Lessons from the corona virus pandemic for the life sciences

The SARS-2 Coronavirus pandemic has brought infection biology and the importance of molecular mechanisms of virology and our immune response into focus. It is an opportunity for life scientists to respond to a call for information and explanation, that comes from beyond our community – a request from the general public and from government officials.

Perhaps the most startling collective insight among scientists and lay people alike, is that a rather innocuous class of RNA viruses – one that we encounter many times a winter as the common cold – can provoke a disease much deadlier than the worst winter flu. Understanding the cellular receptor was only part of the challenge, as we realized that COVID-19 provokes a massive internal response – if not death – in many individuals. Even for scientists, the tropism of the virus is mysterious, and the inequality of the human response is very striking. We have recognized predisposing factors, such as obesity, non-O blood group, diabetes and the potential protection, somewhat surprising, accorded by BCG vaccination. Yet even with such insights, there is an enormous disparity in disease pathologies associated with COVID-19. Indeed, we still cannot explain why some of those infected become severely ill, and others remain symptom-free.

What is the impact of a disease that has spread to over 65 million people, and killed 1.5 million in less than a year? What does it mean to life science researchers and the medical profession? Actually, this is a chance to demonstrate the relevance of molecular medicine at its best. The responsible development of a vaccine, its rigorous testing and – hopefully – its success at limiting the disease, may raise science in the eyes of an increasingly sceptical general public. Being able to identify genetically those with a serious predisposition (e.g. making sure they get the vaccine first!) and to identify non-genetic, lifestyle-related or pre-existing health conditions that predispose towards serious outcomes… these are low-hanging fruits that will demonstrate the power of molecular life sciences and its utility for public health. Notably, the public that finances our research. One might say that life scientists have been handed a golden chance to validate our efforts in molecular and systems medicine, and we should not drop the ball.

The longer-term impact on biomedical research may also be dramatic. This disease and the extent of the pandemic has awakened the curiosity of the young, whose energy is needed in our profession. Today in life sciences – more than ever – we need the best possible workforce of PhD and postdoctoral fellows. The excitement of doing something relevant is even more poignant for the young, thus we should capitalize and recruit as never before. Biotech entrepreneurs with innovative ideas should be encouraged. To finance this, arguments should be made to governments that both economic well-being and social cohesion depend on an intelligent handling of the pandemic, and an investment into prevention of future crises. It should not take much to convince responsible politicians that science and technology are essential – both in the long-term and the short-term – to prepare us to deal with biological threats, which are ever-present.

Of course, there is also the risk of a negative impact on the public perception of science. How can we convey our lack of knowledge honestly, as “the answers are complicated and multifaceted”, rather than implying that “scientists do not know what they are doing”. In these delicate times, we must take care to communicate effectively, clearly and without hyperbole,  to convey the notion that whenever we deal nature, there is a lot that is unknown. The unknown of genetic diversity, the unknown complexity of systemic responses, the idiosyncrasies of combinatorial genetic traits. People generally do not deal well with statistical probabilities when it comes to personal health. For many, COVID-19 is life or death, and the probabilistic language of science is difficult, if not disturbing. Or, when the disease ends up being less challenging for an individual, he or she may dismiss science as exaggerating the risk. It is time to perfect and expand communication skills among scientists and institutes of research.

Finally, we must embrace the challenge of open science, reproducibility and misuse of scientific information. Scientists should redouble their efforts to make it clear that scientific progress is a self-controlling system. Errors, fake data, and unreviewed papers should be highlighted and eradicated as quickly as possible. We must urge responsible journals and academic bodies to evaluate the rigor with which scientific information and research results are published, and enforce more rigorous reviewing policies. Funders must ensure that data, once published is accessible, that fraudulence and irreproducibility are revealed, and that the individuals perpetrating this are excluded from funding and publication. Fake news is real in the pseudo-scientific world of internet medical advice. This needs to be targeted by governments, and its advisory boards, which need to communicate responsible scientific advice.

Life scientists are in an unprecedented situation. We can use the disaster that threatens mankind to consolidate the appreciation for biomedical research. But this requires collaboration, coordination, and sharing. In times without stress, these are the strengths of our global network of scientists. Can we rise to the moment, or will we hide behind its complexity? This crisis is also a call for advisory groups, such as the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force and the Swiss Science Council, to mitigate the negative effects of contradictory messages in the press or on the web, which may stem even from within the scientific community. In a public health crisis, like no other, society needs informed and responsible leadership, and effective communication.