15 ways covid19 made world-shaking progress seem boring

Kiran Mathur Mohammed


When we first began to grapple with a global pandemic, I was gripped by a morbid intellectual curiosity. After all, this would be the greatest mass experiment on human behaviour the world had ever seen. Since then, the virus’ devastation has been exhaustingly documented. But sifting through the headlines, I began realise that something else was happening.

On March 30, the first crewed commercial space flight was launched by SpaceX – heralding a new era of private space exploration.

On June 11, OpenAI released an artificial intelligence processor called GPT-3, by far more advanced than its nonsensical predecessors. In an article for the UK Guardian, GPT-3 wrote: “Stephen Hawking has warned that AI could 'spell the end of the human race'. I am here to convince you not to worry. Artificial intelligence will not destroy humans. Believe me."

Fast forward to November 10: Apple announced its new M1 computer chip. It used a quarter of the power and performed twice as fast than the next best chip in existence.

On November 23, the University of Alberta announced that they succeeded in introducing a new treatment “into diabetic mice and reversing diabetes to the point where essentially their diabetes is cured.”

On November 27, researchers at the UK’s National Health Service announced the rollout of a new blood test that can detect up to 50 types of cancers with one jab.

On November 30, Google’s artificial intelligence arm DeepMind announced that it discovered a way to determine the structure of proteins. A protein is a tiny string of chemicals that determines how living things behave. To interact with anything, these chemicals twist themselves into specific shapes. For example, a protein might twist itself into a shape that ultimately determines the behaviour of a person’s blood pressure. Drugs work by binding to specific proteins (for example the one that affects blood pressure) and changing how they work.

The drugs we have available are limited by the number of protein shapes we have discovered – just about a quarter of what we know is possible. It takes decades and costs millions to discover a new shape.

Google’s AI meant that will take hours, not decades, to discover the remaining three quarters of protein shapes – and develop new drugs to interact with them. Overnight, global future life expectancy shot up.

Lest you think this hyperbole, representatives of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, not generally known for gushing speeches, said in an interview with Nature: “This will change medicine. It will change research. It will change bioengineering. It will change everything.”

On December 2, to global rejoicing, Pfizer announced that their covid19 vaccine was approved by the UK health regulator. Just a few years ago, it might have taken a decade or more to produce a vaccine. Developed in under a year, this it was the first ever mRNA vaccine that taught our cells to make its own proteins to defend itself.

The same day, buried in the covid19 news, Harvard researchers reversed blindness in mice. This age-related retinal problem, long thought intractable by most clinicians, used gene-therapies now made familiar.

On December 3, China announced a new photon quantum computer that it claims to be 10 billion times faster than Google’s.

On December 4, China activated its own fusion reactor. A major development, even for a technology which has been ten years in the future for the last 50 years.

On December 5, the same Oxford team that developed their covid19 vaccine announced that it was entering the last phase of human trials for a malaria vaccine, meaning one will likely be in mass production in the next four years. To put this into perspective, ten times as many people died of malaria this year than of covid19.

On December 7, researchers announced that an early phase one trial was successful for a universal flu vaccine that can confer immunity to every different type of flu.

That same day: researchers announced the successful first results of a sickle cell gene-therapy cure.

On December 10, Toyota announced a new battery capable of a ten-minute electric vehicle charge.

On December 21 (three days ago), Oxford PV announced a new battery that could convert 29.5 per cent of solar energy into electricity – compared to between 15-20 per cent for batteries in current circulation.

Astonishingly, most of these developments have been announced within the last six weeks. The results of the grand experiment are coming in – and almost no one has noticed. Covid19 has done what few thought possible. It has made world changing progress…well…boring.

Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker, and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.


"15 ways covid19 made world-shaking progress seem boring"

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