Vasectomies are becoming a political statement

The fate of male reproductive organs is not a traditional concern in debates about the environment. But this is the most significant change Australian surgeon Dr Nick Demediuk, aka “Dr Snip,” has seen in the past decade.

“There is the rise of the hardline vegan brigade. They just get it done.”

Dr Demediuk says he performs a greater proportion of vasectomies upon younger people in their 20s and 30s who are concerned about overpopulation. They have no desire to ever have children for ideological reasons.

Research group Chef’s Pencil found Australia was the second most popular place in the world for vegans in 2020, beaten only by Britain. They also found skyrocketing interest over the last five years, accelerated even further since coronavirus.

This trend is compounded by the fact that most forms of contraception such as condoms or hormonal altering pills either contain animal derived products or have been tested on animals. While condoms do exist in a natural latex form lacking the offending dairy derivative, available for delivery from Amazon, the vasectomy is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative.

This would not be possible in most parts of the world where there are stricter rules upon performing the procedure. In Finland the man must be over 30 or had three children to qualify. Many states in the United States have a compulsory cooling off period between the first consultation and any prospective procedure.

Vasectomies were illegal in France up until 2001. A Napoleonic code which forbade self mutilation was applied to vasectomies used for contraception. They remain illegal in many parts of the world which relate to the dark history of forced sterilisation. The first vasectomy was performed by American doctor Harry Sharp in order to sterilise an inmate at the Indian Reformatory in 1899. Female sterilisation across the developing world remains one of the most common methods of birth control.

Vasectomies only became legal in Australia in 1971. Australia and New Zealand have the highest rates in the world, possibly reflecting the broader changes in gender relations. One in four men over the age of 40 have had a vasectomy in Australia. The global rate meanwhile is barely two percent. We are one of the few countries where male sterilisation is more common than female.

The trend is not always consistent when it comes to countries and their records on gender equality. Sweden has quite low rates despite being rated as one of the most gender equal countries in the world. However their rates are also accelerating from a low base, having increased 70 percent between 2013 and 2017.

The association with environmental politics is new and limited to rich countries. There has always been an association with sexual politics. The procedure is an interesting barometer of trends in gender relations. The changing power balance associated with the procedure was highlighted last year when former Australian Rules footballer Brendan Fevola admitted that his wife demanded he undergo the cut.

“Alex said the shop was shut unless I had a vasectomy.” Fevola said on air during his Melbourne radio program, admitting he did not want it.

Dr Nick Demediuk performs just over a tenth of all vasectomies in Australia, working primarily in Victoria but also in other parts of the country.

He sees more men with the attitude that it’s up to them to take responsibility for contraception, what he describes as “my wife’s done the hard yards, it’s my turn to step up.” This is not an attitude that he remembers when he started performing vasectomies 40 years ago. He also says those most likely to have side effects are the ones, like Fevola, who were already reluctant.

Men from this minority are the group that have presented to psychiatrists like me with mental health problems, often related to challenges reframing their idea of masculinity or resentment at feeling forced. This can also lead to relationship challenges. There is also the age-old myth that vasectomy is a form of castration, a feature dispelled in every educational guide.

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There is a strong cultural dimension. The cultures most associated with machismo such as those from Latin America or the Mediterranean are least likely to submit themselves to the procedure. Statistically those from non-English-speaking backgrounds have lower rates.

Studies from Africa suggest it is virtually non-existent, driven by ignorance, stigma, and a broader belief that male fertility belongs to the community as a whole. This corresponds with evolutionary psychology theories which postulate that women urging men to have vasectomies stems from a primitive desire to prevent them from impregnating other females.

The warning that many doctors give their patients when asked about vasectomies, especially men in their 20s and 30s, is that almost half of marriages end. Reversing vasectomies is expensive and not always successful.

New Zealand psychologist researcher Gareth Terry interviewed tens of men who underwent vasectomies. He argues in a scientific paper that the vasectomy has evolved into an act of “minor heroism” and is part of the gratitude economy that exists in intimate relationships. Terry argues that the sacrifice and uptake of responsibility in contraception often leads to many men feeling that they are especially worthy of praise and value, similar to men expecting plaudits for minor acts of child care or domestic duties.

The contraceptive pill irrevocably altered the dynamics around contraception to being a female responsibility. Prior to the pill most couples used either condoms, withdrawal, or the rhythm method. There has also been little progress within the pharmaceutical industry with regards to male forms of contraception. The choice for men remains a stark one between condoms and vasectomy. This is despite the fact that surveys have found a majority of men say they would take a contraceptive pill if it was available.

The parallel movement depicting the vasectomy as an act of redefined masculinity is captured by GQ writer Dan Rookwood. He wrote about his own vasectomy earlier this year. He implores his readers to man up and consider the procedure, partly as a signal of gratitude for the female burden of going through the significantly more involved act of childbirth.

“It takes balls to have a vasectomy. I cup mine tenderly, almost apologetically as I sit on the gurney, naked from the waist down, awaiting the urologist.”

The procedure is brief, 15 to 20 minutes, involving an incision in the scrotum before cutting the vas deferens, the tube through which sperm is delivered. It’s often done under local anaesthetic and nitrous oxide. Complications are rare. Most men can return to work within days after a brief period of rest.

Author Ceridwen Dovey writes in the Monthly magazine while watching her own husband’s surgery that the vas deferens looks like a “thick white shoelace.” While contemplating the origins of her children emanating from the shoe lace like tube, she also highlights the political nature of the act, outlining female friends who celebrated their partner’s vasectomies as a small step in “smashing the patriarchy.”

In the USA, the peak period of vasectomies coincide with what is known as March madness, a time when there is non-stop college basketball in a high stakes elimination tournament. Reproductively transformed men sit with ice packs and watch tens of hours of cable television sport. There is no such equivalent in Australia, but like gym memberships and diets, they can spike amid New Year’s resolutions.

Across the Western world, the vasectomy is becoming a more thoroughly political act. The environmental dimension is new. But more men are using the procedure to signal their feminist credentials. Women are feeling empowered to make the demands. It’s inevitable there will be growing pressures for barriers to the procedure to be relaxed in jurisdictions where there are historically based obstructions.

Tanveer Ahmed is an Australia-based psychiatrist and author. Follow Tanveer on Twitter @drtahmed

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


Viewpoint: Fact-checking anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva’s ‘Poison-Free, Fossil-Free’ food lecture

In late January, 2020 I attended two events at UC Santa Cruz, a sister campus to UC Davis, and also where my tuition fees go to pay for the (presumably fact-based) education of my “banana slug” son who is a senior there. It was therefore with some concern that I read that Vandana Shiva had been invited to speak on campus. Dr. Shiva has been a polarizing figure in the genetically modified (GMO) foods discussion, as detailed by Michael Specter. But I personally had never heard her speak, and as a scientist and someone who is trying to understand why the GMO debate has become so polarized, I decided to sign up and listen closely to what Dr. Shiva had to say, both at her Saturday evening lecture, “Vandana Shiva In Conversation”, and the following all day event entitled “Poison-Free, Fossil-Free Food and Farming.”

Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series on Vandana Shiva’s California speaking tour. Read part two and part three.

The Saturday night lecture, to a very receptive and supportive crowd, conversed on a range of topics, from empowering women farmers to the importance of nutritious food, the impact of climate change on food production systems, and the importance of seed banks.  Hard to find fault with any of those topics, in fact I agreed with Dr. Shiva on a number of her points. There was a lot of disparaging of “industry” and billionaires, especially Bill Gates despite his philanthropy, and much demonization of globalization and colonization.

As an agricultural scientist, I took issue with the lack of evidence to support some of the overly optimistic anecdotes that were given regarding the productivity of different organic and agroecological production systems, because if they really were so much superior it makes little sense as to why ALL farmers, as astute business owners, would not rapidly employ such production systems. Perhaps it is more complicated than was suggested.

The contention that organic production systems outcompete conventional systems is not supported by the weight-of-evidence in the peer-reviewed literature, and is one of the reasons that less than 1% of US farmland is under organic production.  But it was when discussing anything related to GMOs, Monsanto, patents and especially glyphosate (Round-up) that things (perhaps as might be expected) went totally off the rails.

The next day a group of very like-minded people discussed collective action ways to move California agriculture to “poison free” and “fossil-free,” meaning avoiding the use of all synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. California is a large agricultural producer, the largest state in the nation. Although the speakers talked a lot about social justice and empowering farmers, there were no California farmers or farm workers, those who would presumably be most likely be impacted by the proposed changes, represented on the panel of speakers.

Crop loss to different factors in the absence of effective controls

There was discussion about the need for farm-workers to be paid a living wage, but little discussion of what removing all pesticides and fertilizers might mean for those same farm-workers in terms of their job duties, or the economic sustainability of the farms that provide their employment. In other words, there was NO discussion of what trade-offs might result from this re-envisioning of the entire agricultural production system in California.

In the course of my job, I interact with California farmers and ranchers, some conventional and some organic, and others somewhere in between to meet certain value-added program requirements (e.g. “never ever”, “non-GMO”). I watch how farmers under different production systems handle the nutrient needs of their crops, and control pests; be they disease-causing microbes, hungry insects, or moisture-seeking weeds.  Chicken manure from conventional chicken houses systems is composted and used as fertilizer on organic production systems, conventional almond hulls provide a good source of nutrients for dairy cows precluded from GMO-feed, and farm-workers control weeds in production systems that do not allow synthetic herbicides using tillage, propane flame throwers, and manual hoeing as pictured below.

California farm workers hand weeding an organic crop in the San Joaquin Valley

India, where Dr. Shiva lives, with its population of 1.27 billion people, employs 59 percent of the country’s total workforce in agriculture. Seventy percent of its rural households still depend primarily on agriculture for their livelihood, with 82 percent of farmers being small and marginal. It is also home to a quarter of the world’s hungry people and anemia affects 50 percent of women and 60 percent of children in the country. There are certainly good reasons to be concerned about improving both food security and the productivity of agriculture in that country.

However, California agriculture is not comprised of small subsistence farms. It is an agricultural powerhouse.  California’s 77,100 farms and ranches received a total of $50.13 billion for their output in 2017, with combined commodities representing 13.4 percent of the U.S. total. California’s leading crops are fruits, nuts and vegetables. Over 27 percent of California’s 77,100 farms generated sales over $100,000, greater than the national average of 19.9 percent. The average farm size in California is 328 acres, which is below the national average of 444 acres. These are large enterprises to manage and farm, and the challenges facing California farmers are likely quite different to those of a small holder, subsistence farmer. What might California agriculture look like if synthetic pesticides and fertilizers were banned?

Back in 1840, workers in the agriculture industry made up 70 percent of the American workforce. Today farmers and ranchers themselves make up only 1.3 percent of the employed US population, totaling around 2.6 million people. Part of this urban transition has been enabled by the use of synthetic herbicides in agriculture. According to the author of an article entitled The Value of Herbicides in U.S. Crop Production, “By controlling weeds effectively, herbicides do the work of 70 million laborers.” In that article it is stated that “the problem of controlling weeds without herbicides has been cited numerous times as the single biggest obstacle to crop production that organic crop growers encounter.” USDA reports on strawberry, carrot, cotton, and processing tomato concluded that national production would decline by 30, 48, 27, and 20 percent, respectively, without the use of herbicides and with the substitution of likely alternatives.

More generally, it has been estimated that without pesticides, 70 percent of the world food crop would be lost; even with pesticide use, 42% is destroyed by insects and fungal damage. According to one study, “Dispensing with pesticides would require at least 90% more cropland to maintain present yields. Dispensing with fertilizer would require at least 400-600 millihectares (Mha) of additional cropland (in addition to the ~1,400 Mha currently grown).

The consequence of less-efficient agriculture will be the elimination of wilderness that by any measure of biodiversity far exceeds that of any kind of farming system.

Anthony Trewavas, Fellow of the Royal Society, University of Edinburgh, Scotland

There was a real sentiment in the room that all pesticides were “poisons,” and that no amount of pesticide (or inorganic fertilizer) was acceptable. And all of this seemed to be based on the premise that agriculture today is using ever increasing amounts of more toxic (poison) pesticides. The figure below on pesticide use in U.S. Agriculture from 1960-2008, from a 2014 report from the USDA Agriculture Research Service, state:

Average chronic toxicity declined, as toxic products applied to cotton (such as DDT and toxaphene) and to corn (such as aldrin) were banned (particularly in the 1970s and early 1980s). Other factors affecting toxicity were the use of less toxic insecticides, such as carbaryl and chloropyrifos, the introduction of pyrethroids, the use of malathion in the boll weevil eradication program, and the use of Bt [insect-protected, genetically engineered] cotton since 1996.

Figure from Fernandez-Cornejo, Jorge, Richard Nehring, Craig Osteen, Seth Wechsler, Andrew Martin, and Alex Vialou. Pesticide Use in U.S. Agriculture: 21 Selected Crops, 1960-2008, EIB-124, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2014.

Persistence fell during the 1970s after the bans of DDT and aldrin, then increased during the 1980s and early 1990s (in part with the use of high-persistence products such as metolachlor and pendimethalin); persistence has declined in recent years, reflecting the rapid increase in glyphosate use. Glyphosate has low chronic toxicity (a high chronic score) and relatively low persistence relative to the herbicides that it has replaced. As the NRC (2010) report states, ‘glyphosate is biodegraded by soil bacteria and it has a very low toxicity to mammals, birds, and fish.’

There was none of this type of evidenced-based data presented at this all-day event, let alone data that documented how GMO crops had actually decreased insecticide use, especially organophosphate insecticides including in India, and allowed the use of less toxic herbicides. Unfortunately, non-Bt cotton refuges were rarely planted in India, which increased selection pressure for Bt-resistant pink bollworms, thereby reducing the effectiveness of Bt cotton in that country, and highlighting the importance of integrated pest management, a term I did not hear mentioned at this conference.

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I was disappointed that at a public university event on agriculture there were no public-sector toxicologists to present objective facts and data on pesticide use in agriculture, integrated pest management specialists, or California farmers present to discuss potential trade-offs, and what poison-free, fossil-free California agriculture might mean for their farms, their workers, their families and their livelihoods.

The discussion did not reach beyond a simplified dichotomous framing of good versus evil, and was a missed opportunity to have the more nuanced discussion that such a weighty and important topic deserves. But things got much worse at the all day event entitled “Poison-Free, Fossil-Free Food and Farming” as detailed in the final part of this 3-part series.

Alison Van Eenennaam is an Extension Specialist in Animal Biotechnology and Genomics, Department of Animal Science, University of California, Davis. Follow her on Twitter @biobeef 

A version of this article was originally posted at the BioBeef Blog and has been reposted here with permission.

This post originally appeared on February 10, 2020.

Viewpoint: Evidence or ‘junk science’—Will the Biden Administration ban essential pesticides experts say are safe?

Within days of being sworn in, President Joe Biden elevated the science adviser to the president to Cabinet rank, with a seat beside the secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury. This bold move signaled the administration’s commitment to an evidence-based approach to policymaking.

Yet some are already hoping to undermine this forward-thinking policy.

Activist groups are demanding the administration replace evidence-based research with activist-backed junk science. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), among others, is demanding a ban on 11 critical pesticides that farmers have relied on to feed the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

These are all products that have been thoroughly evaluated by career scientists at U.S. regulatory agencies numerous times, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. They are safe. And they are essential to keeping food affordable at a time when people need that.

Eric Lander, Biden’s top science advisor. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Will the Biden administration follow empirical evidence, or junk science?

This new activist push is built around an assertion that insects are on a one-way trip to mass extinction. “The Insect Apocalypse is Here” shrieked a New York Times headline, which even rhetorically asked, “What does it mean for the rest of life on Earth?” Business Insider used the claim of an activist ecologist to write that, “More than 50% of insects have disappeared since 1970” while National Geographic followed with, “Where have all the insects gone?”

They haven’t gone anywhere. Insects are not in decline.

Sensational assertions follow a well-worn pattern. Just a few years ago, similar marketing campaigns insisted that honeybees were doomed. They cited estimates that bees were “dying globally at an alarming rate” — even manufacturing a “40% decline” in the space of a few months. That claim, which was repeated so often it became a popular Internet meme, fizzled when scientists pointed out that the U.S. Department of Agriculture keeps close tabs on honeybee numbers because they are involved in billions of dollars in crops. Far from declining, bee numbers have risen since the advent of the pesticide EWG said we needed to ban to save them. With 2.8 million bee colonies in 2019, numbers are up 8% from two decades ago.

We shouldn’t make science decisions using ‘bug splatter’ estimates

The papers being touted when writing provocative headlines about the insect apocalypse don’t hold up under scientific scrutiny. One had 700 environmental volunteers self-report how many insects hit their front license plate. They used that to claim “splat density” had dropped 50% from 0.2 “splats per mile” to 0.1 splats – and pesticides were the reason.

