The greatest medical breakthrough of this pandemic—and surely one of the most important in decades—is the creation of COVID-19 vaccines. One study found that in their first year, they saved more than 1 million lives and prevented 10 million hospitalizations in the U.S. alone. The number of deaths averted around the world is of course far higher. It’s horrifying to think what COVID-19 would be doing to humanity if it weren’t for vaccines.
The world has a lot to be proud of in the creation and delivery of these vaccines. Scientists have never developed one nearly as quickly as they did in 2020, and the governments of the world have never run immunization campaigns that were as fast and as far-reaching as the ones that took place in 2021.
But there are also serious problems that we need to solve before the next potential pandemic comes along. One is the huge inequity in who has been vaccinated and who has not. It is both unjust and unwise to give a third shot to a healthy 25-year-old in a rich country before a 75-year-old cancer survivor in a poor country gets her first shot.
Another concern is that the speed with which vaccines were created was only partly a matter of skill and diligence. It was also a matter of luck.
Because coronaviruses had already caused two previous outbreaks (SARS and MERS), scientists had learned quite a lot about the structure of the virus. In particular, they had identified its characteristic spike protein—the tips on the crownlike virus you’ve seen a dozen pictures of—as a potential target for vaccines. When it came time to create new vaccines, they had a sense of what part of the virus was most vulnerable to attack.