Commentary: There are unsung heroes in COVID-19 war

By Arthur E. Sowers

The biggest story these days is the current medical and economic suffering from the coronavirus pandemic. The continual world-wide increase in the sicknesses and deaths from this disease finally became great enough to lead to a world-wide social and economic lockdown.

Behind this story, however, is another story. It is less urgent but equally important. 

Had this virus hit us, say, 100 or more years ago then the suffering and damage would be worse. This is because we had zero knowledge of pathogenic bacteria and viruses.

Before that people just got sick and some died and some recovered. History tells us that the “1918 flu” was world-wide. Half a billion people got sick, 50 million died. The AIDS disease, caused by the HIV virus, appeared in the early 1980s and continues to ravage and kill a majority of infected people all over the world, although it is not as contagious as coronavirus. 

Scientific thinking and knowledge about plagues barely got started in the late 1800s but grew much more when federal granting agencies like National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and others, along with some private foundations, started to fund salaries, laboratory buildings, instruments, supplies, and university departments in the biomedical sciences.

It sounds simple, but the libraries of scientific knowledge and laboratory techniques are built by scientists who need a college degree, an advanced doctoral degree, and an apprenticeship informally called a “post-doc.” All this can take 12 or more years. Then you can look for a job which is unfortunately most likely to be still a temporary job with less job security than you might expect. The work is exciting and rewarding but competition, stress, pressure, and the politics of the science culture are all intense.  Sometimes experiments don’t work properly, and you have to live with the consequences. I could write a whole book about my own career in science.

But, what does all this get us? Vaccines and drugs can save a large fraction of the people who are ill. Many people might be prevented from suffering. But these things take a lot of time to develop and test in clinical trials. At least we know that COVID-19 – the technical name for the novel “coronavirus” disease –  is caused by the virus assigned the technical name SARS-Cov2-19. Much additional technical information is known at this time, but the only practical actions we can take now are already being described and disseminated by our media. So far, China and South Korea have had considerable success in limiting COVID-19 by early application of aggressive measures.

Besides giving this short historical overview, my message here is that a lot of medical health care depends on scientists working way back in the “back room,” while hospital staff are more visible and get more due credit, but still less attention than movie stars, sports figures, and – in the greatest limelight – politicians.

Arthur E. Sowers, Ph.D., lives in Harbeson and is a retired research professor from the School of Medicine, University of Maryland, Baltimore.