Yet what environmentalists sounding the alarm about those Kent Wildlife Trust estimates left out of their press releases was that Kent has seen a 15% population growth in the same period. 2019 alone had an extra 48,000 homes. New homes are near roads, and roads are where fewer bug splats were detected on cars. If fewer insects are found, it is due to more housing and more aerodynamic cars, not pesticides and food production.

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Provocative claims will always mobilize scientists who care about the environment and University of Georgia researchers used controlled monitoring sites, rather than estimates from environmentalists driving around their neighborhoods, to try and replicate the results. Their more scientific approach found the purported “decline” was instead “indistinguishable from zero.”

Doomsday prophecies have been with us forever. In 1907, people were told that Halley’s Comet was going to kill us all. Hucksters even sold comet pills “for complete protection from the noxious gases emitted by Haley’s Comet.”

The Biden administration should not buy what similar hucksters are selling today.

Hank Campbell is the founder of Science 2.0, a pro-science nonprofit whose articles have been read directly by over 300 million people and tens of millions more in syndication. Find Hank on Twitter @HankCampbell

A version of this article was originally posted at Issues & Insights and has been reposted here with permission. Issues & Insights can be found on Twitter @InsightsIssues

Cloned ferret Elizabeth Ann and the future of conservation: The promises and perils of biotechnology

From Borneo to Britain, it’s the scientific breakthrough that captured the world’s attention. No, not the Perseverance rover landing on Mars, but the story of Elizabeth Ann, the ever-so-cute baby black-footed ferret cloned from the cells of a long-deceased female (cryopreserved at the San Diego Frozen Zoo).

It seems an inspiring story of “bringing biotechnology to conservation,”, to quote the mission statement of project leader Revive & Restore, whose aim is “to enhance biodiversity through the genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species”. Yet, like many scientific advances, Elizabeth Ann’s birth raises questions.

Future of ferrets—and of cloning

Once widespread across the American West, black-footed ferret numbers had plummeted to near extinction by the late 20th century. Today, all remaining members of the species, the continent’s only native ferret, are descended from seven individuals from a single colony discovered in 1981. All, that is, except for the latest arrival, Elizabeth Ann, whose future offspring (so it’s hoped) will reintroduce much-needed genetic diversity into the inbred ferret population.

So far, the success of the project has addressed a number of common conservation concerns about the use of biotechnology. For a start, and despite the extreme demands from some quarters that genetic manipulation of any kind should be banned, Elizabeth Ann demonstrates that cloning and other genetic techniques can indeed play a positive part in wildlife conservation efforts. 

Admittedly, this follows a number of less successful conservation cloning experiments. Attempts in 2003 to clone the wild Javan banteng, an endangered species of cattle resulted in only two full-term calves; one was euthanised shortly after birth, the other survived but lived only half the expected banteng lifespan. In the same year, efforts to clone the recently-extinct bucardo or Pyrenean ibex suffered a similar string of setbacks: of the 208 cloned embryos implanted in surrogate goats, just a single calf made it to term, only to die painfully of respiratory failure within minutes of birth.

Banteng clone born in 2003. Credit: Science Magazine

The brief existence of the unfortunate bucardo calf marked the initial proof of concept of de-extinction, of (eventually) using biotechnology to resurrect the likes of the woolly mammoth or the passenger pigeon. This controversial idea highlights another forceful criticism of bioengineering in conservation, namely the ‘moral hazard’ fear that the ability to  revive species will reduce the incentive to protect endangered wildlife in the here and now. If extinction is not forever and if we can always ‘bring them back’ tomorrow, why bother saving them today? 

This point was forcefully made by University of California, Santa Barbara ecologist Douglas McCauley in a debate over de-extinction:

“Honestly, the thing that scares me most is that the public absorbs the misimpression that extinction is no longer scary. That the mindset becomes: Deforest, no biggie, we can reforest. If we drive something extinct, no biggie, we can de-extinct it,” he’s said.”

Space precludes further discussion of the pros and cons of de-extinction (though see here and here for two sides of the debate). Suffice to say, the black-footed ferret experiment shows that advanced ‘genetic rescue’ need not induce moral hazard complacency.

Short-tailed weasels and unintended consequences

Paradoxically, the possible use of biotechnology by conservationists in New Zealand could intentionally lead to an opposite outcome of the black-footed ferret experiment —namely the complete eradication of a related mustelid species, the short-tailed weasel or stoat (part of the family of carnivorous mammals that includes ferrets, badgers and otters). The stoat example illustrates by far the greatest concern over the use of bioengineering in conservation contexts: it’s potential for environmentally devastating unintended outcomes.

Introduced in the 19th century to control rabbits (yet another misguided introduction), stoats have since become “public enemy number one” for New Zealand’s native birds, decimating the lingering populations of some of the world’s rarest species. (The Department of Conversation’s no-nonsense description of stoats states they are “voracious and relentless hunters … having only two reasons for living—to eat and to reproduce”.) In a further irony, another endangered species sponsored by Revive & Restore, the New Zealand takahē, is under immense threat from Elizabeth Ann’s close relative, the stoat. 

Stoat hunting chicks. Credit: David Hallet

Given the massive menace of these mustelids, New Zealand scientists have recently sequenced the stoat genome in an effort to develop targeted poisons. In addition, in light of the ambitious goal to rid the country of all introduced predators by 2050, the use of bio-engineered ‘gene drives’ (suites of genes that cause population decline within a specific species) have also been mooted. Other introduced pests, such as rats, possums and wasps, are additional targets for such technologies.

Some environmentalists, including New Zealand’s influential Green Party, oppose the use of genetic engineering, even for seemingly laudable conservation causes (as indeed they reject using GE to help tackle climate change). Nevertheless, in the case of gene drives, at least, the Greens’ fear of the unintended consequences is at least understandable, especially in New Zealand, considering past experience. When rabbits were introduced as a food and game species they rapidly became an agricultural pest; when stoats were introduced to eradicate the rabbits, they turned on the native fauna instead.

While stoats, rats and wasps are invasive pests in New Zealand, they are important features of natural eco-systems elsewhere; possums, meanwhile, are a protected native species in their homeland, Australia. With respect to gene drive technology, therefore, the worst case scenario posits bio-engineered organisms escaping from the targeted area or country and driving species to global extinction. While such apocalyptic outcomes are perhaps overblown, conservation-minded geneticists are already designinging fail-safe mechanisms such as ‘daisy chains’ to limit the persistence of gene drives within a population.

Diversity—all it’s cracked up to be?

Another pertinent conservation issue — exemplified by both black-footed ferrets and the environmental situation in New Zealand—are the widely-used concepts of (interspecific) biodiversity and (intraspecific) genetic variation. The orthodox view within conservation biology is the more diversity and variation the better. 

This, though, is not always the case. A recent PNAS paper, for example, argues strongly against the “fundamental assumption … that higher levels of genetic diversity lead to an increase in fitness and long-term survival of a species”. The authors claim that, while lack of genetic variation may be a contributing factor in population decline, “supporting empirical evidence for the existence of a causal relationship between genetic diversity and population viability or adaptive potential is weak”. Overall genetic diversity within a species is a crude measure of long-term viability because much of that diversity is ‘neutral’, neither enhancing nor diminishing survival or reproduction.

Our own species provides relevant examples, such as “the Out-of-Africa bottleneck 50,000y ago [that] strongly reduced neutral genetic diversity in non-African human populations”. Yet, as well as losing broader genetic diversity during this bottleneck, many of the more deleterious mutations were also lost. Thus the Greenland Inuit, “one of the most extremely bottlenecked human populations” in the world, actually carry fewer deleterious mutations overall than more genetically diverse populations.

A further example of such bottlenecking not discussed in the PNAS paper is the dispersal of terrestrial fauna to mid-ocean islands through random accident—storm-blown birds, say, or animals on driftwood swept out to sea. Given some of the distances involved and the chance nature of such events, thriving later populations of some species could conceivably have descended from a single pregnant female. 

As an apt example, New Zealand’s rails or ‘swamphens’, including the flightless takahē are likely wind-blown arrivals from Australia, over 1000 kilometres away. Archaeological evidence suggests the most recent of these rails, the pūkeko or purple swamphen, arrived only within the past 300 years (perhaps filling a niche formerly occupied by the takahē); despite its extreme bottlenecked origin, this species has successfully spread throughout the country.  

In short, the recent rapid decline and/or extinction of island species is not the result of limited genetic diversity; rather, the immediate cause is the same as that still threatening most endangered species elsewhere—habitat destruction. As the authors of the PNAS paper emphasise, fixating on genetic diversity can shift attention away from the larger problem: “Nongenetic factors such as overkill, habitat destruction and fragmentation, the introduction of invasive species, rapid climate change, or pollution, reduce the growth rates of species and cause their populations to decline.”

This is not to say that measures of genetic variation are misguided in conservation, rather, as the PNAS paper notes,  “Researchers need to investigate for each species individually which genetic mutations allow the species to thrive and which mutations lead to diseases that can threaten the species. There is certainly no simple ‘one-size-fits-all’ measure of extinction risk”. The take home message is that genetic technology is a useful tool in conservation efforts, not a silver bullet.

The ‘natural’ environment?

What about the broader concept of biodiversity? The notion of biodiversity is popularly synonymous with healthy, functional ecosystems. This is misguided. As a result of human expansion, most modern environments are now far more biodiverse than they were in the past. Yet this masks the threat to existing ecosystems from non-native organisms, from trivial-seeming examples like American grey squirrels in Britain to more worrisome Asian giant hornets in the US to the multiple pest species in New Zealand.

The lay conception of biodiversity is often over-romanticized as a pristine state of nature, and human-induced environmental change is often regarded as inherently bad. But is it? Consideer Ascension Island in the Atlantic; “once a barren volcanic rock, [the island] is now much greener thanks to a deliberate policy, suggested by Charles Darwin, of bringing in plants from elsewhere in the tropics to create a forest ecosystem”. Now wonderfully biodiverse, Ascension’s ‘natural state’ has nevertheless been deliberated altered. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

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Or take the laudable efforts to return some of the lost biodiversity of the US, epitomized by the cloning of Elizabeth Ann. North America’s natural state is often taken to be that existing before 1492. But why choose that specific date? Loss of biodiversity (most especially of native megafauna) predates European colonisation by many thousands of years—hence arguments for the ‘Pleistocene rewilding’ of the continent; deliberately introducing proxies for extinct fauna (e.g. lions for sabretooth cats, elephants for mastodons) to recreate long-degraded natural ecosystems. Similar reasoning, of attempting  to restore valuable pre-existing ecosystems, lies behind the concept of de-extinction discussed above. Not surprisingly, Revive & Restore is at the forefront of the de-extinction movement.

Conservation biologist Philip Seddon, lead author of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s guidelines for de-extinction research, acknowledged much of the wider concern over the use of genetic biotechnology within the conservation community:

“The spread of genes can be difficult to control. We probably won’t lose track of mammoths in Siberia, but what about rats? It becomes hard to control those sorts of populations. And there are the same fears one might have about genetically modified crops—the idea that a modification may move into relatives, may jump in and out, or may not be expressed in the way that you expect.” 

Human values versus valuable science

Seddon’s approach to biotechnology and conservation , however, is reflective not reflexive. He emphasized the ‘clash of cultures’ between conservation biologists and synthetic biologists, with “little overlap in the two communities’ respective training, fields of practice, and views of the future”.

“Conservation practitioners and conservation biologists are, in general, conservative and precautionary. Their focus is on preservation and restoration, limiting human impacts, and slowing or halting biodiversity declines. They have been characterized as looking to the past and being risk averse. … What is the way forward? Can we engage a skeptical and cautious conservation community, harness the enthusiasm of the public imagination, and ensure that risks are understood and managed?”

A possible way past this impasse, Seddon suggested, “is through cautious application of synthetic biology” in familiar conservation contexts: reintroducing lost genetic diversity, say, or controlling wildlife diseases. 

Early and demonstrable success … [with] these types of intractable conservation challenges will do much to start a more informed debate about human management and manipulation of the natural world.

And this brings us full-circle, back to a cloned baby ferret, whose birth so brilliantly blends conservation, biotech and public imagination. By its very nature, conservation is driven by subjective human values not objective scientific facts. Science can tell us about the past and current state of an environment, and help predict what will happen in the future. And modern genetic technology has the potential to massively increase our abilities to monitor and alter environments in ways that further our conservation goals. But science alone cannot tell us what we should or shouldn’t do in our interactions with nature. 

With this in mind, we should consider Revive & Restore’s call to expand “the narrative of conservation” away from the “fear of unintended consequences [that] still paralyzes conservation innovation”. Instead, “genetics-based advancements,” alongside traditional conservation practices and values, could bring the possibility for intentional change—for intended consequences—within our grasp. This is not to blindly endorse that goal, any more than it is accepting genetic technology as the cure-all for our current conservation woes. Yet, with the ecological stakes so high, at the very least it’s an idea worth debating.

Patrick Whittle has a PhD in philosophy and is a New Zealand-based freelance writer with a particular interest in the social and political implications of biological science. Follow him on his website or on Twitter @WhittlePM

Anxious about getting a COVID vaccine because you don’t know what’s in it? We know a lot more about it than the safety of hot dogs

“So, you’ve been eatin’ hot dogs and chicken nuggets all your life and you don’t want the vaccine ‘cuz you don’t know what’s in it??” asks a befuddled chicken in a meme.

Actually, plenty of information is out there about “what’s in it.”

Upon entering a vaccination center, you’re handed a multi-page fact sheet that, among many other things, lists the chemicals about to be plunged into your arm.

The first two COVID vaccines are roughly the same recipe, adjusted for proportions and tiny details: mRNA, 4 fats (including cholesterol), a pinch of sugar, and a few salts. No eggs, preservatives, ricin, or leechee nut extract. (See The First COVID-19 Vaccines: What’s mRNA Got to do With it?) Ingredient lists for hot dogs and chicken nuggets are far longer and complex.

Yet the comparative transparency of vaccine ingredient lists isn’t enough to dispel the fear of something new and unfamiliar being jabbed into your body. For many people that fear arises against a backdrop of the history of dishonesty in medicine that has misled and mistreated marginalized groups, as well as the record of unethical clinical trials for some vaccines, notably influenza.

Peppered throughout the vaccine fact sheet, at least for the Pfizer-BioNTech one that I received, are statements that the product has not been FDA approved, which may surprise some people. Both mRNA vaccines were released under Emergency Use Authorization, which is a stop on the regulatory road to full approval. Along with overlapping clinical trial stages, the EUAs catalyzed the trajectory of the vaccines reaching arms.

Right now, a paradox is unfolding. While many people are frantic to sign up for vaccines, ready to hurl their laptops and phones out the window as appointment slots fill and websites crash, others are hesitant.

Even some healthcare workers, who’d probably know what the chemspeak on the vaccine labels mean, aren’t all in for rolling up their sleeves, just yet.

Hesitancy among healthcare workers

A survey of 5,287 healthcare personnel at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, from November 23 through December 5, probed attitudes, beliefs, and willingness to get vaccinated. The survey went out a week before the first vaccine EUA. Results appear in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

About a third of registered nurses, allied health professionals, and master’s level clinicians reported being unsure about taking the vaccine, while researchers and physicians were more accepting. Concerns included questioning safety and/or efficacy, potential adverse effects, and uneasiness about the speed of vaccine development.

Unexpectedly, clinicians who reported having cared for COVID patients were slightly less likely to want to be vaccinated compared to those who hadn’t. But lead author Jana Shaw, MD, MPH, pointed out that the survey didn’t address severity of sickness in patients, and therefore may have been skewed towards clinicians treating mild COVID cases. The findings propelled the researchers to better educate their staffs as well as the public about the importance and safety of COVID vaccines.

Other studies echo the hesitancy among healthcare staff. A report from the CDC revealed that only 37.5% of workers at 11,460 nursing homes were vaccinated, covering mid-December to mid-January.


Worse than hesitancy that affects a single person is spreading misinformation or otherwise discouraging others from being vaccinated. On January 30 at Dodger stadium, 50+ anti-vaccine protesters temporarily shut down a mass vaccination site for about an hour.

The protesters’ signs blared “TURN BACK NOW,” “My rights don’t end where your fear begins,” and “COVID=SCAM,” while they shouted that the virus isn’t real and vaccines are dangerous, according to a dentist waiting on line who spoke with reporters. The dentist wanted the vaccine to protect his patients.

Credit: CNN

Despite the interruption, injections proceeded, and California Governor Gavin Newsom tweeted that night, “we will not be deterred or threatened.”

Countering herd immunity

The consequences of a decision to receive a vaccine or not transcend the personal to the societal.

