Saturday News: Wayne to the rescue


GOODWIN CHOSEN TO LEAD NC DMV: Wayne Goodwin, who once led the state Department of Insurance and later the state Democratic Party, has been chosen the new commissioner of the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles. Goodwin replaces former DMV Commissioner Torre Jessup, who stepped down in November to become chief operating officer of the state Department of Information Technology. Goodwin, a lawyer, served two four-year terms as insurance commissioner, an elected office, before losing to Mike Causey in 2016. He was elected chairman of the Democratic Party in early 2017 and served two two-year terms before declining to seek a third last year. Goodwin, 54, grew up in Hamlet and attended UNC Chapel Hill as a Morehead Scholar and later as a law student. Starting in 1997, he served eight years in the state House, representing rural counties east of Charlotte. The epitome of a dedicated public servant, and a longtime BlueNC member and friend. Great news.

PHARMA BRO FRED ESHELMAN ELBOWS INTO REPUBLICAN SENATE PRIMARY: An outside group is pouring money into North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Senate primary in an effort to back one of the race’s lesser-known candidates: political newcomer and combat veteran Marjorie Eastman. “Our enemies view America as weak,” a Restore Common Sense-funded ad backing Eastman states. “Restore Common Sense in Washington D.C. Elect Marjorie Eastman for U.S. Senate.” Listed as a contact for Restore Common Sense Inc. is Fred Eshelman, a Wilmington executive who founded a pharmaceutical company, who also reportedly gave $2 million to a group trying to root out voter fraud. He has since sued that group, True the Vote, saying it did not spend his money as advertised, the Washington Post reported. Eshelman did not respond to a request for comment. Eastman is running behind other candidates in the Republican primary, according to a recent poll commissioned by one of her opponents, former Gov. Pat McCrory. "Running behind" is putting it mildly; she still hasn't passed the 1% milestone (calling that a milestone is a huge overstatement).

SPEAKING OF PHARMA BROS, CHALK UP ANOTHER WIN FOR NC AG JOSH STEIN: Martin Shkreli must return $64.6 million in profits he and his former company reaped from jacking up the price and monopolizing the market for a lifesaving drug, a federal judge ruled Friday while also barring the provocative, imprisoned ex-CEO from the pharmaceutical industry for the rest of his life. Shkreli was CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals — later Vyera — when it raised the price of Daraprim from $13.50 to $750 per pill after obtaining exclusive rights to the decades-old drug in 2015. It treats a rare parasitic disease that strikes pregnant women, cancer patients and AIDS patients. The FTC and seven states — New York, California, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia — alleged in their case that Vyera hiked the price of Daraprim and illegally created “a web of anticompetitive restrictions” to prevent other companies from creating cheaper generic versions. Among other things, they alleged, Vyera blocked access to a key ingredient for the medication and to data the companies would want to evaluate the drug’s market potential. Vyera and its parent company, Phoenixus AG, settled last month, agreeing to provide up to $40 million in relief over 10 years to consumers and to make Daraprim available to any potential generic competitor at the cost of producing the drug. This may seem like a mundane case, but it's extremely important. With this precedent in place, such inhuman behavior is less likely going forward.

SPEAKING OF CRITICAL LIFESAVING DRUGS, NEW COVID ANTIVIRAL BEING HOGGED BY RICH COUNTRIES (LIKE US): Antiviral covid-19 pills developed by U.S. firms promise to be a pandemic game-changer. But even as some countries begin to roll out the highly anticipated drugs, others have raised concerns that shortages and manufacturing chaos could hamper global supply. “We heard there is not enough supply to ensure the world access to these medicines,” Colombian Health Minister Fernando Ruiz said. He added that he had “so many worries” that global access to the pills would end up mirroring the vaccine shortages. Ruiz has reasons to fear. Wealthier countries have already advance purchased much of the supply of treatments expected to be available in the first half of 2022. Effective use of the pills — which include Pfizer’s Paxlovid and Merck’s molnupiravir, co-developed with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics and Emory University — also requires access to coronavirus tests, which remain scarce in many places. In the early stages at least, inequity is likely to persist. A World Health Organization report produced earlier this month warns of a “high risk of shortages” of Paxlovid for low- and lower-middle-income countries until generic versions are more widely available, which it said was likely to be the second half of 2022. In early deals made with the United States, Merck sold molnupiravir for $712 a treatment course, Pfizer sold Paxlovid for $530. Brook Baker, a professor of law at Northeastern University who tracks pharmaceutical deals, estimates generics of molnupiravir could be sold for as little as $10 per treatment. Paxlovid has been added to Medicare/Medicaid coverage, but there are way too many Americans (including North Carolinians) who will have to pay out-of-pocket for this treatment regimen. Being poor in a rich country sucks.

AN UPDATE ON NUCLEAR FUSION TECHNOLOGY: To make fusion useful, scientists need to trigger it in a controlled way that yields far more energy than they put in. That energy can then be used to boil water, spin a turbine, or generate electricity. Teams around the world are studying different ways to accomplish this, but the approaches tend to fall into two broad categories. One involves using magnets to contain the plasma. This is the approach used by ITER, the world’s largest fusion project, currently under construction in southern France. Building hardware to withstand these extreme conditions is its own scientific and engineering challenge. Managing such massive experiments has also been a struggle. ITER started with an initial cost estimate of 6.6 billion euros, which has since more than tripled. It began construction in 2007 and its first experiments are set to begin in 2025. An upside to the intricacy of fusion reactions is that it is almost impossible to cause a runaway reaction or meltdown of the sort that have devastated fission power plants like Chernobyl. If a fusion reactor is disrupted, the reaction rapidly fizzles out. In addition, the main “waste” product of hydrogen fusion is helium, an inert gas. The process can induce some reactor materials to become radioactive, but the radioactivity is much lower, and the quantity of hazardous waste is far smaller, compared to conventional nuclear power plants. So nuclear fusion energy could become one of the safest sources of electricity. For policymakers, investing in an expensive research project that may not yield fruit for decades, if at all, is a tough sell. Scientific progress doesn’t always keep up with political timelines: A politician who greenlights a fusion project might not even live to see it become a viable energy source — so they certainly won’t be able to brag about their success by the time the next election rolls around. In the United States, funding for fusion research has been erratic over the years and far below the levels government analysts say is needed to make the technology a reality. The US Department of Energy currently spends about $500 million on fusion per year, compared to almost $1 billion on fossil fuel energy and $2.7 billion on renewables. Investment in fusion seems even tinier next to other major programs like NASA ($23 billion) or the military ($700 billion). We should not be running behind in this race, we should be leading it. But that takes vision, something that is scarce when you're blinded by ignorance and distrust.



Twenty years out...

is what we've heard for fusion power for a heck of a lot longer than 20 years. Fusion power is one of those pipe-dreams that will keep dazzling engineers and enthusiasts (not unlike the long-promised brilliance of AI, which also still hasn't actually materialized) well into our future. What we really need to concentrate on (and spend those billions of euros/dollars on) is expanding grid storage and site storage (think Tesla Powerwalls and similar technologies) of electricity and known, reliable renewable energy production (wind, solar, etc.) that will enable us to combat climate change and break our energy systems free of both fossil fuels and large, monopolistic energy corporations.