[EDITOR'S FORWARD: Humanity has always faced existential threats from dangerous microbes, and though this is the first pandemic in our lifetimes, it won't be the last our species will ever face. This newly relevant work by beloved sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, an excerpt from his 1979 book, A Choice of Catastrophes, establishes that reality in its historical context and makes clear how far we have come since ancient times. But by some measures, we are still in the earliest stages of figuring out how to effectively neutralize such threats. Advancing progress as fast as we can—by leveraging all the insights of modern science—offers our best hope for containing this pandemic and those that will inevitably follow.]
An even greater danger to humanity than the effect of small, fecund pests on human beings, their food, and their possessions, is their tendency to spread some forms of infectious disease.
Every living organism is subject to disease of various sorts, where disease is defined in its broadest sense as "dis-ease," that is, as any malfunction or alteration of the physiology or biochemistry that interferes with the smooth workings of the organism. In the end, the cumulative effect of malfunctions, misfunctions, nonfunctions, even though much of it is corrected or patched up, produces irreversible damage—we call it old age—and, even with the best care in the world, brings on inevitable death.
Civilization has meant the development and growth of cities and the crowding of people into close quarters.
There are some individual trees that may live five thousand years, some cold-blooded animals that may live two hundred years, some warm-blooded animals that may live one hundred years, but for each multicellular individual death comes as the end.
This is an essential part of the successful functioning of life. New individuals constantly come into being with new combinations of chromosomes and genes, and with mutated genes, too. These represent new attempts, so to speak, at fitting the organism to the environment. Without the continuing arrival of new organisms that are not mere copies of the old, evolution would come to a halt. Naturally, the new organisms cannot perform their role properly unless the old ones are removed from the scene after they have performed their function of producing the new. In short, the death of the individual is essential to the life of the species.
It is essential, however, that the individual not die before the new generation has been produced; at least, not in so many cases as to ensure the population dwindling to extinction.
The human species cannot have the relative immunity to harm from individual death possessed by the small and fecund species. Human beings are comparatively large, long-lived, and slow to reproduce, so that too rapid individual death holds within it the specter of catastrophe. The rapid death of unusually high numbers of human beings through disease can seriously dent the human population. Carried to an extreme, it is not too hard to imagine it wiping out the human species.
Most dangerous in this respect is that class of malfunction referred to as "infectious disease." There are many disorders that affect a particular human being for one reason or another and may kill him or her, too, but which will not, in itself, offer a danger to the species, because it is strictly confined to the suffering individual. Where, however, a disease can, in some way travel from one human being to another, and where its occurrence in a single individual may lead to the death of not that one alone but of millions of others as well, then there is the possibility of catastrophe.
And indeed, infectious disease has come closer to destroying the human species in historic times than have the depredations of any animals. Although infectious disease, even at its worst, has never yet actually put an end to human beings as a living species (obviously), it can seriously damage a civilization and change the course of history. It has, in fact, done so not once, but many times.
What's more, the situation has perhaps grown worse with the coming of civilization. Civilization has meant the development and growth of cities and the crowding of people into close quarters. Just as fire can spread much more rapidly from tree to tree in a dense forest than in isolated stands, so can infectious disease spread more quickly in crowded quarters than in sparse settlements.
To mention a few notorious cases in history:
In 431 B.C., Athens and its allies went to war with Sparta and its allies. It was a twenty-seven-year war that ruined Athens and, to a considerable extent, all of Greece. Since Sparta controlled the land, the entire Athenian population crowded into the walled city of Athens. There they were safe and could be provisioned by sea, which was controlled by the Athenian navy. Athens would very likely have won a war of attrition before long and Greece might have avoided ruin, but for disease.
In 430 B.C., an infectious plague struck the crowded Athenian population and killed 20 percent of them, including the charismatic leader, Pericles. Athens kept on fighting but it never recovered its population or its strength and in the end it lost.
