May 21, 2020 - Science

Pandemic science speeds up — but there are limits

Animated illustration of a speed reading sign rotating through images including a syringe, a beaker, a microscope, and a virus

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Scientists are responding to the coronavirus pandemic at breakneck speed, testing vaccines and dozens of treatments, but there are hard limits to how fast science can produce the answers we need.

Why it matters: The full-throttle pace of pandemic science is likely here to stay and could carry over to other fields. That means getting comfortable with the limits and drawbacks of such speed to inform the response to this crisis — and prepare for the next one.

What’s happening: Genetic sequencing, AI tools, collaborations and preprint servers where researchers publish their work before it is peer-reviewed are all fueling the rapid accumulation of information about SARS-CoV-2.

  • 10 days after the coronavirus was first reported to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, researchers in China published the sequence of the virus genome and scientists around the world started to develop diagnostic tests for the disease. (During the 2003 SARS outbreak, samples of the virus took weeks to arrive from China, and sequencing cost more and took even longer.)
  • The genetic evolution of SARS-CoV-2, seen in more than 4,300 samples from around the world, is being used to track changes in the virus.
  • New approaches to developing vaccines have already put a handful of vaccine candidates into clinical trials.
  • AI is being used to more quickly assess and adjust treatments for the disease.

The catch: The speed of science in this pandemic has raised concerns about the quality of what is being published and the possibility that unreviewed early research could feed into disinformation (though some argue the benefits outweigh the drawbacks).

  • And it can be hard to make sense of the sheer quantity of science being done and data produced. Scientists are creating new tools to keep up with the deluge of information.

The big picture: The automation of experiments and the ability to amass vast datasets are already altering the fundamental practice of science in areas from astronomy to biology, raising tensions between information and knowledge. In a pandemic, there is the added pressure of doing no harm, as the debate over hydroxychloroquine demonstrates.

  • Early reports suggested the drug, which is used to treat malaria and lupus, was an effective treatment, causing prescriptions to spike and encouraging the stockpiling of it around the world.
  • But hydroxychloroquine is still undergoing clinical trials and, so far, there is no substantial evidence it is effective and the FDA cautions it carries risks for some people.

Another open question is how much immunity people have after being infected with SARS-CoV-2. "Reinfection is a story that simply can't be told without time," says Joshua Schiffer, an infectious disease physician and researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle.

  • It requires identifying people who are infected, sequencing the virus from them, tracking how long they shed the virus, and sequencing it again to determine if the virus is different and therefore likely represents a new infection, he says. And reinfection needs to be studied across large numbers of people to determine if it is common.
  • "The first really good studies on this will take six months to a year," he predicts.

Vaccines also take time to test their safety and effectiveness (not to mention manufacture and distribute).

  • Trials that deliberately infect people with the virus and, in the future, new ways of designing vaccines may speed the process, but only so much.

What to watch: One way to eke out more from science when a crisis unfolds is to be ready before the crisis begins.

  • National security should be expanded to include health security, and international scientific collaborations that are fueling the speed of pandemic science should be supported in preparation for the next crisis, health security expert Gigi Gronvall of Johns Hopkins University argues in a new paper.
  • Dario Gil, director of IBM Research and a member of President Trump's science advisory council, is calling for the creation of a reserve corps of scientists to address crises.
  • Bill Gates is investing in manufacturing facilities for seven different potential vaccines, acknowledging some won't pan out.

The bottom line: Understanding the limits and drawbacks of speedy science matters now more than ever because in crises — of which there will certainly be more — the stakes are even higher.

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