Discover more from unicorn chats
🦄 vol. 11
matt and sash chat about vaccine development and instagram's impact on teen mental health
more than a jab 💉
Vaccines are a marvel of modern medicine, and for close to two hundred years, we've made remarkable progress that has seen us significantly limit and even eradicate disease. And so when SARS-CoV-2 was identified in a cluster of patients with pneumonia in Wuhan province, the world called for a vaccine and science clamoured to find it.
Vaccine development 🔬🧪
...is notoriously difficult and costly too. Typically, a vaccine takes 10 years to develop and ends up costing close to $500 million. Even more alarmingly, vaccine development has a 94% failure rate. Science is expensive, and not really designed to move at breakneck pace. Prior to those created to fight the pandemic, the fastest vaccine ever developed was for mumps, which took just less than 4 years. So for Pfizer/BioNTech, J&J and Moderna to have produced vaccines in less than year is the equivalent of Roger Bannister's four-minute mile.
But this isn't about covid 🦠
Scientists sometimes get lucky. For one, viagra was first created (by Pfizer) as a means to treat cardiovascular issues, until trial participants were all found to have a common side effect and now that's what we use it for. There's a (slight) parallel in the vaccine development efforts during the pandemic and the potential second order effects of it.
(Re)enter mRNA vaccine technology 💉
Historically, vaccines typically have live or attenuated (weakened) pathogens that are immunogenic (generate an immune response). This, and what follows, is a gross over-simplification, but immunology is incredibly complex and I've got a word count to stick to.
mRNA vaccines, while they have existed for close to 30 years, re-emerged as a potential panacea for the pandemic for a host of reasons. To understand the promise, one needs to have a basic grasp of the mechanism of action.
Traditional vaccines present a pathogen to the body, after which it's broken down and processed, before an immune response is launched through the creation of antibodies. mRNA vaccines differ as they serve as instructions for the immune system to make microbial proteins, bypassing the breakdown and processing, to just provide a blueprint for harmless microbial proteins to which the body mounts a response. In the setting of COVID-19, the spike protein is the microbial component that was isolated.
The two properties that provide hope in this pandemic (and future ones):
Speed of manufacturing 💨 means a that mRNA vaccines can be produced in a few minutes versus months in traditional vaccines (obviously not including testing and clinical trials). This means rapid responses in the future and the ability to test and iterate.
Ease of editing 🔧 is particularly important in pandemics (with variants for every letter of the Greek alphabet). Scientists are able to edit the mRNA sequence specifically, as opposed to engineering microbial proteins from scratch.
The future implications ⏩
...are super promising too, and the impact goes far beyond this pandemic.
Moderna, the biotech start-up based out of Boston, is set to begin a clinical trial for an mRNA HIV vaccine in the coming days. For years, a vaccine for HIV has evaded scientists, with J&J's Imbokodo trial recently joining the list of failed attempts. And while gains in anti-retroviral treatment have seen HIV become a manageable chronic illness, the scientific community is still set on creating a vaccine.
Beyond pandemics, mRNA technology may provide promise in cancer treatment too. BioNTech have released promising pre-clinical results in mice with colon cancer and melanoma treated with mRNA cancer therapeutics. This, coupled with earlier detection (remember vol. 8?), may signal the start of a new age in cancer treatment.
A word on profits 💰
It would be remiss of us to think that vaccine companies were driving research and development efforts out of a sense of altruism but we'll save that for another Monday.
The Great Hack (documentary) was the source of much public debate when it initially dropped. One of its key elements (that I really wish they had unpacked further) is the impact of social media on users’ mental health, especially for kids and young adults. Personally, I don’t feel like this is a topic that is being discussed enough in the public domain.
Trigger warning: depression; suicide
Mental health: South Africa’s real pandemic? 🤯
For context, it’s really important to understand the current climate that we’re living in. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) recently released these alarming findings:
9% of all teen deaths are due to suicide
Suicide is the second most common cause of death in people aged 15 to 29, with some children as young as 6 having been deemed suicidal
~31% of students had thoughts of suicide in the past 12 months
Depression and suicide are understandably incredibly sensitive (and complex) topics. No two people (and their experiences) are the same. But I’d ask whether we, as a society, are doing enough to tackle some of the known causes of depression in young people?
Instagram (knowingly) harms mental health 😶
Around 2 weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an explosive exposé detailing how Facebook has repeatedly found (through its own research 🤯 ) that its Instagram app is harmful to teenagers. Here are some of the mind-blowing (leaked) findings that top Facebook execs have been privy to:
Among teens who reported suicidal thoughts, 13% of British users and 6% of American users traced the issue to Instagram
32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse
14% of boys in the U.S. said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves
Mosseri’s response 😕
Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram, was featured on the Recode Media Podcast and said the following:
“Anything that is going to be used at scale is going to have positive and negative outcomes. Cars have positive and negative outcomes. More people die than would otherwise because of car accidents, but by and large, cars create way more value in the world than they destroy. I think social media is similar”
To continue with this analogy, I’d then ask why are there no learner’s and driver’s licenses for social media?
FYI: Facebook has since been summoned to testify in front of the U.S. Senate.
Protective measures? 🤔
Naturally, parents should be wondering how they can protect their kids...
👶 “Kid-friendly” platforms: We’ve seen the roll out of YouTube Kids and Instagram is rumoured to be building a kid-friendly platform for under 13s (the age group that previously couldn’t use Instagram to start with 🧐 )
🕵️♀️ Surveillance: There are various apps that parents / guardians can use to monitor and limit kids’ mobile activity
🇨🇳 The Chinese (extreme) approach: China has taken a firmer stance on these types of issues. We’ve already seen a government ban on kids playing video games during the week (mental health being one of the contributing reasons) and we’ve seen ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) announce daily time limitations on its platform for kids under the age of 14
Tip of the iceberg? 😲
The question still remains: What measures are being put in place for teens and young adults? The responsibility should surely lie with the social media platforms themselves. And given these alarming findings, I’d like to see Facebook take the lead in addressing this issue.
matt enjoyed this pod that covered fireproof homes, amazon’s college plan and facebook’s mimicking of snap
sash enjoyed this thread on apple, nike and coca cola’s great copywriting
All opinions and views expressed belong to the individuals concerned.