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How to assess the real safety risks of getting a COVID vaccine shot

It seems like we might have a vaccine on the way and some of this madness will stop. But, like everything else, a lot of people don’t trust the science, or the scientists, who create vaccines. In fact, a recent study showed that only 50% of people definitely will get a vaccine when it’s available and another 25% aren’t sure. That leaves one out of every four people saying, “No way.” Forty percent of black people, who account for nearly twenty-five present of coronavirus cases, said they wouldn’t get the vaccine.

The skepticism isn’t limited to vaccines. Many people don’t believe in the science behind masks.  Actually, I wonder why you have to wear a mask to walk into a restaurant but, as soon as you sit down, you’re safe (does the virus float a little higher than 5 feet?). A survey of the U.S. and Italy found that a little over 40% of people never wear masks or only sometimes wore them. Twenty-three percent said they weren’t effective.

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Credit: Jeff Dean/Getty-AFP

This isn’t a surprise. Although trust in science is generally high in the U.S., 86% have a least a fair amount of trust but some specific issues leave a lot of people out. In the area I am most involved in, food issues, there is a lot of mistrust in science. Forty percent of Americans believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe, despite almost universal agreement among most scientists that that is not true. A friend of mine, a scientist, was attending a conference that included both food scientists and activists. When the subject of GM foods came up, one activist was asked why he rejected the scientific position. His answer, “F*** your science, we know what the truth is!”

Pesticides are another area of common concern. Twenty-three percent of men and 39 percent of women believe that pesticides create a “great deal of risk for the average person over their lifetime.” Should they be concerned? A study by food scientists tried to answer that question. Most pesticides are designed by nature, but we have found a way to supplement natural pesticides. Functionally, synthetic pesticides kill or repel insects, prevent plant diseases or kill weeds by poisoning them. Despite a few epidemiological studies finding that pesticides affect childhood intelligence and have reproductive effects, those studies turned out to be flawed, and most research has found no connections.

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There’s not a great deal of harm ignoring the science of pesticides. If you get it wrong, you’ll just replace synthetic pesticides, which mostly disappear by the time you eat them, with natural pesticides, accounting for the vast majority of pesticides people consume.

True, there have been some reversals in scientific advice. First, we were told that it is dangerous to wear masks, then we would be crazy not to wear them. We were also told that social distancing is necessary, unless you are in a protest, in which case don’t worry about it.

Some mistrust in science won’t hurt you. Avoiding pesticides won’t help you but probably won’t hurt you either. The science says that alcohol doesn’t actually kill brain cells and moderate drinking has positive health benefits, but 30% of Americans don’t drink. It could be for other reasons but, either way, it doesn’t do any harm.

However, avoiding pesticides or abstaining from drinking is a personal choice to avoid a potential risk. Ignoring the science behind vaccinating for COVID-19 at this point is actively engaging in highly risky behavior. Refusing to wear a mask, social distance, or get a vaccine that has been put through rigorous testing risks not only your own health, but the health of everyone around you. These are matters of life and death.

When we have a tested and safe vaccine, it will be time to vaccinate yourself and your children. It will help to achieve herd immunity, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the population, and allow us to get back to a normal life. Leave the flights of scientific fantasy for your produce and your happy hours.

Richard A. Williams is the Principal and Vice Chancellor at Heriot-Watt University. He spent 27 years as an economist at the FDA in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Virginia Tech and an undergraduate degree from Old Dominion University. Aside from authoring his next book, he spends his time reading historical, scientific and economics-related non-fiction. Find Richard on Twitter @ProfRAWilliams

A version of this article was originally published at LinkedIn and has been republished here with permission. LinkedIn can be found on Twitter @LinkedIn

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Push to reform EU biotech crop rules gains strength as some environmentalists, public officials endorse gene editing

After two decades as “the center” of GMO skepticism, it seems the EU may be ready to acknowledge the benefits of some important applications of crop biotechnology. One of the latest indications of this positive development hit headlines in mid-October, when the EU’s agriculture ministers announced their support for precision breeding techniques such as CRISPR Cas-9. “The EU should make use of innovative breeding technologies to boost sustainability of food production, agriculture ministers agreed on [October 19],” Politico reported. “The ministers called for the use of ‘new innovative ingredients and techniques’ to boost sustainable food production, as long as they are shown to be safe for humans, animals and the environment.”

A few months earlier, in July, the EU suspended some of its GMO regulations to fast track the development of a coronavirus vaccine, which some scientists believe may help Europe shake off its stubborn anti-crop biotech inclinations, especially as an immunization moves ever closer to approval.

To be sure, the EU still has an affinity for organic farming and deep-seated distrust of the biotech industry that won’t disappear overnight. But the statement from Europe’s agriculture ministers and the regulatory decision to speed vaccine development add weight to the activism of scientists, farmers and even some members of Germany’s eco-focused Green Party, who know the EU needs to shed its genetic engineering phobia if it wants to promote sustainable food production—a possibility that seemed much more distant just two years ago.

A setback for science

In July 2018, the European Court of Justice made a decision that sent shockwaves through the continent’s plant-breeding community. The court determined that crop gene editing with methods such as CRISPR/Cas9 will be subject to the same restrictions as traditional genetic modification (GMO), even though most gene-edited applications do not result in the introduction of “foreign” genes. The decision heavily restricts the crops European farmers can cultivate, and may have similar impacts around the world since many countries follow the EU’s lead on plant breeding regulation.

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European Court of Justice Credit: Geoff Pugh/Telegraph

Crucially, the court’s ruling was not conclusive since it did not clearly define which plant-breeding methods count as gene editing. Regulatory uncertainty is typically a headache for scientists and companies trying to develop innovative tools for farmers, though in this instance it may be a blessing.

The courts open-ended decision leaves room for EU member states to interpret its practical applicability to agriculture.  Combine this legal wiggle room with the fact that many EU regulators (and most scientists) have expressed support for agricultural gene editing, and you reach the conclusion that Europe’s battle over gene-editing is far from settled. The ECJ decision, rather than the death knell for crop biotech in Europe, may have been the match that sparked enough opposition to finally reform the EU’s outdated regulatory framework.

Member states speak up

Such boldness on the part of member states would not be unprecedented. In 2016, while scientists waited on a policy decision regarding NBTs, some EU Member States unilaterally decided to exempt certain gene-edited crop varieties from oversight. The Swedish Agricultural Board determined, for example, that it would not regulate some Arabidopsis plants  that have been modified using CRISPR-Cas9  as  genetically modified organisms, noting as we did above that inserting DNA from another species into a crop’s genome and editing its existing genes are not the same thing.

The ECJ decision temporarily overruled the Swedish decision but did not settle the broader matter of gene-editing regulation. In the wake of the court’s ruling, several EU members asked for clarification, because the ruling concerned the legal status of herbicide-tolerant seed varieties, and its general implications were not (and still aren’t) entirely clear. The primary problem is that the ruling will be difficult to enforce; there is no way to determine if a mutation in a plant’s genome was the result of intentional editing  via NBTs, an older (and EU-approved) breeding technique like mutagenesis, or natural processes. Recognizing the regulatory problem this presents, Greenpeace and other anti-biotech NGOs have alleged that gene-edited crops can be uniquely “detected,” but their analysis doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

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A plant geneticist corrects Greenpeace’s claim that it can ‘detect’ gene-edited canola

Unsurprisingly, Sweden has been one of the more vocal member states in its requests for clarification on the ruling. The Swedish Board of Agriculture has argued that without access to the latest breeding tools, it will be even more challenging for farmers to adapt to climate change. It will take longer to obtain new cultivars engineered to withstand unforgiving weather, and growers will be forced to continue spraying pesticides when they could have grown crops bred to fight off pest attacks. Former Director-General of the Swedish National Food Agency Inger Andersson summed up the problem when he declared that

[T]he [ECJ] ruling will prevent the use of cultivars obtained with the new technologies in European farmlands, because the approval process for GM cultivars is so expensive, protracted, and politically restrained [it has been] more than ten years since a crop variety classified as genetically modified was licensed for cultivation in Europe.

Swedes are not the only Europeans who have urged the EU to reconsider its stance on genome editing. The European Sustainable Agriculture through Genome Editing (EU-SAGE) network, with  members from 132 European research institutes, declared in an open letter that “developing new crop varieties [requires] tools that are safe, easy, and fast, and the latest addition to these tools is precision breeding or genome editing.” Echoing Sweden, the statement notes that gene editing offers an increasing range of solutions for more efficient selection of climate-resilient crops, and recommends that the EU endorse the technology to improve the welfare of all EU citizens.

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Logo of the German Greens. The party has previously been hostile to crop biotechnology

In June 2020, Germany joined this growing chorus of scientific opposition, but vocal support came from surprising quarters. More than 20 members of the German Green party, hardly a bastion of pro-GMO advocacy, issued a statement affirming that “it is imperative to combine sustainability and new biotechnologies stemming from genetic engineering.” The statement noted Europe allows gene-editing research for biomedical applications to proceed, so why not those designed to make farming more sustainable? With “appropriate supervision,” the pro-biotech Greens argued crop gene editing could do great things for Europe, concluding that current European regulations on GMOs “no longer correspond to the current state of the science.”

The internal debate has continued since the summer, and the party as of November 19 is considering three proposals that would solidify its position on crop biotechnology: the first rejects genetic engineering; a second compromise proposal lends cautious support to gene-editing research; and a final advocates for a modern, science-driven view of genetic engineering, with more than 150 independent academics urging the Greens “not to close the door to a fact-based view of the new genetic engineering processes …. In particular, the current state of science should be recognized, further research should be made possible and therefore no release [of gene-edited crops] can be prevented across the board. ” [Editor’s note: Automated translation from Google]

European Young Farmers endorse gene-editing

The European Council of Young Farmers (CEJA), which represents the political interests of roughly two million young farmers from across Europe, declared its support for NBTs. “Ensuring that food producers are provided with the appropriate alternatives is the way to make progress,” said CEJA President Jannes Maes. “The larger you make the toolbox, the easier it is for different types of farmers to find the right tools to do their part.”

Could COVID cripple the anti-GMO movement?

The ongoing pandemic has taught us many lessons, but perhaps the most important is that science can save lives when it isn’t stifled by politically motivated regulations, such as Europe’s 20-year-old GMO rules that would have delayed the development of a COVID vaccine. In that sense, the pandemic marks the return to a scientific reality where public health policy is guided by public health experts. If consumers and policymakers recognize that doctors know more about biotech vaccines than they do, perhaps they’ll also recognize that agriculture scientists know more about GM crops than they do.

This won’t happen immediately, but a genetically engineered vaccine could slowly shift how the public thinks about biotechnology. Historically, the anti-GMO movement has viciously fought the idea that mainstream science can be trusted, especially research funded and conducted by biotech companies. However, as firms like Pfizer and Moderna utilize biotechnology to hopefully bring the pandemic to an end, GMO skeptics may be sidelined, microbiologist Alex Berezow recently pointed out:

Like all conspiracy theorists, [anti-GMO groups] just won’t go away. But now it appears that they have been marginalized thanks to companies like Pfizer and Moderna, which are using biotechnology to help rescue us from the COVID pandemic. Both companies are using RNA (which has been genetically edited or modified in some way) as the key ingredient in their coronavirus vaccines.

The recent news that their vaccines are 90% and 95% effective, respectively, means that biotechnology is a savior of humanity rather than a horseman of the Apocalypse. This is obviously bad news for people who make a living by telling people that science is scary.

Dr. Volker Wissing Minister of Economics, Transport, Agriculture and Viticulture in Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate region made a strikingly similar point during a November 19 parliamentary debate over the future of genetic engineering in the country. The rapid development of COVID vaccines shows the “steadily growing possibilities of biotechnology and especially of genetic engineering,” the minister said, referencing future biotech applications in agriculture and medicine. “The discussion about genetic engineering must no longer be narrowed down to the risks …. Further research should not simply be restricted. On the contrary: innovations are needed – not least in order to remain competitive as an export nation.” [Editor’s note: Automated translation from Google]

Time for new gene-editing regulations

What all of this illustrates is that Europe’s outdated, unscientific policy on genetic engineering needs reforming. The path forward will be long and complicated (bureaucrats and politicians rarely move quickly), but science-based legislation that provides legal certainty on biotech crops would spur investment in important plant-breeding projects (like climate-resilient crops) and allow EU farmers and consumers to benefit from the latest technology.

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The Commission could start by appointing regulators with the expertise to evaluate new crop varieties on a case-by-case basis to determine which ones count as “GMOs” according to the EU’s Directive 2001/18/EU. The alternative is to create another expensive system of patchwork regulation that reinforces the mistakes Europe made when it enacted GMO regulations based on disinformation spread by anti-biotech NGOs. Such an approach to gene editing would only benefit the largest biotech companies, which have the financial resources to navigate the regulatory morass, and restrict the tools farmers can use.

As Sweden’s Andersson remarked, there are reasons to worry about the long terms effects this regulatory approach could have on EU agriculture. Since these new technologies are being employed in other parts of the world, farming in Europe risks becoming less and less competitive. The “European Commission has many other important issues to deal with,” he noted, “but a thorough modernization of the legislation on plant breeding cannot wait any longer.”

Luis Ventura is a biologist with expertise in biotechnology, biosafety and science communication, born and raised in a small town near Mexico City. He is a Plant Genetic Resources International Platform Fellow at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Follow him on Twitter @luisventura

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Podcast: Beyond CRISPR and gene therapy—How ‘gene writing’ is poised to transform the treatment of even the rarest diseases

In just a few short years, gene editing has launched a biomedical revolution, yielding previously unimaginable treatments for conditions ranging from sickle cell disease to blindness. But for all its capabilities, the technology is limited by an important drawback: it typically can only disrupt a deleterious gene underlying a specific trait. So what do scientists do when editing a patient’s existing DNA won’t solve the problem? Write new genes.

The next step in the evolution of genetic medicine, gene writing exploits a natural process in cells that allows researchers to install genes of interest, replacing damaged DNA sequences that cause debilitating diseases and may not be treatable with other genetic engineering tools. According to Tessera Theraputics, a biotech startup working to harness the new technology’s potential:

RNA gene writers can change base pairs, make small insertions or deletions, and integrate entire genes into the genome …. This flexibility means that in the future, we could cure rare genetic disorders with treatments that are easily distributed, manufactured at scale, and re-dosed if necessary.

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On this episode of Talking Biotech, Dr. Geoff von Maltzhan of Tessera joins host Kevin Folta to explain how gene writing works and highlight its most promising medical applications.

 

Dr. Geoffrey von Maltzahn is co-founder, Chief Executive Officer, and Director of Tessera Therapeutics, as well as a General Partner at Flagship Pioneering, where he focuses on inventing technologies and starting companies to address global challenges in medicine and environmental sustainability. Find Geoffrey on Twitter @GVMaltzahn

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

The Talking Biotech podcast, produced by Kevin Folta, is available for listening or subscription:

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Viewpoint: Climate change threatens our forests. Smarter fire control and sustainable logging can help us fight back

There has been an ongoing debate about the viability of tree planting and forest restoration to fight climate change. But this debate — focused on sequestering more carbon — has neglected the many non-climate benefits of better forest management, such as clean water, wildlife conservation, and economic support for rural communities.