[A recent] post explained the herd immunity threshold; the percent of a population that must be vaccinated to halt the spread of the infection. The threshold depends on the number of people an infected person infects, which is specific to an infectious disease. The more transmissible the disease, the greater the percentage of the population that must be vaccinated to stop the spread. It’s common sense as well as math.

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Herd immunity threshold is a moving target, creeping ever up as new variants barrel into new turf and ease the journeys of viruses propelled in breaths from person to person. The threshold right now is hovering around 80%. And a reigniting of the embers of the anti-vaccine movement could make the astonishingly fast development of vaccines against the novel coronavirus for naught.

We may never reach herd immunity because of vaccine hesitancy. But it is too soon to give up.

What can we do to counter vaccine hesitancy?

If you agree that people who discourage others from getting vaccines will ultimately hold us all back from returning to normalcy, speak up.

  • Post your experiences with the vaccine to social media.
  • Learn about old vaccines. They’re why we no longer have smallpox, and why kids don’t miss school for measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, and lots of other infectious ills. (See Vaccine Memories: From Polio to Autism). But the new vaccines are nothing like those of years past, so …
  • Google “central dogma” to learn about or revisit the connections among DNA, RNA, and proteins – this basis of molecular biology explains most of the COVID vaccines. The central dogma is part of ninth grade biology these days, but those of us a bit older might need a reminder. It is central in the 36 textbook editions I’ve cranked out. I’m thrilled that people now care about mRNA!
  • Assure fretting friends that mRNA vaccines aren’t viruses, and they can’t enter human cell nuclei and sabotage our DNA. They’re just templates that our cells use to mass-produce the spike proteins that alert and mobilize our immune systems to immediately attack viruses in our noses.

From the frenzy to sign up for vaccines, I’m hopeful that the anti-vaccination crowd will shrink enough not to compromise progress towards herd immunity – to protect all of us. I hope that their resistance will be futile.

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

8 advocacy organizations and websites spreading misinformation about technology, chemicals, food and environmental risk

Are you worried about the environment and the ‘proliferation of unnecessary chemicals’? Concerned that CRISPR and other forms of genetic engineering are leading us to a dangerous future? Fearful that synthetic biology is recklessly manipulating and maybe undermining Nature? That’s the viewpoint of many organizations that characterize themselves as ‘environmental’ advocacy groups, working on society’s behalf. Many journalists and policymakers are influenced by their perspectives and often adopt them uncritically. But how reliable and science-grounded are their agendas?

If your genuine concerns are safe and effective medicines and a sustainable environment, slavishly following the guidance of these groups may not be such a good idea. The Genetic Literacy Project reviews dozens of  advocacy organizations in our GLP Biotech Profiles — Analyzing the Critics Shaping the Debate. Here are the 8 most influential — and from a science point of view, most problematic — groups that spread misinformation on a regular basis.

1. Greenpeace

Greenpeace was originally founded in Canada as part of the nuclear war protest movement, but moved to the Netherlands in 1998 after their charitable status was revoked by the Canadian Government. In 2018, New Zealand’s government again ruled that the organization was “too political” to merit charitable status in the country, and Germany issued similar findings in 2007. Today, the organization is made up of regional NGOs operating in 45 countries. Some reports claim that Greenpeace’s combined international campaign expenditures exceed 1 billion Euros.

Greenpeace campaigns include supporting wind and solar energy, and opposing the nuclear, logging and fishing industries. It has long targeted the plastics industry for its use of chemicals. It opposes the use of numerous chemical substances including elemental chlorine. It has been an aggressive campaigner against the consumer electronics industry. and other eco-social issues around the globe. The organization works to block biotech adoption in developing countries with fearmongering campaigns. Their website declares that “GE ‘Golden’ rice does not address the underlying causes of VAD [Vitamin A Deficiency], which are mainly poverty and lack of access to a healthy and varied diet.

In 2013, several prominent scientists wrote a letter condemning Greenpeace, claiming: “If ever there was a clear-cut cause for outrage, it is the concerted campaign by Greenpeace and other nongovernmental organizations, as well as by individuals, against Golden Rice.” In 2016, 107 Nobel laureates sharply criticized the organization in a letter urging it to end its opposition to GMOS and Golden Rice. The letter stated:

Throughout its history, the advocacy environmental group has been criticized by a number of groups, including national governments, members of industry, former Greenpeace members, scientists, political groups, and other environmentalists. According to Wyn Grant, a British professor of politics at the University of Warwick who his written extensively on pressure groups, characterized Greenpeace as a hierarchical and undemocratic organization. An article in Forbes in 1991 entitled “The Not So Peaceful World of Greenpeace,” criticized the organization’s lack of accountability, accusing it  of cleverly manipulating the world’s media.

2. Natural News

Alternative health guru and conspiracy theorist Mike “Health Ranger” Adams is the founder of Natural News, a major online disinformation empire. Adams promotes a bizarre mix of fringe ideas drawn from both ends of the political spectrum, such as false claims that 5G radiation can change the brain, that climate change is a hoax, and that vaccines actually spread infectious diseases.

In response to Adams’ misleading claims, Google News, Apple, YouTube, Pinterest, and Twitter have permanently banned him. Facebook temporarily kicked Adams off the platform in 2019, but made the ban permanent in 2020. Despite these attempts to reduce his reach, 15 affiliated Facebook groups, including some titled “GMO Dangers,” “Amazing Cures,” and “Food Freedom,” have continued to share Natural News content. Only four have since been removed.

Adams has even threatened violent retribution against those who challenge his views, saying “it is is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity” in a 2014 post. A major investigation by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that Natural News might be the “largest coordinated disinformation network in the world.”


Osteopath and alternative medicine advocate Joseph Mercola runs, which he claims is “the world’s No.1 health website.” Mercola vigorously promotes and sells dietary supplements, many of which bear his name. The site publishes a steady stream of propaganda indended to persuade its visitors to not trust mainstream healthcare and consumer-protection agencies. A news release on his site claims that physicians are the third leading cause of death in America and that traditional medicine is “responsible for killing and injuring millions of Americans every year….” opposes immunization, fluoridation and mammography; claims that amalgam fillings are toxic; and advises against eating many foods that the scientific community regards as healthful, such as bananas, oranges, red potatoes, white potatoes, all milk products, and almost all grains. It urges followers to avoid “dangerous electro-magnetic fields,” specifically noting electric razors, all watches with batteries, automatic car door openers, alarm clocks and microwaved foods, because “natural medicine states that the introduction into the human body of molecules and energies, to which it is not accustomed, is more likely to cause harm than good…” His alternative cures include prescribing “organic, non-commercially harvested” seaweed supplements to treat thyroid problems. Mercola’s reach has been greatly boosted by repeated promotion on the “Dr. Oz Show.”

Mercola is also one of the leading proponents of vaccine denialism and COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Mercola argues that measles “continues to be a Trojan Horse for increasing vaccine mandates.” A page removed in 2020 claimed that “vitamin C supplementation is a viable option for measles prevention.” A page about vitamin D includes the headline “Avoid Flu Shots With the One Vitamin that Will Stop Flu in Its Tracks.” The Washington Post reported that Mercola has contributed more than $2.9 million to the nation’s oldest anti-vaccine advocacy group, the National Vaccine Information Center — accounting for about 40% of the group’s total funding.

Mercola claims that many of his supplement products can boost immunity to COVID-19. He has written numerous articles claiming that masks cause “oxygen deprivation” and that the mainstream recommendation for mask-wearing has “nothing to do with decreasing the spread of the virus, but more to indoctrinate you into submission.” He also encourages “civil disobedience” in areas where mask-wearing is mandated. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Mercola “falsely claims that at least 23 vitamins, supplements, and other products available for sale on his web site can prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19 infection.” In July 2020, CSPI sent a letter and documents to the FDA and FTC urging the agencies to bring enforcement proceedings against Mercola for false COVID-19 health claims.

4. ETC Group

The ETC group, an international NGO based in Canada, claims it monitors the “impact of emerging technologies” that impact biodiversity, agriculture and human rights. It promotes imposing an extreme version of the ‘precautionary principle’ to all technologies, claiming that many modern innovations, including genetic engineering of crops and medicines, are too risky to implement, and even basic research should be suspended indefinitely.screen shot at pm

ETC Group campaigns against nearly every application of genetic engineering, including biotechnology-based disease research, synthetic biology, and most aggressively gene drives, which it refers to as “extreme genetic engineering” an claims it will result in the “end of Nature.” ETC Group calls has criticized increased corporate involvement in food and agriculture, what it calls threats to biodiversity and farmers’ rights, and what it sees as insufficient government regulation.

“The speed with which those developments are scaling up is often presented in terms of carefully crafted speculative conservation and health benefits while the overwhelming military interest driving these developments, while not hidden, has been very much downplayed,” ETC Group co-executive director Jim Thomas has said, citing the military’s interest in synthetic biology.

ETC Group accuses the Gates Foundation of promoting “species extinction in its support of research into developing gene drives that could be engineered into disease-carrying mosquitoes and other pests  to control a range of diseases, from malaria to Zika to dengue. Gene drives are being developed as an alternative to pesticides and other methods for combating invasive species for conservation and disease eradication purposes.

5. Pesticide Action Network (PAN)

The Pesticide Action Network (PAN) is part of a coalition of around 600 international NGOs, citizen groups and individuals in about 90 countries. PAN opposes a number of modern technological innovations, such as herbicides, insecticides and GM crops, in the aim of replacing “hazardous” biotech crop interventions with “ecologically sound and socially just alternatives.”

PAN is behind the “What’s on my food” campaign, alleging pesticide residues are causing human health problems. They also claim that GMOs increase pesticide use — a claim not supported by 20 years of independent studies, which show a sharp decrease in overall chemical use. PAN has targeted Monsanto — which is not a pesticide company — as the bogeyman for the industry.

Litigation is a key tactic for PAN, and the group frequently partners with other organizations like the Center for Food Safety in lawsuits. They have been involved in at least 14 suits and 7 appeals. Most recently PAN has sued California to challenge “the state’s approval of the cancer-causing strawberry pesticide methyl iodide.”

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6. Environmental Working Group (EWG)

The Environmental Working Group was founded in 1992 as a ‘think tank’ promoting original research and pushing back against corporations engaged in everything from sunscreens to cosmetics to drinking water to plastics to food production. It is well-known as a promoter of organic products (specifically “pesticide-free” and “GMO-free.” Its annual budget exceeds $8 million. EWG also oversees Organic Voices Action Fund, which is a political lobbying (c)(4) organization that is 100% funded by the organic industry.

EWG has been called the “Environmental Worrying Group” by watchdog group the Center for Organization Research & Education. [1] Seventy-nine percent of members of the Society of Toxicology who rated the group say that the EWG overstates the health risk of chemicals. Quackwatch describes EWG as one of “[t]he key groups that have wrong things to say about cosmetic products”.

EWG reviews chemicals, judging many of them to be harmful, but does not assess critical factors such as length of exposure or dosage. Its list of ‘scary’ chemicals include: arsenic, asbestos, BPA, chromium-6. dioxin, fire retardants, lead, mercury, nanoparticles, nonstick materials, perchlorate, pesticides (especially glyphosate, dicamba and neonicotinoids), phthalates, triclosan, and 2,4-D.

It has become best known for its signature annual “Dirty Dozen” report criticizing what it calls “hidden” pesticides in foods; it is well publicized by the media and many non-experts embrace its findings as credible. Its bottom-line advice is that consumers should buy organic products, which it claims do not use pesticides (which is not accurate, as organic crops are frequently treated with natural and some synthetic chemicals, some of which are toxic to beneficial insects and animals). Critics of the Dirty Dozen list have suggested that it significantly overstates the risk to consumers of the listed items, and that the methodology employed in constructing the list “lacks scientific credibility.”

7. Friends of the Earth (FOE)

While Friends of the Earth initially started as an anti-nuclear group in the 1960s, they now advocate for environmental issues in their “social, political and human rights contexts.” Originally based largely in North America and Europe, FOE’s membership is now heavily weighted towards groups in the developing world. They have set their sights on discrediting all applications of biotechnology, from GM crops to modern pesticides.

Although they claim to protect the environment, they actively campaign against synthetic biology interventions that would reduce our burden on the environment. For example, they have denounced palm oil replacements derived from genetically engineered yeast and bacteria — despite the fact that traditional oil palm plantations are responsible for rainforest deforestation on a massive scale.

Fearmongering is one of the organization’s key tactics. FOE has railed against the use of nanotechnology, which the organization claims has introduced dangerous “nanomaterials” into products like “cosmetics, sunscreens and a plethora of other consumer products.” They argue that “These nanomaterials differ significantly from larger particles of the same chemical composition, and new studies are adding to a growing body of scientific evidence indicating they may be more toxic to humans and the environment.”  Other campaigns include fighting neonicotinoid pesticides and opposing the consumption of meat.

Lorna Salzman, a long-time environmentalist and former FOE member from 1975-1984, penned a scathing review of the organization titled “The Decline and Fall of Freinds of the Earth in the United States.” Salzman says that the FOE was rife with “ethically and legally questionable deals, mostly made, it was later discovered, in private by management and a handful of Board members, and by serious political compromises on important environmental legislation.”

8. International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is a semi-autonomous agency under the World Health Organization. It brings together groups of scientists to identify chemicals, physical and biological agents, and lifestyle factors that could possibly cause cancer in humans. The IARC only evaluates whether a chemical or situation poses a health hazard —which means the agency does not look at essential factors like exposure duration and dose.

As a result, IARC classifies hundreds of chemicals or situations as “possible” or “likely” carcinogens while multiple other risk assessment agencies (including the WHO itself) has concluded the identical chemical or situation poses no meaningful public health danger. IARC has classified more than 1,000 everyday agents or situations as carcinogenic. The IARC’s list of carcinogens include: sunshine, cellphones, alcoholic beverages, meat, going to the barber or hairdresser, sawdust, night shifts, and the herbicide glyphosate — giving undue legitimacy to glyphosate protests worldwide.

The IARC’s curious glyphosate determination was a surprise to many scientists, as every major regulatory agency (then and since) has determined that glyphosate does not pose any cancer risk to humans. Recent scandals may give us an explanation: In June 2017, Reuters reported that Aaron Blair, head of the IARC’s glyphosate review group, withheld information showing no link between glyphosate and cancer. In October of the same year, the Times (UK) reported that a scientist who advised IARC’s glyphosate review, Christopher Portier, received $160,000 from law firms bringing cancer claims against glyphosate manufacturers. He did not declare this as a conflict of interest.

Fighting the next pandemic: Antibiotic resistance

If a two-year-old child living in poverty in India or Bangladesh gets sick with a common bacterial infection, there is more than a 50% chance an antibiotic treatment will fail. Somehow the child has acquired an antibiotic resistant infection – even to drugs to which they may never have been exposed. How?

Unfortunately, this child also lives in a place with limited clean water and less waste management, bringing them into frequent contact with faecal matter. This means they are regularly exposed to millions of resistant genes and bacteria, including potentially untreatable superbugs. This sad story is shockingly common, especially in places where pollution is rampant and clean water is limited.

For many years, people believed antibiotic resistance in bacteria was primarily driven by imprudent use of antibiotics in clinical and veterinary settings. But growing evidence suggests that environmental factors may be of equal or greater importance to the spread of antibiotic resistance, especially in the developing world.

Here we focus on antibiotic resistant bacteria, but drug resistance also occurs in types of other microorganisms – such as resistance in pathogenic viruses, fungi, and protozoa (called antimicrobial resistance or AMR). This means that our ability to treat all sorts of infectious disease is increasingly hampered by resistance, potentially including coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

Overall, use of antibiotics, antivirals, and antifungals clearly must be reduced, but in most of the world, improving water, sanitation, and hygiene practice – a practice known as WASH – is also critically important. If we can ensure cleaner water and safer food everywhere, the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria will be reduced across the environment, including within and between people and animals.

As recent recommendations on AMR from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), and World Health Organization (WHO) suggest, to which David contributed, the “superbug problem” will not be solved by more prudent antibiotic use alone. It also requires global improvements in water quality, sanitation, and hygiene. Otherwise, the next pandemic might be worse than COVID-19.

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Untreated sewage. Credit: Joa Souza/

Bacteria under stress

To understand the problem of resistance, we must go back to basics. What is antibiotic resistance, and why does it develop?

Exposure to antibiotics puts stress on bacteria and, like other living organisms, they defend themselves. Bacteria do this by sharing and acquiring defence genes, often from other bacteria in their environment. This allows them to change quickly, readily obtaining the ability to make proteins and other molecules that block the antibiotic’s effect.

This gene sharing process is natural and is a large part of what drives evolution. However, as we use ever stronger and more diverse antibiotics, new and more powerful bacterial defence options have evolved, rendering some bacteria resistant to almost everything – the ultimate outcome being untreatable superbugs.

