The pharmaceutical industry scientists who created the coronavirus vaccines deserve the world’s gratitude.
This is the moment to put into nomination the obvious recipient for 2021’s Nobel Peace Prize: the scientists at the pharmaceutical companies whose vaccines are about to rescue the world from the catastrophe of SARS-CoV-2.
Who else was going to save us from Covid-19? The answer, we’ve learned across nine long months, is no one.
When the virus threat became clear last March, the political authorities naturally turned for guidance to specialists in the discipline known as public health, and specifically to professional epidemiologists who had worked with previous viruses, such as AIDS or Ebola. In a fortnight, epidemiology was effectively given unprecedented authority over the daily lives of the world’s citizens.
In turn, these specialists took as guidance the global pandemic their profession understood—the Spanish flu outbreak from 1918 to 1920. Based on the evidence from this 100-year-old pandemic, their advice to the world’s political leadership was: Send your national populations home, and keep them there. And so they did.
Once they’d done that, once most of the world’s factories, schools, offices, business and churches had been emptied and once most of the world was staying home, political leadership turned to the representatives of science and asked, “Now what do we do?”
And the answer the scientist-advisers gave—an answer that will be remembered by every sentient man, woman and schoolchild the world over—was: “Wait for a vaccine.”
That was it. Other than go home and minimize human contact, epidemiologists and public-health officials had no Plan B, C or D for living with this coronavirus pandemic.
Whether go-home-and-stay-home was the most balanced strategy conceivable inside the reality of this complex virus is, as usual, a matter that likely will never be resolved. In the event, the pandemic policies enacted effectively divided the U.S. and much of the world’s population into two crude categories: people who get a paycheck deposited in their bank account no matter what, and those who don’t.
Those who don’t have been hammered without mercy by the coronavirus. They may not have died or contracted Covid, but many have been wiped out—personally and financially. Next time epidemiology’s daily briefers should include a metric for lost sense of purpose.
By now, the “vaccine” has been invoked so often that it exists in the public mind almost as an abstraction, as if eventually it would show up one day, like manna from heaven. With the vaccines finally arriving, the originators of the vaccines themselves appear in the news as distant corporate entities with names like Moderna, Pfizer, BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson.
But the story of how these new vaccines came to us so fast would make a thrilling documentary. The accomplishments of these private-sector teams of scientists is a culmination of progress across decades, not least the identification of messenger RNA 60 years ago. Today, biological science has so many moving parts that it takes multidisciplinary teams to produce products like the vaccines heading this month to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency approval.
Yes, much remains to be learned about the demographic efficacy and durability of these vaccines. But as the world confronts the burden of this winter’s resurgence of the virus, we should also recognize the political rescue these private-sector scientists have sent us.
People have been remarkably good at holding up their side of the social-consent bargain with public authorities through the pandemic, but that is breaking down. After nearly a year of chaotic handling of the crisis by U.S. states and European governments—not least the spectacle of public officials personally violating their own directives—we are on the edge of tipping into widespread civil disobedience. The vaccines are arriving, by one notable example, just as the belligerent New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is wearing out his welcome.
President Trump has largely disappeared into his postelection challenges, but officials of the Trump administration, notably Vice President Mike Pence and the head of Operation Warp Speed, Moncef Slaoui—whose expertise grew from three decades with GlaxoSmithKline —deserve more credit than they are receiving for the vaccines’ imminent deliverance from Covid-19.
Recognizing that their task was more like D-Day than business as usual, they created a public-private partnership that actually worked, in large part by busting through the bureaucratic sludge that normally slows anything. Presumptive President-elect Joe Biden should complete this good game plan, rather than reawaken the bureaucracies with a national mask mandate.
The chances of a Nobel Peace Prize being given to anyone inside the for-profit sector are about zero. This year’s went to the United Nations’s World Food Programme. In the U.S., the pharmaceutical industry, or “Big Pharma,” is most of the time a punching bag for Democratic and Republican politicians.
Reality check: The intellectual, technical and organizational firepower of thousands of men and women employed by pharma is what made these savior vaccines happen in 10 months rather than years. They won’t ask for anyone’s gratitude, but they deserve it.