Coronavirus - it’s time for science

Now that coronavirus has landed here, it's time for New Zealanders to channel their inner scientist, writes Victoria University of Wellington's Wayne Patrick 

The inevitable has happened. Aotearoa New Zealand has witnessed its first case of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Sadly – but equally inevitably – there are now reports of panic-buying in supermarkets and (of course) a whole raft of misinformation out there on the internet.

As the news broke, the thing that sprung to my mind was Matt Damon’s character in the 2015 movie The Martian. Battling to survive alone on Mars, he realised: “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.”

The good news for all of us is that thousands of scientists around the world are already collecting a mountain of data on exactly how COVID-19 works, and what chinks there are in its armour.

Even before the virus was dominating the news cycle, its genome had been sequenced and a highly respected US company was selling a kit for detecting it. When you stop to think about it, isn’t it impressive that science has already delivered a method for specifically diagnosing this virus (and not all the others), and which takes an afternoon? How often have you had to wait days for the results of much more routine medical tests?

Similarly, scientists in China have already solved the atomic-level structure of the COVID-19 protease, which is an enzyme it needs to replicate. They solved the structure of the protease bound to a molecule that inhibits its activity. Is this inhibitor molecule a drug you could put in a pill and use to treat an infection? No. But have they taken two months to do something that took more than five years back when scientists were scrambling to find anti-HIV drugs? Yes. Yes, they have.

And my friend and colleague Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles from the University of Auckland has already written about the search for a vaccine, which is happening at “breakneck speed”.

Here in Aotearoa, we have world-renowned scientists who design and synthesise anti-viral drugs. We have experts in modelling the evolution and spread of infectious disease. And experts at understanding how our immune system responds to attack. Uniquely, we also have mātauranga and rongoā – 700 years of accumulated knowledge and resources for staying healthy in this place. Importantly, we are respected members of the giant international community that is determined to stop COVID-19 in its tracks. I’m 100 percent confident we will succeed, even if things get worse before they get better.

For now, I truly hope all New Zealanders channel their inner scientist. Collect your own data on COVID-19 from multiple sources. Don’t just rely on your social media feeds, but read the updates on sites such as our Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization. Analyse the data and use it to make rational, common-sense decisions. Given everything we have learned about New Zealand’s one case to date (a patient in their 60s whose condition is improving), do you really need to panic-buy tinned food and toilet paper?

Matt Damon was right. Now is the time for all of us to science and mātauranga the shit out of this.

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