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The Corona Coronation (Part 5)

Stored and leaked pathogens could give rise to a Covid-19-like scourge

The February 2020 events in China vis-à-vis the novel coronavirus were as frenetic as they were eyebrow-raising.

First, Chen Wei, the Chinese army’s 54-year-old chief biochemical weapons defence expert, was redeployed to head the Institute of Virology’s P4 laboratory with a team of top military scientists in tow. Second, the country’s legislative assembly set about the process of enacting a biosafety law.

Talking to The Beijing News in the context of both the coronavirus and the desirability and necessity of such a law, a law professor at Beihang University had this to say: “Scientists’ instinct is to explore the unknown world. But they should also follow the ethical principles of scientific research, remembering their responsibility to protect society.

Many biotechnology issues (in China) lack legislative restriction, such as the development and utilisation of biological gene statistics, the protection of genetic resources and genome manipulation, as well as laboratory management and norms for scientists. Without such regulations, operators at laboratories are left vulnerable to infections and toxic viruses that can leak out during experiments. So it is necessary to build scientific ethics in laboratories.”

Although the professor did not hit the nail squarely on the head, what she was trying to convey was obvious enough – that the coronavirus inadvertently escaped from a laboratory before it achieved, as was the official, blame-deflecting narrative, a natural zoonotic transmission to humans at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

Sometime toward the end of January, the controversial Chinese billionaire dissident and high-profile fugitive, Miles Guo, who has been tucked away in the US since 2015, sketched out a link between the P4 laboratory and the novel coronavirus.  He fingered out a certain Gu Devin as the creator of the virus on the orders of Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan.

Doubting Thomases may dismiss Guo’s take as no more than the rantings of a fugitive from Chinese justice, but what about the likes of Xu Bo, the chairman of Duoyi network, the 25th of China’s Top 100 Internet companies? This is what he said on his personal website on February 4 without a care in the world as to the backlash he might provoke from Beijing:  “In light of the importance of epidemic prevention, I suspect that the mismanagement of experimental animals and the outflow of viral experimental animals at the Wuhan Institute of Virology caused the novel coronavirus outbreak in 2019 based on the following facts and evidences.

I decided to report the Institute of Virology to Wuhan (government) in the hope that the country will thoroughly investigate the management of experimental animals in the institute and the research on the transmission of related bat coronaviruses into humans.”

What were Xu’s “following facts”?

CHINA NOTORIOUS FOR LETTING LOOSE DEADLY PATHOGENS

Let us first appreciate that the notion of lab-grown pathogens wreaking pathological havoc on laboratory staff and even well beyond through the multiplier infection effect is not confined to the realm of sci-fi movies. Although such hazards are not widely documented being atypical, they are far from the stuff of conspiracy theory.

The scientific art of creating new, transmissible versions of deadly viruses in laboratories for preemptive reasons continues apace even if it is frowned upon in case the virus was   introduced into the population either by accident or by evil design with results too ghastly to contemplate. Accidental leaks have been known to happen, for instance, by way of failures in respiratory equipment or workers touching the most vulnerable parts of their bodies with a contaminated glove.

The Scripps Institute, a California-based biomedical research organisation, has warned of just such a scenario on more than one occasion. An article by a Harvard University professor and a scholarly colleague in the May 20, 2014 edition of PLOS Medicine, a weekly medical journal,  served up the same warning too, citing the ebola and Marburg viruses as just two of the pathogens that have infected workers and brought them to the brink.

Nowhere are such pathogen-associated hazards a more regular occurrence than in China itself. Even as the coronavirus was laying siege in that country in December last year, said an article in Nature magazine, more than 100 staff and students at two agricultural research institutes 2600 km removed, namely the Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute and Harbin Veterinary Research Institute, tested positive for the bacterium Brucella, which triggers potentially fatal complications in several of the body’s vital organs.

Another magazine called The Scientist reported that the SARS virus had escaped multiple times from high-level containment facilities at the Beijing Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. The last known SARS cases, reported in 2004, related to people who worked in a Chinese laboratory.

THE US AND OTHERS ARE CULPRITS TOO

In all fairness though, China is not the sole perpetrator of these accidents. Said an article in a May 2016 edition of The Atlantic: “A Singaporean lab worker was inadvertently infected with SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003. In 2004, a Russian scientist died after accidentally sticking herself with a needle contaminated with Ebola at a Siberian lab.

In April, Paris Pasteur Institute lost 2,000 vials containing the SARS virus. And in March, the Galveston National Laboratory in Texas lost a vial containing Guanarito virus, which causes bleeding under the skin, in internal organs or from body orifices like the mouth, eyes, or ears.”

