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How We Can Judge the Safety and Efficacy of New Vaccines Prior to Phase III Data and Why We Must – Article by Dan Elton

How We Can Judge the Safety and Efficacy of New Vaccines Prior to Phase III Data and Why We Must – Article by Dan Elton

Daniel C. Elton, Ph.D.


A common refrain we hear from public intellectuals about vaccines prior to Phase III data is “we don’t know anything about the safety or efficacy of vaccine X”. This attitude is both false and misleading to the public, instilling uncertainty and fear about vaccines. To see why it is false, consider if a normal vaccine safety study was done, but by coincidence all of the vaccines were given in hospital rooms that were painted blue. Could we conclude on the basis of such a study whether the vaccine would be safe if administered in rooms painted red? Yes, we can, and we should. We can utilize two forms of reasoning to conclude that the vaccine is safe if given in red rooms, even though we have no data on the matter.

The first form of reasoning roughly approximates the way an ideal Bayesian statistical reasoner would function to compute what is called a “prior probability distribution”. Under this form of reasoning, we consider the millions of doses of similar vaccines (called the “reference class”) that have been administered. For instance, we might consider the vaccines developed for very similar coronaviruses like SARS and MERS.  We note that if the color of paint did affect the safety of those vaccines, this would have likely been detected over the course of prior studies and over the course of millions of doses given previously. Of course, there is a chance the correlation might have been missed. To figure out how big that is, we can go a level deeper and consider a reference class of “things people might notice or fail to notice in medical studies”. We can conclude that for prior vaccines, if such correlations existed they would generally be picked up. On the basis of this and the fact that no such correlation was ever discovered in the reference class of prior vaccines we can conclude that the probability of vaccines like the COVID-19 vaccine being dependent on the color of paint is very small. 

The second type of reasoning, which happens to be much more straightforward in this situation, is what the physicist David Deutsch calls “reasoning from our best explanation of the world”. According to the philosopher of science Karl Popper, we should reason using our explanatory theories of the world which have survived the most rounds of attempted falsification, and which have the highest degree of falsifiability (this rules out non-testable explanations like “vaccines work via invisible ghosts”). In more prosaic terms, this simply means reasoning using the best scientific theories which make predictions in the domain under consideration. We note that our best theories of vaccine function do not anywhere depend on the color of paint in the room. Instead they depend on things like T-cells, binding affinities of molecules, the concentrations of certain molecules in the body, etc. So, we decide that the vaccine is safe regardless of the color of paint in the room where it is administered. 

Both of these forms of reasoning are valid and both are foundational to science, rationality, and human progress. Both of these types of reasoning can be used to say that vaccines under development are likely to be safe and effective before any data comes in. It’s why a reporter who interviewed numerous top scientists reported that they all told him that “they expected the vaccines were safe and effective all along.” Yet instead of proudly sharing this important knowledge with the public, we rarely hear scientists say publicly that they expect the vaccines are safe and efficacious. Instead, they hedge, saying “we have to wait until the data comes in”. This is unethical both on Kantian grounds (they are lying) and on consequentialist grounds, because it leads to undue caution and the public being afraid of vaccines. 

Unfortunately, there is little incentive for scientists to tell the truth about what the likely risks and benefits are with new vaccines before full Phase III data is published. If, for instance, one or two people suffer severe side effects in a Phase III trial (which is rare, but has happened) a scientist who said they suspected it was “very safe” might receive harsh criticism for making a premature assessment. On the other hand, the same scientist will get no pushback for saying “we need to wait for data to make a judgement”. Indeed, they are likely to even be praised for exhibiting the virtues of “caution, prudence, and scientific skepticism”. Moreover, under no scenario should someone be allowed to get a vaccine until the full data comes in, even though it’s fine to allow people to sign up for studies where they have a 50-50 chance of getting the vaccine. Not very consistent, eh?

As US Transhumanist Party Chairman Gennady Stolyarov II has described in detail in an an earlier publication on this site, all of this is the result of a deeply flawed and deadly ethical principle called the precautionary principle, which unfortunately many people have fallen under the sway of. The principle originates in the environmentalist movement but is widely applied in medicine, and was instrumental in decisions such as the Bush administration’s ban on stem-cell research and decisions to ban life-saving GMO technologies such as golden rice. It has been formulated to varying degrees in several different ways. The United Nations World Charter for Nature (1982) issued one version of the principle, stating: 

Activities which are likely to pose a significant risk to nature shall be preceded by an exhaustive examination; their proponents shall demonstrate that expected benefits outweigh potential damage to nature, and where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, the activities should not proceed. 

