Coronavirus is a laboratory creation, says a scientist of renown
On March 12 2020, Robert Redfield, the director for the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told a congressional hearing that it had emerged that some of America’s people who had been previously certified as having died from influenza – the common cold known as flu – turned out to have actually succumbed to Covid-19.
The Chinese government authorities were quick to pounce as what that suggested was that hitherto the US Covid-19 scenario had been falsified, that the coronavirus had actually been gnawing away at the US fabric for sometime and likely predated its emergence in China.
The Trump administration, however, is adamant that China was both the birthplace and hub, initially, of Covid-19. It is the US government narrative, seemingly, that holds greater sway across the globe, prompting an outspoken Texas-based NGO to demand a $20 trillion compensation from China on behalf of the US citizenry and a UK think-tank also to weigh in for £350 billion for the UK alone and £3.2 trillion for the G7. The indictment is that China either deliberately or negligently allowed the coronavirus to wash over the entire globe.
Which behooves us to pose this question: was China solely responsible for the advent of Covid-19 or it is no more than an opportunistic scapegoat? Having devoted a great deal of time and energy to delving into the matter, I have, Ladies and Gentlemen, arrived at the verdict that culpability rests with both the Red Dragon and Uncle Sam himself.
A PIECE OF VERY BAD NEWS
In 1977, a spousal team of British biologists, Jean and Peter Medawar, hilariously defined a virus as “simply a piece of bad news wrapped up in protein”. In this analysis, the bad news at issue is the novel coronavirus, the propagator of Covid-19. Until the turn of the century, few members of the global citizenry were conversant with the concept of a coronavirus. But the coronavirus is far from a John-Come-Lately: the pathogen was known as early as 1968. It was first detected in chicken as an infectious bronchitis virus and in two human patients who presented with flu.
The coronavirus typically circulates among animals, notably pigs, camels, birds, bats, and cats, which it seldom harms (just as SIV, the equivalent of HIV, does not lead to AIDS in monkeys) probably because it has dwelt in them for such a long time that they have honed their defence mechanism in its regard.
It is another matter when the virus shifts camp from animals to humans, for then it causes disease, what experts term as a “spillover event”. To date, seven such coronaviruses have been known to cause morbidity in humans, three of which seriously so in some cases.
The three most virulent coronavirus are responsible for SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which emerged in late 2002 and disappeared by 2004); MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which broke out in in 2012 and remains in circulation in camels); and Covid-19, which is said to have originated in China’s Wuhan city in December 2019 and has since spread to the rest of the world.
Now, if the novel coronavirus, also known as SAR-Covid-2 or 2019-nCoV, belongs to the same viral clan as the ones behind SARS and MERS, why is it so manifold contagious and deadlier?
THAT CURIOUS GENE CAPACITATION
In February this year, a team of virologists and genomicists led by Professor Ruan Jishou of Nankan University in Tianjin, northern China, reported that SARS-Cov-2 was radically different from other coronaviruses in that its latch-on ability made it 1000 times more potent than the familiar coronaviruses.
This capacity was attested to by findings in two other studies, one by a Huazhong University of Science and Technology team led by Professor Li Hua, and the other by French scientist Professor Dr Etienne Decroly of Aix-Marseille University in France. The capacity derived from a gene that gave the coronavirus a dual attack approach of binding to human cells.
Professor Li referred to the feature that enabled the capacity as an “unexpected insertion”, that is, a genetic mutation (a change in the genetic message carried by the gene, which change may arise from damage or a laboratory-setting alteration).
“This finding,” Li said, “suggests that the 2019-nCoV coronavirus may be significantly different from the SARS coronavirus in the infection pathway … Maybe this is why the SARS-CoV-2 is more infectious than the other known coronaviruses … The result findings show that when compared to the initial SARs mode of entry, this binding method is more than a 1,000 times efficient.”
Considering that Li expressed puzzlement at the so-called insertion, one is prompted to ask whether this was natural or was artificially induced with a view to turning the coronavirus into a steamrolling biological weapon.
