How The Scientific Community's Behavior Regarding the COVID Pandemic Has Harmed Trust in Science

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The consensual comity of scientists have failed the world on the COVID pandemic, and the strike down is not on just one count alone.

Why do I say so, many would ask?

Just look at all the evidence piling up since last year, finally being accepted with great reluctance regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, the world, driven by its science based policy making systems, has been forced to accept the possibility of a laboratory leakage.

This, when there has always been evidence to suggest that the COVID-19 virus pandemic was likely triggered by a leakage from a virology lab in China, where it was perhaps being studied.

Accidental or not, what is certainly known to us is that the global comity of scientists has shamed itself by covering up through herd consensus and attempting to discredit alternative views, and raises serious questions on how the public can believe them anymore.

What is even more problematic is the fact that ‘gain of function’ research has been ongoing for so long, and yet there have not been enough eyebrows raised on the problems that it poses to humanity. Biosafety levels are supposed to guide the research environment determination, and yet we know for a fact that COVID-19 like viruses were certainly not being studied in the most secure environments. Even then, there were more calls from the scientific community back then, misguided by its own in all likelihood, to study the COVID virus under lax conditions.

Many are arguing that the study of viruses through gain of function is necessary for understanding the behaviours of viruses, their evolutionary patterns, and pre-empting pandemics in the future.

The problem is that we have had multiple pandemics since then, and have failed to pre-empt any one of them to date. Bird flu, swine flu, MERS, SARS, H9N1 - the list is getting longer and longer. Even as humanity has been struggling with many of the ‘mainstream’ diseases like malaria, dengue and tuberculosis, and struggling to eliminate polio even today in several countries, the introduction of newer and newer viruses into the environment are creating even more pressures on humanity and their ability to respond to disease outbreaks. Global inequity has meant that the world has to suffer at the hands of the mistakes of those who can afford to tackle the damage they create yet again, without bearing the responsibility for their actions. When the world has been fighting to solve the climate crisis, poorer countries invoke the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Here is another case of the need to invoke the same, triggered not just by the inequity in vaccine sharing but also by the reluctance of the powerful countries to accept their fault. Preaching others about scientific standards and safety, the high and mighty fall yet again in an unequal world.

While scientists want to fiddle around with genome sequences and protein characteristics, the problems remain unanswered. The most fundamental of them all however is the question of ethics, where the scientific community has failed itself and the world, but refuses to look in the mirror. The precautionary principle that is supposed to guide scientific research has been thrown out of the window completely, as scientists have started to believe, armed with splicing tactics and genome sequencing, that they are superior to nature and can control its vagaries with ease. The scandal that it is however is no less than concealing the true impact of pesticides like DDT on nature, for which companies and scientific research community have been liable in the past for maintaining silence till the point of irrefutable evidence compelling them to admit reluctantly their errors. Gain of function research reinforces the concerns that had led to the introduction of the precautionary principle in the global environmental discourse in the first place. While the European Parliament says that  “to some, it is unscientific and an obstacle to progress. To others, it is an approach that protects human health and the environment. Different stakeholders, experts and jurisdictions apply different definitions of the principle, mainly depending on the degree of scientific uncertainty required for the authorities to take action,” one questions where precautionary principles were in the first place to allow ‘gain of function’ research on a class of organisms that has already caused significant problems. Did funding agencies like the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases apply the precautionary principle before it funded ‘gain of function’ research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology despite its claims otherwise?

In an era of uncertainty when scientific information keeps getting updated, it is already difficult for decision making to keep up with the rapid influx of ‘new information’ on a daily basis. However, the cleavage that has been created with this scientific disaster is one where any one and everyone will find it nearly impossible to believe the scientific community’s word. This also raises questions for the world on what else is being buried under the weight of ‘scientific consensus’ so far. The oft debated controversy around Genetically Modified foods has never been satisfactorily answered for the public, and such questionable scientific opinion bulldozing as well as concealment of truth with groupthink has further damaged the cause of well meaning scientists who are keen on searching answers to everyday lives of people. There are allegations of how GM foods are now a ruse to essentially push more chemicals in the ecosystem, with the net result being super pests that trigger a vicious cycle of death by poison. How then does such damning behaviour of the so called top notches of the scientific world help the scientists win the trust of the public? 

Another environmental principle that has been put to the test with the COVID pandemic is the polluter pays principle. Pollution, yes, of the medicines, of the plastic that is being generated in the name of protection equipment, packaging materials, single use masks and what not. The inability of the world to move towards more sustainable materials in healthcare is proving to be damaging to efforts. Knowing fully well that COVID-19 will reverse the momentum of years-long global battle to reduce plastic waste pollution, there has never even been an acknowledgment that we have literally drowned ourselves under plastic. The world’s scientific community keeps talking about expertise in predicting pandemic. How come then we have the case that the scientific community forgot the earth altogether in developing capacities to respond to the pandemic. This very scientific community, despite all its advancement claims, still could not coax its own people to develop alternative materials for such emergencies? Who can be held responsible for this? Will a single country be held accountable? Will countries that binged on toilet paper generated out of uncontrolled hysteria resulting in a glut of stocks be answerable to the mass removal of plantation trees that could have somewhat served as a sink for carbon emissions, albeit temporarily? 

The COVID pandemic has actually ended up revealing the underbelly of science that allows it to be the proverbial Mr. Hyde to the good ol’ Dr Jekyll. Advancement in sciences are fine, but at what cost is the question that a large number of people will question, given the damning indictment of the scientific community in a potential lapse that saw a virus leak out. Just like Fukushima damaged the sentiment of the people about nuclear power and made them extremely wary and fearful towards it in Japan and elsewhere, this reprehensible act has the potential to fast turn into the Fukushima for scientific research, especially biological research if not addressed suitably. 

Will that happen though? Only time will tell.


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