In search of the Coronavirus
The genetic identity of a new virus has never been deciphered so quickly. On 29 December 2019, the first cases of an epidemic caused by a new virus were made public in China; seven days later, a team from Fudan University in Shanghai released the complete sequence of the CoV family of viruses. Since then, the sequencing of its variants has accumulated on the nextstrain.org site with more than 146 identifications by teams from 20 countries.
Widely publicised, such speedy detections draw attention to that little-described facet of social networks, their intensive collaborative use by scientific communities. While scientists still took weeks to identify the SARS epidemic in 2003, the hyper-speed of data exchange on the new Covid-19 was achieved by bypassing the traditional channels of scientific communication. It is now the proliferation of pre-publications, much more quickly disseminated than scientific journals, which sets the tone. However, such acceleration in the production of knowledge poses risks, such as poor evaluation before circulation of results or the sharing of fragmentary, even erroneous data.
Identifying a pathogenic microorganism, no matter how virulent, is a difficult task. In 1890, faced with the flu epidemic that was sweeping across Europe, Louis Pasteur was wary of the race for publication. Harassed by questions about the ‘microbe’ involved, he seemed annoyed: “I don’t know. What can you say without evidence?” (L’Echo de Paris).
The 20th century saw an exponential development of knowledge on infinitely small living organisms. Virology, from the 1930s, amassed for several decades a remarkable database of knowledge about new microorganisms. Coronavirus was thus identified in the mid-1960s by British scientists. It was genetic knowledge that made routine identification of microorganisms from biological samples possible. This multiplication of knowledge depends not only on the ingenuity of researchers: it requires infrastructure and standardised practices that allow the circulation of strains, control of the results of experiments, and later therapeutic trials.
Since the 1980s, international public health dominated by WHO has undergone a profound transformation. Faced with budgetary restrictions due to stagnating contributions from member states, the challenges of an HIV pandemic to which it has been slow to respond, and the proliferation of private and public actors, WHO has refocused its activities on surveillance and alert. The preparation plans initiated by WHO since the 1990s aim to define the political, social, dietary and health rules for a crisis and the interruption of the circulation of goods , drugs and protective devices. But this can not compensate for the lack of sustainable investment in basic health infrastructure, which alone can carry out prevention campaigns and building the confidence of populations in low-income countries. Last December, WHO published a statement indicating that 140,000 people died from measles in 2018, a disease for which preventive vaccines have been developed since the 1960s. Faced with the epidemic of Covid-19, WHO released emergency aid of 675 million dollars to compensate for the ‘different levels of effectiveness of national preparedness and response measures’. The sum seems very paltry.
However unprecedented it may be for the scientific community, rapid identification of new pathogens would not reduce the inequalities prevalent in public health and the consequences are so visible in times of crisis. Borders are not only temporarily closed for travellers from ‘at risk’ areas, they define territories permanently isolated from global solidarity.