Covid-19 Patents Provide Funding for Development of Future Vaccines

(p. A25) South Africa and India have petitioned the World Trade Organization to suspend some intellectual property protections from Covid-19 drugs, vaccines and diagnostic technologies. In support of the effort, Doctors Without Borders began a social media campaign urging governments to “put lives over profits,” warning of “pharma profiteering” and urging support for “#NoCovidMonopolies.”

. . .

Intellectual property rights, including patents, grant inventors a period of exclusivity to make and market their creations. By affording these rights to those who create intangible assets, such as musical compositions, software or drug formulas — people will invent more useful new things.

Development of a new medicine is risky and costly. Consider that scientists have spent decades — and billions of dollars — working on Alzheimer’s treatments, but still have little to show for it. The companies and investors who fund research shoulder so much risk because they have a shot at a reward. Once a patent expires, generic companies are free to produce the same product. Intellectual property rights underpin the system that gives us all new medicines, from psychiatric drugs to cancer treatments.

. . .

Eroding patent protections has far-reaching consequences.

Take “messenger RNA,” the technology platform that supports the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Ozlem Tureci and Ugur Sahin, the wife-and-husband team at the helm of BioNTech, began exploring the use of mRNA more than 25 years ago and founded their company in 2008. Theoretically, mRNA can instruct the body to engineer proteins, including ones that increase immunity against infectious pathogens, cancers and rare genetic conditions. But the Covid-19 vaccines are the first truly successful applications of this technology. Scientists eager to explore future uses of mRNA will struggle to find investment if intellectual property protections are snatched away when others deem it necessary.

For the full commentary, see:

Thomas Cueni. “The Risk in Suspending Vaccine Patent Rules.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 12, 2020): A25.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Dec. 10, 2020, and has the same title as the print version.)

Entrepreneur Roger’s Reward for Solving a Puzzle: “A Bigger and More Complicated Puzzle”

(p. C6) Growing up in Battle Ground, Wash., James Rogers wanted to be an inventor.

. . .

Some 25 years since those afternoons with his “invention journal,” Mr. Rogers, 35, is now promoting a scientific discovery that could improve the global food-supply chain. His company, Apeel, applies an edible, plant-based coating to fruits and vegetables that extends their shelf life without refrigeration.

Apeel-treated avocados, limes, apples and cucumbers are already in some of the largest grocery chains in the U.S. and Europe. The startup now plans to expand into markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America, thanks to a $30 million investment from the International Finance Corp., the World Bank’s private-sector arm. The company Mr. Rogers launched in 2012 as a Ph.D. student is now valued at more than $1 billion.

. . .

Mr. Rogers has had to prove that more time not only reduced waste but also boosted sales. According to the Edeka Group, which runs more than 11,000 grocery stores in Germany, a pilot launch of Apeel avocados in nearly 3,000 stores in 2020 resulted in 50% less waste and a 20% rise in sales. Edeka swiftly agreed to carry Apeel avocados, oranges and clementines across all of its stores.

. . .

Mr. Rogers had been a student all his life when he launched Apeel at age 27. Did his youth and inexperience create problems? “It may have helped,” he says. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I wasn’t overwhelmed.”

He has discovered, for example, that every fruit and vegetable has its own idiosyncratic supply chain, and Apeel works to pinpoint where time has the most value. He has also learned that delivering avocados to Europeans throughout the year means working with lots of different countries (Chile, Israel, Morocco, South Africa, etc.), each of which has its own unique supply chain, regulatory hurdles and distinct avocado.

“Working at a startup, you just have to really love puzzles,” he says. “Your reward for solving your current puzzle? A bigger and more complicated puzzle.”

For the full story, see:

Emily Bobrow. “WEEKEND CONFIDENTIAL; James Rogers.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 8, 2021, and has the title “WEEKEND CONFIDENTIAL; Apeel CEO James Rogers Wants to Extend the Shelf Life of Your Avocados and Oranges.”)

“Legions of Good People” Are Willing to Pay a Price “to Speak the Truth”

(p. A9) . . . in February 1986 . . . a presidential commission was investigating the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, which killed all seven crew members a few weeks earlier.

