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Thinking back to how I rang in 2020, I was occupied with the goals and duties of UNCʼs Office of the Vice Chancellor (OVCR) as well as the work in my research laboratory. I just finished my term as president of the Genetics Society of America and was looking forward to serving as immediate past president. Whatever ideas and plans I had, along with everyone elseʼs, dramatically vanished as the pandemic engulfed our world.

And what has become absolutely clear is that the value of scientific research has never been more obvious. As pointed out in a recent Nature commentary, “The fastest any vaccine had previously been developed, from viral sampling to approval, was four years, for mumps in the 1960s.” Amazingly, it has been less than a year for several vaccines to show promising results in large trials. It was on December 2 that a vaccine made by Pfizer with the German biotech firm BioNTech became the first to be approved for emergency use in the United Kingdom with several countries to follow. Then a second vaccine, Moderna, received emergency use approval on December 18. As I write this column, a third vaccine from the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca has been approved in the U.K. and more will follow over the next few months.

An important point that Nature highlights is that the rapid development of vaccines against the new coronavirus depended on decades of research by academic and pharmaceutical scientists. Researchers like our own Ralph Baric, Timothy Sheahan, and Mark Heise had been paying attention to other coronaviruses, like those that cause SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS, for years and their work provided critical information for understanding SARS-Cov-2. Other researchers had been focusing on new ways to make vaccines using messenger RNA.

These years of fundamental, basic research paid off spectacularly well when the world needed tools to fight the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic. Of course, public funders, private philanthropists, and pharmaceutical funding meant that companies could start large-scale testing and manufacturing of candidates that might not work, which also played heavily in the rapid success of vaccine development. But no amount of money would have resulted in success without a solid platform of basic science on which to build. We have a way to go before any of the vaccines are widely available for all that want them. Thus, our best defense still is covering faces, washing hands, and keeping our space.

As applied to this pandemic, and looking ahead to future outbreaks, is that a rapid first-line defense depends on effective antiviral therapeutics. UNC investigators are taking the lead in this area. An idea began with a 2019 UNC Creativity Hub-funded team known as The Infectious Disease Drug Discover Program at UNC (ID3). Principal investigators Nathaniel Moorman and Ken Pearce brought together scientists from virology, proteomics, bioinformatics, chemical biology, and drug discovery to provide new antiviral therapeutics useful for treating multiple viral diseases. This group began work on anti-viral therapeutics before the pandemic and was already focusing on the three classes of viruses (coronavirus, alphavirus, flavivirus). Their work has led to a major UNC initiative known as the Rapidly Emerging Antiviral Drug Discovery Initiative, or READDI. The ID3/READDI team is focused on preparing today for outbreaks tomorrow. Their goal is to develop five broad-spectrum antiviral drugs in five years by focusing on antiviral drugs that target the cellular proteins pandemic viruses need to replicate and cause disease.

When the world most needed it, we were inspired by the resilience of our research community as the pandemic unfolded. And then, George Floyd was murdered. The world was yet again jolted by our collective acceptance of systemic racism, even within our own academic institutions that we have helped to build. Although equity, inclusion, and belonging were already priorities at UNC, it hasnʼt been enough. UNCʼs chancellor, provost and interim chief diversity officer issued a message to our community on June 11 that ends with: “We stand in solidarity with our faculty, students, and alumni in denouncing systemic racism, hate speech, and white supremacy. And we will continue to listen, engage, and demonstrate through actions our commitment to build a lasting culture of respect, inclusivity. and belonging among our community.”

UNCʼs leadership is committed to “Building Our Community Together” as the first initiative of the strategic plan known as Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good. The university has committed to moving faster and more effectively to address racism. Steps forward can be followed through actions taken by the University Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Council. All of us must take a more active role. But many of us donʼt feel qualified or prepared to launch into discussions about complex topics with ethical and social dimensions. The DEI Councilʼs activity is critical in helping our community learn how to engage in these conversations in an open and inclusive way.

Last week, NPR reported on how the Black Lives Matter movement became an international phenomenon in 2020. As protesters took to the streets in cities across the U.S. in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, so did demonstrators in other countries — unfortunately, all with a similar message: There is a George Floyd in every country. Black Lives Matter inspired, for example, an “AllPapuanLivesMatter” movement in Indonesia, as well as many others for repressed communities across the globe.

UNCʼs Mark Peifer, an ardent supporter of diversity and equality, sent a note to a number of us pointing out an article published in Cell Mentor entitled, “1,000 inspiring Black scientists in America.” As Mark stated: “Representation matters, and this will be inspirational for the next generation of scientists — use it in your classes this spring. It is a great resource in the classroom, and for thinking about speakers and future faculty members.”

I encourage everyone to read the article.

So, as we leave 2020, my take home message is that you are the UNC community, and you have an obligation to “building our community together” in this new year and the ones that follow.

Inspiration for the title and this column comes from Denise Montellʼs goodbye message as her term as president of the Genetics Society of America during 2020 was coming to an end.

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