Trees as a climate solution are not a new idea. The physicist Freeman Dyson proposed the idea in 1977, and Al Gore noted it in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth almost 15 years ago. But the concept has recently emerged as a rare point of bipartisan agreement around climate solutions. In fact, Republicans have made it a centerpiece of their current climate agenda with McCarthy’s recent Trillion Trees legislation, and Democrats have highlighted the concept in many of their recent climate plans.

However, the carbon benefits of such proposals are fairly modest — due to challenges associated with carbon accounting, land use conflict, and tree planting in areas that were not previously forested (dark tree cover in areas that were previously more reflective can actually increase warming, a phenomenon called the albedo effect). At best, without displacing agricultural land, tree restoration could remove up to 540 MtCO2 annually, equivalent to only 11 percent of energy emissions in 2019. Therefore, planting trees is best seen as a compliment for, rather than a substitute for, emissions mitigation.

But while tree planting has its limitations, improved forest management policy is still sorely needed in the US. Such policy should recognize that the health of forests requires restoring natural fire regimes and encouraging smarter logging practices, two things that might seem antithetical to a singular goal of emissions reductions but support forests’ ability to both balance legitimate competing priorities and store sequester carbon over the long term.

Strengthening forest resilience by restoring natural fire regimes

Healthy forests offer a variety of “ecosystem services,” including clean water, carbon storage, and wildlife habitat. Smart forest management can increase forest resilience to climate change impacts and can help maintain these services in a changing world.

Today, forests in the US must contend with a multitude of climate-driven stressors, which may fundamentally compromise forest carbon sinks in the 21st century and severely undermine our ability to use forest management as a successful climate solution. Fire, drought, harmful insects, and disease are the primary risks, which will increasingly amplify each other as climate change worsens.

We are already seeing these climate-driven impacts on US forests. The number of Western forest fires has been increasing, especially those that grow to more than 100,000 acres. These massive fires can burn the topsoil and underlying seed banks, hampering a forest’s ability to naturally regenerate. Drought is also a growing concern. The 2001-2015 California drought killed an estimated 140 million trees and changed the state’s forests from a net sink to a net carbon emitter. Shorter and milder winters are also enabling the spread of bark beetles, which can quickly decimate drought weakened forests. Overall, the average annual mortality rates of forests have increased nationwide over the last decade (mortality rates in the Rocky Mountains have doubled in that same timeframe). Changes in tree species composition and distribution are also being observed. For example, red maple, a species that thrives on disturbed land, is now the most numerous tree in the conterminous United States.

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Communities across the US depend on healthy forests for access to clean water and protection from catastrophic forest fires. Improved forest management can help maintain healthy watersheds by increasing water flow, decreasing flood risks, and keeping water temperatures cool for vulnerable fish species during hot summer months. And, preventing catastrophic wildfires can help protect these watersheds. When megafires destroy all vegetation across the landscape and limit the ability of forests to regenerate, the soil is unable to absorb and filter rainfall, leading to massive runoff events, erosion, and flooding that would otherwise be more limited.

Compromised forest resilience is also a threat to wildlife conservation. Even fire-adapted ecosystems can suffer when catastrophic fires burn at such intensity and frequency that they cannot recover.

So, how to improve forest resilience in the era of climate change? Start by fighting fire with fire. In the past, forest managers have made efforts to suppress all fires, which has resulted in dangerously high fuel loads. Over the last 20 years, the use of prescribed fire increased about 5 percent each year, but nearly all of that increase (98 percent) was in the Southeast US — not in western forests where overly dense vegetation and megafires are most prevalent. While prescribed fire can lead to more emissions in the short term, this practice can reduce the risk of the truly massive fires we have seen in recent years, and their associated emissions.

Mechanical treatments are another valuable tool. Thinning overly dense stands can prevent “fuel ladders” which would otherwise result in a type of crown fires that truly decimate forests.

By implementing mechanical thinning, forest managers can reduce the risk of megafires and ensure watersheds remain resilient in a changing climate. Such practices can also create outdoor jobs in a time when the economy is in a downturn and may be more feasible near developed areas where prescribed fires could concern local residents.

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Whole tree mechanical thinning. Credit: Policy Interns

There are other promising restoration practices — including planting genetically diverse and resistant trees that are more resilient to insect infestations, disease, and drought — but additional federal research would be necessary to scale them up responsibly.

It is important to note that forest management policy that is overly focused on carbon sequestration could result in ecosystem conversion and undercut efforts to preserve healthy watersheds and protect biodiversity. A recent study examined subsidy driven plantation expansion in Chile between 1986 and 2011, and the resulting carbon and biodiversity impacts. Focusing tree planting efforts on commercially valuable species, as opposed to restoring native forests, resulted in plantation forest area doubling between 1986 and 2011, while native forests shrunk by 13 percent.

While the program was successful from an economic perspective (forestry and tree products in Chile accounted for exports of $2.3 billion in 2019), it was a failure from a biodiversity and carbon perspective. Because plantation forests often consisted of only one or two valuable tree species, biodiversity declined in Chile. Further, while “forested area” expanded by more than 100 percent between 1986 and 2011, the carbon stored in vegetation increased by just 1.98 percent — offering poor results.

Forest management must take a balanced approach to maintaining ecosystem services, and carbon sequestration alone should not take precedence over other benefits. Such a holistic approach to management is expensive — estimates for restoration efforts range from $600-1500 per acre. However, when such costs are held up against the cost of catastrophic fires, floods, and other risks associated with poorly maintained forests (last year’s Camp Fire in northern California caused nearly $13 billion in damages) they seem fairly cost-effective.

Supporting rural economies through more sustainable logging

Forests offer another valuable commodity beyond the ecosystem services discussed above — timber. Granted, logging has climate impacts — altogether logging in the US emits far more carbon than forest fires. But the timber industry is integral to the American economy, and to rural economies in particular. The industry employs about one million workers and accounts for approximately 6 percent of the total US manufacturing GDP, similar to the automotive and plastics industry. And while the US only has 5 percent of the Earth’s population it consumes an estimated 28 percent of the Earth’s industrial wood products, and a staggering 96 percent comes from domestic supplies.

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Credit: Machinefinder

Because the US timber industry is such a critical component of rural economies, simply halting extraction via regulatory measures is unlikely to prove a winning emissions reduction strategy. While stricter environmental laws have played a role in limiting harvests on federal lands, they have done little to halt overall timber production, merely increasing incentives to shift production to private lands. National Forests accounted for 35 percent of reserved forest land area nationwide, but tree removals for products, fire management, and land-use changes on national forests consumed only 0.2 percent of standing volume on average, annually. In contrast, close to 90 percent of wood harvested comes from private lands.

Instead, a better strategy would be to overhaul harvest practices on federal lands (and encourage better practices on private lands). Current logging practices can be vastly improved to minimize negative environmental impacts, and policymakers have an opportunity to make the US a world leader in sustainable forest management.

The surprising fact is that even though logging was reduced in national forests, they are not thriving in its absence. Despite the low volume of wood extracted from national forests, average annual net growth (calculated as gross growth minus mortality) declined while average annual mortality nearly doubled from 2006-2016. These patterns reflect aging forests and combinations of wildfire, drought, and insect infestations.

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Policymakers should incorporate sustainable timber harvesting into tree planting policy proposals — incentivizing solutions that don’t simply shift demand from national forests to private lands, but instead re-make the timber industry so that it supports ecological sustainability and helps improve long term forest health. Examples of better practices include those that require an increase in harvest rotation length, incorporate reforestation practices that speed the recovery of degraded lands, and ensure the exclusion of harvest in old-growth forests.

Environmental, economic, and social challenges are interconnected, and solutions that benefit multiple aspects of these challenges, even if they don’t directly benefit climate change, are critical. Forest health is declining, and forest managers do not have adequate support to address the full scope of today’s challenges. There is a unique opportunity to harness public support for tree planting and forest restoration to ensure US forest management policy reflects 21st century needs.

Lauren Anderson is Forest Climate Policy Coordinator at Oregon Wild. She was formally a Climate and Energy Analyst at the Breakthrough Institute. Lauren previously worked in Washington, D.C. with the National Wildlife Federation on federal energy, climate, and wildlife policy initiatives. Lauren received her MPP from Oregon State University where she focused on energy policy. Lauren can be found on Twitter @LaurenRAnders1

A version of this article was originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute and has been reposted here with permission. The Breakthrough Institute can be found on Twitter @TheBTI

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Podcast: GM salmon coming soon? Food ingredients you can’t pronounce are safe; Monsanto patent lawsuit myths

Monsanto never sued farmers because their fields were accidentally contaminated with the company’s GM seed. AquaBounty’s genetically engineered AquAdvantage salmon may be headed for grocery stores in early 2021, despite ongoing activist-group litigation. Ignore the food gurus; food ingredients are safe—even if you can’t pronounce them.

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

Anti-GMO groups and reporters have for years claimed that Monsanto wrongly sued hundreds of farmers for patent infringement, helping fuel the public’s skepticism of biotech crops and the scientists who develop them. But when this idea was put to the test in court, it failed spectacularly.

In March 2011, the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) sued Monsanto to stop the company from suing farmers whose farms were ‘contaminated’ by genetically engineered seeds. The biotech giant argued it had never sued growers because its GM seeds accidentally landed in their fields, and the court agreed. “After a careful reading of the decision, and looking past the necessary niceties of legalese,” writes GLP contributor Marc Brazeau, “one gets the very clear sense of a plaintiff being laughed out of court.”

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After 30 years of development and regulatory review, AquaBounty’s fast-growing GM salmon is poised to hit grocery stores in 2021, making it the first genetically engineered animal to be approved for human consumption. But even as the biotech startup nears the finish line, it (alongside the FDA) is battling activists in court committed to keeping the fish off the market. Led by the Center for Food Safety, these anti-biotech groups claim the salmon poses an unprecedented threat to its wild relatives, should it escape into the ocean. How likely is it that AquaBounty’s AquAdvantage salmon will makes its way into the wild?

We’ve all heard this rule of thumb: don’t eat any food ingredient you can’t pronounce, the assumption being that anything with a complex, chemical name must be unnatural and thus potentially harmful. In reality, this shortcut to reading food labels makes little sense. The safety and nutritional qualities of food don’t change based on how complicated the ingredient list is. Don’t believe us? Try reading the names of chemicals in a banana.

Subscribe to the Science Facts and Fallacies Podcast on iTunes and Spotify.

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

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‘Like a fire alarm and a sprinkler system all in one’: Immune proteins keep some COVID patients from getting seriously ill

Dr. Megan Ranney has learned a lot about COVID-19 since she began treating patients with the disease in the emergency department in February.

But there’s one question she still can’t answer: What makes some patients so much sicker than others?

Advancing age and underlying medical problems explain only part of the phenomenon, said Ranney, who has seen patients of similar age, background and health status follow wildly different trajectories.

“Why does one 40-year-old get really sick and another one not even need to be admitted?” asked Ranney, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Brown University.

In some cases, provocative new research shows, some people — men in particular — succumb because their immune systems are hit by friendly fire. Researchers hope the finding will help them develop targeted therapies for these patients.

In an international study in Science, 10% of nearly 1,000 COVID patients who developed life-threatening pneumonia had antibodies that disable key immune system proteins called interferons. These antibodies — known as autoantibodies because they attack the body itself — were not found at all in 663 people with mild or asymptomatic COVID infections. Only four of 1,227 healthy individuals had the autoantibodies. The study, published on Oct. 23, was led by the COVID Human Genetic Effort, which includes 200 research centers in 40 countries.

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Interferon alpha. Credit: Alamy

“This is one of the most important things we’ve learned about the immune system since the start of the pandemic,” said Dr. Eric Topol, executive vice president for research at Scripps Research in San Diego, who was not involved in the new study. “This is a breakthrough finding.”

In a second Science study by the same team, authors found that an additional 3.5% of critically ill patients had mutations in genes that control the interferons involved in fighting viruses. Given that the body has 500 to 600 of these genes, it’s possible researchers will find more mutations, said Qian Zhang, lead author of the second study.

Interferons serve as the body’s first line of defense against infection, sounding the alarm and activating an army of virus-fighting genes, said virologist Angela Rasmussen, an associate research scientist at the Center of Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

“Interferons are like a fire alarm and a sprinkler system all in one,” said Rasmussen, who wasn’t involved in the new studies.

Lab studies show interferons are suppressed in some people with COVID-19, perhaps by the virus itself.

Interferons are particularly important for protecting the body against new viruses, such as the coronavirus, which the body has never encountered, said Zhang, a researcher at Rockefeller University’s St. Giles Laboratory of Human Genetics of Infectious Diseases.

When infected with the novel coronavirus, “your body should have alarms ringing everywhere,” said Zhang. “If you don’t get the alarm out, you could have viruses everywhere in large numbers.”

Significantly, patients didn’t make autoantibodies in response to the virus. Instead, they appeared to have had them before the pandemic even began, said Paul Bastard, the antibody study’s lead author, also a researcher at Rockefeller University.

For reasons that researchers don’t understand, the autoantibodies never caused a problem until patients were infected with COVID-19, Bastard said. Somehow, the novel coronavirus, or the immune response it triggered, appears to have set them in motion.

“Before COVID, their condition was silent,” Bastard said. “Most of them hadn’t gotten sick before.”

Bastard said he now wonders whether autoantibodies against interferon also increase the risk from other viruses, such as influenza. Among patients in his study, “some of them had gotten flu in the past, and we’re looking to see if the autoantibodies could have had an effect on flu.”

Scientists have long known that viruses and the immune system compete in a sort of arms race, with viruses evolving ways to evade the immune system and even suppress its response, said Sabra Klein, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Antibodies are usually the heroes of the immune system, defending the body against viruses and other threats. But sometimes, in a phenomenon known as autoimmune disease, the immune system appears confused and creates autoantibodies. This occurs in diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, when antibodies attack the joints, and Type 1 diabetes, in which the immune system attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

Although doctors don’t know the exact causes of autoimmune disease, they’ve observed that the conditions often occur after a viral infection. Autoimmune diseases are more common as people age.

[newsetter]

In yet another unexpected finding, 94% of patients in the study with these autoantibodies were men. About 12.5% of men with life-threatening COVID pneumonia had autoantibodies against interferon, compared with 2.6% of women.

That was unexpected, given that autoimmune disease is far more common in women, Klein said.

“I’ve been studying sex differences in viral infections for 22 years, and I don’t think anybody who studies autoantibodies thought this would be a risk factor for COVID-19,” Klein said.

The study might help explain why men are more likely than women to become critically ill with COVID-19 and die, Klein said.

“You see significantly more men dying in their 30s, not just in their 80s,” she said.

Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology at the Yale School of Medicine, noted that several genes involved in the immune system’s response to viruses are on the X chromosome.

