Arms Wide Open
Despite having no qualifications whatsoever and a standard disclaimer printed on my forehead that states I should not own keys, people routinely ask me for my opinion on subjects I don’t know anything about. Usually they’re just fishing for a punchline from the architect’s school of comedy. Basically, measure twice cut once. Finish the fight with one punch or go home a loser.
These days we’re all armchair biologists, fighting a social justice war against Covid deniers, anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, and Trumpian propaganda. Either that or you’re part of the problem. Change a mind, save a life. Never in the history of our nation has a culture of ignorance infected the ruling class to such a degree. We are literally dying in a kakistocracy as the nation faces down the worst global pandemic in 100 years.
The most visible consequence of this abdication of duty is that thousands of Americans are suffering and dying every day. An endless train wreck, can’t look away. Previously supported by an economy that left the station back in March, a flying shitbomb on rails.
I make a lot of predictions, which in hindsight always look completely obvious. That’s an easy comedy axis and fun for everybody. But when I was asked this week, on three separate occasions, how I feel about our future, there was a palpable gravity to the question. People are legitimately worried, struggling emotionally, facing hard corners financially, and choking down the very real threat of suffering and death from a virus unknown to humanity last year.
I’ll tell you the same thing I told them. I’m hopeful. I have a hard-earned reputation for being overly optimistic, and a shadow reputation for being a cynical jerk. But from my view in the sniper’s chair I can see past the horizon, and it conveys a unique vantage point.
The harsh truth of the matter is that after decades of trying we have never created a safe and effective vaccine for any strain of coronavirus. But we have developed treatments for symptoms, the best example being the common cold. And in the case of the unrelated retrovirus HIV, we’ve flipped the diagnosis from a death sentence to a viral management protocol consisting of a cocktail of drugs that allow people to enjoy long and productive lives.
There will be treatment options before there will be a vaccine, and drugs such as remdesiver point the way to a similar storyline for SARS-Cov-2. And there will come a day when testing positive for SARS-Cov-2 does not mean you will develop Covid-19, much as testing positive for HIV today does not mean you will develop AIDS. Asymptomatic or not.
That’s a critical consideration because on the vaccine front, the challenge is formidable. The best analogy we have is smallpox, the most dreaded disease in history and a lifetime sentence of disfigurement and blindness for the survivors. Nobody in their right mind would be having these pedantic arguments about masks if the enemy was smallpox, we would all stay home and shut up. It is the first pathogen to ever be successfully eradicated from humans, possibly the greatest medical achievement of mankind. There are only two known samples left on the planet, one at the CDC facility in Atlanta and the other in a vault in Moscow. Let’s hope they stay there.
Eliminating the devil of smallpox required a massively coordinated effort involving every country in the world. It also took over 200 years. Keep that in mind as we look for a vaccine for SARS-Cov-2 this year while anti-vaxxer and anti-masker clown car parades around looking for a conspiracy between Bill Gates and George Soros, then blames Obama and his tan suit. The evidence is clearly in Hillary’s emails.
Those people are the real enemy. That kind of ignorance conflates the threat of the virus exponentially and the USA is now the unenviable poster child of the Dunning Kruger effect. Stupid thinks it’s smart.
Stay with me though. The story of the smallpox vaccine is the story of all vaccines. It was first created in 1796 by Edward Jenner, and it was the first successful vaccine ever. People had been trying for hundreds if not thousands of years, with efforts spanning the globe and as deeply rooted as indigenous shamans. But it was Edward who observed that milkmaids who previously had caught cowpox did not catch smallpox and showed that inoculated vaccinia protected against inoculated variola virus. That insight changed the world, a single moment of grace that carved a path through history.
The conferred immunity from cowpox to smallpox is the basis of every vaccine developed since. Using either a deactivated portion of genetic material or the information conveyed in messenger RNA, vaccines work by triggering an immune response in the host. Once taught to recognize the offending pathogen by its genetic signature the human immune system has an astounding capacity to deliver a preemptive strike against any subsequent infection vector.
SARS-Cov-2 is tricky though in that it’s a zoonotic virus that first jumped the species barrier in 2019 and gave us Covid-19. In news cycles it’s a newborn. In terms of biology it’s a genetic descendant of SARS, which originated in bats, and related to MERS which originated in camels. Note that it is not in any way related to influenza, which originated in birds (think Avian flu) and then jumped to pigs (Swine flu) and finally caught the late bus home on humans. However, much like the flu it’s here to stay, and will likely become endemic just like the flu. The vaccine will need to change every year and will be distributed geospatially based on the statistical likelihood you will catch a specific strain based on where you live.
In my new line of work as a biotech programmer I’ve been injesting a constant stream of information about the various research efforts, including both treatments and vaccines. We have CDC rapid-autopsy Covid-19 samples in the lab. We’re working with the government and major industry research companies such as Moderna that are the collective focal point of scientists from all over the world. I’ve even been in contact with a sentinel, the eighth person in the world to receive an mRNA vaccine, and her testimony was so inspiring it gifted me a song and led me haphazardly to this moment.
Therein lies my optimism. The same connectedness that gives us the gift of family and friends and makes us so vulnerable to SARS-Cov-2 will ultimately be the lever that resigns it to history. There has never been a more coordinated research and development effort uniting science, industry and government. The whole world wants this to be over. And we have never before had the tools to succeed that we do today, from the cloud computing infrastructure we all take for granted to antiviral drugs and right down to the instrument I work on, which visualizes and quantifies RNA and protein molecules in tissue samples so researchers run experiments and better understand the enemy within.
In summary, I’m hopeful about what lies ahead. Certainly there is more to endure in front of us, a steeple chase of pain points, and millions of people are going to have their lives radically altered or tragically cut short as the virus ripples through society and has its way with us. The USA as ground zero due to the Trump administration’s neglect and catastrophic incompetence, brought home by his base in a historically unprecedented culture of ignorance. Ultimately they will reap what they have sown, as history will burn them in effigy even as we are still mourning the loss of our loved ones.
However, given all the progress and the amazing response of the medical and communities it stands to reason that there will be more than one vaccine available by next year, even as additional remedies to alleviate symptoms become available and trickle down through our economic caste system. The poor and disadvantaged among us will continue to be hit the hardest, so no change there.
As for the economy, the cynic in me who hates late-stage capitalism and the very notion of paying for health care will state categorically that economies are inevitable. You shouldn’t worry about the economy. Stay focused on your own person financial position. Even if the global banking system collapses in on itself (dear Sweet Meteor of Death) there will always be means & measures of trade. Thus the economy. If an iPhone in 2022 costs you 100 chickens, so be it. Raise some chickens and get connected like back in the day when we could hug our friends.
So the final word is yes. I’m optimistic. We have reason to be, and we have our work cut out for us. We are witness to unprecedented times, a turning point in the history of the planet and the dawn of a new epoch.
The old adage is may you live in interesting times. My addendum is with arms wide open. And I’m sharing my optimism with you.
- August 16, 2020
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