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OPED: We’re paying a steep price for not investing in science

Marcelo Bonini
Chicago Tribune (TNS)
An image from an electron microscope shows SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Scientists say this version of the coronavirus has mutated and become more contagious.  (NIAID-RML/Zuma Press/TNS)

My laboratory staff and I work to find solutions for metastatic breast cancer and chronic inflammatory disease. But science is not linear; solutions designed to resolve one problem end up helping with others. That’s what happened with our research.

As we investigated what causes the immune system to trigger inflammatory chronic diseases, we found a potentially promising new treatment for acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS. This is the condition that ultimately kills patients suffering from the gravest form of COVID-19.

But that promising research is now in the deep freeze. Literally. Vital tissue cultures from our experiments are in the freezer for an undetermined period of time until we can return to the lab.

Virtually all our ongoing experiments had to be terminated, and our laboratory infrastructure went into hibernation mode. Restarting research is not like flipping on a light switch. We will need to rebreed enough animals for experiments, retest all samples whose quality may have deteriorated, turn equipment back on and recalibrate delicate machinery. It could take six to 12 months before we are back up to full speed.

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Now take our experience and multiply it by many thousands of labs around the world starting from scratch. Every scientist’s project slammed to a halt at the same time. Since collaboration is the major pillar of science, we must wait until everybody’s lab is up and running to reinstate the research pipeline. The few labs that remained open, largely to help with the diagnostics of COVID-19, are still swamped by COVID-19-related needs and unable to support other research labs in their effort to restart.

These research delays are also affecting the careers of postdocs and doctoral students — the scientists of the future — worldwide. The U.S. scientific workforce depends heavily on immigrant scientists. Like most of the research labs in this country, mine relies on associates who are here on work visas. With this administration imposing delays on visa processing times, a large portion of the scientific workforce may be in jeopardy, compounding the difficulties to ramp up research efforts. The lead scientist in my laboratory on the project that can help with ARDS is on a visa expiring soon. If it is not renewed or extended in time, he will need to stop working and, perhaps, leave the country. His expertise and desperately needed talent may be impossible to replace.

In this time of tremendous uncertainty one thing is clear: We need to facilitate ramping up research instead of making it more difficult. Two simple ways of doing that are: making sure our scientists can return to work as soon as public health authorities determine it is safe, and securing adequate levels of science funding so we can generate lifesaving knowledge as quickly as possible.

We’d be much further ahead in the effort to develop a vaccine for SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19, if critical research hadn’t been halted for lack of funding in 2016. If that research had continued, a vaccine for a similar virus would likely have been finalized. Hence, we would have the knowledge, the infrastructure and the ability to react much faster toward finding a vaccine.

Instead, we are facing tremendous, social, economic, mental and physical stress, waiting and praying for a coronavirus vaccine to be developed.

Science is the best, and arguably only, insurance we can buy to protect our future. We are now paying a very steep price for not investing in it.

— Marcelo Bonini is a professor of medicine in hematology and oncology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.