Have you had enough of COVID? Understandable, I have! This virus has brought on huge adjustments to our social, political, economic, and health systems, as well as numerous long-term impacts that we will only fully understand decades from now. From a scientific perspective, there has never been so many studies published on one topic over a 12-month period – evident as almost 90 000 scientific publications between January 2020 and 2021 (see Figure below from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/research/coronavirus/faq). This, of course, at the cost of re-directing significant amounts of funding from research on other diseases or non-COVID related science. As important as these works have been to contain, treat, and avoid overwhelming each nation’s health systems, the COVID frenzy has also resulted in the spread of blind fear, misinformation, and regrettable miscommunication.
Unfortunately, one of the main consequences of COVID is how much it has separated people – through social isolation, travel restrictions, and or simply due to strong differences in opinion about the virus and how to deal with it. COVID has highlighted the importance of communication, thoughtful analysis and understanding of clean data, and respect. This, at the individual, community, national, and global levels.
The dire need for transparent, solid, and comparable data as well as concerted actions between nations to control COVID is not within the scope of this piece. That said, I believe it is important to keep in mind that COVID is first and foremost a biological, and not a political, issue. In my experience, everyone has a strong opinion about this virus, and differences in opinion are often viewed as a direct confrontation or a personal threat. Although some of the public policy actions taken over the last year may not seem the most intelligent, governments are trying their best to control the virus while pleasing their population. Let us not forget that governments are people, like us, and that they are doing their best to mitigate the impact of a new virus whose mode of action and therapeutic possibilities are not yet fully understood. For our sake as a collaborative species, I believe we desperately need to develop communication skills and to deconstruct conspiracy theories, as well as trust the process put forth by our governments to contain the spread of disease so as not to overwhelm our national health systems.
I frequently get asked about my opinion of the COVID vaccine. This is not an easy question, as is evidenced by the many different vaccines currently under development. Europe and the United States have invested hugely in the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer/Biontech and Moderna), the first mRNA vaccines ever to be approved for an infectious disease. Importantly, mRNA vaccines have been safely utilized for cancer treatment, and with the exception of rare negative outcomes on sick and frail elderly people, COVID vaccines appear to be safe.
Regarding the efficacy of the mRNA vaccine, or COVID vaccines in general, I believe that we need time to better understand their immunological protection long-term. In the rush and hope that COVID vaccines will allow the world to go back to normal, the current mRNA vaccines available are also still in Phase 3 trials – the results of which will take years to fully understand. Thus, future research and clinical trials are needed to confirm their efficacy, and to determine whether immune memory in infected individuals can pave the way for designing prophylactic and therapeutic measures to deal with COVID-19 as well as future outbreaks involving similar coronaviruses.
The way I see it, we are all currently in the early stages of a global COVID experiment. Time and transparent solid data are needed to better understand the virus, its elusive origin, mode of action, and to determine what therapies improve outcomes. That said, let us not forget lessons from our past while dealing with the current crisis. Lessons on how widespread fear and feeling threatened have historically resulted in breeches of fundamental human rights, freedom, and justified wars. As individuals, let us nourish solidarity, intelligence, and patience – and not allow differences in opinions to become rifts that undermine the ultimate cause of universal health and healthcare. Let us also cherish being alive, rather than live in constant fear of death.
In the coming decades, I look forward to seeing what we learn from these dystopic times and hope that the acquired knowledge results in positive modifications socially, economically, and in healthcare. As always, the possibility for change is in our hands.
Note: This piece was originally published in the Best Health-Quarterly January 2021 issue.