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COVID and 2020:An extraordinary year for science

One event dominated in 2020: a deadly and previously unknown virus wreaked havoc across the globe, killing more than 1.5 million people, infecting many more and causing economic devastation. And although there were other newsworthy research developments in 2020, the pandemic set the course of science to an extraordinary degree.

The speed of the coronavirus’s spread has been matched only by the pace of scientific insights. Almost as soon as SARS-CoV-2 was discovered, research groups worldwide started probing its biology, while others developed diagnostic tests or investigated public-health measures to control it. Scientists also raced to find treatments and create vaccines that could bring the pandemic under control. “We’ve never progressed so fast with any other infectious agent,” says virologist Theodora Hatziioannou at the Rockefeller University in New York City.

But, as it has with almost everyone, the pandemic has also affected researchers’ working and personal lives. Many of those who do not study the virus or its impact have had their projects delayed, careers put on hold and research funding disrupted.

A new virus

In January, less than a month after reports first emerged that a mysterious respiratory illness was striking people in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the country’s researchers had identified the cause: a new coronavirus1, soon to be named SARS-CoV-2. By 11 January, a Chinese–Australian team had posted the virus’s genetic sequence online. Soon afterwards, scientists made another key, yet alarming, discovery: the virus could pass between people.

By February, researchers had worked out that the virus latches on to a receptor called ACE22, a protein found on the surfaces of cells in many organs, including the lungs and gut. That abundance of targets might help to explain the devastating breadth of COVID-19’s symptoms, which range from pneumonia to diarrhoea and strokes3. The virus grabs ACE2 at least ten times as tightly as does SARS-CoV, the related coronavirus that caused a deadly outbreak of respiratory disease in 2003. Scientists think this could partly explain SARS-CoV-2’s infectiousness.

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