Plagues very frequently started in eastern and southern Asia, where population was densest, and spread westward. In A.D. 166, when the Roman Empire was at its peak of strength and civilization under the hard-working philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Roman armies, fighting on the eastern borders in Asia Minor, began to suffer from an epidemic disease (possibly smallpox). They brought it back with them to other provinces and to Rome itself. At its height, 2,000 people were dying in the city of Rome each day. The population began to decline and did not reach its preplague figure again until the twentieth century. There are a great many reasons advanced for the long, slow decline of Rome that followed the reign of Marcus Aurelius, but the weakening effect of the plague of 166 surely played a part.
Even after the western provinces of the empire were torn away by invasions of the German tribes, and Rome itself was lost, the eastern half of the Roman Empire continued to exist, with its capital at Constantinople. Under the capable emperor Justinian I, who came to the throne in 527, Africa, Italy, and parts of Spain were taken and, for a while, it looked as though the empire might be reunited. In 541, however, the bubonic plague struck. It was a disease that attacked rats primarily, but one that fleas could spread to human beings by biting first a sick rat and then a healthy human being. Bubonic disease was fast-acting and often quickly fatal. It may even have been accompanied by a more deadly variant, pneumonic plague, which can leap directly from one person to another.
For two years the plague raged, and between one-third and one-half of the population of the city of Constantinople died, together with many people in the countryside outside the city. There was no hope of uniting the empire thereafter and the eastern portion, which came to be known as the Byzantine Empire, continued to decline thereafter (with occasional rallies).
The very worst epidemic in the history of the human species came in the fourteenth century. Sometime in the 1330s, a new variety of bubonic plague, a particularly deadly one, appeared in central Asia. People began to die and the plague spread outward, inexorably, from its original focus.
Eventually, it reached the Black Sea. There on the Crimean peninsula, jutting into the north-central coast of that sea, was a seaport called Kaffa where the Italian city of Genoa had established a trading post. In October, 1347, a Genoese ship just managed to make it back to Genoa from Kaffa. The few men on board who were not dead of the plague were dying. They were carried ashore and thus the plague entered Europe and began to spread rapidly.
Sometimes one caught a mild version of the disease, but often it struck violently. In the latter case, the patient was almost always dead within one to three days after the onset of the first symptoms. Because the extreme dangers were marked by hemorrhagic spots that turned dark, the disease was called the "Black Death."
The Black Death spread unchecked. It is estimated to have killed some 25 million people in Europe before it died down and many more than that in Africa and Asia. It may have killed a third of all the human population of the planet, perhaps 60 million people altogether or even more. Never before or after do we know of anything that killed so large a percentage of the population as did the Black Death.
It is no wonder that it inspired abject terror among the populace. Everyone walked in fear. A sudden attack of shivering or giddiness, a mere headache, might mean that death had marked one for its own and that no more than a couple of dozen hours were left in which to die. Whole towns were depopulated, with the first to die lying unburied while the survivors fled to spread the disease. Farms lay untended; domestic animals wandered uncared for. Whole nations—Aragon, for instance, in what is now eastern Spain—were afflicted so badly that they never truly recovered.
Distilled liquors had been first developed in Italy about 1100. Now, two centuries later they grew popular. The theory was that strong drink acted as a preventive against contagion. It didn't, but it made the drinker less concerned which, under the circumstances, was something. Drunkenness set in over Europe and it stayed even after the plague was gone; indeed, it has never left. The plague also upset the feudal economy by cutting down on the labor supply very drastically. This did as much to destroy feudalism as did the invention of gunpowder. (Perhaps the most distressing sidelight of the Black Death is the horrible insight into human nature that it offers. England and France were in the early decades of the Hundred Years War at the time. Although the Black Death afflicted both nations and nearly destroyed each, the war continued right on. There was no thought of peace in this greatest of all crises faced by the human species.)
There have been other great plagues since, though none to match the Black Death in unrivaled terror and destruction. In 1664 and 1665, the bubonic plague struck London and killed 75,000.
