In a year that was all about COVID-19 and the losses it incurred — lives, incomes, personal freedom, physical contact and simple handshakes — the development of vaccines for the deadly pandemic stands out as a top scientific and technology discovery of 2020.
By December, several researchers had announced positive results from trials, in record time. The quickest turnaround for a vaccine up to then was in the 1960s, when developers went from viral sampling to approval in four years for mumps immunization, the journal Nature reported.
Early in the month in Britain and the U.S., shipments began of coronavirus vaccine vials made by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the German firm BioNTech. On Dec. 18, the Food and Drug Administration gave emergency approval to Moderna's vaccine for people 18 and over. In a public show of support, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top epidemiologist, got the Moderna immunization along with other health officials in a press conference just days before Christmas.
Other notable science and technology discoveries this year:
Humans May Have Arrived in the Americas Thousands of Years Earlier Than Previously Thought
Archaeologists led by Ciprian Ardelean of Mexico's Autonomous University of Zacatecas, discovered tools that suggested humans arrived in the Americas some 30,000 years ago, during the ice age. A study published in July was considered controversial by some scientists who maintain humans migrated to the area not more than 15,000 to 16,000 years ago.
SpaceX Launches First Full NASA Crew to the International Space Station, With a Famous Stowaway
In November, the first operational flight for SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft landed at the International Space Station as part of NASA's commercial crew mission.
The launch marks the second-ever crewed mission for Elon Musk's SpaceX, and the first operational flight as part of NASA's commercial crew mission. Along for the ride was a stuffed Baby Yoda toy, whose arrival sparked an outpouring of online love on social media. "It's been a tough year. And the fact that … SpaceX and NASA were able to get our spacecraft ready to go, the rocket ready to go, throughout this year, throughout the pandemic, and all of that — we were inspired by everybody's effort," said astronaut Mike Hopkins at a news conference before the historic flight.
Artificial Intelligence Increases Detection of Breast and Prostate Cancer
In January, a study published in Nature showed Google’s DeepMind Artificial Intelligence system was more successful than six radiologists in spotting abnormalities in mammograms of nearly 29,000 women. In the published research, the AI system reduced false positives by 5.7%. False positives and negatives are recurrent problems in mammogram readings, leading to unnecessary invasive treatments and delayed treatments, health experts say. Another study in July at the University of Pittsburgh developed an AI program to detect prostate cancer in tissue slides. The program also demonstrated 97% specificity at detecting prostate cancer, a significant increase from current rates. The artificial intelligence inroads are hoped to help in detecting other forms of cancer as well.
Attributing Climate Change to Extreme Weather
Dramatically improved computer programs helped attribute the role of climate change in 2020's record-setting wildfires and weather events. Researchers now have more information about how climate change affects the frequency, intensity and likelihood of heat waves, fires, droughts, ocean heat waves and intense storms such as hurricanes.
A World Weather Attribution study looked at Australia’s massive bushfires, which burned for nine months before dying out in March, killing at least 34 people and 480 million animals. The research showed that climate change increased conditions that fed the infernos by at least 30%.
Studies in 2020 also detailed risks to prepare for, such as flooding and droughts, and what to expect as global warming worsens, reported the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which named climate change attribution one of the top technological breakthroughs of this year.