“Scientists can never make statements with 100% certainty”
EPFL professor Jacques Fellay, who served on the Swiss National Covid-19 Task Force, has been selected for a new advisory committee that the government set up recently so policymakers and scientists can continue their joint efforts.
The pandemic did have a silver lining. At least that was the case in Switzerland, where the public-health crisis opened up the lines of communication between policymakers and scientists like never before. Thanks to the close collaboration between these two groups, albeit after some initial hiccups, “the pandemic didn’t go as badly as it could have,” says Fellay, who also heads EPFL’s Laboratory of Human Genomics of Infection and Immunity. “There were undoubtedly some things we could’ve done better, but in terms of our community response, we rose to the challenge in a responsible, proactive and effective way.”
Fellay, an expert in infectious diseases, will serve on the new advisory committee alongside representatives of the Swiss federal government and cantonal governments and over a dozen other experts from a range of scientific fields. The committee will operate until June 2023 and serve as a forum for continuing the joint work and dialogue between policymakers and scientists. We spoke with Fellay about the working relationship between these two groups and what lessons he believes we can learn from the pandemic.
As an infectious disease expert, were you worried when Covid-19 first emerged?
I knew that sooner or later, we’d be faced with a global pandemic. But it was still a surprise when I saw the theory play out in practice. Covid-19 was a serious threat and required a concerted effort from society as a whole and from the scientific community in particular. The way we overcame that threat was unprecedented: for the first time ever, we fought off a pandemic with a vaccine developed at breakneck speed. This reduced the number of deaths considerably and mitigated the pandemic’s impact. I’m sure there are some things that could’ve gone more smoothly, but we don’t live in an ideal world.
So do you think the pandemic is behind us?
What we can say is that the acute phase of the pandemic is behind us and the virus is now something we’ll have to live with. People are still getting sick and dying from Covid, but for the vast majority of us, life has pretty much returned to normal. Now we’ve got to tackle political issues like whether the cost of Covid tests should still be covered and what measures should be taken to protect at-risk individuals.
Can we now consider Covid as more or less like the flu?
Not really. The mortality rate for Covid-19 is significantly higher than that for influenza, especially among the elderly and immunosuppressed. And we don’t know what all the consequences are of long Covid, which is something that a considerable portion of the population is suffering from. SARS-CoV-2 is an aggressive virus. Personally, I still wear an FFP2 mask on public transportation and I got my second booster of the vaccine.
What was the scientific community’s response?
Scientists did what they do best: collect and analyze data, test hypotheses and compare results. But they did so at an amazing speed and in full transparency – usually this kind of R&D is done out of the public eye. During a crisis, people need clear answers, but scientists can provide only conditional ones. The fundamental principle of the scientific method is to challenge facts and assumptions. Scientists can never make statements with 100% certainty. For people who think science should always be black and white, this made them skeptical of our recommendations.
And the response of policymakers?
While scientists’ role is to put forth various options based on data and models, the role of policymakers is to make decisions. That’s what they’re elected for, and they’ve been given the requisite authority and responsibility. The Swiss government set up the task force so that policymakers could have access to research findings as soon as they became available.
Did that approach work?
There were some growing pains as people struggled to find their place. Some scientists had trouble sticking to their role as advisors, while some policymakers didn’t appreciate the way in which the task force communicated with the general public. But both groups made an effort to understand each other, and after a while we were able to work together smoothly. I hope this kind of open dialogue will continue.
Is that the goal of the new advisory committee?
Yes. The bodies that set up the committee – namely, the Conference of Cantonal Health Directors, the Swiss Federal Department of Home Affairs, and the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation – wanted to make sure they could keep getting the latest information from scientists in a structured way. The committee will meet once a week to review recent developments and ask questions.
Why is the committee scheduled to last only a few months?
The idea was to cover the winter season, but also to test a new scientific advisory mechanism that could be applied in other areas as well.
The main message is that all policymakers need to be up to date on the facts.
Do you think there should be more scientists in politics?
That could lead to better understanding overall. But the main message is that all policymakers need to be up to date on the facts. So even if there are more scientists in parliament, policymakers will still need to work closely with subject-matter experts.
How do you feel the press has done?
Overall I’d say they’ve done a good job and have been successful in presenting different viewpoints. We have an excellent level of scientific journalism here in French-speaking Switzerland, meaning those who wanted to keep track of research developments during the pandemic were able to do so.
What are your views on scientific communications with the general public?
When we held the referendum here in Switzerland on genetic engineering back in 1998, scientists finally realized they had no choice but to start speaking with voters because the issues at stake were too important. That was the first time scientists really came down from their ivory tower. Today there are many different channels for communicating with the general public, but it’s true that most of our messages go to people who already have an interest in science. We nevertheless have an important, even essential duty to communicate with citizens in a way they can understand. And we’ve seen they have a lot to say about the research we’re doing. There’s an opportunity here to form a real partnership, along the lines of the citizen science movement that’s under way. Non-experts can bring us fresh ideas and force us out of our silo mentality.
The pandemic once again demonstrated how crucial basic research is.
Did Covid research supplant the other research you were doing – either you personally or the scientific community in general?
Not really. For me personally, the research we’re doing on the human genomics of infectious diseases is done mostly with bioinformatics and we were able to keep using our systems during the pandemic. And more broadly, some research did have to be put on hold, but only for a little while. However, I think the Covid research that was done will eventually benefit biomedicine as a whole. The same thing happened with HIV nearly 40 years ago: when AIDS first emerged, the entire scientific community focused their efforts on fighting it and made a number of discoveries that were useful in other fields as well. The Covid pandemic served to concentrate research efforts and speed them up. In human genomics, we achieved in one year what would’ve taken a decade under normal circumstances. There’s been a step change in the pace of scientific discovery – and humankind will only benefit.
I’d add that the pandemic once again demonstrated how crucial basic research is. Scientists were able to develop a vaccine so quickly and effectively thanks to the decades of research that had already been done on messenger RNA. It’s proof that while science may be important during a crisis, it’s essential during times of business as usual.