Katalin Karikó may one day win a Nobel Prize, but she has suffered rejection for decades. This Hungarian researcher thought in the 1990s that a molecule of elusive origin, RNA, could be used to cure diseases such as cancer, but her idea provoked the disbelief of colleagues and institutions and could not find funding.
“Every night I was working and thinking: ‘Grant, grant, grant,’ and the answer was always, ‘No, no, no,” he recently told Stat magazine .
She lost her job at the University of Pennsylvania (USA), she thought she was not good enough, she wanted to quit science. But he continued to investigate, and when the genetic sequence of a mysterious deadly virus ravaging China was released in January this year, applied his idea to a possible vaccine.
Ten months later, the immunization of the company where he works, the German BioNTech, has been tested on 44,000 people and is one of the great hopes to end the deadly pandemic that has devastated the lives of millions of citizens , used to living in advanced and wealthy societies, and that never expected so much death and desolation.
In our predictable and hypertechnological lives, a virus has broken out, catching us off guard and leaving us in awe, bewildered and scared. Many citizens have wondered how it is possible that nobody warned us that this could happen. But scientists like Karikó did warn us. The point is, no one was listening.
Carl Sagan, astrophysicist, popularizer, writer and totemic figure of science, skepticism and reason, said it perhaps better than anyone, and said it several times: we live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology, he said, and However, we have managed so that almost no one understands science and technology. And that is a clear recipe for disaster, he concluded.
“The disconnection between scientists and citizens has always existed”, reflects the writer and physicist Agustín Fernández Mallo. “I think it has to do with an incorrect education, but not so much in the scientific content as in the philosophy of science.
Perhaps there, too, we are partly to blame for the scientific social system, which historically has encouraged the idea that science is equal to truth ”, he adds. And science is just one method to get closer to that truth; yes, it is the best we have.
The Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) carries out a survey every two years on the social perception of science in Spain.
The latest, from 2018, shows that Spaniards trust science, but do not understand it: almost half of those surveyed consider that their science education is low or very low. And 30% of it is a topic that interests them little or very little because most of them, they say, do not understand it.
Matilde Canelles believes, like Fernández Mallo, that the disconnect between scientists and citizens is not exclusively attributable to the lack of education in society.
This researcher at the Center for Human and Social Sciences (CCHS – CSIC) has spent a long time studying the changes in the perception of the relevance of science in society; Now he participates in a multidisciplinary study on the social impact of the covid .
The expert explains that the success of a scientific career is increasingly valued by analyzing the number of articles published by a researcher in specialized journals, which makes this publication the only way to evaluate their work and the one that marks, ultimately the possibility of raising more funds.
In English they call itpublish or perish , publish or perish. And this has isolated many scientists under tons of documents and bureaucracies, and has made them forget the need to transfer the results of their research to society.
“What the Americans call the rat race has been created to get more and more items, more and more money, and a bigger laboratory. And some values have been lost, such as the need to speak to the media and citizens ”, Canelles reflects.
Travel to the center of the body. Color Scanning Electron Micrography (SEM) opens up a whole new perspective on our body. In this image you can see the epithelial cells that cover the surface of the human tongue.
An added problem is that the long and complex times and methods of science marry badly with a society accustomed to measuring the success of a project in the time it takes to put a tweet, and evaluating politicians in periods of four years.
As can be clearly seen with the example of Katalin Karikó’s vaccine, a scientist needs dozens of years and sustained funding for his research to obtain results.
In Spain, the drain on science funds in the last 10 years has been monumental and has no comparison with any other activity: we invested 1.24% of GDP, less than a decade ago (1.40%), when the European average is 2%.
The research career is a disaster, with ultra-trained doctors who have mileurista salaries and no prospect of having a stable career; the laboratories are drowned by lack of money and bureaucracy; the best biologists, physicists and mathematicians go abroad or to the pharmaceutical and technological industries.
Even so, when scientists wanted to protest their situation, last year in Madrid, only 500 people took to the streets. “There is a political blindness, and also a social one, to realize that medium and long-term investments are also current investments”, sums up the director of the Department of Public Health and Environment of the Only 500 people took to the streets.
“There is a political blindness, and also a social one, to realize that medium and long-term investments are also current investments”, sums up the director of the Department of Public Health and Environment of the Only 500 people took to the streets.
“There is a political blindness, and also a social one, to realize that medium and long-term investments are also current investments”, sums up the director of the Department of Public Health and Environment of theWorld Health Organization (WHO), María Neira.
The lack of public attention and interest in science is easily shown by a very simple example. The National Epidemiology Center is in charge of monitoring our public health and controlling diseases that can affect citizens. There were 100 people working in the organization in 2008.
