Coronavirus vaccine: Why good science needs democracy – leader comment

As researchers close in on a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine, we must remember the importance of democratic freedoms in fostering the right environment for science to flourish.

Blood samples from coronavirus vaccine trials are handled at the Jenner Institute in Oxford (Picture: John Cairns/ University of Oxford via AP)
Blood samples from coronavirus vaccine trials are handled at the Jenner Institute in Oxford (Picture: John Cairns/ University of Oxford via AP)

The hope created by promising results from clinical trials of a vaccine for the Covid-19 coronavirus is hard to under-estimate. If the drug being developed by Oxford University – or indeed one of dozens of others being tested around the world – turns out to be effective, then scientists will have saved the day for humanity.

Not only will they have saved potentially hundreds of thousands of lives, but the global economy. Travel bans could be lifted, social distancing abandoned and face masks left to gather dust in a cupboard as little more than a historic curiosity. It would be a reminder for anyone who has forgotten of the importance of the scientific method. For it is science that saves lives every day in our hospitals, that warned of climate change as early as the 1970s, and that will one day send humans to Mars.

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And yet, an anti-scientific ethos persists in which people make the truth what they want it to be, from ‘anti-vaxxers’ and pedlars of hoax cures for cancer to conspiracy theorists who insist Nasa never went to the Moon or Barack Obama was not born in America. The most famous proponent of the last theory, which lacked any evidence at all, was one Donald Trump. So it should not have been a surprise that America’s Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief suggested that injecting disinfectant could be a form of treatment for Covid-19, as science, personified by the unfortunate Dr Deborah Birx, was forced to sit in silence despite knowing this idiotic suggestion could be fatal. No doubt Dr Birx and other genuine experts like Dr Anthony Fauci make the calculation that it is better to work with Trump’s administration than let him choose other advisers less qualified and more malleable.

Trump has not yet managed to substitute his opinions for truth largely because US democracy holds him in check. And, as the US Union of Concerned Scientists says, “science and democracy are indispensable partners in ensuring that public decisions serve the public interest”. Good science can be done in countries ruled by dictators but only so long as the research does not pose a danger to their power. The freedom of speech and thought found in all true democracies allows orthodoxies to be challenged and overthrown, collaborations across borders, and new ideas to develop.

So if science does save the day, we should remember how vital it is to nurture the environment in which it can best flourish.

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