The Gods of Small Things

Photograph Source: Michael Coghlan – CC BY 2.0

O brave new world that has such people in it!

– William Shakespeare, The Tempest

One of the great things about the Covid-19 silver lining playbook is the opportunity it affords to come out of the closet, like Bradley Copper, about my sapiensexuality. There, I’ve said it. I’m on the cyberprowl for minds who want to have a good old-fashioned LeftHandOfDarkness mind-fuck together. Makes no difference if you’re black or white, long as you know what I mean. Zoom-Zoom. See you in/out there in our new-fangled pop-up postmod Brady Bunch world.

Being online, streaming and social mediating in my solitude, as Billie Holiday used to sing, you get to make the rounds of URLs where people appear and speak like never before, as if, suddenly, we were all in our own space capsules broadcasting from the twinkling darkness of our inner space, complete bespoke blue screens behind us: living rooms, dens, kitchens, bookcase places. Fuck, we’ve taken to this ‘lockdown’ regime like psychotic peas in a rubber pod.

The Eye on our laptops captures our every tic as we talk and talk, and all of it captured by the NSA and databased for our collective National Security — no matter where we live in the world — a panopticon of facial fractals, theory-conjured up by Michel Foucault and rendered into psychodramatic realization by endless paranoia-building subscription series, like Person of Interest (See S4E1: think of it as that first time you shot up heroin but got, instead of a thousand orgasms in one, a thousand prickle points of paranoia. Paranoia is the real opioid crisis).

Well, I’ve managed to eschew (gesundheit) such conspiracy-minded time wastages as thinking the government is out to get me, personally, per se. I want solutions to Covid-19, not more stem-cell thinking about how this could all go wrong. So, I was pleased and feeling like a couch potato activist (eyes everywhere, right?) a couple of days ago when I came across Oslo Freedom Forum Presents COVIDCon. The topics included: Pandemic censorship in China; How Democracies and Dictatorships Are Responding to the Virus; 8 Questions with Ai Weiwei; Pandemic Power Grab: State Abuse of Emergency Laws; and, my favorite, The Increasing Risk of Synthetic Biology. No, I’m not leading to a conspiracy theory. (As far as I know.)

In this session, Rob Reid and Thor Halvorssen are two guys talking turkey ‘tête-à-tête’ (but frankly, Reid’s separate TED Talk is faster) about what most people don’t even know about: There are lots of actors, mostly scientists, trying to meddle with biological processes in the lab, and that it’s getting easier and cheaper all the time to play god. I was reading that even high school kids are dabbling in some potential Diabolique. And even though I’m not a conspiracy nut, so no squirrels will be interested in me, I did have a vision of all those school mass shoot-ups being replaced with biological bullets instead of lead. Like Mose Allison says: There’s always someone out there playing with dynamite.

I started thinking about my self-isolating solitude again and I was soon a mess. I wanted to know more about this synthetic biology angle because of: see above.

And soon thereafter I discovered that the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) coming to the rescue in the form of one of their myriad projects and connections to universities and Big Pharma. You never know for sure what you’re getting with Pentagon projects — they thought up the Gay Bomb, but also gave us the Internet, and want to use robot bees to replace bees dying in a species collapse. Aside from the Gay Bomb, the Pentagon always seems to be preparing for the worst.

Through their Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3), two years now in the running, DARPA has claimed to be spearheading the US response to Covid-19 — and any future pandemic. They explain on their site:

P3 focuses on rapid discovery, characterization, production, testing, and delivery of efficacious DNA- and RNA-encoded medical countermeasures, a foundational technology pioneered by DARPA under the Autonomous Diagnostics to Enable Prevention and Therapeutics (ADEPT) program that provides the body with instructions on how to immediately begin producing protective antibodies against a given threat.

Most people are unaware of DARPA’s leading edge role in advancing an “efficacious” response Covid-19. But, as we shall see, where there’s “efficacious” there’s often fire.

