained support from federal institutions like the National Institutes of Health and private sponsors for basic research at our universities.

Research like this isn’t ramped up overnight. The research may not yield fruit for many years. But if we don’t start, support and sustain basic research, we stand no chance of harvesting its results in moments of dire need – such as the moment we find our world in today.  

We are very fortunate that our own UNC Chapel Hill has been at the forefront of cutting-edge research for decades. What a tremendous engine of innovation our state of North Carolina has created for itself, the nation and the world.  

We don’t know the results yet of Baric’s work. But we are still very, very fortunate that a sustained commitment to basic research has produced a potential answer for which the entire world now waits.

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