It is widely acknowledged that even a small advance in anti-aging science could yield benefits in terms of healthy years that the traditional paradigm of targeting specific diseases is not likely to produce. A more youthful population would also be less vulnerable to epidemics. Approximately 93 percent of all COVID-19 deaths reported in the U.S. occurred among those aged 50 or older. The potential economic benefits would be tremendous. A more youthful population would consume less medical resources and be able to work longer. A recent study published in Nature estimates that a slowdown in aging that increases life expectancy by one year would save $38 trillion per year for the U.S. alone.
A societal effort to understand, slow down, arrest or even reverse aging of at least the size of our response to COVID-19 would therefore be a rational commitment. In fact, given that America’s older population is projected to grow dramatically, and the cost of healthcare with it, it is not an overstatement to say that the future welfare of the country may depend on solving aging.
This year, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has announced that it will spend up to 1 billion dollars per year on science with the potential to slow down the aging process. We have also seen important investments from billionaires like Google co-founder Larry Page, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, business magnate Larry Ellison, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
The U.S. government, however, is lagging: The National Institutes of Health spent less than one percent of its $43 billion budget for the fiscal year of 2021 on the National Institute on Aging’s Division of Aging Biology. When you visit the division’s webpage you find that their mission statement carefully omits any mention of the possibility of slowing down the aging process.
There is a lack of political will and leadership on the issue, and the idea that we should seek to do something about aging is generally met with a great deal of suspicion and trepidation. In a large representative study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013, only 38% of the respondents said that they would want a treatment that could slow the aging process and allow them to live at least 120 years. Apparently, most people prefer, or at least do not mind, to age and die within a natural lifespan. This result has been confirmed by smaller studies and it is, I think, surprising. Are we not supposed to live in a youth-culture? Are people not supposed to want to stay young and alive forever? Is self-preservation not the strong drive we have always assumed it to be?
We are inundated and saturated with an ideology of death-acceptance.
In my book, The Case against Death, I suggest that we have been culturally conditioned to think that it is virtuous to accept aging and death. We are taught to believe that although aging and death seem gruesome, they are what is best for us, all things considered. This is what we are supposed to think, and the majority accept it. I call this the Wise View because death acceptance has been the dominant view of philosophers since the beginning. Socrates compared our earthly life to an illness and a prison and described death as a healer and a liberator. The Buddha taught that life is suffering and that the way to escape suffering is to end the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Stoic philosophers from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius believed that everything that happens in accordance with nature is good, and that therefore we should not only accept death but welcome it as an aspect of a perfect totality.
Epicureans agreed with these rival schools and famously argued that death cannot harm us because where we are, death is not, and where death is we are not. We cannot be harmed if we are not, so death is harmless. The simple view that death actually can harm us greatly is one of the least philosophical views one can hold.
In The Case Against Death, philosopher Ingemar Patrick Linden argues that we frown on using science to prolong healthy life only because we're culturally conditioned to think that way.
Many of the stories we tell promote the Wise View. One of the earliest known pieces of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, follows Gilgamesh on a quest for eternal life ending with the wisdom that death is the destiny of man. Today we learn about the tedium of immortality from the children’s book Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, and we are warned about the vice of wanting to resist death in other books and films such as J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter, where Voldemort must kill Harry as a step towards his own immortality; C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia where the White Witch has gained immortal youth and madness in equal measures; J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy where the ring extends the wearer’s life but can also destroy them, as exemplified by the creep Gollum; and Doctor Strange where life extension is the one magical power that is taboo. In Star Wars, Yoda, a stereotype of the sage, teaches us the wisdom handed down by philosophers and prophets: “Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not.”
We are inundated and saturated with an ideology of death-acceptance. Can the dear reader name one single story where the hero is pursuing anti-aging, longevity or immortality and the villain tries to stop her?
The Wise View resonates with us partly because we think that there is nothing we can do about aging and death, so we do not want to wish for what we cannot have. Youth and immortality are sour grapes to us. Believing that death is, all things considered, not such a bad thing, protects us from experiencing our aging and approaching death as a gruesome tragedy. This need to escape the thought that we are heading towards a personal catastrophe explains why many are so quick to accept arguments against radical life extension, despite their often glaring weaknesses.
One of the most common objections to radical life extension is that aging and death are natural. The problem with this argument is that many things that are natural are very bad, such as cancer, and other things that are not natural are very good, such as a cure for cancer. Why are we so sure that cancer is bad? Because we assume that it is bad to die. Indeed, nothing is more natural than wanting to live. We seem to need philosophers and story tellers to talk us out of it and, in the words of a distinguished bioethicist, “instruct and somewhat moderate our lust for life.”
Another standard objection is that we need a deadline, and that without death we could postpone every action forever. “Death brings urgency and seriousness to life,” say proponents of this view, but there are several problems with this argument. Even if our lives were endless, there would still be many things we would have to do at a certain time, and that could not be redone, for example, saving our planet from being destroyed, or becoming the first person on Venus. And if we prefer pleasant endless lives over unpleasant endless ones, we will have to exercise, eat right, keep our word, develop our talents, show up for time at work, pay our taxes by the due date, remember birthdays, and so on.
