There’s an easy way to combat the coronavirus and speed up medical discoveries. What are we waiting for?
When COVID-19 was first reported late last year, the very first thing scientists did was to rush to make any and all information on the emerging disease quickly and openly available. Researchers in China — not generally known for its openness — released the genetic sequence of the virus, posting it in GenBank, an open access database hosted by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), so that any scientist, anywhere in the world, could get to work on understanding the disease and start innovating toward a vaccine.
Overnight, researchers began sharing scientific data, articles and code related to the virus, as well as the results of experiments they conducted through open, online platforms. As a result, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reported that researchers have already begun to develop a vaccine, which could be ready for testing in humans in as little as three months. If they are successful, it would be the fastest time in human history that scientists have been able to move from sequencing the genome of a virus to testing a vaccine in people.
This incredible progress is made possible by one simple thing: Scientists sharing the results of their research openly, without delay.
This should be the norm for all scientific research — but it isn’t. For all other diseases, scientists routinely hold onto their data for years without sharing it, while they wait to publish articles describing their results in exclusive scientific journals, where the review process routinely takes months — if not years — to complete. And even once these articles are published, they are often available to only a small fraction of researchers: Those who can afford to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to subscribe to them.
Why are the results of critical scientific experiments funded by taxpayers kept locked behind glass that can only be broken in the case of a health emergency? Why aren’t the lives of patients facing cancer, diabetes, dementia — or any other life threatening condition — treated with the same urgency? Why can’t we do the same thing we’re doing for a possible pandemic to also speed progress toward treatments and cures for other diseases?
For once, this is a question with an easy answer. We can and should treat the need to cure all diseases with equal urgency. The U.S. government currently spends more than $65 billion in taxpayer funds on scientific research, with more than half of this money funding biomedical research. With the stroke of pen, President Trump could unlock the results of this work, and require that the scientific articles and data resulting from taxpayer-funded research be immediately and openly shared online.
As a scientist and the parent of a child with a life-threatening condition, I live the reality that millions of other Americans in my situation also share — that coronavirus is only the most recent and visible public health emergency we are facing.
Researchers fighting to find cures for all diseases — and the patients who live with these diseases — urgently need the same weapons to fight their fight as the scientists working on the current pandemic. We all deserve to live in a world where every disease is tackled with the same urgency, openness and data-sharing.
By simply requiring that scientists funded by U.S. tax dollars openly share the results of their work, the Trump administration can end the needless delays that researchers currently face, and provide all citizens with the hope that the health conditions that most directly affect them and their families are being worked on with the same urgency and efficiency as the coronavirus.
• Matthew Might is the director of the Hugh Kaul Precision Medicine Institute, and a professor of internal medicine and a professor of computer science at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).