I walked out of the vaccination center into a cold January afternoon after receiving the first of two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. As a physician practicing pediatric radiation oncology, medical historian and health sciences educator, I stopped and thought: “I have just participated in an event unprecedented in human and medical history.”
It is 13 ½ months since the World Health Organization was told about a new human viral disease occurring in Wuhan, China. It is 13 months since Chinese scientists publicly reported the genetic sequence of that virus. Multiple scientific teams throughout the world have created vaccines for the virus that are continuing to be clinically tested in large-scale human clinical trials, enormous quantities of that vaccine have manufactured and delivered to vaccination sites, and I was just injected with a dose of one of them. Never before in the history of human medicine has anything of this scope and scale been accomplished in so short a time period. I am fortunate to have lived to see it happen.
There has been no shortage of finger-pointing about how government officials globally have mismanaged this pandemic. Enormous numbers of people have died or been desperately sick as a result of COVID-19 infections. Economies have ground to a halt. The education of a generation of children has been interrupted. The distribution of vaccines has often been poor. But let’s give credit where credit is due. The full force of biomedical science has been brought to bear in opposition to a fearsome viral predator and, in addition to masks, social distancing and hand washing, a preventive biological therapy has been created, tested and put into use, in an extraordinarily short time.
Think about the COVID-19 vaccines in their historical context. It took decades for medical science to develop practical anesthesia for the conquest of surgical pain; antiseptic and aseptic surgery; radiation therapy and chemotherapy against cancer; as well as an understanding of the effects of tobacco use or high levels of cholesterol on human health. In the war against infectious disease, it took decades and in some cases centuries to achieve the eradication of smallpox, reduction in the incidence of polio, the development of effective treatment for AIDS and the control of measles, mumps, rubella and tetanus, in an economically developed world.
We can attribute the success of this vaccine effort to several factors. The first is science’s lack of interest in borders. Scientific truth knows no national boundaries. The willingness of scientists to share information irrespective of their nationality is crucial. Second, we are the beneficiaries of a powerful academic medical infrastructure. The generation of knowledge driven by government-funded research at medical schools and other institutions was essential to the creation of a knowledge base that permitted the development of the vaccines. Third, the research, clinical testing and manufacturing capabilities of multinational pharmaceutical companies in partnership with academic researchers laid the groundwork for creation of the vaccines. Finally, in the U.S., great credit is due to those physicians who remained true to their professional oaths and let science guide their decisions about the vaccine rather than pressure from political hacks.
The battle is far from over. In the coming months, we will learn how long the immunity created by the current group of vaccines will last. We also await the clinical trial results and distribution of effective single-dose, as compared to two-dose, vaccines. As the coronavirus inevitably continues to mutate, science may have to engage in a “cat and mouse game” to vaccinate us against new viral strains. The logistical lessons we have learned about the conduct of mass population vaccination will, one hopes, persuade our politicians to invest in an adequate public health infrastructure to protect their constituents.
We still have our work cut out for us. Fearmongers will prey upon people and oppose vaccination. Technology Luddites will try to throw up barriers. Under the guise of defending individual liberties. The selfish will oppose mask-wearing and act as if reopening the economy is the priority over health. Unfortunately, there are too many people who think that corporate profits are more important than human lives. Health disparities remain a persistent problem—the death toll of the pandemic among people of color is higher while their access to the vaccines is lower. (A personal observation: I couldn’t help noticing that nearly 100% of the workers who processed my check-in for the vaccine were Black while more than 90% of the people waiting in line to be vaccinated were white).
Nonetheless, what I experienced makes a person want to pause, take stock and give thanks. If you believe in miracles, then we have witnessed one in the creation of the COVID-19 vaccines. If you believe in the power of human reason, then you have seen how humans united in purpose can achieve miraculous things.