In January 2021, we’re a long way from declaring the COVID-19 pandemic over. We’ve been living through great sadness, fear, and turmoil. That cannot and should not be minimized. However, it should also not hide the superhuman accomplishments of researchers worldwide. It’s worth a moment to acknowledge the breathtaking accomplishments of medical science.
This is pharma’s Manhattan Project. Our Apollo program. Everything on the line; all hands on deck.
The rapid vaccine development has been headlined as a “miracle.” But as Kathrin Jansen, head of vaccine research and development at Pfizer, told 60 Minutes, “We can call it a miracle. But a miracle always has a sense of ‘it just happened.’ It didn’t ‘just happen.’ It was something that was deliberate, with passion and urgency … We are scientists. That’s what we do for a living every day.”
Thousands of researchers at hundreds of organizations in dozens of countries have been hard at work. As COVID-19 superstar reporter Ed Yong of the Atlantic notes this month, within a year PubMed gained “more than 74,000 COVID-related scientific papers—more than twice as many as there are about polio, measles, cholera, dengue, or other diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries.”
Within a year, PubMed gained “more than 74,000 COVID-related scientific papers—more than twice as many as there are about polio, measles, cholera, dengue, or other diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries.”
From the afternoon of January 3 to the early morning of January 5, 2021, Professor Zhang Yongzhen and his team at the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Centre did the critical work of decoding the RNA of the coronavirus.
The work of those two days kickstarted the world, including, of course, the researchers behind the two U.S.-approved vaccines:
- In Mainz, Germany, the company BioNTech, led by Özlem Türeci and her partner Uğur Şahin, backed by Pfizer and the German government
- In Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Bethesda, Maryland, Moderna, with the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a team led by Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett
As Stephen Griffin of Leeds University Medical School said, quoted in the Guardian: “The amazing progress in advancing a vaccine through to use in humans surely sets a new standard for what can be achieved when sufficient resource and scientific focus is applied to global health.”
Soon enough, COVID-19 will be the stuff of blockbusters and bestsellers, full of cliffhangers and drama. Right now, we’re living it, which is less comfortable: This year, nine-tenths of the world was living in a country with partially or fully closed borders. Four in ten U.S. adults said that they, or someone in their household, had taken a pay cut or lost their job. And more than half of Americans personally know someone who has been hospitalized or died from COVID-19.
Distribution of the vaccine is currently falling far behind projections, and the vaccinations that are happening are disproportionately going to white recipients. The logistical challenge of distribution is the next challenge ahead, and we can only hope that it will be met with the same alacrity and power as the scientific one.
As the saying goes, “may you live in interesting times” should have been an ancient curse. These interesting times are not easy. But the accomplishments of pharmaceutical researchers have not been easy. And they’ve been achieved. As we continue to do hard things, we can take heart in knowing that we are each a small part of a field that can do so much.