It’s been a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) first declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. While this and other countries grapple with the effect of a stubborn second wave, there is cause for optimism. Several vaccines have been developed and approved, making it a race against time for the world to develop herd immunity.

However, distributing the vaccine will prove as challenging as developing it was. Vaccine nationalisms have already stolen the limelight — EU versus AstraZeneca, anyone? While politics run their course, I marvel at the wonders of biotechnology. It took less than two days for a lab in Shanghai to map the virus genome sequence in early January 2020, and less than 12 months for vaccines to be developed and approved. 

Advertisement

fDi's contributor Megha Bahree puts this into context by looking at the Ebola virus. Although the world had its first clinical case in 1976, its first genome wasn’t sequenced until in 1993; its vaccine went on trial in 2003 and it was finally approved in 2019. The comparison with Sars-Cov-2, the virus behind Covid-19, is mind-blowing.

While many sectors struggle to collect a productivity dividend from the adoption of information technology — the Solow paradox — biotech research has been accelerated drastically by the adoption of computing technology and artificial intelligence. Longevity research stands out on that quickly advancing frontier: “I’m not a fan of immortality [...] I am a big fan of adding 10, 20, 25 healthy and happy years,” a longevity investor tells our reporter Seth O’Farrell.

The economic case for longevity seems unequivocal. The number of people who will be aged 60 or over will double to exceed two billion in 2050. This group already concentrates much of the global wealth and won’t hesitate to direct funds to improve their health and lifespan. In a recent survey by Swiss bank UBS, 90% of the wealthy investors surveyed say investing in their health is more important than growing their wealth. More than half of them (53%) also expect to reach age 100.

The industry has taken notice. Bank of America predicts the whole longevity market will be worth $600bn by 2025. I fear, though, that longevity risks perpetuating and widening global inequality by pushing life expectancy of an elite class of wealthy elders closer to the 100-year mark, while their younger peers in developing countries remain exposed to easily treatable diseases.

The Covid-19 vaccine saga is revealing. As of January 18, just 25 doses were administered across all low-income countries compared with 39 million in wealthier ones, according to the WHO. This is in total disregard of the the truth unveiled by Covid-19: that local health is global health. The poet Charles Bukowski once wrote: “You can’t beat death, but at least you can beat death in life.” While I doubt he had stem cells therapy or skin rejuvenation in mind, a wall of money is piling up to push the boundaries of life. Many will take the plunge — at least those that can afford it.

This article first appeared in the February/March print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.