Mr. McDonald was an engineer for the maker of the solid-fuel booster rockets. During a hearing, he believed an official of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was glossing over a prelaunch debate on whether to proceed despite unusually cold temperatures in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Seated in the background, Mr. McDonald waved his hands for attention and then stood up. He told the commission that he and other engineers had warned that low temperatures might cause a failure of synthetic rubber O-ring seals in the rocket’s joints. The commission later found that such a failure was responsible for the explosion and that NASA had brushed aside a warning that could have saved the astronauts.

. . .

Mr. McDonald’s uninvited testimony was a shock to the commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan. In his memoir, “Truth, Lies and O-Rings,” the engineer recalled the reaction from William P. Rogers, chairman of the commission:

“Who in the hell are you?”

. . .

Mr. Rogers thanked Mr. McDonald and other engineers for giving their side of the story.

. . .

At work, however, Mr. McDonald was at times ostracized by colleagues who accused him of undermining the company’s aerospace business. Morton Thiokol moved him out of his space shuttle duties in what he considered a demotion.

. . .

“I never considered myself a hero for doing my job in the best manner that I knew how and telling the truth about it,” he wrote, adding that “there are legions of good people out there every day defending their professional opinions and willing to speak the truth at some risk to their own job security. They just haven’t been involved in such a high-profile news making event like me.”

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Engineer Exposed Space Shuttle Risks.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 3, 2021): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 30, 2021, and has the title “Rocket Engineer Blew the Whistle on NASA After the Challenger Disaster.”)

The McDonald memoir mentioned above is:

McDonald, Allan J., and James R. Hansen. Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2018..


Xi Jinping Only Pays “Mere Lip Service” to “Private Enterprise and Innovation”

(p. A23) Ant Group, China’s biggest fintech conglomerate, was preparing last November for its initial public offering. Analysts projected it would raise $34 billion, the largest sale of shares in history. The company, founded by Jack Ma, had become synonymous with financial innovations, which are often risky.

In the run-up to the I.P.O., Chinese regulators trying to assess financial risks on Ant’s books had been brushed off by Mr. Ma. In an audacious speech, he criticized regulators as too cautious and pilloried state-owned banks for their “pawnshop” mentality of providing loans only to borrowers who could post collateral.

Even oblique attacks on China’s government rarely go unpunished. This was a direct provocation. Yet such was Mr. Ma’s aura, and his apparent imperviousness to government strictures, that domestic and foreign investors were unconcerned.

. . .

Then it all fell apart. Two days before Ant’s shares were to begin trading on the Hong Kong and Shanghai exchanges, the government blocked the I.P.O.

. . .

It seemed that, in bringing the hammer down on the company, the government aimed to limit its growing economic and political power.

But in so doing, the government spooked investors. Suddenly, President Xi Jinping’s pledges to encourage private enterprise and innovation looked like mere lip service.

For the full commentary, see:

Eswar Prasad. “Jack Ma Paid for Taunting China.” The New York Times (Friday, April 30, 2021): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 28, 2021, and has the title “Jack Ma Taunted China. Then Came His Fall.”)

“If It’s Consensus, It Isn’t Science”

(p. C9) . . . science itself is not conducted by polls, regardless of how often we are urged to heed a “scientific consensus” on climate. As the science-trained novelist Michael Crichton summarized in a famous 2003 lecture at Caltech: “If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.” Mr. Koonin says much the same in “Unsettled.”

. . .

As for “denying,” Mr. Koonin makes it clear, on the book’s first page, that “it’s true that the globe is warming, and that humans are exerting a warming influence upon it.”

The heart of the science debate, however, isn’t about whether the globe is warmer or whether humanity contributed. The important questions are about the magnitude of civilization’s contribution and the speed of changes; and, derivatively, about the urgency and scale of governmental response. Mr. Koonin thinks most readers will be surprised at what the data show. I dare say they will.

As Mr Koonin illustrates, tornado frequency and severity are also not trending up; nor are the number and severity of droughts. The extent of global fires has been trending significantly downward. The rate of sea-level rise has not accelerated. Global crop yields are rising, not falling. And while global atmospheric CO2 levels are obviously higher now than two centuries ago, they’re not at any record planetary high—they’re at a low that has only been seen once before in the past 500 million years.

. . .

Mr. Koonin’s science credentials are impeccable—unlike, say, those of one well-known Swedish teenager to whom the media affords great attention on climate matters. He has been a professor of physics at Caltech and served as the top scientist in Barack Obama’s Energy Department. The book is copiously referenced and relies on widely accepted government documents.

. . .

Never have so many spent so much public money on the basis of claims that are so unsettled.

