Jong-Mo Seo, professor at SNU, College of Engineering Electrical and Computer Engineering·SNU Medicine Biomedical Research Institute
It has been 2 years and a half since COVID-19 struck the world. With variants emerging without end, the end of the pandemic seems far away, and preventive measures are getting weaker. As medical experts predicted, the mortality rate of successive variants is getting lower. However, this trend could be interpreted as a form of survival of the fittest mechanism, since the more vulnerable died in large numbers from the disease over the last two and a half years, leading somewhat to healthier individuals surviving until now.
“Is humanity still evolving?”
I ask this question to my students sometimes. Maybe one could obtain the answer if he asks himself if people from Joseon in the year 1822 and people from Korea in the year 2022 could be seen as the same human beings. Could the difference between tools used for construction during the Joseon era and the large machines used for construction now be seen as tools of the same caliber and justify the classification of the two populations into the same category ‘human of tools(Homo Faber)’? When I realize how much the contents of the internal medicine textbook have changed since I was a student, I find myself gasping for air at how deeper and wider information expanded over just 30 years.
150 years ago, Semmelweis said that since the cause of diseases could be spread, we should wash our hands properly, and Pasteur said that the cause could be microorganisms. What convinced those that did not believe the above claims were not the claims themselves, but the clear evidence provided by the repeated objective experiments of colleagues. Many of these experiments failed, but they found experiments that could be recreated and examined closely every procedure, thereby leading humanity closer to victory over diseases.
When I read about the failed attempts of the scholars before me, my heart aches without me realizing it. What researcher would want to carry out experiments that would fail? How many nights would they have spent blaming themselves for the repeated failures and reexamining the procedure? How worried would they have been about losing research grants or their positions because of the repeated failures? But because the colleagues that worked alongside them and the support from their country trusted the scholars’ keen insights, the average lifespan of humans is over 80 years, and the nations that did not hesitate to support medical research are now leading modern medicine.
The United States, which is spending large amounts of money on cutting edge medical technology research, went on to take another step forward and established ARPA-H(Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health) and expanded their support for challenging and experimental research in the public health area. One of the factors that contributed to this investment is the fact that the mRNA vaccine development that was effective in controlling the COVID-19 virus began with the support from DARPA(Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany are all investing heavily in experimental medical research lest they fall behind.
When we look back at the painful process of purchasing COVID-19 vaccines and the cost that followed, we can visualize the road that we have to take, with the aid of the experience of rising to a major semiconductor nation in just 50 years. Through revolutions in public health technology brought on by experimental research, it is time to elevate the position of our national medical science standards to one that would lead the world and contribute to the betterment of humanity.