In Fall of 2019, exactly zero scientists were studying COVID‑19, because no one knew the disease existed. The coronavirus that causes it, SARS‑CoV‑2, had only recently jumped into humans and had been neither identified nor named. But by the end of March 2020, it had spread to more than 170 countries, sickened more than 750,000 people, and triggered the biggest pivot in the history of modern science. Thousands of researchers dropped whatever intellectual puzzles had previously consumed their curiosity and began working on the pandemic instead. In mere months, science became thoroughly COVID-ized.
As of this writing, the biomedical library PubMed lists more than 74,000 COVID-related scientific papers—more than twice as many as there are about polio, measles, cholera, dengue, or other diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries. Only 9,700 Ebola-related papers have been published since its discovery in 1976; last year, at least one journal received more COVID‑19 papers than that for consideration. By September, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine had received 30,000 submissions—16,000 more than in all of 2019. “All that difference is COVID‑19,” Eric Rubin, NEJM’s editor in chief, says. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told me, “The way this has resulted in a shift in scientific priorities has been unprecedented.”
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.
That’s partly because there are just more scientists: From 1960 to 2010, the number of biological or medical researchers in the U.S. increased sevenfold, from just 30,000 to more than 220,000. But SARS-CoV-2 has also spread farther and faster than any new virus in a century. For Western scientists, it wasn’t a faraway threat like Ebola. It threatened to inflame their lungs. It shut down their labs. “It hit us at home,” Pai said.
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.
These efforts have already paid off. New diagnostic tests can detect the virus within minutes. Massive open data sets of viral genomes and COVID‑19 cases have produced the most detailed picture yet of a new disease’s evolution. Vaccines are being developed with record-breaking speed. SARS‑CoV‑2 will be one of the most thoroughly characterized of all pathogens, and the secrets it yields will deepen our understanding of other viruses, leaving the world better prepared to face the next pandemic.
But the COVID‑19 pivot has also revealed the all-too-human frailties of the scientific enterprise. 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.
Amid a long winter of sickness, it’s hard not to focus on the political failures that led us to a third surge. But when people look back on this period, decades from now, they will also tell stories, both good and bad, about this extraordinary moment for science. At its best, science is a self-correcting march toward greater knowledge for the betterment of humanity. At its worst, it is a self-interested pursuit of greater prestige at the cost of truth and rigor. The pandemic brought both aspects to the fore. Humanity will benefit from the products of the COVID‑19 pivot. Science itself will too, if it learns from the experience. [Continue reading…]