HOW CORONA STEALS INTO THE HUMAN CELL
Let us first outline the mechanism by which the novel coronavirus eases itself into a human cell. Like all viruses, the coronavirus cannot reproduce itself using its own, innately programed capacity. For it to replicate and populate expansively in its habitat, it has to hijack living cells and turn them into a self-perpetuation factory.
The coronavirus uses the constitutional infrastructure of its own and that of the target cell to embed itself in the latter, also known as the host cell. To do that, it uses one of the four filaments on its outer layer known as spikes. These are components of the S-Protein, which occur in groups of three, crown-like spikes – the reason it is known as the coronavirus, meaning crown-like virus.
In order to invade the target cell, the coronavirus needs a doorway. In human cells, this doorway is known as the Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme 2, or ACE2 protein in short. The coronavirus then extends a part of its S-Protein to attach itself to the ACE2 receptor, thereby gaining entry to the cell. The virus is ushered into the cell by a “door bouncer” which it “coaxes” or “sweet-talks”, known as the TMPRSS2 Cellular Protease
In healthy humans, however, the ACE2 protein occurs rather scantily and that makes it difficult for coronaviruses to ordinarily intrude into the cell (the reason the SARS outbreak of 2002/2003 which infected close to 8,000 people globally was not so widespread).
The coronavirus’ fallback action in the face of a telling ACE2 dearth is what we can as well term the Furin route. A pundit explains this phenomenon thus: “It (the mutated coronavirus) is also able to attack human cells via the target called Furin, which is an enzyme that works as a protein activator in the human body. Typically, many proteins are inactive or dormant when they are produced and have to be ‘cut’ at specific points to activate their various functions, which Furin does in the human cellular pathways.”
The coronavirus bears an activation site on its body which it “commandeers” (as if at gun point) the Furin protein to operationalise. That done, the virus is able to slip into and lodge in the cell without the need of the ACE2 protein. Seemingly, its activation by Furin affords the coronavirus easy admittance into the cell without being subjected to a kind of vetting process.
HIV DISCOVERER SMELLS A RAT (OR WAS IT A BAT?)
Since the onset of Covid-19, there has been no shortage of either eminent or little-known researchers crying foul over the morphology of the propagator virus now on rampage across the globe.
Perhaps the most authoritative of the connoisseurs on the subject is Luc Montagnier, the famous French virologist who discovered HIV in 1982 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for this same feat. In an interview with CNews, a French free-to-air TV network late last month, Montagnier charged that the novel coronavirus was scientifically tweaked in a laboratory to turn it into the monster it is. In a bid to content the Doubting Thomases, we will quote him verbatim thus:
“We came to the conclusion that there was manipulation around this virus … to a part but I do not say the total … of the coronavirus of a bat: someone added sequences, in particular of HIV, the virus of AIDS … It is not natural. It’s the work of professionals, of molecular biologists … a very meticulous work.”
Perhaps out of sense of common human courtesy, Montagnier, however, did not, allege sinister motives on the part of whomever scientists were involved: he supposed that they likely punctuated the virus’ virulence with a view to, and in the process of, finding a vaccine against AIDS.
To further buttress his assertion, Montaignier pointed to a 9-man team of Indian researchers who in their paper titled Uncanny Similarity of Unique Inserts in the 2019-nCoV Spike Protein to HIV-1 GP120 and Gag, which was published on January 31 this year, came to precisely the same conclusion.
This song, of the coronavirus being turned into a deadly morbidity weapon, has actually become a familiar refrain. In February this same year, for instance, US senator Tom Cotton and Francis Boyle, a law professor, on good authority opined that the coronavirus may have been a “Chinese bioweapon which escaped from a lab”.
Three years earlier, a US molecular biologist, Richard H Ebright, had voiced fears over the attempt on the part of the Chinese government to upgrade the Wuhan Institute of Virology to the country’s first Biosafety Level 4 (BSL–4) laboratory having taken into account previous escapes of the SARS virus at other Chinese laboratories. Were these commentators of good standing internationally spot-on or were guilty of building castles in the air, of making a mountain out of a molehill?
