A triumph for science — and immigration
This is the editor's letter in the The Week magazine.
A month before the first American died of the coronavirus, scientists already had designed the vaccine. In a Massachusetts lab last Jan. 13, Moderna researchers used the genetic sequence of the virus, made public by China, to design an mRNA molecule that teaches the immune system to recognize and neutralize it. By February, their vaccine had actually been made and shipped to the National Institutes of Health to start clinical trials. This largely unknown time line shows that while development of coronavirus vaccines was astonishingly rapid, approval of them was painstaking: More than 300,000 Americans died and 16 million were infected while a nearly miraculous solution underwent testing and approval. "For the entire span of the pandemic in this country," David Wallace-Wells said last week in New York magazine, "we had the tools to prevent it." But for sound reasons of safety and ethics, science and government did not authorize their use — until now.
In this darkest winter in recent history, the vaccines promise a spring. They are a triumph of the Enlightenment values of science, reason, and evidence — all now under assault in a new Dark Ages in which demagogues and conspiracy theorists spread disinformation and distrust. Despite various attempts to claim credit, the vaccines would not exist without international cooperation. Moderna's vaccine employs technology created by Hungarian-born scientist Katalin Kariko, and the company is run by a team of researchers and entrepreneurs from around the world. The Pfizer vaccine was created by second-generation Turkish immigrants to Germany, Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci, and has been pushed past the finish line by company CEO Albert Bourla, an immigrant from Greece. The pandemic of 2020 will not be the last crisis endangering humanity. What we've relearned in this traumatic year is that all we hold dear is fragile, and that science, community, and empathy light the road forward.