In the field of scientific discovery, not many people match the historical achievements of Marie Curie. Polish-born and French-nationalised, she inspired the treatments for cancer which we still rely on today and was the first female recipient of a Nobel prize in 1903 for discoveries in the field of radioactivity. She died in 1934, the effects of her work - exposing herself to radiation - claiming her life at age 66.
So much has changed in the last century. We've taken to the skies, set foot on the Moon and have a world of information at out fingertips on a screen held in our hands. But while cancer can be treated, there still isn't a true cure.
Science is always about pushing the bounds of possibility, but even by modern standards, it's less than a year since the Chinese state of Wuhan first reported the outbreak of a virus none of us could then imagine would change the way we live our lives.
Last Monday, the eyes of the world opened to the possibility that a vaccination for the virus which has dominated our lives in 2020 could be available within weeks.
Look at the bigger picture and that's quite a remarkable achievement.
US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, in collaboration with Germany-based BioNTech, had, they claimed, taken a giant leap for mankind: a vaccine with a 90%-plus success rate at the third stage of clinical trials.
"These are quite extraordinary times," says Dublin-born Professor Adrian Hill, director of the illustrious Jenner Institute at Oxford University, which focuses on designing and developing vaccines for infectious diseases and is right at the sharp edge in the pursuit of a vaccine for Covid-19.
Like that of Pfizer/BioNTech, the Oxford vaccine is being developed at unprecedented speed. The Jenner Institute has partnered with drug-maker AstraZeneca to produce its vaccine globally. The company has already committed to making almost three billion doses available within 12 months.
"No one has ever done that before," says Professor Hill, which gives you a sense of the scale of the scientific achievement. "The largest amount of any vaccine ever distributed is around 400 to 500 million doses.
"Here we have a new vaccine type that has never been used before, We didn't start slowly. We went off at full speed to make two to three billion doses in the next 12 months.
"There is not going to be enough for everyone in the world a month after any emergency use approval. It takes longer to manufacture than that. Someone will have to decide who gets those doses first.
"The question I get asked is, 'Surely, you are going too fast? Aren't you taking risks with the volunteers?' The answer is: no. And that's because we are doing what we do normally, at the same speed.
"You can't measure immune response two months after vaccination unless you wait two months, so there is nothing different there. What is different is the lag-time in between each phase and the time you need to get all the regulatory and environmental approvals and ethics committee approvals. That normally takes months and now those things are taking days."
You can imagine the clamour around the world as countries jockey for position to get their hands on a miracle cure - though final trials and licensing for the vaccination are still awaited for the Pfizer/BioNTech version. But creating a vaccine - particularly for a virus so new to the world - is never an exact science. Some global killers, like smallpox and polio, have been almost totally eradicated by products made with methods dating back to Louis Pasteur. Others, like malaria and HIV, utterly frustrate scientists to this day.
There’s a vaccine for Ebola that protects nearly 100% of its recipients, but there’s luck involved in getting a routine flu shot that works half that well. There are still no vaccines with long-lasting protection against malaria, or tuberculosis.
Limits remain on how far we can go to protect the human race. In all these years, we’ve never managed to find a cure for the common cold.
By 2020 standards, scientists were driving around in a horse and cart in 2019. Now they seem to have the keys to a Ferrari.
A quick search through books of scientific discovery and you’ll find the mumps vaccine is the quickest to have been developed.
That took four years, from collecting viral samples to licensing the drug in 1967. Some vaccines take a decade; most even longer.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine might be the first hope for ridding us of Covid-19 and, for now, it remains a hope. But the good news is that the best hope may yet be to come.
Hot on the heels of the researchers at Oxford University, several more trials are at a critical stage. On October 23, Indian biotechnology company Bharat Biotech announced it has received approval to start phase three trials after reporting its prototype vaccine had more than a 90% success rate.
On September 24, Novavax, based in Maryland, USA, had announced the launch of its own phase three trial; Johnson & Johnson likewise on September 23. Though trials were paused on October 12 after an unexplained illness affected a participant, they have now resumed.
Moderna Therapeutics in Massachusetts started phase three trials as early as July 27 and claimed it was on track to deliver at least 500 million doses per year beginning in 2021, though chief executive Stephane Bancel is now saying it’s unlikely the vaccine will be widely available in the first half of 2021.
Other companies in the running include the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (Australia), CanSino Biologics (China) and the Gamaleya National Centre of Epidemiology and Microbiology (Russia). China, indeed, has already by-passed phase three to give vaccinations to its military forces — the first non-trial recipients in the world.
More than 150 coronavirus vaccines are in development, some at a more advanced stage than others. And while speed is of the essence (the US government calls its own vaccine search Operation Warp Speed), setbacks can come all to quickly.
Ask Dr Ultan Power, Professor in Molecular Virology at Queen’s University, Belfast, who spent nine years of his career working on a vaccine, only to see it fall at the final hurdle.
This time, though, he says, scientists started working with a head start.
“This is unprecedented,” he says. “If it does go all the way to be distributed and accepted, this will be historic in terms of the speed. But bear in mind that the speed we’re seeing comes from a lot of information we already know from related viruses, like Sars. This is not happening in a vacuum; not starting from scratch. There is technology and a great understanding.
“So far, the information is scant in terms of safety. We want to see the details. You’d always be slightly concerned about relatively rare adverse events and this still needs to be looked at very carefully. Transparency on safety will add tremendously to the acceptance of the vaccine.”
It estimated that 60%-70% of the global population needs to be immune to the virus in order to stop it spreading easily (known as “herd immunity”), even if the vaccine works perfectly. There are 7.8 billion people in the world and distribution will be key.
But there’s another hurdle, as Professor of Experimental Medicine at Imperial College, London, Peter Openshaw, explains.
“This isn’t an easy type of vaccine to get out. It needs storage at minus 70 to minus 80 degrees — and that’s not available everywhere,” he says. “If thawed out, it does remain stable for around five days, so it could be stored in hospitals, or laboratories, then rolled out at the start of each week. This is a real light at the end of the tunnel. It gives us something to keep us going through the winter.
“By the middle of next year, we should actually start to get back to normal. We need more detail and, even if there are still some doubts, it is exciting news. But it’s not ideal for global outreach.”
Assuming all goes well and the vaccine is deemed safe and licensed, then comes the decision on who is top of the queue.
Government indications suggest those in care homes and care home workers — the most vulnerable — would head the list, then the over-85s, then health and social service workers.
It’s a case of cross each bridge as it comes, but at least the bridges are being built.
On Thursday, the UK confirmed a record daily high of 33,470 cases. A safe, fully operational vaccine can’t come quickly enough.
And whoever hits the bullseye first will certainly be joining Marie Curie on the list of Nobel prize recipients, with the thanks of a grateful world ringing in their ears.