Anti-GMO groups have long warned about the dangers of AquaBounty’s genetically engineered salmon. But as it turns out, transgenic fish probably evolved naturally long ago, according to a new study. Should scientists cease their efforts to find a biological basis for gender? A CRISPR-based therapy for sickle cell anemia is going into clinical trials, moving the potentially life-saving treatment closer to commercialization.
With the commercialization of AquaBounty’s fast-growing salmon imminent, some anti-GMO groups have doubled down on their warnings that the ‘unnatural’ fish poses a risk to the environment. But as it turns out, transgenic fish may have evolved naturally. A March 2021 study published in Trends in Genetics argues that rainbow smelt stole the antifreeze gene that helps them survive icy coastal waters from herring roughly 20 million years ago. The research adds to a growing body of evidence that mother nature made ‘GMOs’ before any scientists ever thought it possible.
How should we think about gender? As our knowledge of human biology grows and the political debate over transgender rights evolves, the question has proved difficult to answer. According to a 2015 literature review, “there is increasing evidence of a biological basis for gender identity,” and preliminary research has pinpointed gene variants “implicated in the growth of brain cells or the production of sex hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone” that could influence gender identity.
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While research of this sort could “change physicians’ perspective on transgender medicine and improve health care for these patients,” other commentators argue that this whole project is a dangerous example of biological essentialism that may undermine acceptance of trans people. As a result, efforts to uncover a biological influence on gender identity need to be reevaluated, and perhaps even ended.
Caused by mutations that affect the production of hemoglobin, sickle cell disease distorts the shape of red blood cells, blocking blood flow throughout the body. It’s incredibly painful and can result in a number of very dangerous complications, including stroke, spleen damage, infection and vision problems. For now the only cure is a bone marrow transplants, but scientists are currently trialing a CRISPR-based therapy that removes one of the defective genes and replaces it with a fully functioning one. The treatment, if successful, could help thousands of people lead healthier lives.
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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
When a new variant of the COVID-19 virus appeared in the UK as 2020 drew to a close, I didn’t think it would show up a half hour’s drive from my home in the somewhat remote village in upstate New York soon after. The first cases were near Denver and in San Diego, and then traced to a jewelry store on Broadway in Saratoga Springs. My husband and I felt rather insulated and isolated here, hours from New York City.
The legacy of Caffe Lena
A few weeks ago, I received an email from the executive director of Caffe Lena, the oldest coffeehouse in the US. Don McLean debuted “American Pie” there, Arlo Guthrie first tried out “Alice’s Restaurant,” and Bob Dylan and many others have commanded the iconic tiny stage in the small, homey establishment that opened in 1960.
The café is now in “Safe Mode,” with even the fabulous online events it has held throughout the pandemic too risky to record. The one-month shutdown follows the death January 12 from COVID of Matt McCabe, owner of Saratoga Guitar and frequent performer at the coffeehouse. The opening image captures his final show, in December.
The last time my husband and I had been to Saratoga was to dine outside Hattie’s Chicken, next door to Caffe Lena. It was that fabulously warm wonderful November Saturday when the election results were in and we felt the first faint glimmers of hope return. We watched as a few musicians hauled their instruments up the steps of the recently-refurbished Caffe. I don’t know whether Matt McCabe had the new variant of SARS-CoV-2. But now that Caffe Lena is stopping online broadcasts, I’ll have more time to write, so thought I’d explain the confusing distinctions that have made a scary pathogen even scarier: mutants, variants, and strains.
What exactly are the new guises of SARS-CoV-2? And where did they come from?
A quick science lesson
Nucleic acids – DNA and RNA – are long strings of building blocks that impart meaning. Triplets of DNA or RNA bases encode the amino acids that link into proteins, and proteins underlie traits.
The sequences of nucleic acids can change, when the molecules copy themselves, like perpetuating a typo in a document. Not all changes to RNA or DNA affect the encoded protein, but if they do, they can alter the corresponding trait. For a virus, that might be ease of transmission to a new host, strength of binding to receptors dotting the host’s cells, or hiding from the immune response.
Once a mutation happens, two major factors – a founder effect and natural selection – influence the trajectory of its spread. Both can unfold at once, as is the case for SARS-CoV-2 right now.
Chance and selection fuel change
A founder effect is when a mutation or mutations arrive at a new location through chance sampling. That’s how the UK variant ended up in Saratoga Springs.
Several variants of the virus were circulating in the UK during the fall, genomic surveillance just beginning to pick them up, when a man unwittingly got on a plane and headed for Albany. A few days later, he was shopping for a Christmas gift at the jewelry store on Broadway in Saratoga Springs, and became the first person to harbor the new UK variant in New York state. Might he have, perhaps circuitously, infected Matt McCabe?
A founder effect can deliver a novel viral variant on a smaller scale than an airplane, too. A person might harbor several versions of SARS-CoV-2, yet only one jumps to another person in a sneeze or cough.
Soon after founder effects brought new variants here, natural selection unfolded too. It’s survival of the fittest: if a new mutation benefits the virus, it persists.
The UK variant, called B.1.1.7, consists of several mutations that enable viruses to copy themselves 71% faster, spread from host-to-host more readily, and bind more tenaciously to our cells.
Mutations, variants, and strains, oh my!
New versions of SARS-CoV-2 differ genetically, but the degrees of difference are confusing. Here’s clarification:
A mutation substitutes one type of RNA base for another at a single place in the 30,000-base viral genome. If the change alters the encoded amino acid in a way that changes the virus’s action, natural selection can favor it. To a geneticist, “gene mutation” and “gene variant” are synonymous.
A variant to an epidemiologist is broader, meaning the viral genome has something different, arising from one or more mutations. B.1.1.7 harbors nine mutations in the spike protein gene alone, the part that the immune response “sees.”
A strain is even broader, denoting a variant that has a telltale observable or measurable trait or behavior. A new strain may emerge from gene interactions.