The principle starts off OK but dives into serious error in the last line. The issue is that the precautionary principle only focuses on the potential adverse effects of proceeding and ignores the potential adverse effects of not proceeding, i.e., the effects of delay. As should now be clear in the case of the COVID-19 vaccines, not proceeding can sometimes be much more deadly than proceeding! There is often a high but unclear risk to not proceeding, and a low but unclear risk to not proceeding. (Picture two probability distributions, both wide (unclear) but one with a mean that is distinctly higher than the other). That’s where the precautionary principle throws expected utility theory (cost-benefit analysis) out and says we cannot proceed. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Freeman Dyson stated the issue as follows: 

The Precautionary Principle says that if some course of action carries even a remote chance of irreparable damage to the ecology, then you shouldn’t do it, no matter how great the possible advantages of the action may be. You are not allowed to balance costs against benefits when deciding what to do.” — Freeman Dyson, Report from the 2001 World Economic Forum

Imagine an alternative world in which our society and government was not under the sway of the precautionary principle. In this alternative world, scientists would give their truthful assessment of new vaccines to the public, stating that they are likely safe and effective, using one or both of the reasoning methods mentioned above. In such a world, given the clear potential harms of inaction, the public would be allowed to purchase new vaccines if they wanted, if the companies manufacturing them were comfortable doing so, and if they were fully informed prior to their decision that they were taking an unapproved product that carries potential risks but also potential benefits. Initially, only a few people would purchase the vaccines, perhaps on the basis of Phase I results. These would be folks like those who injected themselves with a DIY vaccine over the summer, and the tens of thousands who were willing to participate in clinical trials as early as last spring. Companies would be incentivized to survey those who took the vaccine and collect self-reported data on their outcomes, which is very cheap and easy to do. After a few months going by without any of those people keeling over and dying, and with very few (likely none) of those people getting hospitalized for COVID-19, more people would feel comfortable getting the vaccine. Things would quickly snowball, with more and more people becoming willing to get the vaccine. During this time the distribution system would have been stood up and become operational, with on-site stockpiles building up ahead of the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (currently, the FDA does not allow hospitals to stockpile unapproved vaccines ahead of their EUA). To present this case in its strongest form, in a future post I plan to estimate how many lives would have been saved, assuming many vaccines had become available to those who wanted them last March or August. However, I hope it’s easy to see that thousands of lives would have been saved in this alternative world.  

For more on the transhumanist alternative to the precautionary principle, the proactionary principle, see Max More’s excellent book chapter as well as the Wikipedia article and references therein.

Dan Elton, Ph. D., is Director of Scholarship for the U.S. Transhumanist Party.  You can find him on Twitter at @moreisdifferent, where he accepts direct messages. 

Reject the Deadly Precautionary Principle: Approve All COVID-19 Vaccines Immediately! – Article by Gennady Stolyarov II

Reject the Deadly Precautionary Principle: Approve All COVID-19 Vaccines Immediately! – Article by Gennady Stolyarov II

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Gennady Stolyarov II


It should be a mild relief that vaccination efforts against COVID-19 are finally beginning in the United States, but they are beginning eleven months too late, while the pandemic surrounds us and most of us must wait months longer to receive vaccinations. Over 300,000 Americans have already died needlessly and preventably from COVID-19; hundreds of thousands more are likely to die in the coming months, even though the exact same vaccine from Moderna that is even today still undergoing Food and Drug Administration (FDA) review already existed in its current form by January 13, 2020. As David Wallace-Wells writes in New York Magzine, in an article entitled “We Had the Vaccine the Whole Time” (dated December 7, 2020):

You may be surprised to learn that of the trio of long-awaited coronavirus vaccines, the most promising, Moderna’s mRNA-1273, which reported a 94.5 percent efficacy rate on November 16, had been designed by January 13. This was just two days after the genetic sequence had been made public in an act of scientific and humanitarian generosity that resulted in China’s Yong-Zhen Zhang’s being temporarily forced out of his lab. In Massachusetts, the Moderna vaccine design took all of one weekend. It was completed before China had even acknowledged that the disease could be transmitted from human to human, more than a week before the first confirmed coronavirus case in the United States. By the time the first American death was announced a month later, the vaccine had already been manufactured and shipped to the National Institutes of Health for the beginning of its Phase I clinical trial. This is — as the country and the world are rightly celebrating — the fastest timeline of development in the history of vaccines. It also means that for the entire span of the pandemic in this country, which has already killed more than 250,000 Americans, we had the tools we needed to prevent it.

