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One event dominated 2020, a deadly and previously unknown virus wreaked havoc across the globe, killing more than 1.5 million people, infecting many more and causing economic devastation. And although there were other newsworthy research developments in 2020, the pandemic set the course of science to an extraordinary degree.

The speed of the coronavirus’s spread has been matched only by the pace of scientific insights. Almost as soon as SARS-CoV-2 was discovered, research groups worldwide started probing its biology, while others developed diagnostic tests or investigated public-health measures to control it. Scientists also raced to find treatments and create vaccines that could bring the pandemic under control. But, as it has with almost everyone, the pandemic has also affected researchers’ working and personal lives. Many of those who do not study the virus or its impact have had their projects delayed, careers put on hold and research funding disrupted


In January, less than a month after reports first emerged that a mysterious respiratory illness was striking people in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the country’s researchers had identified the cause: a new coronavirus, soon to be named SARS-CoV-2. Soon afterwards, scientists made another key, yet alarming, discovery: the virus could pass between people.

By February, researchers had worked out that the virus latches on to a receptor called ACE2, a protein found on the surfaces of cells in many organs, including the lungs and gut. That abundance of targets might help to explain the devastating breadth of COVID-19’s symptoms, which range from pneumonia to diarrhoea and strokes. The virus grabs ACE2 at least ten times as tightly as does SARS-CoV, the related coronavirus that caused a deadly outbreak of respiratory disease in 2003. Scientists think this could partly explain SARS-CoV-2’s infectiousness.

By March, some scientists were suggesting that tiny virus-laden ‘aerosols’, which can linger in the air for long periods, play a part in transmission. But not all researchers agreed, and it took some governments and public-health organizations months to adapt to the evidence that this was one way that the virus spread. Researchers have also learnt that people can spread the disease before developing symptoms.

Perhaps the biggest outstanding mystery surrounding the virus’s biology is where it came from. Strong evidence suggests that it originated in bats, and probably passed to humans through an intermediate animal. A number of animal species are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, including cats and mink. In September, the World Health Organization (WHO) formed a scientific team to investigate the animal origin of the pandemic, starting its search in China and expanding elsewhere. US President Donald Trump and others have claimed, without substantive evidence, that a Chinese laboratory released SARS-CoV-2, but most scientists think that is highly unlikely.

Control attempts: successes and failures

From the pandemic’s earliest days, epidemiologists have rushed to develop models to predict the virus’s spread — and suggest what public-health measures could help to control it. In the absence of vaccines or treatments, officials worldwide have relied on what are known as non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as lockdowns. In January, officials in Wuhan showed how quickly shutting down almost every aspect of daily life could contain the virus. Much of the world followed, with similar restrictions on movement.

But the economic impact of lockdowns was swift and severe, which led many countries to open up before the virus was under control. Uncertainty early in the pandemic about whether the virus was airborne led to debate about the benefits of wearing face masks, which became politicized. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories, misinformation and sketchy science spread almost as fast as the virus. These included discussions about the merits of letting the virus run its course instead of controlling it.

Epidemiologists advised that mass testing for SARS-CoV-2 was the way out of the crisis. But in many countries, shortages of kits and reagents for the standard tests, which use a technique called PCR, created bottlenecks. This spurred research groups worldwide to start devising new rapid tests, including those based on the gene-editing tool CRISPR and fast antigen tests, which could help with diagnosing diseases that emerge in future.

This tale of COVID-19 was no doubt cataclysmic for the whole world but those who belong to the medical or research background tried and studied something new. Hopefully the studies will go on and humans will soon find some cure to this virus and 2021 would be a year of happiness.

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