Women have two copies of this chromosome — along with two copies of each gene. That gives women a backup in case one copy of a gene becomes defective, Iwasaki said.

Men, however, have only one copy of the X chromosome. So if there is a defect or harmful gene on the X chromosome, they have no other copy of that gene to correct the problem, Iwasaki said.

Bastard noted that one woman in the study who developed autoantibodies has a rare genetic condition in which she has only one X chromosome.

Scientists have struggled to explain why men have a higher risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. When the disease first appeared in China, experts speculated that men suffered more from the virus because they are much more likely to smoke than Chinese women.

Researchers quickly noticed that men in Spain were also more likely to die of COVID-19, however, even though men and women there smoke at about the same rate, Klein said.

Experts have hypothesized that men might be put at higher risk by being less likely to wear masks in public than women and more likely to delay seeking medical care, Klein said.

But behavioral differences between men and women provide only part of the answer. Scientists say it’s possible that the hormone estrogen may somehow protect women, while testosterone may put men at greater risk. Interestingly, recent studies have found that obesity poses a much greater risk to men with COVID-19 than to women, Klein said.

Yet women have their own form of suffering from COVID-19.

Studies show women are four times more likely to experience long-term COVID symptoms, lasting weeks or months, including fatigue, weakness and a kind of mental confusion known as “brain fog,” Klein noted.

As women, “maybe we survive it and are less likely to die, but then we have all these long-term complications,” she said.

After reading the studies, Klein said, she would like to learn whether patients who become severely ill from other viruses, such as influenza, also harbor genes or antibodies that disable interferon.

“There’s no evidence for this in flu,” Klein said. “But we haven’t looked. Through COVID-19, we may have uncovered a very novel mechanism of disease, which we could find is present in a number of diseases.”

To be sure, scientists say that the new study solves only part of the mystery of why patient outcomes can vary so greatly.

Researchers say it’s possible that some patients are protected by past exposure to other coronaviruses. Patients who get very sick also may have inhaled higher doses of the virus, such as from repeated exposure to infected co-workers.

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Dr. Megan Ranney, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Brown University, says that even after months of treating emergency room patients with COVID-19 she doesn’t know what makes certain patients so much sicker than others. Credit: Megan Ranney

Although doctors have looked for links between disease outcomes and blood type, studies have produced conflicting results.

Screening patients for autoantibodies against interferons could help predict which patients are more likely to become very sick, said Bastard, who is also affiliated with the Necker Hospital for Sick Children in Paris. Testing takes about two days. Hospitals in Paris can now screen patients on request from a doctor, he said.

Although only 10% of patients with life-threatening COVID-19 have autoantibodies, “I think we should give the test to everyone who is admitted,” Bastard said. Otherwise, “we wouldn’t know who is at risk for a severe form of the disease.”

Bastard said he hopes his findings will lead to new therapies that save lives. He notes that the body manufactures many types of interferons. Giving these patients a different type of interferon — one not disabled by their genes or autoantibodies — might help them fight off the virus.

In fact, a pilot study of 98 patients published Thursday in the Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal found benefits from an inhaled form of interferon. In the industry-funded British study, hospitalized COVID patients randomly assigned to receive interferon beta-1a were more than twice as likely as others to recover enough to resume their regular activities.

Researchers need to confirm these findings in a much larger study, said Dr. Nathan Peiffer-Smadja, a researcher at Imperial College London who was not involved in the study but wrote an accompanying editorial. Future studies should test patients’ blood for genetic mutations and autoantibodies against interferon, to see if they respond differently than others.

Peiffer-Smadja notes that inhaled interferon may work better than an injected form of the drug because it’s delivered directly to the lungs. While injected versions of interferon have been used for years to treat other diseases, the inhaled version is still experimental and not commercially available.

And doctors should be cautious about interferon for now, because a study led by the World Health Organization found no benefit to an injected form of the drug in COVID patients, Peiffer-Smadja said. In fact, there was a trend toward higher mortality rates in patients given interferon, although this finding could have been due to chance. Giving interferon later in the course of disease could encourage a destructive immune overreaction called a cytokine storm, in which the immune system does more damage than the virus.

Around the world, scientists have launched more than 100 clinical trials of interferons, according to clinicaltrials.gov, a database of research studies from the National Institutes of Health.

Until larger studies are completed, doctors say, Bastard’s findings are unlikely to change how they treat COVID-19.

Dr. Lewis Kaplan, president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine, said he treats patients according to their symptoms, not their risk factors.

“If you are a little sick, you get treated with a little bit of care,” Kaplan said. “You are really sick, you get a lot of care. But if a COVID patient comes in with hypertension, diabetes and obesity, we don’t say, ‘They have risk factors. Let’s put them in the ICU.’”

Liz Szabo is a senior correspondent and enterprise reporter who focuses on the quality of patient care and has covered medicine for two decades. Her stories about cancer and overtreatment for KHN have won numerous awards, including first place in the National Headliner Awards. Find Liz on Twitter @LizSzabo

A version of this article was originally posted at Kaiser Health News and has been reposted here with permission. Kaiser Health News can be found on Twitter @KHNews

Viewpoint: Calling Great Barrington Declaration endorsers ‘COVID deniers’ itself denies there are better strategies than lockdowns to contain the pandemic

We may not know for quite a while whether the three academics who wrote the Great Barrington Declaration are right or wrong; but it is very clear at the moment that the scientists and interest groups shouting them down, using ad hominem attacks and labels and trying to suppress debate on this issue are clearly in the wrong.

Herd mentality

The scientific method was not designed for the immediacy of social media and the speed at which factions (tribes) can emotionally manipulate evidence. As a collection of story-telling tools, the Internet favours anecdotes over evidence, allowing discussions to melt quickly into ad hominem attacks. These attacks, however, are wielded now not by cranks and activists, but more by “people of science” who herd themselves together into mobs marching under some (politicised) consensus banner.

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic exposes this weakness as scientists are still struggling to learn about the virus and the best means to manage it, but populations fed information via social media tools are too impatient and unforgiving while political opportunists have other (often more urgent) agenda. So while science learns, the scientific community burns.

Those who are most irrational (and insulting) are the scientists who prefer to huddle under the façade of a consensus. These are usually the ones who scream “denier” to anybody not falling in line with their community (ie, the self-proclaimed academic mob). “XYZ-Denier” is the new witch-hunt dollar holler in a world prone to react rather than read.

There have been many attacks on these three academics by regulatory scientific advisers from Anthony Fauci to Martin McKee. One such scientific witch-hunt example was a rather unhinged article on “COVID-19 Deniers” by David Gorski, a surgical oncologist, professor of surgery at Wayne State University School of Medicine, and a surgical oncologist who also writes a popular science blog, Science-Based Medicine.

She’s a witch, burn her!

Gorski’s latest is a tirade against the Great Barrington Declaration.

[Editor’s note: Read the GLP Gorski piece – Viewpoint: Great Barrington Declaration arguing for herd immunity ‘takes page from denialist propaganda playbook]

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Reading through the manufactured outrage, Gorski did not really get into the details of the position of the three epidemiologists who authored the declaration, choosing rather to label and insult them citing: “patterns in the strategies and technique used by those denying science to promote their pseudoscience or quackery”.

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That these three academics (Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, far left, Dr. Sunetra Gupta and Dr. Martin Kulldorff/Credit: Taled Brown) come from Oxford, Harvard and Stanford must have enraged Gorski more since he resorted to an ad populum fallacy, ridiculing the people who were supporting their position rather than taking on the issue. The only credit he allowed the three scientists is the half insult that their position is “a little different” in that it isn’t completely like creationists, climate deniers, pro-tobacco lobbyists and anti-vaxxers because we have not yet reached a clear consensus on COVID-19 to use to categorically refute them. Sweet.

In this, the Great Barrington Declaration is only a little different, but at its heart it’s the same technique from the same old playbook, with that “little difference” being that COVID-19 is a new disease and the scientific consensus regarding it isn’t as solid as the consensus is in the case of, for example, evolution, climate science, and vaccines.

– David Gorski

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Dr. David Gorski

Whenever I see consensus-huggers, alarm bells go off. Allow me to generalise along the same fallacious route as the good doctor. Anyone who accuses others of being a “denier” is hiding behind the veil of a perceived consensus.

Using the word “scientific” in front of the word “consensus” reveals a naïve understanding of how scientists work. Going back to Popper, the scientific method is meant to challenge all assumptions and confront any idea of a consensus (something craved by politicians). I expressed my views on this elsewhere – people using consensus numbers are not respecting the scientific method. They lay claim to “the science” while cheapening it with politics.

I am really disappointed when I see politics enter in and obliterate open scientific discussion on such an important issue. Gorski cites how the Great Barrington Declaration states it is important to invest more in protecting the vulnerable and applying strict risk reduction measures in nursing homes (good, but this is common sense, basic risk management and something I have been calling for since March). But then Gorski dismisses it with a sentence like this: “On the surface, this sounds oh-so-reasonable. However, saying that we should aim for “herd immunity” is a common trope of COVID-19 deniers.”

First of all, ignoring the gratuitous COVID-19 deniers slur, who says we “aim for herd immunity”? Herd immunity is what is needed in order to allow societies to live with viruses. The issue here is not about intention but about the means: whether herd immunity is attained via a vaccine or through sufficient virus transmission (“how wide of a herd is wide enough” is also an issue).

The Great Barrington Declaration is not aiming for a cull on the elderly nor “eugenics”; it is not calling for irresponsible behaviour or chicken-pox-style COVID parties – this is bad journalism from someone who should be able to read and control his bias.

There are issues to discuss about how far to let the virus spread naturally (to avoid overloading healthcare systems, exposing those with unknown vulnerabilities), how much to manage the spread, where risk reduction measures and resources are best used… if a vaccine is not imminent, then the question of reaching herd immunity is simply a matter of “how fast”. To attack scientists who want to see more resources directed to the protection of the elderly and less for the healthy, young populations, and then to catcall them as “COVID-19 deniers” is just, well, ridiculous.

Denierism

This extensive use of the “D” word within the scientific community has to stop. It is abusive, political and shows an irresponsible aversion toward discourse and engagement. The three epidemiologists from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford are clearly not COVID-19 deniers like those on the streets shouting “hoax” while ripping people’s facemasks off and Gorski clearly knows this. He is merely playing this card because he thinks this insult will hurt enough to make them go away. What a disgrace.

If you’re not with us, you’re against us… and anyone against us (the consensus) is handed the exclusionary slur: “-denier” (to be applied following words like “science-“, “climate change-” or “COVID-19-“). This is an overused rhetorical practice that should be given a name so allow me to adapt a word (borrowed from earlier Christian faith debates) into the Monger Lexicon: denierism.

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Denierism is the unreasonable use of the suffix “-denier” to try to end discussions without having to address difficult arguments. It is usually applied against one who is challenging some perceived consensus. This person is considered a threat, excluded from the tribe and any further discourse via the use of a hurtful “-denier” charge – a verbal excommunication slur implying they are irrationally refusing to accept the said truth.

A “denier” differs from a “sceptic” who is lauded as rightfully challenging a perceived consensus that goes against the interests or beliefs of the tribe.

Confused yet? Me too, but there is a logic in there somewhere and it lays within a closed herd mentality.

In the rest of his article, Gorski simply melts down into an embarrassing denieristic tirade comparing the three epidemiologists to a wide range of irrational science deniers (evolution, 9/11, vaccines and, of course, climate change). He found it necessary to supply endless screenshots showing how some Declaration signatures were fictitious (jokes played no doubt by those from his tribe) and citing sources that are more conspiracy-theory laden than any QAnon and Trump tricks combined. How is this in any possible way “science-based”?

Did you know the building where these academics met in Great Barrington had received funding from the Koch Brothers? Therefore, these epidemiologists are climate deniers too.

OK, time to unfollow Gorski and his denieristic tribe – they’re adding nothing positive to this scientific discussion.

I’m proud to be a “COVID-19 Denier”

[I] did indeed sign the Great Barrington Declaration for many reasons:

  • I am offended that farmers protect their livestock better than Western societies treat their elderly, the generation that fought to secure our freedom in World War II. We knew in January the elderly were high risk and yet even in May, government authorities from Croatia to Sweden to the UK to Belgium were still unable to provide adequate risk reduction measures for their nursing homes.
  • Our authorities need to manage this crisis through a risk-based approach and give up the hazard-based precautionary impulse to shut, ban or prevent anything that may require basic risk management skills.
  • The lockdowns unfairly punish the poor. Middle-class Western populations easily shifted to working from home and maybe had to deal with having their kids around (but they stayed mostly in their gardens). Those less fortunate paid a much bigger price (often with their lives) for a virus that the more wealthy travelling classes brought into their communities. Don’t even get me started at how this affects the less affluent in developing countries where most of the vulnerable earn a meagre living on the streets. My hypocrite gauge turns red when people like Gorski question whether the lockdowns caused any economic pain.
  • Twenty years of precaution as the only Western health policy tool has created a Docilian population demanding zero-risk and expecting to be kept safe. They are not safe and expecting them to stay indoors, wash their hands and hope the virus passes further weakens resilience. We should be empowering people, trusting them to manage exposures and do what’s needed to protect themselves.
  • Without a vaccine, lockdowns prolong the process to reach a reasonable level of herd immunity, forcing the vulnerable to shelter in place much longer and leave businesses, livelihoods and economies more likely to be shattered beyond repair.
  • Concentrating all resources on wide lockdowns puts strains on other public services from policing to general healthcare. With numbers in decline, the UK government had to urge parents to keep to their children’s vaccination schedule. Preventative cancer tests are down in many countries including Belgium. This year I had three appointments with my cardiologist changed.
  • The scientific advice most governments get is badly imbalanced (often, like the UK SAGE body, centred more around mathematicians than immunologists). Sadly, in most European countries, the summer pause was wasted and the public has little trust or patience left for their pronouncements. Simply put, populations won’t listen to regulators they don’t trust so at least try to protect the vulnerable.
  • Before COVID-19, 25% of students faced mental health issues. I have been forced to witness a depression demolition in my student body. I am supposed to provide our next generation with inspiration and the best I can do is offer them a sympathetic ear. What our leaders have done to the young is almost as sickening as what they didn’t do for the elderly. While I am at high risk myself to this coronavirus, it would be immoral and indefensible for me to promote a lockdown policy that might lead to half a dozen of the young people in my lecture hall committing suicide so that I can enjoy maybe ten more good years.
  • The coming economic collapse horrifies me. The breakdown of supply chains, crop failures, locusts and likely widespread famines horrify me. The increase in domestic violence due to lockdown measures imposed by the comfortable classes horrifies me. The irrational and awful ad hominen attacks on free thinkers by smug, affluent piss artists in the sci-comm world horrify me.

