- Disease breakthroughs in 2020 included new potential cancer treatments and falling hepatitis B cases in children under five.
- Technological advances brought us a world-first artificial eye and new NASA intelligence of water on the moon.
- The United Nations, World Food Programme, World Economic Forum and other agencies continue to tackle global challenges including hunger, climate change and gender equality.
It’s been an incredibly tough year as the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on lives and livelihoods across the globe.
But there have been some bright spots amid the gloom.
As we reflect on 2020, here are nine of the good news stories that might have slipped your attention in the past 12 months.
1. Cancer breakthroughs
In July, scientists in Australia reported preclinical laboratory studies of a new cancer vaccine had shown promising signs.
“We are hoping this vaccine could be used to treat blood cancers… plus solid malignancies including breast, lung, renal, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers, and glioblastoma,” said Lead Researcher Associate Professor Kristen Radford.
The vaccine has been developed by researchers based at Australia’s Translational Research Institute, in collaboration with The University of Queensland. The work has been funded by grants from the United Kingdom cancer research charity, Worldwide Cancer Research, and Mater Foundation, a community-based fundraising organization.
In September, the virtual 2020 meeting of the European Society for Medical Oncology heard about a number of other developments, including a step forward in treatment for patients with newly diagnosed advanced ovarian cancer; a research breakthrough for high risk breast cancer patients and a successful prostate cancer trial using an existing drug for breast and ovarian cancer.
2. Net-zero pledges climb
In September, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) announced that net-zero commitments had roughly doubled in less than a year.
“Cities and regions with a carbon footprint greater than the emissions of the US, and companies with a combined revenue of over $11.4 trillion (equivalent to more than half of the US GDP), are now pursuing net-zero emissions by the end of the century,” UNFCCC said.
Facebook, Ford and New South Wales – Australia’s most populous state – are among those who have joined the UN Race to Zero campaign, which aims to grow net-zero commitments ahead of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Scotland in 2021.
3. Hepatitis B falls in under-fives
The viral infection of the liver, that can cause liver cancer, claims around 900,000 lives a year. More than 250 million people live with chronic hepatitis B infection.
“No infant should grow up only to die of hepatitis B because they were not vaccinated ─ today’s milestone means that we have dramatically reduced the number of cases of liver damage and liver cancer in future generations,» said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.
The news means a key target set out in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals has been met.
4. Helping hunger
In October, the World Food Programme won the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize.
During 2019, the programme helped close to 100 million people in 88 countries who are victims of acute food insecurity and hunger.
The prize recognized the World Food Programme’s efforts to combat hunger, improve conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and help prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.
“In the face of the pandemic, the World Food Programme has demonstrated an impressive ability to intensify its efforts,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.
5. World first 3D eye
The unveiling in June of the world’s first spherical artificial eye with a 3D retina raised the possibility of bringing vision to humanoid robots and new hope to patients with visual impairment.
An international team led by scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) developed the eye and say its capabilities are better than existing bionic eyes and in some cases, even exceed those of the human eye.
“The key feature allowing such breakthroughs is a 3D artificial retina – made of an array of nanowire light sensors which mimic the photoreceptors in human retinas,” the scientists explained.
6. Gender equality gains
No country has yet achieved gender equality but there are clear pockets of progress
There are now 20 countries with a woman head of state or government, up from 12 in 1995.
Health outcomes for women have also improved in some key areas, particularly child birth.
“The risk of maternal death has been reduced globally by 38% between 2000 and 2017, with the greatest reduction achieved in Southern Asia (reduction of 59%),” the UN says.
7. Moon water discovery
Water on the moon is more widespread than previously thought and could help sustain future missions as drinking water or fuel, NASA announced in October.
The discovery was made by NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).
“Whether the water SOFIA found is easily accessible for use as a resource remains to be determined,” NASA says.
“Under NASA’s Artemis program, the agency is eager to learn all it can about the presence of water on the Moon in advance of sending the first woman and next man to the lunar surface in 2024 and establishing a sustainable human presence there by the end of the decade.”
8. Conservation success
Up to 48 bird and mammal species have been saved from extinction by international conservation efforts since 1993, it was announced in September.
They include the Asian crested Ibis, yellow-eared parrot, Hawaiian crow, spoon-billed sandpiper, red wolf, black-footed ferret and pygmy hog.
Researchers at Newcastle University and conservation partnership BirdLife International analyzed the impact of conservation activity since the UN Convention on Biological Diversity came into force in 1993.
Fifteen bird and mammal species have become extinct or suspected extinct since then – but the extinction rate could have been three to four times higher without conservation action, the researchers said.
9. Plastic action
Ghana, Indonesia and Vietnam are among the nations accelerating action on plastic waste as part of a global partnership tackling plastic pollution.
The countries were showcased in September at the fourth World Economic Forum Sustainable Development Impact Summit.
Indonesia has pledged to reduce marine plastic debris by 70% by 2025. Ghana has committed to achieving a 100% circular economy for plastics and Vietnam has committed to a 75% cut in marine plastics by 2030.
The countries are partners in the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership, which aims to eradicate plastic pollution.