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Why research labs were drastically unprepared for Covid-19, even after SARS

money research SARS-CoV-2
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
SARS-CoV-2 isn't the first coronavirus the government has thrown money at.
  • Alexandra Ossola
By Alexandra Ossola

Membership editor


Back in 2003, Jairam Lingappa was an epidemiologist at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When a new coronavirus called SARS emerged in China, he and his CDC colleagues, as well as many researchers around the world, jumped into action. “People were concerned,” Lingappa recalls. “With any epidemic for a new agent, there is a certain amount of fear that just comes from not knowing what the agent’s characteristics are.”

Lingappa co-authored a number of studies about SARS between 2003 and 2004. But then he switched to studying how host genomics affect HIV infection, and started working at the University of Washington, where he is now a professor of global health. In part, he changed focus because the new opportunity allowed him to follow his research interests. But there was a practical concern, too: “Probably the major driver is that SARS was diminishing as a real threat in terms of actual disease occurrence,” he says. “Because of the nature of our funding system, that leads to funding drying up. Our system tends to focus on the thing that hurts now.”

Recently, Lingappa has submitted several grant proposals to study the role of inflammation in infection from a newer coronavirus: SARS-CoV-2. The funding is there. In late March, the US government responded to the novel coronavirus—which by that stage had already claimed more than 42,000 lives globally and tanked the economy—by directing $1.2 billion of its $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package towards scientific research across a number of agencies. That additional money would help researchers at institutions all over the country understand how the virus works in order to develop treatments and vaccines, though some argued it wasn’t enough.

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