Why do COVID patients experience such profound hypoxia without feeling dyspneic?
Why is there such heterogeneity in clinical severity among young, previously healthy patients?
Are asymptomatic people able to carry and transmit the virus, and for how long?
Does immunity develop after infection, and how long does it persist?
Does antibody status indicate complete protection from re-infection?
Do currently available anti-viral agents have effect?
Will previous approaches to vaccine development be effective?
These are some of key questions still under investigation as we now pass 6 months since this infection originally came to attention. The answers to these questions are the keys to resolving the greatest heath and economic catastrophe the world has faced. The answers will not be provided by scientists or politicians working in isolation, but rather by the application of scientific approaches, supported by political and economic action.
This past week, we’ve seen examples of how this can work well, and how a lack of synergy will impede progress.
In Canada, our government has announced a billion dollar investment in COVID-19 medical research, and support for a Task Force to determine the extent of the disease.
- Trudeau announces $1.1-billion for COVID-19 research (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-trudeau-announces-11-billion-for-covid-19-research/)
- Government of Canada funds 49 additional COVID-19 research projects (https://www.canada.ca/en/institutes-health-research/news/2020/03/government-of-canada-funds-49-additional-covid-19-research-projects.html)
- Ottawa to fund existing coronavirus research projects (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-ottawa-to-fund-existing-coronavirus-research-projects/)
In Germany, a nation-wide public health investigation has begun to carry out widespread serologic testing intended to define the true extent of disease and implications of prior infection.
- With Broad, Random Tests for Antibodies, Germany Seeks Path Out of Lockdown (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/18/world/europe/with-broad-random-tests-for-antibodies-germany-seeks-path-out-of-lockdown.html?ref=oembed)
- Blood tests show 14% of people are now immune to covid-19 in one town in Germany (https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/04/09/999015/blood-tests-show-15-of-people-are-now-immune-to-covid-19-in-one-town-in-germany/)
In the United Kingdom, vaccine development is well underway with massive investments already in place.
- UK boost support for CEPI to spur COVID-19 vaccine development (https://cepi.net/news_cepi/uk-boosts-support-for-cepi-to-spur-covid-19-vaccine-development/)
All these have come about through effective collaborations between government, funding agencies and scientific and medical communities. We’ve also seen examples of what can transpire when those collaborations are not effective. We’ve seen that, even if well intentioned, speculative assertions by a political leader can be assumed by the public to be scientifically informed and thereby lead to dangerous actions.
- U.S. President and top doctor spar over unproven drug (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-trump-vs-fauci-us-president-and-top-doctor-spar-over-unproven-drug/)
- Nigerians poisoned after taking doses of drug praised by Trump (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-at-least-two-cases-of-chloroquine-poisoning-in-nigeria-after-trump/)
- Trump’s COVID-19 disinfectant ideas horrify health experts (https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-trump-disinfectant-idUSKCN2261OL)
- Lysol maker warns against internal use of disinfectants after Trump comments (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/lysol-manufacturer-warns-against-internal-use-after-trump-comments-n1191586)
There has been much debate in recent years within the medical education community regarding the relevance of research and critical appraisal in undergraduate medical education. These topics have been gradually and rather insidiously receiving decreased attention in favour of the many other competencies and “hot items” that have been emerging, all with justification. I would suggest that recent events have resolved that debate. The questions posed at the beginning of this article were not posed exclusively by basic scientists and epidemiologists, but also by clinicians trained to accurately observe patient responses, critically assess current understanding and pose valid, useful hypotheses for testing. Clinicians will also be very much involved in developing protocols and executing investigations to find answers. Medical schools have a responsibility to ensure that fundamental training continues to be a core component of their programs, now more than ever.