As has been demonstrated time and again during this pandemic, scientists and doctors have been the true heroes in their rapid and immensely creative responses, whereas institutions and their processes have failed massively, and our egregiously broken society and culture have precipitated abysmal mass-scale reactions and behaviors as well. But the major reason why now almost 300,000 Americans died who did not need to die at all, is the Precautionary Principle – a cornerstone of contemporary “bioethics” which is, in fact, deeply unethical. The Precautionary Principle is the fundamental reason why new medical treatments, including vaccines, are required in the United States to undergo extensive safety and efficacy testing before they are allowed to be provided to patients, even willing patients who may knowingly accept the risks of experimental medicines. Essentially, unless safety and efficacy can be rigorously demonstrated first, along with a sufficient lack of adverse consequences, adherents of the Precautionary Principle believe that no action should be taken to implement an innovation. Those who espouse the Precautionary Principle completely ignore, of course, the costs and risks of inaction – which, in the case of a global pandemic, can be measured in more than 1.62 million lives worldwide, but which have also resulted in far greater numbers of deaths from more “routine” otherwise terminal illnesses, whose victims might have been saved by new treatments whose approval the FDA delayed, sometimes for a decade or more while billions of dollars were spent on hyper-expensive efficacy testing.

While laudable efforts were made in the United States to greatly accelerate the review timeframe for COVID-19 vaccines – hence the now well-known “Operation Warp Speed” – those efforts did not come in time for the hundreds of thousands who died and the hundreds of millions who now live in fear of death every day as the pandemic’s spread has become all-encompassing. Cutting the approval timeline from the typical unconscionable 4-5 years to 9 months is an improvement, but not nearly enough. Much more should have been done right away. Approval for the vaccines should have been granted as soon as they were developed, and instead of putting review roadblocks in the way, governments should have actively aided in vaccine production and distribution of all serious candidate vaccines from day one.

While New York Magazine’s David Wallace-Wells made the seemingly obligatory (during this tragically precautionary era) disclaimer that “To be clear, I don’t want to suggest that Moderna should have been allowed to roll out its vaccine in February or even in May, when interim results from its Phase I trial demonstrated its basic safety” (and Wallace-Wells still faced considerable vitriol for the quite modest observations he sought to make) – I do want to suggest exactly that. Indeed, I would go further and insist that it was a moral imperative to approve and facilitate the mass production and distribution of vaccines such as Moderna’s mRNA-1273 to willing members of the general population as soon as those vaccines were available.

Transhumanists reject the Precautionary Principle and instead follow the Proactionary Principle, which, per the description of Max More (Extropy Institute, 2004), “urges all parties to actively take into account all the consequences of an activity – good as well as bad – while apportioning precautionary measures to the real threats we face, in the context of an appreciation of the crucial role played by technological innovation and humanity’s evolving ability to adapt to and remedy any undesirable side-effects.” The Proactionary Principle does not ignore the potential for adverse consequences of an activity, but recognizes that there are situations when the benefits can greatly outweigh any potential adverse effects.

Imagine how, in an alternate history, a Transhumanist administration would have dealt with the COVID-19 crisis. Suppose, for instance, that Zoltan Istvan had been elected President in 2016 and thus was the President who faced the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Or suppose that Charlie Kam, the U.S. Transhumanist Party (USTP) Presidential nominee in 2020, had held the country’s highest executive office. The U.S. Transhumanist Party Platform contains 21 sections specifically addressing COVID-19 responses – proposals that were adopted by USTP members in late March 2020, and would have saved most of the lives of the COVID-19 victims had they been expeditiously implemented by governments. These proposals, indeed, are applications of the Proactionary Principle to the COVID-19 pandemic. Section CIII of the USTP Platform specifically states that “The United States Transhumanist Party supports the rapid research into effective cures and vaccines for COVID-19 and the harnessing of synergies from this research to also develop a cure for the common cold and more effective vaccination against influenza. Such research should proceed with no barriers, subject to the researchers’ expression of ethical intentions, and any regulations or processes that would delay the progress of such research should be immediately waived or repealed. In the effort to accelerate progress in this field, the United States Transhumanist Party advocates for an immediate $100 billion funding package for the rapid development of a COVID-19 vaccine, with all volunteers being accepted into human trials as soon as practicable.”

