With Friends Like These...

When Australia put its head above the parapet to advocate for an international inquiry into the origins of C19 and what mistakes were made, China was quick to tell us to get back in our box, and, as our biggest trading partner, they have plenty of say.

That has now escalated to unofficial trade sanctions, with random obstacles being placed in front of our beef and barley imports. A shot across the bow if you will.

Over at the Financial Times, they have an in-depth look at Trump’s inadequate response to C19 which includes this gem…

Both the US and China have spread outlandish rumours about the other. Some Chinese officials have circulated the groundless conspiracy theory that the US army planted the virus in Wuhan at an athletics event last year. Trump administration officials, including Pompeo, have repeatedly suggested Covid-19 originated from a bat-to-human transmission in Wuhan’s virology lab.

Last month, Australia called for an international inquiry into the disease’s origins. “Australia’s goal was to defuse conspiracy theories in both China and America,” says Michael Fullilove, head of the Lowy Institute, Australia’s largest think-tank.

Days later, Australia’s Daily Telegraph, a tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, ran an apparent scoop that the “five eyes” – the intelligence agencies of the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand – had concluded the disease came from the Wuhan lab, whether by accident or design. It appears the story had no substance. Fauci and other scientists say the pathogen almost certainly came from a wet market in Wuhan. No “five eyes” dossier existed.

According to a five eye senior intelligence officer and a figure close to Australia’s government, the Daily Telegraph story probably came from the US embassy in Canberra. There was no chance after its publication that Beijing would agree to an international probe. The report damaged Australia’s hopes of defusing US-China tensions. “We used to think of America as the world’s leading power, not as the epicentre of disease,” says Fullilove, who is an ardent pro-American. “We increasingly feel caught between a reckless China and a feckless America that no longer seems to care about its allies.”

Cheers, mate.

Notes, May 16th

In The Beginning

Der Speigel has an investigation into the early days of C19, attempting to figure out who knew what when. While it’s clear the Wuhan/Hubei authorities downplayed the severity so as not to affect their People’s Congress and also tried to hide information from Beijing, at this stage it’s less clear which delays originated in Beijing with the intent of keeping the world in the dark.

The most important political events of the year, after all, were imminent. On Jan. 6, a session of the city parliament was set to begin, and the People’s Congress for the Hubei province was to convene on Jan. 11. And it was now that the provincial government also issued an order that entries into the national disease tracking system be made “cautiously.” Entries were to be coordinated not just with the local health authorities, but also with the city and provincial governments.

The authorities were doing all they could to keep both the public and the central government in the dark about the true extent of the epidemic – likely to prevent the disruption of the two parliamentary sessions. It could, however, also have been because they simply didn’t want to spread bad news – especially not to Beijing.

Wasting Time

ABC News reports on the fact that the US Intelligence community was reporting on what became C19 as early as late November, almost a month before the first patient showed up in a Wuhan hospital.

The report was the result of analysis of wire and computer intercepts, coupled with satellite images. It raised alarms because an out-of-control disease would pose a serious threat to U.S. forces in Asia – forces that depend on the NCMI’s work. And it paints a picture of an American government that could have ramped up mitigation and containment efforts far earlier to prepare for a crisis poised to come home.

Despite Trump’s efforts to blame China for everything, it’s pretty clear that he was aware of a potential issue for almost three months before he bothered pretending to do anything about it.

Velociraptors

Jurassic Park is reopening, despite the velociraptors still being loose… ;-)

Now, I understand why some people might be skeptical about reopening an amusement park when there are still blindingly fast, 180-pound predators roaming around. But the fact of the matter is, velociraptors are intelligent, shifty creatures that are not going to be contained any time soon, so we might as well just start getting used to them killing a few people every now and then. Some might argue that we should follow the example of other parks that have successfully dealt with velociraptor escapes. But here at Jurassic Park, we’ve never been ones to listen to the recommendations of scientists, or safety experts, or bioethicists, so why would we start now?

Notes, May 1st

Mutation Tracking

Interesting article from the New York Times on tracking the spread of C19 by looking at genetic mutations in samples from various places.

That combination of old and new mutations suggested that the student did not acquire the coronavirus from someone who had recently arrived from another country. Instead, the coronavirus was probably circulating undetected in the Seattle area for about five weeks, since mid-January.

