The outbreak has produced its share of dubious distinctions, from China’s ham-handed early attempts at coverup to the test-kit fiasco at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fighting the pandemic will take years. There is, so far, no vaccine or antiviral, leaving many people feeling vulnerable. Science is long, hard work, not all moonshots and miracles. Reflecting the public anxiety, President Trump has repeatedly urged that a new vaccine be developed fast, even though it will take a year — and probably longer — to develop, test and manufacture.
The understandable dread about a spreading virus should not overshadow remarkable developments in the speed and transparency of biomedical science. Next-generation genetic sequencing has produced a sheaf of blueprints of the coronavirus makeup in record time. Over the past decade or so, such sequencing has become far cheaper and faster — a vital tool that wasn’t available, for example, when the HIV/AIDS pandemic began. Even when the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus took off in 2002 and peaked in February 2003, the full genome wasn’t sequenced until April of that year. Now, just weeks after the coronavirus outbreak, there are 161 genomes posted in one database, the Global Initiative to Share All Influenza Data, or GISAID. These show where each virus sample came from over time and emerging mutations.
In another promising technology, researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health, including Jason McLellan at the University of Texas at Austin, used cyro-electron microscopy to create an image of the spike protein that the coronavirus uses to anchor itself on a human cell and penetrate it. Going after that spike in a vaccine or therapy might block the process of infection. Researchers constructed a three-dimensional structural map of the spike in just 12 days.
Yet another development has been a boom in “open” science. As Kai Kupferschmidt reported in Science, researchers traditionally kept their findings quiet, angling for publication in a prestigious and peer-reviewed journal, protective of their discovery and the credit for it. This hampered the response to outbreaks. Now, scientists from around the world, including China, are readily sharing their findings on biomedical preprint servers, bioRxiv and medRxiv, where the papers are not peer-reviewed but made available quickly. This has led to more collaboration across national boundaries than ever before, a necessity when fighting a disease that also leaps across national borders.