As Thanksgiving approaches, it can be easy to feel as though in a year like 2020 there is little reason to be thankful. The world is in the midst of a pandemic, and many families will not be spending the holiday together as they practice social distancing. Although your Thanksgiving holiday may look rather different this year from years past, there are still reasons for gratitude. Those include record-breaking progress in COVID-19 treatment and vaccine development.
As I write these words, multiple vaccine candidates for COVID-19 are fast-approaching the “finish line.” The two frontrunners are produced by Pfizer and BioNTech, and Moderna, respectively. Both use cutting-edge RNA technology, never before used in a vaccine for public use. Both seem to be about 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19. The Moderna vaccine can be stored at the temperature of a standard refrigerator, while the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires much colder temperatures.
Yet another candidate, the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, appears to be 90 percent effective and requires normal refrigeration levels. Dozens of other promising vaccine candidates are also being developed, although they are in earlier trial phases. There is, in other words, a strong possibility that a proven COVID-19 vaccine could be available to the general public as soon as next spring or summer.
The period between the appearance of a new deadly virus and the creation of an effective vaccine against it has grown shorter. Even so, the speed with which researchers are developing a COVID-19 vaccine is unprecedented.
Consider a long-term historical perspective. Deadly infectious diseases have been with humanity since the beginning. Polio, for example, has plagued the species for thousands of years, with depictions of people crippled by the disease appearing in ancient Egypt. Most patients develop symptoms resembling the flu, but in around one percent of cases, the illness results in permanent paralysis of the spinal cord and an inability to walk. In some instances, victims lose even the ability to breathe unassisted.
Throughout most of history, the disease and the suffering it caused were unremarkable—an unfortunate but ordinary occurrence. Most people caught the disease as infants, at an age when it is less likely to have severe effects.
In the early 1900s, improving hygiene postponed the onset of the illness until later on in childhood, when the disease is far more dangerous, and Europe and North America saw a series of severe polio outbreaks. On the net, improving hygiene resulted in life expectancy skyrocketing, and infant and child mortality rates plummeting. But polio proved to be an exception. Upper- and middle-class children raised in squeaky-clean environments were more likely to develop severe polio than poor children, who often had preexisting immunity from infection during infancy.
During the epidemic, polio left fifteen thousand Americans paralyzed each year on average. In 1921, the 39-year-old future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was likely one such victim. (Although some scholars now think he may have suffered from a completely different paralytic illness called Guillain–Barré syndrome, he was diagnosed with polio). After 1928, polio patients who lost the ability to breathe could survive inside a pressurized metal tank called the “iron lung,” the precursor to the modern ventilator.
It took about 3,500 years between the poliovirus’s first known emergence and the development of an effective vaccine against the disease in 1948. In contrast, a vaccine for COVID-19, which first emerged in late 2019, could be widely available as soon as 2021.
In addition to the possibility of a vaccine becoming available, research on several potentially game-changing treatments is also underway. For example, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital scientists are studying an anti-inflammatory regimen that was already shown to protect mice from COVID-19-induced death and serious complications such as sepsis. And the FDA has granted expedited approval to COVID-19 antibody cocktail drug therapies developed by Eli Lilly and a competitor drug by Regeneron.
At this rate of progress, next Thanksgiving, even the elderly and immunocompromised individuals may once again be able to enjoy inter-household Thanksgiving celebrations without risking their health. In the meantime, as you enjoy some turkey and video-chat with your elderly relatives, take a moment to appreciate the unprecedented speed with which scientists are tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.