ANDYou may think of immunologists as biologists, but we are also in the defense business. This aspect of our role really comes true when a new and devastating disease emerges. We estimate that the new coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 made the first leap to humans last December. More than a million and a half lives have been lost in the last year as a result. Dealing with Covid has certainly left its mark on the field, my field, and it seems like a good time to take stock.
Right now I’m sitting in front of my Christmas tree, the cat next to me, and I can’t help but think I’m passing out That plot from the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 Vaccine Report (page 58 if you are interested) is probably a phenomenon restricted to viral immunologists. But if this year has taught us anything, it is not to make assumptions. And indeed, I have seen it shared on social media by non-scientists as a symbol of hope.
It has been quite a journey to get to that graph. In March we were asked to go home, close our labs, and think of things for our students and staff to do. It was unclear if many of them would be eligible for a license. The research students had to teach themselves new skills, testing programming languages and scientific writing. Master’s students switched to “dry” projects, forgoing the coveted lab experience that is often the focus of an expensive MRes degree.
Postdocs, who have contracts, entered a new era of uncertainty. Universities were forced to implement hiring freezes and funding agencies postponed or canceled grant schemes. The academics with clinical experience returned to their frontline duties, their research stalled, but fortunately their salaries were secure. However, their risk of contracting a dangerous new disease increased and personal protective equipment was in short supply. Non-clinicians were seriously concerned about how student recruitment would affect college income and their job security by association. It was clear that difficult times were ahead.
Along with all this insecurity, there was a buzz of intellectual excitement in viral immunology: a new virus, an unknown entity. We had so many questions! We consume preprints, a version of a scientific paper that precedes peer review, with a desperate thirst. It takes months to submit a scientific paper for peer review, but preprints immediately share data for all to see and can help shape the next steps in disease prevention and treatment. Immunologists worked with journalists to evaluate and interpret new findings on a daily basis, and this has increased public confidence in science.
I fell in love with my heroes of viral immunology as they appeared in the media and popular press, dispelling misinformation and flying the flag of evidence-based medicine. In 1663, the Royal society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge was formed under the motto Words in, which can be glossed as “don’t trust anyone’s word.”
At that time, the fellows met in the society’s facilities to promote and defend their research under the harsh questioning of their peers. In 2020, however, we had closures.
One of the best parts of my job is traveling to meet scientists, learn about their discoveries, and forge relationships that lead us down new and fruitful paths. Scientists know no borders, and staying home during the pandemic has hampered the emergence of new collaborations.
On the other hand, we decided to remotely meet like ducks in water; Immunologists are now equipped to attend a seminar presented by a colleague from the other side of the planet, while feeding their children lunch and putting their clothes in the dryer. Caring responsibilities while working from home have led to funny memes, but they have also caused a great deal of stress, and it is estimated that women have been and will be disproportionately affected. The resulting decline in productivity is likely to affect the career progression of women in the years after the pandemic, and scientists and funders they are looking for solutions.
The economic fallout from the pandemic will hold back research in some areas of immunology for years to come, because much of the science of discovery relies on funding from charities that are currently in a desperate situation. On the other hand, governments have diverted resources to coronavirus projects to face new health challenges. Academics have collaborated with industry to accelerate vaccine development and drug discovery, and expensive clinical trials have seen no problem gaining support. As a result, the first Covid-19 vaccine was released less than a year after the virus was discovered, with many more to come.
The pandemic has acted as a proof of concept for the idea that investing in scientific discoveries is crucial for humanity’s health and economic prosperity. By investing money in science and working together, we can meet global challenges with resounding success. For example, we are now laying the foundation for the infrastructure needed to deploy vaccines globally, and we will be able to use this to attack diseases other than coronavirus with prophylactic and therapeutic vaccination. This will also include autoimmune diseases and cancer.
I don’t need to tell you that it has been a terrible year in terms of human suffering. But I am comforted by the fact that it has also been a year that demonstrated how powerful not just immunology can be, but science as a whole.
• Zania Stamataki is Senior Lecturer in Viral Immunology at the Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy at the University of Birmingham.
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