health & science

Fast, scattered science fights coronavirus

Who is organising the world's scientific community in the fight against the new coronavirus? No one it seems, but even without coordination, scientists are collaborating and rapidly sharing research.

While borders snap shut in an attempt to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, scientists are busy working on other angles such as faster detection, possible treatments and prevention. 

Nine days after Chinese officials notified the World Health Organisation of a string of pneumonia-like illnesses, Wuhan local researchers released the genetic code of the new coronavirus.

It’s not the first time this has been done, but the speed at which it was released has helped scientists from around the world delve into trying to understand where the virus may have come from, what it’s similar to, how to rapidly diagnose new cases and to work on vaccines. 

It’s resulted in some very fast science being done to tackle the new virus without a great deal of global coordination or work occurring outside of academic science's normal way.

University of Auckland’s associate professor Siouxsie Wiles has been following the outbreak and the scientific effort closely. 

“The short answer is there is no coordination.”

While much of the effort has been useful, there have also been missteps.

“If you have skills - and sometimes people don’t have skills - people will jump on this. Hence we get snake flu.”

The theory the virus came from snakes has been largely dismissed. Another paper suggesting the new coronavirus had “uncanny” similarities with HIV and published as a preprint - a paper that hasn’t been through a peer review process - was swiftly criticised by scientists and withdrawn by its authors.

A peer-reviewed paper published by the New England Journal of Medicine has also been called flawed. It suggested the virus could be spread by people who didn’t yet have symptoms. This would greatly increase the risk of it being spread by people who don’t even realise they’re ill. 

The authors did not speak directly to the woman who was said to have spread the virus without displaying symptoms. It turns out her lack of symptoms was in fact silent suffering. She had muscle pain and had been taking painkillers, which also reduce fever, when she was in contact with the people she infected. 

The World Health Organisation has been pivotal in disseminating disease information to the world, suggesting what precautions should be taken and how countries can prepare for the virus. It also has what it calls an “R&D Blueprint”. In a January 20 meeting, it was decided working groups will be formed to evaluate emerging treatments and vaccines.

Numbers related to the average number of people a sick person is likely to infect, known as the R0 of the virus, have also varied wildly, with some scientists updating earlier incorrect numbers they had released. The incorrect numbers led to tweets calling the virus "thermonuclear pandemic level bad".

It has also asked for partners to share prepublication articles and manuscripts in advance in order to access “the latest information in real time”.

Fast, scattered science

The typical way academic science works is through publishing papers. Researchers write a paper and submit it to a journal. It gets reviewed by peers, suggestions can be made, and if it passes the review it eventually gets published, often locked behind a paywall. 

For academics, published research helps secure promotions and pay rises.

When there’s an outbreak of a new virus, the traditional route to publishing research can be a lumbering, slow process to contemplate when lives are at stake.

Some journals have expedited the process when there’s a public health crisis and dropped paywalls. The New England Medical Journal has cut its normal time to publish to within a day or two.

Another emerging trend is preprints. Websites like biorxiv.org allow scientists to publish findings immediately. 

“The thing I like about preprints is that they are a good way to get lots more eyes on a paper than just the two or three reviewers that would be looking at it if you submitted it,” said Wiles.

One preprint published on January 23 has been downloaded more than 180,000 times and tweeted about 3894 times. The preprint linking HIV to the coronavirus has been tweeted about over 9000 times. The paper’s findings were quickly queried on Twitter and the paper was withdrawn.

Wiles is keen to see a push for more open science, with preprints commonly used as tool and raw data shared openly with findings.  

Organic collaboration

University of Otago’s professor Miguel Quiñones-Mateu thinks despite the lack of global coordination, scientists are doing a good job, with the initial sharing of the genetic code hugely helpful to the effort.

While many point to globalisation as a way viruses travel rapidly, he also sees it as a way scientists are able to collaborate better and communicate rapidly.

“This entire community is working together and collaborating. I don’t see anybody trying to hide samples or do stuff like that. Everybody is helping each other and each time they develop a new tool or technology everybody’s tweeting about it, or putting it on a website so everybody has access to it.”

He said it’s not just academics who are collaborating but hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and the CDC and WHO.

The organic approach to scientists working on the virus was possibly better than having bureaucratic systems in place to coordinate global scientific efforts he said.

“I think that would complicate things. It would be all meetings and conference calls.”

Breakneck speed for vaccine

The vaccine race began immediately after the genetic code of the virus was posted in a public database. 

It’s a mix of public and private effort, with some coordination coming from non-profit Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). The Oslo-based organisation is a partnership between public, private, philanthropic, and civil organisations and was established in 2016 to fund vaccine development for emerging diseases. The United Kingdom government has recently pledged over $40 million to CEPI to aid with the production of a vaccine

So far, CEPI has awarded $20 million in grants, which have been split between three groups each with different approaches to making vaccines. 

The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has signed a collaboration agreement with vaccine-maker Moderna. The company has already made a vaccine for MERS. It hopes to use a similar approach to produce a vaccine for the new virus.

Inovio is another company awarded funds. Like Moderna it’s made a MERS vaccine which has been further developed, but uses DNA instead of mRNA - the approach taken by Moderna.

The University of Queensland has received the third grant and has partnered with GlaxoSmithKline. The planned approach is to use an older technology but make use of GlaxoSmithKline’s adjuvant technology. This allows small amounts of the antigen to be used, which is helpful in pandemics when making as many doses as possible, quickly, is the focus.

Share prices of some of the companies involved in the vaccine research have jumped after their involvement in the effort was announced.

Independent to the CEPI-funded efforts, researchers from the University of Hong Kong claim to have already developed a vaccine ready for testing, but have not given a timeframe for when testing is likely to begin.

The various groups have different timelines. The most optimistic suggest a vaccine will be ready to test on animals for around one month, and people in three to four months. During the SARS outbreak, it took 20 weeks for a vaccine to be ready to test on humans.

Once a vaccine passes through clinical trials - likely to take at least three months - it will then need to be mass-produced. One of the larger companies estimate it could produce 100 million doses a year. With 7.5 billion people on earth, who gets the vaccine will need to be prioritised. 

Likely to be heading the queue will be frontline healthcare workers, as well as older people and people with chronic health conditions, who so far seem to be more susceptible to dying if they catch the virus. 

Burn it all down

Wiles is a fan of the type of open science that's helped the collaboration of scientific effort. This appears to have happened outside of the normal channels of academia. 

The slow system of publishing in peer-reviewed journals and hoping for pharmaceutical companies to see a big enough business case to rapidly mass-produce a vaccine is broken, as far as she's concerned, when it comes to fast-moving public health emergencies. 

"I think all aspects of this endeavour are kind of broken. You kind of need to burn it down and start again."

Working openly with preprints and sharing raw data is the kind of science she favours. 

"But at the moment it's a very, very tight rope that people are walking because it's not really accepted by most academics. If you are an early career person you might end up surviving because you will have a different type of CV that the people assessing you are not used to assessing."

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