It’s hard to keep up with the ever-mutating virus, and I can’t describe them all in one post. But here’s a description of three new faces of the virus that have dominated newsfeeds: D614G, a mink mutation, and B.1.1.7.
“D” versus “G” virus
The first notable COVID mutant, called D614G, popped up in several parts of Europe by early March, and then hopped planes to the US. Because it spreads more readily than whatever it mutated from, it’s taken over. D614G may have seeded Europe from China in January through a founder effect, but once there, it likely spread, fast, under powerful natural selection.
“The mutation was concerning because it looked like something new was taking over in multiple places. In evolution, that’s a strong clue that it might confer an advantage for the virus, that natural selection is at play,” said Adam Lauring, of the University of Michigan Division of Infectious Diseases in a JAMA webinar January 2. Modeling and cell experiments indicated natural selection rather than a series of founder effects.
Anthony Fauci added perspective on D614G. “RNA viruses mutate, that’s been known forever. The overwhelming majority of mutations are without any functional significance. Every once in awhile, we get one that is,” and that’s the case for the single amino acid change at position 614 in the spike, the part of the virus that binds to ACE2 receptors on many human cell types. While the mutation spreads more easily and binds tighter to receptors, the antibodies that the vaccines elicit do attack it, he reassured. But spreading more easily means more opportunities to mutate.
What D614G enables the virus to do is a little like strengthening the tailhook of a fighter plane, making it better able to latch onto a cable on the deck of an aircraft carrier. The mutation affects a specific spot in the spike, where its “receptor binding domain” intersects a loop of amino acids that reverberates like a trap door. Once a spike grabs on, a second part of it clamps down onto the cell membrane and pushes the virus through. We’re infected.
Here’s what “D614G” means in biochemical shorthand: a single RNA base change corresponding to the 614th of 1277 amino acids that comprise the spike. The mutation alters an aspartic acid (“D”) to a glycine (“G”). (Biochemistry convention represents each of the 20 amino acids with a single letter.)
The jargon behind D614G is abbreviated further to the “D” and “G” strains of the virus. D is the slowpoke, while newbie G copies itself more readily, boosting a person’s viral load so that denser clouds of virus are exhaled.
But the D614G mutation may eventually exert greater significance in terms of epidemiology. A viral variant that passes to more people (ups the “R naught” value) elevates the percentage of a population that must become immune (through infection or vaccination) to achieve herd immunity. I’ll save that for another post.
The mink mutation
Next came minks. Reports from the Netherlands in the spring, and in Denmark in June with autumn resurgence, pointed to mink farms. Human workers may have initially given the virus to the minks, which then returned the favor, in changed form.
The mink mutation also alters the spike protein, and is dubbed N453Y – a change from tyrosine to phenylalanine at amino acid position 453. Studies on people who’ve recovered from COVID show that sometimes their antibodies aren’t as able to neutralize the new version of the virus, while the spikes bind more strongly to our receptors.
“The change is modest, so I don’t think it will compromise vaccines. But the big concern is a virus established in another host species where it can evolve and spill back into humans,” Lauring said. That’s why many countries are culling minks.
The UK and South African variants
The evolutionary tree diagrams that depict relationships of related species, like hippos, whales, pigs, and peccaries, are also used to track changes in viral genomes. The trees are derived from comparing DNA or RNA sequences, sometimes using mutation rates to estimate times of divergence from shared ancestors.
I think of evolutionary trees when my laptop freezes and I have to rescue the document from every time I’d hit “save.” I compare all the versions that suddenly overlap on my screen to deduce the order, from first draft to most recent.
B.1.1.7 harbors a “signature” of 14 mutations. The most notable is N501Y (asparagine changed to tyrosine at position 501).
Blasting through the UK and South Africa and beyond with astonishing speed, N501Y clearly has an advantage – that’s natural selection at work, not a slower founder effect. The fact that N501Y arose independently in the UK and South Africa also points to natural selection. “This virus grows faster and it started later, and has spread rapidly, doing a lot better than its cousins. We should pay attention,” warned Lauring.
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The UK variant has probably been more widespread here and we didn’t know it simply because we weren’t looking. “The UK has a massive operation. They sequence 10% of all SAR-COV-2 tests; in the US, we sequence probably way less than 0.5%. Other countries that also don’t do a lot of sequencing are now finding it because they’re looking harder for it now,” Lauring said.
Although B.1.1.7 doesn’t make people sicker, its more rapid spread means that more people will become infected – and the sheer numbers will send more patients to already overburdened hospitals. It’s deja vu all over again from D614G.
Preliminary studies from South Africa, where people who’ve been sick are becoming reinfected with the new variant bearing the N501Y mutation, indicate that the natural immune response isn’t making sufficient neutralizing antibodies. Vaccines are likely to offer better protection because they’re designed to coax the body to make a wider array of antibodies, tackling spikes at several points and from several angles. But if vaccine efficacy is even slightly lower than expected from testing before the new variants arrived, that’ll raise requirements for herd immunity.
The battle of humanity against the novel coronavirus seems never-ending. Evolutionary trees reveal that SARS-CoV-2 jumped to us from bats only recently – so its genome is still adapting to our bodies. The virus is a moving target.
January 20, New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo addressed the future of the changeling virus. As he reported two more cases of B.1.1.7 from Saratoga Springs, he said “it is just a matter of time” and “a matter of probability” until we will face a more deadly or vaccine-resistance coronavirus. Next week I’m writing about a machine learning algorithm that predicts mutations.
Meanwhile, what must we do, before nature attenuates SARS-CoV-2 into just another cause of the common cold? That could be years from now. Continue with the tried-and-true, if uncomfortable, public health measures – social distancing, hand-washing, and wearing masks.