DARPA has been working with universities, biotechnology and Big Pharma to create a rapid-response system that can, theoretically, deal with epidemics and disease systems almost immediately. They’ve been at it for four years. The chief of communications at DARPA, Jared B. Adams, responding to my email recently said that

As part of P3 program, Abcellera and Vanderbilt University obtained first SARS-CoV-2 immune cells from a recovering coronavirus patient (Washington State) and initiated studies to identify highlight active SARS-COV-2 specific antibodies. DARPA’s antibody discovery takes days to weeks rather than months to years, and we expect antibodies to be ready for human testing by 01 AUG 2020. Seven hundred preliminary SARS-CoV-2 specific antibody targets were identified by AbCellera, which has since signed an agreement with Eli Lilly to co-develop antibody products for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19.

As Abcellera CEO Carl Hansen told Business Insider recently, “The goal is to have an antibody therapy ready to begin clinical testing by the end of July.”

Abcellera, which obtained antibodies from the very first American survivor of Covid-19 (Washington state), giving it a tremendous advantage on its biotech competitors, got to work immediately and, according to Adams, “Seven hundred preliminary SARS-CoV-2 specific antibody targets were identified by AbCellera, which has since signed an agreement with Eli Lilly to co-develop antibody products for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19.” This is precisely the process speed Abcellera not only envisioned but practiced in mock pandemic exercises it conducted in 2018 and 2019 as part of P3.

This brings up the three main streams of counterattack against Covid-19: conventional chemical drugs, vaccines, and antibodies. The edge goes to antibodies. They are quickest from discovery to treatment: drugs and vaccines, while potentially as effective, if not more, require far more scientific evaluation, maybe years, before they ‘hit the market’ through Big Pharma. Again, advantage Abcellera. (But, even Trump’s Solution is getting serious clinic time.)

In a piece for MIT Technology Review, Antonio Regalado puts it,

Pills are easy to make and easy to take, but none has yet been proved to work. Vaccines can give protection, but no one can predict when one will be available. (At a minimum it will take 12 to 18 months; 17 years since the world battled an earlier coronavirus, SARS, no licensed vaccine exists.) Antibodies, often given through an IV drip, have the disadvantage that they are complex to manufacture, but the advantage that they copy the body’s own solution.

So clearly, by virtue of its inclusion in P3, Abcellera, with its patented “lab on a chip,” which is exponentially faster than the eyeballs through microscopes approach, has a leader’s edge.

Biotech company Gilead is the leader for pill-taking offering up highly-touted remdesivir, which was showing promise with SARS, but needs to be viewed with caution (see italics above). Vaccines take at least a year to 18 months to be available; it’s probably the best route and one company has a monopoly of the vaccine — Moderna — but the availability is being fast-tracked for a platform called mRNA that has no track record. Using antibodies is like fullmetaljacketing your white blood cells to take on Ho’s Red Army. Ugly metaphor, but it does remind one that ka-ching plays a part in this, too. The competition is keen to find a solution, but it’s not necessarily out of the goodness of their hearts — even during a humanity-threatening pandemic.

Aside from the R-and-D arm of the Department of Defense, such as DARPA, there has been serious framework planning for synthetic biological weaponization of viruses and bacteria for years. I was blown away when I recently came across the extent to which such planning had taken place — not for conspiratorial reasons, but because it yet again underscores how little effort goes into walking the talk between planning for events and actually doing something about it ahead of time. Everybody who needed to know knew 9/11 was likely, but no real system was put in place to stop it, and yet, the Patriot Act, which was the culmination of years of awareness that such events were likely, was passed within days of 9/11.

