While we wait to emerge into the light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel, it is important to make the most of any positive advances that we can glean from 2020. To say that 2020 was very challenging would be an understatement! With a global pandemic raging, significant changes to the political stage in many different countries, including the last year of a controversial presidency in the United States and the end of the Brexit transition period in the United Kingdom, we may ask what possible benefits emerged from this quagmire? However, if we scratch below the surface, 2020 also brought forward some startling advances in the medical field, enhanced environmental awareness and a chance for many of us to reassess our own working lives.
Development of mRNA vaccines
The concept of using mRNA to fight disease, including infectious diseases and cancer, has been around for decades. However, challenges associated with working with RNA, including its instability both inside and outside the body and the potential for injected mRNA to trigger an immune response independent of the response to the protein it encodes, has slowed and hampered mRNA vaccine development. In recent years, methods to suppress the immune reaction to the mRNA molecules themselves, and the development of lipid nanoparticles to fortify mRNA from rapid degradation after injection, have been giant steps forwards. Extra impetus and concerted focus on mRNA vaccines following the coronavirus pandemic has led to astonishing developments in this arena. What is more, this offers great hope for the expansion of mRNA technology into other medical indications in the near future.
Development of drugs and vaccines in record time
Another great outcome from 2020 is the realization that collaboration between research scientists, industry, regulatory bodies and governments can make extraordinary things happen in an incredibly short period of time. As exemplified by the example of mRNA vaccines above, we are already seeing the results from such collaboration in the clinic, and undoubtedly, many lives will be saved from the concerted efforts observed with vaccine development funding, research and regulation. Other examples of outstanding collaborative research are identifying existing treatments and new therapeutics that can be used to effectively treat COVID-19 (e.g. the RECOVERY trial in the UK and the ACTIV public-private partnership in the United States). Given this outstanding progress, let’s hope that similar collaborative efforts can be employed to address other health conditions. Impact on personal life Aside from medical advances, the coronavirus pandemic has offered many of us the impetus to implement effective remote working practices. Indeed, many companies have indicated that hybrid models of remote work for some employees are likely to stay. One study suggests that up to one quarter of employees in advanced economies (e.g. Germany, United Kingdom, United States, Japan, France and Spain) are able to work remotely for 3 to 5 days per week without productivity loss. More people working remotely will result in fewer people commuting every day and it is likely that the number of people frequently travelling (including flying) long distances for work will also decrease substantially. There is some concern over the associated economic consequences, including restaurant and retail sales in urban centres and demand for office real estate and business travel. However, for many office workers, these changes offer the opportunity for massive improvements for personal wellbeing, including a more sustainable work-life balance, increased opportunities for physical exercise and untold benefits for the environment. Undoubtedly, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in incomprehensible levels of loss and grief, and the economic, physical and mental health consequences will reverberate around the planet for years to come. Let’s just hope that out of this well of despair we can also draw out the chinks of light that will stand us in good stead in years to come.
Kwon D. The Promise of mRNA Vaccines. The Scientist. 2020. Available from: https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/the-promise-of-mrna-vaccines-68202 Randomised Evaluation of COVID-19 Therapy (RECOVERY) Trial. Available from: https://www.recoverytrial.net/ Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV). Available from: https://www.nih.gov/research-training/medical-research-initiatives/activ McKinsey Global Institute. What’s next for remote work: An analysis of 2,000 tasks, 800 jobs, and nine countries. Available from: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/whats-next-for-remote-work-an-analysis-of-2000-tasks-800-jobs-and-nine-countries#
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