Ricki Lewis has a PhD in genetics and is a science writer and author of several human genetics books. She is an adjunct professor for the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College. Follow her at her website or Twitter @rickilewis
Robert Francis Kennedy, Jr. (born 1954) is the third child and second son of the late Attorney General, US Senator and Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy (RFK). He is an anti-vaccine, anti-GMO and anti-pesticide litigator who espouses health and environmental claims that stand outside mainstream science. He promotes his views through his nonprofit, Children’s Health Defense, formerly the World Mercury Project. It was founded in 2007 and re-branded in 2018. It opposes vaccines, mercury usage in dentistry and chemical/pesticide use. Kennedy was part of the plaintiff’s litigation team in a 2018 lawsuit alleging Bayer’s weedkiller Roundup (glyphosate) causes cancer. In addition to his anti-vaccine, anti-GMO advocacy, he claims 5G wireless causes cancer and other health issues, and has embraced numerous other fringe conspiracy theories.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kennedy has repeatedly argued that all vaccines are “unavoidably unsafe”, expressing his belief that various vaccines to control the pandemic are dangerous. He has consistently attacked Bill Gates, who he accuses of masterminding a global effort to fund vaccine research in a secret plot to assume “dictatorial control of global health policy.” In August 2020, Kennedy aligned himself with radical U.S. right-wing and European extremist groups spreading conspiracy claims that the coronavirus pandemic is “one big lie” by governments and multinational corporations led by Bill Gates to enslave the public via vaccine dependency and technological tracking of their activities.In February 2021, Instagram banned Kennedy “for repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines,” a spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, said in a statement.
In August, 2020, Kennedy filed suit in federal court in California, alleging that Facebook’s fact-checking program for scientific or medical misinformation, which led them to limit anti-vaccination posts by Kennedy and other groups, violates his constitutional rights. A recent study had found that Kennedy, through his CHD organization, were responsible for more than half of the anti-vaccine advertisements on Facebook when they were permitted. Facebook removed several anti-vaccine videos and promised to stop recommending anti-vaccine pages in addition to including a label at the top of the Children’s Health Defense’s (CHD) Facebook page which informs users that “this page posts about vaccines.” Facebook also included a link to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website at the top of the CHD’s Facebook and removed the group’s ability to fundraise on the social media platform. The Kennedy-led suit (PDF) claimed that Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and the organizations Science Feedback, Poynter and PolitiFact acted “jointly or in concert with federal government agencies” to infringe on CHD’s First and Fifth Amendment rights. The suit also alleged Facebook and the fact-checking organizations colluded to commit wire fraud by “clearing the field” of anti-vaccine ads. The suit is pending, but several American judges have dismissed similar lawsuits in the past, arguing that social media companies are not bound by the First Amendment and have every right to censor users that violate its content policy.
After graduating from law school and passing the New York bar, Kennedy became an assistant district attorney in New York City. From 1984 until 2017, he was a board member and chief prosecuting attorney for Hudson Valley Riverkeeper, which advocated (and litigated) for cleaning up pollution from the Hudson River. He became a staff member of Riverkeeper after serving as an intern as restitution as part of his 1983 court sentence for heroin possession. 
From 1986 until 2017, Kennedy was a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental activist group known for its opposition to chemicals and biotechnology, specifically the genetic engineering of crops. Kennedy is the president of the board of Waterkeeper Alliance, a non-profit environmental group that he helped found in 1999. For more than thirty years, Kennedy has been an adjunct professor of Environmental law at Pace University School of Law. Until August 2017, he also held the post as supervising attorney and co-director of Pace Law School’s Environmental Litigation Clinic, which he founded in 1987. He is currently professor emeritus at Pace.
Kennedy co-hosts Ring of Fire, a nationally syndicated American radio program for plaintiffs’ bar litigation issues.
Attended Georgetown Preparatory School, a boarding school in Bethesda, Maryland
Graduated from the Palfrey Street School in Massachusetts
Graduated from Harvard College – 1976 BA American History and Literature
Graduated University of Virginia School of Law – JD
Graduated Pace University School of Law – Master of Laws
Environment and links to the Church of Scientology
Beginning with his internship at Riverkeeper, Kennedy became an attorney-advocate on environmental issues. One of his first cases with the firm was litigation against General Electric for PCB pollution of the Hudson River. Kennedy co-founded EcoWatch, an environmental news site. In 2000, he also co-founded the law firm Kennedy and Madonna, which litigates environmental pollution cases; its most recent case involved a methane gas blowout at a facility in Porter Ranch, California. After that case, Kennedy took a position as co-counsel for the law firm Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman, which was founded by and continues to be managed by adherents of the Church of Scientology. He became involved in litigation against the manufacturer of Gardasil, the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine designed to prevent cervical cancer.  The firm has become instrumental in other environmental litigation cases, including lawsuits against the former Monsanto Corp. involving the herbicide glyphosate. In 2017, Kennedy resigned from Riverkeeper, citing his new residence on the west coast and his work with other advocacy groups.
In 2003, Kennedy began writing articles and making statements in opposition to vaccines.  Since the mid-2000s, he has consistently claimed that vaccines are linked to autism in children, an allegation first made by a discredited British physician named Andrew Wakefield in a now-retracted paper published in The Lancet. Kennedy has focused his advocacy on thimerosal, a compound of mercury that had been added to vaccine formulations to prevent contamination.  Thimerosal has never been shown to cause harm, but the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics asked vaccine makers to remove thimerosal from vaccine formulations. Even though Kennedy began making claims of a vast, international conspiracy to poison children with thimerosal-laden vaccines in 2005, the compound had been removed from most immunizations beginning in 2001. 
As far back as 2015, Kennedy has promoted the debunked link between vaccines and autism, claiming in numerous forums that vaccines were causing a “holocaust” in the United States and other western countries. That echoed claims made by the Church of Scientology and the Nation of Islam. Through the Children’s Health Defense, he has advocated against vaccines, claiming “fraud and corruption within the CDC and the pharmaceutical industry.”  Kennedy says he was “fighting multiple lawsuits on behalf of Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper against coal-fired power plants” when he was also speaking about “the dangers of mercury emissions, which, by then, had contaminated virtually every fresh water fish in America.” 
