COVID-19 Pandemic: Time to take science seriously
4 April 2020
Mahmoud Bukar Maina PhD FRSA
The COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic is one of the worst crises of our time. At present, over 1 million people have been infected, with over 60 000 deaths. This crisis has thrown even the most advanced countries into chaos, hit global economy hard, led to the global suspension of many activities (e.g. Sports), the lockdown of cities, quarantine of even the most influential people, e.g. The British Prime Minister. As a result of this, the world is now looking towards scientists for a long-term solution. The majority of developed countries are depending on scientific advice in designing their policies to minimise or slow the transmission of COVID-19 so as not to crash their health systems. While countries continue to use measures to “flatten the curve’, the world is earnestly watching and waiting for scientists to develop vaccines or drug to halt this pandemic.
Unfortunately, in Nigeria, scientists are undervalued. Moreover, there is a high level of misconceptions about the role of scientists. Often people confuse scientists with medical practitioners. While both can be the same in some cases, in most situations, they play different roles. And while medical practitioners play an indispensable role in all aspects of human health, this article is generally about solutions driven by science. If there is one lesson that we all ought to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that we need to support science! Here I summarise my reasons and some of the roadblocks affecting science in Nigeria.
Current COVID-19 strategies are to buy time before scientists find a long-term solution
In the current fight against COVID-19, one of the key strategies recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is to test as many individuals as possible. A reason for doing this is to identify, isolate, contact trace people with the disease and arrange for them to receive the care needed, thereby reducing the spread of the virus. Testing will not stop the spread of the virus, but it will enable countries to contain the spread of the infection and therefore reduce a sudden impact on the health system that can result from an increase in the number of infected individuals at once. This strategy will enable the health system to continue providing support before an effective vaccine, or a drug is produced through scientific research. This emphasises the importance of scientific research!
Should we depend on the Global North?
COVID-19 vaccines are currently being developed in many countries. None is happening in Sub-Saharan Africa. As usual with most times, we are waiting for the scientists from the “Global North” to produce the vaccines that we would eventually buy, beg or wait to be tested like guinea pigs as planned by some French scientists. In times of crisis, people have a tendency to look out for themselves first. In March, President Trump unsuccessfully offered a large sum for exclusive US access to COVID-19 vaccine that is currently being developed by a German medical company. A few days ago, he stopped a US manufacturing company from sending respirators to Canada. These examples should serve as a signal that we need to upgrade our science capabilities. Because we may not always get help when we need it the most if we depend on others all the time. Even if COVID-19 vaccines and drugs are eventually developed and become available across the globe, as a nation, we will have other problems that are peculiar to us (e.g. Lassa fever). Who would come to our aid if we do not support local research to address some of these problems?
Interestingly, the Ministry of Science and Technology in February announced that they will reward 36 million Naira to any scientist who develops a cure for COVID-19 and Lassa fever. While this is commendable, how could the scientists make the discovery in the first place without a good laboratory and money to do the research?
We must increase our support for science and support scientists to do research
Leading a team of over 10 African scientists, last year we published a paper in the European Journal of Neuroscience in which we showed that over the last 20 years, only 8% of researches conducted by Nigerian neuroscientists used many key “advanced” methods that are readily available to researchers outside Africa, such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), fluorescence or electron microscopy, among others. To put this in perspective, more than half of the Nobel Prizes won in Physiology or Medicine in the past two decades employed such advanced research methods. Moreover, these are the methods currently used by scientists in testing and understanding COVID-19 infections and disease process. To solve our science problems, we must make the investment to equip Nigerian laboratories with modern research tools and support scientists with grants for research.
Moreover, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of scientists around the world are volunteering their time to help to defeat the virus, for example, by increasing COVID-19 testing capacities. In Germany, 500, 000 PCRs per week are conducted to test individuals for COVID-19. If our science research laboratories were equipped, our scientists would also provide a helping hand during such trying times to support our ongoing efforts to defeat this pandemic.
Give scientists more time for research
Again, one of the significant problems that affect Nigerian scientists is too much teaching load. In the Global North, teaching and research positions are often separated. In situations where this is not the case, scientists are given enough time for their research. In Nigeria, most universities focus more on teaching than research. This means academics do not get the needed time to conduct research and make discoveries. This affects the productivity and quality of research they produce. Until this changes, even if the government injects more funds into research, scientists won’t be productive at the level expected. This is an issue that the Ministry of Education must address.
Incentivising science communication activities
Typical with such trying times, science misconceptions and disinformation are at an all-time high, especially on social media. This includes conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19, cures for COVID-19 from untested herbal medicine and denials for the existence of the virus. Similarly, a few Nigerian scientists have unprofessionally fuelled this confusion by claiming they have developed a cure for COVID-19 without presenting their scientific evidence. According to one report, a University Professor said he has discovered a cure for COVID-19. As such, “he challenges any health institution or agency to bring any known case of coronavirus to him and see how it will disappear within a few days.” This is not how science is done! Scientific discoveries are announced first through scientific publications, not to the media. Any scientist rushing to the press to make such claims without passing through the scientific community should not be taken seriously.
Many scientists in the Global North are engaging in science communication to address these misconceptions and misinformation. However, at present, science communication is not considered highly by Nigerian scientists. In moments of fear and uncertainties like the current situation, Nigerian scientists could counter such misconceptions and disinformation in their communities. This would help the government in maintaining peace and the health of the citizens. This is why we launched COVID-19 dedicated page on Science Communication Hub Nigeria (www.SciComNigeria.org) and the African Science Literacy Network (www.AfricanSciLit.org) to fight science misconceptions in English and local languages. To encourage this in Nigeria, science communication needs to be incentivised. For example, it can be made a component of academic promotions, a requirement for national research grants and/or active science communicators should be recognised with awards for their service by the government and scientific societies.
In conclusion, the COVID-19 crisis reaffirms the importance of science and why we must continue to support scientists. Nigeria should use this as a lesson to improve the state of science in the country and support its scientists to do world-class research. Diseases will continue to attack. Scientists constitute an integral part of our defence against such attacks. We must support them to be prepared at all times.
Dr Mahmoud Bukar Maina is a Nigerian scientist, educator, and researcher, based at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. His research focuses on neurodegeneration. In addition to his research, Mahmoud is a passionate science communicator. He is the founder of Science Communication Hub Nigeria and African Science Literacy Network through which he performs outreach work to inspire young people in Africa to pursue science and to increase public understanding of science. He can be reached via @mahmoudbukar