WHEN EBOLA began to spread in West Africa in December 2013, it was invisible. A 2-year-old who had been playing near a bat-filled tree in southeastern Guinea died, apparently the first victim, but it took months for health workers to detect and report the spread of a disease with a high mortality. Soon it raged across Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, sickening 28,000 people and killing 11,000. Scientists have now tracked the pathways of the virus in once-unimaginable detail, providing important lessons for preventing another outbreak. This is a terrific example of science at work for society, and it shows why this weekend’s March for Science is relevant.
The study of how Ebola spread was carried out with the collaboration of 93 scientists from 53 institutions in 16 countries and published in Nature under lead author Gytis Dudas of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. The team marshaled 1,610 whole genomes of the virus to discover what factors were significant in its spread. They found that only 3.6 percent of the cases spread geographically, indicating that if the mobility of relatively few people had been disrupted, the epidemic might have been braked. Also, they discovered that the virus traveled more often over short distances; faraway cities did not catch fire, as some had feared might happen. They also found that border closures helped: Once the gates shut, virus movement occurred mostly within countries rather than between them.
These findings — and also the discovery that common language, economic output and climate did not significantly speed or slow the epidemic — underscore the promise of scientific discovery to save lives and make the world safer. Next time a virus outbreak of such ferocity begins, the lessons from fighting Ebola might prevent thousands of deaths. This would not have been possible but for the remarkable advances in recent years in charting the entire genome of a living organism, advances that are supported in part by government funding.
Many of those organizing and participating in the March for Science say it is a statement of belief in the power of empirical discovery, and not an anti-Trump protest. It is fine to remain nonpartisan, but that should not mean being blissfully ignorant of the realities of politics. The battles to come in Washington over spending priorities could determine whether the United States will remain a global leader in scientific research.
President Trump’s first budget, while declared dead on arrival in Congress, nonetheless starkly reflected his priorities. Along with cuts to environmental and climate science, he proposed to slash 18.3 percent, or about $5.8 billion, from the National Institutes of Health budget for fiscal 2018. That would send a wave of disruption through biomedical research efforts across the country and around the world. This research is a pillar of American strength in innovation and pays enormous dividends in fighting and preventing disease. As the Ebola research shows, the simple reality is that robustly funding basic science will save lives. That ought to be the basis for bipartisan agreement.