The end of 2021 marks nearly two years since SARS-CoV-2 started circling the globe. Since that time, public health on an international scale has never been more important.
The pandemic has driven many scientists’ work, leading to innovative research that has paved the way for life-saving vaccines, treatments, and better understanding of the intricacies of the virus while also providing insight into other areas of global health and medicine.
Scholars and fellows in Pew’s biomedical research programs were at the forefront of research in topics ranging from how vaccines work, to immunology and cell biology. As 2021 comes to a close, we look back at some of their notable endeavors.
Vaccines are one of the most effective public health measures in the fight against global disease control and prevention, and the COVID-19 vaccines were top of mind this year.
In March, Pew spoke to immunology and virology experts Carolina Lucas, a 2018 Pew Latin American fellow, and Felicia Goodrum, a 2008 Pew biomedical scholar, who reflected on the power of vaccines and the science behind how they work.
Vaccines train the body to recognize and fight certain threats such as diseases and viruses by giving the immune system a preview of what the virus looks like so the body can be prepared to fight the real thing, Lucas and Goodrum said.
Both experts stressed the safe and life-saving nature of vaccines, citing a 2019 World Health Organization estimate that vaccination helps prevent 2-3 million deaths each year. They also debunked common misconceptions about vaccines, explaining there is no evidence supporting claims they cause autism, and that it is extremely unlikely the viral particles that vaccines carry could ever become reactivated and infectious to cause disease.
Ultimately, Lucas and Goodrum urged people to get vaccinated for COVID-19.
“It’s incredibly important that people trust in science—an evidence-based, data-driven approach to problems that constantly weighs risks versus benefits,” Goodrum said. “Viruses, and the diseases they cause, don’t naturally disappear. It’s because of strong vaccination campaigns that they’re kept at bay or eradicated.”
While finding methods for disease eradication is critical to global public health, understanding how the immune system—the body’s defense mechanism against disease—operates is equally essential. Several current and former Pew scholars spent 2021 looking at this complex system to better understand how it fights COVID-19 and other threats.
For example, in the case of SARS-CoV-2, research has shown the virus can kick the immune system into overdrive and cause harm to the body. But this symptom isn’t specific to only COVID-19. When immune cells activate to fight an invader, they can cause temporary inflammation. This usually dissipates, but it sometimes does not, causing damage to organs and tissues. José Ordovás-Montañés, a 2021 Pew biomedical scholar, and 2020 Pew Latin American fellow Luciana Pádua Tavares are both researching different aspects and consequences of uncontrolled immune responses.
One of the most direct ways Pew-supported researchers made a global impact in 2021 is through the Pew Latin American fellows program, where early-career scientists tackle topics at the forefront of health and medicine. The program, which marked its 30th year in 2021, has developed a rich legacy of more than 300 scientists from Latin America who have participated in scientific exchange between the U.S. and Latin America.
To mark this anniversary, fellows from across the decades shared what the program has meant for them and their work. They expressed similar sentiments about how the program supported their postdoctoral training in the U.S. and later, the continuation of their research in their home countries. Others recalled how the program welcomed them into a community of scientists dedicated to helping fellow members learn and grow.
Kara Coleman is the project director for and Jennifer Villa is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs.