24/03/2020

Science of the times

Experts are back in fashion. Governments around the world are turning to them for help with tackling the pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus. One report by a team of researchers at Imperial College, London, was instrumental in convincing the British government to make a U-turn on March 16th and call on people to avoid non-essential social contact.

There is plenty more research material to sift through. According to PubMed, a search engine for biomedical research, there were 755 academic papers published in 2019 that mentioned the word “coronavirus”. In the first 80 days of this year alone, the number of articles about the family of viruses reached a staggering 1,245. Similar spikes in research activity occurred after the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003 and the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012, both caused by coronaviruses.

This time the scientific response has been far quicker. Some journals are fast-tracking the peer-review process so that research can be published sooner. Others are lowering their paywalls to make research about SARS-CoV-2, as the new virus is known, more widely available. Some worry that, as papers are published and disseminated more quickly, quality could suffer. Still, 15 papers about the new virus have appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine, a prestigious peer-reviewed medical journal. In The Lancet, another highly regarded journal, there have been 41. It is a truly international effort. According to Elsevier, a Dutch publisher, the papers about coronavirus published so far in 2020 have originated from 65 different countries.

International organisations are doing their part to gain a better understanding of the virus, among them the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a charity based in Norway that aims to speed up a covid-19 vaccine. Dr Marylyn Addo, an expert in infectious diseases at the German Centre for Infection Research in Hamburg, says it used to take several years to develop a vaccine. With this sort of international collaboration, many hope it may take a year or less.

This article is from our Graphic detail section.