Science is leading the way through a very difficult period at the end of 2020
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Stuart Hobday says we are fortunate to be living through this scientific age as we battle the latest Covid-19 strain
This is now a very difficult end to a difficult year. Christmas plans were cast asunder, borders closing, even greater anxiety about the virulence of a new strain. At the same time, surely the end is in sight, just a few more months and this virus cloud will be lifted.
The variant of Covid-19 that is causing so much trouble has been named in science as B.1.1.7. There is early evidence that it seems to be 50% more transmissible than previous strains and that it may be more likely to occur in young people. Already 80% of cases in London are thought to be B.1.1.7. The mutations that have caused the new variant have created stronger ‘Spike Proteins’ that seem to enable it to more easily take hold in humans and increase replication in the upper airways. The enhanced ‘Spike Proteins’ in B.1.1.7. mean that it binds to human receptor cells more easily. The new variant was first identified in September and scientists realised at the start of December that it was spreading rapidly in London and the south east.
That is the bad news. The good news is that the variant is still recognisable to the existing testing and still susceptible to the developed vaccines. It is also spread in the same way so that the existing measures of social distancing, wearing masks and hand and face hygiene are effective in stopping it spreading. Perhaps the extra virulence of the variant makes these measures more important. The other good news is that the progress made in treating coronavirus once patients get to hospital is also still relevant. A turning point in the year was the discovery by a team in Oxford that the widely available protein Dexamethazone was an effective treatment in combating the virus symptoms and the death rate has been declining since.
It suddenly seems that the arms race between science and the virus has been ramped up. The vaccine development has been described by some as our generation’s equivalent of the moon landing. I would say it’s even greater because the moon landing didn’t save millions of lives and these Covid vaccines will do just that. It takes time to get the vaccines around however and in the meantime the virus has mutated to become more easily spread. It is doing what all pathogen viruses do – mindlessly replicating and regularly mutating. It is a side to nature that humans have always had to deal with. We do indeed have to be ‘humble in the face of nature’.
It may not seem like it at the moment but we are lucky to live in this scientific age. The existence of the science and health infrastructure that has been set to work on the virus response is a relatively recent thing. There are now millions of scientists in the world who work collaboratively, sharing information and data, tracking the ever mutating strains of the virus as it spreads around the world. This infrastructure and technology did not exist in the 1918-20 flu pandemic and far more people died than will die in this one. The fact that mutations are being quickly recognised and tracked is amazing really. As is the vaccine development and we have to hope that 2021 will see the continued roll out of the vaccine and we will get back to something like normality. I suspect nobody wants that more than the diligent scientists and the courageous health professionals whose work has been diverted to lead the fight against Covid in 2020. I also hope that many young people will intensify their scientific study having seen this year seen how important it has become as a background to our lives.
However it doesn’t feel like we are lucky at the moment as the human cost to all this is huge. Every death has an impact on a family and friends, the economic impact will be huge and is still to be fully felt and anybody remotely susceptible to mental health difficulties will have been struggling to deal with the extra anxiety that this pandemic has brought with it. I take great heart from the myriad of ways in which people have sought to look out for each other to an extent that we have not seen before. The numbers of people that have signed up to distribute food, the people checking on their neighbours, the Zoom calls and phone calls that are being made to those who have become isolated. I’m sure like me many people miss the social and cultural side of life hugely and sincerely hope that we will appreciate it much more when it returns. But I also hope that the crucial work of scientists and health professionals will be recognised and valued because it is they that are leading the struggle against the virus and dragging us out of this dark period.
Stuart Hobday was the founder of Norwich Science Festival, is a PHD student in philosophy of science at UEA and author of Encounters with Harriet Martineau.