2020 has been a lousy year. Time magazine’s cover story declared it the “worst year ever” (or at least “in living memory for most Americans”). And it is finishing on a miserable note, with coronavirus deaths reaching horrifying new heights — worse than a 9/11 every single day — while public health experts beg us to celebrate the winter holidays alone.
But 2020 wasn’t all bad news. In fact, I’ll go further than that: 2020 had good news that would stand out as astonishing triumphs of human achievement in any other year. In areas ranging from public health to medicine, from poverty alleviation to food technology, there were some tremendous leaps. To highlight them — as I’d like to do here — isn’t to deny the misery and grief that were visited upon so many around the world in 2020. Rather, it’s to remind us that there’s so much to fight for, and to honor the work of the many people who, under adverse conditions in an extraordinarily difficult time, still made tremendous progress on key problems.
The world will start 2021 having lost many things we shouldn’t have lost. More than 1.5 million preventable deaths have occurred so far. Hundreds of millions have been pushed into a spiral of poverty. In the US, the transition of power to President-elect Joe Biden promises to be ugly as Trump and his allies refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any election that their opponent won.
But beneath all that, there is still real work going on in the world, work that transforms our lives, helps people, treats disease, and makes the future brighter. That work deserves a spotlight. Here are seven things that give me optimism about the future.
1) The record speed of the vaccine rollout won’t just end this pandemic soon. It’s also a reminder that humanity is still capable of astonishing leaps.
The first vaccines for the coronavirus have begun, 11 months after the existence of the virus started to become widely known. Impressive results have been published from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, with other vaccines publishing results in the upcoming weeks as well. Overall, things look very good. The vaccines are safe, with a very low rate of adverse effects, and several of the vaccines are more than 90 percent effective at preventing serious coronavirus symptoms. When they are widely distributed, they should cut deaths dramatically.
Public health experts have cautioned that people should continue to wear masks until everyone’s vaccinated. And it remains to be seen how much the vaccines will prevent transmission of the virus (if at all).
But likely by mid-year, high-risk people and essential workers will be vaccinated. The worst horrors of the pandemic will soon be under control: Health care workers will have a vaccine and their lives will be less in danger while they work long hours to protect us. Hospitals will be less overwhelmed as enough at-risk people have vaccines to keep ICU beds open. And by late 2021, a vaccine will likely be available to everyone who wants one, and it will be safe to return to the activities we’ve put on hold during the pandemic.
This crisis has dragged on long enough that it seems endless. It isn’t. The vaccines —produced and distributed with astonishing speed — change everything. In a time when it seemed like so much around us broke down, the vaccine success story is a reminder that humanity is still capable of groundbreaking achievements.
2) The coronavirus vaccine is also a good sign for new vaccine technologies
In the past, vaccines have taken years or even decades to develop. It’s striking to learn that some of the ones now hitting the market were developed in the space of days or weeks (the time since then has been for safety testing).
That sped-up process took a long time to develop. For the past several years, researchers have been working on new ways to develop vaccines. The success of the coronavirus vaccines is a major vindication of that work and a really good sign of how well it could work for other diseases.
One breakthrough here is something called “mRNA vaccines.” The Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus shots are examples of this kind of vaccine. Unlike most vaccines, mRNA vaccines don’t use a dead or inactivated version of the virus. Instead, the vaccine uses mRNA: a single-strand RNA molecule that the ribosomes inside your cells use as a template or instruction set to learn what proteins they should build next. The vaccine injects the mRNA into your body, telling it to produce a “spike protein” present on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus; your cells will follow the instructions, producing the unfamiliar protein and spurring the body to make antibodies.
Researchers have hoped for years that mRNA vaccines will make it possible to vaccinate against diseases we otherwise struggle to vaccinate for and to do so on a much faster timeline than usual. “mRNA vaccines represent a promising alternative to conventional vaccine approaches because of their high potency, capacity for rapid development and potential for low-cost manufacture and safe administration,” a 2018 paper in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery by University of Pennsylvania medical researchers argued.
Even before the pandemic hit, there was already a lot of exciting work going on to make mRNA vaccines possible. But 2020 put that work to the test as vaccine researchers the world over tried to rapidly retool to fight Covid-19. Now, with the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, the technology has been tested and it has succeeded. That success is likely to drive development of tons more mRNA vaccines targeting other diseases.
Meanwhile, the Oxford research institute that produced the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine is also moving into late-stage clinical trials with another major achievement: a vaccine for malaria, which has stubbornly resisted research efforts over the past century. If the malaria vaccine works, it could put one of the world’s biggest killers to rest for good. And even if it’s only moderately effective, it can save a lot of lives.
Other good news to look forward to on the vaccine front: Moderna is reportedly working on a flu vaccine that lasts for life instead of requiring a yearly update. And mRNA vaccines might also be used to train the body to — one day — fight cancer.
3) America is likelier to be ready for the next pandemic
Scientists and policy experts have been warning for years that the United States was unready for the next pandemic. No one could have predicted that it would happen this year, of course, but we knew it would happen someday — and the US wasn’t ready.