Cholera, which always simmered just below the surface in India (where it is "endemic") would occasionally explode and spread outward into an "epidemic." Europe was visited by deadly cholera epidemics in 1831 and again in 1848 and 1853. Yellow fever, a tropical disease, would be spread by sailors to more northern seaports, and periodically American cities would be decimated by it. Even as late as 1905, there was a bad yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans.
The most serious epidemic since the Black Death, was one of "Spanish influenza" which struck the world in 1918 and in one year killed 30 million people the world over, and about 600,000 of them in the United States. In comparison, four years of World War I, just preceding 1918, had killed 8 million. However, the influenza epidemic killed less than 2 percent of the world's population, so that the Black Death remains unrivaled.
What stands between such a catastrophe and us is the new knowledge we have gained in the last century and a half concerning the causes of infectious disease and methods for fighting it.
[…] Infectious disease is clearly more dangerous to human existence than any animal possibly could be, and we might be right to wonder whether it might not produce a final catastrophe before the glaciers ever have a chance to invade again and certainly before the sun begins to inch its way toward red gianthood.
What stands between such a catastrophe and us is the new knowledge we have gained in the last century and a half concerning the causes of infectious disease and methods for fighting it.
People, throughout most of history, had no defense whatever against infectious disease. Indeed, the very fact of infection was not recognized in ancient and medieval times. When people began dying in droves, the usual theory was that an angry god was taking vengeance for some reason or other. Apollo's arrows were flying, so that one death was not responsible for another; Apollo was responsible for all, equally.
The Bible tells of a number of epidemics and in each case it is the anger of God kindled against sinners, as in 2 Samuel 24. In New Testament times, the theory of demonic possession as an explanation of disease was popular, and both Jesus and others cast our devils. The biblical authority for this has caused the theory to persist to this day, as witness by the popularity of such movies as The Exorcist.
As long as disease was blamed on divine or demonic influences, something as mundane as contagion was overlooked. Fortunately, the Bible also contains instructions for isolating those with leprosy (a name given not only to leprosy itself, but to other, less serious skin conditions). The biblical practice of isolation was for religious rather than hygienic reasons, for leprosy has a very low infectivity. On biblical authority, lepers were isolated in the Middle Ages, while those with really infectious disease were not. The practice of isolation, however, caused some physicians to think of it in connection with disease generally. In particular, the ultimate terror of the Black Death helped spread the notion of quarantine, a name which referred originally to isolation for forty (quarante in French) days.
The fact that isolation did slow the spread of a disease made it look as though contagion was a factor. The first to deal with this possibility in detail was an Italian physician, Girolamo Fracastoro (1478–1553). In 1546, he suggested that disease could be spread by direct contact of a well person with an ill one or by indirect contact of a well person with infected articles or even through transmission over a distance. He suggested that minute bodies, too small to be seen, passed from an ill person to a well one and that the minute bodies had the power of self-multiplication.
It was a remarkable bit of insight, but Fracastoro had no firm evidence to support his theory. If one is going to accept minute unseen bodies leaping from one body to another and do it on nothing more than faith, one might as well accept unseen demons.
Minute bodies did not, however, remain unseen. Already in Fracastoro's time, the use of lenses to aid vision was well established. By 1608, combinations of lenses were used to magnify distant objects and the telescope came into existence. It didn't take much of a modification to have lenses magnify tiny objects. The Italian physiologist Marcello Malpighi (1628–94) was the first to use a microscope for important work, reporting his observations in the 1650s.
The Dutch microscopist Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) laboriously ground small but excellent lenses, which gave him a better view of the world of tiny objects than anyone else in his time had had. In 1677, he placed ditch water at the focus of one of his small lenses and found living organisms too small to see with the naked eye but each one as indisputably alive as a whale or an elephant—or as a human being. These were the one-celled animals we now call "protozoa."
In 1683, van Leeuwenhoek discovered structures still tinier than protozoa. They were at the limit of visibility with even his best lenses, but from his sketches of what he saw, it is clear that he had discovered bacteria, the smallest cellular creatures that exist.
