Innovation waits for its Covid moment

Even before David Evans and his colleagues at the University of Alberta’s Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology scored a major publication in the journal PLoS One in 2018, members of the scientific community pilloried their efforts. There was nothing wrong with the technical calibre of their work — which successfully demonstrated new techniques for reconstructing an extinct version of smallpox — but for more than a year, critics in high-profile perches like Science and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists insisted that the published result would amount to nothing less than a blueprint for bioterrorists to bring new diseases into the world

Flash forward a few years, and such complaints could no longer be heard. Far from being regarded as irresponsible, Evans’ team was welcomed into the ranks of global shock troops rallied to find a vaccine for Covid-19. The tools they had developed were making it possible take apart proteins in the newly discovered coronavirus and look for potential vaccine candidates.

Meanwhile, the company that had originally contracted Evans for this work, New York-based Tonix Pharmaceuticals, fared even better. They had originally wanted to develop an improved smallpox vaccine, but after Covid appeared, Tonix became one of the few firms in the world with the ability to employ viruses to deliver a vaccine to another virus. And while a smallpox-free world may not really need another smallpox vaccine, in 2020 the company’s CEO and Evans published a follow-up paper, where they pointed out that these molecular tools will come in handy for another threat that would not rear its head until 2022 — monkeypox.

Such extended academic episodes fly below the radar of most mainstream media accounts, which generally treat these debates as little more than inside baseball for eggheads. But they are well worth unpacking as a useful reminder that context matters. “Yesterday’s bioterrorism tool builds today’s medical marvel” might never have made it as a headline, but that simple narrative sums up the arc of this work from the University of Alberta. For Evans, the science never changed, only the way it was being publicly perceived.

Two other embattled platform technologies are getting their own image makeover. Last week’s Short Report indicated that Canada’s Stem Cell Network would be spending an unprecedented $22.4 million on 32 projects over the next three years. Among those projects is a human clinical trial of a new treatment for Type 1 diabetes, based on a medical implant of pancreatic cell made from stem cells that have been genetically modified to avoid being targeted by the immune system. Stem cells and genetic manipulation have both encountered their fair share of public skepticism, but if together they can change the lives of diabetics, it should buy these innovations some good will.

On the other hand, good will may not be enough if good policy does not follow. In the current issue of Innovation This Week, veteran labour analyst Jim Stanford cites the harm done to Canadian workers because businesses are not embracing automation. Robots, once seen as stealing jobs away from us, are now understood to be the real key to “working smarter, not harder”. Machines will not replace us, but actually allow us to become better at what we do, possibly even giving us some of that leisure time we were promised way back when.

The real challenge now is convincing everyone — employers and employees alike — that those expensive, still-scary robots are a worthwhile investment. Business tax breaks that were expected to free up the necessary capital did not do the trick, so the report recommends incentive-based strategies that will make it more enticing to acquire new technology. As the report makes clear, the alternative is already apparent, and unpleasant. In places where such policies have encouraged the uptake of this equipment, enterprises are operating far more efficiently than their Canadian counterparts. In other words, robots in those places are now enjoying their own moment of Covid-style vindication, while their Canadian counterparts are still waiting.