Be thankful that due process is still observed in global healthcare. It won’t be forever
First up, an advance apology. The risk with writing for a quarterly column amid a rapidly moving crisis is that your words can be quickly superseded by events. When I sat down to pen these words, the global race for a Covid-19 vaccine was very much afoot. Oxford University had one going into trial. There were rumours from China of promising developments. The US government was bullish on a cure.
Yet, even when trials are successful, the delivery of vaccines is rather less rapid than many would like. Production, distribution and – crucially – regulations serve to slow things down. Once a vaccine for coronavirus is found, it might be 12 months before it’s widely available. Yet a future world would look back at us and wonder what we were all waiting for.
3D-printing fans can already while away hours on the internet awestruck at the enormous strides in that technology in just a few years. The University of Maine has printed a 25-foot boat. Some 95% of the Aeon 1 rocket engine is 3D-printed, vastly reducing the number of parts required. The Chinese are building prefab houses with super-sized printing robots. Meantime, the impact of 3D-printing on healthcare innovation is extreme. It is already possible to print bones, muscles and blood vessels. 3D-printing brings the cost of prosthetics down from thousands of dollars to hundreds, or fewer.
Microscopic printing isn’t far off: soon we will be able to print our own vaccines too. My book The Driver in the Driverless Car describes how, as recently as January 2018, researchers at UCLA surprised the scientific community with a new technique called DropSynth, which enables scientists to build hundreds of genes at once. The technique requires no specialized equipment so it is likely to reduce the cost of printing a gene from about $150 to $2.
On the face of it, this is a good thing. If logistics and government regulation are such restrictors on the delivery of vaccines, wouldn’t it be better if we could print them at home? During the Covid-19 crisis, millions might have reached for vaccines on tap.
Yet the prospect is rather less attractive than it seems. Home-printed vaccines are fraught with all the classic pitfalls of a dystopian future. Regulation is there for a reason: without it, designer vaccines risk becoming more expensive versions of homemade Covid-19 quackery. Sanitizers made from vodka; sipping liquid silver; even drinking bleach were touted as cures during the recent pandemic.
By the 2030s, I predicted in the book, cold- and flu-vaccine designs as well as custom cures for pandemics will be “available online globally upon release, and the process of printing them will be as easy as downloading an application on a smartphone”. The arrival of an actual pandemic will serve only to bring that forecast forward.
When technology enables us to print our treatment, it rapidly becomes open to abuse and to malice. While some affluent families, who can afford to print their own drugs, might benefit from a custom-made rapid response; others might become victims of the malicious and murderous. Vaccines on tap are the dream of the backyard eugenicist.
Pandemics, like wars, accelerate innovation. World War II delivered the jet aircraft but also the atom bomb. Necessity is the mother of invention. But it is not always to our benefit.