To do any better than van Leeuwenhoek, one had to have distinctly better microscopes and these were slow to be developed. The next microscopist to describe bacteria was the Danish biologist Otto Friedrich Müller (1730–84) who described them in a book on the subject, published posthumously, in 1786.
In hindsight, it seems that one might have guessed that bacteria represented Fracastoro's infectious agents, but there was no evidence of that and even Müller's observations were so borderline that there was no general agreement that bacteria even existed, or that they were alive if they did.
The English optician Joseph Jackson Lister (1786–1869) developed an achromatic microscope in in 1830. Until then, the lenses used had refracted light into rainbows so that tiny objects were rimmed in color and could not be seen clearly. Lister combined lenses of different kinds of glass in such a way as to remove the colors.
With the colors gone, tiny objects stood out sharply and in the 1860s, the German botanist Ferdinand Julius Cohn (1828–98) saw and described bacteria with the first really convincing success. It was only with Cohn's work that the science of bacteriology was founded and that there came to be general agreement that bacteria existed.
Meanwhile, even without a clear indication of the existence of Fracastoro's agents, some physicians were discovering methods of reducing infection.
The Hungarian physician Ignaz Philipp Semmelweiss (1818–65) insisted that childbed fever which killed so many mothers in childbirth, was spread by the doctors themselves, since they went from autopsies straight to women in labor. He fought to get the doctors to wash their hands before attending the women, and when he managed to enforce this, in 1847, the incidence of childbed fever dropped precipitously. The insulted doctors, proud of their professional filth, revolted at this, however and finally managed to do their work with dirty hands again. The incidence of childbed fever climbed as rapidly as it had fallen—but that didn't bother the doctors.
The crucial moment came with the work of the French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822–95). Although he was a chemist his work had turned him more and more toward microscopes and microorganisms, and in 1865 he set to work studying a silkworm disease that was destroying France's silk industry. Using his microscope, he discovered a tiny parasite infesting the silkworms and the mulberry leaves that were fed to them. Pasteur's solution was drastic but rational. All infested worms and infested food must be destroyed. A new beginning must be made with healthy worms and the disease would be wiped out. His advice was followed and it worked. The silk industry was saved.
This turned Pasteur's interest to contagious diseases. It seemed to him that if the silkworm disease was the product of microscopic parasites other diseases might be, and thus was born the "germ theory of disease." Fracastoro's invisible infectious agents were microorganisms, often the bacteria that Cohn was just bringing clearly into the light of day.
It now became possible to attack infectious disease rationally, making use of a technique that had been introduced to medicine over half a century before. In 1798, the English physician Edward Jenner (1749–1823) had shown that people inoculated with the mild disease, cowpox, or vaccinia in Latin, acquired immunity not only to cowpox itself but also to the related but very virulent and dreaded disease, smallpox. The technique of "vaccination" virtually ended most of the devastation of smallpox.
Unfortunately, no other diseases were found to occur in such convenient pairs, with the mild one conferring immunity from the serious one. Nevertheless, with the notion of the germ theory the technique could be extended in another way.
Pasteur located specific germs associated with specific diseases, then weakened those germs by heating them or in other ways, and used the weakened germs for inoculation. Only a very mild disease was produced but immunity was conferred against the dangerous one. The first disease treated in this way was the deadly anthrax that ravaged herds of domestic animals.
Similar work was pursued even more successfully by the German bacteriologist Robert Koch (1843–1910). Antitoxins designed to neutralize bacterial poisons were also developed.
Meanwhile, the English surgeon Joseph Lister (1827–1912), the son of the inventor of the achromatic microscope, had followed up Semmelweiss's work. Once he learned of Pasteur's research he had a convincing rationale as excuse and began to insist that, before operating, surgeons wash their hands in solutions of chemicals known to kill bacteria. From 1867 on, the practice of "antiseptic surgery" spread quickly.
