What is the Societal Impact of Infectious Disease?

There is no question that COVID-19 will have a profound and lasting impact on the world as we know it. For most of us, the pandemic is as unprecedented as it is distressing. I have a strong visceral image when I think of the current state of affairs – it is as if an unwelcome, shadowy presence has resolutely taken a seat at the head of the table, and is refusing to leave.

We are clearly not the first generation to witness the societal fallout of a devastating infectious disease, nor will we be the last. It feels to me that this pandemic has affected every area of our lives, but I often wonder how accurate this interpretation is. How can one measure the social, economic and political consequences of this virus? Is there really a ‘before’ and ‘after’ COVID-19, or are we simply repeating history? And how does the impact of the current pandemic compare with other infectious diseases – throughout time, or across different geographies or groups of people?

New seminar series

These questions both complement and contextualise the many scientific discussions which have taken place at EMBL since this pandemic emerged, and they provide insight into the ethical, legal, and social implications of scientific research into infectious diseases.

In light of this, the Science & Society Programme is launching a special seminar series, “Infectious Disease and Society” to explore these issues through the lens of the life sciences. The series will consider the scientific and societal impact of infectious diseases, examining not only the COVID-19 pandemic from a number of angles, but also other infectious diseases such as salmonella and malaria. The first six of these talks are outlined below, and the page will be frequently updated with new seminars over the coming months.

Infectious Disease & Society: Seminars 

As the Science & Society Programme has explored the issue of infectious disease many times over the years, we are staggering the re-release of a select number of related talks from our archive. We will also complement these previous talks with a series of new virtual lectures, reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Selected talks from the archive:

The links below will transfer you to our Mediasite catalogue, where you are able to revisit these talks in your own time.

1) “Why have we not been able to eradicate Malaria’ – Prof. Dr. Friedrich Frischknecht, Department of Parasitology, Hygiene Institute, Heidelberg University School of Medicine [recorded May 2014]

2) “The open source outbreak: how can data prevent the next pandemic?”-  Jennifer Gardy, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Deputy Director of Surveillance, Data and Epidemiology (formerly of BC Centre for Disease Control, and the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health, where she held the Canada Research Chair in Public Health Genomics) [recorded November 2018]

3) “1918 to 2018: a hundred years of influenza pandemics”- Prof. Kanta Subbarao, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, Doherty Institute [recorded November 2018]

New infectious disease & society talks:

These new virtual lectures require registration, and are limited to 500 live participants. After the event has taken place, the talks will be added to our Mediasite catalogue, and can be accessed at any time.

1) “International frameworks for infectious disease control: past, present, and future” – Claire Standley, Assistant Research Professor, Center for Global Health Science & Security, Georgetown University Medical Center, Georgetown University [21st August at 14:00 CEST], REGISTER HERE

2) “Salmonella & Society” – Olivia Steele-Mortimer, Deputy Chief of Laboratory of Bacteriology, Chief of Salmonella-Host Cell Interactions Section, NIH Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases [8th September at 16:00 CEST], REGISTER HERE

3) “Livestock, the Global Environment, and COVID-19: a reflection on Livestock Systems before and after the Pandemic” – Alessandra Falcucci, Lead Geographic Information Systems Analyst, Global Livestock Environmental Assessment Model (GLEAM), Food & Agricultural Organisation of the UN [11th December at 11:00 CEST], REGISTER HERE

We want to hear from you!

Future Infectious Disease & Society talks will cover a variety of topics – from economics to the environment and beyond. If you have any ideas for future talks as part of this special seminar series, or have any wider feedback about the Science & Society Programme, please email me at lucia.von.bredow@embl.de.

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Towards an Era of Science Activists?

Guest author Lucia von Bredow is the EMBL Science & Society Programme Manager

June 5th is World Environment Day, and this year there is a clear message – that society should take “urgent action to protect biodiversity”[i]. But what does this mean in practice? If, like me, you feel that we are on the cusp of a sea change when it comes to talking about environmental issues, you may also spend a lot of time thinking about what on earth society can do to respond to the challenges of climate change or mass extinction.

It was, therefore, with interest that I came across the publication of the World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency[ii] (the ‘Warning’) in the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (“BioScience”), which demands that scientists give their name to a “clear and unequivocal declaration that a climate emergency exists on planet Earth”. Published exactly 40 years after the first World Climate Conference in Geneva, the Warning now has over 13,500 signatories, who commit to the principle that scientists “have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat”, and to “tell it like it is”.

The Warning not only provides us with statistics, policy suggestions and solutions, but it is a rallying cry for society (and particularly scientists!) to take action. What I find so fascinating about this initiative is that it causes us to stop and think about our role in this debate. What part could, or should we play in issues affecting the future health of planet Earth? How does one reconcile or balance individual action with national or global priorities and policy decisions?

The Science & Society Programme provides a vehicle to explore exactly these kinds of issues through an EMBL lens – we seek to provide a neutral platform for multi-disciplinary dialogue on the ethical, legal and social implications of the life sciences, and in particular, of EMBL’s research.

In fact, the Science & Society 2020 Conference, “Our House is Burning: Scientific & Societal Responses to Mass Extinction”, will specifically address the topic of biodiversity. It will consider the impact of environmental changes on biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human well-being from a societal perspective. Crucially, focus will be placed on potential solutions and types of action: from activism to political strategies, and from local grass-roots conservation groups to global youth movements. It will also evaluate the application of intervention methods, from sustainability solutions to data science and beyond. And, this year, it will take place as a virtual event, with a flat fee of 20 Euros (and free to students under 18). Click here to sign up!

The issues in our upcoming Conference are clearly topical, and the Warning itself also focuses on  ‘Nature’ as one of the six key steps for action – to “protect and restore Earth’s ecosystems”. EMBL’s activities and research also directly intersect with five of the six steps for action outlined in the Warning; Energy, Short-lived pollutants, Nature, Food and the Economy. As an organisation, it is, therefore, clear that EMBL has a part to play in this debate. The Green EMBL group was set up last year to lead EMBL’s activities in addressing its environmental impact. The group is bottom-up, and open to all EMBL scientists and staff who have an opinion, idea or desire to act to reduce the environmental impact of EMBL.

I am keen to hear from you.  Did you sign the Warning yourself? How do you view your role as a scientist in this issue, and do you consider yourself a ‘Science Activist’? If you are willing to share your view on these questions, or want to know more about the Conference or other Science & Society events, please get in touch.


[i] https://www.worldenvironmentday.global/about/biodiversity

[ii] November 5th 2019, https://scientistswarning.forestry.oregonstate.edu/sites/sw/files/climate%20emergency%20Ripple%20et%20al.pdf

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