Living with pandemic uncertainty, Year 2

March 11, 2020, was when the coronavirus made clear it was not going to slink away. On that day, the World Health Organization officially declared the outbreak a global pandemic, married actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they were infected and the NBA abruptly suspended the season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive. The United States closed its borders to travelers from Europe. Within two days, most public venues shuttered — even Broadway went dark. Offices and restaurants emptied and schools shut down.

But there was still hope that we would somehow avoid the worst of a pandemic; at that point, fewer than 50 people were known to have died from COVID-19 in the United States. Now, with more than 525,000 U.S. deaths and at least 2.6 million worldwide, we know that was wishful thinking.

We here at Science News have been looking back at the questions we were trying to answer during that chaotic, mind-bending week a year ago. How deadly the virus was and how it spread were two big ones. Data from the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship and from China gave some hints, but we really didn’t know.

In that same week, senior writer Tina Hesman Saey reported on a study out of Germany showing that people were most likely to spread the virus before they had symptoms. In hindsight, that study of just nine people at one company told us so much, foreshadowing the virus’s rampage. There, one person infected another by sneezing in a meeting; for others, just sitting together in front of a computer was enough.

And we reported on how social distancing would do more to rein in the virus than travel bans ever could. Back then, we were still putting “social distancing” in quotes; it was a strange new term. A year’s worth of experience proves that it does effectively slow the spread of the coronavirus — and also that social, economic and political pressures make social distancing a challenge to deploy.

A year ago, a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 was barely a hope. Now we have three effective vaccines authorized for emergency use in the United States, and more than 2 million people are getting a shot each day. But this astounding success brings many more questions, including whether the vaccines protect against new virus variants and how to interact with those who are not vaccinated.

It also raises questions about how the current approach to vaccine access might hurt in unexpected ways. Wealthy nations are monopolizing doses, buying up far more than they need. That imperils the lives of people in less affluent countries. And as staff writer Jonathan Lambert writes, it also increases the odds that dangerous virus variants will arise that can evade vaccines. Because global supply chains are so interconnected, extreme vaccine inequity could cost the global economy more than $9 trillion this year, economists estimate. And no matter how many vaccine doses we’ve bought up, no one is immune from that.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.