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Lockdown One Year On: The Year Science Took The Spotlight

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Lockdown One Year On: The Year Science Took The Spotlight

While most of us were perfecting viral TikTok dances or baking banana bread, the world's top scientists were busy developing brand new technology in the fight against Covid-19.

As virologists jumped into gear to make sense of the novel coronavirus and how it functions, and epidemiologists tried to find out how and why the virus was spreading, biomedical scientists were working furiously to produce a vaccine - not only doing so faster than ever before, but also getting sign-off for a crucial innovation known as Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines.

While many traditional vaccines involve deliberately putting a weakened or inactivated virus into our bodies, mRNA vaccines can be made quickly using only the pathogen's genetic code.

Dr Nicholas Kitchin, Senior Director in Pfizer's Vaccine Clinical Research and Development Group, explained: "These vaccines work by introducing into the body a messenger RNA (mRNA) sequence.

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"mRNA contains genetic instructions for the vaccinated person's own fighter cells to build immunity against the COVID-19 virus. It does this by enabling the person's body to produce coronavirus protein spikes. In response to this, the body creates antibodies to fight the infection."

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is one of several mRNA vaccines that have been developed. Credit: PA
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is one of several mRNA vaccines that have been developed. Credit: PA

Chris Smith, a medical consultant specialising in clinical microbiology and virology at Cambridge University and its teaching hospital, Addenbrooke's, believes this cutting edge technology cannot be celebrated enough, saying it marks a 'massive step forward'.

Smith, who also presents the Naked Scientists podcast, told LADbible: "The vaccine that's been developed by Pfizer and Moderna - these so-called mRNA vaccines - that's brand new technology.

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"Although it had been being developed for about a decade or more, no one had ever managed to deploy it, and do it at the sort of scale we're doing it and doing safely. So the fact they've got this, it's a huge contribution to vaccine efforts worldwide, because you'll be able to redeploy the same technology against so many different things around the world, including possibly flu, in the future."

Explaining that the new vaccines are incredibly 'agile', as the 'discrete genomic approach' means they can be made quickly and at huge scale, he added: "In terms of future proofing healthcare, that is a major contribution that can't really be shouted about loudly enough."

Smith also believes the pandemic has forced many people to 'reevaluate', not only in terms of our approach to societal aspects like home working or juggling childcare, but also in their attitudes towards the value of science.

Chris Smith
Chris Smith
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This year, the prestigious Wolfson Economics Prize is challenging people to explore hospital planning and design, asking: 'How would you design and plan new hospitals to radically improve patient experiences, clinical outcomes, staff wellbeing and integration with wider health and social care?'

Rt Hon Professor Lord Kakkar, Chair of the Wolfson Economics Prize 2021 Judging Panel, said in a statement: "Health systems are increasingly treating older, frailer patients with complex needs. But we have new technologies, diagnostics and health data that are dramatically improving the care they receive.

"The hospital will continue to play a critical role in providing this care. We are hoping to see visionary ideas - from questions around how wards are run to the design of a whole hospital campus - which challenge the status quo and are deliverable at pace and scale."

This, Smith argues, is a clear sign that the world is ready to invest more of its time, energy and, crucially, money into science.

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He continued: "The government is looking at how we do healthcare and why our healthcare systems are failing under pressure, particularly when we get pandemics like this. And it's that sort of stimulus that is enabling people or making the case for why we need to invest hard, and really bring our hospitals into not just this decade, but this century.

Credit: PA
Credit: PA

"We're really playing around with formatting that Florence Nightingale would have been proud of, and that was a long time ago. We really do need to update things.

"This is a help, as it were, to encourage us to take that bold, very expensive step, but one that will future-proof healthcare. So there are a range of things that have happened that would never have happened were it not for this."

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The public's perception has changed drastically, too, with many of us finding that we've been more engaged in science than we ever have been.

We've gradually seen it seep into the mainstream as terms like 'R-rate' and 'social distancing' slip into our daily language - with leading figures like Chris Whitty, Jonathan Van Tam and Sir Patrick Vallance becoming huge household names overnight by decoding the pandemic on daily national TV briefings.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Jonathan Van Tam. Credit: PA
Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Jonathan Van Tam. Credit: PA

Scientists working behind the scenes on the vaccine have also been thrust into the limelight, enjoying something of a celebrity status as society's new heroes.

Kitchin continued: "Vaccine research was always considered quite niche, and somewhat taken for granted with routine flu and travel vaccinations. Now, I think, more than ever, there is greater appreciation for the important role of life saving vaccines, the work of scientists, and the pharmaceutical industry in ensuring a healthy world.

"Our common enemy throughout the pandemic has been the virus, and we have always believed that through scientific rigour, we would give ourselves the best chance to find an effective vaccine. We are delighted that this day is now here."

An opinion poll from last year found that our trust for scientists has also grown, with the results from more than 1,000 respondents showing that it had risen significantly thanks to the pandemic.

The Survation poll, conducted in April by an open data campaign group called Open Knowledge Foundation, found that 64 percent of people were now more likely to listen to expert advice from scientists and researchers, compared to just five percent saying they were less likely to.

Over half of those asked (51 percent) also said they had seen fake news about coronavirus on social media, including false claims that the virus had linked to 5G mobile phone masts.

But while the technological breakthroughs and changing attitudes deserve to be celebrated, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the pandemic still has 'a long way to run'.

Credit: PA
Credit: PA

In a statement provided to LADbible, WHO said: "The scientific community has set a new standard for vaccine development, with no vaccine in history being developed as rapidly. It is now up to governments around the world to set a new standard for access."

WHO said that safe and effective vaccines are a 'gamechanger', but also foresees that in the next year we will be facing a 'scarcity of manufacturing capacity and production', having launched the Covid-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) alongside the President of Costa Rica to increase the sharing of knowledge and scientific information, and to pool patents and licenses.

The organisation added: "Covid-19 cannot be beaten one country at a time: the epidemiology shows that no country will be safe from the fallout of the pandemic until all countries are protected.

"The fact that numerous countries have had measles outbreaks and even lost their measles elimination status in the recent past, despite having extremely high vaccination rates shows that national coverage is not enough - it has to be achieved in every community and every family."

Featured Image Credit: PA

Topics: Coronavirus

Jess Hardiman
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