This is exactly what would have been done by a Transhumanist administration with the Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and any other vaccines, including do-it-yourself experiments such as that undertaken by Josiah Zayner. The Transhumanist administration would have asked the vaccine developer one question: “Do you intend to apply this candidate vaccine in an ethical manner when offering it to the general public?” After giving an affirmative answer to that question, the vaccine developer would have the full legal right to test, give away, or sell its product to any volunteers capable of giving informed consent – provided that the recipients understood that the vaccine was experimental and had not passed the typical safety and/or efficacy tests. Receiving any vaccine would always remain entirely voluntary. Individuals who were uncertain or concerned about side effects – or even motivated by pseudoscientific, anti-scientific, or religious objections – would maintain the right not to get vaccinated. However, those who chose to get vaccinated would be shown clearly and quickly to have far lower incidence of COVID-19, and the statistical disparity in infection rates between the vaccinated and the un-vaccinated would grow too large in just a few months for reasonable people to ignore. Those who become vaccinated would be free to lead their everyday lives and participate in economic activities as usual, and massive disruptions to the economy and to people’s livelihoods would have been completely avoidable. The multifaceted advantages of vaccination under this approach would become abundantly clear in a relatively short time.

Testing would not be eliminated by the Transhumanist administration. Indeed, it would be accelerated and fully funded via the $100 billion emergency package (and likely via other resources as well), so that vaccine developers would need to pay absolutely nothing out of pocket for any compliance with testing protocols. However, testing would occur in parallel with mass distribution of the vaccines, and as much data as possible would be collected from vaccine recipients in the general population, to greatly augment the samples of tested patients. If any specific side effects manifested themselves in a statistically significant portion of the population, protocols for administering the vaccine would be adjusted in real time. For example, if a specific group of people were found to be particularly vulnerable to certain side effects, members of that group would quickly receive additional disclosures and warnings and would be able to make informed decisions in light of this information.

Could there conceivably be adverse side effects or even deaths of certain patients under this approach of mass distribution in parallel with testing? Of course, that is a possibility. However, the scale of such side effects and deaths would surely be orders of magnitude less than the all-encompassing devastation that the current sequential review-and-approval process has allowed to happen. So far nobody has died specifically from any COVID-19 vaccine. At least 1.62 million people in the world have died from COVID-19. Numerous others have died because of the fallout of the restrictive measures taken to contain the spread of COVID-19. Even if the vaccines had been far more dangerous than they actually are, it is absolutely impossible for them to have caused anywhere near the death toll inflicted by the disease itself and the societal havoc that it and responses to it have wreaked. This basic insight, whose evidence is all around us, is precisely what the Precautionary Principle misses. By placing all of the burden of proof on the innovation, the Precautionary Principle gives a free pass to the wantonly murderous status quo. Inaction is not safety. Inaction is quite frequently the greatest danger – and at no time is that truer than during a global pandemic. If we do nothing, any of a vast array of perils will befall us rather quickly.

The United States has already lost more people to COVID-19 than it had to all but one of its historical wars. The novel coronavirus is the enemy here to be sure, but the Precautionary Principle is an even more pernicious and insidious foe. The Precautionary Principle is responsible for the hundreds of thousands of American dead just as much as the novel coronavirus itself, since it prevented an implementation of an existing off-the-shelf solution that could have saved the vast majority of their lives. Every war in history has resulted in unacceptable death tolls because of fundamentally flawed premises – ideas and practices that brought about the war because people accepted them as commonplace and justified. Slavery, religious intolerance, jingoistic nationalism, and totalitarianism have all stemmed from deep moral errors that caused colossal loss of life – and fortunately most of humanity has recognized the great evil that these notions entail and has resoundingly rejected them. The Precautionary Principle, when implemented in institutions that have the power to make life-or-death decisions, is in that same league of moral errors; it will be remembered decades and centuries hence as the greatest destroyer of lives in our epoch.

How much senseless loss of life needs to occur before we recognize that our institutions, based on the Precautionary Principle, are wantonly negligent in allowing our fellow humans to die and are still withholding life-saving solutions from them? It is time to reject the Precautionary Principle once and for all and to institute the truly humane policy of allowing all rationally capable individuals to assess the risks and benefits of emerging medical treatments for themselves. This would not only save colossal numbers of lives in the immediate term, but also greatly accelerate medical discovery and technological progress – since innovators would be able to obtain data rapidly and iterate upon their approaches. The arrival of cures for cancer, dementia, diabetes, and biological aging itself will depend on how free medical innovators are to offer their treatments and how free patients are to accept them. Extensive and expensive pre-distribution review processes kill many more people than they save. End them now!

