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Let's appreciate how extraordinary the vaccines are

by Noah Millman, The Week

18 November 2020

It's not hard to paint a bleak picture of America's battle with COVID-19.

Cases are surging around the country, including in areas that suffered badly during the first wave. Nor is it a mere artifact of better testing; sewage data from Massachusetts, for example, indicates that the actual prevalence of the virus is comparable to where it was in the worst days of April, and still rising. Nationally, deaths have surpassed a quarter of a million, which is likely a significant underestimate. Hospitals are being stressed to the breaking point, and since the current wave is truly national in scope, there's no way for volunteers to bolster hard-hit areas as so many health care workers from across America did for New York back in the spring.

But since the beginning of the pandemic, I've never been more optimistic. The reason is the steady tide of substantial good news on the vaccine front. First Pfizer's vaccine proved 90 percent effective — vastly exceeding the minimum level of 50 percent to be worth deploying. Then Moderna announced a vaccine of their own that was even more effective and that didn't require ultra-refrigeration to store. Moreover, these are not the only vaccines in the pipeline; though many won't pan out, the odds are extremely good that we will have at least a few workable options in early 2021. And the latest evidence suggests that immunity will generally be lasting.

That's the first true sign of a light at the end since we entered this viral tunnel, and it is far brighter and closer than we had any reason to expect. We should stop for a moment to recognize how extraordinary an achievement this truly is.

The normal timeline for vaccine development, after all, is measured in years, not months. Nor is this just a consequence of bureaucratic red tape or an abundance of caution about safety; the initial research phase for vaccines often leads down blind alleys. There were numerous reasons to worry that we might never get a vaccine for COVID-19: it was novel virus, in a class known for rapid mutation and rapidly-declining immunity in the infected, and for which vaccines had never been developed before.

So we should be ecstatic that we've beaten the odds. Through a combination of hard work, brilliant science, sensible policymaking, and plain old good luck, we're in a position to be debating when, not whether, the pandemic is going to end. We should be re-evaluating sharply upward our overall sense of the capabilities and potential of our pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Frankly, if people want to make comparisons to the Manhattan Project and the Moon Landing, they shouldn't be deterred.

But they might be. Indeed, there's been a distinct tone of pushback from some quarters — an almost peevish unwillingness to celebrate the good news.

Part of that pushback involves legitimate warnings that we mustn't let down our guard. A vaccine isn't a cure, and plenty of people could die or suffer long-term harm from the virus before a vaccine is ever distributed. Moreover, the better we have the pandemic under control when the vaccine becomes widely available, the more effective it will be at obliterating the virus as the few infected people fall to find new hosts.

But there's something else afoot as well. From a refusal to credit the Trump administration for doing anything right (Operation Warp Speed played an important role in Moderna's effort, though not Pfizer's), to concerns about the ethics and logistics of distribution, a great many commentators have been exceedingly quick to move directly on to what could still go wrong. The WHO even compared the development of a vaccine to building a base-camp on Everest, when it is more aptly compared to achieving the summit: The trip isn't over, and we could still die on the way back down, but we have actually achieved the one goal we didn't know we could achieve when we started out.

I worry about this pessimism. I worry that it says something unpleasant about us, both about how much we take extraordinary technological achievement for granted, and how unwilling we are to shep naches — to take pride and joy in the accomplishments of others — unless we can associate them to our tribe. Indeed, it may go beyond an inability to rejoice and extend to outright refusal to believe in the achievement. Just as in many red states masking became a sign of weakness and tribal disloyalty, in many blue states now skepticism about a vaccine is sufficiently rampant that governors have to promise to independently confirm their safety and efficacy before distribution — something they aren't actually equipped to do, but which only confirms popular skepticism.

This is a problem we have to solve, urgently, not only for our sanity as a society but for our survival. COVID-19 is a relatively small problem compared to the gargantuan challenge of climate change. The evidence from the past year suggests that a steady diet of unending sacrifice will simply be a non-starter — and understandably so. But there are still great technological leaps forward to be made, great transformations that could put our civilization on a stabler footing without general impoverishment. The collapse in the cost of solar energy and huge leaps forward in battery capacity mean that radical transformation of our energy system is now within our grasp — and could eventually provide the power needed to extract carbon directly from the atmosphere. Meanwhile, we're going to need creative adaptations — including large-scale projects like next-generation sea walls — to make our cities, our agriculture, every aspect of our civilization more resilient to the changes to the climate that are already inevitable.

These shouldn't be dreams that only excite billionaires who want to depart Earth and colonize Mars, while the rest of us stand on the sidelines cheering for “team monster truck” or “team bike lane.” And the vaccine should be celebrated unequivocally, regardless of where we stand on the continuum of COVID conscientiousness. We all have a stake in feats of technology and engineering, and we should appreciate them with awe as examples of the sublime and of the beautiful.



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