Through Children’s Health Defense, Kennedy assumed the self-appointed role of “vaccine safety” advocate. Most of his efforts consist of continued claims that vaccines contain thimerosal, which contains mercury. Mercury is indeed a neurotoxin, and children chronically exposed to mercury from food suffer delays in the development of their nervous systems. But the chemical formula of mercury in thimerosal is very different from mercury that causes health problems.
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Kennedy’s claim that vaccines are unsafe because of thimerosal minimizes nine studies funded or performed by the CDC since 2003, as well as a 2000 safety review by the Institute of Medicine that found no health risks from the compound.  As for autism, only the Wakefield study showed any results connecting vaccines to autism. The study has since been retracted, and Wakefield has lost his medical license for committing fraud.
In 2017, Kennedy announced that he would be the head of a panel on vaccine safety, established by newly inaugurated President Donald J. Trump. The White House transition team never formed the panel.
Kennedy has been the keynote speaker at many high-profile anti-vaccine events, including a joint 2013 conference put on by AutismOne and Generation Rescue, both well-known anti-immunization groups. ,  Generation Rescue is headed by anti-vaccine advocate and actress Jenny McCarthy, and has issued statements against vaccines that misinterpret science. These include the claim that vaccination gave her son autism, that vaccines contain “toxins” including mercury, ether, antifreeze and aborted fetal tissue, and that she cured her son with a gluten- and casein-free diet. AutismOne has issued written support for discredited researcher Andrew Wakefield, even inviting him to speak at their conference. 
A study published in the journal Vaccine in 2020 found that two buyers (Kennedy’s World Mercury Project–now Children’s Health Defense, and the Californian group Stop Mandatory Vaccination) were the purchasers of 54 percent of anti-vaccine advertising on Facebook. The study by researchers at the University of Maryland, George Washington University and Johns Hopkins University was conducted before Facebook changed its policies on allowing anti-vaccine advertising. 
In August 2020, Kennedy spoke at an outdoor rally in Berlin, protesting German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s actions aimed at reducing exposure to SARS-Cov2, the virus causing COVID-19. The rally, consisting of a hodgepodge of organizations which included right-wing extremists and even Neo-Nazis, heard Kennedy warn against the 5G cellular network and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. With reference to his uncle’s visit to Berlin in 1963, he said: “Today Berlin is again the front against totalitarianism.” 
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weedkiller Roundup (first manufactured by Monsanto), has long been targeted by anti-GMO activists because several genetically modified crops (corn, soy and cotton) have been developed to withstand applications of the herbicide.
Through the Church of Scientology law firm Baum Hedlund, Kennedy has sued Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) based on the claim that glyphosate causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), a rare form of cancer, in workers who have applied the weedkiller. This claim is based on a 2015 monograph from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which declared glyphosate to be a “probable” carcinogen for workers, although it found no demonstrable dangers to the general public from trace exposure in food. The monograph has been heavily criticized for its sloppy methodology; concerns have also been raised that several authors of the report had financial ties to the law firms that sued Monsanto after IARC published its findings. No other major federal hazard or risk agency in the world has concurred with the IARC findings, with many issuing direct rebuttals.
Despite these limitations, Kennedy (and other lawyers) have leveraged the IARC ‘hazard’ finding to trigger the Daubert rule, which is a legal doctrine that allows personal injury lawsuits to be filed once a threshold of scientific information has been reported on the substance in question. Kennedy explains his justification for suing over glyphosate to Dr. Mark Hyman, a physician and wellness advocate as well as an opponent of the use of genetically modified crops and food:
In 2018, Baum Hedlund scored the first victory against glyphosate, with a $289 million verdict against Monsanto accused of giving groundskeeper DeWayne Johnson non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The jury decided that glyphosate more likely than not contributed to his cancer; the jury did not focus on studies showing that the causes of lymphomas are unknown; nor did they consider extensive research as noted by 16 other major research groups that there concluded there is no demonstrable link between the weedkiller and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The verdict has since been reduced by other courts.
In 2020, Kennedy claimed in an article for Children’s Health Defense  that glyphosate and vaccines are responsible for rising obesity rates, particularly in children. The article quoted “studies by immunologist JB Classen showing vaccine induced immune overload” as a primary cause of childhood obesity. JB (John Bartholomew) Classen is an anti-vaccine activist who claims that “immunization causes a large number of other chronic diseases, including autism, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune diseases, allergies, asthma, cancers and Gulf War Syndrome.” Kennedy then connected obesity with glyphosate by quoting MIT computer scientist Stephanie Seneff and co-author Anthony Samsel, both well-known anti-GMO and anti-glyphosate advocates with no experience in toxicology or epidemiology. The pair has alleged that glyphosate is the cause of “obesity as well as numerous other toxic conditions.” While rates of obesity have indeed risen significantly since the 1980s, reputable studies have shown no connection with vaccines or glyphosate .
“As an attorney and environmentalist who has spent years working on issues of mercury toxicity, I frequently met mothers of autistic children who were absolutely convinced that their kids had been injured by vaccines. — “Deadly Immunity,” Rolling Stone/Salon 2005 .
