Black Death, COVID & Renewal

“So, our outline for today:

1. Renaissance Life was Worse than the Middle Ages (super-compressed version)

2. Where did the myth come from in the first place? (a Renaissance story)

3. Why is the myth of a golden Renaissance retold so much? (a post-Renaissance story)

4. Conclusion: We Should Aim for Something Better than the Renaissance”

—Ada Palmer, “Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages.” ExUrbe.com. June 4, 2020.

What does the history of Black Death suggest for our post-COVID-19 future? A complicated question. This is a precis, i.e., most essential points, of a book length answer to that question. Academic and long, but also interesting.

Kondratiev Waves & Social Unrest

“In the United States, 50-year instability spikes occurred around 1870, 1920 and 1970, so another could be due around 2020. We are also entering a dip in the so-called Kondratiev wave, which traces 40-60-year economic-growth cycles. This could mean that future recessions will be severe. In addition, the next decade will see a rapid growth in the number of people in their twenties, like the youth bulge that accompanied the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. All these cycles look set to peak in the years around 2020.”

-Peter Turchin, “Political instability may be a contributor in the coming decade.” Nature 463, 608 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/463608a

“What does it mean for the current wave of protests and riots? The nature of such dynamical processes is such that it can subside tomorrow, or escalate; either outcome is possible. A spark landing even in abundant fuel can either go out, or grow to a conflagration.

What is much more certain is that the deep structural drivers for instability continue to operate unabated. Worse, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated several of these instability drivers. This means that even after the current wave of indignation, caused by the killing of George Floyd, subsides, there will be other triggers that will continue to spark more fires—as long as the structural forces, undermining the stability of our society, continue to provide abundant fuel for them.

-Peter Turchin, “2020.” Clio Dynamica on PeterTurchin.com. June 1, 2020.

Counterglow

“This map shows factory farms and other animal facilities in the United States.”

Counterglow

“The map is meant to offer a rare bird’s-eye view of the scale of the industry, while also providing a research tool for activist investigators. Kecia Doolittle, the leader of the team that created the map, is an animal rights activist who has participated in a number of farm investigations herself. Footage uncovered by Doolittle and others over the years has revealed conditions such as overcrowding; wounded, sick, and dead animals left in pens with the living; painful procedures like tail removal and castration without anesthesia; and physical abuse by farmers, at times resulting in boycotts or criminal charges.

Most recently, as The Intercept reported on Friday, activists with the organization Direct Action Everywhere captured footage of a harrowing mass kill method called ventilation shutdown. The closure of meatpacking plants due to Covid-19 outbreaks has left farmers with nowhere to take mature livestock; in response, they have exterminated millions of animals. One particularly torturous tactic involves corralling pigs into a barn, closing the doors and windows, and shutting down the ventilation system. ‘This causes the buildup of excessive temperature and moisture from body heat and respiration of the animals and results in death from hyperthermia,’ according to guidelines from the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, which endorses ventilation shutdown in ‘constrained circumstances.’

Doolittle said that despite her knowledge of the industry’s brutal practices, this method caught her off guard. ‘I didn’t believe it was real,’ she said. To Doolittle, the use of ventilation shutdown should be a call to action, and more than images are needed.”

-Alleen Brown, “Animal Rights Activists Uncover the Locations of Thousands of Factory Farms.” The Intercept. May 31, 2020.

In light of the recent protests, it is hard not to notice that the way we treat The Other, whether it be people of a different race or different species, have a commonality.

Time to Mitigate, Not Contain

“We have long needed a Plan B for the scenario where a big fraction of everyone gets exposed to Covid19, and for this plan I’ve explored variolation and other forms of deliberate exposure. To be ready, variolation just needs a small (~100) short (1-2mo.) trial to verify the quite likely (>75%) case that it works (cuts harm by 3-30x), but alas, while funding and volunteers can be found, med ethics panels have consistently disapproved. (Months later, they haven’t even allowed the widely praised human challenge trials for vaccines, some of which would include variolation trials.)

