Aug 7, 2021 - Technology

COVID vaccines show the promise — and limits — of technofixes

Illustration of a syringe with a wrench at the end

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

COVID-19 vaccines are about as effective as a single technological solution to a major threat can be — and our struggles to adopt and distribute the shots demonstrate their limits.

Why it matters: The pandemic is just one of many global challenges we'll face in the years ahead, but technofixes alone can't save us without a supportive social and political structure.

The big picture: Amid rising concern about the Delta variant's rapid spread and greatly increased infectiousness, it's worth remembering just how far we've come since the start of 2021.

  • In early January, the U.S. was averaging around 250,000 new COVID-19 cases every day, and more than 3,000 people a day were dying.
  • Our only ability to slow the spread involved socially and economically cumbersome strategies like shutdowns, social distancing and ubiquitous masking — little different from how we would have fought a pandemic a century ago.

Fast forward to August. Even with the Delta surge, cases and especially deaths and hospitalizations are vastly down from the winter peak — and it's almost entirely thanks to the effectiveness of the vaccines.

  • If you want to see how difficult it is to crush COVID-19 without widespread vaccination, look at Australia — vaccinated at less than 16% and back in lockdown — though you'd likely need to watch from a distance, as its borders remain effectively shut even to its expats.

Be smart: A vaccine as effective as the COVID-19 shots represents the ultimate example of a technofix — a fire-and-forget solution that solves a complex problem without the need for difficult social and political tradeoffs.

  • Or at least it might, if authorities could convince all eligible Americans to actually take the shots, and if they could organize an equitable distribution that would get vaccines to the billions of people still waiting.
  • Governors and legislators in some red states have banned vaccine mandates, taking off the table one of the best tools to improve uptake.
  • The result of those social and political failures is unnecessary illness and death and a higher chance SARS-CoV-2 will mutate into more dangerous variants. Plus, poorer countries have an estimated 270 million people — up from 150 million before the pandemic — who are facing life-threatening food shortages.

Yes, but: Technologies are never deployed in a vacuum.

  • "We have this idea of technology as a silver bullet, rather than something more prosaic, one tool among many," Alexa Hagerty, former research associate at Cambridge University's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, said on a recent panel. "But technology doesn't just travel solo."
  • Even the best vaccines in the world — and the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines can plausibly lay claim to that title — will be hobbled if political divisions and social distrust mean millions of people refuse to take them, and if geopolitics prevent them from even reaching those who need them most.

Between the lines: The troubled rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines should give us pause before we count on similar technofixes to bail us out of future threats — especially since few of them will be as amenable to a single technological solution as a pandemic.

  • Climate change is the ultimate example of a global challenge that will likely require extreme technological fixes — think technology to capture carbon from the air or even solar geoengineering — but will still depend on hard political and social choices.
  • Disinformation online can be partially addressed through better AI screening, but the deeper challenges lay in defusing a social environment that has led so many people to believe things that are so false — and no technology invented yet can do that.

The bottom line: Even the most effective technofixes are dependent on the social and political environment in which they're deployed.

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