Vaccines for COVID have been developed in record time. Here’s the story behind the miracle

Professor Zhang wins the GigaScience Prize for Outstanding Data Sharing for his work on sequencing the genome of SARS-CoV-2. Credit: GigaScience
Professor Zhang wins the GigaScience Prize for Outstanding Data Sharing for his work on sequencing the genome of SARS-CoV-2. Credit: GigaScience
[P]acked in dry ice were swabs from a patient who was suffering from a novel, occasionally fatal respiratory illness that was sweeping the city of Wuhan. [Professor Zhang Yongzhen] and his colleagues set to work. For the next 48 hours, virtually non-stop, he and his team used advanced sequencing machines to unravel the RNA – the genetic building blocks – of the virus which they believed was responsible for the outbreak. Decoding the 28,000 letters of this RNA – which acts as letters of DNA do in a human – would give a precise indication of the new pathogen’s nature and behaviour.

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Within days of his sequencing breakthrough, Zhang’s results were posted on the website virological.org – giving the world its first inkling of a pathogen that has since killed more than 1.5 million people and convulsed nations with lockdowns, travel restrictions and economic disruption… His team’s early unravelling of the structure of the virus responsible for Covid-19 – as the disease was later named – gave science a chance to fight back. The result was an international effort that [recently saw] a vaccine for the disease administered to the public for the first time.

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It is an extraordinary achievement. To go from the discovery of a deadly new virus to the creation of a tested vaccine that can block its effects in less than a year is unprecedented in scientific history.

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