“Our public health authorities knowingly allowed the pharmaceutical industry to poison an entire generation of American children, their actions arguably constitute one of the biggest scandals in the annals of American medicine.” — “Deadly Immunity”
“When I started reading about thimerosal, I was dumbstruck by the gulf between the scientific reality and the media consensus. All the network news anchors and television doctors were assuring the public that there was not a single study that suggested thimerosal was unsafe or that it could cause autism. After a short time on PubMed, I’d identified many dozens of studies suggesting that thimerosal causes autism and a rich library of peer-reviewed literature—over 400 published studies—attesting to its deadly toxicity and its causal connection to a long inventory of neurological injuries and organ damage.” — Interview, Children’s Health Defense
“In fact, Cheerios have more glyphosate per serving than vitamin D and vitamin B12 which are added to enrich the cereal. It’s even been in commercial honey. So, it’s a big problem. It’s linked to cancer, it’s linked to all these health issues.” — Interview with Dr. Mark Hyman, July 2020
Anti-Vaxxer RFK JR. joins neo-Nazis in massive Berlin ‘Anti-Corona’ Protest by Daily Kos, August 2020 – “Tens of thousands ‘Corona-Truthers’ descended on Berlin today to protest the measures implemented by Angela Merkel and her government to prevent the coronavirus spread… The protest was organized by right-wing extremist organizations- including the AfD party and various anti-Semitic conspiracy groups as well as the neo-Nazi NPD party. Among the speakers was Robert F. Kennedy Jr.. who warned against the “totalitarianism” of Angela Merkel… Protester were seen carrying poster urging “Trump, Please Help” with the QAnon logo.” (Note: RFK, Jr had been tapped by Donald Trump to lead a White House panel inquiry into vaccine safety at the beginning of his presidency. The Panel was never convened.)
Robert Kennedy Jr, AntikommunistNeus Deutschland, August 2020 – “Robert F. Kennedy whipped up a mass of anti-coronavirus opponents, Nazis, conspiracy theorists and eso-hippies in Berlin. The 66-year-old received a lot of applause for his crude theses – for example that the corona pandemic had been planned for decades and would be used to introduce a digital currency that marked the beginning of slavery… (Kennedy) supported a conspiracy-theoretical pamphlet by several bishops, in which it is claimed that the measures to contain the pandemic are the “prelude to the creation of a world government beyond control…”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr: Anti-Vaxxer, June 5, 2013 – “RFK Jr. has a long history of adhering to crackpot ideas about vaccines, mostly in the form of the now thoroughly disproven link to autism. He’s been hammering this issue for a decade now, and his claims appear to be no better and no more accurate now than they were when he first started making them.” Phil Plait, Slate.
In 1995, Premier Ralph Klein of Alberta declared Kennedy persona non grata in the province due to Kennedy’s activism against Alberta’s large-scale hog production facilities.
In 2002, a federal judge dismissed a class action lawsuit against Smithfield Foods, Incfiled by a coalition of plaintiffs’ lawyers led by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and in a rare move, ruled that Kennedy and the other lawyers must pay Smithfield’s costs and legal fees. At a series of news conferences in 2001 Kennedy announced his intention to use this and other lawsuits as a means of “shutting down Smithfield’s farm operations.”
Kennedy has been married three times and publicly reported sex and drug addition problems. He was arrested for heroin possession in 1983. He’s been alleged to have sought to bribe journalists to cover up reports of his and his relatives disreputable behavior.
Pandemics have punctuated recorded history going back to ancient Greece and Egypt. However, the novel coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in a world that is qualitatively different due to densely-populated cities, long-distance air travel, and modern medicine and genomics. So it is understandable that we assume that our experience of a pandemic in the 21st century could have little in common with that of periods predating antibiotics, vaccines, and the germ theory of disease.
But it is hubris to think that material and technological progress makes our era totally discontinuous with the past, and that the experience of epidemics of plague, cholera, and other diseases that were a regular occurrence until recently has nothing in common with what we are experiencing.
We are in the midst of what Ed Yong of The Atlantic termed a “patchwork pandemic” – characterized by different geographic areas, different population groups, and different historical legacies. While the world awaits the development of an effective vaccine as well as treatments that can tamp down the ravages of a capricious virus, public health officials are exhorting us to rely on the most rudimentary, age-old tools for keeping the virus at bay – wearing a mask, hand-washing, and social distancing and lockdowns – in other words, treating people we don’t know as potential threats. Every virus and every bacterium has its distinct personality, and, yet, looking back at the history of pandemics, the ways in which human societies have responded to the upheaval and terror provoked by a poorly-understood microorganism have striking commonalities. For this reason, chronicles of disease outbreaks from the past can provoke a shock of recognition.
Daniel Defoe, author of the classic Robinson Crusoe, is also renowned for his classic description of an epidemic, A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe was five years old when the bubonic plague came to London in 1665. He must have heard stories of the plague as a child, and in 1722 he published a gripping account of life during the plague. His Journal is a sleight-of-hand. Though actually a work of fiction written more than fifty years after the events, it presents itself as a contemporaneous, first-hand, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, eye-witness narrative of what life was like during the “visitation” by the plague. For his chronicle Defoe drew on a small library of contemporaneous accounts.
Owing to the vividness and immediacy of the narrator’s description of the effects of the epidemic on ordinary people in this street or that neighborhood of the city, the Journal has become the most famous account of the Great Plague of London, displacing contemporaneous accounts by actual witnesses.
A failed businessman-turned-journalist, who started writing fiction later in life, Defoe originated a new style of writing that dispensed with aristocratic literary conventions, relying instead on empiricism and realism. His narrator tells us that his journal is based only on what he has observed directly in his walks about the city, what he has heard from credible persons, and the weekly “bills of mortality” published by the city of London. On occasion, he refers to events which he feels obliged to report but which he can’t vouch for.
As in Robinson Crusoe, the narrator of the Journal finds himself in a situation in which he must summon up all his wits and energy to survive an overpowering, incommensurate threat. While concerned for his own safety and his business, his single-minded focus is on the impact of the plague on the city of London, which is his protagonist. We are at his side as he describes what he sees as he moves about the city and provides his coordinates, which would have been familiar to any Londoner of the 18th century – “that is to say, in Bearbinder Lane, near Stocks Market.” The city’s inhabitants are characterized only insofar as they are affected by the “distemper” and make decisions about how to respond to it.
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At first the plague, which the narrator tells us has come to London from Holland, manifests itself by a few isolated cases in the winter of 1664-65. But in February it flares up in parishes to the west of the city and gradually makes its way eastward, methodically visiting formerly untouched parishes. In the course of a year, it has reached every corner of England. Early in the outbreak the wealthy flee the city with their servants to their country houses, and the narrator, who initially considers fleeing, remarks that there were no horses left in the city.