Antibiotic resistance has existed since life began, but has recently accelerated due to human use. When you take an antibiotic, it kills a large majority of the target bacteria at the site of infection – and so you get better. But antibiotics do not kill all the bacteria – some are naturally resistant; others acquire resistance genes from their microbial neighbours, especially in our digestive systems, throat, and on our skin. This means that some resistant bacteria always survive, and can pass to the environment via inadequately treated faecal matter, spreading resistant bacteria and genes wider.

The pharmaceutical industry initially responded to increasing resistance by developing new and stronger antibiotics, but bacteria evolve rapidly, making even new antibiotics lose their effectiveness quickly. As a result, new antibiotic development has almost stopped because it garners limited profit. Meanwhile, resistance to existing antibiotics continues to increase, which especially impacts places with poor water quality and sanitation.

This is because in the developed world you defecate and your poo goes down the toilet, eventually flowing down a sewer to a community wastewater treatment plant. Although treatment plants are not perfect, they typically reduce resistance levels by well over 99%, substantially reducing resistance released to the environment.

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Modern sewage treatment plants remove most AMR microbes. But they are currently not affordable in much of the world. Credit: People Image Studio/

In contrast, over 70% of the world has no community wastewater treatment or even sewers; and most faecal matter, containing resistant genes and bacteria, goes directly into surface and groundwater, often via open drains.

This means that people who live in places without faecal waste management are regularly exposed to antibiotic resistance in many ways. Exposure is even possible of people who may not have taken antibiotics, like our child in South Asia.

Spreading through feces

Antibiotic resistance is everywhere, but it is not surprising that resistance is greatest in places with poor sanitation because factors other than use are important. For example, a fragmented civil infrastructure, political corruption, and a lack of centralised healthcare also play key roles.

One might cynically argue that “foreign” resistance is a local issue, but antibiotic resistance spread knows no boundaries – superbugs might develop in one place due to pollution, but then become global due to international travel. Researchers from Denmark compared antibiotic resistance genes in long-haul airplane toilets and found major differences in resistance carriage among flight paths, suggesting resistance can jump-spread by travel.

The world’s current experience with the spread of SARS-CoV-2 shows just how fast infectious agents can move with human travel. The impact of increasing antibiotic resistance is no different. There are no reliable antiviral agents for SARS-CoV-2 treatment, which is the way things may become for currently treatable diseases if we allow resistance to continue unchecked.

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As an example of antibiotic resistance, the “superbug” gene, blaNDM-1, was first detected in India in 2007 (although it was probably present in other regional countries). But soon thereafter, it was found in a hospital patient in Sweden and then in Germany. It was ultimately detected in 2013 in Svalbard in the High Arctic. In parallel, variants of this gene appeared locally, but have evolved as they move. Similar evolution has occurred as the COVID-19 virus has spread.

Relative to antibiotic resistance, humans are not the only “travellers” that can carry resistance. Wildlife, such as migratory birds, can also acquire resistant bacteria and genes from contaminated water or soils and then fly great distances carrying resistance in their gut from places with poor water quality to places with good water quality. During travel, they defecate along their path, potentially planting resistance almost anywhere. The global trade of foods also facilitates spread of resistance from country to country and across the globe.

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Resistant microbes don’t need planes to travel. Credit: Nick Fewings/Unsplash

What is tricky is that the spread by resistance by travel is often invisible. In fact, the dominant pathways of international resistance spread are largely unknown because many pathways overlap, and the types and drivers of resistance are diverse.

Resistant bacteria are not the only infectious agents that might be spread by environmental contamination. SARS-CoV-2 has been found in faeces and inactive virus debris found in sewage, but all evidence suggests water is not a major route of COVID-19 spread – although there are limited data from places with poor sanitation.

So, each case differs. But there are common roots to disease spread – pollution, poor water quality, and inadequate hygiene. Using fewer antibiotics is critical to reducing resistance. However, without also providing safer sanitation and improved water quality at global scales, resistance will continue to increase, potentially creating the next pandemic. Such a combined approach is central to the new WHO/FAO/OIE recommendations on AMR.

Other types of pollution and hospital waste

Industrial wastes, hospitals, farms, and agriculture are also possible sources or drivers of antibiotic resistance.

For example, about ten years ago, one of us (David) studied metal pollution in a Cuban river and found the highest levels of resistant genes were near a leaky solid waste landfill and below where pharmaceutical factory wastes entered the river. The factory releases clearly impacted resistance levels downstream, but it was metals from the landfill that most strongly correlated with resistance gene levels in the river.

There is a logic to this because toxic metals can stress bacteria, which makes the bacteria stronger, incidentally making them more resistant to anything, including antibiotics. We saw the same thing with metals in Chinese landfills where resistance gene levels in the landfill drains strongly correlated with metals, not antibiotics.

In fact, pollution of almost any sort can promote antibiotic resistance, including metals, biocides, pesticides, and other chemicals entering the environment. Many pollutants can promote resistance in bacteria, so reducing pollution in general will help reduce antibiotic resistance – an example of which is reducing metal pollution.

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A man climbs a wall of garbage at a landfill in Kenya. Credit: Dai Kurokawa/EPA-EFE

Hospitals are also important, being both reservoirs and incubators for many varieties of antibiotic resistance, including well known resistant bacteria such as Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE) and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). While resistant bacteria are not necessarily acquired in hospitals (most are brought in from the community), resistant bacteria can be enriched in hospitals because they are where people are very sick, cared for in close proximity, and often provided “last resort” antibiotics. Such conditions allow the spread of resistant bacteria easier, especially superbug strains because of the types of antibiotics that are used.

Wastewater releases from hospitals also may be a concern. Recent data showed that “typical” bacteria in hospital sewage carry five to ten times more resistant genes per cell than community sources, especially genes more readily shared between bacteria. This is problematic because such bacteria are sometimes superbug strains, such as those resistant to carbapenem antibiotics. Hospital wastes are a particular concern in places without effective community wastewater treatment.

Another critical source of antibiotic resistance is agriculture and aquaculture. Drugs used in veterinary care can be very similar (sometimes identical) to the antibiotics used in human medicine. And so resistant bacteria and genes are found in animal manure, soils, and drainage water. This is potentially significant given that animals produce four times more faeces than humans at a global scale.

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Watch out for the cowpats. Credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Wastes from agricultural activity also can be especially problematic because waste management is usually less sophisticated. Additionally, agricultural operations are often at very large scales and less containable due to greater exposure to wildlife. Finally, antibiotic resistance can spread from farm animals to farmers to food workers, which has been seen in recent European studies, meaning this can be important at local scales.

These examples show that pollution in general increases the spread of resistance. But the examples also show that dominant drivers will differ based on where you are. In one place, resistance spread might be fuelled by human faecal contaminated water; whereas, in another, it might be industrial pollution or agricultural activity. So local conditions are key to reducing the spread of antibiotic resistance, and optimal solutions will differ from place to place – single solutions do not fit all.

Locally driven national action plans are therefore essential – which the new WHO/FAO/OIE guidance strongly recommends. In some places, actions might focus on healthcare systems; whereas, in many places, promoting cleaner water and safer food also is critical.

Simple steps

It is clear we must use a holistic approach (what is now called “One Health”) to reduce the spread of resistance across people, animals, and the environment. But how do we do this in a world that is so unequal? It is now accepted that clean water is a human right embedded in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. But how can we achieve affordable “clean water for all” in a world where geopolitics often outweigh local needs and realities?

Global improvements in sanitation and hygiene should bring the world closer to solving the problem of antibiotic resistance. But such improvements should only be the start. Once improved sanitation and hygiene exist at global scales, our reliance on antibiotics will decline due to more equitable access to clean water. In theory, clean water coupled with decreased use of antibiotics will drive a downward spiral in resistance.

This is not impossible. We know of a village in Kenya where they simply moved their water supply up a small hill – above rather than near their latrines. Hand washing with soap and water was also mandated. A year later, antibiotic use in the village was negligible because so few villagers were unwell. This success is partly due to the remote location of the village and very proactive villagers. But it shows that clean water and improved hygiene can directly translate into reduced antibiotic use and resistance.

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Public toilets in Haryana, India. Credit: Rinku Dua/

This story from Kenya further shows how simple actions can be a critical first step in reducing global resistance. But such actions must be done everywhere and at multiple levels to solve the global problem. This is not cost-free and requires international cooperation – including focused apolitical policy, planning, and infrastructure and management practices.

Some well intended groups have attempted to come up with novel solutions, but those solutions are often too technological. And western “off-the-shelf” water and wastewater technologies are rarely optimal for use in developing countries. They are often too complex and costly, but also require maintenance, spare parts, operating skill, and cultural buy-in to be sustainable. For example, building an advanced activated sludge wastewater treatment plant in a place where 90% of the population does not have sewer connections makes no sense.

Simple is more sustainable. As an obvious example, we need to reduce open defecation in a cheap and socially acceptable manner. This is the best immediate solution in places with limited or unused sanitation infrastructure, such as rural India. Innovation is without doubt important, but it needs to be tailored to local realities to stand a chance of being sustained into the future.

Strong leadership and governance is also critical. Antibiotic resistance is much lower in places with less corruption and strong governance. Resistance also is lower in places with greater public health expenditure, which implies social policy, community action, and local leadership can be as important as technical infrastructure.

Why aren’t we solving the problem?

While solutions to antibiotic resistance exist, integrated cooperation between science and engineering, medicine, social action, and governance is lacking. While many international organisations acknowledge the scale of the problem, unified global action is not happening fast enough.

There are various reasons for this. Researchers in healthcare, the sciences, and engineering are rarely on the same page, and experts often disagree over what should be prioritised to prevent antibiotic resistance – this muddles guidance. Unfortunately, many antibiotic resistance researchers also sometimes sensationalise their results, only reporting bad news or exaggerating results.

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An Indian boy collects drinking water from a tap on the bank of Bay of Bengal. Credit: Piyal Adhirkary/EPA-EFE

Science continues to reveal probable causes of antibiotic resistance, which shows no single factor drives resistance evolution and spread. As such, a strategy incorporating medicine, environment, sanitation, and public health is needed to provide the best solutions. Governments throughout the world must act in unison to meet targets for sanitation and hygiene in accordance with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Richer countries must work with poorer ones. But, actions against resistance should focus on local needs and plans because each country is different. We need to remember that resistance is everyone’s problem and all countries have a role in solving the problem. This is evident from the COVID-19 pandemic, where some countries have displayed commendable cooperation. Richer countries should invest in helping to provide locally suitable waste management options for poorer ones – ones that can be maintained and sustained. This would have a more immediate impact than any “toilet of the future” technology.

And it’s key to remember that the global antibiotic resistance crisis does not exist in isolation. Other global crises overlap resistance; such as climate change. If the climate becomes warmer and dryer in parts of the world with limited sanitation infrastructure, greater antibiotic resistance might ensue due to higher exposure concentrations. In contrast, if greater flooding occurs in other places, an increased risk of untreated faecal and other wastes spreading across whole landscapes will occur, increasing antibiotic resistance exposures in an unbounded manner.

Antibiotic resistance will also impact on the fight against COVID-19. As an example, secondary bacterial infections are common in seriously ill patients with COVID-19, especially when admitted to an ICU. So if such pathogens are resistant to critical antibiotic therapies, they will not work and result in higher death rates.

Regardless of context, improved water, sanitation, and hygiene must be the backbone of stemming the spread of AMR, including antibiotic resistance, to avoid the next pandemic. Some progress is being made in terms of global cooperation, but efforts are still too fragmented. Some countries are making progress, whereas others are not.

Resistance needs to be seen in a similar light to other global challenges – something that threatens human existence and the planet. As with addressing climate change, protecting biodiversity, or COVID-19, global cooperation is needed to reduce the evolution and spread of resistance. Cleaner water and improved hygiene are the key. If we do not work together now, we all will pay an even greater price in the future.

David W. Graham is a Professor of Ecosystems Engineering at Newcastle University. David’s work combines methods from engineering, theoretical ecology, mathematics, biochemistry, and molecular biology to solve problems in environmental engineering at a fundamental level. 

Peter Collignon is a Professor of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at the Australian National University. Particular interests are antibiotic resistance (especially in Staph), hospital acquired infections (especially blood stream and intravascular catheter infections) and resistance that develops through the use of antibiotics in animals. Peter can be found on Twitter @CollignonPeter

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

Podcast: Dogology—The science of our four-legged friends

Geneticist Kat Arney brings you some scientific tails as we explore the genetics of dog breeds and behavior. Is there a gene for being a Very Good Dog or having a boopable snoot? And what happened over tens of thousands of years to turn a fearsome wolf into a pug in a party hat? 

Dogged roving reporter Georgia Mills has been following up the leads, speaking with Elinor Karlsson at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Broad Institute. She and her team are investigating all aspects of dog genetics, from discovering what gives different breeds their distinctive traits to finding out how genetic variations contribute to psychological characteristics. They’re also the lab behind the Darwin’s Dogs project, which is working with pet owners and gathering doggie DNA samples from all over the world to get insights into animal and human behavior and health. Follow Karlsson and the Karlsson lab on Twitter.

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Self-styled Dog Zombie Jessica Hekman works with Karlsson and her team studying the brains and genes of dogs to understand canine behavior, including trying to figure out why certain dog breeds behave in certain ways. She’s also the owner of three dogs – a Border Collie, an English Shepherd and a genetic pick’n’mix – some of whom you’ll hear making cameo appearances in this interview. As far as she’s concerned, breed certainly does influence behavior. Follow Hekman on Twitter.

Finally, Mills speaks with Jeff Schoenebeck from the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh, who has made it his mission to understand how genetic variations contribute to the wide range of shapes and sizes of dog skulls, using CAT scans, as well as lab tests. Follow Schoenebeck on Twitter.

Full show notes, transcript, music credits and references online at

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. Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

Part 2: Why is Africa the global COVID-19 ‘cold spot’? — The historical challenge of disentangling genes and environment

Does greater prior exposure to pathogens, including other recent coronaviruses, help explain why Africa is a COVID-19 cold spot, despite endemic poverty and a woeful health infrastructure? Conversely, in the more sanitized surroundings of the more developed world, people’s immune systems may be insufficiently ‘trained’ to cope with novel disorders, such as COVID-19 — what’s known as the ‘hygiene hypothesis’. 

According to this thesis, the very conditions expected to cause the rapid spread of the virus may instead have primed the immune system of native Africans to better resist this latest disease, along with antibodies gained through exposure to numerous infectious ailments since childhood. (This theory has also been used to explain the reduced impact of the coronavirus in India, relative to the size of its population.)

This is also how population-wide ‘herd immunity’ is naturally selected across evolutionary time, with those genetically more resistant to specific diseases surviving and reproducing at greater rates than the more vulnerable. It’s known that the Black Death epidemic didn’t just wipe out millions of Europeans (1/3 of the population) during the 14th century; it left a permanent, protective marker on the human genome, favoring those who carried immune system genes, who passed them on over subsequent centuries.

The Triumph of Death, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Credit: Wikimedia commons

Certainly, with disease a long-recognized feature of the living world, it is no surprise it is a major factor in Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Darwin himself had seen the devastating effects of disease on indigenous peoples during the voyage of the Beagle, and it featured in his later account of human evolution (and extinction), Descent of Man.

Disease is also central to the convincing ‘Guns, Germs & Steel’ thesis advanced by biogeographer Jared Diamond. According to Diamond, after the advent of agriculture in Eurasia (c. 10,000 years ago), the denser populations of the new farming societies were ideal breeding grounds for novel diseases (a process exacerbated by close contact with disease-bearing domesticated animals). Over millennia, newly-emerging diseases periodically swept along Eurasia’s trade routes, genetically-selecting for disease-resistance among the surviving populations. 

Most relevant here is the grim historical consequence of this evolved genetic immunity among some populations but not others. In Diamond’s estimation, more than 90 percent of the indigenous peoples of the Americas — never before exposed to the deadly contagions of Eurasia—were wiped out within decades of the arrival of European colonists and invaders. 

The New World disease apocalypse mirrors others that have plagued humankind for millennia. Recent genetic research suggests that Europe’s original Neolithic population may have been displaced by disease-resistant peoples from the east, 5000 to 6000 years ago. Once again, evolved population differences may have proved key, with newcomers’ longer exposure to the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis, likely providing partial immunity not shared by the existing European populations. (The Black Death, the Spanish Flu and now COVID-19 are well-known historical examples of this process.) 

There is also tantalizing, emerging evidence that ancient coronaviruses drove natural selection for disease resistance in East Asia between 25,000 and 5,000 years ago, with “[t]hese adaptive events … limited to ancestral East Asian populations, the geographical origin of several modern coronavirus epidemics” [emphasis added]. Indeed, our new-found abilities to probe the secrets of ancient DNA also allow us to search even further back into human prehistory — and into the divergent evolutionary pathways followed by a distant human cousin, the Neanderthals. 

