Humans have suffered pandemics from time immemorial. Millions of lives have been lost to pandemics over the centuries. But in almost every plague that we have suffered, there has been a tectonic change in the world order and the sacrifice of the millions who lost their lives made the world a better place.
The bubonic plague which came to be known as the Black Death reached the port city of Tana in 1346. It was transmitted by fleas living on rats. The plague was brought from China by traders traveling the Silk Road. The plague spread throughout Europe and wiped out about half the English population. This resulted in a shortage of labour in England and when the English elite tried to impose extractive laws like the Statute of Labourers in 1351, the Peasants Revolt broke out and rebels under the leadership of Wat Tyler captured most of London.
Eventually, the revolt was subdued and Tyler was executed but the Peasants Revolt changed the English social order and planted the seeds for a more inclusive form of governance in England which eventually led to what is known as the Glorious Revolution and the establishment of democracy. It can therefore be argued that it was the bubonic plague which changed the course of history whereby authoritarian rule by monarchs eventually gave way to an inclusive pluralistic society in England which then spread to other parts of the world and this inclusive form of governance is now the differentiator between countries which are integrated into the international community of respectable nations versus those which are classified as pariah states ruled by despots.
The Spanish flu of 1918 wiped out between 30-50million people but it also brought about a revolution in the field of medicine and public health policy. Many countries introduced centralized health care systems and employer-based health care insurance plans. Physicians started focusing on the occupational and social conditions that promoted illness, not only to cure illness but to suggest ways to prevent it. The practice of epidemiology has its foundations in the Spanish flu. The modern smallpox vaccine and the polio vaccines emerged soon afterwards. The Spanish flu was the trigger which prompted humans to invent vaccines for a multitude of deadly diseases which have saved millions of lives over the last few decades.
Covid-19 is the most devastating pandemic of modern times and as in the past this catastrophe has also brought out the best of human ingenuity. The earlier vaccines like the flu jab or the polio vaccines were based on the concept of injecting a weakened version of the virus being vaccinated against thereby training the body to recognize the virus and develop an immune response when attacked by the actual disease. The new generation vaccine developed by Pfizer and Moderna during the Covid-19 pandemic is based on what is known as the mRNA technology. It is radically different from the traditional concept of vaccination and therefore many anti-vaxxers refuse to qualify this treatment as a vaccine. As far as these anti-vaxxers are concerned, this is “gene therapy”. Though I do not condone maligning this treatment or the conspiracy theories being circulated, I cannot disagree with the “gene therapy” label. The technology involves packaging the mRNA into tiny lipid particles and delivering it to the cell. The mRNA has the code for producing the desired protein and thereafter the human biology takes over. Ribosomes read the code and produce the desired protein. The cell displays the protein on its surface; the immune system recognizes that that protein does not belong there and starts building antibodies which are then ready to protect us against any real attack which may come from the covid-19 virus. The reason why I do not disagree with the gene therapy label is because in this vaccine the mRNA is created in a laboratory through a process called “Transcription” and it delivers a human designed gene sequence to the cell instructing it to produce a particular protein designed in the laboratory. What scientists are doing here is to give our cells instruction to produce a particular protein. In a small but vital way, medicine has begun to look like programming.
The covid-19 pandemic is the reason why the floodgates have opened for the treatment of a wide range of diseases using mRNA technology. From flu, dengue, chikungunya, Ebola, Zika to even cancer, mRNA technology shows great hope of finding a cure.
While it is indeed encouraging to know that like smallpox, polio, malaria and other similar diseases, we may soon be able to eradicate all deadly diseases using mRNA science, a question that is often asked is, if we do become immune to all deadly diseases and the human life expectancy increases, what would then happen to the world population and how many people can our planet sustain? Since the beginning of our species, it took till the start of the 19th century to reach a population of 1billion. But it took just over one hundred more years to reach a population of 2 billion and in the next one hundred years we have added 6 more billion people to our planet. One report which examined sixty- five different scientific projections, concluded that the “carrying capacity” of our planet is 8 billion. That’s just about where we are right now.
The Pew Research Center polled scientists around the world and 82 percent said that there isn’t enough food and other resources on this planet for its fast-growing population. (Pew Research Center, Science and Society, January 29, 2015). In 2010 the famous Australian scientist Frank Fenner prophesized that the human population explosion and “unbridled consumption” had already sealed the fate of our species and that in the next hundred years humanity would be gone. Fenner was not the first to sound the alarm bells. At the turn of the nineteenth century, as the global population reached the 1 billion mark, the English scholar Thomas Malthus also warned of mass starvation and disease. In 1968, as the global population reached 3.5billion, Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich wrote of the impending doom in a best-selling book called The Population Bomb.
Against the backdrop of these dire warnings comes the ethical conundrum of whether developing technology which would rid us of all diseases is in the best interest of humanity and our future generations? Ever since the birth of our planet, nature has carried out its purges with uncanny regularity. From natural disasters like cyclones, hurricanes, Tsunamis and earthquakes to pandemics like the bubonic plague, Spanish flu and now Covid-19 to fatal diseases like cancer and smallpox, it seems that nature’s playbook is very clearly designed to maintain the equilibrium of the world’s population. With the immense intelligence that has been bestowed on us humans, we can surely find ways to overcome most diseases. Scientists are now also proving in laboratory experiments on monkeys and rodents that using gene therapy the average lifespan of humans can be extended to 120-150 years.
Would research into finding cures for the diseases which take away millions of lives and or developing cutting-edge technology to find ways to extend human lifespan be a boon or bane for us? These are complex moral dilemmas that we now face. Obviously, there is no absolute right or wrong answer. I have my own view on this matter which I will share in a future article but one thing is for sure- this is an unpleasant but important debate which the world must undertake because the direction we take now may well define the future of our species.