Don’t forget where we were
This blog is back.
I cannot remember a time when Science had been so much and for so long in the news. It makes the headlines daily, journalists scramble to get the views of scientists, governments look for the opinions and advice of scientists and this at an international level. The media explains how scientists work and the world discovers that we are no different from other people, that we argue and doubt, that Science is not (only) about truth but more, as has been said, about managing uncertainty. How much can a little creature like a virus, achieve, but of course, the 30kb of SARS-CoV-2 are deadly.
A few months ago virology was little more than a discipline in the fringes of many biologists’ interests, though those who knew had been warning that what we are going through was a possibility. Sure, we had heard of SARS and MERS, but the invincible West needed not to worry about this; even in the ‘unlikely’ event that such virus came to our doors, we would deal with it. And then, in a matter of three months, here we are in what would have been considered the stage of a Science fiction movie, one we did not want to be extras in.
As a scientist the good news is that our endeavours have become centre stage and that there is a recognition of the value of what we do. From this vantage point, a most impressive feature of the last couple of months has been the speed with which knowledge of the virus has been gathered, tests developed and talent marshalled towards a vaccine. It is breathtaking, a tribute to the level at which the Biosciences have been playing over the last few years. The pace at which Preprint servers and peer reviewed journals accumulate studies on, about and around the virus is surprising in terms of quantity and, in some cases, depth; quality is a different matter. The reason for this, I suspect, is that the last 10-20 years have seen an accumulation of people trained as scientists that has created an army, very good at specific fields, with transferable and versatile technical skills of a very high level. Some of us who have been around for a while bear witness to this change from a craft that people pursued out of their interest, to the training of large numbers of scientists with an enormous technical power. We are in the age of ‘mechanical reproduction’ and Biology is the ideal subject for this. Technologies like single cell RNA seq, NGS, proteomics, organoids, screens of various kinds, all can provide information. And much of this is now being focused on SARS-CoV-2. In the most important branch of this effort, there are over 100 projects worldwide in search of a vaccine, some of them international. This international angle was recently highlighted by the EU-led worldwide fund-raising project under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyden that collected 8B USD in a few hours towards the research, manufacture and distribution of a vaccine. Did I say worldwide? Well, yes, the USA decided not to come on board; of course, their government (and let us not confuse government and people) are now not part of this world.
There is little doubt that this is all good but on its fringes there are issues that need to be addressed. The will to help has led many scientists to ‘repurpose’ their efforts to ‘work on the virus’. People with no expertise in virology, immunology or epidemiology launch themselves into this territory, with good will but sometimes naively. This is potentially good but has resulted in a large number of hypotheses, experiments, solutions to Covid from people that in their good intentions forget that, in order to make an impact, there is a need for training in these fields. Surely some will disagree but I wonder how much of this work will look a year from now, how much of it will not be more than a token “I worked with Covid in the times of Covid”, how will a number of claims promising a therapy, an explanation for the strange aetiology or origin of the virus that time will drown in the sea of manuscripts and the tide of time. These well-intentioned attitudes miss two important points: that good experiments take time — this is an experiment — and that one needs expertise. In the same way that to have a PCR machine and know how to do PCR is not enough to be able to test for Covid, to infect your favourite cell type with the virus or to spot some homology in the receptor or the spike protein is not enough to provide insight into the disease. There is a fair amount of noise and though perhaps by chance, on occasion, some of this might provide something of use, it can be a distraction. In the end, we should leave the job to the professionals, help them where they need us and where we can but don’t try to assume their roles. Importantly, don’t forget what we were doing before Covid, because that is where a large part of the future lies. This is the point I wanted to get to. A most significant feature of the pandemic is the recognition that Science matters. While for now this is most visible through the focus on the virus, the lesson is about Science as an encompassing endeavour. At this, we should not turn ourselves into part-time virologists or immunologists but we need to keep on doing what each of us is good at, to keep the focus on our fields. If this time has taught us something it is that what we do today — if it is well done — will matter tomorrow and that what is a curiosity today, can be centre stage in the future. Although there is much unknown about Covid19, we have learnt a huge amount about SARS-Cov-2 and this is largely due to people who have been working on Coronaviruses over the years, often without much support or interest of the funding bodies. Some might have had this situation in mind but many were just, like all of you, following their curiosity. So, don’t feel a pressure to work on Covid because it might generate that pressure and belittle a culture that we have worked very hard to create and could disappear or be minimized. The challenges of Cancer, Reproductive Biology, Diabetes, blindness, mental health are not going to disappear. Understanding the physiology of the lungs, the capillary system, the kidney and the heart cells will be important to understand how the disease progresses. These questions will be with us when we learn to live with the virus and we need not forget the progress that we were making to address them. Do not feel bad for not being able to link your Science to the virus, for not wanting to change your direction. Use this time to assess what you have been doing and get ready to continue its pursuit. One hopes that the funding bodies will also see this and will appreciate that the lesson here is not only that virology, embedded in a bigger social/epidemiological context, needs better funding than it has had before, but that the message is that Science matters, that in our endeavour the future lies in what we have done (or neglected) in the past.