Do Neanderthal genes increase the risk of COVID-19?

The answer is ‘yes’. In fact, the presence of a Neanderthal gene is the single biggest genetic risk factor for the novel coronavirus, roughly doubling the likelihood, according to a June 2020 study by researchers in Germany and Japan, Hugo Zeberg and Svante Pääbo. 

In follow up research published in February, they identified one haplotype that “is present at substantial frequencies in all regions of the world outside Africa. Given that Neanderthals were a branch of hominids seemingly confined to western Eurasia, sub-Saharan African populations never interbreed with this sister-species. This particular stretch of Neanderthal DNA is carried by around 50 percent of South Asians, 16 percent of those of European descent, but not in any native Africans.

Credit: Martin Meissner/AP Photo

Illustrating the complexity (and ironies) of evolution, the researchers suggest that these genes may have protected our distant cousins against pathogens found in their ancient environment, and were hence retained in some Eurasian populations subsequent to human-Neanderthal inter-breeding. Now, however, these same genes may have a detrimental effect with the different COVID-19 pathogen.

In the words of the researchers, the immune response for carriers of these Neanderthal sequences “might be overly aggressive,” leading to potentially fatal reactions in those who develop severe COVID-19 symptoms. This explanation is analogous to the genetics of HIV susceptibility, with ancient-acquired advantageous genes now proving disadvantageous. Importantly, this could also be true for any human population, African or non-African, that may show a different response to any disease. 

Reviving an egregious, racist, un-scientific concept?

All populations, and individuals, are a mishmash of unique genes acquired from ancestral populations. Yet while the evidence of divergent evolution between distinct human groups continues to accumulate, such evidence also continues to cause disquiet. 

Is it suspect — even racist—to explore the relationship of disease to population? Although the historically problematic term of ‘race’ is considered a controversial subject, geneticists have long recognized genetic differences among population in disease proclivities. Renowned population geneticist Neil Risch and colleagues addressed this issue years ago in a seminal paper, “Categorization of Humans in Bio-Medical Research: Genes, Race and Disease, writing:

… we believe that identifying genetic differences between races and ethnic groups, be they for random genetic markers, genes that lead to disease susceptibility or variation in drug response, is scientifically appropriate. … Every race and even ethnic group within the races has its own collection of clinical priorities based on differing prevalence of diseases.

That acknowledged, exploring this issue risks bringing opprobrium down on those who raise it. As Jared Diamond has written, “few scientists dare to study racial origins, lest they be branded racists just for being interested in the subject”. Given the racist history of biological beliefs about human differences (and, in this case, the xenophobic backdrop to the current COVID-19 pandemic), it is a topic that must be addressed with care, if directly and honestly. 

As we’ve repeatedly make clear, apparent differences in disease risk among populations need not have direct biological causes. With COVID-19 it is already well-established that age, obesity and other pre-existing health problems bear on the severity of the disease, and these factors are unevenly distributed among different racial groups. 

Some risk indicators are more important than others; in the US, for example, age does not appear the key determining factor in the impact of COVID-19 across sub-populations; rather it’s more about ‘race’ and economic class. The most common age for White Americans who have contracted the coronavirus is 58 years; for African Americans it is 27. Yet, despite being much younger on average, Black Americans are much more likely than White Americans to contract, be hospitalized by, or die from the novel coronavirus.

The same is true among indigenous American, Hispanic communities, and Pacific Islanders in Hawai’i. The major mortality predictor so far is social inequality — deprivation, marginalization, inadequate access to health care, and the like. Some of those factors have also contributed to higher rates of co-morbidities among COVID-19-vulnerable minority populations

Genetic and social factors should be examined simultaneously

What does all this add up to? It’s complicated. There are appropriate concerns that incorporating population-based genetic explanations may trivialize the complexity of interaction between genes, environment and society. Such criticism is well taken, yet it cuts both ways: just as over-emphasis on genes may ignore crucial environmental factors, so too might a solitary focus on environment overlook relevant genetic influences. The historical misuse of facile ‘race’ concepts to support odious hierarchies does not mean we should ignore possible genetic influences on the spread of the virus. 

Unfortunately, a common but mistaken belief among those suspicious of genetic research is that those who advocate that population genetics should play a central critical role in assessing disease susceptibility embrace the discredited belief that genes determine outcomes. By this facile argument, if genes are implicated in susceptibility/resistance to coronavirus, they must override everything else. 

But no serious scientist studying this complex issue are determinists; that’s a notion decades out of date. Citing the tragically banal fact that that Americans of primarily African ancestry are more likely to die from COVID does not come close to ‘disproving’ the very likelihood that the genetics of those of African descent might have certain ‘protective’ genes. 

A more nuanced and non-deterministic assessment points to the continuous interaction between genes and environment. If genetics play a role in the apparent partial-immunity of native Africans to the coronavirus, similar influences for those of mixed African ancestry in the US and elsewhere could still be swamped by an onerous social environment faced by Blacks and other minorities.

The subtle give-and-take of genetics and the environment may inform the experience of Africans of Bangladeshi descent. While UK-based Bangladeshis — a socially-disadvantaged minority group — are twice as likely to die from the coronavirus as the general British population, the COVID-related death totals in Bangladesh (8,000 deaths), is plummeting. 

Credit: Our World in Data

But the Bangladeshi example is also significant because it illustrates the complexity of the issue and conflicting narratives about genetics and the coronavirus. Bangladesh as a country is doing better than many countries which is both surprising and not so. The country ranks 57 out of 152 globally. The US ranks 143. 

The average age (25.7) is comparatively young. Like Africans, Bangladeshi might have been expected to have received some protection based on the “hygiene hypothesis.” But clearly there are myriad other factors at play, including the intriguing fact that Bangladeshi carry the gene cluster implicated as likely increasing the risk from COVID-19 (more than half the population, 63 percent, carry at least one copy of the risk haplotype). The interaction among genes, environment and disease is very complex, eluding facile, definitive answers.

An ethical imperative

We already know environmental inequalities impact at-risk racial populations (such as those defined, in the US, as African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders. This does not negate the likelihood that ancestry influences disease prevalence within these groups or in response to treatments. But this is an empirical question that can be answered only through studying group differences, carefully but comprehensively.

While age, geography, and comorbidities are major risk factors in contracting or dying from COVID-19, the insights from genetic research are invaluable to effectively tackle this and future pandemics. A growing wealth of data suggest population-level differences — which often do not neatly correlate with popular notions of race — can help us identify susceptibility or resistance to some diseases.

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Not exploring this extraordinary phenomenon borders on scientific malpractice, some researchers have told us. By not focusing on the actual science, we are denying the world the fullest understanding of how virus susceptibility works. More importantly, if we followed the ‘race-related’ scientific leads, using the latest genomic data, we could very well come up with measures to better protect most of the rest of the world from COVID-19 and future virus-driven pandemics.

With Africa in particular, the vast genetic diversity within the continent is already revealing much about humanity’s long and deadly evolutionary duel with this scourge. What is more, African researchers themselves are adding to this growing wealth of knowledge, and in some cases taking the lead in population-genetic focused research. This will provide tools to one day eradicate many other diseases that take such a heavy toll on Africa’s peoples.

There are critical hard-wired differences in responses to disease and treatments; some are meaningful. Incorporating them in our health assessments can mean the difference between life and death for the most vulnerable. We ignore them at the peril of the health of billions of people.

Patrick Whittle has a PhD in philosophy and is a New Zealand-based freelance writer with a particular interest in the social and political implications of biological science. Follow him on his website or on Twitter @WhittlePM

Jon Entine is the founding editor of the Genetic Literacy Project, and winner of 19 major journalism awards. He has written extensively in the popular and academic press on population genetics, including two best-sellers, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It; and Abraham’s Children: Race, Genetics and the DNA of The Chosen People. Follow him on Twitter @JonEntine

Part 1: Defying all predictions, Africa is the global COVID-19 ‘cold spot’. How come health officials and the media are not honestly exploring why?

The first confirmed COVID-19 case in Africa was on February 14, 2020 in Egypt. The first in sub-Saharan Africa appeared in Nigeria soon after. Health officials were united in a near-panic about how the novel coronavirus would roll through the world’s second most populous continent.

By mid-month, the World Health Organization listed four sub-Saharan countries on a ‘top 13’ global danger list because of direct air links to China. Writing for Lancet, two scientists with the Africa Center for Disease Control outlined a catastrophe in the making:

With neither treatment nor vaccines, and without pre-existing immunity, the effect [of COVID-19] might be devastating because of the multiple health challenges the continent already faces: rapid population growth and increased movement of people; existing endemic diseases…; remerging and emerging infectious pathogens …, and others; and increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases.

Many medical professionals predicted that Africa could spin into a death spiral. “My advice to Africa is to prepare for the worst, and we must do everything we can to cut the root problem,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the first African director-general of the WHO warned in March. “I think Africa, my continent, must wake up.”

By spring, WHO was projecting 44 million or more cases for Africa and the World Bank issued a map of the continent colored in blood red, anticipating that the worst was imminent.

Dire warnings seemed to make sense. After all, the vast majority of the world’s poorest people reside in the region, struggling with unhygienic environments, conflict, fragmented healthcare and education systems and dysfunctional leadership — all factors that could light a match to the tinder of the SARS-CoV2 outbreak. Scientists say that most African countries lack the capacity and expertise to manage endemic deadly diseases like malaria.

Each individual’s risk of dying of a particular disease tends to reflect access to adequate health care and underlying health conditions (co-morbidities). Those factors have proved to be a toxic mix in poorer communities in the United States, Brazil, UK and other countries where lower income groups, often ethnic and racial minorities, are dying at rates higher than others. Africa seemed ripe for catastrophe.

But disaster never came. Africa has not been affected on anything near the scale of most countries in Asia, Europe, and North and South America. (The major exceptions being China, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand, which zealously enforced lockdowns). In fact, the vast African continent south of the Sahara desert, more than 1.1 billion people, has emerged as the world’s COVID-19 ‘cold spot’. 

Note: ‘Africa’ includes the mostly White countries of North Africa, which have been far harder by COVID than sub-Saharan Africa

The latest statistics show about 3.8 million cases and 100,000 coronavirus-related deaths, concentrated mostly in the Arab majority countries north of the Sahara. Except for South Africa, the most multi-ethnic of the Black majority countries, and Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa has largely been spared.

Courtesy: Africa CDC

According to Worldometers, by late-February, Europe, with less than 2/3 the population of Africa, had almost 33,000,000+ cases, 900% more, and almost 800,000 deaths, 800% more. The US, with less than 1/3 the number of people, has 2900% more cases and 2400% more deaths, according to stats compiled on Wikipedia.

Journalists and even some scientists have been twisting themselves into speculative pretzels (here, here, here) trying to explain this phenomenon. Theories range from sub-Saharan Africa’s ‘quick response’ (no); favourable climate (which did not protect Brazil and other warmer climes in South America); and good community health systems (directly contradicted by WHO and Africa CDC). 

In each of those articles acknowledging the “puzzling” statistics, journalists were sure to suggest Armageddon might be right around the corner. “Experts fear a more devastating second surge,” warned National Geographic in late December, although there was no first surge and just two weeks before Africa’s tiny December uptick (driven almost entirely by the mutant variant in South Africa) turned back downward, according to Reuters.

Why Africa has been less impacted by COVID-19

What’s going on here? And why are the media and most scientists so unwilling to engage the most likely scenario: Black Africans appear to be protected in part by their ancestral genetics. Combined with the fact that sub-Saharan Africa is the youngest region in the world—youth brings fewer co-morbidities and age is the most significant factor in contracting and dying from COVID-19—DNA is the most likely explanation for sub-Saharan Africa’s comparatively modest case and death count.

Except for one research project in Hawai’i, scientists have all but ignored exploring the population genetics angle, almost certainly fearful of stirring the embers of race science. 

“It is really mind boggling why Africa is doing so well, while in US and UK, the people of African ancestry are doing so poorly,” Maarit Tiirikainen, a cancer and bioinformatics researcher at the University of Hawai’i Cancer Center, told us in an email. 

Dr. Tiirikainen is a lead researcher in a joint project at the University of Hawaii and LifeDNA in what some believe is a controversial undertaking considering the taboos on ‘race’ research. They are attempting to identify “those that are most vulnerable to the current and future SARS attacks and COVID based on their genetics”.

Dr. Maarit Tiirkainen

Blacks (along with other ethnic minorities) in the US and Great Britain have generally fared worse than Whites in contracting COVID-19 and surviving it. “For the latter, it seems the western socioeconomics may play a major role. There may also be genetic differences in immune and other important genes,” Dr Tiirkainen wrote. 

(Note: The terms ‘Black’ and ‘White’ are used as shorthand for more cumbersome expressions like ‘those of African descent’ or ‘people of European ancestry’. As addressed below, ‘Black’ and ‘White’ are not science-based population categories.)

Dr. Tirikainen, like many researchers in this field, when communicating candidly, is skeptical that social and environmental factors alone can account for the extraordinarily low COVID-19 African infection and death rates. It is not because Africa took extraordinary steps to insulate itself as the pandemic spread. Health care remains fragmented at best. COVID information outreach has been limited by scant resources. 

At the end of March, when much was still to be learned about the science of COVID-19, co-authors of this article — Genetic Literacy Project’s Jon Entine and contributing science journalist Patrick Whittle — discussed some of the potential reasons in the article What’s ‘race’ got to do with it?. 

After discussions with many experts, we decided not to reflexively exclude genetic explanations, which are always a taboo subject. Rather, we examined the panoply of likely causes, rejecting the a priori Western prejudice that often excludes evidence that might be linked to population-level genetics and group differences for fear of ‘racializing’ the analysis. Note we are very aware that skin color is not a recognized science-based population concept. Given the racist history of biological beliefs about human differences, addressing the fact of ancestrally-based genetic differences must be pursued carefully. 

Why even discuss possible genetic factors? Because biases among researchers and public policy officials could undermine the development and deployment of treatments and antiviral vaccines for all of us, but particularly for more vulnerable populations in Africa, and in the African diaspora. Identifying those with genetic resistance to infection or who may be genetically protected in some degree from developing symptoms could help scientists develop treatments for all of. Lives are at stake.

So let’s dip our toes back into these murky waters. Could our ancestry, which defines our genetic make-up, play a role in disease susceptibility, for COVID or other viruses?

Environmental-based Black-White differences impact COVID vulnerability

There are some significant non-genetic factors behind the Africa numbers. In the case of disease susceptibility, social and environmental explanations have played a huge role in the limited impact so far of COVID-19 in Africa. For one, the apparent low incidence of cases and deaths could be due in part to under-reporting or limited testing, although testing has been surging in Africa even as the number of cases remained flat. 

The most significant environmental factor, scientists say, is age. The average age of Europeans is 43; it’s 38 in the US; across the African continent, it is 18. The average age in Niger, Mali, Uganda and Angola is under 16. While roughly a quarter of the population in both Europe and North America is over 60-years old, in Africa, the 60+ age cohort makes up only 6 percent of the population. 

The young, when infected, are also less apt to show symptoms. Asymptomatic people are not as likely to be tested, perhaps suppressing the numbers. Younger people are, by and large, healthier. The average age of Black Americans is about twice as old as Black Africans. Moreover, the deaths among African Americans — almost twice that of White and Asian Americans — has been almost exclusively concentrated among the elderly, many with multiple co-morbidities and less access to health care. That’s the opposite of the situation in Africa.

The younger African population may explain some of the disparities in deaths, but not all of them; the wealthier nations of Asia have managed the pandemic better than Europe and North America, despite having similarly older populations, and the virus is raging in some South Asian countries.

It also should be noted that age has often played the opposite role in surviving scourges. Malaria is historically the world’s deadliest disease. But age-related survival rates are the reverse of that with COVID-19, with the very young most at risk. In 2018, for example, most of the estimated 405,000 people who died from malaria were young children in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Climate also may play a role. Generally, the pandemic has spread more virulently in colder climes, with more temperature countries in Asia and Africa somewhat spared from the scourge. But most of those countries, from Australia, across China to Taiwan, have undertaken massive tracing and have imposed near universal shutdowns on occasion. African countries have been less proactive, constrained in large part by a lack of funds.

Genetics and COVID

To what degree does ancestry play in role in our susceptibility to COVID-19?

Unfortunately there is a dearth of research on the genetics of African peoples, so it’s difficult to make too much of these fragmented examples. And despite Africa being the “cradle of humankind”, and with its populations containing more human genetic variation any other continent, Black Africans and those of African descent remain woefully underrepresented in genetic studies

Given the historical research bias towards Eurasia and North America, almost 20 years after the sequencing of the human genome, the vast majority of genetic samples are of European ancestry (nearly 90 percent in 2017, with most of these from just three countries — Great Britain, US and Iceland). Recent pioneering surveys of African genomes are just now beginning to reveal the continents’ rich genetic legacy, replete with the merging and divergence of myriad ancestral populations.

