COVID-19: Science, Stories, and Resources

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The Biophysical Society is sharing science articles to help educate and communicate information about the rapidly evolving findings and effects of COVID-19.


Coronavirus: A Virologist's Testimony

The coronavirus pandemic is global, and our lack of preparedness stems in large part, from insufficient support for fundamental research in virology, not only in the US, but elsewhere in the world as well. The following is an opinion piece by Bruno Canard, a French Structural Virologist, Director of Research at the Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Marseille.

(Translated by Emmanuel Margeat, Director of Research CNRS Montpellier – BPS member and member of the BPS Public Affairs Committee)

March 5, 2020

My name is Bruno Canard, CNRS research director in Aix-Marseille, France. My team works on RNA (ribonucleic acid) viruses, like the novel coronavirus (1). In 2002, our young research team was working on dengue fever, which led me to be invited to an international conference where we discussed coronaviruses, a large family of viruses that were new to me. Shortly after, in 2003, the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic emerged and the European Union launched major research programs to try to avoid being caught off-guard in case of emergence. The goal was very simple, figure out how to anticipate the behavior of an unknown virus. Well, the answer is simply by studying all of known viruses to gain knowledge that can be transposed to new ones, and in particular how they replicate. This [upstream] research is uncertain, the results cannot be predicted, and it takes a lot of time, energy, and patience.

This is fundamental research, patiently validated, involves long-term programs, which may eventually lead to therapeutic outcomes. It is also independent: which is the best vaccine against a Mediator-bis scandal (2).

In my team, we participated in European collaborative networks [working on SARS], and we began to get results starting in 2004. But, in viral research, in Europe as in France, the tendency is rather to concentrate all effort in the event of an epidemic, and then to forget. By 2006, political interest in SARS-CoV had disappeared; we didn't know if [the virus] was going to come back. Europe withdrew from these major preparatory projects in the name of decreased public spending to mollify taxpayers. Now, when a new virus emerges, researchers are asked to mobilize urgently and find a solution for the next day. With Belgian and Dutch colleagues, we had sent two letters of intent to the European Commission five years ago, saying that to stop the next pandemic we had to anticipate. Between these two letters, Zika appeared...

Science does not function well in urgency and immediate response.

With my team, we continued to work on the coronaviruses, but with much lower funding levels and under gradually deteriorating conditions. When I complained about this situation, I was often told: "Yes, but you researchers, what you do is useful for society...and you are passionate."

And I thought of all the proposals that I have reviewed.

I thought of all the papers I reviewed for publication.

I thought of the annual reports, the 2-year reports, and the 4-year reports that I had written.

I wondered if someone was reading my reports, and if that same person was also reading my publications.

I thought about the non-replaced two maternity and two sick leaves in our team of 22 people.

I thought of the farewell drinks, for retirement or promotion elsewhere, and the lost positions that had not been replaced.

I thought of the 11 years of fixed term contract of Sophia, a research engineer, who could not rent an apartment without a permanent contract, or obtain a loan from the bank.

I thought of the courage of Pedro, who resigned from his tenure researcher position at the CNRS to start organic farming.

I thought of the tens of thousands of euros that I spent out of my own pocket to register for very expensive international conferences.

I remembered eating an apple and a sandwich outside of a convention while our colleagues from the pharmaceutical industry went to the conference dinner.

I thought of the Research Tax Credit (3) to the private sector [translators note: mostly to banks for market analysis “research”], which increased from 1.5 billion to 6 billion euros annually (twice the CNRS budget) under the Sarkozy presidency.

I thought of President Hollande, then of President Macron who knowingly continued this “hold-up” that ends up making me spend my time writing ANR (4) proposals.

I thought of all my colleagues who try to manage the shortage resulting from this hold-up.

I thought of all the ANR projects I have written, and that were not funded.

I thought of this French-German ANR project, which had no negative reviews, but whose evaluation lasted so long that I was told to re-submit it as it was a year later, and was finally not retained for lack of funds.

I thought of the ANR Flash call on the coronavirus, which has just been published.

I thought I could stop writing ANR projects.

But then I thought about the precarious people working on these projects in our team.

I thought that because of all of this, I no longer had the time to do research as I wanted, that I had signed up for.

I thought we had temporarily lost the game.

I wondered if this was really useful for society, and if I was still passionate about the work?

I have often wondered if I would change for an uninteresting job, harmful to society and for which I would be paid a lot of money?

No, actually.

I hope by my voice to have spoken up for the legitimate anger of so many colleagues.


Translator notes:
  1. responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic
  2. The Mediator scandal is a health and legal case concerning people who consider themselves victims of the use of benfluorex, marketed under the name of Mediator by Servier laboratories. Several experts serving for the AFSSAPS, the French drug regulators, have been accused of being in the situation of conflict of interest with Servier laboratories.
  3. Research Tax Credit – Credit Impot Recherche (CIR) : The CIR is, in France, a tax reduction calculated on the basis of research and development expenditure incurred by companies. It is often criticized by the actors of the public research community, as its increase in the last 15 years was concomitant with a decrease of the fraction of the national budget devoted to public research and universities (mission interministérielle «Recherche et enseignement supérieur» , projet de loi de finances 2018). Moreover, the French Revenue Court states that there is "an uncertainty [...] about its effectiveness and its targeting" and further criticizes the complete lack of evaluation of its effectiveness ( L’évolution et les conditions de maîtrise du crédit d’impôt en faveur de la recherche », Cour des comptes, 12 septembre 2015)
  4. ANR: Agence Nationale de la Recherche : ANR is the main research funding agency in France. It was created in 2005, to target research funding on specific projects, while the steady support to public laboratories was strongly decreased. The original success rate of ANR calls was around 25%, but decreased to less than 10% by 2015. It is now around 14%.

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COVID-19: Science, Stories, and Resources

Header Image Credit: CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS