We started our timeline when researchers in China and Australia shared the SARS-CoV-2 sequence on 11 January 2020. This marked the “go moment” for science, allowing researchers all over the world to start developing molecular testing protocols, building our understanding of how the virus infects cells, and using cutting-edge platform technologies to develop vaccines at unprecedented speed.
“Publishing the sequence was really the most important aspect of this and I would say as a society we got really lucky that it’s quite similar to both SARS and MERS. That’s really what allowed us to be able to make vaccines so quickly – because people had done studies on SARS-1 and MERS,” said Anna Blakney, University of British Columbia, when I spoke to her while developing the timeline. “It enabled us to identify the protein on the surface and know exactly what it was and which protein we needed to target with our vaccines... otherwise it would have taken much longer.”
Researchers continued to genetically sequence samples of SARS-CoV-2 as it spread around the world, allowing scientists and public health agencies to track outbreaks and spot mutations in the sequence giving rise to new variants of the virus – the subject of the final graphic in the series. Two years after the first sequence was shared, over 6.9 million genetic sequences of SARSCoV-2 from 205 countries had been uploaded to the GISAID database.
The pandemic allowed the global nature of science to shine through: the international scientific community shared their work, data, energy, time, and resources. Journals lowered paywalls, researchers worked in testing facilities and labs got together to donate PPE, make alcohol sanitizers and donate reagents. Pharmaceutical companies partnered with universities and SMEs. Government funding helped ensure progress could be made quickly.
Not that science and research have been perfect: ‘science by press-release’ has been a common criticism throughout the pandemic, and misunderstanding about peer review and pre-print processes have, on occasion, led to confusion. Nevertheless, global collaboration over the last two years has been remarkable.
In November 2021, researchers in South Africa alerted the world to the threat of the omicron variant. Its continued presence means the pandemic is far from over, even if vaccines have allowed some sense of normality to return, at least to the highest-resourced countries. As we tentatively look beyond the emergency phase of this pandemic, we need to look at what we can learn from the past two years: the vital relationships between expert advisors and governments; the resourcefulness and agility required of researchers; the value of the open data sharing that enabled rapid global collaboration.
This coronavirus pandemic is far from the last challenge humanity faces: antimicrobial resistance, climate change, better management of our resources or (quietly) the next pandemic. We need to harness and refine the mechanisms that helped facilitate collaboration over competition and embed them into ‘chemistry-as-usual’. These global challenges require global solutions.
The amazing milestones of scientific achievement illustrated by our ChemVsCOVID timeline have shown what we can do in a global emergency. We wanted to tell the story of not just the importance of scientific brilliance, but of cooperation and common goals. That story is far from over, and yet we must use its lessons now to inform our response to current and future challenges: to better share our knowledge, our talent and our resources, for the benefit of everyone.