On January 7, 2020, I wrote about a mysterious, pneumonia-causing viral illness making people sick in Wuhan, China. It was the first Gizmodo article about what eventually became known as covid-19, the second pandemic to strike humanity in the 21st century. It’s eerie to look back at those early days and weeks, when it still seemed possible that the virus wasn’t contagious between humans. Since then, the coronavirus has infected at least 77 million people and killed more than 1.7 million worldwide—both underestimates— all while leaving a deeply scarring mark across most every aspect of life in 2020.
Despite the many massive failures—from outright lies and negligence from governments to research fraud and more—there were moments that showed the best of humanity and science.
There’s much to criticize about the early response to covid-19. China in particular silenced critics who tried to bring attention to the first outbreaks in Wuhan in December 2019, while it took close to a month for health officials to acknowledge that the virus was spreading from person to person. But certain crucial information was, thankfully, widely shared by scientists in China within weeks of the first reported cases: the genetic structure of the coronavirus.
On January 10, Chinese scientists uploaded the genome of the virus now known as SARS-CoV-2 to an online database easily accessible by scientists around the world. That was one day before the first official death of the pandemic was reported. This sharing of data allowed scientists to almost immediately study the virus and find potential weapons against it. Scientists at the biotech company Moderna have said that they found the key genetic code needed to create their vaccine candidate within hours of seeing this data. Now, Moderna’s vaccine is one of two authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is already being given to the public.
There were many unknowns about the virus in the first weeks and months of the pandemic. This inevitably led to mistakes in communication, such as the initial assurances by some experts that covid-19 would be less dangerous than the flu. But even once it became apparent that covid-19 wasn’t going anywhere, one particular bit of advice continued to be repeated long after it should have been: Face masks were basically useless for the general public.
Even as far along as March, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams was still downplaying the effectiveness of masks in slowing the spread of covid-19. To be fair, at the time, the evidence for using masks to prevent transmission of similar diseases, like the original SARS, wasn’t concrete. But even then, it was still a cheap and low-risk public intervention with no serious drawbacks.
It wasn’t science that shaped early U.S. mask policy, but scarcity. As health officials like Anthony Fauci later admitted, the U.S. was worried about running out of masks for health care workers, so they essentially lied to the public about their utility. Fauci deserves plenty of credit elsewhere for trying to prevent the Trump administration from giving up on containing the pandemic, but this was undoubtedly an awful miscalculation. Later research has shown that homemade cloth masks—while not as protective as surgical or N95 masks—can indeed provide some protection as well.
Nowadays, despite the vocal anti-mask contingent in some places, most Americans do endorse wearing a mask. But it’s worth wondering if the country would have fewer cases and deaths today had we embraced masks even earlier.
For a solid few months this year, it seemed like every other covid-19 study was about hydroxychloroquine and the related drug chloroquine. These are two older drugs, long used against malaria and lupus, that had shown some promise in treating hospitalized covid-19 patients early on in the pandemic. Soon after these first reports, President Trump heralded them as “game-changers,” which immediately catapulted them to revered status among some people.
As it turned out, the initial studies of hydroxychloroquine had scientific flaws, as did the researcher at the center of them, Didier Raoult from France. More importantly, though, the follow-up research on hydroxychloroquine just didn’t pan out. The bulk of research done so far, particularly randomized and controlled clinical trials, have shown that neither have any effect on survival rates or in preventing cases when given as a prophylactic.
The snafus around hydroxychloroquine haven’t been one-sided, though. In June, a study purporting to show that hydroxychloroquine might have increased people’s risk of dying was retracted, when it emerged that the hospital data used for the analysis was fraudulent (another unrelated study, based on the same data, was also retracted around that time).
Still, while hydroxychloroquine’s potential for covid-19 absolutely needed to be studied, Trump’s endorsement has caused the drug to be touted even to this day as a supposed miracle cure. As for Raoult, he’s in the midst of defending himself against disciplinary charges that he unethically spread misinformation about hydroxychloroquine—charges brought by his fellow doctors.
