Why Science is at the heart of the COVID-19 Crisis

Josh Tewksbury, Interim Director of Future Earth, explores the structural risks that made a pandemic like COVID-19 nearly inevitable, including unplanned urbanization, not enough focus on ensuring communities are resilient, and a narrow band of economics that focuses on the pursuit of growth, destabilizing vital planetary systems. There are powerful lessons learned, including our ability to work together, and fundamentally change our systems for a more equitable world.

Image: Transmission electron micrograph of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle, isolated from a patient. Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Image credit: NIAID on Flickr.

Take a moment to reflect on the image above. This now unmistakable shape represents one of the first attempts to image a single particle of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the devastating global disease known as COVID-19. At this minuscule scale, even the shortest wavelengths of light are too large to resolve any meaningful detail. Instead, a tight beam of electrons less than 10 nanometers across helped map its simple yet deadly structure.

Viruses are, in a certain sense, pure information. This tiny organism, one thousand times smaller than a grain of sand, consists only of a single strand of RNA wrapped in a bumpy envelope of fat. The genetic instructions it carries, however, have been honed by natural selection for a singular end — rapid and relentless reproduction.

This organic self-replicator is well adapted for human hosts, and a microscopic war now rages in bodies around the globe. We are living through the consequences: more than 740,000 have died with over 20,000,000 confirmed infections, burdening healthcare systems to the brink of collapse. The scale, speed, and severity of this crisis has not been seen in generations — all caused by an infinitesimal packet of information, multiplying endlessly.

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Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (green) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (yellow), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Credit: NIAID

But humans are also capable of harnessing the power of information, and in far more sophisticated ways than our viral adversaries. Within weeks of the novel coronavirus breaking out in Wuhan, Chinese scientists published its full genome sequence to the world, giving the global scientific community an invaluable head start in their efforts to identify the infected, hunt for effective antigens, and work towards an eventual vaccine. And in some regions, where collaboration between decision makers and the scientific community are strong, rapid policy responses have contained the initial outbreak.

This is not the case everywhere. Information breakdowns, partisan distrust of science, and a lack of coordinated action have hindered the response to this virus, costing lives, livelihoods, and staggering financial sums.

Moreover, the world is failing to address the structural risks that made a pandemic like COVID-19 nearly inevitable. Unplanned urbanization around the globe has pushed millions of people up against the wild of nature, creating growing hotspots for the emergence of zoonotic disease. Governments within advanced and developing countries alike have focused too little on the resilience and sustainability of their societies, and far too much on a narrow band of economic markers for a variant of capitalism blindly pursuing growth. The destabilization of vital planetary systems is bringing compounding consequences we are only beginning to understand, from viral pathogens and biodiversity collapse to climate change and the acidification of our oceans.

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Satellite imagery of slash-and-burn fires and smoke clouds in the Amazon rainforest during August 2019. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose 55 percent during the first four months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. Credit: ESA

In this new era called the Anthropocene, in which human beings are now the dominant force of planetary change, we know more about our impacts on our environment than ever before — but we are also failing to effect change at the pace and scale we need to. Human activities today are disrupting natural systems in ways that threaten our health, air quality, water reliability, food security, and the stability of our climate and ecosystems.

We have fewer than 10 years left to reach the United Nations’ ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet adopted in 2015. Yet the world is not any closer to achieving global sustainability. Scientists, and science institutions, will need to work much harder to integrate information across disciplines, to reach out beyond their own communities to policy-makers, the private sector, and civil society, and to work directly with communities in need of solutions, if we are going to effect change at the pace that is needed. This will require major shifts in the science system: the ways science is done, assessed, and funded.

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An aerial view of empty freeway streets in downtown Los Angeles, California due to COVID-19 virus outbreak and quarantine. Despite the 17 percent drop in global carbon emissions during peak confinement measures, scientists project an annual decrease of 4–7 percent for 2020 — well below year-over-year emission reduction targets set by the UN Environment Programme. Credit: Hyperlapse Media

A powerful lesson from recent months is what we are able to achieve by working together — and what we risk by failing to do so. Our capacity to understand and control this virus is fundamentally about collaboration within communities, across cities, states, and sectors, and among countries. This is why organizations such as the WHO are indispensable, and why international science organizations, like the International Science Council and Future Earth, must rise to the challenges of the road ahead. To achieve the vision of thriving societies in a sustainable and equitable world, we must build stronger and more resilient information flows between science, governance, commerce, and culture in the months and years to come.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis of our global commons, and demands that we manage our shared resources in healthier, more holistic ways. The trillions of dollars being leveraged for economic recovery around the world must be used to accelerate the global transition to a sustainable future by creating millions of new green jobs, halving emissions, and putting nature on the path to recovery by 2030. To honor all those who have been affected by this virus, and to protect the generations that will come after it, we must not let this crisis go to waste.

This article was first published on Medium.

Josh Tewksbury is the Interim Executive Director of Future Earth. Josh was trained as an ecologist, evolutionary biologist, and conservation biologist. He has 20+ years of active research focused on climate impacts on plants and animals; the influence of fragmentation, connectivity, invasive species and mutualism loss on populations and communities; the evolution and functional significance of chemical defense in plants; and other topics. Before joining Future Earth as the Director of the Colorado Global Hub, Josh was the founding director of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, a global research center integrated within the International Secretariat of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Geneva Switzerland. 

Main image by NIAID on Flickr

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