This is a question that should seriously exercise the mind of every Botswana citizen and every science researcher, every health worker and every political leader political.
The Covid-19 currently defines our lives and poses a direct threat to every aspect and every part of national safety, security and general well-being. This disease has become a normative part of human life throughout the world.
The first part of the struggle against the murderous depredation of this disease was to protect personal life through restrictive health injunctions and protocols; the worst possibly being human isolation and masks that hid our sorrows and lamentations through thin veils. We suffered that humiliation with grace and I believe as a nation we did a great job.
Now the vaccines are here, ushering us into the second phase of this war against the plague; and we are asking ourselves, is this science-driven fight against Covid-19 spell the end of pandemic anxiety? Is the health nightmare coming to an end? What happy lives lie ahead? Is this the time for celebration or caution? As the Non State Actors, we have being struggling with these questions for months.
We have published our thoughts and feelings, and our research reviews and thorough reading of both the local and international impacts of this rampaging viral invasion in local newspapers and social media platforms.
More significantly, we have successfully organised workshops about the impact of the pandemic on society and the economy and the last workshop invited a panel of health experts, professionals, and public administers to advance this social dialogue as part of our commitment to the tripartite engagement we enjoy working with Government of Botswana, Civil Society and Development partners. These workshops are virtual and open to all Batswana, foreign diplomatic missions based in Gaborone, UN agencies located in Gaborone and international academic researchers and professional health experts and specialists.
The mark of Covid-19 on our nation is a painful one, a tragedy shared by the entire human race, but still a contextually painful experience. Our response is fraught with grave difficulties; limited resources, limited time, and the urgency to not only save lives but also avert economic ruin and a bleak future for all who survive. Several vaccines are already in the market.
Parts of the world are already doing the best they can to trunk the pestilential march of this disease by rolling out mass-vaccinations campaigns that promise to evict this health menace and nightmare from their public lives. Botswana, like much of Africa, is still up in the disreputable, and, unenviable, preventative social melee of masked interactions, metered distances, contactless commerce.
We remain very much at the mercy of a marauding virus that daily runs amuck with earth shattering implications for the economy and human lives. And the battle against both infections and transmissions is proving to be difficult, in terms of finance, institutional capacities and resource mobilization. How are we prepared as government, and as citizens, to embrace the impending mass-vaccinations? What are the chances of us succeeding at this last-ditch effort to defeat the virus? What are the most pressing obstacles?
Does the work of vaccines spell an end to the pandemic anxieties?
Our panellists addressed the current state of mass-vaccination preparedness at the Botswana national level. What resources are available? What are the financial, institutional and administrative operational challenges (costs and supply chains, delivery, distribution, administering the vaccine on time, surveillance and security of vaccines?) What is being done to overcome them, or what can be done to overcome them? What do public assessments of preparedness tell us at the local community levels? How strong is the political will and direction? How long can we expect the whole exercise to last? At what point should we start seeing tangible results of the mass-vaccination campaign?
They also addressed the challenges of the anticipated emerging Vaccinated Society. How to fight the myths of vaccines and the superstitions about histories of human immunizations? What exactly is being done to grow robust local confidence in the science of vaccinations and the vaccines themselves? More significantly, how to square these campaigns vis-vis personal rights, moral/religious obligations?
What messages are being sent out in these regards and how are Batswana responding? What about issues of justice and equality? Will we get the necessary vaccines to everyone who wants them? What is being done to ensure no deserving person is left behind?
They also addressed issues of health data. To accomplish this mass-vaccination campaign and do everything right we need accurate and complete data. Poor data already makes it very hard to just cope with the disease. What is being done to improve data for the mass-vaccination campaign? How is this data being collected, aggregated and prepared for real life situation/applications throughout Botswana in the coming campaign?
We know in America, for example, general reporting and treatment of health data at the beginning of vaccinations was so poor, so chaotic and so scattered mainstream newspapers like The Atlantic, Washington Post and the New York Times had to step in, working very closely with civil society organizations, to rescue the situation. What data-related issues are still problematic in Botswana?
