The war on death
The pandemic and its dire aftermath have fueled a surge of introspection that has led many to rethink their purpose in life
We all know that a Rolls-Royce is one of the most expensive cars in the world. What you may not know is that last year they sold more cars than ever – 49% more than the previous year – making it the best year since the company was founded in 1906. And they aren’t the only automaker that had a bumper year. Ferrari also reported record profits in 2021.
So what happened? Well, the pandemic made many rich people realize that life is short. That, at least, is the explanation given to the Financial Times by Torsten Müller-Otvös, the head of Rolls-Royce: “Quite a lot of people witnessed people in their community dying from Covid, that makes them think life can be short, and you’d better live now than postpone it to a later date.”
Obviously, the “many” rich people who became aware of their mortality are not that many. The very lucrative year that Rolls-Royce had was on the back of just 5,586 vehicle sales worldwide. But while a few wealthy people now know that life is short, there are others who have decided to pour vast fortunes into finding treatments so we can all live healthier and longer lives. On January 23, the company Altos Labs opened for business. Like many biotech startups, their mission statement claims sweeping ambitions to transform the field of medicine. But unlike most other startups, they just might pull it off.
According to the US National Cancer Institute, about 40% of Americans will develop one of the 200 different known types of cancer in their lifetime
Rick Klausner, who was the director of the US National Cancer Institute, is the founder and chief scientist of Altos Labs. Klausner managed to recruit several Nobel Prize winners and a large group of the most prestigious scientists in the world for the nascent biotech company. He also raised $3 billion from major investors. And all this is just the beginning of a vastly ambitious scientific and commercial research project.
The company will be dedicated to finding treatments to rejuvenate cells that have been affected by genetic abnormalities, injuries or the effects of aging. The goal is to restore cells to health and make them more resilient. If they succeed, it will not only improve the quality of life of those suffering from chronic diseases, but it could also add several years to their lives.
Recently, Joe Biden also declared war on death. Last week the president announced the creation of a “cancer cabinet” within the White House dedicated to speeding up research and coordinating the government’s different efforts in this area. As Obama’s vice president, Biden was also in charge of launching an anti-cancer program that made some progress, but fell short of its promised goals. Now as president, Biden – who lost one of his children to brain cancer – recalled that, although the coronavirus pandemic claimed 800,000 thousand American lives, during that same period 1.2 million people died of cancer.
According to the US National Cancer Institute, about 40% of Americans will develop one of the 200 different known types of cancer in their lifetime. In turn, the American Cancer Society estimates that this year there will be almost two million new cancer patients in the country, of whom 600,000 will succumb to the disease. Biden wants to reduce the number of cancer deaths and emphasized that the program aims to cut fatalities in half within 25 years. According to the American president, during the last five years there have been many important scientific advances that, in combination with those that are in the pipeline, will make it possible to achieve the proposed goal.
The pandemic has whetted an appetite in some people to help others. Some do it individually and modestly and others ambitiously and on a large scale
The pandemic has brought us many surprises. One of these is a greater awareness of our own mortality and the reactions that this awareness provokes. For those who have the means, the response to the virus and its lethal threat is to enjoy what they have here and now. Obviously facing the pandemic by buying a Rolls-Royce is an option only for a privileged few, but you don’t have to be a millionaire to refuse to postpone gratification. Millions are doing so.
The pandemic has whetted an appetite in some people to help others. Some do it individually and modestly and others ambitiously and on a large scale. The scientists who launched Alton Labs are a good example of those who have captured the sense of urgency, discerned the new scientific opportunities and are acting upon them on a large scale.
But what is perhaps most notable is the way the pandemic and its dire aftermath have fueled a surge of introspection that led many to rethink – or perhaps think for the first time – about their life’s purpose, values, hopes and frustrations. It is with this new vital charge that some are dedicating themselves to defeating cellular aging, others to conquering cancer. They have reacted to this global shock with a dose of idealism that’s been sorely lacking. And that will undoubtedly leave a legacy far greater than a Rolls-Royce parked in the garage.