In nature, few species remain dominant for long. Any sizable population of similar individuals offers immense resources to whichever parasite can evade its defenses, spreading rapidly from one member to the next.
Which will prove greater: our defenses or our vulnerabilities?
Humans are one such dominant species. That wasn't always the case: our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in groups too small and poorly connected to spread pathogens like wildfire. Our collective vulnerability to pandemics began with the dawn of cities and trade networks thousands of years ago. Roman cities were always demographic sinks, but never more so than when a pandemic agent swept through. The plague of Cyprian, the Antonine plague, the plague of Justinian – each is thought to have killed over ten million people, an appallingly high fraction of the total population of the empire.
With the advent of sanitation, hygiene, and quarantines, we developed our first non-immunological defenses to curtail the spread of plagues. With antibiotics, we began to turn the weapons of microbes against our microbial foes. Most potent of all, we use vaccines to train our immune systems to fight pathogens before we are even exposed. Edward Jenner's original vaccine alone is estimated to have saved half a billion lives.
It's been over a century since we suffered from a swift and deadly pandemic. Even the last deadly influenza of 1918 killed only a few percent of humanity – nothing so bad as any of the Roman plagues, let alone the Black Death of medieval times.
How much of our recent winning streak has been due to luck?
Much rides on that question, because the same factors that first made our ancestors vulnerable are now ubiquitous. Our cities are far larger than those of ancient times. They're inhabited by an ever-growing fraction of humanity, and are increasingly closely connected: we now routinely travel around the world in the course of a day. Despite urbanization, global population growth has increased contact with wild animals, creating more opportunities for zoonotic pathogens to jump species. Which will prove greater: our defenses or our vulnerabilities?
The tragic emergence of coronavirus 2019-nCoV in Wuhan may provide a test case. How devastating this virus will become is highly uncertain at the time of writing, but its rapid spread to many countries is deeply worrisome. That it seems to kill only the already infirm and spare the healthy is small comfort, and may counterintuitively assist its spread: it's easy to implement a quarantine when everyone infected becomes extremely ill, but if carriers may not exhibit symptoms as has been reported, it becomes exceedingly difficult to limit transmission. The virus, a distant relative of the more lethal SARS virus that killed 800 people in 2002 to 2003, has evolved to be transmitted between humans and spread to 18 countries in just six weeks.
Humanity's response has been faster than ever, if not fast enough. To its immense credit, China swiftly shared information, organized and built new treatment centers, closed schools, and established quarantines. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which was founded in 2017, quickly funded three different companies to develop three different varieties of vaccine: a standard protein vaccine, a DNA vaccine, and an RNA vaccine, with more planned. One of the agreements was signed after just four days of discussion, far faster than has ever been done before.
The new vaccine candidates will likely be ready for clinical trials by early summer, but even if successful, it will be additional months before the vaccine will be widely available. The delay may well be shorter than ever before thanks to advances in manufacturing and logistics, but a delay it will be.
The 1918 influenza virus killed more than half of its victims in the United Kingdom over just three months.
If we faced a truly nasty virus, something that spreads like pandemic influenza – let alone measles – yet with the higher fatality rate of, say, H7N9 avian influenza, the situation would be grim. We are profoundly unprepared, on many different levels.
So what would it take to provide us with a robust defense against pandemics?
Minimize the attack surface: 2019-nCoV jumped from an animal, most probably a bat, to humans. China has now banned the wildlife trade in response to the epidemic. Keeping it banned would be prudent, but won't be possible in all nations. Still, there are other methods of protection. Influenza viruses commonly jump from birds to pigs to humans; the new coronavirus may have similarly passed through a livestock animal. Thanks to CRISPR, we can now edit the genomes of most livestock. If we made them immune to known viruses, and introduced those engineered traits to domesticated animals everywhere, we would create a firewall in those intermediate hosts. We might even consider heritably immunizing the wild organisms most likely to serve as reservoirs of disease.
