On Nov 19, California Congressman Tom McClintock (R) delivered a great speech on the House floor. “In Defense of Governor Newsom” (transcript here) is a sharp, ironic 5 min piece, nicely calling out the moral lapse of CA governor Gavin Newsom in having dinner with friends at a restaurant, in violation of his own edict against large gatherings. A commentable version of his video is below (McClintock’s team also uploaded it to YouTube, but chose not to enable public comments). Most comments at the video below, as you might imagine, are from good Americans on our right wing, expressing deep support of his views on governmental overreach.
Politically, I am neither right nor left, but forward, or “up-wing” to borrow a phrase from UBI evangelist Andrew Yang. I commiserate with much of what McClintock says in this video. This virus has cost Americans dearly in lives, jobs, productivity, confidence, and in a wide range of curbs to our personal freedoms, many of them unnecessary if we’d gotten our act together on testing and tracing. It is also far less deadly than many on the left like to imagine, or tell us.
But there’s a big problem with this speech. It makes the wrong assumptions. The problem is in what you aren’t being told, by leaders who don’t want to give you the real story. McClintock himself may not even know this story. Everything he says here, in proposing that we should have the freedom and responsibility to make our own decisions around risk, is based on his (quite accurate) assessment of the risks of Covid. But that’s not the real risk that matters here. The real risk, as I learned in my undergrad and graduate classes at UCSD in the 1980s and 1990s, is a supervirus bred up by a terrorist group and released on us. That’s always been the real risk.
In simpler organisms, we’ve seen viruses that have nearly wiped out whole species. We don’t yet know what percentage of humans that a highly infectious virus, bred for lethality, might kill in a bioterror pandemic. But it could easily be worse than what we’ve seen in humans from all our natural viruses today. Artificial selection is a powerful tool, for any outcome we want. Just look at all domesticated species.
This is also a risk we’ve long ignored. We’ve had amazing antiviral technologies like DRACO in the lab since 2010. But no one will develop them, as there is no leadership to do so. See my post, Will Covid-19 Bring Serious Antiviral Spending the US? for the mind-blowing details.
In the lab, researchers have demonstrated highly effective viral detection and testing technologies, antiviral adjuvants like DRACO (you take these molecules and the virus can’t replicate in your body), and rapid vaccine production techniques since the 1990s. The only problem is that no one in Big Pharma wants to spend the money on getting any of this out lab into clinical practice. It’s both too financially risky, without government subsidy or risk abatement, and it is also too threatening to their existing business models. A double non-starter.
There are only two ways America could get competent antiviral capabilities.
- The first would be leadership. We’d need politicians with the guts to stand up to the owners of Big Pharma and Big Health, and to tell the viral risk story to Americans like it really is, including all the work the US, USSR and others made in this space until we decided to close Pandora’s box for a while with the Biological Weapons Convention of 1975. That treaty just pushed the bioterrorism problem into the future, by reducing the budgets for such research. It never solved the underlying risk. Read Mike Osterholm’s Deadliest Enemy (2020) for a great overview.
Bioterrorism has always been the biggest real threat to American lives, ever since we developed molecular virology and viral selection techniques, shortly after we mastered recombinant DNA techniques in the late 1970s. Bioerror is another threat, but it is greatly overhyped. You have to work hard to make an air-carrying, slow to manifest, high lethality virus. Unfortunately, the cost of doing that has dropped exponentially since the 1980s.
- The second would be, you guessed it, a pandemic, either natural or engineered, one that spreads rapidly, and is just lethal enough to shut down our economy. It would have to be lethal and economically painful enough to finally force our leaders to spend the money they should have been spending on this threat since the 1990s. That disaster arrived for us this year. Yes, Covid is bad, but not nearly as bad as what could come for us next. Any day now, in fact. If we had leaders in the White House willing to tell it like it is, and explain the real risk, bioterror, we’d all finally get it. We’d realize that our long-ignored vaccine, adjuvant, and sampling, testing, and tracing tech should have been our focus from day one.
Consider testing. Abbot’s ID NOW, for example, is a 13-minute Covid test. It uses a 7-pound machine that does rapid RNA amplification, and can be run from anywhere. Its Positive Predictive Value is over 99%, and you find out in just 4 minutes. Its Negative Predictive Value (screening value) ranges from 87% for folks w/ symptoms to 99.7% for asymptomatic folks. This PDF gives a nice summary of its value. Amazing, right?
If we had leaders who cared about building our national viral testing capacity, our Defense Production Act would have been invoked in June to subsidize the manufacture and elective purchasing of these Abbott devices, reagents, and training in their use across America. Airlines could have been using this specific test to screen passengers before flights, schools could have been using these to keep our kids in class, businesses, restaurants, hotels, stadiums, theatres, you name it could have been using this test soon after Abbott announced it worked. They first did that way back in May 2020, and then again publicly in October. They got an investigational use waiver in May, and nothing since. Crickets.
In reality, our leaders are in the pocket of industry, Big Pharma and Big Health being the relevant industries in this case. I would bet the Trump Administration is being advised by lobbyists for those industries, behind the scenes, not to play favorites, both with testing and with vaccines. Yes, we are seeing admirable fast-tracking with Operation Warp Speed, and government shouldering of risk in clinical trials. But at the same time, all the big players want a piece of the action, and I would bet that is causing unnecessary delays. Unless we have a government strong enough to pick early favorites, and work out profit sharing with those who will be late to launch, we get what we’ve been getting.
It is terrible to realize this, and in no way does this dishonor Covid’s 258,000 US and 1.4M global victims so far, but the real story is that without foresighted leadership, willing to talk about and prioritize antiviral defense, because of this catastrophe there is now a good chance, especially if our incoming administration is more science-oriented, that we will finally fund long-ignored testing, sensing, adjuvant, and vaccine science and tech that will greatly limit the risks, to all human beings, from all infectious diseases in the future.
In truth, our whole Covid catastrophe is a trial run for keeping America’s kids safe in the future. It is lucky for us that this virus has such low lethality.
The real nightmare hasn’t happened yet, and we still aren’t ready for it.