The scientific breakthrough of 2020: Understanding COVID-19 – and then developing multiple vaccines.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, has killed approximately 2.2% of those worldwide who are known to have contracted it. But the situation could be a lot worse without modern medicine and science.
The last such global scourge was the influenza pandemic of 1918, which is estimated to have killed 50 million people at a time when there was no internet or easy access to long-distance telephones to disseminate information. Science was limited, which made it difficult to identify the cause and initiate vaccine development. The world is 100% more prepared for the current pandemic than it was 100 years ago. However, it has still affected our lives profoundly.
I am a physician scientist who specializes in the study of viruses and runs a microbiology laboratory that tests for SARS-CoV-2 infections. I’ve seen firsthand patients with severe COVID-19 illness and have dedicated myself to developing diagnostics for this disease. It’s a remarkable testament to science that a novel disease-causing virus has been discovered, the genetic material completely decoded, new therapies created to fight it and multiple safe and effective vaccines developed all within the span of a year – an accomplishment that the journal Science has pegged the breakthrough of 2020.
SARS-CoV-2 has evolved two separate qualities that allow it to spread more easily. First, it has an enormous potential for triggering asymptomatic infections, in which the virus infects carriers who don’t experience symptoms and may never know they are infected and transmitting the virus to others.
The development of multiple vaccines against the virus that causes COVID-19 has been hailed as the breakthrough of 2020. But there were many more supporting discoveries that made this possible.
Science aids diagnostics
Many tests for the virus are performed using PCR, which is short for polymerase chain reaction. This method uses specialized proteins and virus-matching DNA sequences called primers to create more copies of the virus. These additional copies allow PCR machines to detect the presence of the virus; doctors can then tell you if you are infected. Because of the availability of the virus’s genome sequence, any researcher can design primers that match the virus to develop a diagnostic test.
Treatments for infectious diseases often evolve over time. There is no vaccine yet for hepatitis C, but over recent years treatments have evolved from those that make you very ill to those that are highly efficacious with few side effects.
We are now seeing similar things in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, just on an accelerated timeline. With the aid of clinical studies, we now have treatments such as steroids, antiviral medications like Remdesivir and infusions of antibodies. Physicians also know how to alter a patient’s position in ways that increase the chance of survival.
It’s a remarkable testament to science that a novel disease-causing virus has been discovered, the genetic material completely decoded, new therapies created to fight it and multiple safe and effective vaccines developed all within the span of a year – an accomplishment that the journal Science has pegged the breakthrough of 2020.
Vaccine development could end pandemic
This pandemic could end if the virus swept through the population killing millions but leaving the survivors with natural immunity. More likely the virus will snuff itself out when most of the population has been vaccinated with a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. That is especially true in parts of the world where frequent testing and public health strategies are difficult to implement.
Governments across the world have partnered with private companies to expedite the development of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines. This has led to multiple different companies developing their own different versions of vaccines. Normally, these take years to develop; however, by leveraging recent successes and accumulated knowledge, the timeline was accelerated significantly. Normally, new vaccines go through phase 1 (safety), phase 2 (efficacy) and phase 3 (comparison) trials, but as demonstrated in the current trials, phases 2 and 3 can be combined for expediency. And large-scale manufacturing can begin when the vaccine is still in trials, potentially cutting years off the timeline.
echnology is at the forefront of the development of these vaccines. Some of the coronavirus vaccines take advantage of mRNA technology, which essentially programs our cells to develop immune responses against SARS-CoV-2.
Others use viruses as delivery mechanisms for SARS-CoV-2 proteins to which your body develops an immune response. Both types have thus far been shown to be effective, but long-term safety will remain controversial when vaccines are developed on such an expedited timeline.
This disease, which began in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, and was first diagnosed in either November or December of 2019, is the perfect illustration of just how rapidly viruses spread in a connected world. We got previews of what could happen from the recent outbreaks of Ebolaand Zika virus, but the spread of SARS-CoV-2 has been on a different level. It has underscored that when we receive warnings about contagious viruses, rapid and decisive action must be taken in all parts of the world to reduce its spread.