There is a huge amount riding on the discovery of a vaccine effective against the Covid-19 virus.
Making 660 million of anything without a glitch is—to put it mildly—a tall order in a nation that remains short on masks, gowns, and diagnostic tests despite months of trying to meet demand.
The world is waiting for a vaccine that can liberate everyone from the constraints on liberty required by existing efforts to fight the virus with public health measures such as masks, isolation, and quarantining. President Trump, for the most part, has rejected tough public health measures. Instead he has staked his political future and those of the governors and Congressional Republicans who have followed his lead on delivering a vaccine before Election Day as the solution to the COVID-19 pandemic in the USA. Many scientific experts have been sounding encouraging notes about having a vaccine by the end of this year or early next, as have many CEOs among the more than 160 companies chasing various strategies to identify a safe and effective vaccine.
But the reality is that no matter how fast a vaccine appears, those who might benefit will face a significant period of time before they could receive one. This is due to a variety of realities. Any vaccine faces various regulatory hurdles to insure safety and efficacy. This means completing large-scale studies in tens of thousands of subjects hoping for enough cases of blunted natural infection versus a large placebo control group to determine that a vaccine works. And that takes time--plus adding in delays in manufacturing and delivery, which will create logjams for most prospective recipients.
Shipping is not going to be easy with cold chain storage requirements from -20 to -70 degrees Celsius, from factory to a doctor's office, depending on the vaccine. In addition, many of the vaccines under development require two doses--that is 660 million shots to cover just those in the United States. Making 660 million of anything without a glitch is—to put it mildly—a tall order in a nation that remains short on masks, gowns, and diagnostic tests, despite months of trying to meet demand.
There are three scenarios under which a vaccine can appear but without being in any way available to all Americans.
The first is a vaccine under development in the USA or with some USA financing begins to show promise before a full clinical trial is completed. Current vaccine trials are supervised by Data Safety and Monitoring Boards and those committees could tell a CEO eager to be first to market that their vaccine is looking good at the study's half-way point.
The CEO and vaccine manufacturing company's board then let the White House know that a magic bullet which can ensure the President's reelection is in hand. The President, as he has done many times with other COVID treatments, most recently convalescent plasma, intervenes with the FDA and demands approval using an Emergency Use Authorization, or invoking the Federal Right to Try law he and Mike Pence are constantly touting. FDA Commissioner Steve Hahn folds and an extremely limited supply of vaccine, maybe only 100,000 doses, is available just before Election Day.
The second scenario is that another nation discovers a vaccine that looks safe and effective and the USA is able to buy some supply of it. But again, we are likely, initially, to get an extremely limited amount.
Lastly, the vaccine is approved in a standard manner. A full randomized trial is done, the endpoints are met, and no serious adverse events are identified. It is a USA-funded vaccine so most of it is coming here first. Still the vials and needles and plugs need to be quality-controlled and shipped and stored at the right temperatures. Information sheets and consent forms need to be readied, offered, and signed. Odds are you won't see any of this vaccine until late next year. So, who is going to get the first shots?
Some people under all of these scenarios are going to say, "Count me out." They don't trust vaccines or they don't trust the government to provide a safe one. Others may say, "The first one out of the box may be OK, but I am going to wait for the 'best' one before I take one." Even if those numbers are large, it is still certain that there will be more takers than can be vaccinated.
If you look at the discussion of vaccine rationing, almost everybody — including government officials, FDA officials, advisory panelists and ethicists — says the first group that should get vaccinated are at-risk healthcare workers. They say it, although they're not always clear about why.
One reason is that you need to give it to health care workers first because they will keep the healthcare system going. Another is that you need to give it to them first because they face more risk and they should get rewarded for having done and continuing to do that -- their bravery ought to be rewarded and their risk reduced.
A subset of hospitals and institutions in high risk areas will [go first] and that will be it for a significant period of time.
Both of these arguments for health care worker priority are not completely convincing. Food and power and vaccine manufacturing are arguably as important as health care, but workers in those areas don't get priority attention in most guidelines. And many Americans face risks from COVID comparable to health care workers, especially those who are not on the front lines in ERs and ICUs. Prisoners, military personnel who work on warships, the elderly, nursing home residents, and poor minorities are disproportionately affected by COVID. However, none of them are going first, nor is it clear how to weigh their claims in competing against one another for a scarce vaccine.
But, there's something else that's interesting in deciding who goes first. When people all agree, as they almost always do, that it's health care workers who must go first, a huge problem remains. What is the definition of who's a healthcare worker? You could easily get millions and millions of people designated as healthcare workers who would have a claim to go first.
We normally think that health care worker means doctors and nurses. But, if we go beyond those who work in ERs and ICUs, the number is big. And we must, because no ER or ICU can run without huge numbers of supporting individuals.
