One of the great science and technology stories of 2020 is the development of COVID-19 vaccines, from initiation, through testing, to delivery, at a rate never seen before. Not a single vaccine. Three. (With more to come and not counting vaccines already in use in China and Russia.) All capable of passing rigorous tests and exams.
Two of them were from Big Pharma.
They threw a lot of money and a lot of researchers into the problem. We’ve been taught to hope that’s what they do for us. One of the reasons we think – perhaps the main one – is that Big Pharma threw in a lot of money and hired a lot of experts to tell us how very useful they are.
The throwing away part seems to be true for Pfizer. But not for others.
The US government has invested between $ 10 billion and $ 18 billion in Operation Warp Speed. Several of the main beneficiaries of the program – Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, Sanofi with GlaxoSmithKline – have yet to deliver a successful vaccine. Moderna, which raised around $ 2.5 billion.
A headline from Scientific American said convincingly and concisely: “For the billion dollar COVID vaccines, basic government-funded science has laid the groundwork. The caption pointed out: Much of the pioneering work on mRNA vaccines has been done with government money, although drugmakers may come away with big profits.
The third vaccine came from the University of Oxford (in association with AstraZeneca – which is Big Pharma – and which received substantial sums from Operation Warp Speed). It seems to be much easier to use. It will be marketed at around 6 to 8 dollars for two doses. Compared to $ 40 for Pfizer and $ 50 to $ 74 for Moderna, the pair. (A funny fact is that these prices are about 25% higher in the United States than in the European Union). This should remind us that much of the most important work in medicine comes from universities and that contributing to health and making money are two separate things.
A much more obscure science and technology story appeared on the front page of the New York Times business section on December 29, 2019. It’s about a guy named Mike Strizki.
The story of Strizki is a throwback to the days of individual tinkerers-inventors. People like this telegraph operator, Thomas Edison, those bicycle mechanics, the Wright brothers, and an American aristocratic girl, Mary Phelps Jacob – who was later scandalously famous for her wild parties, drug use, marriage. open, her whippet named Clytoris, and co-founder of Black Sun Press, making her the “literary godmother of the lost generation of expatriate writers in Paris” – who invented the modern bra at the age of nineteen .
Strizki is the only guy on the East Coast who drives a hydrogen car.
There are more on the west coast, almost 9,000, plus 48 buses. They have 42 stations where they can refuel. There are none on the east coast. Therefore, Mike makes his own hydrogen in his backyard using solar energy. The only by-product of the process is one atom of oxygen for every two atoms of hydrogen. When hydrogen is fed into fuel cells creating the electricity that powers the car, it recombines with oxygen and the only by-product is water. Such cars regularly travel about 484 kilometers (300 miles) with a full tank. Hyperion claims to have a car that covers just over 1,609 km (1,000 miles) on a single tank. Filling is faster than filling the gas tank on the old-fashioned internal combustion vehicles that most of us drive. They don’t have to lug around 453 kilograms (1,000 pounds) of batteries like fully electric vehicles. Yet Tesla’s Elon Musk, who is heavily invested in battery-powered cars, calls hydrogen fuel cell cars “staggering.”
Mike also “made the first house in the United States to be powered entirely by hydrogen produced on-site using solar energy.” Keep in mind that Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg could all fall into this tinker-inventor category, at least in their early days.
Right now, Elon Musk and his Teslas appear to be one step ahead of Strizki and his unique hydrogen vehicle. But this competition is far from over. Watch out for HTWO, Hyundai’s new brand dedicated to the power of hydrogen fuel cells. Daimler Truck, Iveco, OMV, Shell and the Volvo Group are in an alliance called H2Accelerate to promote hydrogen trucks.
The point of these two stories – the one about Big Pharma, Big Money, Big University, and the other about the home handyman – is that science and technology are changing faster and faster.
We are getting closer to the true power of fusion. The best research seems to come from South Korea. Water batteries can soon replace lithium-ion batteries. Check your phone, you have a computer in your pocket. Quantum computing is on the way. The exponential increase in the amount of material traveling the internet means that we need much more communication capacity. It happens. We’ve gone from megahertz, one million cycles per second, to gigahertz, one billion, and we’re on the road to terahertz frequencies, one trillion cycles per second. Metal 3D printing is here. Babel headphones – which translate as they go – are ready – although I have to say that if their translations are like the ones I get online, it can be like illiterate babbling in your ear. An Alzheimer’s blood test may soon be on the market. We can now create artificial structures that mimic early embryos using only stem cells – no eggs or sperm are needed.
Human history, for the most part, has been a long flat line of subsistence economies. There were shiny times – with shiny little elites – but they always relied on the agricultural labor of peons, serfs, slaves, or peasants – and withdrew. This was from the beginning of time until around 1800 – with the “first” industrial revolution. Since then, the productivity curve has been rising. The 19th and early 20th centuries are often referred to as the Second Industrial Revolution. We’re now in the third, fourth, or even fifth industrial revolution – or maybe the post-industrial revolution or the digital age – depending on which book you’re reading. Whatever name you prefer to give to this current period, its defining characteristic remains the same: changes are coming faster and faster. They affect more and more people. They are coming more and more people.
Yes, of course we know from WWI machine guns, bombers, and then WWII nuclear weapons, that the technology can be used for destruction. The speed and near zero cost of internet communication freed us from the grip of media barons and governments, but then opened the way for the exploitation and spread of disinformation, the existence of facts. alternatives and tribal truths. Even changes that would be considered positive for the general good are often negative for specific individuals.
We can have anti-science governments. As the Trump administration has been so blatantly and obnoxiously. Yet, as they confused the airwaves with disinformation about the pandemic, it was also they who threw billions into science to find a vaccine. Big Oil has run campaigns denying climate change, modeled after Big Tobacco’s previous campaigns claiming that cigarettes don’t cause cancer. Yet most of the major oil companies are investing in alternative energy technologies.
Big Money invested in established businesses is resistant to change. Speculative money – and there is a lot of it – wants to bet on the next big thing – which generally has to be, by definition, based on new science and new technology.
This election cycle, we have seen that the internet and social media can do black magic, spread misinformation, disinformation and many lies. They also mean that real information – from high school to graduate school and beyond – becomes accessible to the world. It’s a two-way street. Information, ideas and research can fly in an instant from a mountain village, a yurt in the desert, to public housing, to Harvard, Tohoku and Oxford.
It would be wonderful if politicians, public intellectuals (if they still exist), sociologists and economists (if they wish to deal with realities rather than models), transform their thinking and efforts to understand how we – can best deal with all this change.
Whether they do it or not, changes will come, happen, are there, at this ever faster pace.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.