Science, an indispensable compass in the fight against the corona virus


“Every epidemic I’ve studied ends up in collective amnesia,” says Markel. “We happily pick up our lives again.” But the underlying problems that contribute to an outbreak, such as urbanization, habitat destruction, globalization, climate change and refugee flows, remain, Markel said. At the same time, our focus is waning on science, which needs more time, money and knowledge to prevent another pandemic.

The 21st century has only just begun, and Markel is already referring to ‘the century of epidemics’: SARS in 2003, swine flu in 2009, MERS in 2012, Ebola in 2014 and 2016, and now COVID-19 in 2019 , 2020 and who knows how long. Five epidemics in twenty years, each a little worse than the last – the last many times worse than the other four put together.

Funnily enough it is perhaps instructive to ‘see how scientists build the plane while it is already in the air’, as some describe the search for a drug. It helps us better understand how science works. This pandemic may convince even the skeptics that scientific progress is critical to our survival.

At least, that’s what Lin Andrews, head of educational support at the National Center for Science Education hopes. “In general, people trust science, but a polarizing theme can cause cracks in that trust,” Andrews said.

This became clear in 1854, when British researcher John Snow traced the cholera outbreak in London to contaminated drinking water. At first no one believed him – it was believed that cholera was spread through the air – until Snow turned off the water pump on Broad Street, stopping the outbreak. (7)

(7) Until scientists in the 19th century showed that microorganisms transmit disease, epidemics were attributed to viscous blood and toxic fumes.

Snow did not understand how cholera was spread by the water, but based on the distribution pattern he concluded that there was simply no other explanation possible. Andrews hopes that Snow’s findings and other historical discoveries will help today’s scientists put COVID-19 in perspective.

Finding a solution is simply a matter of trial and error. And our unfiltered view may help with that. Ultimately, all that testing and tweaking of hypotheses is the best way to gain trust in science. It is driving insane, that global scourge, but in the end there is no other option than to pick up the thread again.

Surveys in the US show that confidence in science is greater than I dared hope. Since 2015, the year in which the measurements were first carried out, confidence in science has been growing steadily, even the corona crisis was unable to change that. In the last pre-pandemic survey (January 2019), 86 percent of those surveyed said they had a lot of faith in science. During the pandemic, that rose to 87 percent.

I called Cary Funk, scientific director at Pew Research Center, who conducted the trust survey, to discuss the encouraging results. Funk warns against too much optimism. According to her, the results show that trust in science is quite selective and partisan. (8)

(8) In July, shortly after the spike in COVID19 infections in the US, the Pew Research Center found that 46 percent of Republicans thought COVID19 was a “major” threat to public health, compared to 85 percent of Democrats.

These differing views on the reliability of science are insidious, especially now that skeptics can question every step forward. In the darkest scenario, where doubters flouting safety rules and vaccines gain the upper hand, science could lose its ability to protect us altogether.

I would like believe this pandemic is a learning opportunity. Maybe not for everyone, but maybe for the generation that is now growing up with the corona virus. I like to dream away at the thought that these children, referred to by some as Generation C, are less likely to be tempted to sow divisions. Let’s assume that the current health crisis makes them appreciate the importance of scientific progress. And that science will ultimately find an answer to this pandemic

The year is 2040 and Generation C is mature. Suddenly, a new pandemic breaks out. From what they learned in their youth during the corona crisis, these young adults immediately recognize the severity of the outbreak. Allegations that this is a conspiracy are resolutely quashed. They wear mouth masks, keep their distance from each other and get vaccinated as soon as a working vaccine has been developed (and that soon happens, because scientists have not been idle in the meantime, just like politicians). They follow the advice of experts because they know this is the best way to protect themselves and their loved ones from a plague that can kill hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide.

The new pandemic takes relatively few lives and the economic damage remains limited because these young adults learned important lessons in their youth: that public health advice is based on knowledge available at the time, that such advice may change as scientists develop new insights. and that developments in science go hand in hand with trial and error.

Maybe by then there also will be more workers in the professions that got us through the coronavirus catastrophe: more doctors, nurses, paramedics; more specialists in infectious disease, epidemiology, virology, and microbiology, each of them having chosen a career that as kids they had watched in its finest hour. It has happened before. Some of the scientists now engaged in the struggle against the coronavirus, such as Gonsalves and Markel, ended up where they did after working to help untangle AIDS, an earlier viral mystery that killed us in ways never seen before.

By then more people may be in professions that were so important during the corona crisis. Inspired by the heroes of the time, there are more doctors, nurses, virologists, epidemiologists and microbiologists. The question is whether generation C reacts differently to the next plague – the question is not if, but when it will come – than with collective amnesia. I hope so, not only because of my own damaged confidence, but also for my granddaughters, who will otherwise have to deal with a reality that I fear so much.

Much will depend on what happens in the coming months.

Imagine that we managed to contain the spread of COVID-19, and little by little we can return to normal life. Imagine finding an effective treatment so that COVID-19 becomes a curable disease for everyone. And imagine that soon a vaccine is being developed to which a large part of the world’s population will have access. If we succeed in doing so, why not leave this pandemic behind with more appreciation for science?

That thought gives me hope, despite the screams of politicians and the fanatics who, under the banner of freedom of choice, question everything scientists claim. I say to myself that the good of man will prevail. And there’s an army of bright minds – scientists, educators, doctors,

nurses – who work up a sweat for a happy ending from the moment that nasty virus emerged. I continue to believe in such an outcome, in which we leave this period behind with a renewed appreciation for science, which continues to be our greatest asset today in defeating disease and premature death.

Robin Marantz Henig writes more often for the Magazine. Photographer Giles Price lives in London and uses various imaging techniques to capture societies.

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