This week: conversations with Dr. Jerry Avorn, Dr. Aaron Kesselheim, Dr. Rebecca Weintraub, Dana Brown, and Alexander Zaitchik about the race for a COVID-19 vaccine. Hear it today at 2 pm, or anytime at our site.
Skepticism about any immediately forthcoming COVID-19 vaccine has been increasing here in the U.S. And on this week’s show, you’ll hear from a range of people, starting with doctors, skeptical of politically guided and for-profit pharmaceutical work’s contributions to public well-being.
And the skepticism isn’t limited to what private sector work does for the public. There’s also skepticism about how the private sector draws from public funds, which are needed for serious vaccine research. As Dana Brown of the Next System Project explains:
Vaccine development requires a massive upfront public investment. The public sector is best placed to put up what we think of as patient capital: big amounts of money that can be invested over a period of time that aren’t expecting immediate returns. That’s actually how vaccine development works . . .The biggest way to speed it up would actually be to change the conditions here and say you can only get public funds for this if you’re going to share your data.
Intellectual property laws ensure that data isn’t shared, that data becomes proprietary and shrouded in the secrecy typical of jealous ownership. Journalist Alexander Zaitchik (who’s been covering the twists and turns of Big Pharma here, for instance) explains for us the dangers of this IP model of vaccine development, which is supported especially by Bill Gates. Gates, Zaitchik says, has been
reinforcing the idea that IP alone is a spur to innovation. And it’s ironic because he knows better than anyone else that that is absolutely not true, especially when it comes to vaccines. There has been an under- and de-investment in vaccines on the part of the private sector that has been steady and increasing since the 1970s. So for them now to turn around and say we need to maintain IP rights on an area that we have been ignoring and we’re receiving billions of dollars in government money right now is, you know, ironic, to put it mildly. They have been focused on moneymakers and even those drugs that return enormous profits.
Interests of ownership, property, money seem to be outpacing the public’s interests. Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Aaron Kesselheim, who wrote recently with his colleague Dr. Jerry Avorn of the drama between private-sector research and political pressure, tells us:
When the FDA approves a product, it’s only saying that the benefits appear to outweigh the risks. I think we all know that just because a product is FDA-approved doesn’t mean that it gets fairly to the people who need it, to the people who are at highest risk for COVID-19. And we also as a society need to think about not only making sure that the vaccine is evaluated fairly, but that we also address issues such as affordability and access, in particular because taxpayers have made such a substantial investment in the development of COVID-19 vaccines over the last six months.
There are real dangers in the way the vaccine deveopment is being handled, in part because of the strictures put on knowledge-as-property, and in part because of a related nationalist mood surrounding vaccine work lately. Dr. Rebecca Weintraub of Harvard warns about vaccine nationalism, by which company’s connections to specific nations further limits the necessary global reach of any vaccine:
Direct procurement from a nation to a company has led to and propagated vaccine nationalism: “I will procure doses of the vaccine to cover my population.” That is a political barrier, not based on epidemiologic model of transmission.
Political pressures from Trump pose some of the scarier possibilities in this whole mess. Dr. Jerry Avorn says:
[T]reating this as if this was a horse race and then having this arbitrary date of before Election Day that the president keeps focusing on is really problematic, because we’re not going to know enough about side effects before we have a lot more thousands of person-months under study. The side effects we worry about the most are going to be the ones that maybe occur in every three thousand or ten thousand people, and it’s going to take a while to find them. But if you have a vaccine that’s taken by 100 million people or more, then something that occurs even rarely could be a public health catastrophe.
Watch: A Warp Speed Super Cut
“Operation Warp Speed” is the name of the US government initiative to produce, rapidly, millions of vaccine doses for COVID-19. And the term “warp speed” comes to us especially from the myth central to so much techno-optimism: Star Trek.
