The March for Science could save lives

When Ebola be­gan to spread in West Africa in De­cem­ber 2013, it was in­vis­i­ble.

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - OPINION -

A 2-year-old who had been play­ing near a bat-filled tree in south­east­ern Guinea died, ap­par­ently the first vic­tim, but it took months for health work­ers to de­tect and re­port the spread of a dis­ease with a high mor­tal­ity.

Soon it raged across Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, sick­en­ing 28,000 peo­ple and killing 11,000. Sci­en­tists have now tracked the path­ways of the virus in once-unimag­in­able de­tail, pro­vid­ing im­por­tant lessons for pre­vent­ing an­other out­break. This is a ter­rific ex­am­ple of science at work for so­ci­ety, and it shows why this week­end’s March for Science is rel­e­vant.

The study of how Ebola spread was car­ried out with the col­lab­o­ra­tion of 93 sci­en­tists from 53 in­sti­tu­tions in 16 coun­tries and pub­lished in Na­ture un­der lead au­thor Gytis Du­das of the Fred Hutchin­son Can­cer Re­search Cen­ter in Seattle. The team mar­shaled 1,610 whole genomes of the virus to discover what fac­tors were sig­nif­i­cant in its spread.

They found that only 3.6 per­cent of the cases spread ge­o­graph­i­cally, in­di­cat­ing that if the mo­bil­ity of rel­a­tively few peo­ple had been dis­rupted, the epi­demic might have been braked. Also, they dis­cov­ered that the virus trav­eled more of­ten over short dis­tances; far­away cities did not catch fire, as some had feared might hap­pen. They also found that bor­der clo­sures helped: Once the gates shut, virus move­ment oc­curred mostly within coun­tries rather than be­tween them.

Th­ese find­ings - and also the dis­cov­ery that com­mon lan­guage, eco­nomic out­put and cli­mate did not sig­nif­i­cantly speed or slow the epi­demic - un­der­score the prom­ise of sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery to save lives and make the world safer.

Next time a virus out­break of such fe­roc­ity be­gins, the lessons from fight­ing Ebola might pre­vent thou­sands of deaths. This would not have been pos­si­ble but for the re­mark­able ad­vances in re­cent years in chart­ing the en­tire genome of a liv­ing or­gan­ism, ad­vances that are sup­ported in part by gov­ern­ment fund­ing.

Many of those or­ga­niz­ing and par­tic­i­pat­ing in the March for Science say it is a state­ment of be­lief in the power of em­pir­i­cal dis­cov­ery, and not an anti-Trump protest. It is fine to re­main non­par­ti­san, but that should not mean be­ing bliss­fully ig­no­rant of the re­al­i­ties of pol­i­tics. The bat­tles to come in Wash­ing­ton over spend­ing pri­or­i­ties could de­ter­mine whether the United States will re­main a global leader in sci­en­tific re­search.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s first bud­get, while de­clared dead on ar­rival in Congress, none­the­less starkly re­flected his pri­or­i­ties. Along with cuts to en­vi­ron­men­tal and cli­mate science, he pro­posed to slash 18.3 per­cent, or about $5.8 bil­lion, from the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health bud­get for fis­cal 2018.

That would send a wave of dis­rup­tion through biomed­i­cal re­search ef­forts across the coun­try and around the world. This re­search is a pil­lar of Amer­i­can strength in in­no­va­tion and pays enor­mous div­i­dends in fight­ing and pre­vent­ing dis­ease. As the Ebola re­search shows, the sim­ple re­al­ity is that ro­bustly fund­ing ba­sic science will save lives. That ought to be the ba­sis for bi­par­ti­san agree­ment.

The study of how Ebola spread was car­ried out with the col­lab­o­ra­tion of 93 sci­en­tists from 53 in­sti­tu­tions in 16 coun­tries and pub­lished in Na­ture un­der lead au­thor Gytis Du­das of the Fred Hutchin­son Can­cer Re­search Cen­ter in Seattle.

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