Well-Being Prevention & Cures

The greatest health care achievements of 2020

Tamanna Rumee

Story at a glance

  • A patient with sickle cell disease was treated with gene therapy.
  • A new test for Alzheimer’s got FDA approval.
  • Diagnostic tests for COVID-19 and vaccines received emergency use authorization in record time.

In 2020, the world has been shaken by a global pandemic at a scale not seen in a century. The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest public health crisis in recent memory, but there have also been great advances in health care this year. Here are a few of them.

Gene therapy for sickle cell disease

Sickle cell disease is connected to a mutation in genes that affect how red blood cells form. People who have the illness have red blood cells that are in the shape of crescents or sickles rather than ovals or circles. Researchers have developed a gene therapy that may be able to treat patients with sickle cell using gene editing technology. The new treatment stops the cells from expressing the mutated gene and induces the body’s cells into making fetal hemoglobin. The early signs of this treatment are promising: one patient showed no signs of sickle shaped blood cells. The researchers are hoping to test it in people between 3 and 40 years old in the clinical trial.

Tests for Alzheimer’s disease

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a drug that is used for imaging a certain protein, called tau proteins, associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The drug is injected and health experts get an image of the pathology of the tau proteins. The experts can see the density and distribution of the proteins in the brain. Previous imaging could show the pathology of a different type of protein called amyloid proteins. In addition, a blood test that can measure the amount of certain proteins that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease became more widely available this year.


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Antigen test for SARS-CoV-2

All the diagnostic tests for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus causing COVID-19, were developed as soon as the outbreak started. The rapid antigen test that is also affordable is an extraordinary achievement in such a short time period. One such test from Abbott Laboratories, which costs about $5 and produces results in about 15 minutes, was approved for emergency use by the FDA in August. A version of that test that can be done at home with virtual guidance has now also been approved for emergency use.


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The other outbreak

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo was declared over by the World Health Organization (WHO) in June. This outbreak began in August 2018 and has been ongoing, even through the coronavirus pandemic. Public health officials were finally able to get the outbreak under control, partly due to a new vaccine that has been in development for years and was able to be used to prevent spread.

“The world is now better-equipped to respond to Ebola. A vaccine has been licensed, and effective treatments identified,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, according to the WHO.

Two COVID-19 vaccine candidates approved for emergency use

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine have been approved by the FDA for emergency use. Vaccines normally take a minimum of four years to make it through all three phases of clinical trials. To be clear, the vaccines do not have full official approval yet. That may take more time, but for now during the pandemic these vaccines have been approved for use in the general population. Because government funding was mobilized to support the development and production of these vaccines, the general public will benefit from this vaccine while this pandemic is ongoing, which is also unprecedented.


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