Humanity has suffered from deadly diseases for millennia without fully knowing what they were, how they were transmitted, or how they could be cured. Smallpox, which killed between 300 million and 500 million people in the 20th century alone, originated in either India or Egypt at least 3,000 years ago. But it was not until the late 18th century that the English physician Edward Jenner vaccinated his first patient against the disease. It took another two centuries before smallpox was finally eradicated in 1980.

In contrast, modern biomedical progress enabled us to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in months, not centuries. On December 31, 2019, a cluster of “pneumonia” cases was reported in Wuhan, China. By January 12, 2020, Chinese scientists had identified, sequenced, and made the responsible coronavirus’ genetic code publicly available.

That enabled the rest of the world to devise diagnostic tests for the disease. For example, after South Korea identified its first COVID-19 infection on January 20, biotech companies rushed to produce test kits. The kits were available at 50 locations around the country by February 7.

By mid-April, thousands of researchers throughout the world were using digital and biomedical technologies to pursue promising paths toward victory over the disease. Some 200 different programs were underway to develop therapies and vaccines to combat the pandemic.

On December 2, 2020, the United Kingdom became the first country to authorize the use of a vaccine developed by the American Pfizer Corporation and the German BioNTech company. The vaccine, which is 95 percent effective, contains messenger RNA (mRNA) that COVID-19 uses to construct the proteins that enable the virus to infect human cells. The injected mRNA tricks the cell into making these spike proteins, which then induce the immune system to produce antibodies against the virus. Antibodies bind themselves onto attacking viruses, disabling them or marking them for death for other parts of the immune system to deal with.

Modern medicine has enabled humanity to eradicate, nearly eradicate, and otherwise limit the spread of various diseases, including cholera, diphtheria, measles, rubella, and typhoid. Unlike previous vaccines, which tended to use a weaker form of a virus to protect the recipients, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine uses the human body itself to achieve the same result. This new technology possibly marks the beginning of a new era of speedy development of highly effective vaccines that will protect humanity in the decades to come. Less than 12 months separated the discovery of COVID-19 and the production of an effective life-saving vaccine. This modern miracle is a testament to human ingenuity.