For the full review, see:

Mark P. Mills. “The ‘Consensus’ On Climate.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 26, 2021): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 25, 2021, and has the title “‘Unsettled’ Review: The ‘Consensus’ On Climate.”)

The book under review is:

Koonin, Steven E. Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2021.

Some Oil and Gas Landmen Seamlessly Transition to Being Wind and Solar Landmen

(p. A1) Carter Collum used to spend mornings shoulder to shoulder with competitors in the record rooms of East Texas courthouses, hunting for the owners of underground natural-gas deposits. At night, he made house calls, offering payments and royalties for permission to drill.

Mr. Collum worked as a landman, tracking the owners of oil and gas trapped in rock layers thousands of feet beneath the earth’s surface and getting their signatures, a job about as old as the American petroleum industry.

. . .

These days, the jobs are going dry. Landmen, after riding the highs of the boom, face weakened demand for fossil fuels and investor indifference to shale companies after years of poor returns. Instead of oil and gas (p. A10) fields, some landmen are securing wind and solar fields, spots where the sun shines brightest and the wind blows hardest.

The difference is shale wells eventually empty and, in good times, that keeps landmen on the prowl for new land and new contracts. Wind and solar energy never run out, limiting demand for new leases as well as landmen.

For the full story, see:

Rebecca Elliott. “Oil-and-Gas Landmen Now Hunt for Wind and Sun.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 19, 2021): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 18, 2021, and has the title “Landmen Who Once Staked Claims for Oil and Gas Now Hunt Wind and Sun.”)

Musk Confronts or Ignores Regulators Who Block Innovation

(p. A1) He’s become one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs by reinventing industries from electric cars to rockets. Along the way, he’s also rewritten the rules of engagement with U.S. regulators.

Elon Musk has emerged a winner in a series of run-ins with a range of regulatory agencies that have watched as he sidestepped rules or ignored enforcement attempts. He has overmatched an alphabet-soup of agencies that oversee financial markets and safety in the workplace, on highways and in space flight.

Most chief executives try to avoid regulators—or at least stay in their good graces. Many accused of overstepping have paid fines or agreed to make improvements.

Mr. Musk, revered by some investors for his iconoclastic approach, has taken a different tack on his way to becoming one of the richest men in the world, not letting regulations hinder his goals to revolutionize transportation with Tesla Inc.’s electric cars or colonize Mars using SpaceX rockets.

Federal agencies say he’s breaking the rules and endangering people. Mr. Musk (p. A10) says they’re holding back progress.

. . .

The Federal Aviation Administration criticized SpaceX for launching a rocket in December [2020] without a proper FAA license. Mr. Musk ridiculed the FAA space division in a tweet as “fundamentally broken.”

. . .

When asked to comment on the specifics of this article, Mr. Musk replied with a “poop” emoji. Asked to elaborate, Mr. Musk declined to provide any input on his interactions with federal agencies or his view toward regulation. In a tweet Tuesday, Mr. Musk said he agrees with regulators “99.9% of the time.” He added that when they disagree, it “is almost always due to new technologies that past regulations didn’t anticipate.”

. . .

After the FAA delayed a January [2021] test launch, Mr. Musk accused the agency of holding back progress and argued that its regulations were outdated. “Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities,” he tweeted on Jan. 28. “Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”

. . .

The National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that Tesla had violated U.S. labor law by hindering unionization and ordered Mr. Musk to delete a tweet discouraging employees from unionizing. Tesla this month appealed the decision, saying the NLRB’s ruling was “contrary to law.”

Mr. Musk’s tweet remains online. The NLRB declined to comment.

For the full story, see:

Ben Foldy, Rebecca Elliott, Susan Pulliam. “Elon Musk’s War With Regulators.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, April 29, 2021): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed years, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 28, 2021, and has the title “Elon Musk’s War on Regulators.”)

“The Bad Boy of Silicon Valley” Advises We “Do Nothing and Let the Invisible Hand Fix the Problem Free of Charge”

The author of the comments quoted below was the founder and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor Corporation.

(p. A17) In the late 1970s cars became computerized. My first Silicon Valley employer, American Microsystems, once “lost the recipe” and cut off the supply of memory chips to a Lincoln Continental plant. Without our chips, cars couldn’t be started. Ford later dropped us as a vendor, the penalty for shutting down an auto plant.