The Great Scientific Pissing Contest

There was nothing in the Great Barrington Declaration that I disagreed with – it was well-articulated common sense that anyone involved in health risk management could clearly understand. One thing I didn’t think was necessary was making the document open to signatures, not only because it opened the Declaration up to cranks and immature opponents. It reminded me of the time of REACH in Brussels where opposing lobbying groups put out letters or impact assessments and they counted the signatures thinking that would change the facts. Science is not democratic, you can’t vote out evidence or facts.

And sure enough the precautionistas came out with a document of their own to challenge the Great Barrington Declaration called the John Snow Memorandum. Science will now be decided by whose consulting firm can garner more signatures. Welcome to science in the Age of Stupid.

The John Snow Memorandum was written to refute the position of the Great Barrington Declaration. But this reactionary document broadly misrepresented the Declaration suggesting they were proposing “allowing a large uncontrolled outbreak” and that vulnerable populations were too large to feasibly be protected.

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I’m really not sure why the John Snow Memorandum authors felt it was unethical and unfeasible to lock down certain populations (but that it was OK to lock down entire populations). [I have a] second home in Manila where those over 60 years of age are required to shelter in place. This is largely followed in a country where the Titos and Titas are respected and supported.

The most ridiculous claim in the Memorandum is that the lockdown policy will work – just look at Japan, Vietnam and New Zealand. I live in Belgium and while it would be a dream to have hygiene and cultural practices like the Japanese, that won’t happen anytime soon. Nor do we have the centralised control and military precision of a Communist government (we just got a new government after only 500 days of negotiations … again). And finally, Belgium is surrounded by large mobile populations that drive its economy – we are not a remote island that can easily lock down and keep exporting agricultural products. To cite these three “success stories” doesn’t convince me to trust these consensus-mongers.

So this scientific pissing contest is confusing and, well, not helpful to building public trust in scientific advice (which I fear will collapse far below the UK decline in pubic trust in regulatory science post-BSE). One of the problems is that the public thinks all scientists are the same (even after 12 seasons of the Big Bang Theory). In this case of duelling declarations, epidemiologists have triggered virologists and biologists. When I worked in the research centre of a Belgian chemical-pharmaceutical company, I used to watch the open animosity between chemists and biologists (although both were equally detested by the chemical engineers who had to clean up after them).

It would be nice though if these different branches of science could be more polite in their disagreements. But then politics enters (with an extra ad hominem sauce).

Who is John Snow?

Why was the rebuttal of the epidemiologist proposal called the John Snow Memorandum? Who is John Snow? He didn’t sign the article.

During a cholera outbreak in London in the 1850s, John Snow identified the source as the Broad Street well pump. Against the prevailing belief that cholera was an airborne infection, removing the pump handle put an end to the outbreak. Importantly, many activists claim John Snow to be the father of the precautionary principle. The Memorandum website even has a pump as its icon.

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John Snow. Credit: Med Page Today

In other words, the John Snow Memorandum rebuttal of the Great Barrington Declaration is just another hazard-based precautionary attack on a risk-based approach – in this case on how to manage the COVID-19 coronavirus. There is uncertainty and for them, the only way to manage uncertainty is to stop all activity and remove all exposures … regardless the consequences.

Now I know why these scientists are so aggressive and intolerant. Now I know why it was so easy to recognise the stronger argument from the risk management perspective. Now I know why there won’t be a fair, open discussion on the facts and evidence.

How much longer will we allow these precautionistas to rule the policy process with fear and emotion? How much will societies have to lose before these arrogant zealots themselves start to wake up?

David Zaruk has been an EU risk and science communications specialist since 2000, active in EU policy events from REACH and SCALE to the Pesticides Directive, from Science in Society questions to the use of the Precautionary Principle. Follow him on Twitter @zaruk

This article was originally posted at Risk-Monger and has been reposted here with permission.

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We needed an official scientific name for the ‘warm and fuzzies’: It’s kama muta

Some emotions you seem to recognize the moment you feel them – you know when you’re angry, surprised, embarrassed or jealous. And yet you probably can’t name one of life’s most wonderful emotions (in fact, even psychologists have only recently begun to study it). It’s hiding in plain sight: without realizing what you were feeling, you’ve probably experienced this same emotion in diverse situations such as when reunited with family or others you love; in worship; at a wedding; when you first held your newborn baby; when your team won a championship; or when a kitten climbed into your lap, licked your hand, curled up and fell asleep there. You might have felt it marching in a social-movement demonstration, or participating in a support or recovery group.

Now think back. At any of those times, was there a wonderful warm, fuzzy feeling in your heart? Did you cry tears of joy? Were you choked up with happiness? Did you get goosebumps or chills of delight? Feel so buoyant you were almost floating? Perhaps you put your hand on your heart and said ‘Awww!’ If you had these sensations, you were probably feeling this mysterious emotion. Next, you probably wanted to hug everyone, or call your grandparents to tell them how much you love them.

Credit: PetMD

Although there is no exact word in any everyday language for this emotion, English speakers seeking to name the feeling might call it, depending on the context: being moved, touched, team pride, patriotism, being touched by the Spirit, burning in the bosom, the feels, or, when evoked by a memory, nostalgia. However, none of these terms captures precisely what the emotion is – and using any one of them conceals the fact that though it has many names, it is one emotion. So we coined a scientific term for it, ‘kama muta’, borrowed from the ancient Sanskrit where it meant ‘moved by love’, written in the beautiful Devanāgarī script as काममूत.

Kama muta is recognizable by six co-occurring features:

  1. It is evoked by the sudden intensification of communal sharing – that is, sudden ‘love’ or kindness;
  2. It is brief (typically less than a minute or two, though it can repeat in rapid succession);
  3. It feels good (though it can occur in the context of other, negative emotions);
  4. When intense, it is often accompanied by the same set of physical sensations: a warm, fuzzy feeling in the centre of the chest; moist eyes or tears; being choked up (a lump in the throat); chills or goosebumps; and often a smile and putting the palm(s) on the chest, sometimes saying ‘Awwww!’;
  5. It motivates devotion and compassion to communal sharing – also known as ‘loving kindness’;
  6. Depending on the language and the context, it is often labelled with the terms mentioned above.

In several experiments with more than 10,000 participants in 19 nations in 15 languages, involving observation, interviews, diary studies, comparative ethnology and history, we have shown that these six features frequently co-occur, in the specific contexts mentioned above, and many others where love ignites.

We’ve conducted observational research in churches and mosques, in poetry lounges and memorial sites, at Alcoholics Anonymous and eating-disorder residential treatment programmes, in birth centres and with new parents. We have explored hundreds of historical sources and hundreds of ethnographies from diverse cultures all over the world.

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Wherever we’ve looked, in myriad contexts and cultures, we’ve found the same pattern: kama muta and its six features are consistently evoked by viewing videos of sudden connection or kindness, confirming that it is one emotion. So, for example, when we show participants short videos that involve love springing up between fictional characters, the participants tend to get warm feelings in the heart, often along with tears or goosebumps, just as we find in participant observation in Sufi and Pentecostal services when the worshipper suddenly feels divine love.

Kama muta is closely related to, but not the same as, love. Love is an enduring sentiment, whereas kama muta is the momentary emotion that occurs when love ignites. That is, you feel kama muta when new love emerges (such as a first kiss, or someone shows you kindness), or existing love suddenly becomes salient, or a sense of belonging, connection, and identity emerges, for example at a march or demonstration. The suddenly created or intensified love can be romantic, platonic, or religious. It can be with one person, with a family or team, or with the entire Earth. It can be the gratitude for an unexpected kindness, or the sense of connection and belonging at a warm welcome.

Credit: Shutterstock

That feeling is all around us. Social media posts that evoke strong kama muta often go viral – for example, cute kittens, puppies and special animal friendships. The popularity of some literature (especially sentimental novels) and movies (especially romantic comedies) is, we suspect, often largely due to the kama muta they evoke. Kama muta is often the essence of oratory and poetry such as William Shakespeare’s sonnets and Matsuo Bashō’s haiku. Many kinds of music evoke it in multiple ways, as do certain experiences of oneness with nature. It appears to be a universal emotion, present in diverse cultures throughout history.

Many social practices have culturally evolved via their capacity to evoke this appealing emotion. The more a form of worship, a type of music or a narrative evokes kama muta, the more people seek it out, tell others about it and reproduce it. When a Pixar movie, a wedding practice or poetry or photographs evoke kama muta, they spread across the globe. Preachers, orators, marketing creatives and political consultants who can create pitches that effectively evoke kama muta are more successful than those who cannot. Religious practices that engender kama muta presumably attract more worshippers and motivate those who have experienced kama muta to proselytise and to found new congregations. Kama muta moves the world.

When people are isolated and vulnerable, excluded and distressed, kama muta can reconnect them. Patients who feel kama muta with their psychotherapists seem to become more trusting and more committed to healing. Women in residential treatment for eating disorders who bond through kama muta apparently become more motivated to recover. Addicts who experience kama muta in support meetings might be more committed to stay sober. Immigrants who have kama muta experiences with people in their host country are likely to feel a stronger sense of belonging and identification with their hosts. And people who have kama muta experiences with immigrants or LGBTQ persons become more likely to embrace them.

Even a small unexpected kindness kindles kama muta: a thoughtful gift, a hug, an invitation to join a meal, an appearance at your bedside in the hospital. The lonely are more likely to fall ill and more likely to die; in contrast, kama muta connects, probably enhancing wellbeing and health.

We’ve only been studying kama muta for a few years, so many mysteries remain. We don’t yet know the underlying biochemistry or what neural processes are involved in recognizing sudden intensifications of love, or how they generate the sensations and motives characteristic of kama muta. We are planning many more studies in diverse contexts, from psychotherapy to charity giving to religious devotion. Join us on our journey of discovery by following our latest research into kama muta on our lab website.Aeon counter – do not remove

Alan Fiske is a psychological anthropologist and distinguished professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. His latest book is Kama Muta: Discovering the Connecting Emotion

A version of this article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished with permission. Aeon can be found on Twitter @aeonmag

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Viewpoint: Anti-GMO groups exploit COVID to block access to biotech crops

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll on our lives in so many ways, including diminished social contact, disrupted commerce, and neglect of routine preventive healthcare. One unobvious example has been interruptions in various links in worldwide food supply chains, from farmers’ markets to large food manufacturers. For some countries, heightened attention to the development of coronavirus vaccines has indirectly delayed the regulatory approval and adoption of important new crop varieties developed via new breeding techniques (NBTs), such as genetic engineering (also known as “genetic modification,” or “GM”) and genome editing.

(The whole spectrum of definitions for breeding techniques is arbitrary. We don’t find terms like “transgenesis” or “genetic modification” useful or use them, because, for example, performing a wide cross hybridization yields a transgenic organism, by definition, but some people would limit transgenesis to the use of NBTs. Putting it another way, we would say that “transgenesis” refers to a result, independent of technique.)

By limiting the access to new, improved crop varieties, these disruptions negatively affect the farming productivity and food security of poorer nations, such as those in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

COVID: A new excuse to attack Golden Rice

The connection between vaccines and food might seem obscure, but anti-science, anti-technology activists have been ramping up efforts to exploit the pandemic, conflating concerns about vaccines with anti-biotechnology propaganda. Groups such as the Stop Golden Rice Network and Greenpeace have campaigned against the release in the Philippines of Golden Rice — groundbreaking, vitamin A-fortified rice varieties — falsely claiming that multinationals are profiteering during the pandemic, in spite of the fact that Golden Rice has always been a philanthropic endeavor. This mendacity is nothing new: Greenpeace and other activist groups have been conducting a cynical and sometimes criminal campaign (vide infra) against Golden Rice for decades.

Rice is a food staple for hundreds of millions, especially in Asia. Although it is an excellent source of calories, it lacks certain micronutrients, such as vitamins, necessary for a complete diet. In developing countries, 200 – 300 million children of preschool age are at risk of vitamin A deficiency (VAD), increasing their susceptibility to infections such as measles and diarrheal diseases. Every year, about half a million children become blind as a result of VAD, and 70 percent of them die within a year of losing their sight.

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In the 1980s and 1990s, German scientists Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer developed the Golden Rice varieties that are biofortified by the introduction of genes that enable the edible endosperm of rice to produce beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A. Rice plants normally produce beta-carotene in the leaves but not in the grains, so Potrykus and Beyer inserted two genes – one from a bacterium, the other from corn — causing beta-carotene to be synthesized in the edible part of the plant as well. More recently, a gene-edited counterpart to Golden Rice has been developed that does not incorporate genes from other species.

It is difficult to comprehend the extremes activists will go to, in order to undermine something as benign and life-saving as Golden Rice and prevent it from reaching those whose lives are threatened by vitamin A deficiency.

Given its ability to prevent the scourge of VAD, Golden Rice could make contributions to human health on a par with the Salk polio vaccine, but irrational, self-interested, relentless opposition to the testing and widespread availability of Golden Rice has been high on the agenda of activist groups like Greenpeace, a hugely wealthy behemoth with offices in more than 40 countries, and whose PR machine is focused on denying millions of children in the poorest nations the essential food nutrients they need to stave off blindness and death. They have intimidated government officials by fomenting faux-grassroots opposition to regulatory approvals of Golden Rice and other genetically engineered crop varieties; and, as a result, too often, regulators have dragged their feet or capitulated.

Greenpeace has fiercely opposed genetic engineering applied to agriculture from the early days of molecular genetic engineering — recombinant DNA technology, or “gene-splicing,” to produce so-called GMOs. In 1995, the organization announced that it had “intercepted a package containing rice seed genetically manipulated to produce a toxic insecticide, as it was being exported . . . [and] swapped the genetically manipulated seed with normal rice.” [I. Meister, “Uncontrolled Trade in Genetically Manipulated Products,” press release, April 7, 1995].

The rice seeds stolen by Greenpeace had been genetically improved for insect resistance and were en route to the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The modified seeds were to be tested to confirm that they would grow and produce high yields of rice with far lower applications of chemical pesticides — exactly the kind of innovation environmental activists should encourage.

Greenpeace has consistently ignored the scientific consensus about the safety of genetically engineered crops, the result of hundreds of risk-assessment experiments, and vast real-world experience. In the United States alone, more than 90 percent of all corn, soy and sugar beets are genetically engineered, and over three decades of consumption of trillions of servings of food from genetically engineered plants around the world, not a single health or environmental problem has been documented.

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Greenpeace has variously alleged that the levels of beta-carotene in Golden Rice are too low to be effective or so high that they would be toxic. But feeding trials have shown the rice to be highly effective in preventing VAD, and toxicity is virtually impossible because in vivo conversion of beta-carotene to vitamin A ceases when vitamin A levels in the blood exceed normal.

With no rational basis for its anti-technology activism, Greenpeace has been forced to adopt a “fear, not facts” strategy of trying to scare off the developing nations that are belatedly considering adopting the lifesaving products. In a 2012 screed, Greenpeace claimed, “If introduced on a large scale, golden rice can exacerbate malnutrition and ultimately undermine food security.” Psychiatrists call this kind of statement projection: The real threat to the poor and vulnerable is not genetic engineering; it’s Greenpeace and its ilk.

Hostility to gene editing in Africa?

