The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Science Around the World
Published December 15, 2020
A lead researcher in COVID-19 vaccine development says the scientific world has come together in an unprecedented way to combat the pandemic. “I've really never seen such a concerted effort toward the same problem in science, ever,” said Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett. “It’s beyond what I even thought was possible, to be completely honest.”
Dr. Corbett is viral immunologist and research fellow in the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. She spoke during a recent Academy program on the impact of the pandemic on science around the world. The discussion was in a portion of the Academy’s 202nd Annual Meeting that was opened up to large audience on Facebook Live.
Dr. Corbett has spent more than a decade studying the dengue virus, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza virus and coronaviruses. The experience with coronaviruses meant Dr. Corbett’s team was unusually well-positioned to work on a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. In January, her team began designing the vaccine concept for mRNA-1273, a leading candidate vaccine against SARS-CoV-2. Partnering with Moderna, Inc., they were able to develop the vaccine and move to clinical trials with unprecedented speed. “We were aiming to be in a phase one clinical trial in one hundred days, and we ended up getting there in 66 days,” Dr. Corbett recalled, adding that the pandemic brought a new urgency to her team’s work.
Dr. Corbett said virtually all of her colleagues at the Vaccine Research Center ended up working on coronaviruses, and she said there was a powerful transition in thinking about the Center’s work. “There was just this complete shift where your science goes from being your science to being the world's science,” Dr. Corbett said.
Dr. Mary Collins, an immunologist and virologist who is provost at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, echoed that sentiment and expressed a deep respect for scientists around the world who came together to advance progress toward a vaccine. She said competitive considerations were often put aside as researchers shared findings. “The international collaboration has just been outstanding,” Dr. Collins said. “Nobody ever has said, you know, ‘I'm going to publish this. I'll let you see it later.’ So this is wonderful.”
Dr. Nicholas Dirks, the President of the Academy, said he was particularly impressed by how the collaboration in COVID-19 research has spanned international borders.
Important scientific work in fighting the pandemic has included very local efforts, too. In the Okinawa Prefecture in Japan, Dr. Collins and her team used their labs and skills to provide much needed COVID-19 testing on the islands of Miyako-jima and Yaeyama. “If you look at those on a map, you'll have to really zoom in to find them,” she said. “And this sort of local testing is very important. You can't implement testing from a great distance.”
From Sweden, Dr. Leonard Bergström, a professor of materials chemistry at Stockholm University, provided a good example of how scientists in fields other than biology often interrupted their research to contribute to efforts to combat the spread of the disease. His chemistry department donated PPE and converted a lab to produce hand sanitizer.
While it has mobilized many, the pandemic has also interrupted research and the work of graduate students and postdocs. Classes could continue online but lab work was often curtailed or shut down entirely.
Dr. Andrea Morris, Assistant Dean and the founding director of career and professional development at Rockefeller University, said the university closed down all non-essential operations in March, when the New York metropolitan area was the most severely-affected area in the US. Labs were shut except those where research was performed that was directly related to the pandemic. By late October, she said, other labs had started to reopen, but lab work was being conducted only in tightly-scheduled shifts.
Dr. Collins said spacing out access to labs was essential to conducting safe research. She noted, however, that some of the more intangible elements of scientific pursuit can be lost with such rigorous schedules.
Dr. Bergström fears the economic fallout from the pandemic will have long-term impacts on science. Even though Stockholm University is public and not dependent on tuition, he said it does rely on private foundations for research. “About a third of the external funding for us comes from private foundations,” he said. “And a lot of them cut down significantly on funding.”
Dr. Dirks noted that university study is being impacted by the pandemic. Referring to the University of California, Berkeley, where he has served as Chancellor, Dr. Dirks said, “a number of departments have recently decided that they can't afford to bring in a new class of graduate students next year.”
Then there’s the job market. The pandemic put a pause on hiring at many research institutions and universities. “I know many postdocs who were in the middle or really towards the end of tenure track faculty job searches when everything shut down,” Dr. Morris said. “And they were told at that point that the searches were either closed or canceled or paused.”
On top of this, typical networking events, such as scientific conferences and job fairs, were canceled or went virtual this year. Dr. Bergström said he had four PhD students graduate during the pandemic and that they have reason to fear job prospects: “I'm concerned about the recruitment of young faculty because that's quite often the simplest decision to save money, to just stop that for a while, and that could, of course, be disastrous for a whole generation of scientists.”
While she recognized the challenges of virtual networking, Dr. Morris said job seekers should participate in as many online events as possible, and use them as an opportunity to practice presenting themselves in online environments. “I think as much practice and as much acceptance of this virtual way of communicating is probably the best preparation,” she said. “Use it as an opportunity.”
Dr. Morris said many scientists are very motivated right now, especially as they find themselves in a spotlight. “There's this renewed sense of the role that scientists have in our world outside of our own labs and lab benches,” she said. “That's what's pushing us forward these days.” Dr. Bergström said he’s noticed this as well: “It's been very interesting to talk to my nonscientific friends about this because they started to ask a lot of questions about how science is being made and that, I would say, is a good thing.”
Dr. Collins added that as a virologist, she is in especially good company right now. She said her field is a center of attention, and that this surge in public interest will ultimately benefit critical scientific research in the future.