A grateful diaconal bow to my friend Father Dan Pacholec, who posted this on Facebook.
From New York magazine, here’s a fascinating and hope-filled interview with Dr. Francis Collins, the head of N.I.H. who has been described by Christopher Hitchens as “one of the greatest living Americans” and one of the most devout believers he had ever met.
In a nutshell: Dr. Collins remains hopeful that at least one successful vaccine will be found by year’s end — and he talks at length about the blending in his life of science and faith.
What are the big questions that you and the NIH are most focused on unraveling? Obviously there is still a lot of uncertainty about immunity and new mutations.
Well, this virus is still brand new, although it’s a member of the coronavirus family that includes SARS and MERS and even some common cold viruses. But it’s sufficiently different from all of those that its biology is still not that well understood. There are a lot of mysteries about this virus, particularly why individuals respond so variably to exposure. We know some of the things that are associated with high risk: being older, which might mean your immune system’s not quite as vigorous, or having chronic illnesses — but we still don’t understand a lot of the differences between individuals.
Some of that might be genetics. Some of that might be the initial exposure. Did you get a heavy dose or a light dose of the virus? But the variability is really quite striking from person to person in terms of what the consequences are.
A big question is whether somebody who has had COVID-19 is now immune from getting it again. So far we don’t see compelling evidence of people getting reinfected, but that’s still a bit early to say for sure. That’s going to make a huge difference in everything we try to do about this going forward. A vaccine, of course, depends upon the idea that immunity is protective.
If you had to guess what the next two to three years looks like in terms of vaccine development — how do you see the process shaping up? A first wave of vaccines that are less effective, then working toward a better one?
I am guardedly optimistic that by the end of 2020 we will have at least one vaccine that has been proven safe and effective in a large-scale trial. Nobody should accept it as safe and effective without that large-scale trial. There are at least four vaccines that will be getting into such large trials this summer beginning as early as July.
There is much more he has to say about the scientific research going on now. But toward the end, he ventures from the medical to the spiritual:
I was an atheist when I entered medical school. I was a Christian when I left — and it was much driven by this experience of trying to integrate the reductionist aspects of science into the much more fundamental issues I saw my patients wrestling with, like is there a God and does God care about me and what happens after I die?
Those are uncomfortable questions for an atheist 23-year-old, but ultimately they became totally compelling and required some investigation and some answers. Ultimately, out of that, it came to me that it makes a lot more sense to believe in God than to deny God’s existence.
Read it all. It’s informative, enlightening and inspiring.