Researching Covid-19 must not become a feeding frenzy for opportunists

Whatever the truth around Mauro Ferrari’s resignation from the ERC, the affair raises an important issue, says Luca Magnani

April 10, 2020
Lion chasing zebra
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“If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call?!”

Or, more aptly, if you want to protect your neighbourhood from, what would you definitely need? I think that any solution must include a well-tested alarm system to call attention, a sizeable group of expert firemen, and a whole lot of water.

I suppose that solar-powered firetrucks, lightweight AI-controlled water pumps and drones would be a plus. Still, I guess you would not want to invest resources in developing them when a big fire is already burning. And I imagine you won’t go asking classical historians to leave their posts so they can join the effort, giving onsite lectures on Nero’s big fire. You could probably wait, too, on mathematical studies that use big data to model the effect of projecting water at different angles. And, definitely, you don’t want to persuade the flood, tornado and locust teams to join the front line given that the monsoon season comes next. All you really should focus on is stopping the fire and remaining prepared for other ones.

But is this pandemic something like a fire out of control? Or is it something different altogether? Mauro Ferrari, the recently resigned/dismissed president of the European Research Council saw it more like a moon landing project. His argument was that the ERC should start a massive initiative to tackle the epidemic, basically transforming the bottom-up funding agency into a top-down one.

“I thought that at a time like this, the very best scientists in the world should be provided with resources and opportunities to fight the pandemic,” he wrote, in his “resignation” letter. And I believe he is right about this. But what I believe he has missed is that you need the best “experts”, not just anybody – regardless of their scientific background – with a big lab, an ambitious personality and a bag full of opinions.

This is an extremely delicate moment: the scientific world is under scrutiny from the public, and understandably so. Some of Ferrari’s statements hinted at “bureaucrats and too much scientific governance”. Reading the ERC science council’s counterstatement, it is evident that the disagreement between Ferrari and the council has been boiling for a while, and we don’t really know what kind of power struggle led to this decision. But whatever the truth is in this case, it raises a significant issue: is it a good idea to divert a massive proportion of government funding towards Covid research or not?

It looks as though the EU has already started about 50 individual initiatives to tackle Covid, but is this enough? Should it “sacrifice” the ERC’s bottom-up ethos at a time like this? I firmly believe the answer is no.

Covid is an unprecedented challenge, but I would argue that most of the problem comes from the way the world is organised and how a pandemic affects it. Therefore, Covid is mostly a societal (how do you handle it), logistic (how do you keep the world running) and humanistic (economy vs lives) challenge. From a purely scientific point of view, I would argue that Covid is not an overly complicated matter. It’s a new virus for which we need a set of robust tests and an effective vaccine. When we faced the challenge of sequencing the human genome in the 1980s and 1990s, we gave a strong mandate to the best genomic labs in the world. We made resources available – and we made sure the results stayed wholly free and accessible, so forget patents please. We did not ask everybody to weigh in on how to do it.

Covid is no different. We do not need every scientist on the planet (clinical or basic) to drop what they are doing and start a Covid research plan. It is ineffective, inefficient and will cost us dearly. In 2021, people will still die from cancer, diabetes, heart failure, malaria, cholera, famine and many other ailments. Most likely, much fewer people will be under the threat of Covid.

Humans are unique because they leverage ingenuity to drive scientific progress. The ERC believes that the best scientists should be left alone to work on what they consider essential. Often, this leads to innovation that we can’t even anticipate. Diverting large amounts of already scarce scientific funding toward Covid will simply play into the hands of narcissistic scientific opportunists with questionable motivations.

You would also potentially be passing a death sentence on many fields of research that will be equally if not more important than Covid in the future. The world and the EU will face much more significant challenges: to name but two small examples, antibiotic resistance and global warming. For these, we need to be properly prepared. We should invest in building up the fire brigades, the hospitals, the weather stations, and deploy them in the precise form once we need them. Otherwise, we might be back experiencing this surreal world once over.

Science is better when not rushed, but populistic views can often become prevalent at times like this. We need to be extremely careful that well-meaning funding agencies don’t inadvertently recreate the Wild West during the gold rush. That only results in real doctors having to compete with snake-oil sellers.

Luca Magnani is chair in cancer adaptation and evolution at Imperial College London.

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