In the late 1650's the French polymath and renowned scientist Blaise Pascal, having undergone a religious experience that transformed him into something of a zealot, suggested the following logical strategy regarding belief in God: If there is a God, then believing in him will ensure you an eternity of bliss, while not believing in him could earn you an eternal sentence to misery.
On the other hand, if there is no God, believing in him anyway will cost you very little, and not believing in him will mean nothing in the non-existent after life. Therefore, the only sensible bet is to believe in God. This has come to be known as Pascal's wager.
It has a surprising number of applications beyond concerns for a comfortable afterlife. There are many things for which the value of believing something or not can be seen as a cost vs. likely benefit wager, often without regard to the actual truth of the matter. Since science does not profess to have a final truth, and in many areas freely admits its incomplete knowledge, Pascal's wager can provide a useful method of deciding between two alternatives.
For example, it seems that a significant percentage of the population is suspicious of science, or so we are told. We often hear that some large number, approaching or exceeding half of Americans, do not believe in evolution. This seems remarkable on the face of it because there is no viable scientific opposition to evolution and it is widely accepted by biologists and other life-scientists as being fundamental to understanding biology – from genetics to medicine.
What we are not often told is that most of those who answer negatively about believing in evolution nonetheless understand evolution – or at least the basics of it. They are not stupid, ignorant or uninformed. They have simply made a Pascalian wager. What benefit we might ask is derived from believing in evolution rather than a divine creation? Unless you are a professional biologist it is hard to see how this would affect your everyday life. On the other hand professing a belief in Darwinian evolution over the biblical narrative will likely ostracize you from family, friends, co-workers, your church community - in short most of your social infrastructure. Place your bets.
Can we apply any of this to decisions over the current controversy surrounding vaccination – and in particular the newly arrived Covid-19 vaccine?
While it is true that for entirely economic reasons, this is the first vaccine to be produced in this way, the method is not really new and the science that makes it possible has been developing over the last 40 years.
There are certainly reasons to be concerned about being vaccinated and it would be a gross over-simplification to consider anyone who expresses reticence about taking a vaccine, this new vaccine in particular, as being just plain dumb or scientifically illiterate or gullible. They need be none of these things and still may be suspicious of the vaccine.
One issue is safety. The vaccine, any vaccine, is designed to mobilize your immune system, essentially to fool it into believing that there is an invading virus present and to mount an immune response. That way it will be ready when the real invasion comes, if it comes. This seems pretty sensible and preferable to going to war with an opponent you know nothing about. But still, it is fooling around with Mother Nature and some people are uneasy about that. Although it must be pointed out that the virus is not at all shy about fooling around with your immune system and many other parts of you, so letting it have its way is not good policy either.
What about a vaccine made of genes? This vaccine is being produced by what is being touted as a new method using RNA – genes. While it is true that for entirely economic reasons, this is the first vaccine to be produced in this way, the method is not really new and the science that makes it possible has been developing over the last 40 years. So it's not so radical as the press makes it seem.
But it is true that this method uses RNA, genetic material, to make the vaccine. We hear a lot about gene modification and the potential dangers associated with it. Why then am I going to allow RNA, genes, to be injected into me? The first thing to realize is that this is exactly what the virus does – so whether you get a vaccine or an infection, you are getting genes injected into you. The virus RNA encodes around 12 functional genes (by comparison humans and other mammals have around 25,000 genes). The virus only contains the genes to make a new virus – it does not have any of the capabilities of a normal cell to actually turn those genes into the proteins that make up the complete virus. It hijacks your cells to do this – and that's how it sickens you, by forcing your cells to make new viruses instead of what they should be doing.
Now the new vaccines have taken just one of those genes – the one that directs the production of the now infamous spike protein that appears on the surface of a normal virus – and injects just that one gene into your muscle cells, which then make that one single protein. Your immune system comes along and sees that weird protein and makes antibodies to it. These same antibodies will now recognize the spike protein on the surface of any viral particles that invade your body. We have effectively turned the virus into its own enemy.
The viral RNA that you are getting will decompose over a few days because RNA is not a stable molecule (that, by the way, is why the vaccine needs to be kept frozen) and it will no longer exist in your body. It could only become a permanent part of your genome if it were a DNA molecule instead of an RNA molecule – and even the chances of that happening would be chemically remote. So regardless of how it sounds, this may actually be the safest sort of vaccine to use. In the future it is likely that all vaccines will be made this way.
