COVID19 – you – me – us, and science



Changes!


The only constant in life is change.


The last few months were crammed with changes! Changes within, changes outside, changes in the workplace, changes in relationships, changes in nature!


Change was in the air. But, did we learn any lesson from these changes?


What will happen when we are back in our regular lives? Will we forget?


These doubts will float around, but the changes left a mark in our minds and made us ponder several matters.

Let’s take the help of science and dissect the changes around us.



Ecological restoration




Many of us felt the air was cleaner, with and without the mask.


Science has supported the feeling.


The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) estimated ~11 000 pollution-related deaths are avoided in Europe due to the decreased usage of coal and oil over the first phase of lockdown (1).


A 40% reduction in the average level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution and 10% reduction in the average level of particulate matter pollution have been reported (1).


The coronavirus lockdown also appreciated the improvement of water quality of many polluted rivers and water bodies throughout the world (2, 3). Reduced industrial activities and less human movement are the reasons behind this.




Respecting the border between nature and humankind




Valuing the rules of nature is critical.


You disobey, and as a result fuel zoonotic diseases, where a pathogen jumps from a non-human animal to us. If we keep exploiting wildlife and damaging the biodiversity, we expect to see an uptick of zoonotic diseases. 


A recent report put forward by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) prescribed 10 recommendations following which the governments can prevent future zoonotic outbreaks (4).


They involve setting up strategies to administer sustainable agriculture, land management and participating in scientific research on zoonosis; and most importantly, escalate the societal awareness on the subject.




The public awareness of science




We all comprehended the power of science, as we look up to the scientists for the envisaged COVID-19 vaccine.


Google Trends disclosed a +1200% spike of googling the questioncan children pass on the coronavirus disease?’ (5).


The ‘asymptomatic coronavirus spread ’ search received a +2000% spike’ (5).


We have knocked on the door of science many a time during the lockdown. Now it is crucial to strengthen this relationship so that we don’t forget the contribution of science and the scientists when things turn rosy.


We science communicators and scientists need to build that trust.

We need to dissolve the border between science and society with the help of pioneering public engagement programmes to inspire the public fathoming the impact of science.

It is now or never when the level of curiosity is red-hot.



Open Data, Open Science




Closed borders do not presage science should be closed too.


To ideally combat the outbreak, we require open data and open science.


The scientific community has openly shared the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence, to the readily accessible GenBank waiting for the researchers to consult them to design diagnostic strategies.


The research community have assembled the varied dataset on several other platforms. One of such is LENS, where free and open datasets of patent documents, scholarly research metadata and biological sequences from patents are accumulated (6).

Similarly, the COVID-19 Open Source Dashboard (7) or WikiProject COVID-19 (8) did their share.


On the other hand, WHO, CDC or NIH have all made their resources on COVID-19 freely accessible (9, 10, 11).


The openness has influenced researchers to post their unpublished COVID-19 related studies in the preprint archives, e.g. bioRxiv and medRxiv. To date, 7844 articles have been shared on these platforms (12).


These open access articles endorse rapid dissemination of information, which could be helpful for a far-reaching population of scientists. But, in hindsight, without any peer-review – the studies can easily be misrepresented, mushrooming fake news.


No, we do not want any more conspiracy theories. Therefore, the media and policy makers need to weigh the worth of the available findings accurately.




Rightly earmarking the R&D budget


Basic science research needs back-up, big time.


It is crucial to secure the budget for basic science. For example, without knowing the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 Spike glycoproteins, it would be impossible to design a molecular weapon against it. Only basic science research could get you the answers.


So, do not steal the share from the basic research and fund the downstream healthcare industries exclusively; secure the foundation first!


Future segregation and processing of R&D budgets need reform. In present days, when the need is maximum, the COVID-19 related grants are approved within days – in comparison to the average ~6 months decision-cycle.


Can’t we make this a new normal? So, the researchers do not need to struggle financially! The post-COVID time would need this change.



The change within!




All these external changes dictate a change within. Within every soul, confined to its home.


We try to reciprocate to the essence of life. Start to gauge the difference between fundamental and essential needs for our lives. The pre-COVID possessions may not carry the same importance in our probable post-COVID lives.


It is time to celebrate the changes, be it beneficial or wounding – we are learning to deal with them.


Let science be the polestar!



References

  1. https://energyandcleanair.org/air-pollution-deaths-avoided-in-europe-as-coal-oil-plummet/
  2. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-india-52290522/india-coronavirus-lockdown-cleans-up-ganges-river
  3. https://www.freepressjournal.in/world/in-italy-clearer-water-and-cleaner-air-during-coronavirus-lockdown
  4. https://www.unenvironment.org/resources/report/preventing-future-zoonotic-disease-outbreaks-protecting-environment-animals-and
  5. https://trends.google.com/trends/story/US_cu_4Rjdh3ABAABMHM_en
  6. https://about.lens.org/covid-19/
  7. https://towardsdatascience.com/covid-19-open-source-dashboard-fa1d2b4cd985
  8. https://www.wikidata.org/wiki/Wikidata:WikiProject_COVID-19
  9. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019
  10. https://www.coronavirus.gov/
  11. https://www.nih.gov/coronavirus
  12. https://connect.biorxiv.org/relate/content/181



Written by Somsuvro Basu


Publication date: 21.08.2020