The result was that the already considerable intellectual firepower in each lab enjoyed the multiplier effect. Dick Thompson, a former science journalist who is now a communications officer at the World Health Organization responsible for facilitating communication between SARS researchers and disseminating emerging information about the disease to the public, says the advantage of the arrangement was obvious from the first. “People noted how different it was for them to work together,” Thompson says, “and it was a boost to everyone.”
Of course, another benefit of close international teamwork is that an environment of sharing is established from the start that can help prevent the messy kind of patent battle that occurred over the HIV test. In this regard, the research team at the University of Hong Kong that first isolated the SARS virus-led by microbiologist Malik Peiris-deserves special credit for openly sharing its results. The researchers could easily have delayed things by seeking patent rights or public acclaim, but instead, as Thompson notes, “They thought about it for about an hour” and thankfully kept their eyes on the big picture instead.
Researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control made a similar decision to share their results. Likewise researchers at the British Columbia Cancer Agency, a Canadian government lab in Vancouver, who sequenced the genetic code of the virus and posted it on the Web at dawn on a Sunday so collaborators wouldn’t lose a day of research time.
Now, before the letters start pouring in, I know there are all sorts of factors that distinguish the search for HIV from the current SARS endeavor. They include technological advances in fields like DNA analysis; the difficulties posed by HIV, including the lag between infection and the onset of a variety of diseases related to immune deficiency; and the political foot-dragging associated with the perception of AIDS as a disease of homosexuals.
Nonetheless, I still vote for global collaboration as the decisive factor. With all our emphasis on providing incentive for individual innovation, I think we often discount the power of the synergistic effects that can come from spreading innovation around. When fighting a threat like that posed by SARS, it helps to study the enemy’s tactics. Let’s hope we can continue to spread our ideas at least as rapidly and widely as the most opportunistic virus.