Day: March 16, 2020

It’s actually great to be a consumer in the time of coronavirus

One idea I’ve seen thrown around a little too much on Twitter and across the Internet lately has been that consumers are somehow living in a doomsday scenario during the coronavirus pandemic.

Los Angeles Times business columnist David Lazarus points to “shortages, price gouging, and scams” that are popping up in response to the virus.

No doubt, there is a lot of economic uncertainty when it comes to restaurants, bars, and establishments that serve the public. There’s even legitimate panic-buying of toilet paper that is sparking enough memes to keep you busy until the end of March. And no one can seem to get enough hand sanitizer.

But is it really so bad for consumers?

Barring a future moratorium on commerce, online or otherwise, people are still able to get the products they need.

We have access to food delivery on-demand, Amazon is still arriving at our doorsteps, and stores are stocking up faster than we’ve ever seen. We’ve never been more equipped and technologically ready to stare down a crisis.

When products run out in some stores, neighborhood corner stores offer their own, sometimes at market-adjusted prices during a time of very high demand. Those are our markets at work, and we should celebrate that.

There are false claims in advertising, but most large retailers are actively shutting these product descriptions down. That’s a good thing. The same can be said for scammers who are trying to cash in on the misinformation.

But, if you live on Twitter and you’ve seen photos of empty shelves at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, you’d think it was the end of the world. Until the next day, when those shelves were easily restocked.

“I think the fact that they’re going to shut school down caused people to consider ramping up their grocery-buying habits because their daily lives are going to change,” said Brandon Scholz, president & CEO of the Wisconsin Grocers Association.

As Scholz witnessed across the state of Wisconsin, there have been shortages of some products in various stores. But that has more to do with immediate and spiking demand rather than low supply on behalf of producers.

Grocery stores are staying stocked and replenishing their supplies at a rapid pace. But they need time to adjust to the demand that is inflated at peak times. The domestic supply chains in the United States remain vibrant and are delivering, and they’re bouncing back when we need them most. Could the same be said for countries with extreme price controls and rationing?

But what about the $220 bottles of Lysol on Amazon or eBay? And the hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes now worth 50% or 100% more than their normal price?

States like California and New York are stepping in to stop the “price gouging” as they believe it’s unfair and immoral in a time of crisis. California won’t allow any business to raise prices on items more than 10% than pre-crisis – even if demand is outstripping supply thousands of times over.

But fluctuating prices in a time of panic buying are actually what you want because they help limit hoarding and best allocate resources where they’re both scarce and necessary. It’s well known that price gouging laws have the effect of distorting real prices and actually causing more shortages. Just remember runs for gasoline during Hurricane Katrina and similar natural disasters.

Many consumer advocates stand in favor of anti-price gauging laws because they assume they protect the consumer, but they actually end up doing the opposite. They distort prices and lead to shortages. That’s why economists are pretty solid on this issue and oppose all attempts at anti-price gouging laws.

Here is Duke University professor Michael Munger on anti-price gouging laws:

So while there may be temporary panic taking place online, in the real world, our small businesses and entrepreneurs are delivering for consumers. Food is available and plentiful, all kinds of products are stocked and ready for purchase.

There have been mistakes and it hasn’t been perfect. But markets have delivered. And consumers know it, even if they won’t’ admit it.

Instead of succumbing to the panic and thinking the worst, we should actually be stepping back and looking at the extraordinary situation we find ourselves in and marvel at how well our institutions and businesses are doing in giving us what we need. There is plenty of uncertainty, but the creative people out there who provide solutions are doing just that.

We, as consumers, can be confident in their efforts.

Stuck at home? We should be able to have our alcohol delivered

This week, millions of Americans will be following the advice of their public health agencies and staying home to prevent the further spread of the novel coronavirus.

Where possible, many will have food and drinks delivered to help support the thousands of restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores that have been ordered to temporarily close or limit hours.

Americans in multiple states will be prohibited, however, from having any alcohol hit their doorstep. 

That’s due to arcane laws on the books in several states that don’t allow certain alcohol – beer, wine, and spirits – to be shipped directly to consumers.

Alabama, Oklahoma, and Utah ban all alcohol shipments to consumers, whereas most others only allow wine shipments, shipments of alcohol after it has been purchased physically in a store, or from wineries located in-state.

Only Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Nebraska, and New Hampshire allow consumers to purchase alcohol online and have it shipped to their residences.

Now is as good a time as any to consider changing these laws and empowering consumers to receive alcohol at home just like any other product.

Social distancing is here and millions of people are staying home to avoid spreading coronavirus. But if you’re unlucky enough to live in a state with strict alcohol laws, you won’t be able to ship a bottle of wine, a six-pack, or your favorite bourbon to your address. And that’s beyond ridiculous.

Improvements in technology and mobile apps have connected millions to stores and marketplaces that ship products to our doors relatively quickly.

