Thinking like a Virus

The search for SARS was a success because of global collaboration.

Why did it take less than two weeks to find the mutant coronavirus responsible for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, while it took the better part of three years to find HIV? There are many reasons-including better technology and a less elusive viral target-but don’t discount the unprecedented level of worldwide communication among SARS researchers.

The success of a global research network in identifying the pathogen is an example of the huge payoff that can result when researchers put aside visions of patents and glory for their individual laboratories and let their work behave more like, well, a virus. After all, the hallmark of an opportunistic virus like the one that causes SARS is its ability to spread quickly. Those mounting a response need to disseminate their information and innovation just as rapidly.

As you may remember, collaboration was not exactly a strong point in the search for the virus that causes AIDS. That effort, while marked by some remarkable scientific work, was conducted mostly by individual labs working in secret. Pride, prestige, and profit were all very much on the line. So much so, in fact, that Robert Gallo’s lab at the National Cancer Institute in the United States wound up in a colossal wrangle for nearly a decade with Luc Montagnier’s lab at the Pasteur Institute in Paris over which team had rightful claim to discovering HIV-and which deserved a U.S. patent for an HIV blood test. Montagnier’s team even sued the National Cancer Institute, seeking a share of millions of dollars in royalties from a blood test patent garnered by Gallo’s team; the lawsuit ended with an out-of-court settlement splitting those royalties. There is no question that the fighting consumed time that could have been spent trying to combat the disease.

Now fast-forward to the early days of the SARS outbreak. This time around, a collaborative research engine was already primed. For years, a team led by Klaus Stohr, a virologist at the World Health Organization, has been readying an international network of laboratories in anticipation of the next pandemic flu strain. This network of 11 labs with high-level biosafety containment facilities in nine countries around the globe swung into action to combat SARS.

Stohr’s team activated secure Web sites that could keep the worldwide network of researchers, clinicians, and epidemiologists in constant contact. This communications system was so well designed that researchers could display patient samples and electron microscope pictures in real time to colleagues continents away. Details of each lab’s analysis and testing of samples were posted online so researchers could instantly act upon relevant information. In addition, Stohr’s team organized daily teleconferences among researchers to discuss progress and obstacles.

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.

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