In spite of his belief in Providence, the narrator emphasizes that transmission of the infection requires close personal contact, often within families, or with contaminated belongings, food, or cargo. Although the plague may have been sent by a Divine power to punish men for their sins, he makes clear that natural causes are entirely sufficient to account for the spread of the disease and its effects on its victims.
I must be allowed to believe that no one in this whole nation ever received the sickness or infection but who received it in the ordinary way of infection from somebody, or the clothes or touch or stench of somebody who was infected before.1
He describes the high transmissibility of the plague (which we now know to be caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which was spread by fleas that fed on the black rat) and the unbearable sensitivity and pain caused by its pathognomic feature – buboes – which, he tells us, drove sufferers to throw themselves out of windows or into the Thames. He also notes that asymptomatic cases could spread the infection and that the disease can manifest differently in different people. Houses where people took sick were shut up and padlocked by order of the magistrate, and watchmen were posted outside day and night to insure – not always successfully – that the imprisoned could not escape. The narrator describes the pitiful cries that were heard from the street as family members discovered that a loved one had succumbed to the plague. Others, he tells us, died in the street. The bodies of the deceased were collected at night and taken to pits dug in churchyards or in open lots and buried en masse.
Defoe’s narrator describes the desperate condition of the poor, who, thrown out of work, could not buy food or other necessities for their families. In this situation, he tells us, they had no choice but to perform the most dangerous jobs created by the epidemic – tending to the sick and collecting and burying the dead. He notes that “the plague, which raged in a dreadful manner from the middle of August to the middle of October, carried off in that time thirty or forty thousand of these very people.” Once the plague makes itself felt, the common people, who are keenly attuned to astrological signs and portents, are desperate to ward off its spread and chase after an abundant array of fake cures and elixirs:
[The common people] … were now led by their fright to extremes of folly; … they ran to conjurors and witches, and all sorts of deceivers, to know what should become of them (who fed their fears, and kept them always alarmed and awake on purpose to delude them and pick their pockets) so they were as mad upon their running after quacks and mountebanks, and every practicing old woman, for medicines and remedies; storing themselves with such multitudes of pills, potions, and preservatives, as they were called, that they not only spent their money but even poisoned themselves beforehand for fear of the poison of the infection.2
Throughout his chronicle, the narrator anxiously scrutinizes the weekly “bills of mortality” published for each parish to gauge the progress of the infection. He knows from observing what is going on around him that the numbers of deaths attributed to the plague are grievously under-reported due to relatives’ fear of being stigmatized and the authorities’ connivance. He tries to judge the true magnitude of the deaths from the plague by examining increases in other causes of death and by comparing the overall death rate in a parish before the outbreak to the numbers when the plague was present all around him.
Deaths increased at an extraordinary rate in July and August, reaching a peak in September when, we are told, each week there were 8,000 or 9,000 deaths from the plague, and this he considers an under-estimate. Thereafter, the deaths began to decline precipitously, and the outbreak abated. According the bills of mortality, 68,590 people died of the plague, while the narrator claims that the total reached 100,000. This amounts to twenty percent of the population.
Looking back at the events after a half-century, Defoe knew the outcome of the “visitation,” and his account has a taught unity of time and place. Here in the United States, five months into the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, many observers are watching in horror and disbelief as the virus spirals out of control in states in the South and West that failed to take it seriously and refused to learn from the experience of other states, and countries, that succeeded in bringing their outbreaks under control. At the same time, some states and countries that successfully broke the chain of transmission, are experiencing resurgences.
For all the differences between the London plague and our pandemic, there are striking commonalities. As in Defoe’s London, the poor and the weak are disproportionately exposed to the coronavirus in low-income neighborhoods, close living-quarters, and low-wage jobs. As in Defoe’s London, many people refuse to follow common-sense precautions, instead falling for quackery and scientifically unsupported treatments. As in London, statistics regarding the number of cases and deaths from Covid-19 are manipulated and misinterpreted to suit the narrative of different parties.
On the most basic level, what we share with the London outbreak is the massive, sudden upsurge in morbidity and mortality, and the inescapable sense that a pathogen is beyond our control. In London of 1665 the bills of mortality were widely distributed so that residents could know the situation in their parish, and neighbors shared the latest news of who had fallen ill and died. In 2020, normal life has been replaced by a profusion of images, charts, statistics, and stories, which have flooded the media since March. These convey the fever chart of the epidemic in different places together with stories of intensive care units stretched to capacity and the bios of individuals who have been lost. At the same time, we are subjected to a constant flow of interviews with health care workers, epidemiologists, and public health officials, who interpret the day-to-day trends in an effort to explain where things are headed.
Although we pride ourselves on being modern and are used to thinking that we have control over our lives, at the present moment we have to admit that we have no idea of how this “visitation” will play itself out.
Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, Penguin edition, 1966, p. 206.
The coronavirus can infect anyone, but recent reporting has shown your socioeconomic status can play a big role, with a combination of job security, access to health care and mobility widening the gap in infection and mortality rates between rich and poor.
Following the 1348 Black Death in Italy, the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a collection of 100 novellas titled, “The Decameron.” These stories, though fictional, give us a window into medieval life during the Black Death – and how some of the same fissures opened up between the rich and the poor. Cultural historians today see “The Decameron” as an invaluable source of information on everyday life in 14th-century Italy.
Boccaccio was born in 1313 as the illegitimate son of a Florentine banker. A product of the middle class, he wrote, in “The Decameron,” stories about merchants and servants. This was unusual for his time, as medieval literature tended to focus on the lives of the nobility.
“The Decameron” begins with a gripping, graphic description of the Black Death, which was so virulent that a person who contracted it would die within four to seven days. Between 1347 and 1351, it killed between 40% and 50% of Europe’s population. Some of Boccaccio’s own family members died.
