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Tomorrow’s world

Miracles of the genetics age

Biochemist Katalin Kariko. Csilla Cseke/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“Sometimes it takes a cataclysm to move the world,” says Tom Whipple in The Times. Thirty years ago, scientist Katalin Kariko dreamt it might be possible to use a genetic code called RNA to hack the body to cure disease. She didn’t think for a second it would happen in her lifetime. Then, in December 2019, at a wet market in Wuhan, the pandemic struck – and more or less overnight her dream began to turn into the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

It’s not the first great leap forward to be brought about by adversity. In 1935 the RAF still relied on biplanes. By 1945 it had jets. In 1920 The New York Times declared space rockets a fantasy that defied Newton’s laws. In 1944 V-2 rockets were landing in Britain after a journey to space, “leaving Newton, if not the residents of south London, unperturbed”. We emerged from war into both the space age and, thanks to Bletchley, the computer age.

Now we’re in the age of genetics. Covid has given genetics a “Manhattan Project-sized boost” that won’t just save the world, but change it for ever. Research suggests it may cure blood diseases and cancer. Last week gene therapy helped a blind man to see. Kariko dreamt of a world where you could sequence your tumour and “hijack” your immune system to destroy it. The vaccines have made that a reality. All of a sudden, as once with space travel and computers, the fantastical has become the mundane.

Has Just in Time had its day? 

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“Just in Time is running late,” say Peter Goodman and Niraj Chokshi in The New York Times. The manufacturing practice of having components arrive “just in time” to save on storage costs began at Toyota after the Second World War: densely populated Japan didn’t want to waste land on warehouses. By the 1980s this “lean and mean” strategy was being promoted around the world. From 1981 to 2000, US companies reduced their inventories by an average of 2% a year.

But the pandemic hampered factory operations and caused chaos in global shipping. As a result, this finely balanced approach came unstuck, contributing to “tragic shortages” of PPE and cutting the supply of everything from electronics to pet food. Car assembly lines have ground to a halt because of a global shortage of essential computer chips, mostly made in Asia.

The dangers of too much Just in Time have been obvious for decades. A 1999 earthquake in Taiwan shut down computer-chip manufacturing; floods in Thailand in 2011 “decimated production of computer hard drives”. The blockage of the Suez Canal this year had similar effects. Each time companies talked the talk about changing their ways, but they never did. It remains to be seen whether the current chatter about “supply chain resilience” will amount to anything more.