The tendency on the part of the medical establishment of some developed countries to retain samples of age-old viruses in their professedly “high-security” laboratory vaults can be a recipe for a pathological disaster. For instance, smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980 but disease control and prevention centres in Russia and the US retain samples of the virus.

Six such sealed vials, which dated from the 1950s, were in July 2014 found in a government laboratory storeroom in the US state of Maryland. It seems the medical world is perpetually torn between the desire to eliminate horrific diseases entirely and the need to preserve them for future study. But with the kind of carelessness the custodians of such dangerous viruses seem to exhibit, the odds that the samples could come in the hands of rogues and be used in bio-terrorism are higher than low.

Meanwhile, there is simply no letup on scientists creating new incurable diseases in laboratories. Said The Atlantic: “Swine flu, or H1N1, had been dead for 20 years when it suddenly re-emerged in 1977 with a curious twist.

The new strain was genetically similar to one from the 1950s, almost as though it had been sitting frozen in a lab since then. Indeed, it eventually became clear that the late 70s-flu outbreak was likely the result of a lowly lab worker’s snafu …

“In recent years, scientists have found a way to make H5N1 jump between ferrets, the best animal model for flu viruses in humans. They say they need to create a transmissible version in order to better understand the disease and to prepare potential vaccines. The concern is that you’re making something that doesn’t exist in nature and combines high virulence for people with the ability to transmit efficiently.”

The Harvard University team referenced above estimate that there was a 20 percent chance for a lab worker who took part in pathogen manipulation experiments for ten years continuously to get infected and pass it on to others.

This brings us back to the question we posed in the first section of this piece: when the Duoyi network supremo Xu Bo talked about unearthing certain facts regarding how Covid-19 arose in China, what did he mean?

For a detailed unpacking, make a date with us next week.

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Opinions

Internal party-democracy under pressure

21st June 2022

British novelist, W. Somerset Maugham once opined: “If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.”

The truism in these words cannot be underestimated, especially when contextualizing against the political developments in Botswana. We have become a nation that does not value democracy, yet nothing represent freedom more than democracy. In fact, we desire, and value winning power or clinging to power more than anything else, even if it harms the democratic credentials of our political institutions. This is happening across political parties — ruling and opposition.

As far as democracy is concerned, we are regressing. We are becoming worse-off than we were in the past. If not arrested, Botswana will lose its status as among few democratic nations in the Africa. Ironically, Botswana was the first country in Africa to embrace democracy, and has held elections every five years without fail since independence.

We were once viewed as the shining example of Africa. Those accolades are not worth it any more. Young democracies such as South Africa, with strong institutions, deserves to be exalted. Botswana has lost faith in democracy, and we will pay a price for it. It is a slippery slope to dictatorship, which will bring among other excess, assault on civil liberties and human rights violations.

Former President, Festus Mogae once stated that Botswana’s democracy will only become authentic, when a different party, other than the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) wins elections, and when the President of such party is not from Serowe.

Although many may not publicly care to admit, Mogae’s assertion is true. BDP has over the years projected itself as a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of democracy, but the moment its stay in power became threatened and uncertain, it started behaving in a manner that is at variance with democratic values.  This has been happening over the years now, and the situation is getting worse by the day.

Recently, the BDP party leadership has been preaching compromise and consensus candidates for 2024 general elections. Essentially, the leadership has lost faith in the Bulela Ditswe dispensation, which has been used to selected party candidates for council and parliament since 2003. The leadership is discouraging democracy because they believe primary elections threaten party unity. It is a strange assertion indeed.

Bulela Ditswe was an enrichment of internal party democracy in the sense that it replaced the previous method of selection of candidates known as Committee of 18, in which a branch committee made of 18 people endorsed the representatives. While it is true that political contest can divide, the ruling party should be investing in political education and strengthening in its primary elections processes. Democracy does not come cheap or easy, but it is valuable.

Any unity that we desire so much at the expense of democracy is not true unity. Like W. Somerset Maugham said, democracy would be lost in the process, and ultimately, even the unity that was desired would eventually be lost too. Any solution that sacrifice democracy would not bring any results in the long run, except misery.

We have seen that also in opposition ranks. The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) recently indicated that its incumbent Members of Parliament (MPs) should not be challenged for their seats. While BDP is sacrificing democracy to stay in power, UDC is sacrificing democracy to win power. It is a scary reality given the fact that both parties – ruling and opposition — have embraced this position and believe democracy is the hindrance to their political ambitions.

These current reality points to one thing; our political parties have lost faith in democracy. They desire power more than, the purpose of power itself. It is also a crisis of leadership across the political divide, where we have seen dissenting views being met with persecution. We have seen perverting of political process endorsed by those in echelons of power to manipulate political outcomes in their favour.