What genetic factors could be in play impacting COVID-19 infection and death rates? Research and informed speculation is already underway. 

An earlier study on the possible contribution of genetics to the SARS-CoV2 infection found significant population-based differences in ACE2 receptors that modulate blood pressure in the cells located in the lungs, arteries, heart, kidneys and intestines. Africans are considerably less likely than East Asians to express the ACE2 receptors, though slightly higher than Europeans, the researchers believe. 

“There have been major differences in the rates of SARS-CoV-2 infection and the severe disease between the different geographic regions since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, even among young individuals,” wrote Dr. Tiirikainen. “There may also be genetic differences in immune and other important genes explaining why some people get more sick than others.

At least two studies show that blood type O could be associated with a lower risk of COVID-19 infection and reduced likelihood of severe outcomes, including organ complications. There is also some evidence that those with blood type A are more susceptible to COVID-19. The researchers did not find any significant difference in rates of infection between A, B and AB types. About 37 percent of the world population is O+ and 6 percent is O-. About 50 percent of Africans have blood group O, the highest in the world.

It’s well established that certain HLA (human leukocyte antigens) alleles confer susceptibility to specific diseases. African-descended and European-descended populations implicate distinctively different immunity responses in dozens of diseases treatments. For example, it is extremely rare for people of unmixed Black African ancestry to get ankylosing spondylitis, a rare type of arthritis. Whites are three times more likely to get it. The histocompatibility antigen HLA-B27, which does not exist in Black Africans of unmixed ancestry, is present in 8 percent of White and only about 2-4 percent of the Black American population (reflecting racial mixing).

Susceptibility to the coronavirus is negatively associated with having a genetic propensity to absorb Vitamin C, as is the case with Black African populations. Across Africa, roughly 50 percent of people carry the Vitamin C-friendly variant and in some African countries, it is as high as 70 percent. In the US, 41 percent of Whites carry this variant, compared to 55 percent of Blacks, and only 31 percent of Asians.

There is also preliminary evidence to suggest that vitamin D supplements at high doses might help protect against becoming infected with COVID-19 or limiting serious symptoms. How might this relate to people of African ancestry? Blacks as a population group have markedly low levels of vitamin D. 

Yet in a paradox, people of African ancestry who take Vitamin D supplements get no skeletal benefits from taking supplements. Their bones are naturally less brittle than those of other populations. Black Americans, for example, have significantly fewer incidences of falls, fractures or osteopenia compared to White Americans. 

Could the factors that naturally protect the bone health of Blacks also protect them against more serious COVID symptoms? At the moment, there are no clear explanations for the vitamin D ‘Black paradox,’ but scientists we talked to say there may be some genetic factors at play.

Genetics cuts multiple ways – it can protect or increase vulnerabilities, or do both at the same time

Are Black Americans and those of African descent in general less genetically susceptible to some viruses or diseases other than COVID-19? The evidence is fragmentary. Contradicting racist early 20th century theories that ‘frail’ Blacks are more susceptible to disease, during the 1918 pandemic the incidence of influenza was significantly lower in African Americans

And according to one 2016 study of swine flus, when exposed to flu, “African Americans mounted higher virus neutralizing and IgG antibody responses to the H1N1 component of IIV3 or 4 compared to Caucasians”. 

The relationship of genes to disease is often convoluted. Populations of African descent simultaneously are more prone to sickle cell anaemia (particularly prevalent south of the Sahara) and have natural, genetic-based defenses against malaria. This connection was noted over 50 years ago. 

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And in a tragic twist, some genetic variants thought to reduce susceptibility to malaria are believed to increase vulnerability to the HIV virus. While fear of AIDS has receded in the West and in developing countries in Africa, HIV still infects tens of millions of people, with hundreds of thousands dying of the disease each year, mostly in Africa. Adult HIV prevalence is 1.2 percent worldwide but 9 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. 

In the US, where the national rate is 0.6 percent, African Americans, account for 42 percent of new HIV infections despite being only 12 percent of the population. It’s now believed that a gene variant common in some African and African diaspora populations that protects against certain types of malaria increases susceptibility to HIV infection by 40 percent. 

If this is indeed the case, it is an example of genes conferring both benefits and liabilities as populations evolved and moved around in different eras in different environments. In ancestral environments, malaria was the force selecting for variants that provided partial immunity; in the modern environment, HIV may be the force selecting against those unfortunate enough to carry these genetics might partly explain the apparent reduced severity of COVID-19 in Africa.

Patrick Whittle has a PhD in philosophy and is a New Zealand-based freelance writer with a particular interest in the social and political implications of biological science. Follow him on his website or on Twitter @WhittlePM

Jon Entine is the founding editor of the Genetic Literacy Project, and winner of 19 major journalism awards. He has written extensively in the popular and academic press on population genetics, including two best-sellers, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It; and Abraham’s Children: Race, Genetics and the DNA of The Chosen People. Follow him on Twitter @JonEntine

Viewpoint: New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof echoes scientifically dubious fears about falling sperm counts and ‘endocrine disrupting’ chemicals

The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof has shown an admirable commitment over the years towards highlighting under-reported stories. He fights for the underdog, often in the developing world. That’s all the more reason why his recent column, What are sperm telling us?”, was so disappointing.

The article, one of the most read stories on the paper’s website for more than a week, focuses on a four-year old study that has been seized on to promote a theory about why sperm counts are falling and egg quality shows signs of decline. It’s an important issue. Kristof sub-heads his column with what he believes is the smoking gun: Endocrine-disrupting chemicals may be the problem.”

As an epidemiologist who has spent my entire career studying chemicals and their effects on human health, that’s a problematic theory, at best. Kristof’s commentary, and in fact the research that he selectively cities, tell only part of a complex story about the impact of exposure to environmental chemicals. Rather than conveying the grays of science, he ends up promoting the most sensational, almost black and white, and least probable explanations of a serious environmental and health issue.

How do Kristof’s experts portray the science?

At issue is a 2017 meta-analysis of studies examining sperm counts in different countries. The study, spearheaded by Shanna Swan, an environmental scientist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, reported that from 1973 to 2011 the sperm count of men in Western countries had fallen by 59 percent. In contrast, no significant decline was seen in other parts of the world (however fewer studies were available from these regions). The results of this high-quality analysis confirmed earlier, but less reliable, reports of falling sperm counts. In addition, the results showed that the trend is continuing.

Kristof wrote a remarkably similar column about the meta-analysis, “Are Your Sperm in Trouble,” when it first came out. The selective evidence he chose to feature painted a distorted picture of the science, as I pointed out in a column in Forbes:

“The question of sperm quality has been a focus of scientific discussion for over twenty-five years, and a wealth of serious, well-conducted studies provide no support for the claim that male reproductive function is under threat. What is in trouble is our ability to look beyond isolated results from studies that are held up to inspire fear but that are, at best, difficult to interpret and, at worst, meaningless.”

– Geoffrey Kabat, 2017 Forbes column

Kristof’s recent column reprises but doesn’t advance his thesis by interviewing four scientists who believe that evidence points to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which mimic the body’s hormones, disrupting normal developmental processes, as the culprit.

One of those scientists is Professor Swan, who was the senior author on the 2017 meta-analysis. As it not-so-coincidentally happens, she has just published a book with the clinically detached title: Count Down: How our modern world is threatening sperm counts, altering male and female reproductive development, and imperiling the future of the human race.”

Shanna Swan. Credit: Mizzou Visual Productions

Presumably echoing Swan, Kristof tells us that, “These endocrine disruptors are everywhere: plastics, shampoos, cosmetics, cushions, canned foods and A.T.M receipts. They often aren’t on the labels and can be difficult to avoid.” Swan’s ‘practical suggestions for reducing exposure to EDCs are eye-opening:

“Store food in glass containers, not plastic. Above all, don’t microwave foods in plastic or with plastic wrap on top. Avoid pesticides. Buy organic produce if possible. Avoid tobacco or marijuana. Use a cotton or linen shower curtain, not one made of vinyl. Don’t use air fresheners. Prevent dust buildup. Vet consumer products you use with an online guide like that of the  Environmental Working Group.”

This list is noteworthy for combining the impractical: don’t use plastic containers; with the impossible: buy organic and avoid pesticides (which are used by all farmers, conventional and organic). Some of the advice is simply ridiculous: don’t use a plastic shower curtain (exactly how many endocrine-disrupting molecules are off-gassing from your vinyl shower curtain?).

It’s also troubling that Kristof and Swan tout the Environmental Working Group, an environmental advocacy group funded in part by the organic industry [read the GLP Profile of the Environmental Working Group]. EWG is notorious for not following standard protocols for measurement of pesticide residues in produce. It is also notorious for putting out an annual “Dirty Dozenlist of ‘pesticide soaked’ fruits and vegetables that is widely decried as scientifically illiterate (here, here, here), including by the USDA, during the Obama Administration.

The dose poisons the reporting

In addition to Swan, Kristof brings in three other scientists, all strong proponents of the belief that EDCs are responsible for a number of apparent trends in reproductive health, including the declining age of onset of puberty in girls, an increase in male reproductive anomalies, an increase in testicular cancer, as well as falling sperm counts.

It is a telltale sign that, at no point in his article or in any quote from the experts he interviewed, is the theory of EDCs ever explained; it’s presented as if it is established science, which it is not. Nor do the scientists address a fundamental tenet of toxicology: the dose makes the poison. In fact, the notion of the dose of exposure to EDCs is not even mentioned.

This oversight is an almost universal feature of reporting of low-level environmental hazards in the media. Scientists know that it is the dose, in conjunction with the potency of a substance, that determines its effects. But there is a complicity or sloppy ignorance between scientists, eager to get exposure for their work, and journalists in ignoring this crucial fact.

In reality, biomonitoring of populations indicates that, while exposure to certain chemicals may be detectable in children and adults using modern, ultra-sensitive analytic methods that find traces in the parts per million, billion, or even trillion (akin to one grain of sand in an Olympic sized swimming pool), we are essentially talking about micro-trace amounts that have no health impact.

The single-minded belief of true believers among scientists and the media that they know what is causing highly complex and varied phenomena, while reinforcing the public’s fear of trace exposures to “chemicals,” effectively obscures a much more complex, and not nearly as lurid, picture.

What activist scientists and journalists are not reporting

Missing from Kristof’s column is any understanding that the scientists he quotes are not representative of views in the scientific community. A very different picture emerges when one listens to some of the foremost authorities in the field of reproductive health.

Richard Sharpe is in the Medical Research Council at Edinburgh University and one of the world’s foremost endocrinologists. He is the research scientist who originated the notion and study of ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’ in the 1990s.

Richard Sharpe. Credit: University of Edinburgh

Over the years, after participating in and reviewing hundreds of studies on EDCs, he is convinced the concept is wrongheaded—an ideological belief and not science based. Speaking to The Guardian, he stressed the lamentable degree of our ignorance concerning the array of factors influencing healthy male reproductive development due to a lack of research investment.

“We need a critical mass of scientists trying to find out what is happening and why it is happening. Unfortunately, we still do not have that. Not enough research is being done. Yet I believe the problem is getting worse.”

On what might be causing the decline in sperm counts, Sharpe added: “Given that we still do not know what lifestyle, dietary or chemical exposures might have caused this decrease, research efforts to identify (them) need to be redoubled and to be non-presumptive as to cause.”

After interviewing Sharpe in 2017, the science journalist Philip Ball wrote that, “Sharpe suspects that diet, lifestyle, medications and environmental chemicals all play roles, possibly in that order.

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Sharpe’s analysis, unlike Swan’s is entirely mainstream. As Professor Allan Pacey of Sheffield University commented, “Almost every aspect of modern life, from mobile phones to smoking and oral contraceptives [contaminating drinking water], has been blamed for declining sperm counts, but no convincing evidence has emerged to link any of them to the problem.

Kristof’s column exemplifies a deep-seated split in the area of environmental epidemiology and toxicology. On the one hand are scientists who take a broad view of normal reproductive development in order to understand where the process might go awry, leading to various pathologies. As this is science in shades of gray rather than black-or-white, this perspective is often not widely reported. After reviewing hundreds of studies over more than two decades investigating possible effects of EDCs, the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded, “limited evidence exists for the potential of chemicals to cause these effects in humans at environmental exposure levels.”

On the other hand are researchers, primarily research toxicologists, who view most pathologic conditions through the lens of exposure to EDCs, ignoring or downplaying the possibility that many other maternal exposures during pregnancy with much greater effects (obesity, smoking, sedentary behavior, intake of a calorie-dense diet, use of medications, etc.) are playing a role. This is a scientifically hazy and unprovable claim despite decades of research, but it captures the imagination of journalists and ultimately of many politicians and regulators.

Unfortunately, by leveraging the media (and often partnering with tort lawyers), these ‘advocacy scientists’ generate massive reams of dubious-quality research, sucking up the bulk of public funding that should be devoted to the more difficult work of elucidating the complex pathways of healthy reproductive development.

Geoffrey Kabat is a cancer epidemiologist and the author of Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks. Find Geoffrey on Twitter @GeoKabat

cusion marrige b

Why cousin marriages can wreak genetic havoc on children

If you ever want to see some fascinating genetic disorders, you should all travel to Pakistan.

This is how my genetics professor started off her workshop class with us, during one of the courses in my postgraduate degree in the UK. The workshop dealt with the challenge of examining a particular genetic disorder – and searching for its probable roots. During the course of the workshop, she offered a range of cases, including a family with six children, four of whom suffered from depression, schizophrenia or hearing problems. Of the 10 cases she shared with us, five of them were Pakistani patients and all of them came from cousin marriages.

In more technical language, these are called consanguineous marriages – unions between individuals that are related to each other as either second cousins or closer. There are different degrees of consanguinity, where the first-degree is your parent or your child, a second-degree relationship includes siblings, grandparents and grandchildren, third-degree has aunts/uncles, nieces/nephews, great-grandparents while the fourth-degree also includes first cousins.

These unions hold the potential to create significant genetic issues in nations such as Pakistan, where a recent study estimated that more than 60 percent of the population carries out such marriages. The situation has prompted lawmakers there to pass new legislation aimed at forcing related couples to seek genetic screenings to fight the rising incidence of a hereditary blood disorder and to raise awareness about the dangers of cousin marriages.

Under the Roman civil law, individuals were forbidden to marry anyone within the four degrees. Because of that, cousin marriages started interchangeably being used with inbreeding or incest and therefore became less common in the west. The same beliefs were not pushed in parts of South Asia and the Middle East, where Islam was the predominant religion and only restricted marriages to the third degree. Thereby cousin marriages not only became a common practice but in time also became a cultural norm that is now actively promoted and preferred in most of those regions.

From a genetics standpoint, the link between these cousin marriages and increased risk of genetic disorders in the offspring of such marriages has become strong. The reason for that is in the laws of probabilities. The causes behind the differences between individuals, is mostly due to recombination of genes during the process of meiosis in cells. Other than that, mutational events and independent assortments also cause genetic variations, that differs one individual from the other. However, these variations are of a very small percentage as all humans share roughly 99 percent of their genomes with others. It’s the approximate one percent that brings about the differences between us.

Looking at the average DNA that is shared among relatives, a person shares 50 percent of their DNA with their parents and 50 percent with their siblings. As the degrees shift from 1st to 4th, the percentage of shared DNA drops whereby you end up sharing 12.5 percent of your DNA with your first-cousins.

That shared DNA is significant when those cousins inter-marry. The problem is that the common gene pool from which genetic variation arises becomes smaller and smaller the more one marries within a family. And through such restricted genetic pools, the recessive genes that cause autosomal recessive disorders become dominant and get expressed in the offspring.

The chance of carrying a dangerous allele is slim. However, in these marriages, both cousins share the same set of grandparents. If one grandparent carries a dangerous allele, then there is a 50 percent chance the child of the grandparent (cousin’s parent) becomes a carrier. This increases the chance that the offspring of the cousin will get two copies of the dangerous allele.

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According to various published studies, a variety of disorders have been linked to this breeding practice, including congenital heart disease, blood diseases such as hemophilia and thalassemia, deafness, cystic fibrosis, breast cancer and depression.

Looking at hemophilia in a closer light, the link between this blood disorder and the royal British family has been widely discussed. Royal families were notorious for their cousin marriages (or interbreeding) in order to preserve their lineage and to keep the royal blood ‘pure’. However, the consequences of such interbreeding were devastating, as seen elsewhere in Europe.

