On January 22 last Dave O'Connor e Tom Friedrich invited several dozen colleagues across the US to join a new workspace on the Slack instant messaging platform.
The scientists, both from the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center, had seen news of a new coronavirus disease emerging in China. They thought scientific research would need to cooperate to answer some important questions about its biology.
"We sent a notice to a group of investigators and basically said," Hey, let's talk. "Says O'Connor. The idea was to coordinate the research and make sure the results were comparable, he adds Friedrich.
The Wu-han Clan is born
Parodying the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, the researchers renamed the common workspace created on Slack “Wu-han Clan”.
The Wu-han Clan is just one example of how the COVID-19 outbreak is transforming the way scientists communicate about rapidly changing health crises.
A huge amount of data it is released daily by the prepress servers, which a decade ago didn't even exist. They are then analyzed starting with platforms like Slack and Twitter and in the media, even before the formal peer review begins.
Scientific journal staff are working overtime to have manuscripts reviewed, edited and published at record speed.
The venerable New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a COVID-19 document within 48 hours of sending. Viral genomes published on a platform called GISAID, more than 200 so far, are being analyzed instantly by a phalanx of evolutionary biologists who share their phylogenetic trees in prepress and on social media.
"This is a very different experience from any other I've been a part of", says the epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. The intense communication catalyzed an unusual level of collaboration between scientists which, combined with scientific advances, allowed the research to move faster than any previous epidemic.
"In just 6 weeks, an amount of knowledge that is unprecedented in human history was generated and shared," he says Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust.
Scientific research 2.0
Slow science communication has often been a problem during past epidemics. Researchers sometimes ran aground on crucial data until their paper was accepted by a high-profile journal and peer-reviewed, because they were concerned that competitors might steal information.
Even when researchers were willing to share their results in advance, there was no natural platform for doing so.
Lipsitch realized a few years ago that the prepress servers, which publish the results before the peer review, could change the rules of the game.
Scientists could quickly publish new data and still get credit, regardless of where the work was later published.
In a document from 2018, Lipstich and other colleagues concluded that this system accelerated data dissemination during the 2015-2016 Zika outbreak and the 2014-2016 West African Ebola outbreak.
Most of the prepresses have appeared more than 100 days before for a newspaper to publish the work. And overall, less than 5% of journal articles on the two outbreaks were first published as prepress.
Coronavirus, an evolutionary leap
The COVID-19 epidemic has perhaps changed the history of scientific research forever. Earlier this week, over 283 articles had already appeared on prepress servers compared to 261 published in scientific journals.
Two of the largest biomedical prepress servers, bioRxiv and medRxiv, "They are currently receiving about 10 articles every day on some aspects of the new coronavirus", he claims John Inglis, head of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, which manages both servers. A mass of data that “It is a challenge for our small teams, who are also working in the evenings and on weekends”.
Much of that work, done by outside staff and scientists, involves screening observations to eliminate pseudoscience and bits of opinion.
Manuscripts that pass first filtering vary greatly in quality, says University of Hong Kong epidemiologist. Keiji Fukuda. “Some of them aren't that useful, others are extremely useful".
Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says he is so busy that he often reads pre-prints late at night.
"Eleven comes, midnight arrives and you have 25 of these things to read"says Fauci. "You can't ignore them."
Scientists are sharing more information using preprints than in any previous outbreak. The number of articles published is also exploding.
It is even more difficult for simple communicators, us journalists and the general public.
A prepress of January 31st on bioRxiv by Indian scientists indicated "disturbing" similarities between the virus that causes COVID-19 and HIV, fueling conspiracy theories about genetic engineering.
The document received 90 critical comments in 48 hours and was quickly withdrawn. (A formal document debunking the results was released 2 weeks later.)
The danger of the infodemic is rightfully one of the collateral dangers of emergencies like this. Scientific research must discuss how to manage it.
However, experts say the benefits of quick information sharing far outweigh the drawbacks. However, even publication by a major newspaper is not a guarantee that a complaint is correct.
To accelerate scientific research on coronavirus, sharing even things that don't work is crucial, he says OConnor, for example when experiments show that an animal species cannot be infected with the new virus.
"This is important information that is generally not shared through traditional channels", he claims. This is why groups like the Wu-han clan are so useful. Its members also discussed whether to test animals in the traditional way, by placing a liquid virus suspension in their nose, or through an aerosol, a way of exposure that more closely resembles a sneeze. (They will probably try both.)
Will we make it in no time?
“By sharing plans openly, we can reduce redundancy,” says Friedrich.
It is unclear whether such scientific collaborations will help mitigate in no time the world hit of the coronavirus COVID-19.
But many scientists welcome the way the epidemic has already changed the way they communicate.
"It seems that things are moving into an entirely new culture of scientific research", says the virologist Isabella Eckerle of the Geneva Center for Emerging Viral Diseases.