Making Privacy and Personal Autonomy History
By Farah Theodore
As unfortunate as it is that multiple millions of people around the globe have suffered varying degrees of loss since the onset of the dreaded coronavirus, there are others who can celebrate the opportunity to see their years of research and strategic financial planning finally pay off. COVID-19 is the feature on a stage that was already being set that will usher in a new era in humanity that can rival the industrial revolution.
The German start-up BioNTech, founded by two scientists (husband and wife team) of Turkish descent can be considered a bit of a Cinderella story which now has a market value much more than $21 billion making them the richest couple in Germany. BioNTech has offices in Germany and Cambridge, Massachusetts. MP Johannes Vogel, in celebrating integration, recently wrote on Twitter that if it was up to the far-right Alternative for Germany party, "there would be no #BioNTech of Germany with Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin at the top". Dr. Sahin stated, rather prophetically two years ago that his company might be able to use its so-called messenger RNA technology to rapidly develop a vaccine in the event of a global pandemic. BioNTech in 2018 started a partnership with Pfizer working on a flu vaccine and in March collaborated on a coronavirus vaccine despite the fact that BioNTech began work on the vaccine in January. This collaboration was heralded by some as a success for capitalism and globalisation. Also, in August 2019, Pfizer announced closure of a joint venture with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to create a premier global consumer healthcare company.
Another company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Moderna created its first human vaccine using mRNA technology working with the NIH (National Institutes of Health). Interestingly, NIH Director Francis Collins during an Economic Club interview in May said, "we do have some particular stake in the intellectual property". The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in March 2019 gave a grant to Moderna valued just over $1 million to assess the feasibility of mRNA technology. The foundation in 2019 invested over $55 million in BioNTech to fund its work in treating HIV and tuberculosis.
Vaccination is considered the most successful medical approach to disease prevention and control. This vaccine is novel as it is the first of its kind using RNA technology. What sets it apart is the ability for cells to be taught how to make a protein that 'triggers an immune response, which produces antibodies' offering protection if the real virus enters the body. According to the CDC, there are currently no licensed mRNA vaccines in the US. Jeffery Almond, a microbiologist at the University of Oxford defended its use saying, "Injecting RNA into a person doesn't do anything to the DNA of a human cell". Furthermore, a significant feature of this technology is how it has revolutionized the creation of vaccines at lightning speed, and may allow for one vaccine to provide protection for multiple diseases. Essentially, as quickly as scientists can genetically sequence new pathogens, they can start determining the mRNA required to build key proteins within them.
An issue related to vaccinations is that of recording vaccination history. In December 2019 it was revealed that MIT engineers developed a way to store medical information under the skin. It is a quantum dot dye that is delivered along with a vaccine by a microneedle patch. The dye can remain under the skin for up to 5 years, and emit a near infrared light readable by a specially equipped smartphone. The microneedle bandage was first presented in 1976. Kevin McHugh, a former MIT postdoc, now an assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice University stated, "…this technology could enable the rapid and anonymous detection of patient vaccination history to ensure that every child is vaccinated".
The military is taking a lead role in vaccination research as well. The US Defence department has funded a new study to determine if an under the skin biosensor can detect flu-like symptoms before it happens. The sensor consists of a 3mm string of hydrogel containing a specially engineered molecule that sends a fluorescent signal outside the body when the body begins to fight an infection, and an electronic component that 'sends light through the skin, detects the florescent signal and generates another signal that the wearer can send to a doctor, website, etc.' The manufacturer of the sensor Profusa declared in March that the sensor is on track to seek FDA approval next year.
If that isn't frighteningly astonishing, welcome ID2020 Alliance which aims to enhance our economic and social opportunities with digital ID. This will store and 'securely' encrypt personal information such as biometric data. Microsoft, the Rockefeller Foundation and GAVI (the vaccine alliance) among others are the founding members. The possibility of having digital citizenship isn't far-fetched. Many are eager about its widespread use as plans are underway for digital identity-based health credentials to facilitate return to work, school and other activities.