Since then, viruses with a genetic link to the Washington cluster have now appeared in at least 14 states and several countries around the world, as well as nine cases on the Grand Princess cruise ship.

Mobile Positioning

With various countries rolling out apps to assist with contact tracing, here’s a look at the various ways to determine position from a mobile phone and why Bluetooth makes the most sense for those apps.

This tells you not much – if anything at all about absolute location, but it does tell you about proximity with high confidence and decent precision and isn’t as creepy as RRLPing the planet. That sounds like what we’re after and there’s a good reason the Singaporean health ministry, NHSX, the Apple/Google joint project, and a bunch of others have converged on solutions that use BLE plus public-key cryptography. It does have some problems – notably, as Ross Anderson points out, it’s still radio and it doesn’t care if you were on opposite sides of double glazing, and there are complicated platform restrictions in Apple iOS to stop you being creepy and weird with it.

Humanity

Finally, Tim Harford has a nice reminder that despite all the stories of bad behaviour, the vast majority of people are actually well-behaved in a crisis

…a mere 3 per cent of shoppers had bought “extraordinary amounts” of pasta. Most of us were merely adjusting our habits to life spent away from restaurants, sandwich bars and offices with their own loo paper. We all went shopping a bit more often, and when we did, spent a little more. No cause for collective shame, but it was enough to strain supermarket supply chains.

What about those who ignore pleas to keep their distance? Again, the misdeeds are exaggerated. Lambeth council grumpily closed Brockwell Park in south London, complaining of 3,000 visitors in a single day — not mentioning that the park might easily see 10 times that number on a normal sunny Saturday, nor that taking exercise in a park is perfectly permissible.

The Biology of Bats

Today’s biology lesson answers the question Why Do We Keep Getting Diseases from Bats? with a look at the differences between our respective immune systems.

…bat cells just continually assume they’re under attack and never stop fighting viruses, regardless of whether they’ve detected any. This is surprising. Interferon is a really powerful molecule, and continually producing it should have the same effect on a cell as continually putting a factory on red alert. It should make the cell run much worse, and cause a lot of collateral damage.

After all, when this sort of immune system overreaction happens in humans, humans get serious disorders, like Multiple Sclerosis and Lupus. Bats do not tend to get these. In fact, many bat species live around 20 years on average, which is not only way longer than it should have with its overactive immune system, but is exceptionally long for such a small animal. To give a comparison, rats live a year or two, as do rabbits.

There’s lots more, explaining how bats can live such relatively long lives with an “always-on” immune system, and also why their immune system evolved to be that way.

As an aside, I wasn’t aware that we had Natural Killer (NK) cells…

NK cells are as heavy duty as their name implies; while their cousins, T cells, kill any cell that displays signs of being infected, NK cells kill any cells that don’t display signs of being not infected. Viruses will frequently prevent cells from indicating that they’re infected, so NK cells just kill any cell that looks like it’s hiding something.

No messing around there!

Inaction

A complete and callous abdication of responsibility by the Feds. How can Trump survive this? Is it possible to spin this? Are enough Americans that dumb that they will fall for “it’s the states’ problem? From the New Yorker

For two weeks, Ries and his fellow-volunteers had believed that it was only a matter of time until the federal government came to the rescue. They planned to serve as a bridge for the desperate states and cities that started calling their hotline as soon as it was up and running, but, eventually, the federal government would take care of it, because isn’t that what the federal government is supposed to do?…

What they did not foresee was that the federal government might never come to the rescue. They did not realize this was a government failure by design—not a problem to be fixed but a policy choice by President Trump that either would not or could not be undone.

Meanwhile the NY Intelligencer has a dispatch from Beijing detailing what the crisis looked like from the ground.

The state switched on social distancing. There was no need for weeks of educating people about the need to stay at home — the 2003 SARS epidemic remained in living memory for most people. The authorities didn’t hesitate to shut down movie theaters and attractions like the Forbidden City in late January, a peak consumption period when the country celebrated Lunar New Year. People stayed home: I’ve heard friends say that they’ve not left their apartment for six weeks. Offices set quotas for how many people could be at work.