To be specific, what kind of Covid-19 data is being taken now to ready the whole country for an effective and efficient mass-vaccination program?
Batswana must be made aware that the end part of vaccination will just mark the beginning of a long journey to health recovery and national redemption; that in many ways Covid-19 vaccination is just another step toward the many efforts in abeyance to fight this health pandemic, the road ahead is still long and painful.
For this purpose, and to highlight the significance of this observation we tasked our panellists with the arduous imperative of analysing the impact of mass-vaccination on society and the economy alongside the pressing issues of post-Covid-19 national health surveillance and rehabilitation programs.
Research suggests the aftermath of Covid-19 vaccination is going to be just as difficult and uncertain world as the present reality in many ways, and that caution should prevail over celebration, at least for a long time. The disease itself is projected to linger around for some time after all these mass-vaccination campaigns unless an effort is made to vaccinate everyone to the last reported case, every nation succeeds beyond herd immunity, and cure is found for Covid-19 disease. Many people are going to continue in need of medications, psychological and psychiatric services and therapy.
Is Botswana ready for this long holdout? If not, what path should we take going into the future? The Second concern is , are we going to have a single, trusted national agency charged with the mandate to set standards for our national health data system, now that we know how real bad pandemics can be, and the value of data in quickly responding to them and mitigating impact? Finally, what is being done to curate a short history of this pandemic? A national museum of health and medicine or a Public Health Institute in Botswana is overdue.
If we are to create strong sets of data policies and data quality standards for fighting future health pandemics it is critical that they find ideological and moral foundations in the artistic imagery and photography of the present human experience…context is essential to fighting such diseases, and to be prepared we must learn from every tragic health incident.
Our panellists answered most of these questions with distinguished intellectual clarity. We wish Batswana to join us in our second Mass-vaccination workshop.
Today is International Women’s Day – it’s a moment to think about how much better our news diet could be if inequities were eliminated. In 1995, when the curtains fell in one of the largest meetings that have ever brought women together to discuss women in development, it was noted that women and media remain key to development.
Twenty-six years later, the relevant “Article J” of the Beijing Platform for Action, remains unfulfilled. Its two strategic objectives with regard to Women and Media have not been met. They are Increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication
Promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.
Today, as we mark International Women’s Day, it’s an indictment on both media owners and civil society that women remain on the periphery of news-making. They cannot claim equal space in either the structures of newsrooms or in the content produced, be that as sources of news or as the subjects of reports. Indeed, the latest figures from WAN-IFRA’s Women in News Programme show just one in five voices in news belong to women*, be they as sources, as the author or as the main character of the news report.
Some progress was evident several years back, with stand-out women being named as chief executive officers, editors in chief, managing editors and executive editors. But these gains appear short lived in most media organisations. Excitement has turned to frustration as one-step forward has been replaced with three steps backwards. In Africa, the problem is acute. The decision-making tables of media organisations remain deprived of women and where there are women, they are surrounded by men.
Few women have followed in the footsteps of Esther Kamweru, the first woman managing editor in Kenya, and indeed sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s standout women editors include Pamela Makotsi-Sittoni (Nation Media Group, Kenya), Barbara Kaija (New Vision, Uganda), Mary Mbewe (Daily Nation, Zambia), Margaret Vuchiri (The Monitor, Uganda), Joyce Shebe (Clouds, Tanzania), Tryphinah Dongwana (Weekend Post, Botswana), Joyce Mhaville (Independent Television -ITV, Tanzania) and Tuma Abdallah (Standard Newspapers,Tanzania). But they remain an exception.
The lack of balance between women and men at the table of decision making has a rollback effect on the content that is produced. A table dominated by men typically makes decisions that benefit men.
So today, International Women’s Day is a grim reminder that things are not rosy in the news business. Achieving gender balance in news and in the structure of media organisations remains a challenge. Unmet, it sees more than half of the population in our countries suffer the consequences of bias, discrimination and sexism.
