Think about how Covid might have been different if, say, 50 percent of the world’s urban population had switched into this mode on Feb. 1, 2020. Could this have stopped the virus in its tracks? Perhaps not. But it might have resulted in a global outbreak that looked more like South Korea’s experience, or San Francisco’s, with death rates a tiny fraction of what they ultimately proved to be.
We are learning from Covid in a more obvious way as well: through the lens of science. After the Great Influenza, it took 13 years — thanks to a young virologist named Richard Edwin Shope, who noticed veterinary reports about an unusual outbreak of swine flu among pigs in fall 1918 — to prove that the pandemic had been caused by a virus at all. The contrast with Covid could not be more extreme: We isolated the SARS-CoV-2 virus about 20 days after the outbreak was first reported. Just over a week later, its genome had been sequenced and shared around the world, and the blueprint for what would become the mRNA vaccines (the ones manufactured, ultimately, by Pfizer and Moderna) was essentially complete.
It’s important to remember that mRNA vaccines were a promising, if unproven, line of inquiry for years before the pandemic hit; no one could say for sure that they even worked. But now BioNTech has announced that it’s ramping up development of a malaria vaccine using messenger RNA as the delivery mechanism, and Moderna and partners announced that they’re beginning trials of two mRNA candidate vaccines against H.I.V. Malaria kills roughly 400,000 people a year, H.I.V. nearly a million, and both diseases disproportionately affect the young. If the successful mass rollout of the Covid vaccines winds up accelerating the timeline for these other vaccines, the impact on human life will be enormous.
And just as the Great Influenza slowly nudged scientists toward the development of flu shots, which finally became commonplace in the 1940s, the Covid crisis will redirect vast sums of research dollars toward the development of universal vaccines to protect against all variants of both influenza and coronavirus. Given the relentless, year-in-and-year-out disease burden of flu around the world, a vaccine that reduced its virulence by an order of magnitude would be a life saver of historic proportions.
What about the more subtle psychological legacy of Covid? How will it change the way we perceive the world — and its risks — when the pandemic finally subsides? I have a memory from May of this year, taking my 17-year-old son to the Javits Center in Manhattan for his first vaccine, followed by a shopping trip to pick out a tie for his (masked, outdoor) senior prom. At some point waiting in line, I made a halfhearted joke about how we were embarking on the classic father-son ritual of heading out to the mass vaccination site to protect him from the plague. I meant it ironically, but the truth is that for my son’s generation, proms and plagues will be part of the rituals of growing up.
There is a loss of innocence in that, but also a hard-earned realism: the knowledge that rare high-risk events like pandemics are not just theoretically possible but likely, in an increasingly urban and interconnected world of nearly eight billion people. As a parent, you want to protect your children from unnecessary anxieties, but not when the threat in question is a real one. My son’s generation will forever take pandemics as a basic fact of life, and that assumption, painful as it is, will protect him when the next threat emerges. But maybe, if the science unleashed by this pandemic lives up to its promise, his children — or perhaps his grandchildren — could inherit a world where plagues are a thing of the past.