How Science Beat the Virus, And What it Lost in the Process
He starts with citing Covid-19 as the biggest pivot for the world’s scientific community in terms of focus areas:
“Much like famous initiatives such as the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program, epidemics focus the energies of large groups of scientists. In the U.S., the influenza pandemic of 1918, the threat of malaria in the tropical battlegrounds of World War II, and the rise of polio in the postwar years all triggered large pivots. Recent epidemics of Ebola and Zika each prompted a temporary burst of funding and publications. But “nothing in history was even close to the level of pivoting that’s happening right now,” Madhukar Pai of McGill University told me….
…In a survey of 2,500 researchers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, Kyle Myers from Harvard and his team found that 32 percent had shifted their focus toward the pandemic. Neuroscientists who study the sense of smell started investigating why COVID‑19 patients tend to lose theirs. Physicists who had previously experienced infectious diseases only by contracting them found themselves creating models to inform policy makers. Michael D. L. Johnson at the University of Arizona normally studies copper’s toxic effects on bacteria. But when he learned that SARS‑CoV‑2 persists for less time on copper surfaces than on other materials, he partially pivoted to see how the virus might be vulnerable to the metal. No other disease has been scrutinized so intensely, by so much combined intellect, in so brief a time.”
Also, the unprecedented collaboration and the free sharing of insight and data between scientists from across the world:
“the newfound global interest in viruses also means “you have a lot more people you can talk through problems with,” Pardis Sabeti, a computational geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, told me. Indeed, COVID‑19 papers are more likely than typical biomedical studies to have authors who had never published together before, according to a team led by Ying Ding, who works at the University of Texas at Austin.”
The success of the platform based vaccine that is mRNA might make vaccine development for other diseases now and in future equally quick if not quicker:
“Most vaccines comprise dead, weakened, or fragmented pathogens, and must be made from scratch whenever a new threat emerges. But over the past decade, the U.S. and other countries have moved away from this slow “one bug, one drug” approach. Instead, they’ve invested in so-called platform technologies, in which a standard chassis can be easily customized with different payloads that target new viruses. For example, the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines both consist of nanoparticles that contain pieces of SARS‑CoV‑2’s genetic material—its mRNA. When volunteers are injected with these particles, their cells use the mRNA to reconstruct a noninfectious fragment of the virus, allowing their immune system to prepare antibodies that neutralize it. No company has ever brought an mRNA vaccine to market before, but because the basic platform had already been refined, researchers could quickly repurpose it with SARS‑CoV‑2’s mRNA. Moderna got its vaccine into Phase 1 clinical trials on March 16, just 66 days after the new virus’s genome was first uploaded—far faster than any pre-COVID vaccine….
…And the next time a mystery pathogen emerges, scientists hope to quickly slot its genetic material into proven platforms, and move the resulting vaccines through the same speedy pipelines that were developed during this pandemic. “I don’t think the world of vaccine development will ever be the same again,” says Nicole Lurie of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.”
But as everything human, there was another side too, which in some ways actually delayed or made inefficient the fight against Covid-19:
“Flawed research made the pandemic more confusing, influencing misguided policies. Clinicians wasted millions of dollars on trials that were so sloppy as to be pointless. Overconfident poseurs published misleading work on topics in which they had no expertise. Racial and gender inequalities in the scientific field widened…
…The quest for COVID‑19 treatments was slowed by a torrent of shoddy studies whose results were meaningless at best and misleading at worst. Many of the thousands of clinical trials that were launched were too small to produce statistically solid results. Some lacked a control group—a set of comparable patients who received a placebo, and who provided a baseline against which the effects of a drug could be judged. Other trials needlessly overlapped. At least 227 involved hydroxychloroquine—the antimalarial drug that Donald Trump hyped for months. A few large trials eventually confirmed that hydroxychloroquine does nothing for COVID‑19 patients, but not before hundreds of thousands of people were recruited into pointlessly small studies. More than 100,000 Americans have also received convalescent plasma—another treatment that Trump touted. But because most were not enrolled in rigorous trials, “we still don’t know if it works—and it likely doesn’t,” says Luciana Borio, the former director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council. “What a waste of time and resources.”