If you don't vaccinate lab technicians, people who clean the rooms, make food, transport patients, provide security, do the laundry, run the IT, students, volunteers and so on, you're not going to have a functioning hospital. If you don't include those working in nursing homes, home care and hospices along with those making and supplying vital equipment and bringing in patients via ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks, you don't have a functioning ICU, much less a health care system.
The total number involved could easily exceed tens of millions depending on how broadly the definition is set.
So, what is likely to happen is that health care workers will not go first. A subset of hospitals and institutions in high risk areas will and that will be it for a significant period of time. Health care institutions in hot spots, plus the supporting services they need will go first and then vaccine availability will slowly expand to other health care institutions and the essential workers needed to keep them functioning. Then consideration will also be given to how best to control the spread of the virus in selecting hot spots versus saving prisoners or the poor. And you can be sure, whatever the guidelines are, that the military and security folks will demand their share.
For many, many months if not a year or more, most people will not have to face a choice about vaccinating. The supply just won't be there for the general public. It is a small sample of high-risk health care workers including vaccine manufacturing employees and shippers, plus essential workers to keep hospitals and nursing homes going, who will be first in line. Odds are you and your family will still be wearing masks and social distancing well into next year.
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.
We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA chose not to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production, resulting in an unknown number of unnecessary deaths.
We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.
Widely available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, so that those with mild symptoms can quarantine instead of infecting others. Yet the federal government did not make tests available to patients when Omicron emerged in late November. That’s despite the obviousness of the coming wave based on the precedent of South Africa, UK, and Denmark and despite the fact that the government made vaccines freely available. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is way too much of a barrier for most people. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late. And the FDA also played a harmful role here, with its excessive focus on accuracy going back to mid-2020, blocking the widespread availability of cheap at-home tests. By contrast, Europe has a much better supply of tests, due to its approval of quick and slightly less accurate tests.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements or adding sufficient ventilation to address the spread of COVID.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta. And so are regular people. For example, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of unvaccinated Americans to get a first vaccine dose, or of vaccinated Americans to get a booster. That’s despite Omicron having taken over from Delta in late December.
What explains this puzzling behavior on both the individual and society level? We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking and gut reactions, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
These cognitive biases stem from the more primitive, emotional, and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors, since it’s optimized to help us survive. In modern society, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make decisions.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet we failed to pay attention to and prepare for such a threat.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes those used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, including to prepare for a new variant.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of trying to return to normal over managing the risks of future variants.
The way forward into the future is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.
The FDA requires a serious overhaul. It’s designed for a non-pandemic environment, where the goal is to have a highly conservative, slow-going, and risk-averse approach so that the public feels confident trusting whatever it approved. That’s simply unacceptable in a fast-moving pandemic, and we are bound to face future pandemics in the future.
The federal government needs to have cognitive bias experts weigh in on federal policy. Putting all of its eggs in one basket – vaccinations – is not a wise move when we face the risks of a vaccine-escaping variant. Its focus should also be on expediting and prioritizing anti-virals, scaling up cheap rapid testing, and subsidizing high-filtration masks.
For employers, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team. After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergencies like COVID surges.
At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. They fell into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness and transposed their pre-existing, in-office methods of collaboration on remote work. Zoom happy hours are a clear example: The large majority of employees dislike them, and research shows they are disconnecting, rather than connecting.
Yet supervisors continue to use them, despite the existence of much better methods of facilitating colalboration, which have been shown to work, such as virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Leaders also need to facilitate innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.
On an individual level, people built up certain expectations during the first two years of the pandemic, and they don't apply with Omicron. For example, most people still think that a cloth mask is a fine source of protection. In reality, you really need an N-95 mask, since Omicron is so much more infectious. Another example is that many people don’t realize that symptom onset is much quicker with Omicron, and they aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Remember that we have a huge number of people who are asymptomatic, often without knowing it, due to the much higher mildness of Omicron. About 8% of people admitted to hospitals for other reasons in San Francisco test positive for COVID without symptoms, which we can assume translates for other cities. That means many may think they're fine and they're actually infectious. The result is a much higher chance of someone getting many other people sick.
During this time of record-breaking cases, you need to be mindful about your internalized assumptions and adjust your risk calculus accordingly. So if you can delay higher-risk activities, January and February might be the time to do it. Prepare for waves of disruptions to continue over time, at least through the end of February.
Of course, you might also choose to not worry about getting infected. If you are vaccinated and boosted, and do not have any additional health risks, you are very unlikely to have a serious illness due to Omicron. You can just take the small risk of a serious illness – which can happen – and go about your daily life. If doing so, watch out for those you care about who do have health concerns, since if you infect them, they might not have a mild case even with Omicron.
In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create a competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.