None of these defenses will be cheap, but they'll be worth every penny.
Rapid diagnostics: We need a reliable method of detection costing just pennies to be available worldwide inside of a week of discovering a new virus. This may eventually be possible thanks to a technology called SHERLOCK, which is based on a CRISPR system more commonly used for precision genome editing. Instead of using CRISPR to find and edit a particular genome sequence in a cell, SHERLOCK programs it to search for a desired target and initiate an easily detected chain reaction upon discovery. The technology is capable of fantastic sensitivity: with an attomolar (10-18) detection limit, it senses single molecules of a unique DNA or RNA fingerprint, and the components can be freeze-dried onto paper strips.
Better preparations: China acted swiftly to curtail the spread of the Wuhan virus with traditional public health measures, but not everything went as smoothly as it might have. Most cities and nations have never conducted a pandemic preparedness drill. Best give people a chance to practice keeping the city barely functional while minimizing potential exposure events before facing the real thing.
Faster vaccines: Three months to clinical trials is too long. We need a robust vaccine discovery and production system that can generate six candidates within a week of the pathogen's identification, manufacture a million doses the week after, and scale up to a hundred million inside of a month. That may be possible for novel DNA and RNA-based vaccines, and indeed anything that can be delivered using a standardized gene therapy vector. For example, instead of teaching each person's immune system to evolve protective antibodies by showing it pieces of the virus, we can program cells to directly produce known antibodies via gene therapy. Those antibodies could be discovered by sifting existing diverse libraries of hundreds of millions of candidates, computationally designed from scratch, evolved using synthetic laboratory ecosystems, or even harvested from the first patients to report symptoms. Such a vaccine might be discovered and produced fast enough at scale to halt almost any natural pandemic.
Robust production and delivery: Our defenses must not be vulnerable to the social and economic disruptions caused by a pandemic. Unfortunately, our economy selects for speed and efficiency at the expense of robustness. Just-in-time supply chains that wing their way around the world require every node to be intact. If workers aren't on the job producing a critical component, the whole chain breaks until a substitute can be found. A truly nasty pandemic would disrupt economies all over the world, so we will need to pay extra to preserve the capacity for independent vertically integrated production chains in multiple nations. Similarly, vaccines are only useful if people receive them, so delivery systems should be as robustly automated as possible.
None of these defenses will be cheap, but they'll be worth every penny. Our nations collectively spend trillions on defense against one another, but only billions to protect humanity from pandemic viruses known to have killed more people than any human weapon. That's foolish – especially since natural animal diseases that jump the species barrier aren't the only pandemic threats.
We will eventually make our society immune to naturally occurring pandemics, but that day has not yet come, and future pandemic viruses may not be natural.
The complete genomes of all historical pandemic viruses ever to have been sequenced are freely available to anyone with an internet connection. True, these are all agents we've faced before, so we have a pre-existing armory of pharmaceuticals and vaccines and experience. There's no guarantee that they would become pandemics again; for example, a large fraction of humanity is almost certainly immune to the 1918 influenza virus due to exposure to the related 2009 pandemic, making it highly unlikely that the virus would take off if released.
Still, making the blueprints publicly available means that a large and growing number of people with the relevant technical skills can single-handedly make deadly biological agents that might be able to spread autonomously -- at least if they can get their hands on the relevant DNA. At present, such people most certainly can, so long as they bother to check the publicly available list of which gene synthesis companies do the right thing and screen orders -- and by implication, which ones don't.
One would hope that at least some of the companies that don't advertise that they screen are "honeypots" paid by intelligence agencies to catch would-be bioterrorists, but even if most of them are, it's still foolish to let individuals access that kind of destructive power. We will eventually make our society immune to naturally occurring pandemics, but that day has not yet come, and future pandemic viruses may not be natural. Hence, we should build a secure and adaptive system capable of screening all DNA synthesis for known and potential future pandemic agents... without disclosing what we think is a credible bioweapon.
