One of the great science and technology stories of 2020 is the development of COVID-19 vaccines, from start, through testing, to delivery, at a rate never seen before. Not just one vaccine. Three. (With more on the way and not counting the vaccine’s already in use in China and Russia.) All able to pass rigorous tests and examinations.
Two of them came from Big Pharma.
They threw lots of money and lots of researchers at the problem. We have been taught to expect that that is what they do for us. One of the reasons we think that – maybe the primary one – is that Big Pharma has thrown lots of money and employed lots of experts to tell us how very useful they are.
The throwing the money part seems to be true of Pfizer. But not for the others.
The US government put between $10bn and $18bn into Operation Warp Speed. Several of the programme’s main recipients – Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, Sanofi with GlaxoSmithKline – have yet to deliver a successful vaccine. Moderna, which has, got about $2.5bn.
A headline from Scientific American stated cogently and concisely: “For Billion-Dollar COVID Vaccines, Basic Government-Funded Science Laid the Groundwork.” The subhead pointed out: Much of the pioneering work on mRNA vaccines was done with government money, though drugmakers could walk away with big profits.
The third vaccine came from Oxford University (In association with AstraZeneca – which is Big Pharma – and which received substantial sums from Operation Warp Speed). It appears to be much easier to use. It is going to market at about $6-8 for two doses. Compared with $40 for Pfizer and $50-74 for Moderna, per pair. (A fun fact is that these prices are about 25 percent higher in the US than in the European Union). This should remind us that much of the most important work in medicine has come out of universities and that contributing to health and making money are two separate things.
A far more obscure science and technology story appeared on the front page of the business section of the New York Times on December 29, 2019. It is about a guy named Mike Strizki.
Strizki’s story is a throwback to the days of individual tinkerer-inventors. People like that telegraph operator, Thomas Edison, those bicycle mechanics, the Wright Brothers, and a daughter of American aristocracy, Mary Phelps Jacob – who was later scandalously famous for her wild parties, drug use, open marriage, her whippet named Clytoris, and being the co-founder of the Black Sun Press, making her the “literary godmother to the Lost Generation of expatriate writers in Paris” – who invented the modern brassiere when she was nineteen.
Strizki is the only guy on the East Coast who drives a hydrogen car.
There are more on the West Coast, nearly 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 fuel in his back yard using solar power. The only byproduct from the process is one atom of oxygen for every two atoms of hydrogen. When the hydrogen is put through fuel cells creating the electricity that drives the car, it recombines with oxygen and the only byproduct is water. Such cars routinely go about 484 kilometres (300 miles) on a full tank. Hyperion claims they have a car that gets a bit over 1,609km (1,000 miles) on a single tank. Refilling them is quicker than refilling the gas tank on the old fashioned internal combustion vehicles most of us drive. They do not have to drag about 453 kilogrammes (1,000 pounds) of batteries like full electric vehicles. Yet, Elon Musk of Tesla, who is hugely invested in battery power cars, calls hydrogen fuel cell cars “staggeringly dumb”.
Mike has also “made the first house in the United States to be powered entirely by hydrogen produced on-site using solar power”. Keep in mind that Steve Jobs of Apple, Bill Gates of Microsoft and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook all could be in that category of tinkerer-inventor, at least at their start.
Right now, Elon Musk and his Teslas seem way out ahead of Strizki and his single hydrogen vehicle. But that contest is far from over. Watch for the HTWO, Hyundai’s new brand dedicated to hydrogen fuel cell power. Daimler Truck, Iveco, OMV, Shell and the Volvo Group are in an alliance named H2Accelerate to promote hydrogen powered trucks.
The point of both of these stories – the one about Big Pharma, Big Money, Big University and the other one about the home tinkerer – is that science and technology are moving faster and faster.
We are moving closer to actual fusion power. The best research for it seems to be coming out of South Korea. Water cell batteries may soon replace lithium-ion batteries. Check your phone, you’ve got a computer in your pocket. Quantum computing is on the way. The exponential increase in the amount of material travelling over the internet means we need much greater communication capacity. It is happening. We have gone from megahertz, one million cycles per second, to gigahertz, a billion, and we are on the way to terahertz frequencies, a trillion cycles per second. 3D metal printing is here. Babel earbuds – which translate as you go – are ready – though I must say if its translations are like the ones I get online, it may be like an illiterate babbling in your ear. An Alzheimer’s blood test may soon be on the market. We can now make artificial structures that mimic early embryos using only stem cells – no egg or sperm necessary.
Human history, for the most part, has been a long, flat line of subsistence economies. There were brilliant moments – with small brilliant elites – but they always rested on the agricultural labour of peons, serfs, slaves, or peasants – and fell back again. It was such from the beginning of time until about 1800 – with the “First” Industrial Revolution. Since then, the curve of productivity has been on an upward climb. The 19th and early 20th century is often called the Second Industrial Revolution. We are now in the third, or fourth, or even the fifth industrial revolution – or maybe it is the Post-Industrial Revolution or the Digital Age – depending on whose book you are reading. Whatever name you prefer to give to this current period, its defining feature remains the same: The changes are coming faster and faster. They are reaching more and more people. They are coming from more and more people.
Yes, of course, we know from the machine guns of WWI, the bombers and then the nuclear weapons of WWII, that technology can be used for destruction. The speed and almost zero cost of internet communication have freed us from the grip of media barons and governments, but then opened the way for exploitation and the spread of disinformation, the existence of alternative facts and tribal truths. Even the changes that would be rated as positive for the general good, are often negative for specific individuals.
We may have anti-science governments. Like the Trump administration has so obviously and obnoxiously been. Yet while they muddled the airwaves with disinformation about the pandemic, they were also the ones who threw billions to science to come up with a vaccine. Big Oil ran campaigns denying climate change, modelled on Big Tobacco’s past campaigns claiming cigarettes do not cause cancer,. Yet most of the major oil companies are investing in alternative energy technology.
Big Money invested in established business resists change. Speculative Money – and there’s lots of it – wants to bet on the next big thing – which usually has to be, by definition, based on new science and new technology.
This election cycle we’ve seen that the Internet and social media can do black magic, spreading disinformation, misinformation, and lots of outright lies. They also mean that real information – from grammar school to graduate school and beyond – is getting to be within reach of the whole world. It’s a two-way street. Information, ideas, and research can zip in an instant from a mountain village, a yurt in the desert, public housing, to Harvard, Tohoku, and Oxford.
It would be wonderful if politicians, public intellectuals (if they still exist), sociologists, and economists (should they wish to deal with realities rather than models), turned their thinking and their efforts into figuring out how we – as societies and as individuals – can best deal with all this change.
Whether they do or they do not, the changes will come, are coming, are here, at that ever-accelerating rate.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.