IN COUNTRIES where vaccinations against covid-19 are progressing well, this phase of the pandemic feels a bit like the part of a long-haul flight where the captain has switched on the seatbelt signs and ears are starting to pop. Everyone is impatient to land but there is a way to go yet. The descent will be turbulent, there is still a possibility of disaster and even once we are on the ground, there are many obstacles to negotiate before the journey is over.

Even so, thoughts inevitably turn to what lies beyond the airport. The pandemic has been – still is – a health disaster, but there are many reasons to believe that we will find silver linings.

Historically, pandemics have led to progress in science and medicine. The 1918 flu, for example, catalysed discoveries in virology and vaccinology. The ongoing HIV pandemic brought breakthroughs in these too, plus in antiviral drugs.

What dividends can we expect from covid-19? Vaccinology has made jaw-dropping progress. Before the pandemic, vaccine development invariably took years. This time it took just months to create multiple vaccines, many using brand-new technologies. There is real belief that vaccines will now get even better. We may even be able to develop universal vaccines to protect us against any emerging virus.

A related area where huge strides have been taken is immunology. More has already been learned about the human body’s response to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus than we know about the viruses that have been with us for decades. Other areas of medicine have been on a steep learning curve too, which will pay off as we confront future health threats.

Excellent as all this is, however, we mustn’t regard such medical leaps forward as an excuse to return to business as usual, secure in the knowledge that we are tooled up to defeat the next pandemic. One mantra of the past year has been “build back better”. When this is all over, we are going to need a whole new aeroplane, not just a better first aid kit.