The Wise View provides us with a feel-good bromide for the anxiety created by the foreknowledge of our decay and death by telling us that these are not evils, but blessings in disguise. Once perhaps an innocuous delusion, today the view stands in the way of a necessary societal commitment to research that can prolong our healthy life.
Besides, even if we succeeded in ending aging, we would still die from other causes. Given the rate of accidental deaths we would be fortunate to live to age 2000 all things equal. So even if, contrary to what I have argued, we do need a deadline, we can still argue that the natural lifespan that we now labor under is inhuman and that it forces each human to limit her ambitions and to become only a fragment of all that she that could have been. Our tight time constraint imposes tragic choices and inflated opportunity costs. Death does not make life matter; it makes time matter.
The perhaps most awful argument against radical life extension is grounded in a pessimism that holds life in such little regard that it says that best of all is never to have born. This view was expressed by Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible, by Sophocles and several other ancient Greeks, by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and recently by, among others, the South African philosopher David Benatar who argues that it is wrong to bring children into the world and that we should euthanize all sentient life. Pessimism, one suspects, largely appeals to some for reasons having to do with personal temperament, but insofar as it is built on factual beliefs, they can be addressed by providing a less negatively biased understanding of the world, by pointing out that curing aging would decrease the badness that they are so hypersensitive to, and by reminding them that if life really becomes unbearable, they are free to quit at any time. Other means of persuasion could include recommending sleep, exercise and taking long brisk walks in nature.
The Wise View provides us with a feel-good bromide for the anxiety created by the foreknowledge of our decay and death by telling us that these are not evils, but blessings in disguise. Once perhaps an innocuous delusion, today the view stands in the way of a necessary societal commitment to research that can prolong our healthy life. We need abandon it and openly admit that aging is a scourge that deserves to be fought with the combined energies equaling those expended on fighting COVID-19, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, stroke and all the other illnesses for which aging is the greatest risk factor. The fight to end aging transcends ordinary political boundaries and is therefore the kind of grand unifying enterprise that could re-energize a society suffering from divisiveness and the sense of a lack of a common purpose. It is hard to imagine a more worthwhile cause.
Responding to COVID-19 outbreaks at more than 200 mink farms, the Danish government, in November 2020, culled its entire mink population. The Danish armed forces helped farmers slaughter each of their 17 million minks, which are normally farmed for their valuable fur.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus, said officials, spread from human handlers to the small, ferret-like animals, mutated, and then spread back to several hundred humans. Although the mass extermination faced much criticism, Denmark’s prime minister defended the decision last month, stating that the step was “necessary” and that the Danish government had “a responsibility for the health of the entire world.”
Over the past two and half years, COVID-19 infections have been reported in numerous animal species around the world. In addition to the Danish minks, there is other evidence that the virus can mutate as it’s transmitted back and forth between humans and animals, which increases the risk to public health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), COVID-19 vaccines for animals may protect the infected species and prevent the transmission of viral mutations. However, the development of such vaccines has been slow. Scientists attribute the deficiency to a lack of data.
“Several animal species have been predicted and found to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2,” says Suresh V. Kuchipudi, interim director of the Animal Diagnostic Laboratory at the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences. But the risk remains unknown for many animals in several parts of the world, he says. “Therefore, there is an urgent need to monitor the SARS-CoV-2 exposure of high-risk animals in different parts of the world.”
In June, India introduced Ancovax, its first COVID-19 vaccine for animals. The development came a year after the nation reported that the virus had infected eight Asiatic lions, with two of them dying. While 30 COVID-19 vaccines for humans have been approved for general or emergency use across the world, Ancovax is only the third such vaccine for animals. The first, named Carnivac-Cov, was registered by Russia in March last year, followed by another vaccine four months later, developed by Zoetis, a U.S. pharmaceutical company.
Christina Lood, a Zoetis spokesperson, says the company has donated over 26,000 doses of its animal vaccine to over 200 zoos – in addition to 20 conservatories, sanctuaries and other animal organizations located in over a dozen countries, including Canada, Chile and the U.S. The vaccine, she adds, has been administered to more than 300 mammalian species so far.
“At least 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases have an animal origin, including COVID-19,” says Lood. “Now more than ever before, we can all see the important connection between animal health and human health."
The Dangers of COVID-19 Infections among Animals
Cases of the virus in animals have been reported in several countries across the world. As of March this year, 29 kinds of animals have been infected. These include pet animals like dogs, cats, ferrets and hamsters; farmed animals like minks; wild animals like the white-tailed deer, mule deer and black-tailed marmoset; and animals in zoos and sanctuaries, including hyenas, hippopotamuses and manatees. Despite the widespread infection, the U.S. Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has noted that “we don’t yet know all of the animals that can get infected,” adding that more studies and surveillance are needed to understand how the virus is spread between humans and animals.
