Science has a constant presence in our everyday lives. It is present in the morning when we boil water for our tea, and at night when we turn on the lights. However, what exactly is the relationship between scientists and the public in the age of COVID-19?
Writer: Marta Caldeira
Editor: Javier S. Bautista
Artist: Rebecca Shutt
Science stems from the fundamental human desire to understand our surroundings. Nonetheless, it does not always translate into a positive relationship between humans and their neighbouring environment. Numerous historical events attest to this. For example, both the use of the atomic bomb in WWII and the Chernobyl disaster stemmed from a greater understanding of nuclear physics. This has often led to the portrayal of scientists as “crazy” or “evil” in media and entertainment. However, if there is something the current challenging times have taught us, it is to develop a greater appreciation for those who continue to care for us even when the world is at a standstill. These include, among others, scientists.
When faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous scientists around the world have chosen to put their own work and ambitions aside, to focus on a single common goal: find a cure for this novel disease. Never before has an event led to such immense international scientific cooperation. Indeed, despite the attempts of the Chinese government and Trump’s administration to nationalise and profit from it, the ongoing progress in coronavirus research is very much the result of a coordinated international effort. The WHO, for instance, has enlisted over 300 researchers and national health experts from across the world to continuously expand on and evaluate our knowledge of COVID-19. The organisation has also recently announced that the Solidarity Trial – its initiative to assess potential treatments for the viral disease, has already recruited 74 interested countries.
The WHO is not the only high-ranking institution supporting international scientific collaboration in these unprecedented times. UNESCO recently hosted an online meeting which aimed to reinforce the need for governments to promote this type of collaboration in order to avert global crisis such as the present one. The meeting also aimed to increase the funds available for the fight against COVID-19. It was attended by science ministry representatives of a record number of 122 countries. Similarly, the European commission has launched a pan-European Hackathon. Its goal is to bring together researchers, innovators and investors from across Europe to find novel solutions for coronavirus-related issues. All member states of the European union, as well as the UK, Norway, Israel, Turkey and Ukraine are partaking in this initiative. Another powerful institution connecting scientists during this epidemic is the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation. This Norway-based coalition funded by Bill and Melinda gates is not only funding the COVID-related activities of American laboratories, but also enabling communication between these and large vaccine manufacturers in India.
The great degree of international scientific collaboration associated with the aforementioned institutions can also be observed at a smaller scale. In fact, with COVID-19 being declared a global emergency, many universities have shifted their research towards the virus and established cross-centre partnerships. University College London, for example, has partnered with research centres within and outside the UK to analyse the genetic code of coronavirus and model its epidemic trajectory in African nations. The latter include the University of Cambridge, Cardiff University, the Africa Health Research Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital. This cooperative effort is perfectly illustrated by the most recently published papers on COVID-19, as these include multiple authors who are based at different research centres that span across several countries.
It is important to note, however, that all discussed forms of international scientific cooperation would not be as impactful without the share of information through open science. In this context, it was not uncommon during past pandemics for scientists to withhold their information from others until it was accepted for publication in a major scientific journal. The recent development of open access pre-print services has come to solve this problem. These services enable scientists to promptly share their data and get some credit before it gets reviewed and accepted for publication.
Accordingly, biomedical pre-print services such as medRxiv and bioRxiv are currently being flooded with coronavirus data originating from all corners of the world. This data is simultaneously being disseminated all over social media and news broadcasts. For instance, the widespread discovery that the loss of a sense of smell might be an early symptom of COVID-19 originated in part from a study published on medRxiv. The impact of these open access services will prove instrumental for the open access movement, as the lack of peer-review in the existing pre-prints might potentially lead to the spread of “misinformation” alongside relevant data.
All things considered, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted scientists all over the world to come together and openly share their data and findings. And what is science if not the open collaboration of minds in their search for the truth about our environment? For it is the innate curiosity of scientists, their spirit of collaboration and transparency that enable mankind to better understand the surrounding world and improve its relationship with it. Consequently, if there is something positive coming out of these difficult times, it is the realisation that scientists are not “crazy” or “evil”. Instead, scientists are passionate individuals working towards a better and safer future. This gives us reason to remain optimistic about science and can hopefully offer some reassurance to those currently struggling to deal with this pandemic.