Soon the automotive industry created an extensive repertoire of reliability and sourcing qualifications that prevented many such problems but also mired the industry in bureaucracy. Today, the qualification process for a new chip vendor takes 18 to 24 months or more. That’s why automotive companies can’t simply buy a scarce chip from another vendor in a crunch to keep the lines running.

. . .

Auto companies slashed their chip orders at the pandemic’s outset, and supply responded accordingly. But when auto demand surprised everybody by staying strong, and auto makers suddenly needed more chips, the semiconductor industry couldn’t respond quickly enough. Even with robotic factories, it takes 12 weeks on average to make a silicon wafer—longer if advanced processes are required—and that’s before back-end assembly and shipping around the world. President Biden says he is “studying” supply chains, but every knowledgeable person in the industry knows that politics and subsidies are irrelevant. The market players will fill this chip shortage before the Democrats and Republicans finish arguing about whose fault it is.

. . .

There is no need to give taxpayers’ money to some of the smartest and richest corporations in the world. Chip companies thrive in free markets and barely survive in controlled economies. This message shouldn’t be controversial, but in 1991 my distaste for pork-barrel spending got me labeled “The Bad Boy of Silicon Valley” on the cover of BusinessWeek. My proposed solution to the current chip problem? Do nothing and let the invisible hand fix the problem free of charge.

For the full commentary, see:

T.J. Rodgers. “Government Won’t Fix Chip Shortage.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, April 29, 2021): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 28, 2021, and has the title “Government Won’t Fix the Semiconductor Shortage.”)

Hundreds of Thousands at Risk From Blackouts That Shut Off Air Conditioning

(p. A15) Because both heat waves and blackouts are becoming more frequent, “the probability of a concurrent heat wave and blackout event is very likely rising as well,” Dr. Stone said.

So Dr. Stone, along with a team of eight other researchers — from Georgia Tech, Arizona State, the University of Michigan and the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada — set out to gauge the human health consequences when power failures coincide with heat waves.

. . .

Crucially, the researchers wanted to know how hot the insides of homes would get under those conditions — something that Dr. Stone said had never been tried before.

. . .

The results were alarming. In Atlanta, more than 350,000 people, or about 70 percent of residents, would be exposed to indoor temperatures equal to or greater than 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the level at which the National Weather Service’s heat classification index says heat exhaustion and heat stroke are possible.

In Detroit, more than 450,000, or about 68 percent, would be exposed to that indoor temperature. In Phoenix, where a vast majority of residents rely on air-conditioning, the entire population would be at risk — almost 1.7 million people.

Even without a blackout, some residents in each city lack access to air-conditioning, exposing those residents to dangerous indoor temperatures during a heat wave. Those numbers range from 1,000 people in Phoenix to 50,000 in Detroit, based on the characteristics of their homes, the authors found.

That exposure is most pronounced for the lowest-income households, who are 20 percent less likely to have central air-conditioning than the highest-income households.

For the full story, see:

Christopher Flavelle. “Blackouts Are Growing Threat to U.S. Cities.” The New York Times (Tuesday, May 4, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 5, 2021, and has the title “A New, Deadly Risk for Cities in Summer: Power Failures During Heat Waves.”)

The research co-authored by Stone and mentioned above was described in:

Stone, Brian, Jr., Evan Mallen, Mayuri Rajput, Carina J. Gronlund, Ashley M. Broadbent, E. Scott Krayenhoff, Godfried Augenbroe, Marie S. O’Neill, and Matei Georgescu. “Compound Climate and Infrastructure Events: How Electrical Grid Failure Alters Heat Wave Risk.” Environmental Science & Technology (published online in advance of print on April 30, 2021).

Maple “Sugaring Is a Sticky Business,” but Has Low Barriers to Entry and Is Highly Scalable

If you were a long-term maple sugarer, you might have expected the pandemic to boost your business. People at home under stress would be likely eat a lot of comfort food. And you would have been right about that–the average American has gained more pounds than usual over the pandemic. But as you were congratulating yourself for your foresight, you might have noticed that the supply of maple sugar was increasing because many staying at home during the pandemic decided that collecting maple sap outdoors was a safe, relaxing, and edifying way to bond during a pandemic.

Who can foresee all of the exogenous events, and the decisions of others, that will influence the success or failure of our dreams? The best we can do is to be broadly curious, to be always alert, and to make nimble adjustments. (A great relevant book is Adner’s The Wide Lens.)