This is not the only recent example of hostility toward crops developed with genetic engineering techniques, but we were surprised to encounter a bizarre “Call for Experts in gene editing technology in Africa,” from the Network of African Science Academies, Africa Harvest, and CropLife International — “[e]xperts who wish to stand out and be the voice of promoting the gene editing technology in Africa and beyond.” The announcement specifies the expertise required to advise about regulating gene-edited crops in Africa — including that applicants must have had “No previous frontline advocacy for or affiliation with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) technology.” Nowhere in the Call for Experts is there any mention of the converse, which suggests that anyone with a past history of frontline opposition toward GMOs is welcome to apply.

These groups represent a (supposedly) science-based consortium that advises policy and decision makers throughout Africa. Well, they’re off to an inauspicious start.

One is left to wonder whether the absurd specification in this advertisement is intentional or else perhaps a Freudian slip. Either way, a negative bias toward new breeding technologies such as gene editing could have dire consequences for African farmers. Using gene editing technologies, scientists are crafting African crops such as maize, banana and cassava to resist pathogens, and to improve yield and resilience in the face of climate change.

Botched study undermines Greenpeace

Another recent and completely clueless anti-technology salvo was a September publication from a group of multi-national “researchers,” followed by a press release from Greenpeace EU and a video. In the paper to which they refer, A Real-Time Quantitative PCR Method Specific for Detection and Quantification of the First Commercialized Genome-Edited Plant, the authors claim that they have devised a PCR-based method to distinguish genome-edited plants from plants bred through ‘natural’ means. According to Greenpeace EU, “The new research refutes claims by the biotech industry and some regulators that new genetically modified (GM) crops engineered with gene editing are indistinguishable from similar, non-GM crops and therefore cannot be regulated.” The paper goes on to describe how the methodology was tested on an herbicide-tolerant variety of oilseed rape commercialized by CIBUS, a plant biotechnology company.

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Typically, Greenpeace got it completely wrong. According to CIBUS, the varieties tested were in fact developed from spontaneous somaclonal variation, a natural, “non-genetic engineering” method, not from gene editing technology. Euroseeds, a trade association for the seed industry in the EU, further clarifies that the Greenpeace publication actually provides a method to detect a single point-mutation originating from a “mutagenesis method” –another traditional technique that does not involve gene-splicing or gene editing. In other words, the genetic alteration can be detected, but it cannot be determined whether the alteration occurred naturally; through chemical mutagenesis, a venerable but crude technique; or through gene editing. As the Euroseeds article concludes, this is much ado about absolutely nothing.

Ironically, even if the claims in the paper touted by Greenpeace were accurate, they would be an example of “so what” science. The distinction between old and new breeding technologies has never been blurrier, or more meaningless: Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables, and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another.

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Thousands of varieties of currently cultivated crops were created by mutagenesis breeding, a technology that has existed for almost a hundred years. This approach introduces random mutations throughout a plant genome by treatment with harsh chemicals or irradiation. Plants that survive and exhibit desirable new traits can then be propagated from these mutation events into new crop varieties. More than 3,000 varieties of crops have been generated through mutagenesis breeding, according to the Mutant Variety Database, including the popular ruby red grapefruit and barley used for single malt scotch.  In addition, “wide cross” hybridizations, which move genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature, have been used to produce crop plants since the 1930s.

One recent advance in conventional plant breeding uses state of the art molecular techniques such as marker assisted selection — an indirect selection process in which a trait of interest is selected based on a marker of some kind that is linked to a trait of interest (e.g. productivity, disease resistance, etc.), rather than on the trait itself.

Molecular genetic engineering to generate transgenic crops (which contain DNA transferred from another organism) involves the very precise introduction of a novel trait into a plant by incorporating genetic material, sometimes from different species, into the plant genome. Bt-brinjal, or eggplant, the insect-resistant variety(ies) adapted by Bangladeshi farmers, is an example of a transgenic crop that has reduced the need for applications of pesticide and increased income and food security.

Gene editing, the most recent molecular genetic engineering technology, does not necessarily involve the introduction of new gene sequences; rather, it may direct only one or a few nucleotide changes within a plant genome. It is an extremely promising new tool for plant breeding, inasmuch as many complex traits such as crop yield, photosynthesis, and drought resistance involve multiple genes, and thus, altering them would be difficult to achieve through conventional breeding alone, or even using transgenic approaches.

The simplicity and ease of gene editing, as well as the fact that it does not (necessarily) add new DNA to the crops themselves, may change the playing field with respect to the regulations that govern “new biotechnology techniques,” or NBTs. Plants produced by gene editing more resemble improved versions of breeding mutagenesis, a technology which, unlike transgenesis, is not subjected to extensive regulation in the US or the EU. However, that is, or should be, a distinction without a difference. The method of genetic modification is irrelevant to risk, which should determine the extent and intensity of regulation. In fact, if anything, the precision of the modern molecular techniques and the higher level of characterization of the organisms they produce argue for less regulatory scrutiny, instead of the higher levels that are in place virtually everywhere.

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Paradoxically, decades after they should have known better, and disregarding the seamless continuum that exists between old and new technologies, the EU has resolved to over-regulate gene-edited crops under the same draconian, unscientific regulatory paradigm as transgenic crops produced with recombinant DNA technology.

Finally, it is disturbing that an inherently flawed paper cited in a Greenpeace press release can garner significant attention, but it illustrates the power of the anti-science, anti-technology activism that is currently on display. The boundaries between various genetic engineering technologies are becoming increasingly indistinct, as NBTs are mixed and matched to address today’s agricultural challenges.

The ability of Greenpeace’s “news” to gain traction, added to the anti-Golden Rice “week of protests” in the Philippines and the nonsensical requirements of the “call for gene editing experts” to decide the fate of African farmers, undermine the acceptance of genetically engineered crops around the world. As COVID-19 has disrupted the global food system and delayed the progress of gene edited crops through the gauntlet of unscientific regulation, farmers and others in developing countries, where food security is most tenuous, will bear the brunt of the consequences.

Kathleen Hefferon, Ph.D., teaches microbiology at Cornell University. Find Kathleen on Twitter @KHefferon

Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Find Henry on Twitter @henryimiller

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Podcast: One couple’s journey to vaccine skepticism; Partisan COVID science; Neophobia and GMOs

How do well-meaning, educated parents become vaccine skeptics? One hypothetical couple’s journey may shed light on the process. Some scientists are becoming increasingly partisan in their discussions of COVID science, which may be fueling distrust of evidence-based conclusions about the pandemic. GMO denialism could be a knee-jerk reaction caused by our inherent fear of new things: neophobia.

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

The temptation to put down anti-vaxx parents as conspiracy theorists and simpletons is strong; it’s also the worst possible approach to changing their minds about controversial science. Considering that these moms and dads are generally well educated and truly worried about their kids, a better approach may be to recognize the legitimacy of their concerns to establish a relationship, then address their misplaced vaccine fears.

The pandemic may be the best example of what happens when researchers and educators on opposing sides of a scientific issue take explicitly partisan stances. Some scientific institutions and publications, for example, endorsed political candidates and parties in the recent election, promoting them as the “pro-science” side in the dispute over how to best mitigate COVID-19. This raises a potential problem, notes Scientific American’s Matt Motta. “When scientists advocate for their interests in an expressly political way, they risk further polarizing public opinion about research.”

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So the question is this: are scientists appropriately advancing their cause by getting explicitly political, or are they undermining efforts to promote evidence-based thinking?

It appears that evolution has wired us to distrust new things. Novel ideas and behaviors, according to this theory, often posed mortal threats to our ancestors, so they developed a heightened skepticism of anything that challenged their understanding of the world. Once a reasonable survival instinct, this so-called “neophobia” now prompts us to quickly dismiss new information that could lead to important innovations that make life better. Does this phenomenon help explain why so many people deny the importance of biotech crops and others food technologies?

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Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

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Despite poor healthcare, Africa leads the world in controlling COVID-19. Here are some reasons why

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on healthcare systems worldwide, but many African countries have done a commendable job so far in managing the crisis.

Let’s compare Africa and the United States. In the US, with a population of 328 million and almost 10 million confirmed cases, deaths stand at approximately 250,000.

According to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of early November, more than 1.49 million people have recovered across the continent out of 1.85 million cases, setting the death total of less than 44,000.screen shot at am

Framed another way, the US with about 4% of the global population leads the world in number of confirmed deaths. In contrast and relative to the rest of the world, the African sub-Saharan continent is a notable cold spot, along with China, New Zealand and Australia, according to Our World in Data.screen shot at am

What has made Africa different?

When COVID-19 reached pandemic status, most institutions and scientists feared the worst for Africa. Their fear was rooted in the belief that most African countries lack the capacity and expertise to manage everyday diseases like malaria, thus the novel coronavirus crisis could lead to a serious health emergency. Different institutions such as the WHO feared that Africa could experience a million deaths or more if something were not done to mitigate the spread of the virus.

This appeared to be a logical possibility, as even malaria, a tropical disease, kills almost a million Africans each year. Spread by the bite of a female Anopheles mosquito, malaria is endemic to most parts of Africa.

Scientists have proposed multiple reasons why the African continent has not suffered as much as other countries and continents have, with fewer deaths and infections. For example, the low infection rates could be attributed to the shortage in availability of test kits, thus lowering the overall numbers However, the same cannot be said of the lower death rates, as most suspicious deaths are tested before burial.

Lessons learned from managing previous outbreaks

Every year, multiple outbreaks of different diseases appear on the continent, ranging from the “ever common” malaria, to cholera, and Ebola.

Cholera is contracted from drinking water contaminated with feces. With a lot of slums, congested homes and poor water supply, many outbreaks occur every year.  Treating water supplies and proper handwashing techniques are used to manage cholera.

Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever that is contracted from touching body fluids of infected persons/animals (dead or alive) or eating animals that might have the virus. It has been contained on the continent with proper handwashing techniques, social distancing, and community efforts.

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Malaria is contained by destroying breeding grounds for mosquitoes, such as stagnant waters, and sleeping under treated mosquito nets.

Lessons learned from managing these various outbreaks have been a useful tool for the continent during this pandemic. Most African countries such as Liberia, which have had outbreaks of Ebola have mastered public health measures such as isolation of sick people, contact tracing, quarantine for infected or suspected cases and getting them tested in time. These same approaches have been used to manage COVID-19.

Age factor

Africa has a very youthful population, with fewer than 3% above the age of 65. Three-fifths of the continent’s population is age 24 or below. Most of these young people are healthy, compared to in western countries, which have high obesity rates and underlying diseases.

Indeed, populations hit hardest by COVID-19 do skew older, with 75% of all deaths occurring in people 65 and over. A young population, however, cannot be the sole reason why the death rates are low, because other regions with disproportionately younger populations have not done nearly as well as African countries: Latin America has a comparatively similar age distribution with much higher rates of infections and deaths, according to World Bank statistics.

Another factor might be the age of those who are confirmed with the virus. In the US, approximately 70% of cases are in those aged under the age of 60. According to the Africa CDC, more than 85% of the coronavirus cases in Africa have occurred among people under 60, which puts them in a better position to fight off the disease.

Vaccines, exposure to other diseases

The African continent harbors childhood diseases that have been eradicated in the west, but against which vulnerable African children are still vaccinated. It is still mandatory for children on the continent to be vaccinated against polio, yellow fever, and tuberculosis, for example. Some scientists hypothesize that these vaccines, as well as exposure to some infectious diseases, might explain some of the low infection and mortality rates on the continent.

The BCG vaccine against TB in particular is known to stimulate innate immunity and is in several clinical trials to test protection against COVID-19. The BCG vaccine is given at birth in most African countries. (The US no longer provides it routinely.)

According to a study by the WHO-Africa, Africans who are infected with SARS-CoV-2 are twice as likely to be asymptomatic as people in other parts of the world who test positive. This may explain why healthcare systems in Africa are not being overwhelmed by severe COVID-19 cases. That is, most cases in Africa are asymptomatic.

How much of a role do genes play?

So far, there is no definitive information on the role that genes more common to sub-Saharan African populations, such as the lack of the Neanderthal gene found in non-Africans linked  to increased risk of developing severe respiratory symptoms with COVID-19,which might play a role.

Geneticists are exploring a range of other possibilities, such as distinct genetic influences on susceptibility and severity of COVID-19, and like mutations in the CCR5 gene that clearly protect against HIV/AIDs. Genetic links are more at the population level.

Also, people with type O blood are underrepresented among the infected, and helper T cell proportions and ACE2 receptor abundance may differ too.

[Back in May, the Genetic Literacy Project explored the controversial evidence about the potential role genetics might be playing in both cases and deaths].

But until we get more information on the  genetics of the virus, societal and cultural factors stand-out.

Public support and government actions

Africans have been very responsive to public health initiatives to contain the pandemic. When little was known about the virus in late winter, the vast majority of the African population supported government efforts to fight off the infection by constantly wearing masks in public places; practicing the mandatory hand washing protocol before entering any public places like markets, and shops; and staying at home and avoiding places of worship.

Many people feared the worst and thus adhered to the public safety measures. Most African countries imposed early, straight lockdowns when case numbers were relatively low. Those straightforward, drastic approaches throughout the lockdowns might have helped to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Travel and other factors

Africa, unlike other continents, is not as connected in terms of flight travels, therefore the early ban on flights by foreign governments meant there were very few cases coming in from other countries. This gave healthcare workers the chance to manage the few cases before a lot of people got the virus.

Another possible explanation for the low disease burden in Africa is that most of the population still lives in rural communities. This means more time on the farm or indoors, with little opportunities for public gatherings and interaction.

The continent is doing very well in managing the crisis so far, but we still look to see how this will play out through the changing seasons. As Africa tries to manage the crisis, the concern is what the virus could do to those who might have been infected without the need for hospital intervention. We are all still learning.

Emmanuel Gokpolu is in his final year at Kenya Methodist University School of Medicine in Meru. He aspires to become an infectious disease specialist. Follow him on Twitter @KingZoboi

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High-yielding plants that survive temperature swings may be our next weapon against climate change

Sally Mackenzie spent her childhood summers walking through the vast fields of bright, red, ripe tomato crops: They grow best in the heat of her home state of California. Yet recent seasons prove it can get too hot for a tomato.

“It just sits there, puts out these little green knobs, and won’t do anything with them, because it just can’t handle the heat,” says Mackenzie, now a professor of biology and plant science at Penn State University in University Park.

Growing vegetables has never been easy, but climate change is ramping up the risk. “Fresh market agriculture is a nail-biting proposition,” says Mackenzie, whose father was a West Coast produce distributor. “One rain at the wrong time can wipe out a tomato crop, and that’s hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Increasingly unpredictable growing seasons are a threat to income and livelihoods not only in California, where rising temperatures coupled with scarce precipitation have taken a nearly US$3 billion toll on the state’s agricultural industry, but also around the world. Now Mackenzie is working to do something about that. As producers and scientists search for ways to make crops more resilient in the face of such challenges, she sees promising potential in tapping into plants’ natural ability to rapidly turn select genes on and off in response to stress.

