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Science and the pandemic

During the Covid-19 pandemic, countries have turned to their scientific community for advice and practical solutions. Many governments have established ad hoc scientific committees to manage the crisis, enabling them to witness, first hand, the advantages of having local experts to monitor and control the progression of the virus. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the value of digital technologies in an emergency. It has heightened their use in areas such as education (distance learning) and health, with examples including telemedicine, use of drones to detect people in a crowd with a high body temperature or delivery by drone of medical samples for testing. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacted a heavy human and economic toll but it has also energized knowledge production systems.  

For instance, in October 2020, the World Health Organization reported that Africa accounted for about 13% of 1,000 new or modified existing technologies developed worldwide in response to the pandemic, close to its share of the global population (14%). Among these technologies, 58% involved digital solutions such as chatbots, self-diagnostic tools and contact-tracing apps. A further 25% of African solutions were based on three-dimensional (3D) printing and 11% on robotics. 

Governments have supported the bioscience industry, such as through advance purchase agreements to facilitate the rapid development of vaccines. Institutions in many countries have accelerated their approval processes for research project proposals in response to the crisis. Governments have provided incentives for small and medium-sized enterprises to tackle the pandemic. 

The Covid-19 crisis has recalled the desirability of strong linkages between the public and private sectors for the production of equipment such as lung ventilators, masks, medication and vaccines. Academics have worked with hospitals and local businesses to develop lung ventilators, for instance, which have been produced by local manufacturers who have repurposed their assembly lines.  

The pandemic has also given rise to an epidemic of misleading information designed to foment division, or ‘infodemic’, as the World Health Organization has termed it. This ‘infodemic’ has demonstrated the crucial need for independent, responsible and pluralistic media, in order to ensure that people have access to trustworthy and science-based information.  

The Covid-19 pandemic has radically transformed our way of life. The crisis may yet redefine scientific processes and science governance in unforeseen ways. It is likely to affect the next generation of researchers and the mechanisms by which science itself is funded’. 

Beyond science and technology, the Covid-19 crisis raises broad, fundamental questions, such as with regard to the role of the state in the economy, the reshoring of supply chains, the organization of work and the value of proximity. 

Research on new or re-emerging viruses has surged during epidemics 

 With the year 2020 having been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, one might expect there to be a voluminous research record on new or re-emerging viruses that can infect humans. There is not. There were just 7 471 publications on this topic in 2019, 35% of which were produced by scientists in the USA alone. Global output on this broad topic progressed by just 2% per year between 2011 and 2019,  slower than global scientific publications overall: 3.8% per year. There are signs that research in this field has been reactive, not pro-active. 

Growth was much faster in individual countries which had to marshal science to cope with other viral outbreaks over this period. The 2014–2015 Ebola outbreak in Liberia and neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone stamped its mark on these countries’ scientific output, as did repeated Ebola outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo.