What do we believe in during the Corona crisis? – In science
Every day the world is fascinated and scared by the latest growth in Corona case numbers. For most of us, it is a shock to see what is happening in a world that we had until now considered safe and stable: Hoarding, school closures, curfews, stock market crashes, etc. For most of us, this kind of thing had previously only occurred in apocalyptic novels or films. But how fragile our world really is and how to deal with it, describes the Italian teacher Domenico Squillace in a wonderfully literary way to his students by recommending them to read the 19th century novel „The Betrothed“.In it, the author Alessandro Manzoni describes the situation in Italy during the plague of 1630, and the director of a Milanese grammar school writes of astonishing parallels to the situation in his country in March 2020:
„It’s a revealing text of extraordinary modernity, I suggest you read it carefully, especially in these confused days. Everything is already contained in these pages, the certainty that strangers are dangerous, the controversy among the authorities, the frantic search for the so- called Patient Zero, the contempt of experts, the hunt for disease vectors, the uncontrolled voices, the most absurd remedies, the hoarding of basic foodstuffs, the emergency in the health system […] In short, more than in Manzoni’s novel, these words seem to come from the pages of a newspaper today.
However, we see a significant difference to the crises of the Middle Ages or early modernity: In those days, people saw prayer and their faith in God as the only means of salvation. For the former, they often gathered in large groups, which further increased the spread of pathogens. Today, people’s hope lies elsewhere: in the abilities of scientists to develop a vaccine against the virus as quickly as possible. Experts believe that such a vaccine will be available within a year.So it is sometimes astonishing how science skeptics a la Donald Trump or Michael Pence, Jair Bolsonaro or Viktor Orban, and many contemporaries, who also use excessively the commentary functions in blogs like this, now turn to the scientists and urge them to free the world from the hostage of the corona virus as quickly as possible. Donald Trump himself called on the scientists to have a vaccine ready before the presidential election in November and suddenly he is even ready to spend a lot of money on the sciences (there were even press reports referring to German government sources that he wants to lure the company CureVac from Germany to America with money to develop a vaccine exclusively for his country). So now the hated scientists are supposed to save his presidency.From banning scientific findings such as climate change, evolutionary theory, epidemic dangers and sometimes even the theory of relativity to apologists of the scientific method and their rational and empirical search for solutions, at least intellectually, the virus seems to have achieved a very positive contagion effect.
But how quickly can bioengineers develop a suitable vaccine against the corona virus? One thing is certain: the work on this has dramatically accelerated. Modern biogenetics is helping the scientists a great deal: the rapid sequencing of the virus gene and its publication by Chinese researchers as early as January 2020 was a real blessing for researchers. And the speed of their progress is truly breathtaking: technologies such as genetic sequencing and new protein visualization microscopes enable them to develop vaccine candidates within a few weeks. The same thing took years just a few years ago.
However, the success of the researchers also depends on sufficient funding for their work, because good science naturally costs good money. And there is no shortage of that in the meantime. It is quite fortunate that the „Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations“ was recently launched. „Cepi“ was conceived in 2015 and formally launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017. It was funded with 460 million US dollars by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and a consortium of various states, mainly Norway, Japan and Germany.Cepi focuses on the World Health Organization’s „Blueprint Priority Pathogens“, which include the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome MERS-CoV (and more recently also corona, COVID-19), the Marburg virus, the Ebola Fever virus and the Zika virus. Its aim is „
Cepi is already very active in the field of COVID-19: In January 2020, it funded four teams working on a vaccine against the new virus: Moderna, Inovio Pharmaceuticals, the German company CureVac and the University of Queensland. Back in February, Inovio announced that it had produced a preclinical DNA-based vaccine to combat COVID-19 in its laboratory in San Diego. CureVac, in turn, says it can mass produce a coronavirus immunization based on mRNA technology from its existing facilities if its low-dose approach proves successful in trials. Richard Hachett, CEO of Cepi, said in an interview with the FT that CEPI expects to have human trials within 16 weeks, but warned: „All these timelines are aggressive and aspirational. As circumstances unfold there may be opportunities to reduce the timing,
With conventional viral vaccines, pharmaceutical researchers rely on attenuated, harmless live viruses or fragments of the pathogen that are supposed to stimulate the body cells to produce antibodies that will then prevent a possible infection from the outset. The immune system is thus shown harmless viruses (or even only small parts of them) that the body’s own defense system recognizes as intruders and learns to fight. For example, the vaccine against measles, mumps, rubella and seasonal influenza is made from weakened versions of the corresponding viruses that cannot cause a complete infection.
For Corona, however, a different approach may be needed to reach the goal quickly. The Covid 19 virus consists of an RNA strand (whose sequence is known) enclosed in a capsule covered with spikes (its structures look like a crown under the microscope, where the name of the virus comes from). It uses these so-called „spikes“ to penetrate human lung cells. Knowledge of the genetic code of the virus can help researchers locate this protein, which the virus uses like a key to enter human cells. This protein, usually located on the surface of the virus, or even parts of it, is often enough to be recognized by the immune system and to trigger its defensive reaction upon subsequent exposure.Vaccine manufacturers can now copy the genetic instructions for producing these spikes and package them in a vaccine,
The subsequent testing of the new potential vaccine is a highly complex, multi-stage process. Tests of a potential drug may only be conducted on humans once its safety and efficacy have been proven in laboratory animals. This is a basic principle of pharmaceutical research. But such studies take months, time which, given the situation, we do not have. We face a real ethical dilemma here: Are we allowed to put a risk on a very small number of people (the test subjects) in order to possibly save a large number of people? Researchers in Seattle have already begun recruiting healthy volunteers to participate in a clinical trial for an experimental COVID-19 vaccine developed by the biotechnology company Moderna Therapeutics, according to news reports.
The biggest hurdle, however, is the production of the vaccine and its subsequent large-scale administration. Even the most optimistic pharmaceutical representative would hardly claim that the vaccine will be ready before the end of this year. By then, the first wave of the corona outbreak will probably have already run its course.
Other hopes doctors have in drugs against diseases such as HIV and malaria, which they are using to treat corona virus patients. These are already available and all safety tests have been carried out, only their effectiveness for the corona virus must still be demonstrated. The most promising of these is a drug called „Remdesivir“, a broad-spectrum antiviral treatment originally developed by the pharmaceutical company Gilead for the treatment of the Ebola virus. Gilead began testing for effectiveness for Corona in March (the company’s stock thus escaped the broad-based stock market crash of these weeks and even gained 25% in value from the beginning of February until the second week in March).Antiviral HIV drugs are also mentioned as possible options, and in China at least two studies are underway involving a combination of „
So, it is just as Domenico Squillace writes his students:
“Compared to the epidemics of the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, we have modern medicine on our side, its progress, its certainties, we use the rational thought of which she is the daughter to preserve the most precious asset we possess, our social fabric, our humanity. ”