Science goes on during Covid-19

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Covid-19 has resulted in many aspects of life coming to a halt over the past year, with businesses facing forced closures, time outside of our houses being limited and social interaction being greatly reduced. However, the nature of the virus with its ‘crown’ of spike proteins (hence the name corona that was widely used initially) and unique array of symptoms has led to advancements in many areas of science, from vaccine development to public health. What advancements can we expect to see in the near future that can be directly attributed to the infamous virus?

The efficiency of the production of the large number of vaccines now available around the world for a virus first reported on in December 2019 is ground-breaking. Vaccines usually take around 10-15 years to go through all stages of development, testing, and approval. To shorten the process by such a vast amount required a high level of collaboration globally as well as a lot of funding. One notable advancement from this mass vaccine production has been RNA vaccine use, something that was developed in 2012 but there were not enough resources to manufacture them on a large scale.

To shorten the process by such a vast amount required a high level of collaboration globally as well as a lot of funding

By contrast, two of the vaccines now available in the UK, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, use this technology and millions of doses have been given worldwide. These vaccines work by providing the genetic sequence for the virus’ proteins, allowing the body to initiate an immune response without a live virus present. This proves promising for viruses such as HIV or the flu. Due to antigenic variation, these viruses have, in the past, been difficult to develop a vaccine for, but due to the ability to tailor RNA vaccines to multiple antigens (typically surface proteins of the virus), this may now change.

However, currently, two doses of the RNA vaccines are required for a highly effective immune response but some may refuse the second dose with the understanding that they have at least developed some sort of an immune response. This could, in turn, allow a virus to continue spreading and mutating. Research is being done to produce the same response from a smaller dose and with easier storage.

Another, perhaps overlooked, advancement comes in the form of technology use in public health. This is utilised in areas such as test and trace, surveillance in some countries, and communication of guidelines and information with the public. In the modern-day, it is hard to imagine a pandemic without technology and the ability to communicate with loved ones so easily, a luxury those living through the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic were not afforded.

One notable advancement from this mass vaccine production has been RNA vaccine use

However, methods of outbreak control have been seen for centuries, such as during the great plague where quarantine and case identification as well as public communication were prioritised. The difference now comes in the form of the development of apps such as the ‘NHS COVID-19’ app, allowing identification of close contacts using Bluetooth meaning those who were not aware of being in close contact (for example those who do not know the infected person) are still advised to quarantine.

The UK test and trace system has proved controversial, with its’ effectiveness widely debated following reports that some of those in contact with an infected person were not notified until after what would have been the isolation period was over. This has perhaps highlighted the shortcomings of our ability to utilise modern-day communication systems; with the world changing so quickly was there a better way to reach such a large number of people?

South Korea is an example of a country that has used a well-structured system to successfully keep cases low for the majority of the pandemic after facing multiple epidemics in recent years thus being very well prepared. Along with widespread testing from the outset, text messages alerting the public were sent to the entire population who had phones using the cellular broadcasting service that continued throughout with new cases and hot spots. Additionally, information about the whereabouts and place of infection for each case was posted online, a move that others around the world disagree with but has no doubt worked, nonetheless. This could inspire a different method of tackling potential viruses in the future.

This has perhaps highlighted the shortcomings of our ability to utilise modern-day communication systems

Covid-19 has also led to better systems for disseminating data according to James Wilsdon, a professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield. This is what allowed for such vast international collaboration and the rapid production of potential treatments and preventatives for the virus. If this is maintained in the science world in the coming years as Covid-19 cases hopefully begin to fall globally and vaccines are more widely available to countries with less money, perhaps we will see advancements in science that have puzzled the community for generations; science may become more collaborative rather than individualistic which surely can only be advantageous.

Image: Alachua County via Flickr

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