Flicker Fusion

The science is always the easy part

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I think I first read about a novel approach to ending one of the worst disease vectors of all time — the Aedes aegypti mosquito — about a decade ago in what memory and some cursory searching tells me must’ve been this New Yorker article. The solution is beautiful in its simplicity: genetically engineer the male mosquito with a “self-limiting” gene that gets passed on to future generations who don’t survive thanks to the bunk genetic coding. Trials have shown mosquito populations plummet by as much as 85% without requiring poisonous insecticides.

One would think that such a breakthrough would be heralded as a miracle of modern science, a brilliant counterattack against a tiny insect that has killed more humans than anything else in history. While malaria, dengue fever, and Zika are diseases primarily associated with the tropics, climate change is bringing them ever closer to the United States, where the OX513A mosquito variant could be deployed to halt these diseases before they spread. Activists in the Florida Keys have fought tooth and nail for a decade and vow to keep fighting as the first modified mosquitos are released this year.

At the end of this month, the Indian Point nuclear power plant, located just 25 miles north of Manhattan, will close for good. Its closure has been a priority of governor and scion Andrew Cuomo for years, part of a promise to environmentalists to replace the very scary specter of nuclear power with green renewable energy.

The problem, alas, is renewables won’t be filling in the gap any time soon so cheap, dirty fuels (primarily natural gas that is plentiful in large part due to a domestic fracking boom) will have to account for the nearly 25% of the energy usage of the nation’s largest city.

In the face of climate change, the decades old fight against nuclear power seems amazingly short sighted. Politicians and environmental activists are rethinking their positions as it’s fairly clear that widespread nuclear power offers one of the few short-to-medium term solutions to ending reliance on fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, the rare nuclear power accident is full of drama whereas the thousands who die prematurely or suffer lifelong debilitation from burning fossil fuels simply go unnoticed, like so many externalities. The fact that coal fired power plants tend to be built near the poorest communities only adds to the shame.

Today the CDC recommended a “pause” in the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine against Covid-19 due to several reports of blood clots. Of the more than seven million vaccines distributed in the U.S. so far, six people (all of them women between the ages of 18 and 49) have developed blood clots that have led to one death and several serious injuries. Another 10 million doses have already shipped.

It’s hard to see this as anything other than a catastrophe, at a fairly precarious time in the fight against the virus. The standard issue mis-and-dis-information campaigns, anti-vaccination inanities, and know-nothing partisan hackery have already prolonged the virus and directly killed hundreds of thousands of people. The “pause” certainly won’t be short-lived, will be seized upon by cavalier and cynical opportunists, and will mean people will die unnecessarily.

The science of genetically modifying mosquitos, generating relatively safe and clean energy, and creating a pandemic-ending vaccine in record time is the work of heroes. It’s mindbendingly difficult work that shows the best of what it means to be human.

The science, though, is the always the easy part.