Viruses, Vaccines, and COVID-19

Everywhere there’s life on Earth, from high up in the atmosphere to deep in the ocean, there are viruses—some 50 million of them in a typical teaspoon of seawater. 

A small subset of those survive and multiply by infecting humans. And the vaccines we’ve developed to control those arch enemies have been among the greatest triumphs of science.

Pandemic Science in the Era of COVID-19 

We’re most familiar with viruses from the illnesses they can cause when they infect us, which can be as negligible as sniffles or as serious as death, but there’s far more to these tiny, not-quite-alive entities than just human disease.

Viruses evolved alongside us from our ancestors’ first appearance on Earth, shaping our path as surely as we shaped theirs. In fact, we wouldn’t be here without them. In our contemporary, ever-more-connected world, vaccines are ever-more vital for keeping our relationship with viruses, old and new, in balance. 

In this constellation of videos, articles, and links to online resources and websites, explore the science behind vaccines, viruses, and public health in the era of COVID-19.

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Rendering of COVID-19 particles.

More to Explore

Teaching Case Putting COVID-19 Vaccines to the Test Investigate the efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine with these videos, text passages, and data interactives. Video Ask a Scientist About Covid-19 Vaccines Medical doctor Lisa Cooper and epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo answers kids’ questions. Video Teen SciCafe: Virulent Viruses with Kishana Taylor Explore what viruses are and how they evolve and mutate with microbiologist Kishana Taylor, Ph.D., of Rutgers University. Video Teen SciCafe: When a Pandemic Strikes with Jay Varma How could the world have been better prepared to meet the challenges of a global pandemic, and what can we do to help end it? Interactive How Were COVID-19 Vaccines Developed So Quickly? Compare a typical vaccine development timeline with an accelerated timeline in this resource from Johns Hopkins University. Dashboard Global Coronavirus Map Track how the novel coronavirus is spreading around the globe in this COVID-19 dashboard from Johns Hopkins University. Video Meet the OLogist: Lisa Cooper Find out how Lisa’s work impacts the health of communities. Video The Virus Behind COVID-19 Explore the biology of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, in this four-part animation from Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Survey Tracking Attitudes Toward Vaccination Explore the latest data about the public’s attitudes and experiences with COVID-19 vaccinations from Kaiser Family Foundation. Interactive Virus Explorer Browse 3D models and descriptions of viruses, from adenovirus to Zika, in this resource from Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As we continue to move across and alter natural environments on our crowded planet, new viruses will continue to emerge. It’s vital that we learn from the current pandemic to prepare us for the future. 

We must make sure that effective systems are in place to predict where dangerous viruses are likely to emerge, to recognize them once they’re here, and to stop them in their tracks before an outbreak can become an epidemic and an epidemic can become a pandemic. Equitable access to healthcare, jobs, education, healthy food, clean water, and safe places to live create more equitable health outcomes, which affect everyone on the planet. To address infectious diseases effectively, we must address health inequities.

We must make sure that effective systems are in place to predict where dangerous viruses are likely to emerge.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists around the world came together in unprecedented cooperation to develop new vaccines, along with fast, efficient, safe ways to test and produce them. The mRNA vaccine technology, which had been in development for many years, quickly proved to be an astonishingly powerful tool that promises to be just as useful for addressing a vast range of other infectious diseases, including HIV and Zika.

The world now has a much better understanding of the challenges involved in keeping people safe from viruses—and of how to begin addressing them.

Created with the support of the City of New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. © 2023 City of New York