In February and March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) made mistakes with testing that hampered the US’s ability to stop the spread of the coronavirus into the country. Confusing public messaging around masks resulted in low adoption, a problem that persists today. There were personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages despite stockpiles intended to solve that exact problem. Many institutional weaknesses were suddenly and humiliatingly laid bare.
But there’s a silver lining. The coronavirus pandemic has been awful, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been. “The coronavirus appears not to be deadly enough to kill tens of millions of people, as was initially feared,” I wrote on February 6, “but this is more or less a matter of luck. The virus could easily have been deadlier, and the world would currently be in the grip of a horrifying mass casualty event.” Perhaps 2020’s single biggest stroke of luck — one that, as a parent of young kids, I appreciate every single day — is that the disease largely isn’t deadly to children.
Other pandemic diseases might be different. It is possible for a disease to spread like Covid-19 while being deadlier to younger people, and particularly deadly to young children as influenzas typically are. One thing the country can take a small measure of comfort in is that its unreadiness was exposed and its lessons were learned now, with this virus, instead of something much, much worse. Countries that faced SARS in the mid-2000s handled Covid-19 better, and hopefully having faced Covid-19 will help the US be ready for the next pandemic.
“I think we’ve learned an enormous amount in the course of this year,” Steve Morrison, who studies pandemic preparedness at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. “Health security prior to this was a kind of niche domain. It was one prone to these cycles of crisis and complacency. It was underfinanced, underprioritized.” That came back to bite the US — but hopefully, having learned its lesson, it can do better.
Post-pandemic accountability will make a big difference in determining how much America lets its mistakes this time around make it stronger for the next time. Morrison, for his part, believes the country will have a better response next time around because of what it went through in 2020. It’s the thinnest of silver linings, but I’ll take it.
4) Our digital infrastructure for remote work was tested — and passed
As rough as 2020 was, it would have been much worse without remote communications tech. After a decade of asking, “What is tech even getting us?” we saw an answer: the ability for fully 40 percent of the labor force to stay home during a pandemic. Zoom and similar tools, for all we complain about them, enabled companies to switch to remote meetings more or less overnight. The amount of traffic online jumped dramatically, and the internet mostly handled it without visible strain.
That’s easy to take for granted, since we mostly experience it as an absence — websites that load when we expect them to, devices that work. But it’s really pretty remarkable, and it points at one of our modern world’s greatest strengths, a strength that has survived the pandemic.
“Internet traffic carried by AT&T, one of the nation’s largest internet providers, rose almost immediately by 20 percent starting in mid-March,” Charles Fishman pointed out in an Atlantic article:
By the end of April, network traffic during the workweek was up 25 percent from typical Monday-to-Friday periods in January and February, and showed no signs of fading. That may not sound like much, but imagine suddenly needing to add 20 percent more long-haul trucks to U.S. highways instantly, or 20 percent more freight trains, or 20 percent more flights every day out of every airport in the country. In fact, none of those infrastructure systems could have provided 20 percent more capacity instantly — or sustained it day after day for months.
AT&T also told the Atlantic it experienced even more dramatic spikes in time spent on the phone and in text messages sent. As the pandemic made it unsafe to connect with one another in person, we connected digitally.
If we’d suffered a pandemic like this only a few decades ago, the way we responded would have been basically impossible. The infrastructure simply didn’t exist to allow most white-collar workers to safely work from home. In 2020, it did — and where it didn’t, we built it. “At one point in March, for instance,” Fishman writes, “traffic was rising so fast in Chicago and Atlanta that dozens of technicians and engineers in those cities worked all night, adding fresh fiber connections and routers.”
There are, of course, still galling inequities in access to the internet. In some parts of the country, kids were switched to “remote school” despite not having reliable internet access at home. The CARES Act contained money for expanding broadband access in poorly served communities, though there have been challenges in ensuring the money is spent usefully by the end-of-year deadline. And most people don’t have the luxury of doing their jobs from home, and they didn’t reap this benefit as much as knowledge economy workers.
That said, the resilience of the home internet infrastructure was an undeniably good thing. And it might only get better: Over the course of the year, innovative engineers worked to make online meeting tools better and more reliable, and to mimic many of the missing bits of regular life. In the past few months, I’ve attended online parties where people get louder or quieter as you walk toward them, to imitate how normal parties work; I’ve tested out special technology to enable group singing, which usually doesn’t work over video calls because of lag.
The tech industry has lots of problems. But it can also be innovative, flexible, and fast-moving, and in 2020 it lived up to its promise as a source not just of shiny distractions but of critical tools. The engineers who made working and connecting from home possible saved lives, and it should be an opportunity to reflect on how much technology can do when it’s directed at important problems.
5) Biotech is making huge leaps in other sectors
If you’ve ever seen a three-dimensional model of a protein, you might have noticed that the way the atoms twist and fold up into a shape looks kind of random. For a long time, scientists have tried to identify principles that explain what shape proteins will take when they fold. They’ve had only moderate success. There are more than a googol possibilities for any given protein, and which form a protein will take depends on incredibly complex interactions among its thousands of amino acids.