Consider the Habsburg  family of Spain. The family possessed the gene for mandibular prognathism, a genetic disorder that causes the lower jaw to outgrow the upper jaw leading to a pronounced chin. In the Habsburg family, this condition persisted and kept getting more pronounced through generations of interbreeding. The condition became so pronounced in Charles II of Spain that he was not able to chew his own food. Along with this deformity, there were a number of other genetic, physical and intellectual problems that he faced. What this tells us is that the condition existed within the genetic makeup of the Habsburg family and became continually worse through interbreeding.

habsburg jaw of charles ii
Charles II of Spain. Image: Wikipedia.

That is the case with how rare recessive disorders show up in the offspring of interbreeding families, primarily because of the restrictions it places on the available gene pool. And yet, the genetic downside of these unions doesn’t weigh against the cultural and societal positives that such cousin marriages seemingly bring for families, particularly in the Middle Eastern and South Asian region.

The main reason behind the popularity of cousin marriage is two-fold. First, it provides financial security by assuring that property or monetary assets stay within a family. Second, it offers personal security for parents who want to see their sons or daughters married to trusted spouses, rather than strangers. This especially holds true in the rural areas of Pakistan where there is limited education and awareness regarding the harms of cousin marriages. Before people can understand that marrying one’s cousin can be harmful to their offspring, they need to first understand what genetics is, how diseases can get passed within the family and how this knowledge can empower their choices and decisions.

One step towards this awareness was taken by news of a legislative bill being passed by the Pakistani government, regarding the blood disorder Thalassemia.  The bill now makes it mandatory for a Thalassemia screening test to be taken by couples before they can get married. The hereditary disorder causes an excessive destruction of red blood cells leading to anemia. In Pakistan alone the rate of being a carrier for this disorder is 3 to 5 percent. It is estimated that approximately 10 million people in Pakistan suffer from this disorder. The hope is that through the mandatory screening, a solid prevention method will not only halt this disorder from being continuously passed on but will also raise awareness regarding hereditary disorders themselves.

This is a crucial step taken by the country, a step needed towards a goal that ultimately gets the message across regarding the importance of preventing the spread of genetic disorders. These marriages aren’t the root cause of these various genetic disorders. But they are responsible for the increased risk of developing these disorders. And if those risks can be lowered, numerous cases of offspring’s born with deformities or cases of fetal mortality can also finally be managed.

Mariam Sajid has a masters degree in molecular genetics and is passionate about improving medical communications that aims to effectively translates scientific advancements to the public. Follow her on her blog.

This article was originally published at the GLP on April 10, 2019. 

Witch Hunt for Alternative Practitioners

Podcast: GMO ‘terminator’ seeds debunked; ‘Alternative medicine’ harms women; Cancer-fighting CRISPR beer?

Anti-GMO advocates have for years warned about the dangers of genetically modified, sterile “terminator” seeds. But there’s a problem: these seeds never existed. Why are women disproportionately attracted to ‘alternative’ cancer therapies that have little impact on the disease? Speaking of cancer, could beer made with CRISPR-edited hops one day offer a novel treatment?

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:

As recently as 2019, anti-GMO groups were warning Africa’s farmers that so-called “terminator” seeds would make them dependent on giant agricultural companies like Bayer. That allegation has circulated online for roughly two decades, but it’s never been true. No biotech company ever commercialized terminator seeds, more accurately known as genetic use restriction technology (GURT). It’s true that researchers at the USDA and a smaller company called Delta Land and Pine patented the technology, but it was shelved amid all the controversy, and the patent expired in 2015 with no fanfare.

It’s well known that alternative cancer treatments offer little benefit to patients who receive them, yet the internet teems with anecdotes from highly educated, successful women promoting “energy healing” and coffee enemas instead of conventional therapies like radiation. Why is there such enthusiastic support for treatments that have been shown repeatedly to be mostly ineffective?

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The answer is no doubt complicated, but one explanation appears to run through many of these stories. Women who feel powerless in their fight against cancer embrace experimental or even dangerous alternatives in hopes of regaining some control over their lives. Research shows the problem may be compounded by postmodernism and other popular ideologies that promote radical skepticism and prize personal experience over scientific evidence.

Scientists in Europe have developed a method to edit hops with the new breeding technique CRISPR-Cas9. The discovery could be used to regulate the production of chemical compounds naturally occurring in hops called prenylated flavonoids, initially to improve the flavor of different beers and maybe one day to help combat cancer. Some of these compounds have been show to have anti-cancer properties in preliminary research, but whether we’ll ever have cancer-fighting beer remains to be seen.

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

GMO salmon two months from introduction: AquaBounty fights anti-biotechnology misinformation as it gears up for April launch of fast-growing, sustainable AquAdvantage salmon

AquaBounty’s genetically engineered, fast-growing salmon could be sold at US restaurants and grocery stores as soon as this April. The debut would end a 26-year saga during which the development of the AquAdvantage salmon faced challenging science, foot-dragging by federal regulators, intense lobbying by anti-biotechnology groups and flagging salmon demand in the wake of COVID-19.

CEO Sylvia Wulf told reporters on February 23 that efforts to commercialize its AquAdvantage salmon are moving forward despite these hindrances. The company plans to produce 100 metric tons of fish per month at its Indiana facility.

Sylvia Wulf

Will consumers buy GM fish?

AquaBounty’s fish is an Atlantic salmon with two added genetic elements: a Chinook salmon growth hormone gene and an on-off switch from the ocean pout, another edible fish. The modifications make the salmon grow through the winter, unlike conventional salmon. Only females are produced for consumption, and they are rendered sterile.

Salmon is America’s second favorite seafood, trailing only shrimp. Americans consume about 794 million pounds of the pink fish each year, about 2.4 pounds per person. More than 650 million pounds of US-consumed salmon is imported, a huge sustainability drag say many environmentalists, noting the fossil fuels used to import the fish. Besides its ecological advantages, the AquAdvantage salmon could lead to lower salmon prices and an increase in consumption of the heart-healthy food.

85 grocery chains, seafood companies, restaurants, and food service companies, including distribution giant Aramark, have pledged not to sell AquAdavantage salmon, fueling speculation that were would be no market for the new fish. Wulf responded that many of those pledges go back to 2013 and cited recent survey data showing that seven out of 10 consumers were open to purchasing GM salmon after learning about its sustainability benefits.

Credit: AquaBounty

The company has stressed its commitment to transparency, a theme Wulf emphasized throughout her presentation. She said AquaBounty would label its salmon as a genetically engineered product so consumers could make an informed choice. But, she noted, “consumers need to make an informed choice based on accurate information.”

AquaBounty takes environmental concerns about its fish very seriously, Wulf maintained. The company says it has taken extensive measures to prevent escape from its land-based facilities, one on Prince Edward Island in Canada and another in Indiana. “In 20 years, we’ve never had an escape,” she added. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), both facilities are outfitted with “more than adequate” security measures:

Containment measures can include the use of mechanical devices, either stationary or moving (e.g., tanks, screens, filters, covers, nets, etc.), or in some cases, the use of lethal temperatures or chemicals to prevent uncontrolled escape. All production units in the facility will have a minimum of five independent levels of physical containment (i.e., barriers) preventing escape of eggs or fish via effluent flow paths to the outside environment …. and some of the production units will have six or seven barriers in place. This number of containment levels is more than adequate and greater than the number at most fish production facilities.

Regulatory and advocacy group hurdles

Environmental activists have targeted AquaBounty for years, launching their opposition just after the company initiated its application to commercialize in 1995. By 2004, it had assembled its “data package,” but the path to approval was never entirely clear. Finally in 2008, the Bush administration decided that transgenic animals intended for the dinner table would be regulated as animal drugs by the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.

In an attempt to derail approval, GMO opponents cited a 1999 study concluding that modified fish that grow extra large would have a competitive advantage, threatening extinction of conventional varieties. But AquaBounty didn’t engineer the salmon to grow larger than conventional fish; rather it grows faster, reducing input costs and its environmental footprint. There is no chance, independent scientists say, that released salmon would win a Darwinian war in open waters with wild salmon—the so-called Trojan gene effect. After years of review, in September 2010, the FDA released a long-awaited comprehensive guidance analysis that found the salmon environmentally benign and safe for human consumption. The agency concluded the AquAdvantage salmon is comparable to the traditional variety in every measurable way.

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For nearly two years, AquaBounty held its breath, anticipating the FDA green light. The regulatory logjam finally broke in December 2012 after an investigative report by GLP’s Jon Entine, published simultaneously in Slate and the GLP, revealed the FDA had green lighted the fish the prior April. The agency had given the salmon a preliminary “finding of no significant impact” on the environment, but advocacy groups had successfully, and illegally, convinced White House officials to put a hold on releasing the stamped report.

“Within days of the expected public release of the EA [environmental assessment] this spring, the application was frozen,” wrote Entine. “The delay, sources within the government say, came after meetings with the White House, which was debating the political implications of approving the GM salmon, a move likely to infuriate a portion of its base.” According to Slate, which updated its report after the White House dropped its illegal hold:

screen shot at pm

Hours after the stories were published, according to FDA sources, the White House lifted its hold. On December 23, two days after the exposé appeared, the FDA finally released the environmental assessment, one of the final stages in what could be the first federal approval of a genetically modified animal in the United States.

An extended public consultation and numerous court filings delayed the final approval for almost another decade. The FDA ultimately approved AquAdvantage salmon in 2015. Federal regulation pushed by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, which she claimed was necessary to protect Alaska fishermen, even though the different types of salmon are not seen as competitors, further slowed the approval process. The Center for Food Safety [read GLP profile of CFS here], which has led the activist opposition for two decades, further slowed the progress to commercialization. A 2016 import alert prohibited AquaBounty from bringing salmon eggs into the US from its first salmon farm, a 90,000 square foot facility in Canada on Prince Edward Island, until early 2019, after the USDA released its GMO labeling guidelines. AquaBounty opened its second farm, a 122,000 feet farm in northeast Indiana, last year.

In November 2020, a federal judge in the suit brought by CFS “ordered the agency to reconsider the environmental assessment for the salmon,” ruling that the FDA had failed to fully assess the risk of the fish escaping, though he did not withdraw the agency’s original approval. Wulf said the FDA is currently reviewing its environmental assessment, but AquaBounty doesn’t expect the process to hinder its April launch date.

Wulf reiterated that the salmon are all sterile females, a trait the company can test for before a commercial batch of eggs leaves its farming facility on PEI. AquaBounty deliberately chose to pursue a business model, she added, and has no plans to build ocean-based fish farms. From start to finish, she said, the company’s production process is “safe, secure, sustainable.”

Credit: AquaBounty

The salmon will hit markets later than anticipated only last year. Following the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, demand for salmon dropped, eliminating the need for another supplier and pushing the company’s harvest back a year. But AquaBounty doesn’t anticipate any further delays, and this week began harvesting the first samples of its salmon for 8-10 customers who have expressed interest in the product.

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

Jon Entine is the executive director of Genetic Literacy Project. Follow him on Twitter @JonEntine

Viewpoint: Eco-hypocrisy—Mexico bans GM corn and glyphosate to promote sustainability while subsidizing fossil fuels

Imagine for a moment that the US government banned smart phones and tablets and forced everyone to use home telephones and desktop computers. Adding insult to injury, the government said it was forcing you to rely on these outmoded technologies for your own good. What really happened was that politicians were duped by a coalition of anti-technology activists who believe ‘Big Smart Phone’ was forcing its dangerous devices on consumers to boost its profits at the expense of public health.

This policy would inconvenience just about everyone, but with so many people working remotely today, it would almost certainly hinder our productivity and thus compromise our living standards. 

This scenario may sound outlandish, but it’s playing out in Mexico as you read this article. The only difference is that government officials, many of whom are well-known environmental activists, are working to ban genetically engineered crops and the herbicide glyphosate, instead of phones and tablets. The Lopez-Obrador administration is doing this ostensibly to promote sustainable farming, but it’s really just jeopardizing Mexican farmers’ access to eco-friendly, innovative seeds and pesticides that will be essential in the coming decades.

The outdated farming techniques the government is forcing growers to revert to simply can’t produce enough food to feed a growing population, 126,000,000 Mexicans and counting, so all of the modern tools provided by science are needed to sustainably grow the crops Mexico needs. If these proposals are not rescinded, the country could end up facing a food crisis.

Blocking innovation

Over the last two years, the Mexican government has gradually ratcheted up its restrictions on vital technologies. According to the USDA’s most recent annual Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN) report, Mexico has not approved any biotechnology food or feed products since May 2018. Additionally, in 2019, Mexico halted imports of the weedkiller glyphosate and rejected all new permit applications from farmers who wanted to cultivate glyphosate-tolerant GE cotton, the only genetically engineered crop planted in the country. The denial of cultivation permits and dwindling glyphosate stocks have resulted in an estimated 36 percent decrease in the area of GE cotton planted in Mexico in 2020, a tragic development in what had been a dramatic success story. Widespread GE cotton adoption helped save Mexico’s textile industry, which previously suffered the crushing effects of diminished crop yields caused by pink bollworm infestations. By incorporating GE seed as part of a bilateral agreement with the US, Mexico eradicated the stubborn pest from its farms.

Now it seems there is no place in the country for GE cotton, though it has a long safety record. The crop has not been officially banned, but the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) has consistently rejected all applications to grow GE cotton since 2019, meaning that producers only have access to a few old GE cotton seed varieties that are not suitable for all growing areas. The USDA reported that additional GE cotton seed planting permits were requested for 2021, but SEMARNAT has so far issued no response to these applications.

Banning existing GE crops

The story is much the same for other crops. Existing restrictions on GE varieties in Mexico are the result of years of lobbying by regional and international environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Organic Consumers Association. For years Mexican farmers successfully cultivated GE soybean, for example, but since 2013 no new applications for the environmental release of GE soybean have been approved, thanks to a strong environmental movement that pressures regulators to block access to the technology. This policy has made Mexico one of the largest importers of GE soybean worldwide.

The situation not only affects farmers and consumers but also crop scientists, who have had their hands tied by research funding cuts. This dearth of investment means that Mexico currently has no GE plants under development that would be commercialized within the next five years, according to the USDA.

2021 brings more bad news

Things got worse in early 2021. As part of the Lopez-Obrador administration’s goal to achieve food production self-sufficiency, the Mexican government issued a decree that banned genetically engineered corn cultivation and initiated a three-year phase out of imports. The decree also mandated a phase out of glyphosate over the same time period, though experts have said for decades the weedkiller is safe to use.

The organic industry eagerly welcomed this decree. “It’s a huge victory,” Homero Blas, head of Mexico’s Organic Producer’s Society, told Reuters, arguing that the ban would stop the contamination of native corn varieties and prevent the use of dangerous pesticides. These kinds of talking points resonate with the public, but that doesn’t make them true—Mexico already has rules to safeguard native corn varieties—nor does it negate the impact of the ban. Mexico relies on imports of yellow corn from the US to feed cattle, over 90% of which is transgenic (GE). In fact, Mexico was the top destination for US corn exports in 2019, receiving about $2.7 billion worth of shipments, roughly 18 million tons annually.

In an interview with Reuters, Laura Tamayo, spokeswoman for Mexico’s National Farm Council, summed up the frustration of producers around the country, declaring that “the lack of access to production options puts us at a disadvantage compared to our competitors, such as corn farmers in the US.” Additionally, she added, “the imports of GM grain from the US are essential for many producers in the agri-food chain.”

The key problem is that the decree doesn’t detail how Mexico might replace the imports. If GE technology is banned, there is no way to locally produce the corn that is usually imported. This shrinks the food supply and raises prices, ultimately punishing ordinary Mexicans who are trying to feed their families. As a result, Food processing reported, Mexican ranchers and other consumers of imported GM corn are trying to get the Mexican government to back off the ban.

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Double standards

Scientists like myself can’t help but take a cynical view of the situation. The glyphosate and GE corn bans take full effect in 2024, the same year that Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) leaves office. He gets to take credit for “protecting” the environment and promoting food “self-sufficiency”; his successor gets to deal with the fallout of his policies. Experts have also pointed out that AMLO has prioritized investment in fossil fuels over renewable energy, and done little else to cut the nation’s carbon emissions.

These measures to ban GE corn (in addition to the current restrictions on GE crops in the country) and glyphosate raise further doubts about the president’s sincerity, since there is solid scientific evidence showing that biotech crops and glyphosate help reduce carbon emissions and promote sustainable farming in various ways, as was recently reported by science writer Mark Lynas. Referencing a Breakthrough Institute analysis, Lynas reported that “Europe’s refusal to permit farmers to cultivate genetically engineered crops led to avoidable emission of millions of tons of climate-damaging carbon dioxide, 33 million tons of CO2 per year.”

