discoveries magazine

What Did COVID-19 Teach Us for the Next Pandemic?

An illustration showing the dramatic effects of COVID-19 on the medical landscape.

Illustration: Kathleen Fu

Treatments and Vaccines Take a Quantum Leap

Less than a year after the identification of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, groundbreaking studies led to Food and Drug Administration approval of remdesivir, monoclonal antibodies and oral antivirals to treat the disease. 

Multisite clinical trials gleaned information in real time, Dr. Chen says, and taught scientists much about treating viral infections. Through collective study, we learned that drugs originally developed for other illnesses, including Ebola, could be recalibrated to fight viruses in the same family as COVID-19, such as SARS and MERS. 

"It shows what our machinery can do when we really put everything into it," Dr. Chen says.

Pandemic research also led to the creation of the first-ever coronavirus vaccines. Two of the approved vaccines trigger an immune response by using messenger RNA (mRNA) to teach cells how to produce harmless spike proteins that mimic those that open cells to SARS-CoV-2. Researchers have been studying mRNA vaccines for decades, but COVID-19 vaccines are the first to be introduced to the public.

"Now that we have the method down and mechanisms to improve it, we can very quickly tweak the vaccine to work against the next virus," Dr. Chen says. 

Infectious Disease Can Affect Genders Differently

Outbreaks Take Advantage of Existing Structural Inequities

High-Quality Communication Is Key

Genetic Research Into New Bugs Should Be a Priority