In this opening section, Boccaccio describes the rich secluding themselves at home, where they enjoy quality wines and provisions, music and other entertainment. The very wealthiest – whom Boccaccio describes as “ruthless” – deserted their neighborhoods altogether, retreating to comfortable estates in the countryside, “as though the plague was meant to harry only those remaining within their city walls.”
Meanwhile, the middle class or poor, forced to stay at home, “caught the plague by the thousand right there in their own neighborhood, day after day” and swiftly passed away. Servants dutifully attended to the sick in wealthy households, often succumbing to the illness themselves. Many, unable to leave Florence and convinced of their imminent death, decided to simply drink and party away their final days in nihilistic revelries, while in rural areas, laborers died “like brute beasts rather than human beings; night and day, with never a doctor to attend them.”
After the bleak description of the plague, Boccaccio shifts to the 100 stories. They’re narrated by 10 nobles who have fled the pallor of death hanging over Florence to luxuriate in amply stocked country mansions. From there, they tell their tales.
One key issue in “The Decameron” is how wealth and advantage can impair people’s abilities to empathize with the hardships of others. Boccaccio begins the forward with the proverb, “It is inherently human to show pity to those who are afflicted.” Yet in many of the tales he goes on to present characters who are sharply indifferent to the pain of others, blinded by their own drives and ambition.
In one fantasy story, a dead man returns from hell every Friday and ritually slaughters the same woman who had rejected him when he was alive. In another, a widow fends off a leering priest by tricking him into sleeping with her maid. In a third, the narrator praises a character for his undying loyalty to his friend when, in fact, he has profoundly betrayed that friend over many years.
Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation.
Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life?
In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Kathryn McKinley is a professor of English at the University of Maryland. Her research and teaching interests include Chaucer; Ovid, Boccaccio, and late medieval vernacularity; medieval visual literacy and material culture; and the history of later medieval European and English food culture, food scarcity, and famine. She has published in such journals as The Chaucer Review, Viator, and English Manuscript Studies 1100-1700.
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
A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future of the global insect population: modern agriculture was steering us toward catastrophe.
But scientists remained queasy about what they increasingly came to believe was a simplistic narrative. None of the studies reaching ‘disaster conclusions’ was comprehensive. All were steeped in assumptions that could radically skew the data. Most of the world’s insect population centers were not even studied. And the declines were far from uniform. In some localities, there were reports of increases in overall insect population, and some types of insects are increasing in abundance across the world.
Which brings us to the 2020 meta-study of 166 long-term surveys by Roel van Klink at the German Center for Integrative Biology and his team of 30 scientists. For the first time, scientists had a full platter of studies, covering much of the world. Here was data that might answer questions that by now had turned highly ideological.
The few journalists who picked up on the study’s release noted the finding that insect declines were far less than reported in the smaller-scale studies, and indeed, no catastrophe was imminent. In fact, freshwater insects like mayflies and dragonflies actually have increased over the years, they found, and insect declines in the US, especially in Midwest agricultural areas, began leveling off at the turn of the century.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a real and significant problem, as van Klink took pains to point out—he called the situation “awfully alarming.” But the difference between a “hair on fire” apocalypse and a serious problem is that there is time to get a better understanding of the causes and, hopefully, make rational decisions to constructively address them.
And it was precisely on the question of causation that the new study fundamentally challenged the “accepted narrative” that modern agriculture and the overuse of pesticides are driving the observed declines.
Effects of modern agriculture
Van Klink’s finding that “crop cover,” which is the phrase he uses to describe farmland, is correlated with increases in insect populations runs directly contrary to the speculations—more often than not presented as fact—that modern farming, especially the use of GMOs and pesticides, is the problem.
The second bugaboo, climate change, also didn’t appear on the suspect list; there was simply no correlation, positive or negative. The primary driver was urbanization, most likely due to the destruction of natural habitat as swamps are drained, rivers channelized, woodlands cleared and land is paved over for housing developments, roadways and shopping malls.
We found moderate evidence for a negative relationship between terrestrial insect abundance trends and landscape-scale urbanization, potentially explained by habitat loss and light and/or chemical pollution associated with urbanization. By contrast, insect abundance trends were positively associated with crop cover at the local (but not landscape) scale in both realms. Specifically, in the terrestrial realm, temporal trends became less negative with increasing crop cover …
Of course, the positive association between agriculture and insect population increases applies to existing fields, not forest or natural grassland cleared for cultivation. As van Klink has pointed out in interviews, the conversion of land to accommodate more farming would also destroy habitat.
But that is exactly the point if sustainability is the key: using technology to boost yields on existing cropland—growing more food on less land—is the most important action we can take to protect habitat and biodiversity.
And that’s what’s been happening. In a 2013 paper titled “Peak Farmland and the Prospect for Land Sparing,” three scholars at Rockefeller University calculated that global increases in crop yields as the result of advanced technologies, including genetic engineering, meant it took about one-third the amount of land in 2010 to grow the same amount of food as in 1961.
The graphs below, taken from the paper, highlight an event that has since been replicated around the world: after World War II total agricultural production, which until then had been largely circumscribed by the amount of land under cultivation, began a steep ascent as farming entered the modern era.
[To see this process unfold in time, check out the animated charts on crop yields at Our World in Data.]
The boom happened almost simultaneously across the world, from rice in China to wheat in France and Egypt.
The spur for these dramatic productivity gains is no mystery. After World War II, many of the key agricultural inputs—particularly modern pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and advanced hybrid crops—came online in a major way. The rise accelerated with the advent of the Green Revolution in the early 1960s, and began to be widely dispersed around the world, rescuing many countries, such as India, from the brink of mass starvation.
It is this unprecedented historic decoupling of production from land—what has become known as intensive agriculture—that so many in the environmental movement demonize and seek to reverse. One of their central claims: intensive farming is the primary culprit driving biodiversity loss and insect declines.