Then, of course, there is the issue of who is running this whole vaccine program – the government and the pharmaceutical industry. These are the guys who brought you opioid addiction, death by Vioxx, soaring drug prices, the worst health care system in the developed world, regulations where you don't need them and none where you do – am I really going to trust this cast of so-called "inept villains," as some believe, to dictate my personal health choices? Do we know for sure that the claims of efficacy are real or just made up to sell some worthless procedure? It would not be the first time. (I would not, on the other hand, worry about Bill Gates having a chip inserted into you along with the vaccine – if you use any social media, navigational tools, or purchase anything online, then Bill Gates already knows more about you than he will get from any injectable chip. So that train has left the station.)
The main upside to vaccines is that because they use your already existing defense system, they are surprisingly safe.
The Vaccine Wager
All this and a few lesser issues are worth a pause for sure. But we must also look on the positive side of the ledger. Why trust science? Modern medicine and the science behind it has eliminated or dramatically lessened such scourges as smallpox, polio, cholera, chicken pox, measles, rabies and dozens of other killer pathogens that had previously wiped out enormous numbers of people, in some cases significant parts of entire generations. Don't we depend on science for much of the comfort and safety of our everyday lives? Isn't science the way we heat our homes, drive to work, fly around the world, have dependable food? Yes, there is the bomb – but there is also anesthesia.
When it comes to viruses, the only tool we have to fight them is vaccination. The only tool. Antibiotics are for bacteria, a completely different sort of creature. Sanitation beyond personal hand washing is ineffective. Vaccines trick the immune system into recognizing the virus earlier than it would otherwise and protect normal cells from invasion by the virus. Tricking the immune system is understandably problematic for people who believe that their body knows best if it's just kept healthy. This virus, as we have seen from the array of infected people that includes apparently healthy folks, unfortunately does not subscribe to that belief.
By a similar sort of reasoning, some people make the plausible error of calculating that the vaccine is 95% effective but the survival rate is 99%, so why not just let my natural resistance take care of this? Indeed, that might not be unreasonable thinking if we were talking about the common cold, but this virus has shown itself to be a tricky character and we are not yet able to predict who gets a serious case and who a mild one. With those sorts of stakes, you shouldn't wager on either of those numbers because they have nothing to do with you as an individual. Like flipping a coin, there is only a 1% chance of it coming up heads 6 times in a row. But if it has come up heads 5 times in a row the probability of it coming up heads on the next flip is … still 50/50.
An even larger unknown is whether there may be long-term effects associated with SARS-Cov-2, as is the case for many viruses. The 1918 influenza virus has been linked to a subsequent 2-3 fold increase in Parkinson's disease by a mechanism we still don't understand. The virus that gives children chicken pox will hide out in a person's body for 40 years or more and then emerge as a painful, sometimes debilitating, case of shingles. The 99% survivability rate of this virus is meaningless if 20 years from now it causes some devastating pulmonary or brain disease.
The main upside to vaccines is that because they use your already existing defense system, they are surprisingly safe. Safer than antibiotics which have numerous side effects because they are not part of our normal make up and are cell killers – mostly bacterial cells, but they are not so perfectly targeted that they don't leave some collateral damage in their wake. All drugs and treatments have side effects, but vaccines in general have the fewest. This vaccine in particular has undergone many more than the usual safety measures - multiple independent review boards, massive press and public attention, governmental and non-governmental oversight, the most diverse trial cohorts ever assembled. Nothing here was rushed, no shortcuts were taken.
So here's the vaccine wager. Vaccines are the safest medical procedure we have. They are also among the most effective, but that's curiously not important for the bet. My claim about their safety is because vaccines are in a special class of medical tools. They are the only medical procedure or drug that is given to healthy people. Every other treatment we use medically is aimed at some existing pathology - from a cold to cancer.
Vaccines therefore have to reach a higher standard of safety than any other medical treatment. You can't take healthy people and make them sick. Vaccines have fewer side effects than virtually any other drug you wouldn't even think twice about taking – aspirin, for instance, which can cause internal bleeding, gastric ulcers, stroke. But since you are sick when you take those drugs you are willing to make the bet that the benefits will outweigh the possible side effects.
With vaccines the wager is much simpler – it is indeed more like Pascal's original wager. It may or may not be highly effective (some vaccines are only 60% effective) but they are so safe that taking them poses little risk, whereas not taking them subjects you (and others) to considerable risk, i.e., getting the virus. Like believing or not in an afterlife, the smart money is with Pascal, who I think would have reasoned himself right to the head of the vaccination line.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.
Last summer, when fast and cheap Covid tests were in high demand and governments were struggling to manufacture and distribute them, a group of independent scientists working together had a bit of a breakthrough.