Look closer at Star Trek’s depictions of warp speed, and you’ll get a feeling for the terror accompanying the wish for scientific salvation inherent in “warp speed.” You can get that closer look on Youtube; somebody made a supercut of warp speed scenes in Star Trek. (This thing has around 1.8 million views.) In the supercut, it’s clear that warp speed is sometimes the answer, but it’s also just a desperate, last-chance expression of everything all at once, hope and fear together.
Read: Greg Bear’s Darwin Books
Science fiction has provocative meditations on viruses; Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio and Darwin’s Children look at viruses that alter human evolution. Here’s a passage from the Guardian review of Darwin’s Children, one of Bear’s novels about an endogenous retrovirus (a virus that long ago became embedded within the human genome) called Sheva, which, once activated, alters humanity:
What are the children born from this ancient virus: “a diseased mutation, a subspecies, or a completely new species”? . . . Molecular biologist Kaye Lang, who wants to prove a controversial theory of virus-based evolution, argues that “viruses are part of the arsenal of communications our cells and bodies use to talk”. In Darwin’s Radio, Kaye made the ultimate scientific leap of faith: she used her own body as a laboratory and gave birth to a Sheva child, called Stella Nova.
The “Shevites” are certainly different. They’re born talking, with tongues that allow them to say two things at once. They are acutely sensitive to smells and use pheromones to influence people’s behaviour. Gold and brown skin dapples (melanophores) on their faces signal mood changes, called “sparking”. Communication is their forte: biologically they’re suited to hive-like communities.
While we’re trying to leap into warp speed from a virus, it’s also worth reflecting on how the virus has already changed us from what we once were.
Listen: Rachmaninoff in Memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Trump‘s appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court probably means Roe v. Wade will be overturned; it likely ensures further dismantling of regulations and protections from corporate interests at the expense of health insurance, the climate, and civil rights. At the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin outlines the reality of this appointment:
[I]t’s worth remembering the real priorities of Trump and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, in this nomination. They’re happy to accommodate the anti-abortion base of the Republican Party, but an animating passion of McConnell’s career has been the deregulation of political campaigns. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision brought the issue to wide public attention, but McConnell has been crusading about it for decades. He wants the money spigot kept open, so that he can protect his Senate majority and the causes for which it stands. This, too, is why the Federalist Society has been so lavishly funded over the years, and why it has expanded from a mere campus organization into a national behemoth for lawyers and students. Under Republican Presidents, Federalist Society events have come to operate as auditions for judicial appointments. The corporate interests funding the growth of the Federalist Society probably weren’t especially interested in abortion, but they were almost certainly committed to crippling the regulatory state.
The move to place Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court, contrary to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dying wish, comes at a time of widespread mourning for so much. Here’s Yo-Yo Ma, recent Open Source guest, in his own expression of grief:
Listen: Time to Say Goodbye
In Time to Say Goodbye, a podcast from Jay Caspian Kang, Tammy Kim and Andy Liu, you’ll hear restlessly provocative, casually expansive conversation about topics at the core of so much of 2020’s drama. Subjects include “race vs. class” debates, the phenomenon of “race fakes,” Trump’s hostile 1776 thing. You’ll think more after listening to each show.
Support Us On Patreon and Learn about Balzac
The best way to support Open Source is on Patreon, where our audio library continues to flourish. Patrons can this week find Adam Colman’s conversation with Yale’s Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature Emeritus Peter Brooks about Honoré de Balzac, the invention of the modern novel, and Game of Thrones. Brooks is the author of the new book Balzac’s Lives, and he’s also the author of Reading for the Plot, the unmatched book that explains the desirous energy that has shaped modern novels. In his conversation with Adam, he describes how Balzac’s novels follow the dramas and characters guided by a capitalist and imperialist desire to consume.
This week’s ephemeral library
Adam Tooze on the vaccine race. RBG’s BFF. It Shoudn’t Have Come Down to Her. They Want to Steal This Seat For a Reason. The Election That Could Break America, But Mabye Not. Teju Cole: In Dark Times, I Sought Out the Turmoil of Caravaggio’s Paintings.
Hang in there, folks. Another big week awaits!
The OS EMTs.