Few find much if anything to praise about the year 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic attacked all of humanity. Indeed, the last twelve months is filled with tales of woe ranging from unimaginable numbers of deaths to months of lockdown, cancelled life events, truck trailer morgues, and funerals over Zoom. But 2020 was also the year of modern miracles, the likes of which mankind has never witnessed. It makes sense when you think about it. Miracles only occur in the darkest hours and heroes are only born from the most tragic of horrors.
As Dr. Esther Choo tweeted so succinctly and profoundly, “one year ago, Wuhan experienced a mysterious cluster of cases of pneumonia. A year later, we have identified and characterized the virus and developed two effective and safe vaccines and started to administer them. We have to stop and appreciate this breathtaking accomplishment.”
While miracles such as vaccines in record time come to be through many moving parts and the collaborative efforts of scientists from numerous disciplines, there is no doubt that bioinformatics was the core game changer. Without this technology to speed the scientists’ work to life-saving fruition, we wouldn’t have a vaccine for another four or more years. Yikes!
So, what did bioinformatics do that made not one, but definitely two and possibly three vaccines available in less than a year?
For one thing, bioinformatics enabled researchers to study the virus in real time. Instant knowledge, as it were. Granted that knowledge came in tiny bytes and pieces, but we got it fast and complied the parts into a bigger picture even faster.
“The coronavirus (COVID-19) is still, after a year of wreaking havoc worldwide, largely a puzzle. As physicians and researchers around the globe work to treat patients and study the virus, they are amassing an abundance of data — thousands upon thousands of individual puzzle pieces,” explains a University of Delaware article.
“Enter the field of computational biology and bioinformatics, in which scientists leverage technology to store, analyze and comb through data — much of it collected at the subcellular level. They develop and use methods and algorithms that make pattern-finding a possibility. Ultimately, these patterns help us understand — and combat — disease.”
Further, continuously studying the virus in real time means scientists can see variations and mutations pretty much as they happen too. Think of it as a real-time, front seat view of virus evolution. This is all important information to have when the goal is to develop life saving treatments and vaccines ASAP!
“A computer is a microscope for looking at data that is too big to see with our own naked eye,” said Hagit Shatkay, a professor of computer and information sciences in the College of Engineering at the University of Delaware, in that same article. “Faced with a glut of information, a computer can help us focus on what’s most important.”
Bioinformatics proved so essential to combatting Covid-19 and other diseases that many countries, even smaller ones, are scrambling to beef up their bioinformatics skills and assets. For example, “the Philippine Genomics Center (PGC) recently trained 101 biologists and healthcare professionals on bioinformatics to boost the country’s pool of computational biology experts,” according to an article in Business Mirror.
The result: a new type of vaccines that essentially sends your body an email with a picture of the attacking virus and instructions on how to stop or destroy it. After that, just like something straight out of a Mission Impossible movie or old television show episode, the email self-destructs. Nothing is left in your body but your own, now fully-armed immune system. Very cool, eh?!
If you want to know more about how these vaccines work in your body, watch this short video. And remember that as hard as 2020 has been, you are witnessing and experiencing a true, modern day miracle of science!