In 2018 I was invited to Moscow State University to receive an award for the contribution of my laboratory in the field of immunology. I was particularly honored that my team was recognized by Russian scientists because of a famous Russian immunologist named Élie Metchnikoff.
He’s as well known in my field as Bono is in rock music. Metchnikoff is one of the founding scientists in immunology and discovered a key type of cell in the immune system called macrophages, which is a major focus of my lab’s work. Macrophages wreak havoc on many diseases, including Covid-19. Metchnikoff was so famous that he is even mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Metchnikoff vaccinated great apes.”
There is a museum in the university that has Élie and many other famous Russian scientists and I was given a tour. I also gave a lecture attended by the Irish Ambassador to Russia. I even attended a fancy party at the Irish Embassy, which included my Russian hosts. Science is all about collaboration and discussion. These were obviously happier days.
Unfortunately, despite the legacy of Metchnikoff and other Russian immunologists, the uptake of Covid-19 vaccines in Russia has been poor. Around 50 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. We all remember Vladimir Putin triumphantly declaring that Russia had developed the first vaccine against Covid-19 in record time and naming it Sputnik V, where “V” stood for victory. The Russian scientists had done an excellent job, with Sputnik V performing as well as AstraZeneca’s vaccine. But the reception was disappointing.
Ukraine has a similarly low vaccination rate. On January 7 of this year, the Ministry of Health announced that 44.9 percent of the adult population had been fully vaccinated. Ukraine did not use the Sputnik-V vaccine and instead mainly used the vaccines from Pfizer and Sinovac. A poll last year found that 56 percent of Ukrainians had no intention of getting vaccinated.
A key reason is a heritage from the Soviet era. Pavlo Fedorchenko-Kutuev, head of the Department of Sociology at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, said people would “just dismiss anything they read in Soviet reporting,” and that sentiment lingers for many when it comes to vaccination advice .
Due to the low vaccination rate, there is concern that cases of Covid-19 will increase due to all the turmoil there. Viruses love disruption. This allows them to spread more easily among people who are out and about. That’s one of the reasons the 1918 flu pandemic wreaked such havoc. The First World War and its aftermath meant many movements of people, both military and civilian. All the stress that will occur will also weaken people’s immune systems and put them at risk of serious diseases, especially given the level of vaccination.
Ukraine is recovering from its biggest spike in Covid-19 cases yet. Its seven-day moving average hit a record 37,408 on February 10. The country has also been trying to contain a polio outbreak that is crippling children. As if worrying about Covid wasn’t bad enough.
World Health Organization spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said the current crisis in Ukraine increases the risk of national and international spread of Covid-19. There are also fears that medical supplies will run out. United Nations AIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said HIV patients have just weeks left on antiretroviral therapy, putting their lives at risk. If there is a large surge in Covid-19 cases, there is a real fear that ICU capacity will be limited due to trauma cases from the war. Parts of the country are already experiencing oxygen shortages that could get worse.
During my visit in 2018, I was very well looked after by my Russian scientific hosts, especially Professor Sergei Nedospasov. He joked to me about the time when President Boris Yeltsin didn’t get off the plane to meet our Taoiseach Albert Reynolds at Shannon Airport, which people in Russia found very amusing. lighter times.
Russian scientists are dismayed by what is happening in Ukraine. More than 4,000 of them have signed an open letter criticizing the invasion. They describe the war with Ukraine as “unfair” and “pointless”. Many of the signatories have relatives, friends and academic colleagues in Ukraine.
The letter said the invasion would isolate Russia and make it impossible for scientific work in the country to continue normally. It says: “After all, scientific research is unthinkable without extensive collaboration with colleagues from other countries. The isolation of Russia from the world means further cultural and technological degradation of our country.”
In the main university of Ukraine, the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, all academic activities have come to a standstill. There were power outages and internet access was cut off. The university issued a statement appealing to the global academic community to support their peers in Ukraine. It states: “We call on universities, academic institutions in Europe and around the world to stand up together with Ukraine against Putin’s regime, against the destruction of the foundations of peace, security and democracy in Europe and the world.”
Learned societies are gathering all over the world. Our own Royal Irish Academy – Ireland’s national academy for science, humanities and social sciences – issued a statement last Tuesday saying it was shocked and deeply concerned by Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine.
The Academy expressed its support and solidarity with the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, praising “the courageous stance of many members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who denounced the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine and called for its immediate end.”
Even more impressive is the joint statement by the national academies of the G7 countries on the Russian attack on Ukraine. It states that the Russian invasion is an “assault on the fundamental principles of freedom, democracy and self-determination which underpin academic freedom and opportunities for scholarly exchange and collaboration”. He also commends the Russian scientists who are ashamed of this attack and have spoken out against the war.
Scientists everywhere are trying to provide practical help. Europe’s leading biological society, the European Molecular Biology Organisation, has drawn up a ‘solidarity list’ calling for support from all European scientists. A database of scientists has been set up, providing laboratory and office work and accommodation for Ukrainian scientists to continue their research. There is also a Twitter account @Sci_for_Ukraine where scientists can offer to host Ukrainian scientists. Our Royal Irish Academy is in talks with the Irish Universities Association to coordinate support for Ukrainian students and scholars.
The scientific community around the world and in Russia, like so many other communities, speaks out and supports our colleagues in Ukraine during these terrible times. The letter signed by the Russian scientists says it all, ending with a simple message: “Let’s do science, not war.”
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/science-thrives-on-collaboration-and-war-will-only-keep-us-from-advances-41415662.html Science thrives on cooperation and war will only keep us from progress