Best of Both Worlds

Traditionally, plant breeders have used selective breeding to create high-yielding varieties that can thrive under different growing conditions. However, there’s often a trade-off between breeding for yield potential and yield stability, says Nathan Springer, a geneticist who studies maize at the University of Minnesota. It’s possible to breed a plant that’s very drought tolerant, he says. But in a year where there isn’t any drought, this breed of plant may “only yield half as much.”

Both Mackenzie and Springer are interested in the role that epigenetic mechanisms — the biological processes that activate and deactivate genes — may play in this dynamic balance between yield potential and yield stability. If breeders could enhance plants’ ability to flip the switch as environmental conditions change, it could make it possible to (for instance) activate physiological changes that enhance drought tolerance only when needed, avoiding the ding on productivity.

 “One of the theories about epigenetics is, could we get the best of both worlds?” Springer says.

Memory of Stress

To breed more resilient plants, Mackenzie tricks a plant into responding as though it is under stress so it will turn on its survival mechanisms.

Mackenzie’s “trick” is to use RNA interference to silence a gene called MSH1, which is found in the plant cell’s plastid — a compartment that has the ability to sense stress. She and her colleagues discovered that when they suppress MSH1 in a parent plant, epigenetic regulation kicks in, and gene expression is altered in a way that allows it to better respond to stress.

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In greenhouse and field experiments, tomato plants with certain epigenetic modifications produce more fruit than unmodified plants in a given amount of time. Credit: Sally Mackenzie

The research team found that the offspring of this parent plant inherit memory of this “stress”: They, too, had altered gene expression, even without the artificial stress. Tomatoes treated in this way grew better and were more resilient to the heat of Florida field conditions — with up to a 35% boost in yield compared with an heirloom tomato variety.

Mackenzie sees value in this approach to boosting resilience because of the speed at which it can take place. Standard breeding methods could take 10 years to achieve a similar result, she says. In contrast, using an epigenetics approach, “I’m doing this in a year’s time,” she says.

Not only that, but because this final product contains no detectable foreign DNA, Mackenzie doesn’t need to go through a lengthy process of regulation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that other crop breeding technologies such as genome editing or genome modification may require for commercial use.

Springer notes that it’s difficult to determine the extent to which these results can be attributed to epigenetics, however. “It’s hard to confirm that,” he says. “[Mackenzie’s] lab is working really hard on understanding the mechanisms.”

Testing the Technology

The success in tomato has motivated Mackenzie to try a similar approach in other crops, including soybean, sorghum, alfalfa and strawberry. But she says company partnerships are needed to test the technology in different seasons, environments and countries.

Springer says that seed companies may hesitate to engage in epigenetic breeding because a gene turned off through epigenetics could suddenly turn on again, compromising their commitment to sell a uniform product.  If a crop grown from seeds produced by epigenetically modified plants has more variability than expected, he says, “you have a problem.” Mackenzie maintains, however, that the epigenetic changes she sees remain consistent over several generations of plants.

Other researchers are also testing epigenetic approaches. A trial in cassava, a staple crop for hundreds of millions of people in tropical countries, proved challenging.

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Cassava, a staple in many tropical countries, is among the crops in which epigenetic modification shows promise for improving yields. Credit: iStock/pailoolom

“Cassava is a very long-term crop — the breeding cycle of cassava is about eight years,” says Paul Chavarriaga, lead scientist of the Advanced Breeding Platform at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia, who collaborated with Mackenzie on cassava trials. Early results were promising, but funding ran out before the study could be completed.

Enhance, Not Supplant

Mackenzie emphasizes that manipulating epigenetics is not a silver bullet: It cannot supplant breeding, but rather, enhances it.

“It’s not that you just create these varieties and then you walk away,” she says. As with all epigenetic phenomena, after a few generations the plant will eventually return to its nonstressed state. “No epigenetic phenomenon will hold forever, and nor should it,” she says.

Mackenzie says epigenetic breeding is important to pursue, given the rapid impacts of a changing climate on the agricultural industry.

“Given that we’ve got to accelerate our progress as quickly as we can with as many crops as possible, we need breakthroughs,” she says. “There are no simple, rapid, traditional plant breeding solutions. You really have to think outside the box.”

Allison Gacad is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, Canada, covering science, environment and climate news. She is currently pursuing a BSc in Global Resource Systems at the University of British Columbia, with research interests in plant biology and sustainable agriculture. Allison can be found on Twitter @allisongacad

A version of this article was originally published at Ensia and has been republished here with permission. Ensia can be found on Twitter @ensiamedia

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How mental health patients suffer from the overuse of psychotropic drugs

The standard of care for the severely mentally ill in the United States has drastically changed since the 1950s, when more than half a million patients resided in enormous state hospitals. As pharmaceutical firms developed new antipsychotic medications, national policy shifted such that most of the old hospitals have now closed. Today, the majority of US patients, even those with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar syndrome and major depression, receive only short-term, in-patient medical treatment to quell symptoms before being sent home.

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The old asylums were the scenes of some well-publicized abuses and poor conditions. Yet their closures and the parallel embrace of medications did not solve the issue of how to best care for people. The current mental-health system leaves many mentally ill patients no better off, says Joel Braslow, a historian and psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles. In some cases, the situation has grown worse.

In the 2019 Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, Braslow and UCLA colleague Stephen Marder argue that our current “age of psychopharmacology” has shrunk society’s sense of responsibility toward the mentally ill. Whereas most psychiatrists once viewed mental illness as a complex interaction between a patient’s biology and social context, Braslow and Marder contend, it is now often seen more narrowly as merely symptoms to be medicated.

Braslow blames this shift for what he calls our society’s “total failure” in caring for its most vulnerable members: Roughly 140,000 seriously mentally ill people are now homeless on city streets, while 350,000 others are serving time in prisons and jails, where their illnesses get little treatment.

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Credit: California Policy Lab

Knowable Magazine spoke with Braslow about the history of this transformation and what it would take to better serve the multitudes of people living with psychiatric problems.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you call this the “age of psychopharmacology”?

I think about it in two different but interrelated ways. First, it underlines our growing reliance on drugs to treat disorders of the mind. Today, one in six Americans takes a psychoactive drug. This has reinforced the idea that the drugs treat specific diseases, much like insulin treats diabetes. For example, Tipper Gore (the ex-wife of former Vice President Al Gore) has explained her own depression as a chemical imbalance, with her brain running out of serotonin like a car runs out of gas. This description implies that depression has both a specific cause — in her case, depleted serotonin — and a specific cure, a drug.

Secondly, there’s our shrinking vision of what causes psychiatric disease and what we can do clinically for those who suffer from it. Prior to the late 1960s and 1970s, American psychiatrists tended to take a more expansive view. Today’s greater focus on the individual and a simple model of disease has helped justify the belief that drugs or psychotherapies hold the key to alleviating psychiatric disease. However, this view ignores the fundamental nature of psychiatric disease as simultaneously biological, psychological and social.

What accounts for this shift?

Psychoactive drugs have been used since the 19th century, but they were generally regarded as little more than sedatives — referred to as “chemical straitjackets.” The chance discovery of the major classes of psychotropic drugs in the 1950s changed the status of psychopharmacology. These new compounds did more than simply sedate; they actually treated many of the symptoms of psychiatric disease, such as hallucinations, depressed mood and disordered thoughts.

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However — and this is a crucial point — throughout the 1950s and much of the 1960s, psychiatrists largely saw psychotropic drugs as just one part of an overall regimen, a part that neither dominated nor defined the nature of the disease and its treatment. Psychiatrists continued to see psychiatric disease in a holistic manner, in which symptoms could involve an individual’s failure to function in the social world and their inner torment. Treatment remained similarly expansive, especially when the illness warranted state hospitalization.

Things changed dramatically from the 1970s onward. It’s tempting to attribute this to the drugs’ effectiveness, but this is simply not the case. There has been little change in the actual efficacy of antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety drugs over the last half-century. Social, economic and cultural circumstances did far more to bring on the age of psychopharmacology than did the effectiveness of the drugs themselves.

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For one thing, psychiatric hospital administrators came under increasing pressure to decrease their hospitalized patient population. Hospital records from the 1970s show doctors under pressure to discharge patients earlier and earlier. So physicians, understandably, focused on symptoms that could be quickly and easily treated, and relied increasingly on drugs as their primary intervention. Under such circumstances, it became more and more impossible to address the thornier problems of how the patients functioned in the world.

You write that this change was also influenced by politics?

Yes. For nearly 150 years, state governments believed that society and physicians had a moral responsibility to provide care for all those afflicted with mental illness. But beginning in the late 1960s and 1970s, the welfare state came under increasing attack with the belief that individuals needed to take individual responsibility for themselves. State governments were primarily responsible for the smooth running of market economies and not for individual welfare. The elections of Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK underlined this shift in political culture.

These changes shifted care priorities away from state hospitals and toward care in the community. But that has become increasingly fragmented, decentralized and subject to the logic of market forces rather than to the needs of those with serious mental illness.

The political ideology that emphasizes individual responsibility fits neatly with a belief that disease is largely a problem of biology and/or psychology and that the solution is a treatment that focuses on the individual’s psychology or biology.

Given that we’re relying more on medications, how well do they actually work?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Take schizophrenia, for example. We don’t have a good understanding of the causes of what are likely multiple different kinds of schizophrenia, but there’s a growing belief that antipsychotic drugs can do little for the fundamental symptoms of apathy, social withdrawal and cognitive deficits. These drugs do, however, treat other symptoms — hearing voices, speaking incoherently and behaving in an agitated way.

We have good evidence that antipsychotic drugs help prevent relapse in the short run, although the jury is still out whether someone should be on antipsychotic drugs for a lifetime. So, yes, they work, but only with a number of important caveats. I think the same could also be said for antidepressant drugs.

You write that the medical system’s increasing reliance on randomized controlled trials helped fuel the shift toward drugs. Is the problem that it’s somehow easier to test medications than psychotherapies?

The short answer to that is yes.

A randomized controlled trial requires easily measurable variables and, consequently, has shifted our understanding towards an increasingly reductionistic view of psychiatric disease that excludes many of the social and psychological realities. It encourages us to think in terms of specific interventions, such as psychotropic drugs, that treat a specific, discrete disease, just like antibiotics treat bacterial infections. This way of thinking fails to accommodate the complex social and psychological deficits intrinsic to psychiatric disease.

How have the patients fared with these changes?

Despite good intentions, advances in neuroscience and an increasingly large number of psychotropic drugs, those afflicted with serious mental illness have not done well. Overall, outcomes such as mortality and social function have worsened for the vast majority with serious mental illness. You can see it in the unprecedented population of mentally ill homeless people — 60,000 just in Los Angeles. We’re allowing people who are disabled by psychosis to languish in the streets. This wouldn’t happen with cardiac patients.

And a lot of those homeless people end up in jail.

True. Today there are about 5,000 seriously mentally ill people in the Los Angeles County jail. I have a hard time going to the jail myself — it’s such a horrible place. Many of the sickest patients refuse medications, often exacerbating their psychotic symptoms. The sheriff has little recourse but to house the most psychotic, non-compliant inmates in isolation, so as to be the least disruptive to the other inmates and guards.

About a thousand inmates are in solitary confinement, in individual Plexiglas cells for 23 hours a day. At the same time, these terribly psychotic individuals are left to disrobe, smear feces and a variety of other psychotic symptoms that worsen under conditions of isolation and deprivation. Any time they’re out of their cells, they are almost invariably shackled, even while seeing a psychiatrist. It’s heartbreakingly sad.

So how should society respond? Do we need to go back to the asylums of the past?

I think we need to learn from the positive aspects of asylum care. Rather than either reestablishing the asylums or intensifying the alienation and neglect of the last 50 years, we need to come up with new, evidence-based ways of caring for those with serious mental illness.

Once we acknowledge the reality of mental illness as a disease that robs its victims of meaning, social connections and the ability to function in contemporary society, we can start designing interventions that address this reality. We cannot simply wish away the complexity of psychiatric disease and the kinds of interventions that are necessary for humane, scientifically based care.

Katherine Ellison is a journalist and author based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find Katherine at her website and on Twitter @kathellison

A version of this article was originally published at Knowable and has been republished here with permission. Sign up for their newsletter here. Knowable can be found on Twitter @knowablemag

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Podcast: Polymerase chain reaction—The ‘transformative’ tool that sparked a genetics revolution

Geneticist Dr. Kat Arney revisits the story and the characters behind one of the most transformative—and ubiquitous— techniques in modern molecular biology: the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), on the latest episode of the Genetics Unzipped podcast from the Genetics Society.

 

Anyone who has worked with DNA in the laboratory is undoubtedly familiar with PCR. Invented in 1985, PCR is an indispensable molecular biology tool that can replicate any stretch of DNA, copying it billions of times in a matter of hours, providing enough DNA to use for applications like forensics, genetic testing, ancient DNA analysis or medical diagnostics.

It’s hard to overstate the transformation that PCR brought to the world of molecular biology and biomedical research. Suddenly, researchers could amplify and study DNA in a way that had been simply impossible before, kickstarting the genetics revolution that’s still going strong today.

So where did this revolutionary technology come from? Officially, PCR was invented in 1985 by a colorful character named Kary Mullis, who won a Nobel Prize for the discovery. But, as we’ll see, all the components of PCR were in place by the early 1980s thanks to the work of scientists like Arthur Kornberg and Har Gobind Khorana—it just took a creative leap to assemble them into one blockbusting technique.

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Then, the discovery of Thermus aquaticus in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park by Thomas Brock in the 1960s, the isolation of the thermostable Taq polymerase from that bacterium in 1976 by Alice Chien and John Trela from the University of Cincinnati, and the subsequent invention of automatic thermocyclers paved the way for the simple, one-step PCR process that has transformed laboratories across the world.

Full show notes, transcript, music credits and references online at GeneticsUnzipped.com.

Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator and biologist Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media.  Follow Kat on Twitter @Kat_Arney, Genetics Unzipped @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

Listen to Genetics Unzipped on Apple podcasts (iTunes), Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Podcast: Some vaccine skeptics aren’t science deniers; Animal-free ice cream; Plant burgers are ‘meat’?

If you reject vaccines, you’re a science denier! Not necessarily. Some people may have legitimate reasons to be skeptical. Scientists can make ice cream without animals. How will this innovation impact the environment? Europe says plant-based burgers can be labeled “burgers,” frustrating a meat industry trying to protect its market share. Should animal products have exclusive rights to certain marketing terms?

Join geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English on this episode of Science Facts and Fallacies as they break down these latest news stories:

Vaccine skeptics are typically dismissed as conspiracy theorists and science deniers. But some Americans are understandably wary, especially marginalized groups who have been “misled, mistreated and misunderstood at the hands of ‘science,'” argue Dope Labs podcast hosts Zakiya Whatley and Titilayo Shodiya. This analysis presents a difficult challenge to educators: How do they promote science-based thinking to groups of people who feel that science has left them behind?

