Forget The Death-Star Anti-Mosquito Lasers, Here's How Nathan Myhrvold Can Help Tackle Malaria -- And Improve His Image
from the really-doing-good dept
Nathan Myhrvold is trying to rustle up a little positive PR for Intellectual Ventures (IV) by appointing a VP of Global Good (although it's hard to see how anyone lumbered with such a daft job title is going to be taken seriously anywhere.) You can gauge just how touchy Myhrvold is on this topic by his rather waspish response to some commentary on that move.
As Techdirt reported, Myhrvold came up with what he obviously thinks is a winning riposte whenever people criticize IV's business model based on industrial-scale patent trollery. He asks them: "How big is your malaria project?" His point being that IV does does have a malaria project, so this somehow makes up for all the bad stuff it does. There's only one slight problem: that project offers little more than fantasy solutions. For example, here are some details from Intellectual Ventures Lab's malaria page about a cool-sounding "photonic fence" designed to keep out mosquitoes:
The system would create a virtual fence made out of light -- we call it a "Photonic Fence". Light Emitting Diode (LED) lamps on each fence post would beam infrared light at adjacent fence posts up to 100 feet (30 meters) away; the light would then hit strips of retroreflective material (similar to that used on highway signs) and bounce straight back toward the illuminator. A camera on each fence post monitors the reflected light for shadows cast by a hapless insect flying through the vertical plane of light.
However impressive all that technology might be, there's the obvious problem that mosquitoes could just fly over these "photonic fences". Perhaps conscious of this flaw, the page describes several other equally ingenious -- and equally impractical -- approaches to tackling malaria including the use of magnets to make mosquitoes explode and an "engineered blood substitute" to draw them away from humans (also useful for regions plagued by vampires, presumably.)
When an invading insect is detected, our software identifies it by training a nonlethal laser beam on the bug and using that illumination to estimate the insect's size and also to measure how fast its wings are beating. Using this method, the system can not only distinguish among mosquitoes, butterflies, and bumblebees, but it can even determine whether a mosquito is male or female! (Females are significantly larger than males and have slower wingbeats.) This is useful because only female mosquitoes bite humans.
This impracticality rather undermines Myhrvold's taunting of lesser mortals that don't have their own malaria project, since his lab projects seem unlikely to make any significant contribution to combatting malaria in the short term, if ever. Clearly, to tackle malaria in real-life situations, what is needed is not some super high-tech approach that looks good in TED talks, but something rather more simple and effective -- something like this, perhaps:
The University of Cape Town’s Science Department believes that it has found a single dose cure for Malaria.
Unlike potentially blinding lasers, the new compound is claimed to be safe, with no adverse side effects. Of course, lots of clinical tests still need to be run to establish that and its efficacity. Then, a way to manufacture and distribute the drug to malaria victims will need to be found. The worry has to be that traditional drug companies won't be interested in helping here, since the drug must be sold cheaply if it is to reach the millions of people most affected by malaria, and that means few if any profits -- not something pharma companies are happy with.
This was announced by researchers that have been working on this compound, from the aminopyridine class, for several years. Unlike conventional multidrug malaria treatments that the malaria parasite has become resistant to, Professor Kelly Chibale and his colleagues now believe that they have discovered a drug that over 18 months of trials "killed these resistant parasites instantly".
So here's a suggestion. If Myhrvold really wants to burnish the image of Intellectual Ventures through philanthropic activities, he should forget about appointing his VP of Global Good, and drop his fun but useless malaria program. Instead, he and his company should offer to pay all the costs for carrying out the clinical tests of this new anti-malarial drug, and for setting up a large-scale manufacturing program sufficient to treat everyone in the world that has the disease, or is at risk from it. Helping to circumvent problems caused by drug companies' obsession with patents and exorbitant profits would be a truly fitting way to atone for the sins of Intellectual Ventures.