Corona vaccines are breakthrough of the year


Coronavirus vaccine. (Image: kovop58 / iStock)

Every year shortly before Christmas, the specialist magazine “Science” selects the highlights of the year – and lets you review the scientific year again. For 2020, they have declared a breakthrough of the year research achievement that affects us all directly: the successful development of vaccines against Covid-19. You are now opening up the opportunity to stop the spread of the corona pandemic. While vaccine development typically takes several years, the concerted effort of research, business and policy made it in less than a year. The fight against Sars-CoV-2 has not yet been won, but the vaccines are an important first success, according to the Science editors.

The corona pandemic shaped 2020. It has changed our everyday life and our social behavior, brought entire sectors of the economy to the edge of the abyss and presented medicine with completely new challenges. At the same time, however, it has produced a unique scientific collaboration. Because with the beginning of the pandemic and the identification of the new coronavirus Sars-CoV-2, researchers around the world worked together to learn more about this virus and the disease. At the same time, research teams in several countries started working on a vaccine against the coronavirus. Whether this could even succeed and how long it would take was just as open at the time as much else. In February 2020, Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said: “We will not be able to get vaccines out of our pockets just like that.” Because such a process typically takes six, seven or eight years.

Pandemic brought the best and the worst

All the more outstanding is the fact that now, a good nine months later, we already have the first vaccine approvals and promising results from further candidates. “What a joyous way to end 2020,” commented Science Editor Jon Cohen. “Never before have so many competitors collaborated so openly and frequently. Never before have so many vaccine candidates made it to large clinical trials at nearly the same time. And never before have governments, industry, science and non-profit organizations invested more money, effort and brainpower in an infectious disease in such a short time. ”Thanks to these joint efforts, the first people are now being vaccinated against Covid-19, and we could still do it Start at the end of this year. To honor this success, Science magazine has named the development of Covid-19 vaccines as the breakthrough of 2020.

However, the pandemic has also exposed a downside of modern societies: the rise of conspiracy theories and deliberate misinformation. For Science magazine this is the “breakdown” of 2020. “Just as video conferencing and online shopping opened up huge new markets while schools, shops and offices remained closed, so polarization, politicization and a media ecosystem that puts simple lies over complex truths, benefits from the great insecurity of people ”, says“ Science News ”- author Kai Kupferschmidt. “For some, scientists were the new enemy instead of the virus.” In his view, an attempt must now be made to strengthen the ties between science and the rest of society.

Protein folding, gene therapy and HIV

In addition to the coronavirus and its medical, scientific and social effects, there have also been further breakthroughs in research this year. One of them is artificial intelligence that has cracked one of the greatest challenges in biomedicine: predicting the three-dimensional structure of a protein based solely on its amino acid structure. Because this folding of proteins depends on a large number of factors, it can only be deciphered in analyzes that often take years. Of the around 200 million known proteins, only around 170,000 have been mapped three-dimensionally. But the AI ​​system “AlphaFold” developed by the Google subsidiary Deep Mind could now change this. In a competition, the adaptive system succeeded in predicting the structure of 70 protein sequences with an average of 92.4 percent precision – and thus with a level of accuracy similar to lengthy analyzes.

Another highlight of the year is also in the field of biomedicine: For the first time, scientists have used gene therapy with the Crispr / Cas9 gene scissors to cure people of a hereditary blood disease. To do this, they took blood stem cells from patients with sickle cell anemia and changed a gene switch in their genome. After chemotherapy had killed the body’s own defective blood stem cells, the patients received this repaired blood back. This gene therapy was 17 months ago and the patients are still cured. Another medical breakthrough could advance HIV research. Because scientists have found out why a few people infected with the HI virus do not get sick. Apparently this is because their immune system prevents the virus from incorporating its genes into important areas of the human genome.

Radio flashes, superconductors and the oldest hunting scene in the world

In the field of astronomy, a galactic stroke of luck brought a decisive breakthrough: On April 28, 2020, the CHIME radio telescope in Canada caught a fast radio burst from our own galaxy for the first time – an ultra-short but extremely strong radio pulse. This made it possible for the astronomers to identify the cause of these radio pulses for the first time. According to this, at least some of them are created by magnetars, rapidly rotating neutron stars with an intense magnetic field. In physics, the highlight of the year is a material that becomes a superconductor at room temperature and conducts electricity without resistance. The carbon-containing sulfur hydride becomes superconducting at 14.5 degrees, but this only happens under enormous pressure. But the researchers hope to soon find materials that retain their superconducting properties even under normal pressure.

Another highlight of 2020 is the discovery of the oldest hunting scene known to man on Sulawesi, according to “Science”. The more than 40,000 year old cave painting shows eight human-animal hybrids who hunt larger wild animals with spears. This picture is not only the oldest figurative representation in the world, it also gives completely new insights into the spiritual world of our ancestors. A highlight of biology is less spiritual, but also animal: In several studies scientists have gained new insights into how the bird’s brain works. This is exciting because some birds perform similarly advanced cognitive functions as great apes or humans, although birds do not have a cerebral cortex like primates do. As further highlights, “Science” lists improved information on how the climate reacts to the rise in greenhouse gas emissions, but also the increasing presence and recognition of people of color in the academic world.

Source: Science

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