For many, 2020 was a year of life suspended, as the novel coronavirus spread rapidly across the planet and forced people indoors — often far apart from their loved ones. But for biomedical researchers on the COVID-19 frontlines, the race to develop a vaccine happened at a blisteringly fast pace. Now, little less than a year after SARS-CoV-2 reared its ugly head, researchers have achieved their goal.
To honor this feat, Science has named the rapid development of effective vaccines against COVID-19 as its 2020 breakthrough of the year. “What a joyous way to end 2020,” writes Jon Cohen, a correspondent for Science news. “Never before have so many competitors collaborated so openly and frequently. Never before have so many candidates advanced to large-scale efficacy trials virtually in parallel. And never before have governments, industry, academia, and nonprofits thrown more money, muscle, and brains at the same infectious disease in such short order.”
However, the unprecedented speed did lead to accidents — and in many ways revealed alarming fissures between scientists and policymakers. These issues are highlighted in an accompanying essay on Science‘s Breakdown of the Year, by correspondent Kai Kupferschmidt. The deliberate spreading of disinformation about the virus — often by politically-motivated public servants and physicians — meant that “scientists, not the virus, became the enemy,” writes Kupferschmidt. “The upshot of this year cannot just be more research on unknown pathogens lurking in nature. It has to be an effort to revive and strengthen the bonds between science and the rest of society.”
Runners-up for the Breakthrough of the Year include the discovery of the world’s oldest figurative art, the exceptional cognitive capacity of birds, the origin of mysterious fast radio bursts, the first CRISPR-cured diseases, and the rising presence of Black voices in the scientific community. In addition to the year’s scientific advances, Science also provides a timeline of COVID-19 research milestones — and honors 11 researchers who died of COVID-19 in 2020.
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