This article of mine was pubished in The Irish Times on the last day of 2020.
The year 2020 will probably be remembered as the year of the dreadful Covid-19 virus, but it should also be remembered as a year of significant triumph for modern science. While some had predicted that a vaccine for the virus might not be found for years, several successful vaccines were in fact developed within 12 months of the first emergence of the virus.
In retrospect, the extraordinary speed of the development of a vaccine for Covid-19 can be attributed to a number of factors. The first was pressure – the devastating effects of the virus on human health and on social and economic activity gave rise to an urgent drive worldwide for a cure, with few limits on financial outlay. It seems there is much truth in the old adage that necessity is the mother of (scientific) invention.
A second factor was that researchers were working towards a clearly defined goal, using well-established research methods as a starting point. It is notable that many of the successful research teams (such as the Oxford/AstraZeneca group) were working on vaccines for similar viruses before the emergence of the pandemic.
A third factor was that the research proceeded in a co-operative fashion, using already-existing collaborative research networks between academia and the pharmaceutical industry. One of the most striking aspects of modern pharmaceutical science is the manner in which research is conducted via international collaborations between academia and industry.
One reason for this is the intense specialisation of science – in any given field, there are often only a handful of groups in each country at the forefront of research. Another reason is that the funding of pioneering research in such fields requires the deep pockets of the pharmaceutical industry.
Sadly, such a collaborative approach is rarely found in the realm of politics. Indeed, national politics reared its head as soon as the first viable vaccine for Covid-19 emerged. In the United States, citizens were treated to the spectacle of President Donald Trump declaring the discovery of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine a great success for American science and for his administration.
In the United Kingdom, several senior politicians erroneously attributed the swift approval of the vaccine by the UK regulatory authority to Brexit. The discovery of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was trumpeted as a great British triumph in many UK media outlets, with little mention of the fact that the vaccine was manufactured in Germany and distributed from Belgium.
In Russia, the Sputnik-V vaccine was distributed to the population at large before clinical trials had concluded. This approach not only presented an unnecessary risk to public health but ran the risk of undermining public confidence in the vaccine.
The confidence issue is one of particular concern to scientists and public-health officials, as widespread take-up of the vaccine is required for it to be effective in halting the spread of Covid-19. For example, a recent UK study suggested that up to 20 per cent of the UK population could be hesitant about volunteering for the vaccine; such concerns are hardly alleviated by any perceived haste in approving it.
More generally, the rise of the “anti-vaxx” movement is greatly perplexing to scientists and public health administrators. There have been many studies of the phenomenon, with links drawn to the rise of misinformation in social media. As so often, the issue appears to be one of trust. Whatever the cause, the consequences of a widespread lack of trust in scientific authority can be very serious, from climate studies to immunology.
One strand of thought is that the recent rise of the anti-vaxx movement is at least partly due to the very success of vaccination programmes. This is because it is easy to be insouciant about diseases such as polio and meningitis when the catastrophic effects of such viruses on human health are a distant memory.
If this line of reasoning is correct, we may find that take-up of the Covid-19 vaccination programme is better than expected. After all, it will be some time before any of us forget the devastating social and economic impact of this particular virus. In that case, we may look forward to 2021 as the year that the public recovered its trust in science.
Dr Cormac O’Raifeartaigh lectures in physics at Waterford Institute of Technology and blogs at antimatter.ie© 2020 irishtimes.com