Plodding my way through Biodefense In The Age Of Synthetic Biology (2018), a quick and sobering government study of the benefits and hazards of synthetic biology, and the preparation for its inevitable weaponization, which as so many Left-overs from the Sixties could attest is euphemistic cover for Bio Offense in the Age of Synthetic Biology. So, Biodefense boasts,

There are ongoing efforts to engineer microorganisms to produce fuels, act as detection devices, and clean up toxic spills. Synthetic biology is also seen as a potential means to grow organs for transplant, manipulate the microbiome, and even produce cosmetics.

Probably this is true; but that’s what’s so evil, because it acts as cover. If you weren’t careful, you might skip over the implications of “manipulate the microbiome.” We be chasing down the hoodoo there.

I recalled The Satan Bug by Alistair McClean, the kind of junk food I used to read as a kid as a break from studying Voltaire, and recalled the scene at the end when the “psychotic” plays with the hero by briefly juggling a flask of Satan buggery that could destroy the world as we know it. After “psycho” taunts our hero by letting him know he’s taken the vaccine for the virus and so is immune, instead of calling him a prick, he asks poignantly, “You mean you’d live in the world alone?

Biodefense cites how DARPA “put the MIT-Broad Institute Foundry’s design capabilities to the test; its researchers were able to deliver 6 out of 10 molecules of interest to the US Department of Defense in 90 days.” Huge success. Sounds good on the defensive level, but as American scientists have shown us, and our track record proves, we may produce the most evil ourselves to “be ready” for its use by other world actors. The government itself concedes in Biodefense that “As understanding of microbiomes increases, the possibility of misuse also increases, and it may become feasible to use synthetic biology to engineer the microbiome to transfer toxic genes, debilitate human immunity, improve pathogen entry or spread, or create dysbioses.”

DARPA’s P3 partners understand how true it is when the government advisers write in Biodefense that “Designers must consider the effects of a large array of potential variables, including DNA bases, codons, amino acids, genes and gene segments, regulatory elements, environmental context, empirical and theoretical design rules, and many other elements.” But we’ve been computer-assisted designers now for a long time. It’s equally true when they add,

Automated biological design, known in the field as bio-design automation, lowers the barrier to designing genetic constructs by automating some decisions and processes that would otherwise require a high level of expertise or a long time to carry out.

Scientists now generally concede that some evil technology has become so cheap and easy to kit-up, we might be on a time-bomb, even if Climate Change doesn’t kill us first.

A couple of years ago, without mentioning P3 or the news announced in Biodefense, Slate magazine ran a cautionary piece about DARPA and its bio syn projects titled, “DARPA’s Synthetic Biology Initiatives Could Militarize the Environment.” Notes Todd Kuiken, the article’s piece,

Since the largest proportion of funding for advanced biotechnologies, such as gene drives, appears to come from American defense agencies, researchers who depend on grants for their research may reorient their projects to fit the narrow aims of these military agencies.

This is the worry. Is it a worry specifically for Abcellera? Hard to say, but it’s worrisome to know they are connected to the American military and have run ‘virus games’ as part of the P3 program.

But the DoD’s mission is uncontroversial, and the hope is that P3-affiliated biotech firms stay true to their partnership. It’s clear that synthetic biology is a brave new world opening up before us as a collective human race and we need to find a way to get attuned. We should all be nervous when rogue scientists, such as He Jiankui, the Chinese doctor who used the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR to be the first (that we know of) to clone humans. We should worry more when we learn that his bio-meddling may have involved brain enhancement and that he was motivated, ultimately, not by science, but by money — Jiankui wanted to open up a designer baby operation.

Jiankui got fined and imprisoned, and roundly condemned by peers, some of whom, in less accountable places may have been emboldened to go further. Just what we need: a Frankenstein monster unleashed that doesn’t even have a viable Arctic habitat to run away to. The monster had cobbled together enough moral compass to know he didn’t Belong. What happens if someone plays G.O.D. (god on demand) and the monster takes the joystick out of his hand and makes him (and us) eat it? Corona on the couch with a gin and tonic, clinking ice, as if in memory of the floes.


John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.

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