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Letter from the editor

A challenge for science

In May 1919, when the H1N1 pandemic known as the Spanish flu was slowing down, the journal Science published an article titled “The Lessons of the Pandemic.” In the article, American sanitation engineer and epidemiologist George A. Soper wrote:

“The most astonishing thing about the pandemic was the complete mystery which surrounded it. Nobody seemed to know what the disease was, where it came from, or how to stop it. Anxious minds are wondering today whether another wave will come. The fact is that although influenza is one of the oldest known of the epidemic diseases, it is the least understood.”

One hundred years later, the world is facing the novel coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19), which in just three months has taken more than 40,000 lives and infected almost one million people. Although both diseases are caused by viruses that affect the respiratory system, H1N1 and Covid-19 have different characteristics and developed in vastly different historical contexts. The Spanish flu, which infected roughly one-third of the world’s population and killed 50 million people, occurred at the end of the First World War; knowledge about viruses was still incipient, and the cause of the 1918/19 pandemic was only discovered in the 1930s.

Although Soper’s report still seems relevant today, there are major differences. Within a few days of its initial detection in Wuhan, China, scientists were able to identify the cause of Covid-19, sequence the genome of the virus, describe its main characteristics, determine groups at risk, and identify potential treatments. While the virus known as SARS-CoV-2 continues to spread exponentially, the global scientific community is working on finding effective drugs and developing vaccines to immunize the population.

This issue’s cover story is dedicated to the topic, which has dominated conversation and the news worldwide. The main report addresses the arrival of Covid-19 in Brazil, which is already facing a high number of dengue cases, in addition to measles and the “common” flu, rates of which are growing as autumn/winter comes around. An old acquaintance of public health specialists and now the subject of much discussion, the epidemic curve is essential to planning how to contain the disease and treat patients. In an interview, physician Ester Sabino talks about the effort to sequence SAR-CoV-2 as soon as it was identified in Brazil. All Pesquisa FAPESP coverage of Covid-19 is available on the website, updated daily.

Major emergencies like the one now faced by Brazil demonstrate the importance of an ample and well-prepared scientific community with quality equipment and access to international collaborative networks. For the last 15 years, physicist and FAPESP scientific director Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz has dedicated himself to raising the standards of science and technology in Brazil. Now, at the end of his term, Brito Cruz gave an interview in which he took stock of the progress FAPESP and the research community have made, as well as the challenges that lie ahead. “Research in science and technology has grown in stature among the values of Brazilian society. It has proven to be more connected to the challenges society faces, whether in times of emergency or for pure intellectual advancement.”