In these waning days of December, last January seems very far away. Our family calendar for that month still speaks of what was then normal — a work trip for me, theater rehearsals for our daughter, a concert by the neofolk band Heilung. My husband and I attended the show standing shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers.
But even then, the virus was coming. The first confirmed case in the United States was reported January 21, right before that concert. Since then, the world has learned that in a pandemic year, a concert hall packed with thousands of people is the last place you want to be.
We know that now because scientists around the world devoted themselves to solving the mystery of SARS-CoV-2. There’s so much we still don’t know, but we’ve learned a tremendous amount.
Many of those lessons were painful, a chronicle of misery and loss. The pandemic timeline we built for this special year-end issue recalls what we have endured — vacationers trapped on a sick cruise ship, millions out of work as countries locked down, students out of class, hospital workers overwhelmed, people dying without the comfort of a loved one’s hand.
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The early missteps in public health advice are particularly painful to recall, including assertions that asymptomatic people couldn’t spread the disease, and that masks weren’t needed. Also painful: the refusal by many in public office to heed the advice of scientists, and antiscience disinformation that accompanied it. How many lives could have been saved had science not been under attack?
Then came news from clinical trials showing that several vaccines can prevent illness. On December 2, the United Kingdom became the first Western country to approve a vaccine. The United States is poised to follow by year’s end. As a journalist, I looked with skepticism at the promises of vaccines by New Year’s. Now that it looks like scientists may have pulled off this astonishing feat, I couldn’t be more delighted to be proved wrong.
That’s not the end of the story, of course. Even if these vaccines prove to be as reliable as the clinical trials suggest, there will be big logistical challenges in distribution, and in overcoming mistrust in vaccines, especially among Black and Hispanic communities hit hardest by the coronavirus.
Considering how much the pandemic disrupted the year, it’s remarkable to look back and see how much “regular” life went on. While going all-in on covering the pandemic, we also continued to cover all the sciences, as we have since 1921. Those articles about gravitational waves and space launches and flying snakes , and many others, brought me the joy of discovery, day after day.
The pandemic still rages; we have so much more work to do. I am so proud of the extraordinary efforts of our Science News team to bring you accurate breaking news, as well as the deeper context, in the midst of a global crisis. We will continue that work. I am hopeful that a year from now we will look back at 2021 as another year of scientific discovery and achievement, and the year we tamed the virus.