The Impact of the COVID19 Pandemic in Scientific Research

Image Source: Nature Magazine

In this blog post I will discuss how the development of the COVID19 vaccine impacted scientific research. We are now sure that one specific event dominated the year of 2020: a deadly and previously unknown virus wreaked havoc across the globe, killing more than 3.5+ million people to date, infecting many more and causing economic devastation around the globe. The speed of the coronavirus’s spread in the world has been matched only by the pace of scientific research for drug discovery and vaccine development. Almost as soon as SARS-CoV-2 was discovered, research groups worldwide started sequencing the virus genomes, comparing different strains, epidemiological studies started, data collection from patients and molecular discoveries on how this new virus infect cells and cause the signs and symptoms were identified, while other groups developed diagnostic tests and investigated public-health measures to control it (for more information check “COVID and 2020: An extraordinary year for science”).

Collaboration is key

Scientists also raced to find treatments and create vaccines that could bring the pandemic under control amongst several political problems, especially in the United States. Fortunately, now the United States has more than 50% of the population vaccinated with at least one dose of different types of vaccines and life in some places are coming back to a new “normal”. Of course, another discussion that I also wrote about was how people around the world would be part of the biggest experiment of history since, even though, several studies were done, the long-term effects of these different types of vaccines were not completely understood. Well, we are still learning in the process of vaccination that is ongoing globally (faster in some places and slower in others). The main accomplishment that I think came to stay is what last year meant to scientific research both in the academic and private sectors. The first change was that we saw much more collaborations between scientists. In addition, the COVID19 experience almost certainly changed the future of vaccine science. The COVID19 pandemic should see some permanent changes in vaccine development. For a start, it might establish the use of mRNA vaccines – which hadn’t previously been approved for general use in people – as a speedy approach for other complex and rare diseases. Still, other vaccines can probably only be developed at a comparable speed when infection levels are high, making it possible to run massive clinical trials relatively quickly with data acquisition in real-time and with huge amounts of funding (for more information check “The lightning-fast quest for COVID vaccines – and what it means for other diseases”). Another important change that we see now is that people in general are more “curious” about scientific research and biology in general. Science, like scientists, has been changed by COVID19. New collaborations, funding routes and systems for sharing data will shape research from now on. The technologies developed for rapid tests will be adapted for other infectious diseases. In future pandemics, genetic surveillance will be the norm with scientists sequencing pathogens for every positive test as a matter of routine (for more check the article “The great project: how COVID changed science forever”)

Science communication: what does a scientist do?

Thus, I believe that science communication (even with a lot of “fake news” in social media) has been positively impacted. I can tell by my own experience after doing podcasts (you can listen to one of these here) and being interviewed on this subject that there were changes. People, taxpayers, did not have a clue why innovation in science are important and that this needs lots of money to be accomplished. Scientists and the profession of being a scientist either in academia or in the private sector was not very well understood. Even my family members, when I was in my academic career path (derailed by becoming a serial entrepreneur, but always keeping track of academic discoveries and doing collaborations with academia) did not have a clue what I was doing. I always got the questions: What scientists do? Stay in the laboratory mixing stuff to see what happens? What is their importance? My take on this: science was and it is still not a very “sexy” subject for the general public. The scientific system is to blame for this since scientists work a lot, are always in the laboratory and have no time to do science awareness. Even graduate students and Post-Docs are treated badly, with low salaries and crazy working hours. I’ve wrote and said it in several interviews that the scientific system (especially in academia) is broken and needs a change.

What is next? Are we safe now?

Scientists are the ones responsible for this new accomplishment: developing vaccines to COVID19 in less than a year – something that would take a decade. So, people reading this post, being a scientist is a profession and needs to be recognized as such. If you are still confused on what scientists do, I think it is clear now: jump in in situations such as a pandemic to develop drugs and vaccines to save people. They are in the laboratory testing lots of things and doing “crazy” experiments. To summarize, I really hope that the media and people in general start paying more attention to science and the scientific system. Lots of changes are still needed for sure, but last year meant a lot to scientific research. I hope the lessons were learned and this will be applied in a next pandemic to help in other situations like this.

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