-Robin Hanson, “Time to Mitigate, Not Contain.” OvercomingBias.com. May 28, 2020

I’m thinking an intervention that involving volunteering to get COVID-19, when there are no effective treatments and with a fatality rate somewhere between 0.5-1% is going to be a hard sell. If herd immunity is at 60%, this means a death toll of almost 1 million in the United States, on the low end.

Chances of a COVID-19 Vaccine

“The objective is to calculate risk profiles for vaccines targeting human infectious diseases. A database was actively compiled to include all vaccine projects in development from 1998 to 2009 in the pre-clinical development phase, clinical trials phase I, II and III up to Market Registration. The average vaccine, taken from the preclinical phase, requires a development timeline of 10.71 years and has a market entry probability of 6%.”

-Pronker ES, Weenen TC, Commandeur H, Claassen EHJHM, Osterhaus ADME (2013) Risk in Vaccine Research and Development Quantified. PLoS ONE 8(3): e57755. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0057755

A pandemic changes the risk profile in the sense that figuring out whether a vaccine is profitable is no longer the key consideration. However, it is worth noting that the current record for vaccine development is for Ebola, which took five years. And what about the original SARS? We still don’t have a vaccine for it, or for any coronavirus.

But, what about the recent news about Moderna’s vaccine? It’s based on mRNA. Let’s see what the CEO of one of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the world had to say on the topic, over a month ago:

“[GSK CEO Emma Walmsley] noted that mRNA vaccine candidates, such as the vaccine Moderna Inc. (NASDAQ:MRNA) is developing, have gotten into clinical trials more rapidly than those based on more conventional approaches, but there is some uncertainty about mRNA technologies.

“We are seeing several mRNA candidates coming forward,” Walmsley noted. “They may get earlier visibility of results. These are new technologies that haven’t been manufactured at scale.”

“Messenger RNA is a promising technology; it’s very versatile and it can produce candidates relatively quickly,” Loew said. “It has, however, never been tested in large Phase III trials and there is also no registered vaccine available today using that technology. It remains to be seen what this technology can really deliver.”

-Steve Usdin, “As COVID-19 vaccines progress, science and policy questions become more urgent.” BioCentury. April 15, 2020.

There are many coronavirus vaccine prospects, with frontrunners and others. Many different approaches are being tried to develop a vaccine. But, the target of getting one that works, is safe, can be manufactured and distributed at scale, and is available before the pandemic has run its course is not something that is likely to happen. Even if it were, it won’t be this year. Odds aren’t good for next year either.

Let’s hope a vaccine can be developed in time. But, let’s also be clear-eyed about the chances of that happening. They aren’t good.

Harvard’s Reinhart and Rogoff Say This Time Really Is Different

“And you want to talk about a negative productivity shock, too. The biggest positive productivity shock we’ve had over the last 40 years has been globalization together with technology. And I think if you take away the globalization, you probably take away some of the technology. So that affects not just trade, but movements and people. And then there are the socio-political ramifications. I liken the incident we’re in to The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy got sucked up in the tornado with her house, and it’s spinning around, and you don’t know where it will come down. That’s where our social, political, economic system is at the moment. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and it’s probably not in the pro-growth direction.”

-Simon Kennedy, “Harvard’s Reinhart and Rogoff Say This Time Really Is Different.” Bloomberg. May 18, 2020.

Probably the best thing I’ve read on the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic. If you have any interest in GDP, the economy, etc., this is worth reading in full.

U.S. COVID-19: The Long Plateau

Trevor Bedford is a scientist that studies viruses. Worth checking out the whole thread.

Knowledge of the Future

“…there are (a) facts, (b) informed extrapolations from analogies to other viruses and (c) opinion or speculation.

…if you’re experiencing something that has never been seen before, you simply can’t say you know how it’ll turn out.

…There’s no algorithm for deciding whether to favor life for a few (or for thousands) versus economic improvement for millions.”

-Howard Marks, “Knowledge of the Future.” Oaktree Capital. April 14, 2020.

Interesting throughout.