During the discussion section where the professors used COVID-19 as an example of the importance of teamwork, I didn’t think too hard about it. It seemed incredibly straightforward to me, and I felt optimistic that a whole global network of science would be able to solve this problem even though the news was already beginning to characterize the epidemic (not sure if the WHO, at the time, had labelled it as a pandemic yet) as a disaster that no one would be able to anticipate.
Recently, though, in my History of Western Medicine class (HIST-212), we did a lot of reading and a paper on the beginning of the American portion of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and I learned that the global scientific community was incredibly ill-prepared to confront the situation. HIV produced a disease that was difficult to track because of how long it took for symptoms to show, and a whole slew of confounding variables made scientists doubt one another, compete with one another, and flout cooperative efforts. In that regard, I’ve felt that this current virus is similar; the symptoms are variable, the severity even more so, and, so, I had this moment of fear some weeks ago that the teamwork my professors talked about in TBL (Team-Based Learning) was just a platonic conception of the “scientist.” Yes, they do incredibly well to break new boundaries when they’re not under pressure, but what if they are under pressure, like during the 80s and now? It made me wonder if the scientific response to this pandemic could be different from the response to AIDS because everyone wants answers, but it’s hard to believe that there wouldn’t be any tension regarding who actually has an answer.
A couple of weeks ago I saw a few news articles—the most promising ones yet—about how a group of researchers at Oxford are already done with a round of (successful) clinical trials for a potential vaccine. As I was reading them, I saw references to China, the U.S., and a few other countries, and I had this moment of fear where I couldn’t help but wonder about what’s actually going on behind the scenes—whether there’d be another book like Randy Shilts’ book exposing the failures behind the response to AIDS, exposing all the petty competitions and delays and research politics, but this time, instead of AIDS, it’s COVID-19. I had these intrusive doubts in my head: what if the Oxford team isn’t the fastest, but their news is just “louder” than other countries’ input? Do scientists actually prioritize the teamwork that they should be prioritizing? When did life become a secondary concern to politics?
This is a really long-winded way to get to the point of what I wanted to express, but, essentially, I initially found my professors’ comments on teamwork to be positive and obvious, a useful and applicable comparison to the reality at the time. But now that the virus has become more terrifying within the U.S. than many initially predicted, this need for teamwork is more pressing than ever, especially since research has been underway for at least several months by now. I never doubted that teamwork, collaboration, and communication between groups of scientists would be necessary, but I’ve since had a revelation—after my history class’s AIDS unit and after reading those articles about the Oxford vaccine—that though we unconsciously see scientists as trustworthy, enlightened authorities, scientists are human and thus fallible, possibly given to self-serving tendencies just like any other person in the world. And these proclivities can damage the cooperation that is needed for a breakthrough against this virus. Quite possibly, every single scientific discovery that is laid out in our textbooks, straightforward and simple, may have also been subjected to this kind of human tension. The Nobel Prize itself has indubitably snubbed many great scientists of their proper credit (as it sort of did for AIDS) because it recognizes individuals rather than teams. I wonder whether my biology professors’ declaration that teamwork is the core of discovery is a reflection of smooth teamwork that has existed in scientific history, or of scraps of cooperation scrambled together in the wake of damages incurred by selfish motives and individual gain, whether that individual be an institution or a country. I sincerely hope that this isn’t the case. Already, the hasty reports (hydroxychloroquine and such) are differentiating COVID-19 from the anxiety-inducing, excessive caution behind AIDS. But that might just be a different form of failed teamwork.