Why Infectious Diseases Like COVID-19 Make Science Move So Fast

4 minute read

Science has a reputation for moving slowly. The very process of publishing solid scientific data—let alone developing vaccines and therapies—requires a long timeline. But outbreaks of infectious diseases spread quickly, demanding a much quicker pace.

Scientific endeavors to better understand SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have progressed rapidly. Within weeks of the virus emerging in humans, scientists had already identified it and sequenced the virus’s genome, giving researchers a target on which to train potential vaccines and treatments.

“This was very, very fast,” said Dr. Pardis Sabeti, professor at the Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University, during a TIME 100 talk in which experts and leaders shared how they’re finding hope during the global COVID-19 pandemic. “[Coronaviruses] are known to be highly infectious, so there wasn’t a moment to lose.”

Sabeti is a trailblazer in studying infectious diseases as they’re unfolding. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, she and her team helped sequence the virus behind Ebola using data from patients who had been infected. “As soon as we got data, we just released it to the web and assumed that that’s what you should do in an outbreak,” she said. “It broke a lot of barriers, and we made a lot of collaborations around the world in the process.” Now, many scientists from around the world are similarly sharing data though online platforms like Twitter and bioRxiv (pronounced “bio-archive”). Knowing what to trust can be a challenge. “Some of that is great, and some of that is dangerous, because we’re getting a lot of misinformation,” she says. But communication tools like Zoom and Slack have enabled scientists to collaborate more than ever, she says. “That is really exciting: the way that there’s this connectivity and cooperation that can happen.”

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Another advance since the last big outbreaks—Ebola and Zika—is that the tools we have now are more sophisticated. “The technologies have been advancing at every step,” Sabeti says. “We’re at the point where we’re generating thousands and thousands of genome sequences of the virus very, very quickly. New diagnostics are emerging every day.” Her team, for example, is using the gene-editing technology CRISPR to try to develop an antiviral therapy and a diagnostic tool that could run thousands of tests at a time that detect more than 100 different viruses.

But not everything has kept pace. Even though we had a jump start in deciphering the genome of SARS-COV-2, “we lost a lot of ground that we had,” Sabeti said. “Diagnostics just took so much longer to become available to the community.”

“The next time a new virus comes, we can’t have it be another few months before hospitals can get tests,” she said. “The data is available, the technology is available. It just has to be the process that changes.”

The physical, mental and financial health of the world deepens on it. “Infectious diseases kill more people than any modern war and most of our historic wars,” Sabeti said. “We need to be able to share data in real time in medicine in general, but nowhere is more necessary than in infectious disease.”

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields sharing their ideas for navigating the pandemic. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

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Write to Mandy Oaklander at mandy.oaklander@time.com