Beating the Coronavirus Requires an Entrepreneur's Approach | Opinion

When I served as CEO of Varsity Brands, our mantra was "Get better, go faster." Those four words said a lot to our people. It let them know that we were striving to always improve, and it let them know that we were going to do it quickly. That approach created a winning formula for 40 years.

As I watch as a businessperson, not an epidemiologist, this is what has concerned me regarding our government's response to the coronavirus crisis. This past week evidenced some advancement in the ongoing battle against the virus' disease, COVID-19. We have seen the government take action in three areas, which I'll call containment, testing and treatment. I view these as positive steps.

The questions I'm asking, and would be asking my management team, are: Could we have done it better? Could we have been faster? I would tell them that we won't allow ourselves to fall behind this virus again. Speed to market matters!

Facemasks
Previously worn N95 masks, saved for possible recycling in the future, sit in baskets in the intensive care unit at MedStar St. Mary's Hospital in Leonardtown, Maryland, on April 8. Win McNamee/Getty

We know that we have two problems to fix regarding the damage COVID-19 has done to our nation, the health of the people and the health of the economy. There is a necessary sequencing involved in this. Until people are both healthy and no longer fearful of being unhealthy, there is nothing you can do to stimulate the economy. Supply is a lonely wallflower without its better half: demand.

There will be no demand until there is both the reality and the perception of continued health.

For each of the three legs of the triangle (containment, testing and treatment), what has stopped us from being better and faster?

On April 3, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally approved the use of KN95 masks, which help prevent the disease from both entering and leaving a person, for health care workers, as a substitute for the already approved N95 masks. The KN95 version is manufactured in China and meets almost the same performance threshold (filter at least 95 percent of particles that are 0.3 microns or larger, including COVID-19) as the National Institute for Occupation for Safety and Health–certified N95s. This approval will help prevent the spread of the disease within hospital and clinic settings.

Likewise on April 3, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended we wear masks/face coverings in public to prevent the spread of the disease. The CDC doesn't want people using the N95 versions, as it wants to preserve those for medical personnel.

I have two questions:

  • Why did it take the government so long to make a common-sense recommendation?
  • Why did the American people need the government to make a common-sense recommendation?

Regarding the first question, because the bureaucrats in the CDC and FDA know this is not a 100 percent effective way to prevent the spread of disease, they likely felt that citizens were not "smart" enough to not rely upon them as a fail-safe prophylactic. We know that non-N95s are regularly worn in "normal" times by medical people. If they don't do any good, why do they wear them? Something is clearly better than nothing.

As to the second question, when the government sets itself up as the all-knowing authority in a crisis, people can almost instinctively surrender their obligation for independent thought to the official "experts." In short, we should know better.

On to testing. Last week, the FDA finally approved a five-minute rapid test for the virus, designed by Abbott Laboratories. Previously, testing was being permitted only for "high-risk" people using CDC-approved tests and protocols. This greatly inhibited the "speed-to-market" in testing to get ahead of the virus. Now, a company in California is waiting for FDA approval of an in-home finger prick test that will tell in moments if you have had the virus already. This could be useful in getting people back to work and, potentially, in using immunities found in that blood in fighting the disease. We need this test now. We also need to be testing en masse, not just en hospital!

Our approach to treatment is very difficult for me to reconcile as a businessperson accustomed to evaluating risk-reward models in decision-making. By now, we all know about the French researchers who published an article describing the potential use of a combination of hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin (Z-Pak) in combating the disease. Only last week did the FDA approve its emergency use. In a crisis of this magnitude, why did it take so long?

The treatment issues go beyond the cocktail of these two drugs. As Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner, pointed out in The Wall Street Journal and on social media, there are other likely known variants of treatments that could be produced and then tested for rapid use. This decreases by months the normal process of testing first and then producing. It is the venture capitalist model of making several investments knowing only one is likely going to hit big.

We are experiencing a disconnect between two sets of government actions, at least by some members of our government. The first action is draconian in shutting down the nation's entire economy to control the virus. The second is continuing to follow a business as usual approach to protocols and testing that seek answers that have 100 percent certainty attached to them. Any person with a business background knows that these two realities cannot simultaneously exist.

In order to beat this disease, we need to take an entrepreneur's approach. We need to take some risks not taken in normal times and get in front of the virus and push back. As an entrepreneur, I know that sometimes results have to take precedence over process. Our president came from this same type of background. I'm asking him to channel it.

It's time for the "entrepreneur in chief" to take over.

Jeff Webb is an entrepreneur and founder of Varsity Brands. He is also the founder of American Populist, a political organization committed to revitalizing America's middle class.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.