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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.

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What Could Go Right? Reversing paralysis and other “mad” science

Plus, a dramatic sanitation solution, more "reasons for hope" emerge from COP26, and Covid vaccines and pills move closer to poorer countries.

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.

Magic, or simply science? Reversing paralysis, brain implants, and more
Another week, another reason why “mad science genius” is a trope. American scientists have reversed paralysis in mice using a gel injected into the spine. The side-by-side of the mouse before and after the treatment, which takes effect after just four weeks, is astounding. (Video here. A longer write-up here.) It’s unnecessary to say how meaningful this would be for those living with spinal cord injuries if the gel works in humans. The study’s authors are going straight to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to “push for human trials, bypassing large animal testing.”

A new brain implant converted a paralyzed man’s thoughts into writing with 94% accuracy. How does it work? The man answered questions by imagining he was writing on a piece of paper with a pen. His brain activity was “read” by electrodes and “written” by algorithms that converted each imagined letter to on-screen writing. With this system, the man could write 90 characters per minute. Watch the implant in action.

The man was able to type using the team’s previous system by selecting letters with a thought-controlled cursor. The new system allows him to type twice as fast. 

A woman in Argentina is bringing new heft to the word “lucky.” She is believed to be the second person to have ever cured themselves from HIV without an intervention like drugs or a transplant. (For the record, she called herself not lucky but “blessed.”) “This gives us hope that the human immune system is powerful enough to control HIV and eliminate all the functional virus,” immunologist Xu Yu told STAT News. The woman recently gave birth to an HIV-free child, and scientists are now studying her placenta to see if they can produce treatments from whatever HIV-knockout biology her body naturally has.

A dramatic sanitation solution
While rich countries take clean water for granted, tens of thousands of children in poor countries die each year from waterborne diseases like cholera or E. coli. How to best prevent these deaths, and do it cost-effectively, is a matter of debate. This week Vox’s Dylan Matthews highlighted what he called “maybe the most hopeful news” he has read this year, a new study on water chlorination that cut mortality rates for children under five in certain Kenyan villages by 63%. 

Developed countries have used water chlorination successfully since the early 1900s; it is a requirement in American and British drinking water systems, although chlorination levels must be managed so as to prevent carcinogens from developing in the water. In the Kenya-based study, chlorine dispensers were placed next to water sources. A person pumping water or pulling it from a well would then disinfect their water using the dispenser. In the villages that didn’t receive the dispensers, the “baseline death rate . . . was a horrific 2.23 percent—more than one in 50 children died before their fifth birthdays.” The dispensers brought that rate down to less than one in 100.

The replicability and scalability of the study is to be determined, but as with anything that shows potential for a dramatic reduction in human suffering, we look forward to seeing what comes next with this sanitation solution.

We’re almost done with COP26
Frankly, we’re surprised by all the positive takes on COP26, the climate change conference that concluded last week in Scotland. Here are our takeaways (if you read the newsletter last week, this is an expanded version), and The Progress Network (TPN) Member Ian Bremmer added a few we didn’t mention, including the requirement for countries to upgrade their climate plans every year instead of every five years, in his “reasons for hope” video here

“I see out of COP26,” he said, “that we have passed the tipping point of global seriousness on climate action. . . . what I’m seeing is significant progress. I’m seeing a rationing up of the resources, of the intense focus, maybe not of the coordination, but certainly of the urgency on a country-by-country, sector-by-sector, company-by-company basis.”

Professor Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist and chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, continued her brief COP26 thread with more real talk: “Each one of us has a role to play, and it begins with using our voice to advocate for & catalyze change wherever we live, work, study, and more.” 

Things happening and that need to happen for the pandemic to end
Why does Covid-19 misinformation spread so easily? Because so many people are bad at math. Actually, the headline says “Americans,” but we think this quality is almost universally applicable. At least Covid deaths are now falling in many countries, like the US, Brazil, Mexico, and India, that have had the highest overall death toll.

We’re all about increasing the pressure on pharmaceutical companies to put lives before profits and commit to selling their vaccines and treatments to low- and middle-income countries at a manageable price. Many of these poorer nations have been locked out of deals to secure vaccine doses as Big Pharma gave preference to higher payers. Politico reports that Moderna is finally about to sign a deal that commits to a lower price for COVAX, the global initiative for vaccine distribution. Notable: things got so tense between Moderna and COVAX that officials from the Biden administration stepped in to put the screws on them. As Politico rightly points out, Moderna developed their vaccine in part with funds from US taxpayers. Pay it forward, guys.

Merck has already guaranteed lower prices and manufacturing capability for its pill. As has Pfizer, as of Tuesday.

Before we go
We suggest a podcast and a long read from two of our Members. First, this piece from James Fallows that points out a habitual media flaw responsible for why so many people don’t receive the information they really want to know—what Fallows calls the what of politics, in contrast to the how—from media coverage.

Second, do we have any readers who are part of the #YangGang? Even if not, listen to Andrew Yang’s interview with TPN Member Yascha Mounk on normalizing universal basic income as a discussion point, ranked choice voting, and more.

Below in the links section, lab-grown meat, old-growth trees, and clean jet fuel get a boost; environmentally friendly tires are coming soon; beavers are coming back; and more.


Made to celebrate the 35th anniversary of its flagship sedan, The Verge calls Hyundai’s impressive Heritage Series Grandeur EV “the perfect vehicle for a supervillain.” An environmentally conscious one, anyway.

In American politics, belief polarization—a process by which our beliefs become more extreme and tightly held as we surround ourselves with only like-minded people—abounds. Prescriptions for ameliorating it, though? Not so much. TPN Executive Director Emma Varvaloucas recently spoke with Robert B. Talisse, a philosopher at Vanderbilt University and a TPN Member, about why he thinks reading Aristotle might be more depolarizing than trying to make friends with your politically outspoken neighbor or engaging in civil debate. Watch the interview in full or read an excerpt here.

Progress, Please

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

Other good stuff in the news

United States:

International:

TPN Member originals 

Journey to the end of our long list of the week’s progress links here.

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Until Next Time

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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.