Low-productivity food systems have devastating impacts on the environment. As much as three-quarters of all deforestation globally occurred prior to the Industrial Revolution, almost entirely due to two related uses, clearing land for agriculture and using wood for energy.
… attempting to feed a world of seven-going-on-nine billion people with a preindustrial food system would almost certainly result in a massive expansion of human impacts through accelerated conversion of forests, grasslands, and other habitat to cropland and pasture.
… we need to accelerate the long-term processes of growing more food on less land. … raising yields while reducing environmental impacts will require that we farm with ever-greater precision. Raising yields through greater application of technology has often meant more pesticides, fertilizer, and water. But as technology has improved, these trends have begun to reverse.
The organic deficit
The charm of farmer’s markets, Nordhaus writes, is not enough to abandon a system that is limiting land use to counter the effects of urbanization and driving down chemical toxicity levels. It should be noted that organic farming yields on average 10-40 percent less than non-GMO farming, which in turn is about 15 percent less productive than farms using advanced biotechnology. A recent study by the organic advocacy group IDDRI found that if Europe were to adopt agroecological food production practices, productivity would decrease by an average of 35 percent—meaning 35 percent more organic-cultivated land would be needed to produce the same amount of food as produced conventionally.
The math of land saving through the use of modern technologies is so compelling and the yield deficits of organic production so thoroughly cataloged that they can’t be gainsaid. Anti-technology advocates generally prefer to avoid the topic altogether, focusing instead on Goulson-style claims about the adverse effects of chemical pesticides and ignoring organic farmers’ reliance on mechanical plowing using carbon-belching equipment as a form of weed control, which is massively destructive to soil health and biodiversity, and is a major contributor to carbon pollution.
The major sustainability contribution of conventional agriculture is the advent of no-till farming, which began with the use of chemical herbicides like atrazine and accelerated with the debut in 1996 of herbicide-tolerant GMO crops tied to glyphosate. GMO no-till farming has resulted in a massive reduction in carbon release estimated at 37 percent by the Belgian research institute VIB.
The turn away from efficient, intensive agriculture to accommodate the ideological fashion of our times could be a disaster for the fragile insect population. Population growth and growing affluence in the developing world over coming decades will require a sharp increase in necessary food calories, which can only occur by expanding farmable acreage—or by increasing yields on currently available acres.
All of these facts make the German meta-study very uncomfortable for organic farming advocates. The correlation in insect population increases with crops challenges the widespread damage to biodiversity they have been claiming. That may be why most of the major media reporting on the study, such as the BBC, simply ignored the finding, while others—Guardian, Reuters, Smithsonian—included swipes at pesticides not raised by the study authors and written in such a way that the average reader would assume it was backed up by research.
How fast is the decline? How real is the decline?
Trying to determine a global rate of decline, when the data is so uneven and, as the authors say, almost all effects are local and variations are so high even among adjacent sites, is fraught with difficulty. Nevertheless, the new study pins the rate of decline of land-based insects at just under one percent annually, which translates to an 8.3 percent decline per decade.
The study authors note some questions about the scope of the global decline, explaining that it was heavily influenced by what they term “outlier” studies with anomalously high findings. If these outliers are excluded, they say, insect populations would decline by far less, about 15 percent over 25 years.
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This too is not good, but it’s not an apocalypse; and there is time to turn things around even if the estimated trends are accurate. That hopeful take is actually supported by another important, though largely ignored, finding in the study, which is that the terrestrial insect declines in North America were no longer negative after 2000 and freshwater insects increased dramatically.
The fact that North American trends began plateauing or improving around 20 years ago suggests we are headed in the right direction in what had been up until then, according to the authors, the worst performing part of the world. Statistically speaking, once North American data was excluded, the study states that there was only “weak evidence for a negative mean tend” in global populations.
Geography and models
We all naturally gravitate to the headline numbers coming out of these studies. They’re simple, easy to remember and give us a sense of concreteness. Unfortunately, they are probably the least reliable and meaningful findings of all. If the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we should understand complex statistical modelling for what it is: a hypothesis generator or a sophisticated “best guess,” given current knowledge that may, as more facts come to light, prove to be anything from fairly close to wildly off the mark.
All one has to do is look at the maps of the geographic distribution of the studies included in van Klink’s analysis to realize just how problematic any conclusion about global trends is, considering the lack of data from most of the world. The vast majority of studies came from North America and Europe (by my count, almost 2/3 of all the studies).
There is a total of two studies from all of Africa, relatively few from Asia, and none at all from South Asia (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh). There is a single study from the Amazon, one of the richest sources of insect life on the planet.
These gaps are magnified by the fact that most of these studies concern only one specific order or family of insect, or some other sub-division (e.g. parasitoid wasps). But we know that different insect species vary enormously in their response to changes in climate, weather, disease, pollution and habitat destruction. It simply isn’t plausible that a model can compensate for what is, unfortunately, a massive quantity of unknowns, including, to borrow a phrase, many unknown unknowns, when it comes to insect population trends. Simply said, the likelihood of sampling error is immense.
It should be emphasized that none of this is to take away from the prodigious work of the van Klink research team. Almost all the criticisms outlined here are acknowledged and discussed by the authors themselves.
One of the most refreshing aspects of this study, in fact, has been the humility with which this team, which has done some of the best and most thorough work yet trying to establish global insect trends, has presented their results. In an article accompanying the study in Science, addressed to researchers not associated with the project, the team points the way forward for others in this field, and indeed in any scientific endeavor.
Advances in our knowledge about ongoing biodiversity changes and ability to predict future ones will require the incorporation of layers of nuance in patterns of change and drivers of that change.
The temptation to draw overly simple and sensational conclusions is understandable, because it captures the attention of the public and can potentially catalyze much needed action in policy development and research arenas. However, fear-based messages often backfire. This strategy has the grave risk of undermining trust in science and can lead to denialism, fatigue, and apathy. Embracing nuance allows us to balance accurate reporting of worrying losses with hopeful examples of wins. Hope is a more powerful engine of change than fear.