2020 was a year of disaster and a year of miracles. We’ll be living with the ripple effects of the disaster for years to come. The miracles may be overlooked. Let’s revisit one year ago: Covid-19 was in more than 170 countries and was known to have infected more than 750,000 people.
Now, in the U.S., we’re putting well over 2 million vaccine doses into human arms each day. That alone is a miracle. It began with the Chinese government releasing the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on January 11, 2020, a mere ten days after the first official cases were recorded. Scientists working on mRNA technology and all sorts of other health problems immediately pivoted to the new challenge. As the wonderful science writer Ed Yong put it, “No other disease [in human history] has been scrutinized so intensely, by so much combined intellect, in so brief a time.”
The thrill of speed: In a mere 48 hours from the release of the genome, Moderna had created a recipe for a Covid-19 vaccine. By late February, 2020, the first batches were heading for clinical trials. Operation Warp Speed injected money and urgency into that effort and those of other vaccine-makers. We learned to be more flexible, to do things fast, and to earn the public’s trust about how speed and safety could actually go hand in hand.
But how could the Chinese decode a viral genome so quickly and accurately? It was due to decades of work. As Harvard geneticist George Church told a New York Times reporter, genomic “sequencing is 10 million times cheaper and 100,000 times higher quality than it was just a few years ago.” It’s also way, way faster.
mRNA technology has been in development for over 40 years and nothing truly useful had resulted before these vaccines. I was openly skeptical a year ago that there was going to be a breakthrough. I am thrilled to be wrong. My thinking about science has expanded. My thought now is: Don’t give up! Keep going! Which is exactly what they’re doing with mRNA technology, as it might work for malaria, multiple sclerosis, the seasonal flu, and cancer. Its genius is that it can tell the body to make very specific proteins. The Covid-19 vaccine, for example, tells our bodies to make the “spike protein” related to the virus. Our bodies see these spike proteins as foreign invaders and marshal our immune systems to search and destroy the viral particles to which they are attached.
Individuals are as important as big companies and government money. We owe a debt of gratitude to scientists such as Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci, a married couple who created BioNTech in Germany and then teamed with Pfizer to create another high-efficacy vaccine. When the clinical trials data on the vaccine they created was released last November, they went home, brewed Turkish tea, and celebrated.
We can also appreciate how failures in science can foster future successes. Because of years of trying and failing to invent a successful vaccine to prevent HIV, we had knowledge that advanced the mRNA vaccine development for Covid-19 as well as viral-vector technology key to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. It took a lot of collaboration for this to happen, including the work of DARPA, the research branch of our military, which started working on mRNA technology a decade ago. It also took huge charitable organizations. Even Dolly Parton gave a million dollars to the cause.
In other good news, scientists are sharing information faster and better than ever before. We have tens of thousands of papers now published on Covid-19. The preprint website www.medRxiv.org allows scientists and the public to see papers in the pipeline that haven’t yet been through peer review. Lauren Gardner, an engineering professor at Johns Hopkins University, and one of her students created an online global dashboard to track Covid-19 cases. Ed Yong reports that after one night of work, they released it on January 22, 2020. Governments, news media, health workers, and the public depend on it.
There have been plenty of mistakes this past year, and exposure of painful layers of racial, economic, and gender inequities. But at least we’re trying to take notice and, in some cases, work on remedies.
We have work to do, the most important of which is to vaccinate the world. True safety means reaching global community (“herd”) immunity through vaccination. Public Citizen found that the Moderna vaccine can be manufactured at a massive, global scale for a little over $3 per dose. That’s just one example. Wealthy governments need to invest in this effort — for reasons of global equity and for self-protection. If we want to stop the proliferation of dangerous viral variants, we have to think big and act fast. We see the problem — the next mountain to climb — so let’s work on it. I am grateful to the scientists for their sleepless nights and endless service, and to the medical professionals who risked and gave their lives for us. Here comes summer, and at least there’s some good news.