Democracy should not be optional, it should be mandatory. Any leader proposing curtailing of democracy should be viewed with suspicion, and his adventures should be rejected before it is too late. Members of political parties, as subscribers of democracy, should collectively rise to the occasion to save their democracy from self-interest that is becoming prevalent among Botswana political parties.

The so-called compromise candidates, only benefits the leadership because it creates comforts for them. But for members, and for the nation, it is causing damage by reversing the gains that have been made over the years. We should reject leaders who only preach democracy in word, but are hesitant to practice it.

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Opinions

The Big Deal About Piracy

21st June 2022
piracy

Piracy of all kinds continues to have a massive impact on the global creative industry and the economies of the countries where it thrives.

One of the biggest misconceptions around piracy is that an individual consumer’s piracy activities, especially in a market the size of Botswana’s, is only a drop in the pool of potential losses to the different sectors of the economy piracy affects.

When someone sitting in Gaborone, Botswana logs onto an illegal site to download King Richard online, they don’t imagine that their one download will do anything to the production house’s pocket or make a dent in the actors’ net worth. At best, the sensitivity towards this illegal pirating activity likely only exists when contemplating going about pirating a local musician’s music or a short film produced locally.

The ripple effects of piracy at whatever scale reach far beyond what the average consumer could ever imagine. Figures released by software security and media technology company, Irdeto, show that users in five major African territories made approximately 17,4 million total visits to the top 10 identified piracy sites on the internet.

The economic impact of this on the creative industry alone soars to between 40 and 97.1 billion dollars, according a 2022 Dataprot study. In addition, they estimate that “illegally streamed copyrighted content consumes 24% of global bandwidth”.

As Botswana’s creative industry remains relatively slight on the scale of comparison to industries such as Nollywood and Nilewood where the creative industry contributes a huge proportion to West and East Africa’s respective GDPs, that does not imply that piracy activities in Botswana do not have a similar impact on our economy and the ability of our creative industry to grow.

When individuals make decisions to illegally consume content via internet streaming sites they believe they are saving money for themselves in the name of enjoying content they desire to consume. Although this is a personal choice that remains the prerogative of the consumer, looking beyond the fact that streaming on illegal content sites is piracy, the ripple effect of this decision also has an endless trail of impact where funds which could be used to grow the local creative industry through increased consumption, and revenue which would otherwise be fed back into Botswana’s economy are being diverted.

“Why can’t our local creative industry grow?” “Why don’t we see more home-grown films and shows in Botswana?” are questions constantly posed by those who consume television content in Botswana. The answer to this lies largely in the fact that Botswana’s local content needs an audience in order for it to grow. It needs support from government and entities which are in a position to fund and help the industry scale greater heights.

Any organisational body willing to support and grow the local creative industry needs to exist and operate in an economy which can support its mandates. Content piracy is a cycle that can only be alleviated when consumers make wiser decisions around what they consume and how.

This goes beyond eradicating piracy activities in so far as television content is concerned. This extends to the importation and trade in counterfeit goods, resale of goods and services not intended for resale across the border, outside its jurisdiction, and more. All of these activities stunt the growth of an economy and make it nearly impossible for industries and sectors to propel themselves to places where they can positively impact society and reinvest into the country’s economy.

So what can be done to turn the tide here in Botswana in order to see our local production houses gain the momentum required to produce more, license more and expand their horizons? While those who enforce the law continue to work towards minimizing piracy activities, it’s imperative that as consumers we work to make their efforts easier by being mindful of how our individual actions play a role in preventing the success of our local creative networks and our economy’s growth.

Whether you are pirating a Hollywood Blockbuster, illegally streaming a popular Motswana artist’s music, or smuggling in an illegal decoder to view content restricted to South Africa only, your actions have an impact on how we as a nation will make our mark on the global landscape with local creative productions. Thembi Legwaila is Corporate Affairs Manager, MultiChoice Botswana

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Opinions

Our Strength is our Unity

18th March 2022
Craig-Cloud

Putin Chose War.  We Remain United with Ukraine.

U.S. Ambassador Craig L. Cloud

This is a dangerous moment for Europe and for freedom-loving people around the world.  By launching his brutal assault on the people of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has also committed an assault on the principles that uphold global peace and democracy.  But the people of Ukraine are resilient.

They’ve had a democracy for decades, and their bravery is inspiring the world.  The United States, together with our Allies and partners across the globe, will continue to support the Ukrainian people as they defend their country.  By choosing to pay for a war instead of investing in the needs of Russians, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will be a strategic failure for the Kremlin and ravage the future of the Russian people.

When the history of this era is written, it will show that Putin’s choice to launch an unprovoked, unjust, and premeditated attack left the West more unified and Russia exponentially weaker.