Working on the Just One Giant Lab platform, an online community that serves as a kind of clearing house for open science researchers to find each other and work together, they managed to create a simple, one-hour Covid test that anyone could take at home with just a cup of hot water. The group tested it across a network of home and professional laboratories before being listed as a semi-finalist team for the XPrize, a competition that rewards innovative solutions-based projects. Then, the group hit a wall: they couldn't commercialize the test.
They wanted to keep their project open source, making it accessible to people around the world, so they decided to forgo traditional means of intellectual property protection and didn't seek patents. (They couldn't afford lawyers anyway). And, as a loose-knit group that was not supported by a traditional scientific institution, working in community labs and homes around the world, they had no access to resources or financial support for manufacturing or distributing their test at scale.
But without ethical and regulatory approval for clinical testing, manufacture, and distribution, they were legally unable to create field tests for real people, leaving their inexpensive, $16-per-test, innovative product languishing behind, while other, more expensive over-the-counter tests made their way onto the market.
Who Are These Radical Scientists?
Independent, decentralized biomedical research has come of age. Also sometimes called DIYbio, biohacking, or community biology, depending on whom you ask, open research is today a global movement with thousands of members, from scientists with advanced degrees to middle-grade students. Their motivations and interests vary across a wide spectrum, but transparency and accessibility are key to the ethos of the movement. Teams are agile, focused on shoestring-budget R&D, and aim to disrupt business as usual in the ivory towers of the scientific establishment.
Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Initiatives developed within the community, such as Open Insulin, which hopes to engineer processes for affordable, small-batch insulin production, "Slybera," a provocative attempt to reverse engineer a $1 million dollar gene therapy, and the hundreds of projects posted on the collaboration platform Just One Giant Lab during the pandemic, all have one thing in common: to pursue testing in humans, they need an ethics oversight mechanism.
These groups, most of which operate collaboratively in community labs, homes, and online, recognize that some sort of oversight or guidance is useful—and that it's the right thing to do.
But also, and perhaps more immediately, they need it because federal rules require ethics oversight of any biomedical research that's headed in the direction of the consumer market. In addition, some individuals engaged in this work do want to publish their research in traditional scientific journals, which—you guessed it—also require that research has undergone an ethics evaluation. Ethics oversight is critical to ensuring that research is conducted responsibly, even by biohackers.
Bridging the Ethics Gap
The problem is that traditional oversight mechanisms, such as institutional review boards at government or academic research institutions, as well as the private boards utilized by pharmaceutical companies, are not accessible to most independent researchers. Traditional review boards are either closed to the public, or charge fees that are out of reach for many citizen science initiatives. This has created an "ethics gap" in nontraditional scientific research.
Biohackers are seen in some ways as the direct descendents of "white hat" computer hackers, or those focused on calling out security holes and contributing solutions to technical problems within self-regulating communities. In the case of health and biotechnology, those problems include both the absence of treatments and the availability of only expensive treatments for certain conditions. As the DIYbio community grows, there needs to be a way to provide assurance that, when the work is successful, the public is able to benefit from it eventually. The team that developed the one-hour Covid test found a potential commercial partner and so might well overcome the oversight hurdle, but it's been 14 months since they developed the test--and counting.
In short, without some kind of oversight mechanism for the work of independent biomedical researchers, the solutions they innovate will never have the opportunity to reach consumers.
In a new paper in the journal Citizen Science: Theory & Practice, we consider the issue of the ethics gap and ask whether ethics oversight is something nontraditional researchers want, and if so, what forms it might take. Given that individuals within these communities sometimes vehemently disagree with each other, is consensus on these questions even possible?
We learned that there is no "one size fits all" solution for ethics oversight of nontraditional research. Rather, the appropriateness of any oversight model will depend on each initiative's objectives, needs, risks, and constraints.
We also learned that nontraditional researchers are generally willing (and in some cases eager) to engage with traditional scientific, legal, and bioethics experts on ethics, safety, and related questions.
We suggest that these experts make themselves available to help nontraditional researchers build infrastructure for ethics self-governance and identify when it might be necessary to seek outside assistance.
Independent biomedical research has promise, but like any emerging science, it poses novel ethical questions and challenges. Existing research ethics and oversight frameworks may not be well-suited to answer them in every context, so we need to think outside the box about what we can create for the future. That process should begin by talking to independent biomedical researchers about their activities, priorities, and concerns with an eye to understanding how best to support them.
Christi Guerrini, JD, MPH studies biomedical citizen science and is an Associate Professor at Baylor College of Medicine. Alex Pearlman, MA, is a science journalist and bioethicist who writes about emerging issues in biotechnology. They have recently launched outlawbio.org, a place for discussion about nontraditional research.