Rauolt isn’t the only scientist with a spotty track record this year.
In October, a small group of scientists debuted the Great Barrington Declaration: a plea to governments around the world that most interventions to contain the pandemic should be stopped, in lieu of a “focused protection” approach that would shield the vulnerable and leave everyone else to live with the virus as normally as possible. It was the culmination of a months-long efforts to downplay the pandemic by a trio of scientists, Sunetra Gupta at the University of Oxford, Jay Bhattacharya at Stanford University, and Martin Kulldorff at Harvard University.
The Great Barrington Declaration was quickly criticized by other scientists and public health organizations for its misleading assertions. Among other things, there’s simply no way to assure that a raging pandemic wouldn’t eventually reach vulnerable people, including younger people with chronic illnesses like diabetes. And the potential harm to younger, relatively healthy people isn’t zero, either, with recent research showing that this July may have been the deadliest in modern U.S. history for people ages 25 to 44, largely thanks to the pandemic.
There’s been healthy scientific debate over many issues related to the pandemic, from the role that schools and children play in transmission to the need to treat covid-19 as an airborne disease. It’s also true that aggressive restrictions on movement and distancing have drawbacks and that any strategies to limit the spread of the pandemic have to balance the needs and concerns of the people caught up in them, such as providing funds to those who lose employment or have to temporarily close their businesses.
But the Great Barrington Declaration isn’t an honest attempt to address these risks and benefits; it’s an excuse to give up on protecting the public, which is likely why the Trump administration was the only government to explicitly consider following it. The GBD and its adherents have gotten plenty of support from fringe, vocal corners of the internet that continue to deny the seriousness of the pandemic.
More to the point, it’s completely lost its justification. We don’t have to live with this pandemic indefinitely, largely thanks to...
A scientific achievement that can’t be overstated is the mass development of vaccines this year. Though obtaining the coronavirus genome early on was pivotal to this research, it still took the efforts of thousands of scientists to put this data to good use, as well as tens of thousands of brave volunteers to test them out.
At last count, there are 70 covid-19 vaccines that have been or are going through clinical trials in people. Two similar vaccines—Pfizer/BioNTech’s candidate and Moderna’s—are the first to reach the American public.
These two candidates are all the more impressive because they’re the first publicly available vaccines based on technology that uses messenger RNA as its delivery method (that said, the research behind mRNA vaccines has existed for two decades, while human trials have shown their safety over the past decade). Still other vaccines close to the finish line may have their own advantages, such as being cheaper to mass-produce and easier to store for distribution.
Even if most of these other vaccines do not pan out, there may be valuable lessons learned for the next generation of vaccines. This crisis might also speed along vaccine research in general. Before the pandemic, the shortest time it took for a vaccine to reach completion once clinical trials began was five years (for the first approved Ebola vaccine in 2019). But even that was a big improvement over the typical 10 to 15 years of vaccine development, spurred on by the largest Ebola outbreak recorded so far that began in 2014.
If history is any judge, it won’t be long before the next pandemic or major epidemic shows up. Hopefully, we’re getting better at finding the tools needed to stop these crises faster than ever.
As tremendous as these and other scientific accomplishments this year are, we mustn’t forget the failures. Many of those who have died or been left with chronic illness as a result of covid-19 didn’t have to suffer their fate, and the aftershocks of the pandemic will reverberate for years to come. A few countries have beaten back the pandemic and generously supported their residents this whole time, such as New Zealand. But others, particularly the U.S., have failed at both protecting people from the virus and providing anything more than bread crumbs to the millions now facing sinking wages, unemployment, and/or potential homelessness in the midst of an economic downturn.
The coronavirus takes advantage of our cells’ machinery to survive and make more of itself, while the covid-19 pandemic has taken advantage of our flawed human nature to keep spreading. In doing so, it’s laid bare and deepened the cracks in our already fractured society. Time will tell whether these cracks can be mended in time for the next global calamity.