The Pandemic Changed How Science is Conducted

David Ho in the lab speaking with another scientist

Scientists in David Ho's center practically lived in the laboratory during the first months of the pandemic, moving into student dorms to be close to campus. The latest discoveries by the Ho lab may speed the development of a vaccine that's effective for all COVID variants and future coronaviruses. Photo: Jörg Meyer.

In early 2020—before most people asked, “What’s a coronavirus?”—infectious disease experts around the world knew something serious was brewing.

“From the top down, everyone recognized what an urgent problem we were facing. From day one, it was priority No. 1,” says David Ho, MD, professor of medicine and microbiology & immunology and director of Columbia’s Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center.

Soon after the initial outbreak, members of Ho’s virology group and other research teams were moving into vacated student dorms, where they lived for the better part of a year as they worked long hours to understand the virus.

This virus was unlike any others the researchers had confronted.

“Gratifyingly, we were able to make contributions and be very productive scientifically. The hard work did pay off,” Ho says. Ho’s team identified compounds that could be developed into antiviral drugs, provided insights aiding the development of monoclonal antibody therapies, and uncovered how new variants are able to evade our immune system and cause breakthrough infections.

And most recently, Ho’s team has identified an antibody from a COVID patient that not only neutralizes SARS-CoV-2 and its variants, but also related viruses found in animals. The finding may hasten the development of a vaccine that provides protection against all coronaviruses.


Watch: David Ho talks about how COVID changed science and the future of the pandemic.

The current vaccines changed the trajectory of the pandemic enormously. And the speed with which the vaccines were developed was unprecedented. “This has taught us how government, scientists in academic institutions and industry could come together and move things along at warp speed, so to speak,” Ho says. “That will change the mindset going forward for other conditions. Why do we have to follow the old routine when we see a new paradigm working so well?”

Ho finds encouragement in still newer antibody treatments and antiviral medications on the market, the latter showing effectiveness regardless of the variant involved.

That said, scientists know they must work as hard as the virus, to combat its persistent efforts to survive.

“The later variants are much more transmissible and so good at evading antibodies from prior infection or vaccination. That's the issue,” Ho says. To gain traction, future variants will have to be more transmissible and probably more evasive.

“Let's hope that future variants are less pathogenic, but that's rather unpredictable,” Ho says, “so it is vital for the field to continue to track the emergence of new variants.”

When will life get back to normal? It is a simple question that has no simple answers.

“My personal feeling is we will slowly transition to normalcy over the next year or two,” Ho says. “If we think back to the 1918/1919 flu pandemic, people reverted to their normal lives much earlier than the true ending of the pandemic.

“In the end, people are going to learn to live with the virus and hopefully enough people are vaccinated or previously infected so that the herd immunity will drive the death rate to a low number that is acceptable, similar to what flu does to us on an annual basis.”

Whatever the new normal becomes, Ho hopes it includes preparation for the next pandemic, which, history assures us, is certain to come. That means being ready for early detection and mobilization but also stockpiling ventilators, PPE, and other vital equipment.

“Each time we've learned a lesson and then become gradually complacent,” he says.  “Then we forget the lesson and have to relearn it once more.”