The business of ignoring the other half of the population can no longer be treated as normal. It’s time that media leaders grasp the challenge, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it also makes a whole lot of business sense: start covering women, give them space and a voice in news-making and propel them to all levels of decision making within your organisation.
We can no longer afford to imagine that it’s only men who make and sell the news and bring in the shillings to fund the media business. Women too are worthy newsmakers. In all of our societies, there are women holding decision making positions and who are now experts in once male-only domains such as engineers, doctors, scientists and researchers.
They can be deliberately picked out to share their perspectives and expertise and bring balance to the profile of experts quoted on our news pages. Media is the prism through which society sees itself and women are an untapped audience. So, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us embrace diversity, which yields better news content and business products, and in so doing eliminate sexism. We know that actions and attitudes that discriminate against people based on their gender is bad for business.
As media, the challenge is ours. We need to consciously embrace and reach the commitments made 26 years ago when the Beijing Platform for Action was signed globally. As the news consuming public, you have a role to play too. Hold your news organization to account and make sure they deliver balanced news that reflects the voices of all of society.
Jane Godia is a gender development and media expert who serves as the Africa Director of Women in News programme. WOMEN IN NEWS is WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org
The eve of International Women’s Day presents an opportunity for us to think about gender equality and the long and often frustrating march toward societies that are truly equal.
As media, we are uniquely placed to drive forward this reflection and discussion. But while focusing on the challenges of gender in society, we owe it to our staff and the communities we serve to also take a hard look at the obstacles within our own organisations.
I’m talking specifically about the scourge of sexual harassment. It’s likely to have happened in your newsroom. It has likely happened to a member of your team. It happens to all genders but is disproportionately directed at women. It happens in every industry, regardless of country, culture or context. This is because sexual harassment is driven by power, not sex. Wherever you have imbalances in power, you have individuals who are at risk of sexual harassment, and those who abuse this power.
I’ve been sexually harassed. The many journalists and editors, friends and family members who I have spoken to over the years on this subject have also been harassed. Yet it is still hard for leaders to recognize that this could be happening within their newsrooms and boardrooms. Why does it continue to be such a taboo?
Counting the cost of sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is, simply put, bad for business. It can harm your corporate reputation. It is a drain on the productivity of staff and managers. Maintaining and building trust in your brand is an absolute imperative for media organisations globally. If and when a case gets out of control or is badly handled – this can directly impact your bottom line.
It is for this reason that WAN-IFRA Women in News has put eliminating sexual harassment as a top priority in our work around gender equality in the media sector. This might seem at odds with the current climate where social interactions are fewer and remote work scenarios are in place in many newsrooms and businesses. But one only needs to tune into the news to know that the abuse of power, manifested as verbal, physical or online harassment, is alive and well.
Preliminary results from an ongoing Women in News research study into the issue of sexual harassment polling hundreds of journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia indicate that more than 1 in 3 women media professionals have been physically harassed, and just under 50% have been verbally harassed. Just over 15% of men in African newsrooms reported being physically harassed, and slightly less than 1 in 4 reports being verbally harassed. The numbers for male media professionals in Southeast Asia are slightly higher than a quarter on both forms of harassment.
The first step in confronting sexual harassment is to talk about it. We need to strip away the stigma and discomfort around having open conversations about what sexual harassment is and isn’t. Media managers, it is entirely in your power to create dynamics in your own teams that are free from sexual harassment.
Publishers and CEOs, you set the organisational culture in your media company.
By being vocal in recognising that it happens everywhere, and communicating to your employees that you will not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind, you send a powerful message to your teams, and publicly. With these actions, you will help us overcome the legacy of silence around this topic, and in doing so take an important first step to create media environments that truly embrace equality.
Melanie Walker is Executive Director of Media Development of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). She is a creator of Women in News, WAN-IFRA’s ground-breaking programme to increase women’s leadership and voices in the news. It does so by equipping women journalists and editors with the skills, strategies, and support networks to take on greater leadership positions within their media. www.womeninnews.org