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SCIENCE MAGAZINE, PUBLISHED by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, identifies each year’s most significant scientific breakthrough. Some years, the choices are important, but may be arcane to many of us. By contrast, for 2020 Science editors selected development of the Covid-19 vaccines.

In Science, December 18, 2020, Editor-in-Chief H. Holden Thorp describes “A Breakthrough For Us All.” Here are tidbits gleaned from his Editorial.

Freely Disseminated Information. Thorp writes, “In January [2020], at the prompting of the Wellcome Trust, Science and other journals agreed to a set of principles related to the pandemic. Under these terms, we have made all COVID-19 research papers free without an embargo, have strongly encouraged the posting of preprints, and have expedited publication as much as possible.The agreement has for the most part worked well. In particular, the wider availability of preprints and their data has given scientists a head start, and the expediting of research output has been astonishing.”

H. Holden Thorp, North Carolina-born 1964, American chemist, university professor, provost, and chancellor, editor-in-chief, Science. Photo by Sid Hastings.

Identifying the Spikes. “On 10 February,” Thorp notes, “Science received its first COVID-19 paper—the structure of the viral spike protein—which was published 9 days later.”

Image from CNN Health, March 31, 2020.

Thorp continues, “At the time, we didn’t realize that the world would soon be in the midst of a global pandemic or that the solution would involve a newfangled messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine based on this very protein.”

Immunology and Vaccines. “The achievement of COVID-19 vaccines is a testament to the work of so many dedicated scientists today and in the past,” Thorp describes. “The story begins with the fundamentals of immunology and vaccines: the ability of antibody and cellular immunity to form in response to the presence of the antigenic protein.”

Messenger RNA. The concept of Messenger RNA, mRNA, traces back to the 1960s. Jacques Monod and François Jacob suggested its existence; Jacob, Sydney Brenner, and Matthew Meseleson at the California Institute of Technology confirmed this in 1961. Monod, Jacob, and fellow Frenchman André Michel Lwoff shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965.

Image from Nature, February 4, 2020.

Steps of the Process. Thorp describes the mRNA process: Once the corona spike was identified, “Then comes the packaging of the mRNA that encodes the viral spike protein into a lipid nanoparticle that can be delivered and expressed in a manner that triggers the immune response.”

This, of course, is only the beginning. Thorp continues, “And then the manufacturing of the vaccine and the clinical trials ensue, financed by multiple governments and companies. There are other technologies that don’t involve mRNA and that appear to provide protection from COVID-19 as well.”

Related Issues. “All of these achievements,” Thorp says, “span large sections of the scientific community and decades of research…. But it’s not just immunologists, vaccinologists, epidemiologists, clinicians, and public health scholars who should celebrate. This breakthrough is a triumph for all of science.”

Was the Whole Story Perfect? Thorp writes. “There were missteps with data that slipped past journals and reviewers. There were early statements about masks and airborne transmission that had to be revised…. There were news stories that seized on caveats about reinfections and the details of testing that created confusion…. There were unjustified attacks from politicians who sought to exploit the pandemic and scientists. There was a failure to get some of the public to trust public health guidance, which may lead to difficult days ahead even as the life-saving vaccine is rolled out.”

What Went Right. “But for now,” Thorp says, “what went right is far more important. What went right is that scientists cared and rearranged their lives to get the world to a better place. What went right is that the scientific community had invested in, and created a foundation of, basic and applied knowledge that prepared it to tackle COVID-19. What went right is that scientists around the world often confronted and endured political opposition and personal threats to make sure that progress was made.”

Image from Science, December 18, 2020.

A Reason to Celebrate. Thorp concludes, “As hard as the next few months will be, for right now, let’s enjoy the moment. It is truly a breakthrough for everyone.”

And a reason for others of us to congratulate scientists for their achievements. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021

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