The 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting got off to a great start with the Corona and Emerging Pandemics panel discussion, moderated by the immunologist Professor Stefan H.E. Kaufmann. The panelists were Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008 for the discovery of the HIV virus); Harvey J. Alter (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2020 for the discovery of the hepatitis C virus); Professor Richard Neher, who studies the evolution of viruses and bacteria at the University of Basel; and Jana Huisman, a PhD student in computational evolution at ETH Zürich.
When asked at what point they did realise that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to be a catastrophe, the researchers all agreed that they were concerned about the virus becoming a worldwide problem in January, 2020. Richard Neher said that the severity of the virus became apparent to him when he observed a larger number of obituaries in early March, 2020.
Plagues and Politics
“We lost a lot of time at the beginning,” said Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, describing the lack of planning and slow procedures declaring the pandemic was indeed an emergency. The sentiment was echoed by Harvey J. Alter, who said the pandemic was a triumph in medical science, but a failure in social science. Alter pointed out the “dichotomy in what public health and government were recommending,” and the inaction in terms of universal masking, contact tracing and isolation. Had these measures been enforced from the start, “hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved.” On the positive side, Alter stated that the U.S. government deserves credit for early investment in vaccine development.
Vaccine Success and the Search for Antivirals
There are numerous ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the vaccine landscape, with respect to scientific advances, such as mRNA technology, but also the acceleration of the processes by regulatory agencies. Nevertheless, both Nobel Laureates acknowledged the difficulty in developing effective vaccines for hepatitis C and HIV, due to the nature of these viruses. During the discussion on slow COVID-19 vaccination rates in low income countries, Alter stressed that the rich have to give to the poor, “to the benefit of the donor, as well as the recipient,” with the aim of avoiding “a smoldering pandemic.” The race to find adequate drugs for COVID-19 treatment among existing ones reminded Barré-Sinoussi of the beginning of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s. At the moment it is anticipated that monoclonal antibodies could be effective in terms of COVID-19 therapeutics.
Opportunities After COVID-19
All of the panelists provided examples of the benefits the pandemic has provided, particularly concerning scientific collaboration and communication. Despite the obvious setbacks in not being able to discuss with colleagues in person and less knowledge transfer, the development of online communication has progressed at an incredible pace, especially benefiting scientists from low income countries. Jana Huisman described the organisation of an online summer school with participants from countries such as Brazil and Columbia, who may not have had the chance to participate otherwise. Huisman also commented on how the pandemic generated “the year of most pre-prints ever,” showing the potential of open science. Alter said he was impressed by how daily newspapers publish statistics on the pandemic, often using beautiful graphics. “People are aware of what’s going on …. science is everywhere,” he remarked.
Lessons Learned and Hopes for the Future
Barré-Sinoussi said she hoped that the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic will mirror those learned from HIV: the importance of multidisciplinary science, but also social science, and a strong interaction with civil society. Alter predicted that with the current vaccination rate, it may take several years to eradicate the coronavirus, but at least from now on countries will be better prepared for the next infectious agent. Richard Neher emphasized the significance of a “much better global system for viral surveillance,” something more comprehensive, so that severe disease can be caught earlier. Jana Huisman had the last word, by underlining the huge inequality in health outcomes worldwide, and how the pandemic has made these inequalities visible. “The inequality will come back to us in the end if the disease is untreated.”