Alan Bernstein on COVID-19: Science — and vaccines — will save us all

Special to National Post

This is World Immunization Week — an important week to remember at any time, but especially now, in the middle of a global pandemic. In order to beat this virus, we urgently need two new tools in our toolbox: drugs to treat people who are ill and vaccines to protect us from future infection.

Vaccines have saved more lives than any other medical advance in history. Smallpox, which is arguably history’s greatest killer, was eradicated with a vaccine. Polio, measles and other infectious diseases have become so rare that medical students can go through their entire training without ever seeing a single case. It is becoming increasingly clear that defeating COVID-19 with self-isolation and hand washing will only go so far. Here in Canada, after seven weeks of lockdown, we have become all too aware of the enormous social, economic and health costs of self-quarantining.

It has been only about 120 days since the world recognized COVID-19 as a new disease caused by a novel member of the coronavirus family. In that short time, every country on earth has been directly affected by it. Over three million people have been infected worldwide and well over 200,000 deaths have been attributed to the virus. These are shocking numbers, and many regions — including South America, Africa and Southeast Asia — have yet to register the kinds of numbers that we have seen in the United States and western Europe.

An engineer looks at monkey kidney cells to test an experimental vaccine for the coronavirus, at a lab in Beijing on April 29.


This pandemic will undoubtedly wreak even greater havoc and death tolls in low- and middle-income countries, conflict zones and refugee camps, areas of the world with conditions that are ideal petri dishes for this highly infectious virus. We must eliminate the virus everywhere, both for humanitarian reasons and our own self-interest, because if there are hot spots anywhere, the pandemic is everywhere and we will all continue to be at risk.

It is hard not to become discouraged by the possibility that COVID-19 will be with us for a very long time. But four things give me encouragement: the world has never been so united in reaching a common goal; governments and the private sector have never been more aware of the central importance of science; the world’s scientific community has never worked so hard, so collaboratively and so openly together before; and science has never had such powerful tools at its disposal.

When SARS broke out in 2003, it took several weeks and great effort for a Canadian lab to be the first to sequence that coronavirus. In January 2020, it took a matter of days for Chinese scientists to sequence the COVID-19 virus. They immediately shared the complete sequence online. Forty-eight hours later, a team at Moderna, a U.S.-based biotechnology company, in partnership with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, synthesized the complete COVID-19 RNA genome in a lab.

U.K. scientists work on a potential vaccine for COVID-19 on April 30.

Carl Recine/Reuters

Less than a month later, on Feb. 20, with financial support from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, enough COVID-19 RNA had been synthesized in the lab to begin a Phase 1 trial to test for the safety of a vaccine candidate. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave it regulatory approval on March 4 and that molecule is now being tested in a Phase 1 trial in Seattle. At the same time, Moderna has received funding from the U.S. government to synthesize more of its RNA vaccine, in anticipation of larger Phase 2 and 3 trials to see how well it protects against the coronavirus.

In less than two months, we have witnessed a new world record, from isolating a novel virus, to the launch of clinical vaccine trials in people. That doesn’t mean the Moderna vaccine will necessarily work, but it illustrates the power of 21st-century science, international collaboration and working in parallel to accelerate vaccine research and development.

The Moderna vaccine is just one of close to 100 different vaccine strategies that are in various stages of development, which is a testament to the ingenuity and commitment of the world’s scientific community to end this pandemic. We will not have a vaccine by the end of World Immunization Week 2020. But I hope we can, once again, celebrate the power of vaccines in 2021 by adding a COVID-19 vaccine to the list of scientific achievements that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives around the world.

National Post

Dr. Alan Bernstein is president and CEO of CIFAR and was the founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research during the SARS epidemic.

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