Gladwell says COVID-19 pandemic has one notable 'winner': science

If there are any bright spots coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell said it's got to be the public's growing faith in science.

Americans' trust in scientific institutions has long been eroding, Gladwell said, speaking recently at a virtual fireside chat hosted by the law firm Arent Fox. But the rapid pace of development for treatments and vaccinations for the novel coronavirus has changed that perception, he said. 

Compare the creation of a COVID-19 vaccine to that of the polio vaccine, he said. The poliovirus was identified in 1908, but a vaccine for the disease wasn't available commercially until the 1960s. For COVID, once the virus was sequenced, pharmaceutical companies were able to rapidly develop and test a vaccine in the space of months.

"That is a scientific accomplishment without precedent in the history of mankind," Gladwell said. 

Gladwell was talking about what he believes the "new normal" will look like once the pandemic wanes.

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"There’s an opportunity for us now to educate an entire generation of Americans about what science can do—that’s an amazing opportunity," he said.

Gladwell also said that the pandemic should put into stark focus how public health institutions have been "neglected" over the past several decades. That slowed the pandemic response and the rollout of a vaccine.

He said the companies that performed most strongly under the pandemic, such as FedEx, UPS and Walmart, provide lessons learned on how to build the efficiencies needed to streamline processes under similar circumstances.

"Your local health department does not resemble FedEx—it should," he said. "If it did, we could have had a seamless rollout of this vaccine."