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Medical research hits the front page

The coronavirus pandemic made scientific matters a topic of daily conversation in 2020

A lab technician researches the coronavirus at Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutical in Beerse, Belgium Associated Press/Photo by Virginia Mayo (file)

Medical research hits the front page

It’s rare that one news story spans a whole year. But this year, everything happened in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic—and that falls squarely within the science beat. Questions about the origin and nature of and effective response to the virus have abounded from day one and only became more intense and controversial as the months dragged on. The urgent search for treatments and vaccine also sparked renewed debate about ethical research methods. But the pandemic wasn’t the only big science news this year. Though it may have taken a temporary backseat to health headlines, climate change and environmental issues still pushed their way to the forefront, especially in light of disastrous wildfires in the United States. And a global pandemic notwithstanding, there were new developments in the research into origins and intelligent design as well.

Covering a health crisis

The global pandemic took everyone by surprise after it surfaced in China and rapidly spread to around the world early this year. From the beginning, public health leaders sought to understand and apply all the data coming in from researchers. The list of questions grew longer as the months dragged on: Where did the virus come from? Did it escape from a lab? Is it airborne? Scientists and studies produced conflicting early information that complicated the U.S. response and left many wondering about the reliability of health organizations, particularly the international World Health Organization. But that didn't stop government officials from continuing to release a dizzying pendulum of recommendations. They often struggled to offer adequate testing, while scientists searched for treatments, exploring creative new ways to spark immunity to the virus. Eventually, the death rate finally began to drop even as cases continued to rise, a fact many attribute to healthcare workers’ growing toolkit of ways to fight the illness. Now, with two vaccines approved for emergency use in the United States, distribution is full force. That sparked a new debate over possible side effects. And the work isn’t over—public health officials also need to start identifying lessons for the future.

Debating morality

Early in the year, the scientific world reeled from the revelation that, for the first time ever, babies were born after having their genes edited by a Chinese scientist. The news sparked intense soul searching among scientists about how to hold each other accountable for ethical practices. The coronavirus, and the urgent need for treatments and vaccines, only made ethical questions more urgent, particularly about the use of fetal tissue in research. While the first two vaccines, from Pfizer and Moderna, explored new methods that in the long-term could reduce scientific reliance on cell lines from aborted babies, their use in other vaccines has left pro-lifers feeling conflicted about getting the shots. A discovery about a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease offered a timely reminder that scientists have many research methods open to them that come with less ethical baggage.

Caring for the environment—or not

Conservation and climate change continued to grab headlines this year. Reports circulated on social media that coronavirus lockdowns were actually good for the environment—though some of those stories proved too good to be true. Later in the year, devastating wildfires tore through the West Coast, burning millions of acres and killing dozens of people. While many rushed to blame climate change for the blazes, others raised questions about how environmental policies help or hinder the health of forests and the safety of surrounding communities. Meanwhile, climate change activists didn’t slow their efforts: Countries around the world have experimented with granting natural resources human-like rights. The efforts have begun to make headway in the United States: Voters in Orange County, Fla., overwhelmingly supported granting such rights to two local rivers in November. In Colorado, an effort to reintroduce gray wolves has highlighted the sharp divide in beliefs about stewardship between city and country dwellers.

What started it all…

But despite all the breaking news, this roundup didn’t forget its origins—literally! The biggest news on the intelligent design front this year was the theory breaking through into a mainstream scientific journal. Two Norwegian scientists referenced notable ID theorists in their paper exploring the incredible fine-tuning on display in biology in the pages of the prestigious, peer-reviewed Journal of Theoretical Biology. “The chances that the universe should be life-permitting are so infinitesimal as to be incomprehensible and incalculable,” they wrote.

But there were more subtle wins on this front as well, whether a finding about water on the early Earth that comports with the Biblical story of creation or discoveries about creatures like dolphins that fits better in a design paradigm than a Darwinian one. And on that note: Charles Darwin and his evolutionary theory took a bit of a beating on the historical front, as one book dug into the ways the idea has been deployed to further racial divides.

Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is a former assistant editor for WORLD Digital. She is a Patrick Henry College and World Journalism Institute graduate. Rachel resides with her husband in Wheaton, Ill.

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