When COVID-19 slowed the world to a halt in March, the scientific enterprise pivoted, with more researchers than ever focusing on a single problem at once. Their successes suggest that the end of the pandemic is now in sight, but science will never be the same. Staff writer Ed Yong’s “How Science Beat the Virus,” appearing on The Atlantic’s January/February cover, is the most complete account of how the scientific community mobilized around COVID-19; the early mistakes that slowed down progress; and what the research of the past months means for the future of science, and our own health, as we battle deadly pathogens in the years to come.
Thousands of researchers dropped their own work in March and turned their attention to COVID-19 at a scale that we’ve never seen before. Neuroscientists who study the sense of smell started investigating why COVID-19 patients tend to lose theirs, and physicists who had previously experienced infectious diseases only by contracting them found themselves creating models to inform policy makers. As Yong writes, “No disease has been scrutinized so intensely, by so much combined intellect, in so brief a time.”
The pivot has already paid off. New diagnostic tests can detect the virus within minutes, massive open data sets of viral genomes and COVID-19 cases have given us the most detailed picture yet of the disease’s evolution, and vaccines are being developed at record-breaking speed. Through interviews with scientists, physicians, and government officials, Yong reports on how the lessons learned from COVID-19 will change the way we think about diseases forever. Anthony Fauci, whose career was defined by HIV, tells Yong that he’s hopeful the cascading effects of studying COVID-19 will improve our understanding of the prolonged symptoms after viral infections. The pandemic has created “the most unusual situation imaginable,” Fauci says —a massive cohort of people with long-haul symptoms that are almost certainly caused by one known virus. “It’s an opportunity we cannot lose.”
For all the ways the COVID-19 pivot has improved the scientific enterprise, Yong details how it has also revealed the all-too-human frailties of the community. “Flawed research made the pandemic more confusing, influencing misguided policies. Clinicians wasted millions of dollars on trials that were so sloppy as to be pointless. Overconfident poseurs published misleading work on topics in which they had no expertise. Racial and gender inequalities in the scientific field widened,” he writes. Roughly 80 percent of non-COVID-19 clinical trials were interrupted or stopped, and research on other infectious diseases, such as Ebola and MERS, was back-burnered. One expert who studies tuberculosis—which causes 1.5 million deaths a year— calls COVID-19 “a black hole, sucking us all in.”
Still, Yong argues that the pivot offers science a chance to learn from these mistakes of the past year, and reimagine what medicine can be. He writes: “The scientific community spent the pre-pandemic years designing faster ways of doing experiments, sharing data, and developing vaccines, allowing it to mobilize quickly when COVID‐19 emerged. Its goal now should be to address its many lingering weaknesses. Warped incentives, wasteful practices, overconfidence, inequality, a biomedical bias—COVID‐19 has exposed them all. And in doing so, it offers the world of science a chance to practice one of its most important qualities: self-correction.”
“How Science Beat the Virus” is at The Atlantic today and on the cover of The Atlantic’s January/February issue, alongside Jordan Kisner’s “What the Chaos in Hospitals Is Doing to Doctors.” Stories from the issue will continue to publish at The Atlantic throughout the month.