In many ways, human brains are hardwired for pessimism. It’s a handy defense mechanism that helps us avoid dangerous situations, but it can also blind us to all the ways in which our lives are improving.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a large bout of pessimism, and with good reason. Deaths in the United States surged by 18% during the past year, according to data from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention. Two-thirds of those additional deaths are attributed to COVID, which means one-third is attributable to something else — possibly illnesses and injuries that went untreated because of COVID lockdowns and medical resources being diverted to virus patients.
The human toll of COVID-19 has been staggering, but the fight against the virus may have provided the critical mass for medical innovation.
For decades, scientists have worked on mRNA technology, the technology used in the first two COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States, those manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna.
In the case of COVID-19, the mRNA vaccines tell a vaccinated person’s cells to make one protein, harmless by itself, found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. That primes the person’s immune system to fight against COVID infection.
Both Pfizer and Moderna were working on mRNA technology to fight other viruses when the new coronavirus pandemic began, and both, adapting that technology to the new threat, had working vaccines within weeks. Most of last year amounted to both companies testing that technology for safety and effectiveness.
The fight against COVID is a testament to scientific adaption and regulatory streamlining, and the proof of its success is unmistakable. Over the weekend, daily COVID deaths in the United States dropped to their lowest number since the pandemic began in March 2020. This comes as other countries, primarily in Europe and South America, where vaccine rollouts have been slower and subject to needless regulatory delays, have resulted in those nations experiencing a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths.
We may not have jet packs, but we could be on the verge of finding a cure for the common cold. More importantly, we could be on the verge of a vaccine against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
AIDS is no longer the death sentence it was in the 1980s. There are now drugs and drug combinations that can help people who are HIV positive continue to live largely normal lives, but a vaccine against the virus still eludes us — although perhaps for not much longer.
Recent vaccine trials have yielded a vaccine that produces effective HIV antibodies in 97% of patients. These trials are still in their earliest phase, so there is a long way yet to go, but the researchers are now teaming with Moderna researchers to bring Moderna’s mRNA technology into the equation.
AIDS is one of the diseases for which researchers have long hoped mRNA could finally provide the elusive vaccine.
Additionally there is a long list of pathogens, from malaria to Dengue fever, which still plague much of the developing world and for which scientists hold out a lot of hope for mRNA technology.
Think about how COVID has hurt First World economies, then imagine the impact all of these other viruses have on the Third World. Now imagine a cure.
There is good reason for optimism.