Humanity has suffered from deadly diseases for millennia without fully knowing what they were, how they were transmitted, or how they could be cured. Smallpox, which killed between 300 million and 500 million people in the 20th century alone, originated in either India or Egypt at least 3,000 years ago. But it was not until the late 18th century that the English physician Edward Jenner vaccinated his first patient against the disease. It took another two centuries before smallpox was finally eradicated in 1980. Similar stories can be told about other killer diseases. The fate of humanity, our ancestors thought, fluctuated under the arbitrary influence of higher powers, and there was nothing that anyone could do about it.
Contrast that glacial pace of progress, and the fatalistic acceptance of disease and death, with our response time to the COVID-19 pandemic. On December 31, 2019, a cluster of “pneumonia” cases was first reported in Wuhan, China. On January 7, 2020, Chinese scientists identified the novel coronavirus responsible for the outbreak. And by January 12, they had sequenced its genetic code and made the data publicly available. That enabled the rest of the world to devise diagnostic tests for the disease. For example, after South Korea identified its first COVID-19 infection on January 20, biotech companies rushed to produce test kits. The kits were available at 50 locations around the country by February 7.
By mid‐April, thousands of researchers throughout the world were using digital and biomedical technologies to pursue promising paths toward victory over the disease. Some 200 different programs were underway to develop therapies and vaccines to combat the pandemic. On December 2, 2020, the United Kingdom became the first country to authorize the use of a vaccine against the virus. The vaccine was developed by the American Pfizer Corporation and the German BioNTech company. The vaccine, which is 90 percent effective, contains “messenger RNA” that COVID-19 uses to construct the proteins that let the virus infect human cells. The injected mRNA tricks the body into making these “spike proteins,” which then induce the immune system to produce antibodies. The antibodies then bind themselves onto attacking viruses, disabling them or marking them for death by other parts of the immune system.
Modern medicine has enabled humanity to eradicate, nearly eradicate, or otherwise limit the spread of various diseases, including cholera, diphtheria, measles, rubella, and typhoid. Unlike previous vaccines, which tended to use a weaker form of the virus to protect the recipients, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine uses the body itself to achieve the same result. The technology possibly marks the beginning of a new era of speedy development of highly effective vaccines that will protect humanity for decades to come. Less than 12 months separate the discovery of COVID-19 and the production of an effective life‐saving vaccine. This modern miracle is a testament to human ingenuity. It should fill us with gratitude and rational optimism about humanity’s future.