COVID Vaccines Put Anti-Science Activists to Shame
It turns out that, despite the destruction and heartbreak caused by the COVID pandemic, there is a silver lining: Scientists from academia, government, and industry worked together and, using the tools of biotechnology, created multiple vaccines that surely will put an end to the worst of the pandemic sometime in 2021. In short, they proved that science works, particularly that which comes from industry. Though politicians and the public love to hate Big Ag and Big Pharma, everybody comes begging for help when the going gets tough.
The change in public attitude is tangible. A headline in the Financial Times declared, "Covid vaccines offer Big Pharma a chance of rehabilitation." In its analysis, the FT says that the pharmaceutical industry is widely reviled because of the high prices it charges for its drugs, among other things, but the speed with which the industry developed COVID vaccines may allow for its reputation to be refurbished.
The Media's Role in Promoting Anti-Biotech Activism
Of course, the media is partly to blame for the pharmaceutical industry's dismal reputation in the first place because of journalists' penchant for oversimplifying complicated stories and pinning blame on an easy scapegoat. While the pharmaceutical industry is far from angelic and places a hefty price tag on its products in the U.S., often gone unmentioned is the fact that high drug prices are the result of multiple factors, including lack of competition (even among generic drugs), foreign price controls that allow citizens of other countries to "free load" off of American consumers, and a deliberately opaque drug supply chain (that involves not only profit-maximizing pharmaceutical manufacturers but "middlemen" like distributors). But why delve into such nuance when it's easier to point to villains like Martin Shkreli?
Big Ag has been subjected to identical mistreatment by the media, with outlets such as the New York Times among the biggest offenders. One article it published compared pesticides to "Nazi-made sarin gas," and another spread misinformation about a high-profile biotech scientist. The website Undark, whose stated mission is "true journalistic coverage of the sciences," once published an opinion piece written by a person who works for an anti-GMO organization and another criticizing Monsanto for its reasonable efforts to defend itself from disinformation. These aren't cherry-picked examples. Overall, the media clearly has taken sides: Science is great, unless it's science from industry.
If the scientific community can use the powerful techniques of biotechnology to cure a previously unknown infectious disease in less than a year, then why shouldn't it be able to cure genetic diseases in humans?
Now, the very same media – which has portrayed the pharmaceutical and biotech industries in the worst possible light, often for political or ideological reasons – is wondering why so many Americans are reluctant to get a COVID vaccine. Perhaps their reportage has something to do with it.
Tech Strikes Back
For years, the agricultural, pharmaceutical, and biotech industries fought back, but to no avail. GMOs are feared, pharma is hated, and biotech is misunderstood. Regulatory red tape abounds. But that may be all about to change, not because of a clever PR campaign, but thanks to the successful coronavirus vaccines produced by the pharma/biotech industry.
All of the major vaccines were created using biotechnology, broadly defined as the use of living systems and organisms to develop products intended to improve human life or the planet. The Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines rely on mRNA (messenger RNA), which is essentially a molecular "photocopy" of the more familiar genetic material DNA. The mRNA molecules were tweaked using biotech and then shown to be 95% effective at preventing COVID in human volunteers. The AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is based on an older technology that genetically modifies a harmless virus to resemble an immunological target, in this case, SARS-CoV-2. Their vaccine is 62% to 90% effective.
Even better, the pharma/biotech industry showed that it can work hand-in-hand with the government, for instance the FDA, to produce vaccines in record-breaking time. Operation Warp Speed provided some financing to facilitate this process. History will look back at this endeavor and likely conclude that the unprecedented level of cooperation to develop a vaccine in less than 12 months was one of the greatest triumphs in public health history. (The bungled slow rollout is another story.)
Perhaps the most important lesson that society will learn is that the scientific method works.
The pharma/biotech industry has thus gained tremendous momentum. For the first time it seems, those who are opposed to scientific progress and biotechnology are on the defensive. If the scientific community can use the powerful techniques of biotechnology to cure a previously unknown infectious disease in less than a year, then why shouldn't it be able to cure genetic diseases in humans? Or create genetically modified crops that are resistant to insects and drought? Or use genetically modified mosquitoes to help fight against killer diseases like malaria? The arguments against biotechnology have been made exponentially weaker by the success of the coronavirus vaccine.
Perhaps the most important lesson that society will learn is that the scientific method works. We observed (by collecting samples of an unknown virus and sequencing its genome), hypothesized (by predicting which parts of the virus would trigger an immune response), experimented (by recruiting tens of thousands of volunteers into clinical trials), and concluded (that the vaccines worked). It was a thing of pure beauty.
Thanks to all the players involved – from Big Government to Big Pharma – we are beginning the process of being rescued from a modern-day plague. Let us hope that this scientific success also deals a fatal blow to the forces of ignorance that have held back technological progress for decades.
[Editor's Note: LeapsMag is an editorially independent publication that receives program support from Leaps by Bayer. LeapsMag's founding in 2017 predates Bayer's acquisition of Monsanto in 2018. All content published on LeapsMag is strictly free of influence, censorship, and oversight from its corporate sponsor. Read more about LeapsMag's organizational independence here.]
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.