Why the global science community must come and stay together beyond the coronavirus pandemic

06 May 2020

Written by Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary-General of UNCTAD

From smallpox to Ebola, international collaboration in health and science has historically been a major success. It has led to breakthroughs and advances we could not have imagined if countries had gone it alone.

But a post-COVID19 world faces further retreat from multilateralism, undermining international collaboration in scientific and health research at a time when we need it most.

Why is collaboration an important and effective thing to do and how does science benefit overall?

In recent weeks, doctors, researchers, engineers and scientists from all fields of knowledge around the world have worked together tirelessly to confront the coronavirus outbreak with an unprecedented spirit of collaboration.

In January, a team of Chinese and Australian researchers published the first genome of the new virus and the genetic map was made freely available for access by researchers worldwide. The virus has since been sequenced in excess of 3,000 times, charting both the original genome and its mutations.

The much-needed vaccine to the virus would not be possible without this research.

There is strength in numbers. We learn more, and faster, together – and the pandemic is underscoring the critical role of international collaboration on the frontiers of science and technology.

Collaboration needed now more than ever

We simply cannot allow a withdrawal into a Hobbesian world of aggressive competition among states for commercial gain.

Not when the global population is so large and interconnected; and not when lifesaving breakthroughs are needed in many places at once.

Now more than ever, there is a need to promote openness in access to data, to outcomes of research and to research infrastructure.

Calls for collaboration in the field of science and research are not uncommon across the scientific community and stem from the realisation that such initiatives facilitate the breakthroughs that help humanity advance.

There is also a valuable development dimension to sharing knowledge and research, as tracked for more than two decades by the UNCTAD-administered United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), the UN’s focal point on science, technology and innovation. 

International collaboration is particularly important considering the gaps in research capabilities within developing countries, and the limited ability of many countries to undertake technological horizon scanning, foresight, and risk assessment.

Research collaboration helped Ebola response

Looking back, the Ebola outbreak in 2014-15 already revealed that strengthening research capacity in developing countries is vital for preventing, responding to, and ending an epidemic.

Addressing global challenges in vastly different local contexts requires the combination of cutting-edge scientific capabilities with detailed local knowledge. This is the art in the science. 

Global collaboration can contribute to this process, providing opportunities both to create new knowledge and to increase the impact of research by diffusing existing knowledge, quickly and at all levels.

The coronavirus outbreak demonstrates that problems that emerge in distant places can quickly become a local catastrophe.

It is thus crucial that scientific responses are based on international collaboration that brings together the best minds and available data from different countries for the benefit of all.

Need for openness on knowledge and science

To protect this way of working, we need openness on two interrelated fronts: knowledge and science.

Open source knowledge, data and information help domestic interests gain quick access to freely available technical know-how for domestic production of vital medical devices to treat COVID-19 patients.

For example, open source knowledge on the virus is being topped up by many volunteer groups of scientists, engineers and others who have been working intensely to come up with solutions to the urgent challenges created by this outbreak.

A team of engineers, physicians, computer scientists, and others at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been working on a low-cost ventilator. Its open source design was taken up by a group of Indian engineers (who develop robots) in a race to build ventilators to ease the country’s shortage.

This demonstrates the power of combining the improvisation, swift coordination and speedy action of public and private institutions to provide technical know-how, ensure the supply of components, and enable clinical trials tailored to local conditions.

Some developing countries are not able to come up with such quick-fix solutions due to a lack of skills, technical and productive capacity to produce medical equipment at scale.

Despite the obstacles that many countries face, a quick scan of the horizon amidst the current pandemic shows not just desperation and helplessness, but also an innovativeness in developing and developed countries alike, which can benefit from greater collaboration in science, technology and innovation (STI).

For example, the Institute Pasteur in Dakar, Senegal has been working closely with the British biotechnology firm, Mologic, to develop a new form of rapid test kits for the COVID-19 virus, to be made in and distributed across Africa from their custom-built “Dia Tropix” facility.

Similarly, researchers at the Kenya Medical Research Institute have joined the race with their colleagues from across the world in developing new vaccine candidates to meet the COVID-19 challenge.

We need to work together, globally, to ensure any COVID-19 recovery package includes substantial investments in STI infrastructure, institutions and human capital – all the underpinnings of sound innovation systems needed to ensure that all countries can quickly and collectively meet this and similar future challenges.

Open science and international collaboration

Open science shares data in real time through searchable open-access databases. It is a powerful tool to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals. The CSTD has long advocated for open science as a key instrument for scientific collaboration.  

The Zika outbreak is one of many cases where open research was made available in real time during a crisis, helping the scientific community respond.

Arguably, this has helped many developing countries expand their scientific capacities in recent years, narrowing the gap that separates them from developed ones.

However, more needs to be done to formalize partnerships with and among developing countries in scientific research and address quality standards and regulatory oversight as part of a framework to enhance productive capacity.

Some encouraging examples where this is already the case include several projects currently active during the coronavirus outbreak, such as the African Coalition for Epidemic Research, Response and Training and the Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research, a model of a North-South scientific collaboration.

The success of these projects will create a benchmark for others and enhance the overall ecosystem of sharing knowledge.

Still, there is much to improve in collaboration among developing countries. Even developing countries with relatively large science programmes mostly collaborate with developed countries, not other developing countries.

Collaborating beyond the pandemic

International collaborations in scientific research should become the norm and not the exception.

Today, COVID-19 has not only raised the expectations we have of science, it has also accentuated the fact that global challenges require global solutions. 

We must all face the challenges with unwavering unity to tackle not only the current pandemic, but also other unresolved crises such as climate change, which pose existential threats to humanity and will stay with us when this outbreak subsides.