Bans on shipping alcohol are leftover policies from Prohibition that deprive us of choice. These bans will only exacerbate the economic damage caused by coronavirus.

In the 21st century, we should no longer have antiquated alcohol laws that restrict our choices, reduce commerce, and treat adults more like children. Let’s legalize alcohol shipments.

Fight Viruses by releasing the Gene Scissors: What is Gene Editing and why should we get excited about it?

Understanding gene editing with comic book figures

Humanity is currently facing a huge challenge imposed by the Coronavirus. Borders are being shut down, planes grounded, and factories closed. At the same time, scientists and public health professionals are working on tests, treatments, and vaccines to soon provide a medical response. Coping with corona might be one of the largest tests humans have faced in the past decades but it won’t be the last virus we need to defeat. It is time to embrace bioscience and allow more research and applications of genetic alteration methods.

For the layman, all this technobabble about mutagenesis and genetic engineering is difficult to comprehend and it took me personally a good amount of reading to start grasping what different methods exist and how these can massively improve our quality of life.

Let’s first look at the four most common ways to alter the genes of a plant or animal: 

  • Dr. Xaver – Mutations per se just happen regularly in nature – This is how some amino acids ended up being humans a billion years later. Biological evolution can only happen thanks to mutations. Mutations in nature happen randomly or are caused by exogenous factors such as radiation (e.g. sun). For the comic book readers among us, X-men have mutations that (in most cases) occurred randomly.
  • The Hulk – Mutation through exposure (mutagens): One of the most common ways to manipulate seeds is exposing them to radiation and hoping for positive mutations (e.g. higher pest resistance). This method is very common since the 1950s and a very inaccurate shotgun approach aiming to make crops more resistant or palatable. It requires thousands of attempts to get a positive result. This method is widely used and legal in nearly every country. In our comic book universe, the Hulk is a good example of mutations caused by radiation.
  • Spiderman – Genetically Modified Organisms (transgenic GMO): This often-feared procedure of creating GMOs is based on inserting the genes of one species into the genes of another. In most cases, GMO crops have been injected with a protein of another plant or bacteria that makes the crop grow faster or be more resistant towards certain diseases. Other examples can be seen in crossing salmon with tilapia fish which makes the salmon grow twice as fast. Spiderman being bitten by a spider and suddenly being able to climb skyscrapers due to his enhanced spider-human (transgenic) DNA is an example from the comicverse. 
  • GATTACA/Wrath of Khan – Gene Editing (the scissors): The latest and most precise way of altering an organism’s genes is so-called Gene Editing. In contrast to traditional GMOs, genes are not being implanted from another organism but changed within the organism due to a precise method of either deactivating certain genes or adding them. 

This can be even done in grown humans that are alive, which is a blessing for everyone who suffers from genetic disorders. We are able to “repair” genes in live organisms. Gene editing is also thousands of times more accurate than just bombarding seeds with radiation. Some applied examples are deactivating the gene responsible for generating gluten in wheat: The result is gluten-free wheat. There are several methods that achieve this. One of the most popular ones these days is the so-called CRISPR Cas-9. These ‘scissors’ are usually reprogrammed bacteria that transmit the new gene information or deactivate defunct or unwanted genes. Many science fiction novels and movies show a future in which we can deactivate genetic defects and cure humans from terrible diseases. Some examples of stories in which CRISPR-like techniques have been used are movies such as GATTACA, Star Trek’s Wrath of Khan, or the Expanse series in which gene editing plays a crucial role in growing crops in space.

What does this have to do with the Coronavirus?

Synthetic biologists have started using CRISPR to synthetically create parts of the coronavirus in an attempt to launch a vaccine against this lung disease and be able to mass-produce it very quickly. In combination with computer simulations and artificial intelligence, the best design for such a vaccine is calculated on a computer and then synthetically created. This speeds up vaccine development and cuts it from years to merely months. Regulators and approval bodies have shown that in times of crisis they can also rapidly approve new testing and vaccination procedures which usually require years of back and forth with agencies such as the FDA?

CRISPR also allows the ‘search’ for specific genes, also genes of a virus. This helped researchers to build fast and simple testing procedures to test patients for corona.

In the long term, gene editing might allow us to increase the immunity of humans by altering our genes and making us more resistant to viruses and bacteria. 

This won’t be the last crisis

While the coronavirus seems to really test our modern society, we also need to be aware that this won’t be the last pathogen that has the potential to kill millions. If we are unlucky, corona might mutate quickly and become harder to fight. The next dangerous virus, fungus, or bacteria is probably around the corner. Hence we need to embrace the latest inventions of biotechnology and not block genetic research and the deployment of its findings.

Right now a lot of red tape and even outright bans are standing between lifesaving innovations such as CRISPR and patients around the world. We need to rethink our hostility towards genetic engineering and embrace it. To be frank: We are in a constant struggle to fight newly occurring diseases and need to be able to deploy state of the art human answers to this.

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