Countries benefit when they learn from each other

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Roman Stocker, member of the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force, explains why it is so important in this pandemic that experts exchange information across national borders.

SARS-CoV-2 has spread around the world. However, the course of the pandemic and how individual countries deal with it differ. In a sense, the pandemic could thus be seen as a huge (and unfortunate) scientific experiment repeated dozens of times, with variations. A wealth of information is inherent in this repetition. Individual countries should take advantage from this by sharing information and learning from each other.

The experiences of other countries provide a reservoir of potential solutions that we can evaluate against the needs and realities of our own country. The pace of this pandemic has time and again required decisions to be taken before scientific studies are conclusive, when they are even possible. Should masks be worn? Schools be closed? Are aerosols dangerous? Is mass testing beneficial? It is precisely in such situations, when countries have to make decisions in the face of great uncertainty, that learning from each other is one powerful asset.

Overcoming cultural distances

This is not always easy. Sometimes differences in political systems, norms and beliefs are too great. This is the case of contact-tracing measures adopted in some Asian countries, considered excessively privacy-infringing in the Western world. On other aspects, instead, learning from each other has been hampered by a cultural distance that is more apparent than real. Early in this pandemic, some Asian countries - primed by the SARS epidemic of 2002 - alerted the world about the benefits of mask wearing. The Western world reacted with skepticism and delay, yet barely a few months later masks became universally recognized as fundamental to combating the pandemic.

The belief of being able to do better than others has proven to be a further impediment for learning from each other. The early view of some countries that they would be "immune" to the pandemic is as bizarre as it was damaging. The opposite can be said for countries like Taiwan, New Zealand and Greece, which were swift to learn from the events in other countries and acted decisively on this knowledge.

In the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force, of which I lead the International Exchange group, we have continuously sought exchange with our international counterparts. In the earliest days after the pandemic reached Europe, we heard dramatic firsthand accounts from leading healthcare officials in Northern Italy, and learned about the importance of adequate protection for healthcare personnel. Over the ensuing months, we held bilateral exchanges with South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Austria and France, and regular calls among scientific advisors from nearly 20 countries. Through these connections we exchanged a wealth of knowledge, which has informed our analyses and our advice to the authorities and the population.

The example of mass testing

For some topics, what we have learned appears obvious in hindsight, such as the benefit of masks. For other topics, we are still learning. Take, for example, the topic of mass testing. There is debate on whether the epidemiological benefits of testing a country’s or region’s entire population justify the logistical efforts.

Conclusive scientific evidence on its efficacy will not be available for some time, yet some countries have moved forward with mass testing. How? By learning from the experience of other countries: the choice of testing kit, the logistics of testing so many people at once, the communication strategies to ensure buy-in from the population, and how to deal with the cases in which tests fail to detect infected persons (’false negative’).

Being open to the solutions of others

Slovakia was the first European country to mass-test its population, yet was unable to substantially curb the epidemic, likely due to the handling of false negative cases. South Tyrol learned from Slovakia, by ensuring that also people tested negative had minimal contacts for one week following the testing, and was able to bring down case numbers substantially. Austria sent a scientific delegation to study South Tyrol’s testing and design their own testing campaign, augmented by repeated testing in high prevalence regions. Learning from our neighbors may provide very valuable in case mass testing were to be considered in Switzerland.

Remaining closely connected and open to the solutions implemented by other countries is an effective way to evaluate strategies to deal with threats. This applies not only to this pandemic, but equally to other societal challenges such as increasing antibiotic resistance and climate change. In facing these threats, we should try to look beyond differences and cherish the privilege of having the opportunity to learn from each other.

The Zukunftsblog is nominated for the "Science Blog of the year 2020":

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Prof. Roman Stocker