Brazil’s researchers have a battle on their hands. The country has the world’s third-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, with more than 300,000 infections and 20,000 deaths. Scientists there have to fight not only the coronavirus, but also the government’s anti-science stance.
President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been photographed shaking hands with supporters in recent weeks, has rejected social-distancing measures while heavily promoting the antimalarial drug chloroquine as a coronavirus treatment despite a lack of evidence that it is effective. Former health minister Luiz Mandetta was fired in mid-April after a disagreement over Bolsonaro’s response to the pandemic. His successor, Nelson Teich, resigned on 15 May, after just a month in the job.
Despite the turmoil, Brazilian researchers are working hard to overcome the challenges the pandemic has brought, says physicist Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences in Rio de Janeiro.
Davidovich spoke to Nature about the impact of anti-science attitudes and budget cuts in the country, as well as possibilities for post-pandemic research.
What is scientists’ role in the pandemic in Brazil?
Scientists are working intensely all over the country. Engineers are working to design reliable but less-expensive ventilators, chemists are exploring compounds for possible treatments, and mathematicians are using artificial intelligence to identify molecules that could help to alleviate patients’ pain.
There has also been research on possible vaccines, and clinical trials in the city of Manaus in the Amazon region on the effect of chloroquine and hydroxycholoroquine on people with COVID-19. But the researchers involved in these trials have had serious problems because of negative results. Because the trial results indicated that the drugs didn’t work, the scientists started getting calls from people threatening their lives and their families. That shows the situation we have here. The Brazilian Academy of Sciences has called for the government to stand by these scientists and protect them.
How has the situation affected research that is not related to the coronavirus?
Universities are closed, and it’s not clear when they will reopen. This is delaying research, especially experimental research. Also, being physically present is very important. You go to lunch with someone and you have ideas, you talk in an informal way. I don’t know how to Zoom someone and say, “Let’s have an idea” — it doesn’t work like that. I really miss the conversations when we’re talking about something else and it leads to a new idea. Not having that will definitely affect the development of science.
How are researchers dealing with the government’s attitude to science?
Science organizations are issuing public statements criticizing the government’s anti-science stance. The president of the National Academy of Medicine and I signed a statement about the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, stating what science knows about these drugs and criticizing the government’s position. We are also working with the media. In a television news interview, I said that medications should be prescribed by medical doctors, not by the president of Brazil. We also organized a full-day virtual march for science in which these issues were discussed.
Are there parts of the country where government officials are more open to scientific advice?
Yes — a good example is the northeast of Brazil. That is one of the poorest regions, and there are many more scientists in the southeast than in the northeast. But in March, a scientific committee was formed to help the governors of the states in the northeast. The committee has issued reports on the development of science and ways to re-establish what we call the ‘new normal’ in the country. They are in close contact with the governors, and that is a good example for the whole country. [The governors of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo have also formed scientific advisory committees.]
Is the pandemic changing public perceptions of science?
We are trying to evaluate this more closely, but science is everywhere in the press. Scientists are being invited by television stations to talk about science. People say science is very important at the moment — but on the other hand some of them still think that Earth is flat, that humans don’t have any effect on the climate, and that natural selection is wrong. But I think Brazilian media are paying more attention to scientists. The national newspaper O Globo now has a section called ‘A Hora da Ciência’ [The science hour]. It features different scientists talking about science related to the pandemic each day. I hope they will continue this section after the pandemic.
What lessons did Brazil learn from the Zika pandemic that apply now?
We learnt that you should prepare the country beforehand. When the Zika epidemic started, we had labs that could still work very well. We had cooperation between scientists all around the country, and researchers found ways to help mothers to avoid Zika, to take precautions. We learned that cooperation in science is important. Having good equipment is important. Having good people is important. Have we built a public policy based on this learning process? No, certainly not.
How have budget cuts affected science in Brazil?
Since 2013, science funding in Brazil has gone down steadily. We have obsolete equipment in many labs, and the labs have fewer supplies. Because of cuts to the science budget, young scientists have left Brazil. Four young people left my group last year — bright people who have gone to other countries. It’s not just a question of a lack of resources. It’s also the general ambience in the country, the fact that they feel there is no encouragement from the government to do science in Brazil. That’s bad for Brazil, because these are the people who bring new ideas, and they are very motivated.
What possibilities do you see for post-pandemic research?
Brazil’s pharmaceutical industry is focused on generic drugs, producing pharmaceuticals that were originally developed by companies in other countries. There is a paradox there. Brazil has about 20% of the world’s biodiversity, and we don’t profit from that, because of an industrial policy that was betting on generics and not stimulating start-ups that could use Brazilian biodiversity for biomedicine. This pandemic has given rise to discussions on how to have a pharmaceutical industry centred on biopharmaceuticals based on Brazilian biodiversity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.