What do we know about the covid-19 or more popularly the coronavirus that has left the whole world panic struck at the moment. Well, we know everything! We know its complete genome, we know every molecule that makes it. We know its complete structure. Isn’t that enough?
But we know nothing! We don’t know how and where all it will spread. What will be the overall mortality rate? How many people will get killed? When will it reside? Will it completely go sometime or remain endemic somewhere in some population? May be some other animal? How do we control it? Why are the efforts to control it largely failing in so many countries, particularly the technologically most advanced countries?
The pandemic has brought a very important lesson for science, for biology in particular, in case we want to learn from it. Science should advance by relevance, be driven by questions, be funded according to the importance of the underlying question. But that is not how science progresses in real life. Researchers go by what is easy to work on, what is trendy, what is more prestigious, where things are ready made, paths are well laid out, what will give quick ‘success’. Success, by the way, is not success in resolving the underlying problems, it is success in publishing in high profile journals, getting patents, getting a quick name and fame, making big money, ensuring further funding. Today knowing about the genome, transcriptome, proteins and other molecules has become a routine. What was not easy a few decades ago has now become a routine that anyone can follow and get something in hand. This, in itself, is a big achievement. I have no doubt about it. But does it give us the insights that we need most badly? Well, knowing the molecules of a virus can perhaps expedite vaccine development, but still it will take months or even years to undergo all necessary trials and testing before coming in use. What do we do in the meanwhile?
What we hardly know about the virus is its ecology, its interaction with the host individual as well as the host population. The population level outcomes, how variance within the population affects the virus propagation, infectivity, virulence, asymptomatic infections, interaction with comorbidities, convalescent state, carrier state if any and so on. Does it affect any other animals? Can it remain dormant in any other species? Did it come from any other animal, if yes why didn’t it come earlier? How would the virus evolve now on and how would our prevention and treatment strategies shape its evolution? These questions are about its biotic ecology. The abiotic ecology might appear simpler to study. Its survival in air, on skin, on other surfaces, its susceptibility to natural and man-made conditions, how it varies with ambient conditions, seasonal fluctuations and so on. But looks like, as of now we don’t even know its abiotic ecology sufficiently well. Forget about complex biotic interactions. The result is that we can make no reliable predictions about what course the pandemic will take. Studying all this is orders of magnitude more difficult and there is no routine protocol that will give us all necessary answers. The only thing we are sure of is that at least at the moment knowing every molecule that makes the virus is not helping us much.
Is the field of science going to learn a broader lesson after the panic subsides? Today all biology is being viewed only in terms of molecules. There is no doubt that molecules are important and we gt to study them. But understanding life is not understanding molecules. It is much beyond molecules. But studying molecules is the current wave on the fashion street.
Are we going to go by the relevance of questions or continue to follow the fashion street? In the current situation fields like disease ecology, epidemiological modelling do exist and there are brilliant brains working there. But there is a big gap between people who do the molecular biology of the virus and those trying to understand its ecology. People on the two ends don’t even talk to each other, if they do, they may not understand each other’s language and concerns. This gap is not created by the limitations of science. It is created by the culture and social behaviour in the field. Of particular importance is the picture of biology that we project for students. Certain fields have a bigger craze among students which again is a societal creation than anything in science itself. Biology curricula are highly biased and these biases follow trends in frontline research. Funding, on the other hand, goes more by the cultural definition of success over real scientific achievements. This course of science is natural since it is simply driven by the evolved behavioural instincts of researchers. But humans have a unique capacity to exceed the instincts and behave thoughtfully. We expect that at least people of science should use this capacity sufficiently frequently.