Lessons Learned From COVID-19

By Dr. Giulio Alighieri

It is a great delight and honor to have been named the first Fellow of the Washington Institute. A native of Italy, I graduated last year with a doctorate from M.I.T, and now I am looking forward to focusing on what we have learned over more than two years as the world has confronted the Coronavirus pandemic. In the coming weeks and months you will be seeing the results of our work that speak to how business, government, and society have confronted this enormous challenge. Special attention will be given to the roles that academia, media, and culture have played in mitigating the virus.

Dr. Alighieri at NE47, Weiss Lab , MIT Synthetic Biology Center, Cambridge, MA

This effort will be enhanced by the input of a team of colleagues and experts who will share their unvarnished thoughts on what we have learned and the signs that may arise in the future to tackle future pandemics. It is my intention to see that we produce a unique look into the lessons learned and that we not simply regurgitate the findings of others.

Most importantly, Covid -19 is teaching us how to deal with new pandemics, including the latest Monkeypox that has suddenly appeared on the scene. It can teach us that approaches in dealing with this kind of infectious disease cannot overlook the cultural values and principles of the countries where these viruses arise. With this in mind, we can more easily explain the friction that occurred between scientists and health officers on one side and politicians on the other in deciding the best course of action to mitigate this wildly infectious disease. With this development in mind, we can act to avoid having the same kind of friction and divide at a time when dealing with such a powerful and dangerous enemy will instead require a greater and more unified approach.

At center stage in this divide there are the people with their own values and principles. Unlike other countries, the United States is a place where, culturally, people accept, if not demand, less interference from the government on how to live their lives. Politicians and elected officials are the only ones who can interpret the will of the people and act on their behalf. Consequently, elected officials cannot overlook the values and principles of their own constituency. This is very different from more autocratic governments.

By contrast scientists are not elected by the people to represent their interests. They are hired to gather information, formulate hypotheses based on this information and test those in a controlled environment where usually there is the possibility to manipulate some parameters or experimental conditions. Usually, this is a process that takes time. Until a hypothesis goes through different rounds of experimental validation, it is just a statement that can be more or less accurate or even completely wrong. More likely than not, clever hypotheses made by skilled and intelligent experts based on previous solid knowledge ends up being disproven. This is the way the boundary of knowledge is pushed. It requires lots of resilience, hard work, resources and above all skilled and smart researchers. Scientists are neither oracles to be worshipped nor witches to be hunted. But they are to be listened to and judged accordingly.

Elected officials need to consider the recommendations made by scientists, taking into account the degree of validation of the newly formulated hypotheses in addition to the inputs provided by industry and business. With this information, government officials can act on behalf of their constituents. It will be up to them to decide what the right balance is between personal freedom and the need in an emergency for government intervention. Elected officials will need to take actions and then revise them often until the situation is under control.

In the weeks to come, I will look forward to sharing with you the findings of the Coronavirus Project. There is much at stake as we confront the end of this crisis and the emergence of other pandemics. The only thing that is certain is that pandemics like this one will always be a continuous threat to is and to future generations.

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