Thanks to genetic engineering, scientists can “train” fungi to produce the whey protein from cows that gives ice cream its distinct qualities. This novel dessert could deepen the public’s trust in biotechnology, but is the nascent lab-based food industry selling its products with misleading claims about animal agriculture?

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Plant-based burgers have been a global success thus far, attracting millions of consumers who have little interest in veganism or plant-based diets more generally. The meat industry has fearfully responded by lobbying governments to restrict how these beef alternatives can be marketed to the public, claiming that words like “burger” and “meat” should be reserved for products made from animals, lest the public be misled about what they’re eating.

European regulators found these arguments lacking, while simultaneously decreeing that non-dairy yogurt and cheese substitutes couldn’t be marketed as dairy alternatives.  How do we make sense of seemingly arbitrary food-labeling regulations?

Subscribe to the Science Facts and Fallacies Podcast on iTunes and Spotify.

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s managing editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

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Viewpoint: Anti-Monsanto biopic ‘Percy’ tells misleading tale about GMOs and seed patents

As any experienced moviegoer knows, “This film is based on a true story” is more of a disclaimer than a sign of Hollywood’s dedication to accuracy. In reality, those eight words actually mean, “Some of this actually happened, but most of it has been exaggerated or outright fabricated for your entertainment.” No movie deserves such a disclaimer more than the recently released (and very misleading) biopic of Canadian canola farmer Percy Schmeiser.

Simply titled “Percy” and starring Hollywood A-lister Christopher Walken, the film’s plot goes something like this: 22 years ago, in a classic case of David vs Goliath, biotech giant Monsanto wrongly sued blue-collar Percy for patent infringement. Schmeiser’s only crime was owning a field that was accidentally contaminated with the company’s herbicide-tolerant, genetically modified canola. Never afraid of a noble fight, the fiercely independent family man and farmer battled his way up to Canada’s Supreme Court, defending his property rights against unjust infringement by Big Ag and their duplicitous lawyers. He ultimately lost his legal battle, but Schmeiser reminds us why it’s vital to stand up to corporate bullies in our pursuit of a better world.

[Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series on Monsanto’s seed patent legal battles. Read part two and three.]

The film hit Canadian theaters just before the real Percy Schmeiser died peacefully in his sleep at 89 on October 13, after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. It may seem ungenerous to take a man down a peg while his family mourns and his legacy is burnished by Hollywood. Ungenerous perhaps, but necessary. The occasion of his death and the film’s release call for an exposition of the facts of the case, which has been transformed into a folk-hero story and amplified by anti-GMO activists for two decades.

The making of a folk hero

Percy Schmeiser was a Canadian canola farmer who was sued in 1998 by the seed and chemical company Monsanto (now part of Bayer) for illegally replanting biotech canola seed that the farmer was not licensed to use. It’s easy to understand why these events have been misconstrued over the years. We all know the contours of a good David vs. Goliath story. David is supposed to be righteous. Goliath is supposed to be unreasoning and greedy, imposing his will by dint of his size.

If David isn’t righteous and Goliath isn’t unreasoning, we tend to reshuffle aspects of the story and sand off some rough edges, which is precisely what Hollywood did to make this film. Percy isn’t in any theaters where I live; they are all closed due to the pandemic, but I reached out to the production company to see if I could get a screener for review and never heard back. Nevertheless, from the trailers and pre-release reviews, it’s clear the film tells the story from Schmeiser’s point of view and takes him at his word. “I believe every word Percy said,” director Clark Johnson told CBC News. “I wouldn’t have took on and told the story if I didn’t believe it.”

What do farmers think of “Percy”?

Farmers and the farm press haven’t been as enthusiastic as Johnson. They were quick to point out that the original movie poster featured Christopher Walken as Percy, a canola grower, standing in a cornfield.

Christopher Walken as Percy Schmeiser

The production company fixed the poster, but farmers and the farm press had more pressing concerns. Speaking with CBC, one farmer noted that the film amplified a distinctly anti-GMO and scientifically dubious message:

“Is that what the bent of this movie is going to be? Is it going to be all about anti-GMO?” said Todd Lewis, a canola farmer from Gray, Sask. He said anti-GMO activists hijacked Schmeiser’s plight long ago and said many farmers are nervous about that storyline.

“Farmers are comfortable with GMO,” said Lewis, president of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan. “GMO is sound science …. it’s been proven safe again and again.”

The editorial board of Western Producer, a regional farm press publication based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, wrote:

Hollywood tells some interesting tales. Some are based on true stories. Others, such as the soon-to-be-released move entitled Percy, appear to be based on untrue stories loosely connected to events …. The movie will likely aid public misunderstanding of modern plant breeding, farmers’ and breeders’ rights to seed, genetic modification and glyphosate ….

In the post-courtroom world, Schmeiser became a hero of the anti-GM …. crowd and was paid to travel the world telling his version of events. Like this new movie, that version differed from the one the courts heard and ruled upon …. “On the facts found by the trial judge, Mr. Schmeiser was not an innocent bystander; rather, he actively cultivated Roundup Ready canola.”

Monsanto Canada Inc v Schmeiser: the real story

As often happens with complex, emotionally charged stories, the facts surrounding Schmeiser’s legal battle with Monsanto got lost in translation once the press began covering the trial. In March 1999, about seven months after the biotech giant filed its lawsuit, the case was widely characterized as an example of accidental contamination or cross-pollination. British newspaper The Independent reported at the time:

FARMERS WHO find that stray genetically modified seeds have blown on to their land from neighbors’ fields and then taken root could face massive fines if the agrochemical giant Monsanto wins a test case in a Canadian court …. [T]he company claims that the patent on its genetically modified (GM) seeds has been violated. GM canola (rape) plants from Monsanto seeds were found growing among [Schmeiser’s] crops. The farmer believes that the seeds blew on to his land.

And that’s how it has been widely characterized ever since. But that isn’t what the case was about, or the legal precedent it set.

The year was 1997 and Monsanto’s first generation of herbicide-tolerant crops had just hit the market a few years earlier. Corn, soybeans, and canola had been bred through genetic engineering to survive exposure to the herbicide Roundup, allowing for markedly more efficient weed control than what had come before.

The seeds for those crops came with a technology agreement, much like the End User License Agreements (EULAs) that come with software, spelling out the terms the user agrees to in regards to future use and copy. Farmers purchasing these new seeds were not allowed to save them from their next crop to use the following season, which was common practice among some soybean and canola growers. Growers had to choose between the greater expense of the new and more efficient seeds or the parsimony of saving and reusing seed.

 

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Roundup Ready seeds tolerate exposure to the weed killer glyphosate. Credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg


According to court records,  Schmeiser first discovered Roundup-resistant canola in his crops in 1997. He’d been using Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide to clear weeds around power poles and in ditches next to a public road running along one of his fields. Schmeiser noticed that some of the canola he sprayed survived. He then performed a test by applying Roundup to an additional three to four acres of the same field. He found that 60% of the canola plants survived. At harvest time, Schmeiser instructed a farmhand to harvest the test field. That seed was stored separately from the rest of the harvest and used the next year to seed approximately 1,000 acres of canola. Whether Schmeiser came into possession of Roundup Ready canola due to accidental contamination in 1997 is unclear. The court case concerned the seed that he saved and used to benefit from the herbicide-tolerance trait.

According to the record presented in the Canadian Supreme Court finding on the case, a Monsanto investigator took samples of canola from the public road allowances bordering on two of Mr. Schmeiser’s fields in 1997, all of which were confirmed to contain Roundup Ready Canola. In March 1998, Monsanto visited Mr. Schmeiser and put him on notice of its belief that he had grown Roundup Ready Canola without a license.

Mr. Schmeiser nevertheless took the harvest he had saved in a pickup truck to a seed treatment plant and had it treated for use as seed. Once treated, it could be put to no other use. Mr. Schmeiser planted the treated seed in nine fields, covering approximately 1,000 acres in all. Numerous samples were taken, some under court order and some not, from the canola plants grown from this seed. Moreover, the seed treatment plant, unbeknownst to Mr. Schmeiser, kept some of the seed he had brought there for treatment in the spring of 1998 and turned it over to Monsanto. A series of independent tests by different experts confirmed that the canola Mr. Schmeiser planted in 1998 was 95% to 98% Roundup resistant.

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The question then was not, as is frequently characterized in the public imagination, whether Monsanto sued a hapless farmer after his crops were accidentally contaminated, but whether Monsanto retained patent protections over the genes in the seeds Schmeiser saved and intentionally reused. That he tried to obscure the fact that he intentionally saved 1,000 acres’ worth of Roundup Ready canola to plant in 1998 complicates the issue for the anti-biotech groups that backed his case.

Further complicating things, Schmeiser apparently didn’t spray his 1,000 acres of herbicide-tolerant canola with Roundup, and he sold the seed for feed and received no price premium on the sale. But he still benefited from the patented gene because of the risk management aspect of herbicide-tolerant (or insect-resistant) crops. That is, at the beginning of the season, the farmer doesn’t necessarily know the weed pressures they will face, so some of the value comes from the option to spray Roundup if weeds arise. The court further found that, although not directly at issue in the case, cultivating Roundup Ready Canola also presented future revenue opportunities to “brown-bag” the product to other farmers unwilling to pay the licensing fee, thus depriving Monsanto of the full enjoyment of its monopoly.

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If Schmeiser’s goal was to weasel out of a judgment, it made sense to cloud the issue. But if his goal was to test the extent of Monsanto’s patent monopoly on the trait once it unintentionally came into a farmer’s possession, Schmeiser should have been upfront about what he did, the case would have been stronger. He gained control of the seeds by chance and claimed he had the right to do with them what he wanted as a result. The court disagreed.

Despite the popular thumbnail portrayal of Monsanto suing farmers for accidental contamination, the case of Monsanto v Schmeiser hinged on whether Percy Schmeiser could intentionally breed Roundup Ready canola for his own commercial use having gained possession of it in a non-commercial avenue. What’s ironic is that Schmeiser became a folk hero to anti-biotech critics of ‘chemical’ farming because he wanted to use biotech seeds that are yoked to ‘chemical’ farming. He just didn’t want to pay for it, as the law demanded.

You can argue that patent and seed-development laws are unjust or counterproductive. I think that case is reasonable though ultimately flawed. But whatever side of that argument you land on, it’s wrong to say that Monsanto went around suing farmers for accidental pollination just as Roundup Ready technology was gaining traction and the legal framework that facilitated the technology was developing.

So, perhaps the lawsuit against Schmeiser was defensible. But what about the other cases of Goliath Monsanto suing hapless David farmers? We’ll explore those cases in part two of this series.

Marc Brazeau is the GLP’s senior contributing writer focusing on agricultural biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter @eatcookwrite

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The COVID conspiracy theory that won’t go away: No, the novel coronavirus was not made in a lab — it came from bats

One of the conspiracy theories that have plagued attempts to keep people informed during the pandemic is the idea that the coronavirus was created in a laboratory. But the vast majority of scientists who have studied the virus agree that it evolved naturally and crossed into humans from an animal species, most likely a bat.

How exactly do we know that this virus, SARS-CoV-2, has a “zoonotic” animal origin and not an artificial one? The answers lie in the genetic material and evolutionary history of the virus, and understanding the ecology of the bats in question.

An estimated 60% of known infectious diseases and 75% of all new, emerging, or re-emerging diseases in humans have animal origins. SARS-CoV-2 is the newest of seven coronaviruses found in humans, all of which came from animals, either from bats, mice or domestic animals. Bats were also the source of the viruses causing Ebola, rabies, Nipah and Hendra virus infections, Marburg virus disease, and strains of Influenza A virus.

The genetic makeup or “genome” of SARS-CoV-2 has been sequenced and publicly shared thousands of times by scientists all over the world. If the virus had been genetically engineered in a lab there would be signs of manipulation in the genome data. This would include evidence of an existing viral sequence as the backbone for the new virus, and obvious, targeted inserted (or deleted) genetic elements.

But no such evidence exists. It is very unlikely that any techniques used to genetically engineer the virus would not leave a genetic signature, like specific identifiable pieces of DNA code.

The genome of SARS-CoV-2 is similar to that of other bat coronaviruses, as well as those of pangolins, all of which have a similar overall genomic architecture. Differences between the genomes of these coronaviruses show natural patterns typical of coronavirus evolution. This suggests that SARS-CoV-2 evolved from a previous wild coronavirus.

One of the key features that makes SARS-CoV-2 different from the other coronaviruses is a particular “spike” protein that binds well with another protein on the outside of human cells called ACE2. This enables the virus to hook into and infect a variety of human cells. However, other related coronaviruses do have similar features, providing evidence that they have evolved naturally rather than being artificially added in a lab.

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Coronaviruses and bats are locked in an evolutionary arms race in which the viruses are constantly evolving to evade the bat immune system and bats are evolving to withstand infections from coronaviruses. A virus will evolve multiple variants, most of which will be destroyed by the bat’s immune system, but some will survive and pass to other bats.

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The ‘genome’ of SARS-CoV-2 has been sequenced and publicly shared thousands of times by scientists worldwide. Credit: Corona Borealis Studio/Shutterstock

Some scientists have suggested that SARS-CoV-2 may have come from another known bat virus (RaTG13) found by researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The genomes of these two viruses are 96% similar to one another.

This might sound very close but in evolutionary terms this actually makes them significantly different and the two have been shown to share a common ancestor. This shows that RaGT13 is not the ancestor of SARS-CoV-2.

In fact, SARS-CoV-2 most likely evolved from a viral variant that couldn’t survive for a long period of time or that persists at low levels in bats. Coincidentally, it evolved the ability to invade human cells and accidentally found its way into us, possibly by means of an intermediate animal host, where it then thrived. Or an initially harmless form of the virus might have jumped directly into humans and then evolved to become harmful as it passed between people.

Genetic variations

The mixing or “recombination” of distinct coronavirus genomes in nature is one of the mechanisms that brings about novel coronaviruses. There is now further evidence that this process could be involved in the generation of SARS-CoV-2.

Since the pandemic started, the SARS-CoV-2 virus appears to have started evolving into two distinct strains, acquiring adaptations for more efficient invasion of human cells. This could have occurred through a mechanism known as a selective sweep, through which beneficial mutations help a virus to infect more hosts and so become more common in the viral population. This is a natural process that can ultimately reduce the genetic variation between individual viral genomes.

The same mechanism would account for the lack of diversity seen in the many SARs-CoV-2 genomes that have been sequenced. This indicates that the ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 could have been circulating in bat populations for a considerable amount of time. It then would have acquired the mutations that allowed it to spill over from bats into other animals, including humans.

It is also important to remember that around one in five of all mammal species on Earth are bats, with some found only in certain locations and others migrating across vast distances. This diversity and geographical spread makes it a challenge to identify which group of bats SARS-CoV-2 originally came from.

There is evidence that early cases of COVID-19 occurred outside of Wuhan in China and had no clear link to the city’s wet market where the pandemic is thought to have begun. But that isn’t evidence of a conspiracy.

