Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday October 4, 2023
Trust in Science: A Vital Component in Our Fight Against COVID-19
In the face of rising COVID-19 cases and a new vaccine rollout, it is disheartening to witness the resurgence of anti-vax sentiment. Yet, we must resist the urge to succumb to COVID fatigue and instead emphasize the importance of staying informed, resilient, and trusting in science. Recent developments have spotlighted the critical role of mRNA vaccines in our fight against the pandemic. In 2023, scientists Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their groundbreaking discoveries at the University of Pennsylvania that paved the way for effective COVID-19 vaccines.
Kariko and Weissman were honoured for their “discoveries concerning nucleoside base modifications that enabled the development of effective mRNA vaccines against COVID-19.” These vaccines, along with others, have been administered over 13 billion times, saving countless lives, preventing severe illness, and allowing societies to reopen. This achievement is a testament to the power of scientific innovation and collaboration.
The story behind these Nobel laureates is a testament to the persistence and ingenuity of scientists. Their journey began in 1998 when they met while waiting for rationed photocopying machine time. Kariko’s breakthrough was finding a way to prevent the immune system from launching an inflammatory reaction against lab-made mRNA, a significant obstacle to therapeutic mRNA use. Together with Weissman, they demonstrated in 2005 that modifications to nucleosides could keep mRNA undetected by the immune system. This pioneering work laid the foundation for mRNA vaccines and revolutionized the way we combat diseases.
Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, first discovered in 1961, represents a novel approach to medicine. Unlike traditional biotech medicines produced by genetically modified cells in complex reactors, mRNA functions as a software that instructs human cells to produce specific proteins. This technology holds promise not only for vaccines but also for treatments against cancer, malaria, influenza, and rabies.
Pfizer, in partnership with BioNTech, and Moderna harnessed the work of Kariko and Weissman, among others, to develop mRNA vaccines in record time when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in 2020. Yet, despite these remarkable achievements, a vocal anti-vaccine movement has emerged.
The Nobel Prize for Kariko and Weissman’s work may not sway the most ardent vaccine skeptics. Still, it serves as a reminder of the tremendous impact of science on our lives and the rigorous processes that ensure the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
The current wave of anti-vaccine sentiment, particularly in the United States, has deeper roots than political ideology. It reflects a broader decline in trust in institutions of all kinds, including science. This distrust, while most significant among Republicans, is not limited to any one party. It transcends politics and education levels.
It is essential to understand that skepticism about science does not fit neatly into traditional small-government conservatism. Even though mRNA vaccines were developed with private-sector innovation and streamlined regulatory processes, many conservatives remain distrustful of these vaccines, citing concerns about their rapid deployment.
Restoring faith in science is crucial for a functioning society. Experts must reflect on why so many Americans, regardless of political affiliation, have grown skeptical of institutions and science. It is not just about pro- or anti-government sentiment; it is about trust itself.
Empirical data shows that declining trust in science is linked to a broader decline in institutional trust. Those with more confidence in institutions are more likely to be vaccinated. Religious beliefs and education levels also play a role in shaping attitudes toward science.
The Nobel Prize awarded to Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman reminds us of the incredible progress that science can achieve. It is incumbent upon all of us to stay informed, resist the pull of misinformation, and rebuild trust in science. We must recognize that science, even in the face of skepticism, continues to be our most potent weapon against COVID-19 and future threats. Let us honour the tireless efforts of scientists like Kariko and Weissman by choosing science over misinformation and trust over doubt in our quest for a healthier world. (AI)