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Still Chugging Along

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.

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What Could Go Right? The vaccines work against Omicron’s “cousin”

Plus, how we’re going to avoid the fate of the dinosaurs, Australia is close to eliminating HIV, and more

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

This is our weekly newsletter, What Could Go Right? Sign up here to receive it in your inbox every Thursday at 6am ET. You can read past issues here.

Cool new tech: how to avoid going the way of the dinosaurs and more
The much-talked-about Netflix movie Don’t Look Up is based on a premise that is growing more unrealistic: that a giant space rock could wipe out Earth. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has a well-developed plan to find any asteroids large enough to kill us all—as well as the more medium-sized ones that could just kill a bunch of us—and eliminate their threat by knocking them off course, if necessary. 

We mentioned NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test when it launched last year in this newsletter, but Vox has a new, thorough update on how it’s all going. In essence, NASA has thrown a “car-size box,” strapped to solar panels that we can’t help describe as wings, at a 160-meter asteroid called Dimorphos. (Dimorphos is no threat to us; it’s currently minding its own business, orbiting another asteroid.) We’re now waiting for the box to hit Dimorphos at 15,000 miles per hour to see whether we can successfully divert the asteroid’s trajectory. If it works, we may be ready for the day an asteroid comes flying toward us.

Illustration of the DART spacecraft | NASA

By the way, the last enormous asteroid to drop by our neck of the woods was two weeks ago, on January 18. You can watch it “fly by” here.

To these sea creatures, green light means stop. Fishing nets don’t distinguish between marine life they’re trying to catch and marine life they’re not, which means that animals like turtles die unnecessarily, tangled in them. New research conducted in California has found that attaching green LED lights to the nets yields a shockingly good result: 51% fewer turtles caught, 81% fewer squid, and 95% fewer sharks and rays. And the lights didn’t affect the fishing itself, so we may be able to save our sea friends . . . as well as continue to eat them. The nets are now being tested in Indonesia and the Caribbean.

Self-heating plasma has been created for the first time, a significant step toward the promise of fusion energy. Axios has an explainer of it here.

Omicron’s cousin not going to crash the party
We’d wager you’ve seen, including in this newsletter, articles discussing whether the Omicron wave will grant us enough herd immunity to reach the end of the acute phase of the pandemic. The answer is usually “it depends on the variants.” Variants will continue to arise, and the more our current roster of coronavirus-fighting methods—pills, tests, vaccines, and so on—remain effective against new ones, the better off we’ll be.

With that in mind, and in the interest of cultivating a mindset that notes the lack of problems as much as their existence, did you hear about Omicron’s “cousin,” BA.2? (Omicron is strain BA.1.) As BA.2 becomes more common, its characteristics are being studied, and here’s the great news: it seems that the current Covid-19 vaccines are just as effective against BA.2 as BA.1.  

Cutting down the chances that nasty new variants are in our future means expanding the vaccinated population as much as possible. The Africa Centers for Disease Control reported this week that Africa is “on course to reach its target of vaccinating at least 70% of its population . . . by the end of 2022.” The Associated Press relayed that the health agency is “encouraged by a surge in vaccinations in countries like Nigeria, where vaccine hesitancy appears to be waning with the destruction of expired doses and increased availability of vaccines.”

We aren’t sure where the “the vaccines only have emergency use authorization” argument has gone, but in case it’s still around, Moderna received full approval for the use of its vaccine in adults from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Monday, joining Pfizer-BioNTech. (Now we just have to remember that Spikevax is not Spiderman’s latest supervillain, but simply the Moderna vaccine’s new name.) As for Pfizer, it has started the process for the FDA to grant emergency use authorization for the use of its vaccine in children aged six months to four years, which means it could be available by the end of this month. Meanwhile, in Cuba, 95% of kids over the age of two are already vaccinated

Australia close to eliminating HIV
Moderna also announced last week that they have started early-stage trials for their mRNA HIV vaccine. Three other mRNA vaccines for the virus have already come and gone, not making it past stage-2 trials, but each new attempt is a new chance. We recommend this piece on why it’s so difficult to develop an HIV vaccine, what steps have been taken to get us closer, and why mRNA is speeding up the process.

Australia has recorded its lowest number of new HIV diagnoses since 1984, at 633 cases, down from 901 in 2019. (There is some question of how much the Covid lockdowns contributed to the sharp drop.) It’s one country that could feasibly eliminate HIV before the end of the decade. Remarkable, considering that homosexuality was still illegal in parts of Australia in the 1980s. A director at UNAIDS, Eamonn Murphy, told the BBC that “Australia is one of a small number of countries with the three 90s: 90% are diagnosed; 90% of those are on treatment; and 90% of those have an undetectable viral load, meaning they can’t transmit HIV sexually.”

Before we go
This is not what Hitchcock had in mind. The Swedes don’t want to vaccinate their kids against Covid, but they do want their crows to take care of street cleanup: one company is training the birds to pick up cigarette butts.

France and Utah have joined the “banning conversion therapy” club. Utah is the 19th state to do so, and as PBS notes, “one of the most conservative.” Virginia, Texas, and Kentucky may be next.

Two great articles on American politics: First, on arguing against the commonly held view that the US is on the cusp of a civil war. Second, The Progress Network (TPN) Member James Fallows on doing away with lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices.  

Two great moves from Biden: After an executive order, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted to require internet providers to disclose a “plan’s price, speed, data allowances, including introductory rates and later price hikes . . . at the point of sale.” Rejoice, all of us who have ever suddenly had an $80 Verizon bill on their hands. (That’s not just us, right?) Plus, sexual harassment is now an offense under military code.

And this is just for fun: a search engine designed to pull up unusual results.

Below in the links section, drones are delivering medicines to patients’ homes, ovarian cancer deaths are dropping in the UK, Chile is making artificial glaciers, and more.


Memory cards have gotten a little smaller over the years.

Op-ed: Welcoming “Wokeness” to the Military

A diverse and conscious military is an asset, not a deficiency—especially to its over 500,000 active-duty Black service members. | Read more 

Bonus Podcast Episode: Our Lonely Century

What do university students in Britain and Trump voters in the United States have in common? They’re lonely. In fact, Noreena Hertz says, loneliness is the defining feature of this century, thanks to a host of drivers ranging from the technological to the economic. The Progress Network founder Zachary Karabell joins Noreena, an economist and author of The Lonely Century, as she elucidates whether we’re really more lonely than we used to be, what has led, pandemic aside, to our current state of hyper-loneliness, and which solutions—individual, governmental, and entrepreneurial—she thinks are the best bet for reconnecting us. This conversation was recorded in May 2021. | Listen to the episode

Progress, Please

(Found good news? Tweet at us @progressntwrk or email.)

Other good stuff in the news

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Swaddle yourself in our long list of the week’s progress links.

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Jason Crawford is the founder of The Roots of Progress, where he writes and speaks about the history of technology and the philosophy of progress. He is also the creator of Progress Studies for Young Scholars, an online learning program for high schoolers, and a part-time adviser and technical consultant to Our World in Data, an Oxford-based nonprofit for research and data on global development.

Read Jason’s essay on why we need a new philosophy of progress.

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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.