It could simply be that infected people accidentally brought the virus into the city and then the wet market, where the enclosed, busy conditions increased the chances of the disease spreading rapidly. This includes the possibility of one of the scientists involved in bat coronavirus research in Wuhan unknowingly becoming infected and bringing the virus back from where their subject bats lived. This would still be considered natural infection, not a laboratory leak.

Only through robust science and the study of the natural world will we be able to truly understand the natural history and origins of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. This is pertinent because our ever-changing relationship and increasing contact with wildlife is raising the risk of new deadly zoonotic diseases emerging in humans. SARS-CoV-2 is not the first virus that we have acquired from animals and certainly will not be the last.

Dr Polly Hayes is Lecturer in Parasitology and Medical Microbiology at the University of Westminster. Her research concentrates on the diversity, evolution and molecular ecology of parasites and other pathogens, disease vectors, and host-pathogen interactions in relation to transmission. Find Polly on Twitter @pollyhayes

A version of this article was originally published at the Conversation and has been republished here with permission. The Conversation can be found on Twitter @ConversationUS

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‘Hero of progress’: How agronomist Norman Borlaug almost banished famine from Asia

Norman Ernest Borlaug [who died in 2009] was an American agronomist and humanitarian born in Iowa in 1914. After receiving a PhD from the University of Minnesota in 1944, Borlaug moved to Mexico to work on agricultural development for the Rockefeller Foundation. Although Borlaug’s taskforce was initiated to teach Mexican farmers methods to increase food productivity, he quickly became obsessed with developing better (i.e., higher-yielding and pest-and-climate resistant) crops.

As Johan Norberg notes in his 2016 book Progress:

After thousands of crossing of wheat, Borlaug managed to come up with a high-yield hybrid that was parasite resistant and wasn’t sensitive to daylight hours, so it could be grown in varying climates. Importantly it was a dwarf variety, since tall wheat expended a lot of energy growing inedible stalks and collapsed when it grew too quickly. The new wheat was quickly introduced all over Mexico.

In fact, by 1963, 95 percent of Mexico’s wheat was Borlaug’s variety and Mexico’s wheat harvest grew six times larger than it had been when he first set foot in the country nineteen years earlier.

Norberg continues, “in 1963, Borlaug moved on to India and Pakistan, just as it found itself facing the threat of massive starvation. Immediately, he ordered thirty-five trucks of high-yield seeds to be driven from Mexico to Los Angeles, in order to ship them from there.” Unfortunately, Borlaug’s convoy faced problems from the start; it was held up by Mexican police, blocked at the US border due to a ban on seed imports, and was then stalled by race-riots that obstructed the LA harbor.

Eventually Borlaug’s shipment began its voyage to India, but it was far from plain sailing.borlaug wheat tif

Before the seeds had reached the sub-continent, Indian state monopolies began lobbying against Borlaug’s shipment and then, once it was
ashore, it was discovered that half the seeds had been killed due to over-fumigation at customs. If that wasn’t enough, Borlaug learnt that the Indian government was planning to refuse fertilizer imports as they “wanted to build up their domestic fertilizer industry.” Luckily that policy was abandoned once Borlaug famously shouted at India’s deputy Prime Minister.

Borlaug later noted, “I went to bed thinking the problem was at last solved and woke up to the news that war had broken out between India and Pakistan.” Amid the war, Borlaug and his team continued to work tirelessly planting seeds. Often the fields were within sight of artillery flashes.

Despite the late planting, yields in India rose by seventy percent in 1965. The proven success of his harvests coupled with the fear of wartime starvation, meant that Borlaug got the go-ahead from the Pakistani and Indian governments to roll out his program on a larger scale. The following harvest was even more bountiful and wartime famine was averted.

Both nations praised Borlaug immensely. The Pakistani Agriculture Minister took to the radio applauding the new crop varieties, while the Indian Agriculture Minister went as far as to plough his cricket pitch with Borlaug’s wheat. After a huge shipment of seed in 1968, the harvest in both countries boomed. It is recorded that there were not enough people, carts, trucks, or storage facilities to cope with the bountiful crop.

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Borlaug with the Nobel Peace Prize

This extraordinary transformation of Asian agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s almost banished famine from the entire continent. By 1974, wheat harvests had tripled in India and, for the first time, the sub-continent became a net exporter of the crop. Norberg notes, “today they (India and Pakistan) produce seven times more wheat than they did in 1965. Despite a rapidly growing population, both countries are much better fed than they used to be.”

Borlaug’s wheat, and the dwarf rice varieties that followed, are credited for ushering in the Green Revolution. After the Indo-Pakistani war, Borlaug spent years working in China and later in life, Africa.

In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his accomplishments. He is only one of seven to have received the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in addition to the Nobel Peace Prize. It is said that he was particularly satisfied when the people of Sonora, Mexico, where he did some of his first experiments, named a street after him.

Norman Borlaug’s work undeniably changed the world for the better, and in saving approximately one billion lives, he truly deserves to be our first Hero of Progress.

Alexander C. R. Hammond is a research associate at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity and a senior fellow at African Liberty. Follow him on Twitter @AlexanderHammo

This article originally ran at Human Progress as Heroes of Progress, Pt. 1: Norman Borlaug and has been republished here with permission.

This article originally appeared on GLP on July 19, 2019.

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COVID halts global GM crop approvals, hitting poor farmers in developing countries hardest

The demand rising from COVID-19 has ramped up vaccines using various genetic modification technologies, but when it comes to agriculture, the inverse has been true. Covid significantly slowed down the global process to commercialize genetically modified (GM) crops, and no one feels it more than farmers in developing countries, like Kenya, Ghana, and Bangladesh, where significant progress quickly came to a screeching halt.

Although many countries have approved the fast track use of genetic modification in the production of COVID-19 vaccines, the contrary is the case when it comes to approvals for GM crops. Kenya, Ghana, and Bangladesh are some of the countries where efforts to get GM crops into the hands of farmers have either stalled, or timelines for approval been rescheduled because of COVID-19. Genetically engineered crops bring more food to a continent that struggles with food security. And these crops can grow with fewer pesticides, thus keeping us healthier while working in the fields.

“In Kenya, we have had regulatory delays in the continuation of the national performance trials on [insect-resistant] Bt maize,” Kenyan plant breeder Dr. Murenga Mwimali told Dirt to Dinner in an interview. “There were planned national performance trials in six sites in Kenya. However, with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns, the activities by all stakeholders were all stopped.”

Bt maize has been genetically modified to produce a protein -safe for humans and other animals-but can kill the destructive stemborer insects that destroy maize crops. Bt crops have been shown to reduce pesticide use. Bt maize also often contains traits for drought tolerance, which can help increase productivity on farms by at least 10%.

It is essential to continue moving forward

Dr. Mwimali is worried the situation with COVID-19 will push back the expected time frame for commercializing GM maize for use by Kenya’s farmers. It is already being grown in South Africa, as well as the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, among other countries.

“It takes about 100-150 days to gain [government] approval but now it is taking longer and longer given the many requirements for a team of regulatory institutions to sit and approve the processes,” Dr. Mwimali explained. “This [approval] period may now double and the food and nutrition security of more than 80 percent of smallscale farmers will continue to suffer.”

Stakeholders, however, remain confident things will change in the months ahead as COVID-19-related lockdowns ease. Recently, Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock and Fisheries, National Biosafety Authority, National Environment Management Authority, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services, and other regulatory stakeholders have been meeting to brainstorm ways to proceed with the national performance trials on Bt maize.

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“Despite the current COVID-19 situation, there is hope that the national performance trial activities on Bt maize will proceed with the teams observing the safety requirements by the Ministry of Health,” Dr. Mwimali said.

Dr. Rose Gidado, assistant director of the National Biotechnology Development Authority in Nigeria, said the situation there is no different. For some years now, the government has fast-tracked the adoption of GM crops and has approved Bt cotton and cowpea for commercialization.

Since last year, the multiplication of seeds has been ongoing to allow for the mass sale of GM seeds to farmers. But COVID-19 has slowed down activities so the farmer does not have access to the seeds. “The process is only affected by COVID-19 in terms of restricted movements, limited travels, and social distancing,” she told Dirt to Dinner. “You cannot do so much at this time. Things are moving at a slow pace.”

Dr. Gidado argues, however, that Nigeria needs GM crops now more than ever in the COVID-19 era.

“There is the need to step up production in order to measure up as well as prepare for the high demand for food in the country in the post-COVID-19 era,” Dr. Gidado said. “The potential for economic growth arising from the cultivation of genetically engineered crops in Nigeria is high with increased access to food, good health, and productivity. It will also attract foreign investments and earnings, leading to wealth creation.”

As the Nigerian government eases COVID-19 restrictions, work has begun to revive the GM crop commercialization processes. “We are still on track to produce GE cowpea,” she said. Insect-resistant cowpea is the country’s first GM food crop.

Complicated GMO regulations

The regulation of GM crops in much of the world is guided by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement currently ratified by about 170 countries to ensure the safe use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. The protocol requires that products arising out of technologies like genetic modification be regulated based on the precautionary principle, which requires that countries pause and review new technologies extensively before they are adopted.

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A lot of countries have thus passed new legislation that lays out extensive, in-depth and complicated processes that need to be exhausted before GM crops are approved for use. When plant researchers finish breeding a new GM seed, it has to be taken through trials in confined areas, then contained trials on a fairly large scale. If it passes both of those reviews, then governments authorize an environmental release, which allows it to be grown by farmers in several areas of a country.

The next step is applying for commercialization so farmers can legally access and cultivate the seeds. It can take more than a decade, and tens of millions of dollars, to bring a GM crop to market.

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In Ghana, efforts to allow for the commercialization of GM crops started more than 10 years ago but crystalized in 2011 with the passage of the National Biosafety Act to guide the process. In 2018, Ghanaian scientists completed field trials on the insect-resistant Bt cowpea, the country’s first GM crop variety. This GM crop is expected to help farmers dramatically reduce their use of pesticides, while also enjoying better yields of this important staple food. “When you look at the conventional seeds, you can spray as much as eight times (a season). But with the Bt, you spray only two times.

“Just the two sprays can confer resistance in Bt crops like the eight sprays in the conventional,” Dr. Mumuni Abdulai, principal investigator in charge of the Bt cowpea project, explained.

After years of additional background work following completion of tests on the varieties, scientists were hoping to zoom into the final approval processes by applying to the National Biosafety Authority for environmental release of the variety in the first half of 2020. But the process stalled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The document is ready for submission. Everything is ready…if not because of COVID-19, we would have done it by now.”

Burkina Faso is the third West African country, apart from Ghana and Nigeria, that is working to get the Bt cowpea variety into the hands of farmers. Burkina Faso is hoping to use the GM cowpea project to re-establish itself as a nation that puts science first after its government halted the cultivation of Bt cotton in 2015. But the Bt cowpea approval process has slowed down there, just as in Ghana and Nigeria.

gm crops africa xFarmers in Burkina Faso are calling on the government to fast-track the approvals for Bt cowpea in response to COVID-19. Burkina Faso farmer Wiledio Naboho said COVID-19 has negatively impacted production this year and farmers are counting on GM crops to help them increase productivity.

“Really, COVID-19 has impacted us as farmers negatively,” Naboho said. “First, it’s limited our access to quality seeds. And also, the few [seeds] we have are sold at a high price. Secondly, access to food is limited because of lockdown… So, COVID-19 came to add more sorrow to my people. I can tell a lot of families don’t have food to feed themselves.”

Of the 53 countries in Africa, only South Africa, Eswatini, and South Sudan farmers are currently growing GM crops commercially. More than 20 nations are currently undertaking trials on about eight GM crops, including banana, cassava, and maize, in preparation for their introduction into the food supply. The research and approval processes have slowed down in virtually all these countries as a result of COVID-19.

Situations elsewhere

The challenge in Africa is being experienced in Asia, as well. In the Philippines, the COVID-19 pandemic has added energy and vigor to the activities of anti-science groups campaigning against Golden Rice, a GM rice variety rich in vitamin A, a nutrient to prevent blindness and other serious health challenges in millions of children. In December 2019, the Philippines Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry issued an official notice of permit approving Golden Rice for direct use in food, feed or processing.

In early August, the Stop Golden Rice Network launched its annual week-long line up of activities to protest plans to commercialize Golden Rice. “There are enough reasons to safely conclude that non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are exploiting the dire situation of our food system during COVID-19”, Mr. Cris Panerio, one of the coordinators of the campaign claimed, even though Golden Rice is a philanthropic endeavor.  Such re-invigorated campaigns linking COVID-19 and GM crops will make it more difficult for the authorities to introduce the lifesaving varieties.

In Bangladesh, following the success of genetically modified Bt brinjal (eggplant), the country is also researching Golden Rice, potatoes resistant to the devasting late blight disease and pest-resistant Bt cotton. Bt brinjal, which is the first GM crop developed by public sector scientists for farmers in South Asia, increased farmer income by $658 per hectare over the four years between 2014 and 2018. GM rice, potato, and cotton are expected to make an even higher and better impact on the population, but COVID-19 is now serving as a distraction against its approval.

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“COVID-19 is having a grave impact in Bangladesh and soon we might have more positive cases than Italy. It has slowed down the whole system and our economy. So, the government has many burning priorities other than speeding up the process of research and development of Golden Rice and other biotech crops,” Arif Hossain, executive director of Farming Future Bangladesh, told Dirt to Dinner. “We hope that our research system will resume all its activities in full swing after this pandemic. But right at this moment, the government is giving priorities to production, mechanization, and market value chain, along with large scale subsidy programs for farmers and others engaged in agriculture.”

The opposite appears to be the case in some South American countries. Over the last few months, reports indicate that the transitional government in Bolivia has approved 5 GM crops, including sugar cane and cotton, as part of its efforts to boost agriculture during the pandemic. A pilot project for GM wheat is also being planned.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic in Mexicoa group of researchers at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León have begun work on using bioinformatics and computational genetic engineering to possibly produce a tomato that can deliver an edible COVID-19 vaccine. In the US, very little movement has been seen on the GM crop front since the pandemic broke. Europe continues to resist the technology, though the United Kingdom is considering its adoption as part of its break from the European Union.

The bottom line

The repercussions, while unique to each region, are vast and hard-hitting. The consequences of COVID-19 on slowing the approval process of GM efforts has a trickle-down effect that touches every link in the supply chain—from the investors to the manufacturers to the farmers, and ultimately the families. This risks widespread food and nutrition insecurity for developing countries – where food security is already on the balance.

Joseph Opoku Gakpo is a 2016 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow and contributes to the Multimedia Group Limited in Ghana, working with Joy FM, Joy News TV, and MyJoyOnline. He has a master’s degree in communications studies from the University of Ghana and is a member of the Ghana Journalists Association. Find Joseph on Twitter @josephopoku1990

A version of this article was originally posted at Dirt To Dinner and has been reposted here with permission. Dirt To Dinner can be found on Twitter @Dirt_To_Dinner