Will COVID-19 wind up saving lives?

Malaria is an extraordinarily difficult pathogen to vaccinate against. But now, thanks to the fight against COVID — which advanced the technology, increased funding, and dramatically expanded manufacturing capacity — there are finally promising candidates being tested and, if effective, capable of being deployed.

Given that malaria has been around forever, why did it take COVID to spur this development? Part of the answer is that malaria largely afflicts poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa, while COVID has ravaged the developed world. But that’s only part of the answer, because mRNA technology also has promising applications against cancer, a central health concern in developed countries with aging populations. Indeed, the search for cancer vaccines has been a major driver of research over the past decade.

Cancer, though, like malaria, is a longstanding, persistent killer that we have lived with and died from forever. It is not radically disruptive the way the pandemic has been. That widespread social and economic disruption is what prompted governments around the world to throw extraordinary resources into the development and manufacture of vaccines. The arrival of COVID was the public-health equivalent of war, and, much like a war effort, the fight against COVID has spurred the development of new technologies that will yield benefits far beyond that victory.