Covid-19 Changed How the World Does Science, Together

Never before, scientists say, have so many of the world’s researchers focused so urgently on a single topic. Nearly all other research has ground to a halt.

Using flag-draped memes and military terminology, the Trump administration and its Chinese counterparts have cast coronavirus research as national imperatives, sparking talk of a biotech arms race.

The world’s scientists, for the most part, have responded with a collective eye roll.

“Absolutely ridiculous,” said Jonathan Heeney, a Cambridge University researcher working on a coronavirus vaccine.

“That isn’t how things happen,” said Adrian Hill, the head of the Jenner Institute at Oxford, one of the largest vaccine research centers at an academic institution.

While political leaders have locked their borders, scientists have been shattering theirs, creating a global collaboration unlike any in history. Never before, researchers say, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency. Nearly all other research has ground to a halt.

Normal imperatives like academic credit have been set aside. Online repositories make studies available months ahead of journals. Researchers have identified and shared hundreds of viral genome sequences. More than 200 clinical trials have been launched, bringing together hospitals and laboratories around the globe.

“I never hear scientists — true scientists, good quality scientists — speak in terms of nationality,” said Dr. Francesco Perrone, who is leading a coronavirus clinical trial in Italy. “My nation, your nation. My language, your language. My geographic location, your geographic location. This is something that is really distant from true top-level scientists.”

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