There is a plethora of information about the current COVID-19 pandemic coming to us via print media, television, online and the anecdotal tales we hear within our social circles. Much of what we see and hear is helpful and science-based, but much more of it is misinformation that is unhelpful and, in some cases, has proven to be lethal.
When it was reported on Jan. 9, 2021, that Pope Francis stated it was an “ethical choice” to be vaccinated, he was greeted with a negative outcry from some Catholic (and other) sources. The idea that some would reject the Holy Father’s suggestion that being vaccinated could save your life as well as the lives of others is frankly incomprehensible.
As Pope Francis further remarked, some people in our country are thinking, “something that isn’t right, …[and] take a path against the community, against democracy, against the common good.”
Some of this “not right thinking” may come from a misunderstanding about how science works. This strain of COVID-19 has been with us for one year. During that time, scientists around the world worked feverishly in their laboratories, shared data and helped one another to, at this time, produce at least four different vaccines that work to protect humans against infection by the virus.
This accomplishment was based upon and an extension of 30 or more years of research on the basic science of the structure and transmission vectors of many viruses in the coronavirus family.
During the time researchers were seeking to discover how this particular virus strain was transmitted and what it actually did once it entered the human body, they were pressed to make predictions from incomplete data. They told the public what they knew about other viruses in the same family as COVID-19.
As more information was collected, the actions of this particular virus became clearer, and scientists could speak with more authority about what we needed to do to mitigate the spread of the virus.
This is how science works. It is an iterative process where sometimes a wrong path is taken, and one must start over with new assumptions. Most times, the efforts of many people working separately come together to solve an important problem.
I worked for many years as a technician and research assistant in hospital pediatric hematology and oncology laboratories before continuing my education and earning a doctorate in immunology. It may be difficult for those without a background in epidemiology, immunology or virology to understand how much time, expertise and money led us to the point of being able to seriously reduce the infectivity of this virus and save countless lives.
However, public health professionals have known for over a century that people can protect themselves from an air-borne disease by wearing masks, washing their hands and keeping social distance. These simple acts are not political, not an infringement on anyone’s rights, not socialist or whatever else those who spread hate and mistrust try to lead people to believe.
These simple acts and getting vaccinated can bring us back to our extended families, to work, to recreation, to church.
Dr. Burger is an associate professor emerita who taught and performed research at Virginia Tech for over 25 years. She is a member of St. Mary Parish, Blacksburg.