Whether or not it becomes a global pandemic, the emergence of Wuhan coronavirus has underscored the need for coordinated action to prevent the spread of pandemic disease. Let's ensure that our reactive response minimally prepares us for future threats, for one day, reacting may not be enough.
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
The first thing Jeroen Perk saw after he partially regained his sight nearly a decade ago was the outline of his guide dog Pedro.
“There was a white floor, and the dog was black,” recalls Perk, a 43-year-old investigator for the Dutch customs service. “I was crying. It was a very nice moment.”
Perk was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa as a child and had been blind since early adulthood. He has been able to use the implant placed into his retina in 2013 to help identify street crossings, and even ski and pursue archery. A video posted by the company that designed and manufactured the device indicates he’s a good shot.
Less black-and-white has been the journey Perk and others have been on after they were implanted with the Argus II, a second-generation device created by a Los Angeles-based company called Second Sight Medical Devices.
The Argus II uses the implant and a video camera embedded in a special pair of glasses to provide limited vision to those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that causes cells in the retina to deteriorate. The camera feeds information to the implant, which sends electrical impulses into the retina to recapitulate what the camera sees. The impulses appear in the Argus II as a 60-pixel grid of blacks, grays and whites in the user’s eye that can render rough outlines of objects and their motion.
Smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Ross Doerr, a retired disability rights attorney in Maine who received an Argus II in 2019, describes the field of vision as the equivalent of an index card held at arm’s length. Perk often brings objects close to his face to decipher them. Moreover, users must swivel their heads to take in visual data; moving their eyeballs does not work.
Despite its limitations, the Argus II beats the alternative. Perk no longer relies on his guide dog. Doerr was uplifted when he was able to see the outlines of Christmas trees at a holiday show.
“The fairy godmother department sort of reaches out and taps you on the shoulder once in a while,” Doerr says of his implant, which came about purely by chance. A surgeon treating his cataracts was partnered with the son of another surgeon who was implanting the devices, and he was referred.
Doerr had no reason to believe the shower of fairy dust wouldn’t continue. Second Sight held out promises that the Argus II recipients’ vision would gradually improve through upgrades to much higher pixel densities. The ability to recognize individual faces was even touted as a possibility. In the winter of 2020, Doerr was preparing to travel across the U.S. to Second Sight’s headquarters to receive an upgrade. But then COVID-19 descended, and the trip was canceled.
The pandemic also hit Second Sight’s bottom line. Doerr found out about its tribulations only from one of the company’s vision therapists, who told him the entire department was being laid off. Second Sight cut nearly 80% of its workforce in March 2020 and announced it would wind down operations.
Ross Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market.
Second Sight’s implosion left some 350 Argus recipients in the metaphorical dark about what to do if their implants failed. Skeleton staff seem to have rarely responded to queries from their customers, at least based on the experiences of Perk and Doerr. And some recipients have unfortunately returned to the actual dark as well, as reports have surfaced of Argus II failures due to aging or worn-down parts.
Product support for complex products is remarkably uneven. Although the iconic Ford Mustang ceased production in the late 1960s, its parts market is so robust that it’s theoretically possible to assemble a new vehicle from recently crafted components. Conversely, smartphone and computer manufacturers typically stop issuing software upgrades to their devices after two or three years, eventually rendering them bricks. Consumers have accepted both extremes.
But is the smartphone approach acceptable for a device that helps restore the most crucial sense a human being possesses?
Margaret McLean, a senior fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California, notes companies like Second Sight have a greater obligation for product support than other consumer product ventures.
“In this particular case, you have a great deal of risk that is involved in using this device, the implant, and the after care of this device,” she says. “You cannot, like with your car, decide that ‘I don’t like my Mustang anymore,’ and go out and buy a Corvette.”
