Science returned to astonish us all


French news cameras were in California last week to capture America’s spectacular drive to mass-vaccinate against COVID-19. What were the visuals? An amusement park with cars lined up, their passengers waiting for a jab.

“Armies” of volunteers are helping, the French reporter says as attendants in protective gear direct the snaking traffic. Aerial pictures show cars lined up at vaccination stations, “by day” and “by night.”

The reporter interviews people in their cars. “Not very long” is how a firefighter describes the wait. “I’m super impressed,” a driver says of the organization. Waving her arms, the reporter exclaims that Americans are administering 1.49 million doses a day.

After four dark years of a White House denigrating science and clowning through a public health disaster, America is again the land of “how to” to the world. And it’s not just the logistics of getting shots in arms. It’s the far more awesome job of creating vaccines in record time.

New York-based Pfizer partnered with German company BioNTech to produce the first vaccine in wide use. Moderna of Cambridge, Massachusetts, followed soon after with the second. Johnson & Johnson, headquartered in New Jersey, is about to distribute a third vaccine that, unlike the other two, provides protection with just one shot.

President Joe Biden has his critics on the left and right, but few would question his seriousness about getting people vaccinated. And to contain infections while the vaccination campaign ramps up, he’s brought back to center stage Dr. Anthony Fauci. America’s top infectious disease expert is pounding the message that even as case numbers fall, Americans must continue to protect themselves.

Was former President Donald Trump useless as coronavirus death and illness skyrocketed? Not entirely. He did mock people who wore masks, push phony cures and waste several desperate months insisting that the pandemic wasn’t real. Half a million Americans didn’t have to die.

That is not to say, however, that his administration did nothing. Last spring, it launched Operation Warp Speed, which has spent something north of $12 billion helping companies develop, make and distribute vaccines.

Asked whether Trump’s refusal to concede the election made it harder to transition Warp Speed to the Biden team, the program’s scientific director, Moncef Slaoui, told Science magazine: “For sure. It was at least very, very unfortunate, to use a polite word.”

Fortunately, America’s scientists have pressed on past years of disrespect. And we now see astonishing results in fields beyond vaccine development.

Just last week, the country that put humans on the moon landed an extraordinary robot named Perseverance on Mars. The rover will dig up the planet’s rocks and perhaps help answer the question everyone asks — whether there is, was or could be life on Mars.

The very same week, news arrived that our scientists have cloned a black-footed ferret using the frozen cells of an animal dead for 33 years. What they did was revive a species thought to be extinct. The possibilities amaze.

Recall “Jurassic Park,” the 1993 Spielberg film in which scientists come across dinosaur DNA and use it to bring prehistoric monsters back to life. That story will remain on the science fiction shelf because there’s no usable dinosaur DNA, but similar idea as the ferret.

Over in COVID-plagued Europe, meanwhile, the vaccination project is a mess. While the U.S. has administered 19 doses per 100 people, France has done only 5.5. Italy and Germany have dispensed 5.8 and 6.1, respectively.

Lots of complaints here about the difficulty of getting the vaccine. But compared with most other countries, America is showing that when it comes to meeting a challenge, we still have the know-how.

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