Toward Functional Immunity

Katherine J. Wu:

Eventually, all discussions about sterilizing immunity [Ability to totally prevent infection] become nerdy quibbles over semantics. Clearly, not every infection is clinically meaningful, or even logistically detectable, given the limits of our technology—nor do they need to be, if there’s no sickness or transmission. (A koan for pandemic times: If a microbe silently and inconsequentially copies itself in a tissue, and the body doesn’t notice, did it actually infect?) There is, for every pathogen, a threshold at which an infection becomes problematic; all the immune system has to do is suppress its rise below this line to keep someone safe.

But that might be exactly the point. Say that sterilizing immunity is impossible, that our immune systems cannot, in fact, be trained to achieve perfection. Then it’s neither a surprise nor a shortcoming that COVID-19 vaccines, or other vaccines, don’t manage it: An inoculation that guards marvelously well against disease—offering as much protection as it can—can still end an outbreak. Life would certainly be easier if vaccines offered invincible armor, with pathogens simply ricocheting off. But they don’t, and assuming or expecting them to manage that can be dangerous. The dubiousness of sterilizing immunity is a reminder that just about any immune response can be overwhelmed, if exposures are heavy and frequent enough, Grad told me. The best we can all hope for is functional immunity, more like a flame retardant than a firewall, that still keeps bad burns at bay.

Right now we’re in a bad movie with a predictable ending

Without a doubt the winters in the Washington D.C. area have been getting milder. Of course we still get spells of arctic cold and your occasional snow storm, but if you’ve lived here for any length of time, as I have for almost 3 decades, there is no arguing the winters aren’t, on average, what they use to be. The trend is unmistakable. The climate is changing. Our warm weather seasons are getting more severe and longer and our cold weather seasons are getting milder and shorter. These well predicted warming shifts in climate are happening in various degrees all over the planet. And we have good reason to believe the climate crisis is far worse than scientist projected.

Global warming is happening and the reasons for it aren’t surprising…at least to most of us. The scientific community has been warning us for a long time—decades—that human activity is principally responsible for a drastic increase in the amount of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere, which is causing global temperatures to rise. While we don’t know everything about something as vast and dynamic as the earth’s climate, we do know a lot, and we’re about 99% certain humans are the main cause for rising global temperatures.

So I wasn’t surprised to see, for example, that last month was the warmest January in recorded history. Or that Antartica, a continent usually buried in snow and ice miles deep and registering the coldest temperatures in the world, recently had its warmest day ever recorded—69.35 degrees! And we know that as the Arctic ice continues to melt at an alarming rate, the sea levels—with mathematical certainty—will rise all around the world. With the largest percentage of the world’s population living near the coastlines, we can imagine the havoc this will eventually bring. There are a whole range of potentially large, global problems—increased disease, water resource problems, extreme weather events, agricultural problems, droughts, etc, etc,—that the coming climate crisis will likely bring.

But right now we’re in a bad movie with a predicable ending. Right now the scientists…or imagine, say, a team of heart doctors (climate scientists), who’ve spent their lives educating themselves about hearts, experimenting, testing, and studying the data, are (have been) telling us we’re heading toward a massive global heart attack if we don’t change our diet and habits real soon….like, right now. Do you believe these doctors? Or do you just dismiss their expertise and decades of research as all part of some “hoax“?

We have these fast food minds—and their fatty food science denial agenda—telling us we’ll be just fine: “Eat on! Those heart doctors are wrong! Experts can’t be trusted! They’re elites! The truth has a liberal bias!” Not surprising, I guess, given we’re a nation with a big obesity (educational) problem. The “Eat on!” crowd has, for now, sadly, won the day. And so the long term costs and sacrifices that must and will eventually have to be made (mostly by the generation not responsible) in dealing with this climate crisis will only be greater and even more painful.

Real statesmanship (public leadership) is partly about getting people to face problems they’re avoiding….because it’s an uncomfortable topic to discuss…or, as we see on Capitol Hill, it cuts into their campaign donor’s profits. The tragic thing about our current national leadership—-the President and a large portion of Congress—is that there is so little statesmanship and so much pure selfish tribalism. The common good is not even remotely on the agenda. Because that would require political courage and compromise and bipartisanship. And we see so little of that anymore.

Though I continue to hold out hope, it’s getting harder and harder to be hopeful about the future. Whether it’s with the global climate crisis, massive inequality in this country, the cost of healthcare, or our tribal politics, I’m less and less optimistic we’re going to be able to avoid a major crisis. But I will continue to hope…and pray…and you’d had best do so also.

In Our Scientific Age, Progress is Inevitable even if not Permanent

I have a friend, we’ll call him Sam, who doesn’t care for the term “progress.” It’s odd when you think about it, but in his case it has a lot to do with politics. The term is too close to the term “progressive,” which in Sam’s mind, I suspect, is what describes all that he finds wrong in the world.

Obviously Sam is for progress (the core idea of a progressivism) if it means a better iPhone for him or medication he might need, or some other technological or medical advancement that improves personal utility or happiness. Airplanes are a nice way to travel fast, and vaccines keep Sam from losing half his family to outbreaks of small pox or some other deadly virus. Surely this is “progress” Sam can appreciate?

But this is complicated, I realize. It would be fair to say that those, like Sam, who are against, or uncomfortable with, the term (or idea) of progress are mostly referring to progress on the moral plane, not the technological…or the economical, i.e. getting rich. Because, naturally, we’re not against a concept or idea when it benefits us personally. My dad, a fine father and successful conservative businessman, once told me he was a conservative in every aspect except sex. For that personal policy position, he was “a raging liberal.” But’s it’s hard, if impossible, to separate the natural connection between scientific, economic, and technological progress from its connection to social progress. They go together. It’s a mindset. Something that seems lost on my friend Sam.