And, whether the Argus II implant works or not, its physical presence can impact critical medical decisions. Doerr’s doctor wanted him to undergo an MRI to assist in diagnosing attacks of vertigo. But the physician was concerned his implant might interfere. With the latest available manufacturer advisories on his implant nearly a decade old, the procedure was held up. Doerr spent months importuning Second Sight through phone calls, emails and Facebook postings to learn if his implant was contraindicated with MRIs, which he never received. Although the cause of his vertigo was found without an MRI, Doerr was hardly assured.
“Put that into context for a minute. I get into a serious car accident. I end up in the emergency room, and I have a tag saying I have an implanted medical device,” he says. “You can’t do an MRI until you get the proper information from the company. Who’s going to answer the phone?”
Second Sight’s management did answer the call to revamp its business. It netted nearly $78 million through a private stock placement and an initial public offering last year. At the end of 2021, Second Sight had nearly $70 million in cash on hand, according to a recent filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
And while the Argus II is still touted at length on Second Sight’s home page, it appears little of its corporate coffers are earmarked toward its support. These days, the company is focused on obtaining federal approvals for Orion, a new implant that would go directly into the recipient’s brain and could be used to remedy blindness from a variety of causes. It obtained a $6.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health in May 2021 to help develop Orion.
Presented with a list of written questions by email, Second Sight’s spokesperson, Dave Gentry of the investor relations firm Red Chip Companies, copied a subordinate with an abrupt message to “please handle.” That was the only response from a company representative. A call to Second Sight acting chief executive officer Scott Dunbar went unreturned.
Whether or not the Orion succeeds remains to be seen. The company’s SEC filings suggest a viable and FDA-approved device is years away, and that operational losses are expected for the “foreseeable future.” Second Sight reported zero revenue in 2020 or 2021.
Moreover, the experiences of the Argus II recipients could color the reception of future Second Sight products. Doerr notes that his insurer paid nearly $500,000 to implant his device and for training on how to use it.
“What’s the insurance industry going to say the next time this crops up?” Doerr asks, noting that the company’s reputation is “completely shot” with the recipients of its implants.
Perk, who made speeches to praise the Argus II and is still featured in a video on the Second Sight website, says he also no longer supports the company.
Jeroen Perk, an investigator for the Dutch customs service, cried for joy after partially regaining his sight, but he no longer trusts Second Sight, the company that provided his implant.
Nevertheless, Perk remains highly reliant on the technology. When he dropped an external component of his device in late 2020 and it broke, Perk briefly debated whether to remain blind or find a way to get his Argus II working again. Three months later, he was able to revive it by crowdsourcing parts, primarily from surgeons with spare components or other Argus II recipients who no longer use their devices. Perk now has several spare parts in reserve in case of future breakdowns.
Despite the frantic efforts to retain what little sight he has, Perk has no regrets about having the device implanted. And while he no longer trusts Second Sight, he is looking forward to possibly obtaining more advanced implants from companies in the Netherlands and Australia working on their own products.
Doerr suggests that biotech firms whose implants are distributed globally be bound to some sort of international treaty requiring them to service their products in perpetuity. Such treaties are still applied to the salvage rights for ships that sunk centuries ago, he notes.
“I think that in a global tech economy, that would be a good thing,” says McLean, the fellow at Santa Clara, “but I am not optimistic about it in the near term. Business incentives push toward return on share to stockholders, not to patients and other stakeholders. We likely need to rely on some combination of corporately responsibility…and [international] government regulation. It’s tough—the Paris Climate Accord implementation at a slow walk comes to mind.”
Unlike Perk, Doerr has mostly stopped using his Argus II, the result of combination of fear of losing its assistance from wear and tear and disdain for the company that brought it to market. At 70, Doerr says he does not have the time or energy to hold the company more accountable. And with Second Sight having gone through a considerable corporate reorganization, Doerr believes a lawsuit to compel it to better serve its Argus recipients would be nothing but an extremely costly longshot.
“It’s corporate America at its best,” he observes.