Last week was both exciting and concerning in the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, we see hope for an end to the pandemic, yet record-breaking numbers of hospitalizations show us that there’s still a long way to go. It’s important to take stock of what we have done and what is still needed as we move through this tumultuous time.

In San Antonio, all those on the front lines at our outstanding medical facilities have worked tirelessly for months and saved countless lives. During this time our clinicians have learned a lot about better managing patients with COVID-19 including the use of new and time-honored therapies and the proper use of ventilators. Still, the death toll continues to rise, and the loss of life has devastated our community.

We have learned a lot, and while we have many frontline heroes, there is one ultimate hero in this story: science.

Scientists have developed tests, therapies, and vaccines with astonishing speed. Though the rapid progress might raise concerns, it is possible because science is cumulative, on the backs of previous discoveries. What appears to be an overnight success has been decades in the making.

It took science more than a decade to discover the polio virus and more than three decades to find a vaccine. More recently, it took scientists months to discover and map the genome of the first SARS virus, whereas it took less than two weeks to discover the genetic blueprint of SARS-CoV-2. The work of scientists over the past several years, developing more powerful vaccine strategies against viruses, enabled new science technology called messenger RNA to jumpstart a vaccine for this pandemic shortly after the discovery of the virus. 

This enabled the immediate development of diagnostic tests and vaccines. And in just six weeks, Texas Biomed scientists established validated large animal models needed to test the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 therapies and vaccines.

Leaps in science require effective collaboration. There has been unprecedented lean-in by global investigators, pharmaceutical companies, government entities, and a fluid intersection between basic science researchers, animal modelers, clinicians, epidemiologists, and clinical trial investigators all getting involved simultaneously. This is what is driving innovation and delivering science to the market faster than ever before, but we need to sustain this energy, drive and follow-through.

Our hero needs champions – people who believe in and invest in the power of science. We have not been adequately prepared for infectious disease threats to this point and we can do better. Reacting to a current threat will always put us behind and force us to play catch up. When previous threats have subsided so has public attention to the problem and resources. We need transformational change to a proactive, sustainable approach.

We need to get ahead of the next pandemic because it’s coming. And, getting ahead means bringing together scientists, epidemiologists, government and industry partners, health care workers, manufacturers, and all those intricately involved in health care delivery in a more cohesive manner to proactively address the issues of the future.

And our champions need all of us to be willing to do the work of educating friends, neighbors, and loved ones on best practices that we all must follow right now in order to see this pandemic come to an end with as minimal loss to life as possible. In the spirit of Texas hospitality and doing right by our neighbors, we must wash our hands, wear our masks, stay physically distanced from others, and unless medically unable, we must get the vaccine when it becomes available to us. These best practices are also steeped in rigorous science.

I believe there is cause for hope and celebration at this critical juncture in the pandemic. The global community is partnering to take years of learning and produce ground-breaking innovations in record time. If we continue to invest in infectious diseases research and development in a proactive manner, we can get ahead of the curve next time, and if we band together to educate our community about the benefits of scientific success, we will see an end to this and future pandemics.

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Larry Schlesinger

Larry S. Schlesinger is an internationally recognized authority in infectious diseases with a particular interest in lung biology. He is President and CEO of Texas Biomedical Research Institute.