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Column: What COVID-19 taught us about science this year

Durham faith-based advocacy group La Semilla holds refugee vaccination event
A vaccine is administered at La Semilla's Raleigh vaccination event, Feb. 20, 2021.

In January of 2020, I was writing about everything science-related for the Editorial Board. At the time, news had broken about a novel virus taking a large city in China by storm. I pitched a piece about its relevance, did some research about this “coronavirus" and had even said in my last paragraph:

“The likelihood of catching the virus in Chapel Hill is something that we wouldn’t personally place bets on.”

It’s embarrassing to look back on, but even with another year under my belt, I can’t say that I would have written it any differently. It’s hard to remember how unfamiliar the virus was; at the time, Chapel Hill felt untouchable. 

Things unraveled quickly in the next several months, with a case being identified in Raleigh not even a week after the editorial was published, and the virus was eventually proclaimed to be a global health crisis.

After millions of deaths and hospitalizations, it would be difficult to suggest that the virus has had any positive impact. However, COVID-19 has radically impacted and revealed things about science in many ways this year. 

Here are just a few things that we have learned:

The versatility of biomedical research

Following the initial uptick in cases, most scientific research was halted to assess whether or not faculty could safely continue working. During this time, journal publishers saw over a 50 percent increase in submissions, and there was a similar increase in preprints (articles posted online prior to the lengthy peer-review process). 

Over four percent of all these articles were on COVID-19, from the initial assessment of the virus to its impact on other conditions. The rise in science being published and shared was astronomical. 

Additionally, many laboratories, such as Jennifer Doudna’s lab at UC Berkeley, converted their research to integrate COVID-19. Doudna is well-known for her laboratory’s discovery of CRISPR, a popular gene-editing tool. 

In March, she and her colleagues moved their research from further developing the tool to studying CRISPR-based diagnostic tests for the virus. 

Other laboratories implemented tools that they had previously developed, such as online dashboards to map the virus, to study COVID-19. Many applied researchers in the biomedical sciences had to find a way to integrate the virus into their own studies, which propelled our understanding of the pandemic.

Vaccine and biotechnology development

Within weeks of the virus taking hold of the globe, researchers had developed and put out diagnostic tests to detect COVID-19. But biotechnology developments didn’t stop there: antibody tests have been produced and improved, antiviral drugs have been developed and medical technologies, such as ventilators, have been in constant need in overflowing ICUs. The pandemic has propelled the biotechnology industry, initiating discovery programs that will eventually help prevent any pandemic that may arise in the future.

In conjunction, the rapid development of vaccines in the light of the virus marked one of the most collaborative efforts to date among researchers and biotechnology companies. It signified the introduction of mRNA vaccines, a tool that hadn’t been pushed to production until this year, to safely vaccinate individuals without requiring vaccine material in each dose. 

This has huge implications for what drug development will likely look like in the future for any new (or existing) virus.

Racial disparities in medicine and health treatments

While disparities across racial and socioeconomic groups have long been present in our health care system, COVID-19 only exacerbated the issue. People from racial and ethnic minority groups are disproportionately affected by a lack of access to quality health care and health insurance. 

This can be directly seen in the rate of Black deaths from COVID-19 being almost twice that for white individuals. In addition to African Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native populations are also at a higher risk for COVID-19. For example, almost a third of the nurses who have died of coronavirus in the U.S. are Filipino — yet Filipino nurses make up just four percent of the nursing population.

The inaccessibility to health care became apparent during the pandemic, and it’s something science is responsible for identifying through statistical research and resolving through public health initiatives. 

May it be pledging to open vaccine distribution centers in underserved communities or making an effort to retain more people of color in higher education and research, it’s an effort that was emphasized this year and will continue to be for the next several years.

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