By Julie Doll
Editor’s note: This is our last column from Julie Doll, who has hung up her pen, at least for now. We appreciate her well-researched and -reasoned pieces. For more of her columns, check out dolljulie.wordpress.com.
Scientists have done it again. They have come to the rescue of billions of people around the globe.
Their development of vaccines to ward off COVID-19 was done quickly and professionally, overseen by the FDA, whose job it is to ensure medical treatments and products are safe and effective.
The development of vaccines for COVID-19 was achieved faster than most officials and doctors in the field of epidemiology had dared to hope.
And the Trump administration gets credit for setting regulatory parameters and financial incentives that facilitated the U.S. work of the pharmaceutical companies involved.
But the true heroes in this story are the scientists from around the world who developed the vaccine, and the scientists who came before them.
No doubt, it was a global effort, one that depended on a huge body of research already compiled on vaccines. Without that earlier knowledge, bringing a COVID-19 vaccine to patients would have taken years.
The building-block nature of science has been recognized by those in the field for centuries. It was in 1675 that Isaac Newton gave us the quote: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
Newton was not talking about vaccines, but of the ability to expand human knowledge by building on the work of scientists who had come earlier.
And that work was not always steeped in academia.
In the United States, inoculation against disease got its start in the early 1700s through an unusual collaboration involving a Puritan minister, his Black slave and a Boston doctor.
It was the enslaved West African Onesimus who described to his owner Cotton Mather the procedure of rubbing pus from a smallpox sore into the skin of a healthy person, which we now know triggered the body’s immune system to release antibodies to fight off the infection.
That method of vaccination was used until Boston doctor Edward Jenner used Onesimus’ information and his own observations and experiments to develop a less risky inoculation for smallpox using the cowpox virus.
In the centuries since, vaccines have saved countless lives.
Scientists are still often mystified by new viruses and their mutations, and they still don’t fully understand some viruses – such as HIV – that they have studied for decades.
But what scientists have learned and put to use has extended the lives of people around the world, eradicating or reducing diseases that can cause paralysis, blindness, deafness, infertility and cancer, as well as death.
Measles, diphtheria, hepatitis, tuberculosis, polio … it’s a long list and still growing.
Often the biggest challenge facing doctors and scientists as they battle disease is the fear and disinformation spread by anti-vaccination forces.
It’s a serious obstacle in efforts to slow and stop the spread of COVID-19.
As they spread lies and mistrust, anti-vaccination groups and activists need to be countered by accurate information from officials in government and science.
That information effort needs to be daily, widespread and include local, national and global media.
This is, after all, the best news we’ve had in a long while.
2020 was the year scientists rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
2021 can be the year Americans roll up their sleeves and get the vaccine, thereby helping – rather than thwarting – the effort to save hundreds of thousands more lives.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.