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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.


What Could Go Right? Africa grabs hold of mRNA technology

And more countries may follow suit. Plus, the United States does away with forced arbitration clauses in assault and harassment cases, and signs the global economy is becoming less carbon intensive.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

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mRNA technology comes to Africa
In a move that bolsters their bottom line but likely prolongs the pandemic, mRNA vaccine makers Moderna, Pfizer, and BioNTech have refused to share the necessary technology for their Covid-19 vaccines with low- and middle-income countries, forcing them to pay for doses at a premium or wait for donated ones rather than produce their own. It has contributed to a tale of two worlds: “Countries and regions with the highest incomes,” according to the Bloomberg vaccine tracker, “are getting vaccinated more than 10 times faster than those with the lowest.”

But this week, the South Africa-based biotechnology company Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, with an assist from the World Health Organization (WHO) and funds from Europe, announced that they had successfully created their own mRNA vaccine, developed from Moderna’s vaccine sequence. (Moderna patented the sequence, but Stanford University researchers uploaded it to a public database in spring last year, and Moderna has pledged not to enforce the patent during the pandemic.) Afrigen is a hub in the WHO’s “mRNA tech-transfer” initiative, which is meant to boost the ability of countries without mRNA technology to access it, pass it among themselves, and ultimately build out vaccine manufacturing capacity. When the initiative launched in June 2021, the WHO reached out to Moderna, Pfizer, and BioNTech for direction guiding their initiative’s global researchers, but none came.

“We didn’t have help from the major Covid-vaccine producers,” Afrigen chief scientist Gerhardt Boukes told Nature, “so we did it ourselves to show the world that it can be done, and be done here, on the African continent.”

The South African development has come too late to be a major factor in ending the pandemic. Phase 1 human trials aren’t expected to start until November. But it’s a foundational step toward African and other countries’ vaccine-independence, and toward ensuring that whatever future benefits mRNA brings, they will not be solely concentrated in the wealthy West. As part of the initiative, companies throughout the global south will now attempt to repeat Afrigen’s success. We wish them the best.

Spray the Covid away
Indian pharmaceutical company Bharat Biotech is experimenting with a Covid vaccine that would be sprayed into the nose, in a potential win for the needle-averse everywhere. Several other nasal Covid vaccines are also in development, but The New York Times thinks that Bharat’s may be the first to become available. It’s currently in Phase 3 trials in India as a booster dose.

Because nasal vaccines “coat the mucosal surfaces of the nose, mouth, and throat,” where the virus first lands, “with long-lasting antibodies,” they may perform better than the injectable vaccines at preventing infection. They are also easier to administer and disseminate, a speed advantage that could prove crucial in a future wave.

And if you haven’t had enough science reads for today, MIT Technology Review has an exciting piece on Pfizer’s Covid antiviral, Paxlovid, which was a slightly less heralded, but no less triumphant achievement than the various vaccines. The pill, which is highly effective at preventing serious illness if taken within five days of infection, is currently in short supply. But it won’t be forever, and when it’s more plentiful, you’ll be able to grab it at your local pharmacy. (Also, data from Pfizer suggests that the pill will “work against all coronaviruses, maybe even one still lurking in a bat cave somewhere.”) 

For all the criticism of governments not preparing for future pandemics, over the summer, the United States did commit $3 billion to antiviral research on everything from corona to Ebola. The idea is to have workable pills ready to go before we actually need them. That does sound nice.

You better werk . . . to make workplaces safer for women
If you saw Bombshell, the 2019 movie about the sexual harassment allegations against former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, then you know the devilry of the forced arbitration clause that is lurking in many work contracts. Signing a contract with this clause means that you’ve signed away your right to make a misconduct claim public in court, instead agreeing to a “private proceeding with [an] employer. . . . a process that takes place in secret, led by company-appointed arbitrators, and without the ability to appeal the result,” reports The New York Times. Beholden to this process, perpetrators remain unnamed, and claimants lack leverage to win appropriately sized settlements. 

On Monday, the US House passed legislation that would end the use of forced arbitration clauses in workplace sexual harassment and assault cases. (It is expected to pass the Senate and be signed by President Biden.) And how’s this for a story of cooperation across party lines: this all happened because activism by former Fox celebrity Gretchen Carlson caught the attention of North Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who then scooped up New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to work on the bill together. It passed the House 335 to 97.

Pakistan is making changes, too. Last month their parliament passed a law that will better protect women against workplace harassment. The bill widened the definition of what constitutes harassment as well as what is considered a workplace, so that domestic workers and other women in “informal” work environments are included. Students, a category previously excluded, are also now protected. 

Before we go
You can smoke that good stuff—with a valid medical reason—even in Mississippi. The Magnolia State greenlit medical marijuana yesterday, becoming the 37th state to do so. 

Emissions dipped during the pandemic as trade and industry halted. We always knew they would come back, but we didn’t know by how much. Turns out it’s less than we expected. Bloomberg’s green energy newsletter on the signs that the global economy is getting less carbon intensive over time here. And, new efforts to make a “circular car,” which would eliminate waste through the car’s entire lifespan.

Gene editing galore—what to expect in neuroscience, genetics, longevity, biotech, and psychedelics in 2022 from Neo.Life.

There have been several interesting early-stage medical advancements this week that we didn’t have space to include. Stay tuned for those stories next week!

Below in the links section, a cutting-edge cancer treatment, a fashion giant is going furless, offshore wind farms may have another trick up their sleeves, and more.

“When imagining the past, people tend to forget that a huge portion of the population was made up of children—playing, learning, getting into mischief, & sometimes even making art. Here are a few lovely & lively examples of children’s art from the historical record.” So begins this lovely thread from developmental scientist Dorsa Amir. Take a look and let us know your favorites.

Bonus Podcast Episode: The Population Explosion

Are we on the brink of a population explosion with untold global consequences? On the contrary, a growing number of experts argue that we are headed for a worldwide decline. Hear from Empty Planet authors John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker on how this could bring with it many benefits as well as surprising disruptions. This recording was first released on March 5th, 2019. | Listen to the episode

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Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.