After the cuts caused by the economic crisis, this year, when the biggest pandemic of the 21st century hit Spain , there were only 64. Now, a few months later, the center has been strengthened and has 77 workers, but there are still fewer, in the midst of the health crisis, than 12 years ago.
So science has continued to work with increasingly limited means, and in the face of general indifference, and when virologists and epidemiologists warned that at some point a global pandemic caused by a virus would arrive, nobody listened. There are books and reports that it is difficult to reread without shuddering.
Until now we had “dodged the bullet”, as Keiji Fukuda, former chief of epidemiology at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (CDC, the US reference center for public health) has put it.
Thanks to a combination of preparedness (especially in the Far East countries) and good luck, neither SARS in 2002, nor swine flu in 2009, nor Ebola in 2014, nor Zika in 2016 were complete pandemics.
But when on March 11, 2020, the WHO declared that the covid caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus was a pandemic, the attention of the entire planet, until now focused on political fights, football matches, rappers or series of television, he turned to science. And science was ready.
From her privileged position at the WHO, María Neira reflects: “If we have had a vaccine in 10 months it is because there were already groups of scientists, with salaries not exactly millionaires, who had been working on it for some time.
Not that they were unprepared. They were poor. The scientific community was working on this, with meager resources and good will, but if it hadn’t been for that, we wouldn’t be here. ”
The scientific race to obtain drugs that mitigate the severity of the disease and vaccines that eradicate it has been monumental, unprecedented and began as soon as China notified, in December of last year, the first cases of atypical pneumonia of unknown origin.
Ignacio López-Goñi, professor of Microbiology at the University of Navarra and scientific disseminator, sums it up in his passionate book Prepared for the next pandemic(Destination): in just a few days, the cause, a coronavirus, was identified.
On January 13, the protocol for the PCR technique to detect the virus was already available on the WHO website and in May there were already 270 different diagnostic tests.
In a few months, scientists from all over the planet sequenced more than 90,000 genomes of patients throughout the world, in order to better understand the pathogen and see how and under what circumstances it mutates.
In six months, 40,000 scientific articles were published on SARS-CoV-2, while on the first coronavirus, SARS, about 1,000 were written. Dozens of different treatments have been tested (antivirals, anti-inflammatories, plasma from recovered patients …) and the WHO launched a program, Solidarity, whereby 400 hospitals in 35 countries have shared data on the efficacy of all these drugs.
And finally there is the great hope, the only way back to the previous life, the vaccine. There are 125 candidates and 3 of them are on the market less than a year after that mysterious pneumonia was identified in China.
Never in history has this milestone been achieved so quickly. Vaccines take dozens of years to develop, and for some viruses, like HIV, they don’t even exist.
Science has made a brutal effort regardless of the lack of citizen interest, cuts, miserable salaries or the instability of the research career. María Neira reflects on her experience at the WHO these months: “We have broken records in collaboration between experts.
I’ve never seen anything like it; I can’t tell you any name of a scientist we called, even if it was to quote him a few hours later or at three in the morning, who said no. And this has happened also speaking of issues where there are many commercial interests as well.
This has been one of the things that has moved my colleagues and me the most: that generosity, the altruistic collaboration and very aware of the historical moment in which we are involved ”. Science, despite everything, has answered, yes. But not without costs.
“Until now, what has reached society, through the media, is the end product of science, but in recent months what has been seen is how science works, the guts. And what has remained, at times, is a lot of concern, ”says López-Goñi, who with his Twitter account ( @microBIOblog ) reaches almost 58,000 people.
The first problem is that society, and also politicians, often ask for quick and forceful solutions to complex and changing problems, such as the fight against a deadly virus. “And science does not have immediate answers or certainties, especially in matters of biology.
Always, never… these are terms that you cannot use ”, says the microbiologist. And also “we have seen the shame of science.”
Scientists publish the results of their research in specialized journals that are reviewed by other scientists. That process normally takes months, but the pandemic does not wait.
That’s why tens of thousands of preprints have been published this year ,unconfirmed studies, useful for the research community, but which have been published in the media and social networks as verified truths when they were not.
Review time for medical journals has also been cut in half, from 120 days on average to 60. And there have been bloody examples of bad science.
The case of an unreviewed scientific article that claimed in January to have found a “suspicious” link between the AIDS virus and the coronavirus is well known, suggesting that these coincidences were not “fortuitous in nature” and opening the door to the idea of that the covid virus could have been deliberately created in a laboratory.
The article was taken down two days later, but it was downloaded by 200,000 people and spread by more than 23,000 tweets.