COVID vaccine: Where does freedom end and civic duty begin?
Instead of insisting that we remain "free from" government control, we should view taking vaccines and wearing masks as a "freedom to" be a moral citizen who protects the lives of others.
Marcelo Gleiser is a professor of natural philosophy, physics, and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a recipient of the Presidential Faculty Fellows Award from the White House and NSF, and was awarded the 2019 Templeton Prize. Gleiser has authored five books and is the co-founder of 13.8, where he writes about science and culture with physicist Adam Frank.
- Now that the vaccine is becoming widely available, why do so many insist on not taking it?
- As different episodes in history have illustrated — including the building of an atomic bomb in the U.S. – true freedom is to choose to place the well-being of your family, community, and country above your own personal values.
- We shouldn't confuse the privilege of choice with a threat to personal freedom. In threatening times, our best defense is to act together to the benefit of all.
Pandemic fatigue is beginning to grind. Amidst yet another pandemic wave cresting in America and in Europe, we have to ask ourselves what's going on, now that vaccines are becoming available. Americans are justly proud of living in a country where personal choices—political, religious, sexual—are supposedly free. I write "supposedly" because clearly there is widespread prejudice and judgement of others and their choices. Acceptance of differences and open-mindedness is still on the to-do list for many. Still, at least we don't have army tanks rolling down the streets when people demonstrate their political or social views. Not usually anyway. For comparison, look at what's happening in Myanmar.
What puzzles me is what could be called the ditching of privilege. I look, for example, at the situation in Brazil, where I was born and grew up. A huge shortage of vaccines and a government that has consistently downplayed the science has resulted in massive fatalities. People are clamoring for help while hospitals are nearing capacity. In the U.S., vaccines are becoming widely available for younger sectors of the population. In two to three months, we could reach herd immunity and life could be close to normal again. Yet, many are choosing not to take the vaccine or to wear masks. "It is my choice and no government should mess with it!" This kind of choice illustrates a confusing conflict between personal freedom and civic duty. When should you sacrifice your personal choices and views for the benefit of your family, community, and ultimately, country?
The choice to get a vaccine and to wear a mask is an expression of your freedom to be a moral citizen and to protect your family, community, and country.
I'm going to take a detour here and go back to another time when a group of individuals had to face a very difficult choice between personal views and civic duty. In 1941, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor prompted the US to join the Allies in the war against Germany and Japan. Two years earlier, on 2-August-1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt sounding the alarm of a very possible Nazi nuclear bomb. "In view of this situation you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America," Einstein wrote.
Now, Einstein was an outspoken pacifist, as were many of the physicists then working to understand nuclear chain reactions. When the Manhattan Project to build a U.S. atomic bomb started for real in 1942, the main worry and motivation for the group of scientists working in secrecy at Los Alamos was the fear of Hitler with a nuclear bomb in his hands. A split happened within the group. Some scientists pushed the moral worries of building a weapon of mass destruction aside and undertook the formidable technical challenge as another tough scientific problem to figure out. Others, however, had serious moral qualms in participating in the project, knowing very well what the social and political consequences would be. Still, they pushed their personal views aside and worked to build the bomb. The fear of a Nazi threat and the sense of civic duty, the need to protect their country, their community, their families, and their values took center stage, superseding their personal choice.
Choosing to place community and love for the nation over personal gain or values is what German social psychologist and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm called "freedom to," as opposed to "freedom from." Fromm argued that the course of civilization and industrialization led citizens to an ever-growing process of individuation—the realization of your aloneness as an individual in a large society— where the weight of choosing for oneself became a heavy emotional burden. People that once saw themselves protected by their communities and religious faith were now set adrift by the very progress of democracy and capitalism. Freedom came with a heavy emotional cost. The consequence was the rise of fascist authoritarian governments that effectively chose for the individuals, giving them a sense of relief from the burden of choice.
Most people focus their battles in the "freedom from" category, confused between their individual freedom and their duties to community and country. The scientists that chose to continue working on the bomb against their personal values did so because they were not focusing on their individual choices above all others. They understood that the damage from the outside threat—a Nazi bomb—would have a devastating effect for their lives, families, communities, and country. So, they chose to work on the bomb to protect their freedom.
Let's apply this lesson to vaccines and mask-wearing. At face value, these seem to be personal choices. And if you see them as personal choices then you conclude that any action against your personal choice is a threat to your freedom from government control. But that's a fundamental mistake. The choice to get a vaccine and to wear a mask is an expression of your freedom to be a moral citizen and to protect your family, community, and country. The virus is the outside threat that has already compromised everyone's way of life, caused immense loss and pain, and wreaked havoc with the economy across the globe. By doing something for your family, community, and country you exercise your freedom to protect what's dear to you. This is what an act of love is.
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Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."
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