Leyi Wang, a veterinary virologist at the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, University of Illinois, says that captive and pet animals most often get infected by humans. It goes both ways, he says, citing a recent study in Hong Kong that found the virus spread from pet hamsters to people.
Wang’s bigger concern is the possibility that humans or domestic animals could transmit the virus back to wildlife, creating an uncontrollable reservoir of the disease, especially given the difficulty of vaccinating non-captive wild animals. Such spillbacks have happened previously with diseases such as plague, yellow-fever, and rabies.
It’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets.
In the past, other human respiratory viruses have proven fatal for endangered great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas. Fearing that COVID-19 could have the same effect, primatologists have been working to protect primates throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, virus reservoirs have already been created among other animals, Wang says. “Deer of over 20 U.S. states were tested SARS-CoV-2 positive,” says Wang, pointing to a study that confirmed human-to-deer transmission as well as deer-to-deer transmission. It remains unclear how many wildlife species may be susceptible to the disease due to interaction with infected deer, says Wang.
In April, the CDC expressed concerns over new coronavirus variants mutating in wildlife, urging health authorities to monitor the spread of the contagion in animals as threats to humans. The WHO has made similar recommendations.
Challenges to Vaccine Development
Zoetis initiated development activities for its COVID-19 vaccine in February 2020 when the first known infection of a dog occurred in Hong Kong. The pharmaceutical giant completed the initial development work and studies on dogs and cats, and shared their findings at the World One Health Congress in the fall of 2020. A few months later, after a troop of eight gorillas contracted the virus at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Zoetis donated its experimental vaccine for emergency use in the great ape population.
Zoetis has uniquely formulated its COVID-19 vaccine for animals. It uses the same antigen as human vaccines, but it includes a different type of carrier protein for inducing a strong immune response. “The unique combination of antigen and carrier ensures safety and efficacy for the species in which a vaccine is used,” says Lood.
But it’s challenging and expensive to develop and implement animal vaccines, and demand has been lacking as the broader health risk for animals isn’t well known among the public. People tend to think only about their house pets. “As it became apparent that risk of severe disease for household pets such as cats and dogs was low, demand for those vaccines decreased before they became commercially available,” says William Karesh, executive vice-president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance. He adds that in affected commercial mink farms, the utility of a vaccine could justify the cost in some cases.
Although scientists have made tremendous advances in making vaccines for animals, Kuchipudi thinks that the need for COVID-19 vaccines for animals “must be evaluated based on many factors, including the susceptibility of the particular animal species, health implications, and cost.”.
Not every scientist feels the need for animal vaccines. Joel Baines, a professor of virology at Cornell University’s Baker Institute for Animal Health, says that while domestic cats are the most susceptible to COVID-19, they usually suffer mild infections. Big cats in zoos are vulnerable, but they can be isolated or distanced from humans. He says that mink farms are a relatively small industry and, by ensuring that human handlers are COVID negative, such outbreaks can be curtailed.
Baines also suggests that human vaccines could probably work in animals, as they were tested in animals during early clinical trials and induced immune responses. “However, these vaccines should be used in humans as a priority and it would be unethical to use a vaccine meant for humans to vaccinate an animal if vaccine doses are at all limiting,” he says.
William Karesh, president of the World Animal Health Organization Working Group on Wildlife Diseases, says the best way to protect animals is to reduce their exposure to infected people.
In the absence of enough vaccines, Karesh says that the best way to protect animals is the same as protecting unvaccinated humans - reduce their exposure to infected people by isolating them when necessary. “People working with or spending time with wild animals should follow available guidelines, which includes testing themselves and wearing PPE to avoid accidentally infecting wildlife,” he says.
The Link between Animal and Human Health
Although there is a need for animal vaccines in response to virus outbreaks, the best approach is to try to prevent the outbreaks in the first place, explains K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India. He says that the incidence of zoonotic diseases has increased in the past six decades because human actions like increased deforestation, wildlife trade and animal meat consumption have opened an ecological window for disease transmission between humans and animals. Such actions chip away at the natural barriers between humans and forest-dwelling viruses, while building conveyor belts for the transmission of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19.
Many studies suggest that the source of COVID-19 was infected live animals sold at a wet market in China’s Wuhan. The market sold live dogs, rats, porcupines, badgers, hares, foxes, hedgehogs, marmots and Chinese muntjac (small deer) and, according to a study published in July, the virus was found on the market’s stalls, animal cages, carts and water drains.
This research strongly suggests that COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, one that jumps from animals to humans due to our close relationship with them in agriculture, as companions and in the natural environment. Half of the infectious diseases that affect people come from animals, but the study of zoonotic diseases has been historically underfunded, even as they can reduce the likelihood and cost of future pandemics.
“We need to invest in vaccines,” says Reddy, “but that cannot be a substitute for an ecologically sensible approach to curtailing zoonotic diseases.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in health research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.