Gennady Stolyarov II is the Chairman of the United States Transhumanist Party. 

Elon Musk and Merging With Machines – Article by Edward Hudgins

Elon Musk and Merging With Machines – Article by Edward Hudgins

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Edward Hudgins


Elon Musk seems to be on board with the argument that, as a news headline sums up, “Humans must merge with machines or become irrelevant in AI age.” The PayPal co-founder and SpaceX and Tesla Motors innovator has, in the past, expressed concern about deep AI. He even had a cameo in Transcendence, a Johnny Depp film that was a cautionary tale about humans becoming machines.

Has Musk changed his views? What should we think?

Human-machine symbiosis

Musk said in a speech this week at the opening of Tesla in Dubai warned governments to “Make sure researchers don’t get carried away — scientists get so engrossed in their work they don’t realize what they are doing. But he also said that “Over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.” In techno-speak he told listeners that “Some high-bandwidth interface to the brain will be something that helps achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence.” Imagine calculating a rocket trajectory by just thinking about it since your brain and the Artificial Intelligence with which it links are one!

This is, of course, the vision that is the goal of Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis, co-founders of Singularity University. It is the Transhumanist vision of philosopher Max More. It is a vision of exponential technologies that could even help us live forever.

AI doubts?

But in the past, Musk has expressed doubts about AI. In July 2015, he signed onto “Autonomous Weapons: an Open Letter from AI & Robotics Researchers,” which warned that such devices could “select and engage targets without human intervention.” Yes, out-of-control killer robots! But it concluded that “We believe that AI has great potential to benefit humanity in many ways … Starting a military AI arms race is a bad idea…” The letter was also signed by Diamandis, one of the foremost AI proponents. So it’s fair to say that Musk was simply offering reasonable caution.

In Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World, Musk explained that “I think that the biggest risk is not that the AI will develop a will of its own but rather that it will follow the will of people that establish its utility function.” He offered, “If you were a hedge fund or private equity fund and you said, ‘Well, all I want my AI to do is maximize the value of my portfolio,’ then the AI could decide … to short consumer stocks, go long defense stocks, and start a war.” We wonder if the AI would appreciate that in the long-run, cities in ruins from war would harm the portfolio? In any case, Musk again seems to offer reasonable caution rather than blanket denunciations.

But in his Dubai remarks, he still seemed reticent. Should he and we be worried?

Why move ahead with AI?

Exponential technologies already have revolutionized communications and information and are doing the same to our biology. In the short-term, human-AI interfaces, genetic engineering, and nanotech all promise to enhance our human capacities, to make us smarter, quicker of mind, healthier, and long-lived.

In the long-term Diamandis contends that “Enabled with [brain-computer interfaces] and AI, humans will become massively connected with each other and billions of AIs (computers) via the cloud, analogous to the first multicellular lifeforms 1.5 billion years ago. Such a massive interconnection will lead to the emergence of a new global consciousness, and a new organism I call the Meta-Intelligence.”

What does this mean? If we are truly Transhuman, will we be soulless Star Trek Borgs rather than Datas seeking a better human soul? There has been much deep thinking about such question but I don’t know and neither does anyone else.

In the 1937 Ayn Rand short novel Anthem, we see an impoverished dystopia governed by a totalitarian elites. We read that “It took fifty years to secure the approval of all the Councils for the Candle, and to decide on the number needed.”

Proactionary!

Many elites today are in the throes of the “precautionary principle.” It holds that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm … the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those proposing the action or policy. Under this “don’t do anything for the first time” illogic, humans would never have used fire, much less candles.

By contrast, Max More offers the “proactionary principle.” It holds that we should assess risks according to available science, not popular perception, account for both risks the costs of opportunities foregone, and protect people’s freedom to experiment, innovate, and progress.

Diamandis, More and, let’s hope, Musk are the same path to a future we can’t predict but which we know can be beyond our most optimistic dreams. And you should be on that path too!

Explore:

Edward Hudgins, “Public Opposition to Biotech Endangers Your Life and Health“. July 28, 2016.

Edward Hudgins, “The Robots of Labor Day“. September 2, 2015.

Edward Hudgins, “Google, Entrepreneurs, and Living 500 Years“. March 12, 2015.

Dr. Edward Hudgins is the director of advocacy for The Atlas Society and the editor and author of several books on politics and government policy. He is also a member of the U.S. Transhumanist Party.