In my middle adult years, I spent nearly every Saturday working with friends to build houses (42 of them) for Habitat for Humanity. As I got more and more familiar with the skills and techniques for building, I found that I preferred working on those early stages of building.
We’d fill the foundations with gravel, construct the foundation walls, and frame and set the floorboards. Next, we’d frame the walls, set the roof trusses and deck the roof. Then the licensed electricians and plumbers would come in and do their work. At that point we’d install the siding and windows, set the fascia boards, and shingle the roofs.
I loved those early weeks. In so many ways they were a slog. Week after week we’d show up and it felt like no progress had been made despite the hard work. Then, there would be a week when we’d end the day feeling like the house had just “appeared” that day. We had a late afternoon ritual of gathering with other teams working on different houses in the back room of Manuel’s Tavern to celebrate the necessary work we’d done to construct a finished home.
Of course, there was still the dry wall to be installed, the interior finish and trim work and the cabinetry to be done. Finally the painting and flooring and all those little, tedious finish details would be tackled to make the house ready for proud owners who had worked alongside us all those weeks.
That week when it felt like the house went up overnight seems like a good analogy for thinking about the COVID vaccines. Many people have expressed reservations over the speed of their development. To many, it has felt like the vaccines just “appeared” with unreasonable and questionable speed.
What is missed in this perspective are the years and years of work that have already gone into creating vaccines. In November 2002, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) appeared in China and within a few months had spread globally. Though scientists had been warning for years of the potential for the rapid global spread of an unknown virus, SARS was a visceral and visual lesson of the presence of dangerous viruses in a global world.
Scientists had been struggling for years to get funding for the development and testing of a vaccine. They had been working with slender resources. They had been developing new techniques and processes. This was the long, slow, slog of underlying processes that are invisible to those of us outside the laboratories, but were nonetheless a part of the development of vaccines.
A couple of weeks ago, my 93-year-old father received his second vaccine. I just received my second shot as I write. We are both grateful for the gifts and work of so many scientists who have been engaged in the long, slow, hard slog over the years it’s taken to reach this point. We are all made secure because of their commitment to the long, slow, slog.