How Science Beat the Virus

How Science Beat the Virus

on March 25, 2021

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.

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.

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.

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.

Open data sets and sophisticated new tools to manipulate them have made today’s researchers more flexible. SARS‑CoV‑2’s genome was decoded and shared by Chinese scientists just 10 days after the first cases were reported. By November, more than 197,000 SARS‑CoV‑2 genomes had been sequenced. About 90 years ago, no one had even seen an individual virus; today, scientists have reconstructed the shape of SARS‑CoV‑2 down to the position of individual atoms. Researchers have begun to uncover how SARS‑CoV‑2 compares with other coronaviruses in wild bats, the likely reservoir; how it infiltrates and co-opts our cells; how the immune system overreacts to it, creating the symptoms of COVID‑19. “We’re learning about this virus faster than we’ve ever learned about any virus in history,” Sabeti said.