If you want to be depressed, there is no shortage of venues willing to reinforce that disposition.
The London School of Economics and Political Science reports that the pandemic has made young people “pessimistic” bordering on “fatalistic” about their own prospects for success. The advent of effective vaccines against COVID-19 has become a source of “dread” for the people who “don’t want to return to normalcy.” If you’re the selective sort, you might be inclined to focus on the CDC director’s sense of “impending doom” rather than her admission that her sentiment wasn’t based on anything particularly empirical. Even as medical experts such as former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb note that the U.S. is unlikely to see a true “fourth wave” of COVID cases, there is no shortage of headlines warning that such a prospect is imminent or already upon us.
The anxiety to which these and other outlets are catering is not harmless. Maintaining this level of pessimism is demanding. It requires that you actively avoid the indications that better days are imminent, and it forces you to dismiss the remarkable developments and innovations incubated amid the pandemic.
The mRNA technology that both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech utilized to bring effective COVID vaccines to market at a rapid clip has potential that extends well beyond the current pandemic’s bounds. Early this year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published an application for an RNA-based vaccine designed to combat one of mankind’s deadliest and most frustrating parasitic companions: Malaria.
Each year, Malaria kills more than 400,000 people, most of whom are children. Infected patients who eventually recover nevertheless experience ongoing complications well after the infection has passed, and the disease is one of the leading causes of miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women. The effort to combat this plague has been frustrated by the fact that the parasite that causes the illness contains a protein that prevents the development of memory T-cells, which inhibits a normal immune response. The mRNA technology currently being deployed against COVID circumvents this obstacle. And though this formula has not yet been tested in humans, lab testing in animal subjects has yielded promising early results.
Likewise, a phase 1 clinical trial of a vaccine against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, recently found that 97 percent of subjects generated antibodies that protected against this notoriously evasive contagion. Researchers are now hoping to partner with Moderna to develop an mRNA-based version of this vaccine that “could significantly accelerate the pace of HIV vaccine development.” And that’s not all. This plug-and-play technology can be applied to other similarly challenging diseases such as influenza, dengue and yellow fevers, filoviruses like Marburg and Ebola, Rabies, Zika, and hepatitis C.
Researchers are optimistic that this advancement, which delivers instructions to cells that allows them to build specific proteins, could lead to powerful anti-cancer therapies. Some have speculated that our future could be one in which individuals receive personalized vaccines based on their unique tumors. “As with the COVID-19 vaccines, the mRNA instructs the patient’s cells to produce protein fragments based off tumor’s genetic mutations identified during testing,” read a press release published by the University of Texas in January. “The immune system then searches for other cells with the mutated proteins and clears out any remaining circulating tumor cells.”
Beyond mRNA, the pandemic has sped up innovation throughout the medical-technology sector. The urgency of the threat to hospitals helped generate new intubation shields and infectious disease filters, new models to study the efficacy of therapeutics in mice, methods to scale up the production of personal protective equipment rapidly, and “c-spine retractors” that allow surgeons to avoid the complications presently associated with neurosurgery. And many of the pandemic’s most promising innovations have commercial applications outside medicine, most notably in drones.
The pandemic helped accelerate Amazon’s requests for federal approval to operate its autonomous drone fleet, which was granted last August. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is also in the drone delivery business. Non-medical services such as food producers are already in the business of shipping their products via flying robots. And software developers have made tremendous strides over the last year to ensure that this innovative service works. From logistical solutions, to cloud-based mapping and geolocation applications, to the not-so-simple task of ensuring that the things don’t collide with one another in mid-air, the autonomous-aerial-vehicle landscape has been revolutionized over the course of one terrible year.
For regular news consumers, these near-miraculous developments are subsumed in a deluge of doubt. The psychological predisposition to which these voices are catering is not just paralyzing. It also leads the public to believe things are terribly insecure. That insecurity has fueled calls by some primarily progressive lawmakers to punish the firms that are on the verge of delivering us from the pandemic. They want to waive the patent rights that created financial incentives to combat COVID, internationalizing their intellectual property to help the developing world emerge from the pandemic faster and, thereby, stave off the threat posed by COVID mutations and variants.
“We need a people’s vaccine, not a profit vaccine,” said Bernie Sanders. While altruistic on its face, this simplistic outlook would have the perverse effect of reversing the innovative trends that appear set to give way to an epochal shift in how humanity deals with infectious diseases. The technology that gave us mRNA vaccines wasn’t incepted by the federal government, writes Stat News contributor John Stanford. “They are, in fact, the product of extraordinary private-sector investment.” And the risks those pharmaceutical firms and researchers took in their pursuit were an outgrowth of the profit motive.
“Without such protection, biotech firms would have no way of preventing copycats from stealing their technology, undercutting them on price, and removing any chance for innovator firms to earn back their upfront costs,” Stanford writes. “In such a no-holds-barred environment, there would be little reason to invest in medical technology at all, and breakthroughs like Moderna’s vaccine would be all but impossible.”
By all means, steep yourself in the abject misery to which the news media caters. Hopelessness is, apparently, a growth sector. But doing so has psychological costs that can manifest in a desire to see policy outcomes that would effectively kill the golden goose. The future is brighter than the naysayers allow. It would be a terrible misfortune if we dismissed that fact out of a misguided belief that pathological pessimism was merely pragmatic.