United in Our Response

This will not end well for Vladimir Putin.  Together, the United States and our Allies and partners are taking action to hold Russia accountable.  As a result of unprecedented global sanctions coordination, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Japan, and Canada have removed selected Russian banks from the SWIFT messaging system and imposed restrictive measures on the Russian Central Bank.

President Biden announced sweeping financial sanctions and stringent export controls that will damage Russia’s economy, financial system, and access to cutting-edge technology.  After Putin began his invasion, the ruble hit its weakest point in history, and the Russian stock market plunged.

Along with the United Kingdom and European Union, the United States imposed sanctions on the architects of this war, including Putin himself.

By moving in close coordination with a powerful coalition of Allies and partners representing more than half of the global economy, we have magnified the impact of our actions to impose maximum costs on Putin and his regime.  In response to Putin’s war of choice, we will limit Russia’s ability to do business in U.S. dollars.

We will stunt Russia’s ability to finance and grow its military.  We will impair Russia’s ability to compete in the global economy.  And we are prepared to do more.

In addition to economic penalties, this week President Biden authorized an additional $1 billion over the $350 million of security assistance he recently approved, and a $650 million in 2021, to immediately help Ukraine defend itself, bringing America’s total security assistance to Ukraine over the past year to $2 billion.

We also stand ready to defend our NATO Allies.  President Biden has coordinated with Allied governments to position thousands of additional forces in Germany and Poland as part of our commitment to NATO’s collective defense.

He authorized the deployment of ground and air forces already stationed in Europe to NATO’s eastern and southeastern flanks:  Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania.  Our Allies have also added their own forces and capabilities to ensure our collective defense.  There should be no doubt about the readiness of the greatest military Alliance in the history of the world:  NATO is more united than ever.

The United States has also coordinated with major oil-producing and consuming countries to underscore our common interest in securing global energy supplies.  We are working with energy companies to surge their capacity to supply energy to the market, particularly as prices increase.

Putin’s Unprovoked and Premeditated War

This was an attack that Vladimir Putin has planned for a long time.  He methodically moved more than 150,000 troops and military equipment to Ukraine’s border.  He moved blood supplies into position and built field hospitals, demonstrating his intentions all along.

He rejected every good-faith effort by the United States and our Allies and partners to address his fabricated security concerns and to avoid needless conflict and human suffering by engaging in diplomacy and dialogue.

Putin executed his playbook exactly as we had warned he would do.  We saw Russia’s proxies increase their shelling in the Donbas.  We saw the Russian government launch cyber-operations against Ukraine.  We saw staged political theater in Moscow and heard outlandish and baseless claims made about Ukraine in an attempt to justify Russia’s aggression.

Russia continues to justify its military aggression by falsely claiming the need to stop “genocide” in Ukraine – despite there being no evidence that genocide was occurring there.  We saw Russia use these tactics before when they invaded Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008.

And then, at almost the very same moment the United Nations Security Council was meeting to stand up for Ukraine’s sovereignty and forestall disaster, Putin launched his invasion in violation of international law.  Missiles began to rain down, striking historic cities across Ukraine.  Then came air raids, columns of tanks, and battalions of troops, all riding a renewed wave of disinformation and outright lies.

We have been transparent with the world.  We declassified our intelligence about Russia’s plans so there could be no confusion and no cover up.  Putin is the aggressor.  Putin chose this war.  And now his people will bear the consequences of his decision to invest in war rather than in them.

Transatlantic Unity and Resolve Stronger Than Ever

Putin’s goal of dividing the West has failed.  In the face of one of the most significant challenges to European security and democratic ideals since World War II, the United States and our Allies and partners have joined together in solidarity.  We have united, coordinating intensively to engage as one with Russia and Ukraine, provided assistance to Ukraine, developed a broad response, and reaffirmed our commitment to NATO.

Putin has failed to divide us.  Putin has failed to undermine our shared belief in the fundamental right of sovereign nations to choose their destiny and their allies.  And Putin will fail to erase the proud nation of Ukraine.

The next few days, weeks, and months will be incredibly difficult for the people of Ukraine.  Putin has unleashed great suffering on them.  But the Ukrainian people have known 30 years of independence, and they have repeatedly shown they will not tolerate anyone who tries to take their country backwards.

The world is watching this conflict closely, and if Russian forces commit atrocities, we will explore all international mechanisms that could be used to bring those responsible – whether members of the military or their civilian leadership – to account.

Putin’s aggression against Ukraine will cost Russia profoundly, both economically and strategically.  The Russian people deserve better from their government than the immense cost to their future that this invasion has precipitated.

Liberty, democracy, and human dignity are forces far more powerful than fear and oppression.  In the contest between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty and subjugation, make no mistake:  Freedom will prevail.

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