The germ theory also sped the adoption of rational preventive measures—personal hygiene, such as washing and bathing; careful disposal of wastes; the guarding of the cleanliness of food and water. Leaders in this were the German scientist Max Joseph von Pettenkofer (1818–1901) and Rudolph Virchow (1821–1902). They themselves did not accept the germ theory of disease but their recommendations would not have been followed as readily were it not that others did.
In addition, it was discovered that diseases such as yellow fever and malaria were transmitted by mosquitoes, typhus fever by lice, Rocky Mountain spotted fever by ticks, bubonic plague by fleas and so on. Measures against these small germ-transferring organisms acted to reduce the incidence of the diseases. Men such as the Americans Walter Reed (1851–1902) and Howard Taylor Ricketts (1871–1910) and the Frenchman Charles J. Nicolle (1866–1936) were involved in such discoveries.
The German bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich (1854–1915) pioneered the use of specific chemicals that would kill particular bacteria without killing the human being in which it existed. His most successful discovery came in 1910, when he found an arsenic compound that was active against the bacterium that causes syphilis.
This sort of work culminated in the discovery of the antibacterial effect of sulfanilamide and related compounds, beginning with the work of the German biochemist Gerhard Domagk (1895–1964) in 1935 and of antibiotics, beginning with the work of the French-American microbiologist René Jules Dubos (1901–) in 1939.
As late as 1955 came a victory over poliomyelitis, thanks to a vaccine prepared by the American microbiologist Jonas Edward Salk (1914–).
And yet victory is not total. Right now, the once ravaging disease of smallpox seems to be wiped out. Not one case exists, as far as we know, in the entire world. There are however infectious diseases such as a few found in Africa that are very contagious, virtually 100 percent fatal, and for which no cure exists. Careful hygienic measures have made it possible for such diseases to be studied without their spreading, and no doubt effective countermeasures will be worked out.
It would seem, then, that as long as our civilization survives and our medical technology is not shattered there is no longer any danger that infectious disease will produce catastrophe or even anything like the disasters of the Black Death and the Spanish influenza. Yet, old familiar diseases have, within them, the potentiality of arising in new forms.
The human body (and all living organisms) have natural defenses against the invasion of foreign organisms. Antibodies are developed in the bloodstream that neutralize toxins or the microorganisms themselves. White cells in the blood stream physically attack bacteria.
Every few years a new strain of flu rises to pester us. It is possible, however, to produce vaccines against such a new strain once it makes an appearance.
Evolutionary processes generally make the fight an even one. Those organisms more efficient at self-protection against microorganisms tend to survive and pass on their efficiency to their offspring. Nevertheless, microorganisms are far smaller even than insects and far more fecund. They evolve much more quickly, with individual microorganisms almost totally unimportant in the scheme of things.
Considering the uncounted numbers of microorganisms of any particular species that are continually multiplying by cell fission, large numbers of mutations must be produced just as continually. Every once in a while such a mutation may act to make a particular disease far more infectious and deadly. Furthermore, it may sufficiently alter the chemical nature of the microorganism so that the antibodies which the host organism is capable of manufacturing are no longer usable. The result is the sudden onslaught of an epidemic. The Black Death was undoubtedly brought about by a mutant strain of the microorganism causing it.
Eventually, though, those human beings who are most susceptible die, and the relatively resistant survive, so that the virulence of the diseases dies down. In that case, is the human victory over the pathogenic microorganism permanent? Might not new strains of germs arise? They might and they do. Every few years a new strain of flu rises to pester us. It is possible, however, to produce vaccines against such a new strain once it makes an appearance. Thus, when a single case of "swine flu" appeared in 1976, a full scale mass-vaccination was set in action. It turned out not to be needed, but it showed what could be done.
Copyright © 1979 by Isaac Asimov, A Choice of Catastrophes: The Disasters That Threaten Our World, originally published by Simon & Schuster. Reprinted with permission from the Asimov estate.
[This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
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.