Researchers have kept at it, though, because the “protein-folding problem” is one of the most critical ones in biology. Successfully predicting how proteins fold will make it possible to design new drugs with a particular desired structure. It opens the door to breakthroughs in everything from new cancer treatments to new antidepressants.
2020 saw a big leap in these efforts, thanks to AI. Every two years at an annual competition called the Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction (CASP), biologists compete to design systems that predict how unfamiliar proteins will fold. Their predictors are judged by how far their best guess at a protein’s structure is from the experimentally determined structure — the one the protein has when it is built out of amino acids and measured how it folds.
Last CASP, in 2018, the leader of the pack was Alphabet’s DeepMind, an AI research organization. At this year’s CASP, DeepMind didn’t just win again — it improved on its previous performance by an enormous margin, producing results almost as good as those you would get if you laboriously built and laboratory-imaged all of the proteins.
“This is a big deal,” CASP co-founder John Moult told Nature. “In some sense the problem is solved.”
DeepMind’s results are good enough that researchers should be able to use them for all kinds of biomedical research, custom-designing drugs that have desired receptors. It would also let researchers quickly scan every existing drug to learn which ones will work against some novel disease. And there’s no reason to think that the progress will stop here.
“It’s a breakthrough of the first order, certainly one of the most significant scientific results of my lifetime,” Columbia computational biologist Mohammed AlQuraishi told Nature. Skeptics have protested that while DeepMind has made progress, they haven’t “solved” protein folding, and there are many other steps before this work will produce new drugs. But there’s no arguing that this has been a major goal in biology and in pharmaceutical research for a long time.
DeepMind made its name in the AI field with its work beating top players at Go, chess, and Starcraft. Those triumphs involved impressive technical achievements, but they were easy for some to dismiss as being novelties — an AI that can play video games better than a human won’t change the world. This achievement makes it clear that AI breakthroughs are also coming to scientific fields and are poised to be hugely consequential.
While many of the implications of highly advanced AI systems give me pause, there’s lots of cause for optimism here. If we get AI right, we can use it to tackle many of the thorniest problems we face.
6) We’ve learned more about what works to fight poverty
This year is ending with a poverty crisis. But during April, May, and June — as the economy ground to a halt because of the pandemic — poverty in the US actually fell.
Why? The CARES Act, the landmark $2 trillion pandemic relief bill that Congress passed last March, briefly left many Americans better off. Transferring $1,200 to most taxpayers and padding out unemployment benefits with an extra $600 a week caused poverty rates to fall in April and May, at the depth of the crisis, as you can see on the chart below (the March decline is due to tax refunds). Poverty doesn’t usually fall in the middle of an economic crisis. But the US had never tried anything on the scale of CARES before.
The CARES Act’s provisions for unemployment insurance eventually expired, the act wasn’t renewed, and now poverty is spiking to record levels.
That’s awful news. But it also provides some useful perspective for policymakers. For a long time, there have been claims that America doesn’t really know how to tackle poverty, or that it requires solving lots of complex problems all at once. The CARES Act made it pretty clear that the country does know. A bill doesn’t have to be perfectly targeted, ideally designed, or incredibly clever to reduce poverty. It just has to send money to people who are struggling.
This lesson has been reflected in the ways macroeconomists think about policy, economist and finance commentator Noah Smith argues. “At least as far as policy debates go, arguments about optimal fiscal policy based in formal macroeconomic models seem to be out, replaced by a consensus that giving people money is necessary and good (at least, for the foreseeable future),” Smith wrote recently. Since the new consensus seems to reflect the empirical evidence a lot better than the old one — and presents policymakers with a lot more options to fight poverty — that’s great news.
7) The meat of the future is closer to the present
Currently, farms around the world produce chicken for sale by raising fast-growing chicken breeds in batches of tens of thousands, tightly packed in warehouses that are a public health hazard, a fire hazard, a worker safety hazard, and a hazard to the well-being of the chickens themselves.
What if, instead, we could grow the meat without the chickens?
Researchers all over the world have been chasing that dream, of “lab-grown” or “cultured” meat, for years. This year, lab-grown meat took one step closer to reality as the Singapore Food Agency approved the sale of cultured chicken meat grown in bioreactors, becoming the first agency in the world to issue such an approval. Its sign-off means that chicken bites from the US company Eat Just will be available to consumers in Singapore. (There are a few other places in the world where you can try lab-grown meat, such as an experimental restaurant in Israel.)
While the US isn’t close to commercial approval, the government is interested in figuring out how to foster lab-grown meat work stateside, as well: The US government gave out its first university research grant for lab-grown meat this winter.
While meat consumption is still rising, these steps have the potential to grow into much more than a novelty. If scale and cost concerns can be resolved, this can be a path to ending our reliance on barbaric factory farming practices, and building a food system that meets the world demand for meat ethically.
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