It’s long been a sticking point between the public and science: a disaster befalls us unexpectedly, and we, of course, want answers immediately. But in the cruelest kind of irony, most science cannot be done in a rush. The beauty of the scientific method is its careful use of observation over time—tracking the migration patterns of birds for decades, for example. Or, when it comes to drug development, the gold-standard randomized controlled clinical trial, where an equal proportion of patients are given no treatment at all to serve as a baseline against which researchers can compare any effects of the drug being given to the other participants. These careful procedures give us the best science. They take time and a kind of cool detachment, allowing data to roll in before conclusions are drawn.
But tell that to the family of a woman in severe respiratory distress from COVID-19. Waiting to know which of the handful of potential treatments for the novel coronavirus might be effective is a privilege of time that many patients don’t have. In this issue, health and medicine editor Tanya Lewis gives a detailed survey of the batch of drugs researchers are rushing to test scientifically, even as they are being put to the test on a case-by-case basis (see “Here’s What We Know about the Most Touted Drugs Tested for COVID-19”). Elsewhere, journalist Stacey McKenna takes a sobering look at what researchers actually know about immunity to the virus (see “What Immunity to COVID-19 Really Means”), and biologist William A. Haseltine evaluates the limitations of a vaccine solution (see “Can We Really Develop a Safe, Effective Coronavirus Vaccine?”).
The common theme to all these riveting stories? Making safe and effective medicine needs time—the one luxury we now cannot afford.