Mask wearing quickly became universal. In a public park, I furtively took off my mask when I saw no staff around. Speakers on a ranger’s car then came to life, blaring at me to put it back on.

The author also talks about the mistakes made, both by China initially and other countries subsequently.

There’s no getting around the fact that the authorities in charge of Wuhan and Hubei made a disastrous set of decisions that allowed the virus to spread. Local authorities delayed warning the public to ensure the smooth operation of a relatively unimportant political conference. Instead of shutting down large events and ordering social distancing, it congregated people around an enormous potluck. Most egregiously, it silenced early whistle-blowers in the medical community. The best-known case is of Dr. Li Wenliang, whom the policy summoned in and admonished for “spreading rumors.” The doctor subsequently contracted the virus and died in early February. Anger at the news was swift and broad, exacerbated perhaps by the intense restrictions on daily life.

Mistakes, however, weren’t unique to China. Governments all over the world have repeated them, sometimes adding their own twists. The U.S. might never have admonished a whistle-blower. But the political elite, even the White House, downplayed the virus out of electoral concerns. U.S. authorities have hesitated to implement containment measures for fear of hurting the economy, failed to elevate health experts into positions of power, and have still not adequately ramped up testing and containment. Official reluctance to induce panic and hurt the economy has been a universal tendency across governments, and the result was far worse for Hubei having given into it.

Leibig's Law

The current epidemic is exposing all the weak points in our current society, like this example from the UK.

New deliveries of eggs to British supermarkets are being snapped up as quickly as the shelf stackers can get them onto the shelves. At the same time, tons of eggs are going off in warehouses which currently hold massive stocks of food. The unexpected reason for this situation, we learn from the BBC’s Farming Today programme on Wednesday, is that the UK is currently in the grip of an unanticipated egg carton shortage. The entire of Europe is supplied by just three egg carton manufacturers. None is based in Britain; and the nearest one – in Denmark – is closed for the next fortnight.

An example of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, which holds that a complex system fails at its weakest point.

It also shows neatly how adjusting to a crisis is far from straighforward, and often has unintended consequences

The initial problem for public transport operators was the severe fall in demand in February as passengers reasoned that trains and buses were incubation chambers for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. While some took to working from home, others walked or dug that old bicycle out from the back of the shed. The result was a collapse in demand which obliged operators to cut back the service. The unfortunate consequence has been that despite the instruction to avoid social contact, the remaining trains and buses are overcrowded at rush hour. The knock-on problem that this has now caused is that public transport staff are now going sick in large numbers.

Which will no doubt further curtail services and continue to increase the infection rate.

General Stupidity

Despite all the COVID news from Europe, and Italy in particular, it would seem that we’re learning nothing here in Australia. Our Government, and by extension the population as a whole, seems to be in reactive rather than proactive mode.

To wit, yesterday Bondi Beach was packed…

Social Distancing at Bondi Beach

… and, in Sydney, 2,700 people were allowed to disembark from a cruise ship while 13 passengers were awaiting results of Covid swabs. Four have since discovered to be positive, so frantic announcements are being made for the other 2,696 passengers to quarantine themselves.

People are still going out to pubs, clubs and bars and our footie codes are one of the few codes globally who are still playing games, albeit behind closed doors. No doubt the Government will shut that all down in the near future, but if they are going to have to do it next week, they should just do it now. Learn from Europe & Asia’s prior experiences.

Australia’s case rate has been increasing at roughly 25% per day for the last ten days, reaching 768 yesterday. Some simplistic maths shows that if we continue on that path, in 4 weeks we’ll have approx. 360,000 cases, whereas if we can drop the rate to 10% daily increase we’ll “only” have 10,000 cases.

This edition of Axios Edge makes some key points.

The spread of the novel coronavirus is similarly a function of decisive action by heads of state, or the lack thereof. Governments alone determine whether the number of new cases increases exponentially, or whether it is brought under control within days.

and

The bottom line: In normal day-to-day life, someone with the novel coronavirus will infect more than 3 other individuals. That’s a simple recipe for exponential growth. Effective heads of state have shown that they have the ability to change individual behavior across their country so that the number gets reduced to less than 1.

When will our Govt. switch to proactive mode?