We have learned much, and need to learn much more

One year ago, the cover of Science News focused on the threat posed by a global disease outbreak: measles. Vaccine use had faltered, leading to 1,282 confirmed cases in the United States last year, and more than 400,000 worldwide. Little did we know that we would soon be under attack by a ferocious new viral foe. When this magazine went to press in mid-May, the United States had over 1.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 92,000 deaths, out of 4.9 million confirmed cases and about 324,000 deaths worldwide.

The speed and scope of what has happened to us all is still hard to grasp. I never imagined a world in which going to the grocery store could pose mortal peril, but here we are. Some days it feels as if everything that was once certain in life has been erased by uncertainty and dread.

In this issue, we step back from the daily flood of news to consider where we are in the fight against the virus, less than six months in. It’s not where anyone would hope to be: no approved treatments, no vaccines and with many countries still lacking systems for testing or contact tracing.

But we have also learned so much, so fast. Since December 31, when China reported a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown cause, researchers worldwide have been racing to learn the workings of the new virus, identify its vulnerabilities and develop treatments and vaccines. The pace is dizzying; two prominent online repositories of “preprint” studies, bioRxiv and medRxiv, have posted more than 3,000 coronavirus-related studies since January.

Some of this work, which is not yet peer-reviewed, will turn out to be wrong, such as a study claiming that the virus had recently mutated to be more contagious. But many other efforts will either prove useful in their own right, or help advance the work of others.

We’re watching science happen in real time right before our eyes: messy, flawed, riveting. For many of us, never has the effort been greater; never has so much been at stake.

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.