With the Age of Enlightenment came the scientific mind—along with an outbreak of the democratic spirit (American and French Revolutions for example) and the idea of human progress in the West. Keep this in mind. The scientific mind is the mind of learning, of analysis, of capturing nature’s power (physical and social) in order to harness it for socially useful ends. The natural state of a scientific mind is agnostic (Greek for “I don’t know”) when it comes to a proposition about understanding (or commenting on) something the scientific mind has not seen valid evidence for. While not perfect, we know that the best knowledge we can have, the most certain, is that derived from scientific experimentation and research. So naturally such a successful frame of mind becomes adopted by people and societies that wish to improve their lives. Because it works!

At the heart of education in Western society is a scientific view of the world. That doesn’t mean science will answer all questions of meaning, it can’t. It does mean, however, that people will feel more empowered by their own observation and experience to question authority in matters across the spectrum of human knowledge…and that naturally includes social matters. And so if you connect the dots, as our scientific knowledge has rapidly advanced in the West, so has social change….or the push for greater social “progress.” As scientific knowledge has advanced rapidly in the modern age, so has the push for social progress. In the West, these two ideas go together…along with our greater living standards, economic wealth, and way of life we cherish. It’s hard to have one, it seems, without encouraging the other.

This resistance to the march of time and the social—progressive—change it brings has much to do with the fear of change and a desire to hang on to the past—the love of old times and ways of doing things and ancestor worship in general. In some ways, those with stiffly conservative minds are certain that our fathers and our Founding Fathers knew better than we—and in some ways they did!

Being a man who knows you can learn a lot from studying history and biography, I can sympathize with this way of thinking. You do learn something very important from history: It’s called wisdom. If you read a lot of history and biography (but most people don’t) you notice general patterns in the march of societies and people’s lives that generally tend to repeat themselves, though not exactly, over and over throughout history and life. Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Well, that nicely sum up what you learn from reading a lot of history: a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement.

So let me say that one of history’s great lessons, one of its central laws, is the inevitability of change. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You can never step in the same river twice.” The river, with its steady flow, is changing constantly. And so it is with the flow of time and human social history. The concept of social progress is indeed a relatively new concept in human history, I’ll give critics of social progress that, but it’s an “inevitable” part of change given the endless flow of time and the yearnings of the human spirit.

I will conclude by saying that while change is inevitable, progress is not. I mean that while progress may come about—and naturally has in America—that doesn’t mean it will continue. History tells us that empires fall and societies collapse. Americans face a serious crisis because of massive levels of inequality and a declining middle-class. It’s not lost on the informed observer of history that the era in-which inequality was at its lowest and the greatest middle-class in the world was created and thriving in America was a period (1945 – 1975) that was largely the result of “progressive era” inspired policies. An era, I remind you, that conservatives are nostalgic about as the good ole days. Funny how short memories are.

The Day Pompeii was Destroyed

In the darkness you could hear the crying of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men. Some prayed for help. Others wished for death. But still more imagined that there were no Gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness.

Pliny the Younger

What might the destruction of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii have looked like when Mount Vesuvius erupted? Well, we don’t know for sure, but years of study and science have given us a really good idea. Here’s a fascinating full length animation with sound.

Research Scientists—Heroes of Humanity

When I was a little boy I stayed with my maternal grandmother a lot during the summers when school was out. She was a strong willed southern Baptist woman who’d been raised on a tobacco farm near Danville, Virginia. Every night before bedtime we’d say our prayers together. We asked for the forgiveness of our sins, we gave thanks for all the Lord had given us, and we asked that He bless our family and friends. As far as I knew the requests were granted. I went to bed refreshed and got up the next day ready to load up with sin.

Since then the list of those I’m thankful for and those needing to be blessed has expanded—the friends & family list, well, that may shorten depending on what day you ask me. But the thankful list, for the most part, has clearly expanded. It should have for all of us I’d hope. I’m very grateful for the military personnel who protect our nation, for the police officers who protect us from each other, for the nurses who care for us, for the teachers who educate and help shape our children, and for our political leaders—the very few, that is, who deserve a divine blessing rather than a voodoo curse.

But recently, while watching a TV commercial (below), I was reminded of those heroes—and they truly are—who I’ve always respected and admired but who don’t tend to make the nightly prayer list for most of us…and they deserve to. We’re all thankful for the doctors and nurses who care for us and our loved ones: they provide life saving surgeries and treatments and provide medications that cure disease and allow us to live normal, healthy, lives. But what about the people who actually researched, discovered, and designed these life saving procedures and medicines? Our healthcare comes from “providers.” But what about the Givers to Humanity…the research scientists?

Research scientists are the one’s who actually gave humanity those life saving procedures and medications. Without the discoveries of these research scientists the lives of millions would have been shortened and the quality of life for millions more would have been much worse. Just think of Edward Jenner, who discovered vaccinations. Because of him millions of lives have been spared suffering and a shortened life. Think of Louis Pasteur and the germ theory of disease. How about John Priestly’s discovery of anaesthetics! How about Frederick Banting’s discovery of insulin. How many people have we all known that would have died early deaths without insulin? And of course there are so many scientific discoveries—medical or otherwise—that I could list that are things we now take for granted but are things that without our world would be a much less forgiving and hopeful place. And most of these life giving and improving discoveries come to us from those dedicated to scientific discovery—from research scientists.

They are heroes of humanity. Let us be mindful and give thanks for them.