(p. D4) Stress-baking and panic shopping. Vegetable regrowing and crafting. Now we can add another hobby to a year of quarantine trends: backyard maple sugaring.

Among the many indicators that it’s on the rise: a run on at-home evaporators and other syrup-making accouterments. A surge in traffic and subscriptions to maple-syrup-making websites and trade publications. And, of course, lots and lots of documentation on social media. (The Facebook group Backyard Maple Syrup Makers added some 5,000 members, almost doubling the number of people in its community, in the past year.)

Tapping maple trees and boiling the sap into syrup — known as sugaring — isn’t a new hobby. What’s unique about this year is the influx of suburban and urban backyard adventurers fueling these maple sugaring highs.

. . .

Because sugaring is a sticky business — and boiling sap indoors can mean resin all over the walls — many backyard amateurs turn to small-scale, hobby-size evaporators like the ones sold by Vermont Evaporator Company in Montpelier, Vt. The company said its number of customers had doubled in the past year.

. . .

Peter Gregg, the founder of The Maple News and the maple sugaring classifieds, The Maple Trader, isn’t surprised that sugaring supplies have been selling out. He saw his print subscription increase over 14 percent, he said, and his website traffic increase by 50 percent this year — a quite uncommon phenomenon for a maple-themed newspaper.

“The biggest sugarers in Vermont started in their backyards,” Mr. Gregg said. “Sugaring is great because you can start out doing it in your kitchen but you get the bug and you keep growing and growing, adding more and more taps, buying more and more equipment, and trying to get bigger and more efficient.”

For the full story, see:

Colman, Michelle Sinclair. “Maple Syrup Making Also Boomed as a Pandemic Hobby.” The New York Times (Thursday, April 8, 2021): D4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 7, 2021, and has the same title as the print version. Where the wording in the online version differs from the wording in the print version, the passages quoted above follow the print version.)

The Adner book that I mention above is:

Adner, Ron. The Wide Lens: A New Strategy for Innovation. New York: Portfolio, 2012.

Deregulation of Hearing Aids Will Lower Cost and Increase Innovation

(p. B5) Hearing aids typically cost thousands of dollars, require multiple visits to specialists and often aren’t covered by health insurance. Untreated hearing loss is associated with cognitive decline, dementia and other harms. Overcoming barriers to hearing treatment may significantly improve Americans’ health.

The federal government is poised to help. Congress in 2017 passed legislation that would let anyone buy hearing aids approved by the Food and Drug Administration without a prescription from an audiologist. The F.D.A. has missed a deadline to release draft guidelines for this new category of over-the-counter hearing aids.

Experts told me that when the F.D.A. moves ahead, it’s likely to lead to new products and ideas to change hearing aids as we know them.

. . .

It is already possible to buy a hearing helper — they can’t legally be called hearing aids — without a prescription. These devices, called personal sound amplification products or PSAPs, vary wildly in quality from excellent to junk.

. . .

Nicholas Reed, director of audiology at the Johns Hopkins Cochlear Center for Hearing and Public Health, told me that the F.D.A. process should provide a path for the best PSAPs to be approved as official over-the-counter hearing aids. He expects new companies to hit the market, too.

You may doubt that a gadget you buy next to the toilet paper at CVS could be a serious medical device. Dr. Reed’s research, however, has found that some hearing helpers for $350 or less were almost as good as prescription hearing aids for people with mild-to-moderate hearing loss.

Dr. Reed described the best lower-cost devices as the Hyundai of hearing help. (This was a compliment.) They aren’t flashy, but they will get many people safely and effectively where they need to go. He also imagines that the F.D.A. rules will create the conditions for many more people to buy hearing aids — both over the counter and by prescription.

. . .

Health care in the United States can often feel as if it’s stuck, and technology is usually not the solution. But with hearing aids, technology and a change in government policy could bring helpful health innovation.

For the full commentary, see:

Shira Ovide. “ON TECH; Affordable and Accessible Hearing Aids.” The New York Times (Monday, April 19, 2021): B5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 12, 2021, and has the title “ON TECH; Hearing Aids for the Masses.”)

Reed’s research mentioned above is documented in:

Reed, Nicholas S., Joshua Betz, Nicole Kendig, Margaret Korczak, and Frank R. Lin. “Personal Sound Amplification Products Vs a Conventional Hearing Aid for Speech Understanding in Noise.” JAMA 318, no. 1 (July 4, 2017): 89-90.