Legal challenges from Mexican farm groups and exporters who sell into Mexico may very well reverse the politically motivated bans. But the task should not have fallen to them. The proper role of every government is to promote the welfare of its citizens, and ensuring they have enough to eat is essential to that charge. Mexico could promote genuine food security and self-sufficiency by granting its farmers access to technologies that strengthen the food supply chain. Instead, the administration has been captured by anti-GMO activists who operate with little concern for Mexican farmers and consumers.

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

Can anything be done to counter anti-vaccination activists?

Recently, anti-vaxxers protests shut down the mass vaccination program underway at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. In Israel, the global poster child for a successful vaccination program, anti-vaxxers are making vaccine appointments, then canceling them at the last moment – causing needless waste of a still precious commodity. They’re also making threatening robocalls warning parents that the vaccine causes illness and death, using false statistics to back themselves up.

What, if anything, can be done?

Much of the anti-vax message is disseminated on social media – along with death threats to pro-vaccine proponents and assaults on public health officials trying to increase vaccine uptake. Facebook and Twitter say they are restricting these messages. Youtube has taken down some anti-vax videos. But much misinformation remains. Nor is social media the only deployment vehicle. Conferences and pamphlets and robocalls are prime transmission vehicles, along with websites. So, even if we could remove Robert F Kennedy Jr. from Twitter and Facebook, as Dr. Berezow advocates, Kennedy-Jr’s website, Children’s Health Defense, for example, contains some pretty egregious stuff that would elude social media regulation.

Consider the article on the website by Claire Dwoskin (a wealthy funder of the anti-vax movement) regarding the apparent effects of autism and aluminum – sometimes used as a preservative in vaccines. Dwoskin reports that “[a]breakthrough study … has been published … demonstrating that significant correlations exist between rates of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and total aluminum adjuvants given to children through vaccines in several Western countries.”  Reader, please note that this “study,” was done in mice.

According to Dwoskin, the “research” evaluated the social interaction of mice as a marker of a “key feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder” in humans — social interaction. How? By measuring rodent sniffing!  The researchers found that mice injected with aluminum spent more time sniffing an empty cage than a  “stranger mouse” in a different cage. They concluded that this showed “showed diminished social interest…” at least in the world of rodents. Nevertheless, they admitted that:

“…this study alone cannot make any substantive claims regarding the link between aluminum and ASD in humans.”

But Dwoskin doesn’t tell us this. Instead, she blithely asserts, in a leap of faith – that the study “demonstrate[es] that significant correlations exist between rates of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and total aluminum adjuvants given to children through vaccines in several Western countries, and … that aluminum adjuvants can impair social behavior if applied in the early period of postnatal development.”

It gets worse.

Attempting to further the false aluminum-autism/social impairment narrative, the Kennedy Jr. website reports on another experiment, this one seeking to demonstrate the aluminum adjuvant caused increasing anxiety and compulsive disorders in vaccinated children. This study was done in sheep.

After observing sheep repeatedly vaccinated or administered an aluminum adjuvant, the researchers reported that the sheep suffered depression. How do you identify depression in sheep? By a “lack of response to stimuli, stupor,… and lethargy…..”

Sleepy sheep. Credit: Flickr

This finding, “intermixed with periods of excitement, restlessness, polyphagia, and increased aggressiveness, especially compulsive wool biting between animals. … [along with] pacing relentlessly and overeating,” lead the researchers to conclude that in addition to depression, the sheep suffered anxiety. And because the exposed sheep were more anti-social and spent less time lying down than the control sheep, the website author concluded that this “can be used to identify social stress” in these normally gregarious animals, a conclusion she then applies to human children.

Regardless of the study’s significance vis a vis sheep, there is a logical leap between comparing diagnoses of bovine depression and anxiety – even if valid – and connecting aluminum exposure to emotional disorders and autism in children.

Can this rhetoric legally be banned?

Can we legally shut down websites, social media posts, along with conferences and pamphlets that are misleading or actively spouting lies? The short answer is: no – at least not as things stand at present.

  • In the U.S., freedom of speech is hallowed and protected, except for a few discreet categories of speech, such as child pornography or defamation.
  • According to U.S. v. Alvarez, a case holding that a statute prohibiting misrepresenting one’s war record was unconstitutional – you can even publicly lie about such things.
  • Hate speech or speech advocating criminal behavior, e.g., describing how to make a home-made bomb, is allowed – unless it can be tied to imminent incitement to lawlessness. (Brandenburg v Ohio)
  • Emergencies might justify exceptions that allow speech to be shut down– but only if demonstrable harm (which is also illegal) would imminently result from the speech. The harm must be so imminent and the speech so dangerous (something like an actual appeal to physical violence) that nothing short of stopping the speech would prevent the violence. The expression “shouting fire in a crowded theater” conveys the imminence and actual danger required before public speech can be silenced.

Alas, the misinformation and lies of the anti-vaxxers are not exceptions to free speech protections. In other words, for now, anti-vaxxer rhetoric -as harmful and false as it is – is protected under the First Amendment. The prescribed legal remedy is not to silence the misinformation and lies, not less speech or no speech – but more speech – counterspeech – designed to correct it.

The antidote to unfortunate speech is “counterspeech”

If there is time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more free speech, not enforced silence. Only an emergency can justify repression.

— Justice Louis Brandeis, Whitney v. California 274 U.S. 357

Justice Breyer, often considered a liberal of the Court, updated the concept of counterspeech in the 2012 decision involving lying about one’s war record in violation of a statute criminalizing this behavior, which the Court struck down as unconstitutional:

“The Government has not shown, and cannot show, why counterspeech would not suffice to achieve its interest. The facts of this case indicate that the dynamics of free speech, of counterspeech, of refutation, can overcome the lie.”

U.S. v Alvarez 567 U.S. 709

And there it is, free speech, including the right to lie, is protected – because usually there are less restrictive ways to counter a lie than to prohibit its utterance.

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So, is it true – does counterspeech work?

“Misinformation is not a new problem, but it poses particular challenges for infectious disease management when public acceptance is required for prevention behaviors….”

Sadly, a recent study from the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Disease website demonstrated that counterspeech doesn’t work in the context of epidemic control, at least not today.

In this work, Drs. Emily Vraga and Leticia Bode used an on-line social media format, the same social media often cited for its amplification of mistruths, seeking to debunk two related coronavirus myths via infographics produced by the World Health Organization.

  • Taking a hot bath raises body temperature
  • Hot baths prevent coronavirus infection

The first myth was successfully “detoxified,” – changing the participant’s minds and correcting the misinformation.

The second myth relates to preventative measures, and here the counterspeech efforts failed. Respondents persisted in their belief in idiosyncratic, non-science-based treatment modalities, even after the “science” behind it was debunked.

Belief in such “alternative” treatments, by implication, preempts uptake of vaccines and scientifically recognized measures like social distancing and masking. In fact, anti-vax conferences and websites are prime venues for selling alternative “natural” cures that appeal to anti-vax adherents.

“Some research suggests that corrections fade over time, and the myth could actually be reinforced through an illusory truth effect of seeing misinformation repeated.”

The study’s authors also suggest vaccine myths may be reinforced by the frequency of exposure to that message. Moreover, the algorithms of social media drive us towards those who share our views in a way that media, before the amplification by computers and bots, could not accomplish.

It has oft been said that the law lags behind the science. The time has come to accept the reality – the counterspeech envisioned by great jurists of our past is ineffective in today’s 24/7/365 world of social media and the internet. Perhaps we should do something about it – that is if we want to preserve public health.

Dr. Barbara Pfeffer Billauer, JD MA (Occ. Health) Ph.D. is Professor of Law and Bioethics in the International Program in Bioethics of the University of Porto and Research Professor of Scientific Statecraft at the Institute of World Politics in Washington DC. Find Barbara on Twitter @BBillauer

A version of this article was originally posted at the American Council on Science and Health website and has been reposted here with permission. The American Council on Science and Health can be found on Twitter @ACSHorg

Viewpoint: Challenging organic myths — Big Ag doesn’t ‘control the food supply’ with patented GMO seeds, patented seeds are planted on organic farms, too

It’s not supposed to be like this. Activists and advocacy groups who support organic food and deride anything genetically modified point to patenting as one reason why GMOs are “bad.” Patenting of seeds, they say, is a symptom of control by “Big Ag,” which is taking over our food supply and preventing farmers from planting the seeds they want. The use of patented seeds, they claim, flies in the face of biodiversity that only organic agriculture can provide.

Global Research, an anti-GMO website, makes the familiar case:screen shot at am

Why have we bought into the biotech industry’s program, which pushes a few monoculture commodity crops, when history and science have proven that seed biodiversity is essential for growing crops capable of surviving severe climate conditions, such as drought and floods? As physicist and environmentalist Vandana Shiva explains, we have turned seed, which is the heart of a traditional diversity-rich farming system across the world, into a powerful commodity, used to monopolize the food system.

Are patented seeds corrupting the market for organics?

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that Global Research’s central source, Indian activist Vandana Shiva is not a physicist, although she claims to be; she has a Ph.D. in philosophy and has no practicing or research background in hard science, let alone genetics or agronomy. Let’s examine her claim, echoed by others, that patented seeds allow large corporations to impose genetically modified crops on the world to ‘control the global food system’ at the expense of organic farming and food.

While there are regulatory entities in place to monitor how plants are grown and how foods grown from them are labeled, such as the USDA’s National Organic Program, there is no set standard on how the plants are bred. The issue has grown complicated since 1980 when the US Supreme Court allowed patents to be granted for living organisms, including plants. Patents provide ownership of newly created seeds to plant breeders and agribusinesses.


A plant patent is granted by the United States government to an inventor who creates or discovers and reproduces a distinct and new variety of plant. Plants and seeds can be patented if they are defined by a single DNA sequence that has been created either through engineering or conventional breeding (that is irrelevant to the patent). The resultant seeds are then granted a patent that lasts for 20 years. This system applies to conventional seeds (including genetically engineered seeds) and organic seeds. It is in effect around the world. For example, in 2015, the European Union Patent Board granted patents for two plants which had been bred conventionally, but not genetically engineered. These were a tomato (which had low water content) and a broccoli (which had enhanced glucosinolates).

In 1980, a ruling by the US Supreme Court made it possible to patent seeds; how plants are grown is not patentable. As Jim Myers, professor of vegetable breeding and genetics at Oregon State University wrote, “In all but a few cases, all contemporary varieties developed by private breeders are protected, and most public varieties are protected as well.”

Patenting does not appear to have limited the availability of seeds, organic or conventional, most experts agree. “Although the widespread preference for GM seed ensures that there are often more GM choices than non-GM, farmers report a wide variety of both kinds,” noted the Washington Post after talking to many farmers and associations.

screen shot at pm

The US Patent and Trademark Office records every patent ever applied for, granted, and expired. A search for organic seeds comes up dry. Under programs such as the USDA’s National Organic Program, the regulatory focus is primarily on how organics are grown, not the seed used. The same seed, patented or not, can yield either organic or conventional food depending upon the growing system. Organic seeds, which are not patented, are required for organic certification status in the US and Canada, although both countries allow untreated non-organic seeds to be used under certain circumstances. Many organic farmers, particularly outside of North America, start with conventionally bred seeds, often patented, and raise crops from them using organic methods.

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Which organic products are patented?

Some companies and some individuals have patented non-seed items as organic, although patenting is in contradiction to the ideals espoused by anti-GMO activists, who by and large portray patenting as a ‘ploy’ by agribusinesses to ‘control the global food supply.’ Several organic groups are now advocating a concept known as “organic breeding.” Some companies have applied for and received patents for organic plants, if not seeds:

screen shot at pm

Any farmer wanting to use patented fertilizers, fungicides, and other products developed by organic companies would need specific permission from the patent holder (and this permission would almost certainly involve a fee). While only the last application specifically refers to organic methods, the patents contradict the idea promoted by activists that patenting and organics just can’t — and shouldn’t — mix.

Non-patented organic seeds and the myth of heirlooms

Many organic growers use organic seeds, but not all. Some organic growers use conventional, patented and off-patent seeds, often by starting with the same seeds that other farmers use, but growing crops from them using organic methods. Others use seeds claimed to be organic but not certified as such. In Mother Earth News, writer Margaret Roach extolled the value of “high-quality” seeds, which she equated with “organic, regionally adapted varieties.”


Seeds of Change, a California organic seed and plant grower, specifies that it grows its seeds organically (as opposed to using patented organic seeds), does not use genetic engineering and uses heirloom and traditional varieties of seeds and plants “because of their time-tested value to generations of gardeners and farmers.”

While some open-pollinated, or heirloom, varieties can be quite successful, other heirlooms can be a disaster. Old varieties can also preserve inbreeding with the phenotypic feebleness that often accompanies it. It’s just as hard, also, to determine what an heirloom actually is, just as it’s difficult to determine the exact nature of an organic seed.

“The term is one of art more than law, and it is certainly not a term that has any agreed meaning or relevance in patent law,” according to Val Giddings, geneticist and senior fellow with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Heirlooms are open pollinated, which means insects or wind select the parents. Beyond that, the definition is open to dispute and has nothing necessarily to do with quality. By most definitions, a 50-year-old seed that produces a tiny, undesirable tomato is an heirloom. The term is usually applied to fruit, flower or vegetable varieties that were grown before World War II, but not always, and not by regulation.

Some organic seed sellers claim heirloom status for seeds from tomato varieties only 20-30 years old, Giddings noted. Technically, GMOs can be heirlooms. The sweet potato is a natural GMO and you can get seed for it, which means you can have a GMO heirloom.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AMPorterfield

This story was originally published on April 7, 2017.

Podcast: When science and politics collide: How JBS Haldane’s radical views clouded his scientific mind

Speaking with science journalist Samanth Subramanian, author of the recent biography, A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane, Dr Kat Arney explores the life and complex legacy of John Burdon Sanderson Haldane – known as JBS or Jack – whose work, writing and forceful personality made him one of the most interesting characters of 20th century genetics.

As well as being an insightful scientist, fearless self-experimenter and artful communicator, Haldane’s political leanings also affected his approach to science – even at the expense of the scientific rigor that he usually applied to his endeavors.

Following the example of his father, physiologist JS Haldane who experimented on Jack as a boy, JBS Haldane was a fearless self-experimenter, to the point of nearly killing himself and his colleagues. He fought in the trenches in the first world war and was in Spain during the civil war there. He fell out with authority figures and the establishment, was a committed Communist and was suspected of being a spy.

Haldane’s mathematically-minded work in genetics and evolutionary biology set the stage for the way we think about evolution today. He brought intellectual clarity to everything he did, with one notable exception: Haldane’s devotion to the flawed Soviet dogma of Lysenkoism clouded his scientific thinking and set him at odds with his colleagues.

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The last years of Haldane’s life were spent in India – having moved there with 12 jars of live fish for his research! – and his death from cancer in 1964 left a complex legacy of brilliant science, inspiring writing and controversial politics.


Full show notes, transcript, music credits and references online at

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. Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

wheatfarmer lead

Podcast: ‘Greedy’ factory farms? Milk without cows; Vaccine for melanoma

Farms are larger today than ever before, but it’s not because they’re “greedy factory farms.” Milk of the future might not come from cows but yeast fermented in laboratories. An experimental, personalized vaccine for melanoma helped treat eight people suffering from the disease. How long until we start to see cancer vaccines hit the market?

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:

Critics of ‘Big Ag’ are wont to complain about the ever-increasing size of so-called “factory farms.” Is this growth evidence of greedy plutocrats swallowing up their smaller competitors? Not quite, says Canadian farmer Jake Leguee, who points to a less sinister explanation that springs from basic economics.

Following the industrial revolution, the number of farmers dwindled as people moved into cities from the countryside in pursuit of better living standards. Those who remained on the farms, also hoping to live better lives, bought up the abandoned land in order to boost their production and make more money, a trend that will likely continue as long as younger generations are tempted to leave agriculture for other career prospects in urban settings.

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This doesn’t mean modern agriculture is perfect. Complaints that federal farm subsidies discourage innovation and create moral hazards, for example, have persisted for many decades. Nonetheless, the growth in farm size isn’t by itself something to be opposed.

Thanks to fermentation and genetic engineering, animals are no longer the only source of dairy products. The FDA has already approved the use of lab-grown whey protein, used to produce ice cream, and more products—including milk itself—are expected to hit the market in the coming years. The technology is an exciting leap forward for food production, but it also raises some pressing questions. Will lab-grown dairy products face an anti-GMO backlash? Moreover, will environmental groups and dairy farmers, often harsh critics of each other, form an alliance to oppose the technology?

We usually take vaccines to protect ourselves against infectious diseases. But now researchers are developing vaccines designed to boost our immune system’s ability to defeat cancers, including melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer. Combined with existing treatments, personalized cancer immunizations, vaccines developed from tumor cells in individual patients, could help many more people survive a melanoma diagnosis. One such immunization proved effective in a small clinical trial, indicating that vaccines could become a powerful adjunct therapy after additional research.

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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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