December 22nd. The Economic News Network of Buenos Aires, Argentina, published an article entitled “Science 2020: A Special Year marked by COVID-19” on December 19, which pointed out that the dominant event in 2020 is: a previously unknown deadly virus.
It caused serious damage worldwide, killing more than 1.5 million people and triggering an economic crisis. In an article published in the British weekly Nature, the researchers warned that although there are other newsworthy scientific developments in 2020, the virus pandemic largely marks the scientific process of the year. The full text is excerpted as follows:
The spread of COVID-19 is no faster than the development of scientific new knowledge. Almost as COVID-19 was discovered, some research teams around the world began to study its biological characteristics, while others conducted diagnostic tests or studied public health measures to control its spread. Scientists also quickly found a cure and developed a vaccine that could control the pandemic.
“We have never made such rapid progress in dealing with other infectious diseases,” said Theodora Haziyoannu, a virologist at Rockefeller University in the United States.
In-depth investigation of the cause
Less than a month after reports that a mysterious respiratory disease was invading Wuhan, China, researchers in China identified the cause: a novel coronavirus, later known as SARS-CoV-2. In early January, a Chinese-Australian research team published the genetic sequence of the virus online. Soon after, scientists made another key and shocking discovery: the virus can spread from person to person.
In February this year, researchers found that the virus can attach to a receptor called ACE2. ACE2 is a protein that exists on the cell surface of many organs, including the lungs and intestines.
A large number of targets can help explain a series of devastating symptoms of COVID-19, ranging from pneumonia to diarrhea and stroke. The virus captures ACE2 at least 10 times as strong as SARS-CoV, the coronavirus that caused the outbreak of deadly respiratory diseases (i.e. severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003. Scientists believe that this can partly explain the high infectivity of SARS-CoV-2.
In March, some scientists pointed out that aerosol particles carrying the virus that can float in the air for a long time play a significant role in the spread of the virus.
But not all researchers agree with this, and some governments and public health organizations have spent months looking for evidence of the way the virus spreads. Researchers also learned that people with the virus can spread the disease before symptoms appear.
Perhaps the biggest mystery surrounding the biological characteristics of COVID-19 is its source. There is evidence that it originated from bats and may be transmitted to humans through intermediate animals. Several animals are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, including cats and mink. In September, the World Health Organization formed a scientific research team to investigate the animal origin of the virus.
Efforts to control the pandemic
From the early days of the viral pandemic, epidemiologists quickly developed models to predict the spread of the virus and proposed public health measures that could help control the epidemic. In the absence of vaccines or therapeutic drugs, government officials around the world rely on so-called non-drug interventions, such as closing public places.
However, the economic impact of the lockdown measures was rapid and severe, leading many countries to reopen public places before the spread of the virus was contained.
Uncertainty about whether the virus can be transmitted through the air in the early days of the pandemic has sparked debate about the benefits of wearing masks. This debate has been politicized, especially in the United States. At the same time, conspiracy theories, misinformation and one-sided scientific views are spreading almost like viruses, including discussions of the idea of letting the virus die without controlling it.
Epidemiologists warn that large-scale SARS-CoV-2 virus testing is the way out of the crisis. However, in many countries and regions, there is a lack of kits and reagents for standard testing.
This prompted research teams around the world to start developing new rapid testing methods, including CRISPR gene editing tools and rapid antigen testing methods.
Countries and regions such as Vietnam and Thailand that controlled the spread of the virus in the early days used a combination of methods, including complete closure, comprehensive testing, and digital tracking of case contacts.
In Singapore, New Zealand and Iceland, active testing and tracing procedures combined with strict quarantine measures have almost completely eliminated the virus and brought social life to normal.
But in many countries, officials are slow to act and ignore scientific advice. As a result, the increase in the number of infections led to a second wave of epidemics. In the United States and Western Europe, viral infections and deaths are now on the rise again.
Rapid development of vaccines
In the chaos, a landmark scientific effort has given mankind a vaccine against this new disease in less than a year. The speed of development and testing of the COVID-19 vaccine is amazing. According to the latest statistics in November this year, WHO said that more than 200 vaccine projects are under development, of which about 50 are at different stages of clinical trials.
Researchers have used a variety of methods to develop vaccines, ranging from old chemically inactivated virus technologies to new technologies that have never been used in vaccine development.
The results of large-scale efficacy tests show that vaccines developed by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and German Biotech Company in the United States, vaccines developed by Modena Company in the United States, and vaccines developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals in the United Kingdom can effectively prevent COVID-19.
Last month, regulators in the United Kingdom and the United States urgently approved the Pfizer vaccine to allow its wide use, and EU regulators are expected to make the same decision in the coming weeks. The vaccine developed by Russia has also been approved.
Pfizer and Modena’s vaccines can achieve about 95% effectiveness in preventing COVID-19, while the efficacy of the Oxford vaccine is uncertain.
There are still some important questions: to what extent can vaccines prevent this serious disease, especially among the elderly? How long can the protective effect of vaccine last? And scientists don’t know whether vaccines can stop the spread of viruses from person to person, and many vaccines against other diseases cannot do so.
In order for the coronavirus vaccine to work, they must be delivered to those who need it most. Rich countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, EU member states and Japan, have purchased billions of doses of multiple vaccines in advance.
Efforts to buy vaccines for low- and middle-income countries have received support from many rich countries, especially the United States, but it is not sure whether it will succeed.
There are many obstacles to the production and distribution of vaccines. For example, Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored and transported at minus 70 degrees Celsius, which will cause difficulties for countries and regions that do not have standard refrigeration infrastructure.