Has too much promise, scientists working on the Covid-19 could affect the confidence of the population in the sciences, is afraid of Herbert Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the prestigious family of publications Science (including Science, Science Reports , and 5 others) and its corollary, editorial Science News. In an editorial, supplemented by answers to questions of Science and the Future, it calls the scientists to prefer results to promises.
“It is not only to repair an airplane while it flies – it comes to repairing an airplane in flight, while its plans are still under development.”
Science and the Future : What are the main challenges that face the scientific community in this crisis of the Covid-19 ?
Herbert Holden Thorp : The majority of crises that most of us have been through did not find immediate answers in science. In many cases, the most scientific analysis came after the fact, as to the virology behind the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2003, or respiratory syndrome Middle East (MERS) in 2012. Today, we ask science to provide a quick solution to a problem that is not completely described.
It is difficult to share the progress while maintaining an adequate reserve. We cannot, in fact, not much will move forward on the time that the project could take or the effectiveness of the measures that are taken.
The scientific method is a process that is very deliberate which has been refined over time : the fundamental research, which describes the problem, is followed by applied research that builds on this understanding. Today, scientists are trying to do both at the same time. It is not only to repair an airplane while it flies – it comes to repairing an airplane in flight, while its plans are still under development.
For the Covid-19, what work is being carried out in parallel ?
The virus just described. In structural biology, we learn just the structures of the Spike protein (which is involved in the entry of the virus into the cell, ed.), receptor on our cells ACE2 that binds and proteases (enzymes that destroy proteins, editor’s note) which are excellent targets for drugs. In terms of immunology, we know barely if neutralizing antibodies can be induced, meaning that a vaccine is possible. In epidemiology, we are in the process of analyzing what happened in China to understand how the virus spreads. In terms of medicine, we learn just what it is that causes the severity of some cases. It is extremely difficult to apply a drug or a vaccine so that we do not yet know these answers. Much more than solve a problem for which we already know this information.
“The tracks of vaccines are exciting, but extremely speculative”
At what point do we need to stay cautious about the possibilities of treatments and vaccines ?
I think science does a great job, but we need time to get to these answers. On the processing side, lopinavir-ritonavir (Kaletra, the anti-HIV ed.) did not give better results than the placebo. Efforts are underway to identify other drugs possible as the remdesivir, new antivirals, and of many antibodies. As for the vaccines, we know so little about the SARS-CoV-2 that the development of a vaccine could take at least a year and a half, or not get done at all. A clinical trial for a vaccine is already underway in the United States, but you need to tell the public that these first vaccines may not work, as it is currently assessed as on its security.
These are exciting possibilities, but also extremely speculative. It is extremely dangerous to exaggerate politically of such approaches, as this may create false expectations and put in breach of the medicines necessary for the treatment of other diseases for which they are approved. In addition, this leads science to make exaggerated promises and not keep them.
Promise too much compared to the results could have “disastrous consequences”
What consequences do you fear ?
I am afraid that the confidence of the public in science so eroded if the arrival of the vaccines and drugs were taking more time than what we promise. I do not say this because I think that the scientific community has bad intentions or that it exaggerates deliberately, but because of what science is capable of obtaining real-time. When the science is attacked in the HIV/AIDS crisis, it took years of virology, drug development and epidemiology careful. The assault on the scientific world on the Covid-19 is faster.
If the science provided answers quickly, the confidence of the public in science could, however, significantly increase – the highest point of trust in science in the United States has been at the end of the Second world War. But if the scientific community helps to give hope in the fight against the Covid-19, and does not deliver the results expected, the consequences for science could be disastrous.