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SARS

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Pangolin Balls Erectile Dysfunction Chinese Wet Market Virus

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has run afoul of the language police. Last Thursday he publicly called the ‘coronavirus’ that has already killed 0.000013% of the world’s population the ‘Wuhan virus’. When challenged about this criminal violation of linguistic propriety on Friday he just said it again. The World Health Organisation (WHO) was shocked.

I know how Pompeo must feel, because my innocent suggestion that we call it the ‘Pangolin Balls Erectile Dysfunction Chinese Wet Market Virus’ got an equally hostile reception. It broke the WHO’s rules on naming new human infectious diseases.

The WHO guidelines, issued in 2015, say that names must avoid geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), people’s names (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), species of animal or food (swine flu, monkey pox), cultural or occupational references (legionnaires’ disease), and terms that incite fear (e.g. ‘fatal’ or ‘epidemic’).

So you may die of it, but nobody’s feelings will be hurt. COVID-19 may be boring, but at least nobody will think it has anything to do with China. In reality, however, everybody knows that China made a mess of this.

First of all, the age-old Chinese cultural tradition of blaming the messenger, reinforced by the Communist Party’s very hierarchical structure, delayed public acknowledgement that there was a dangerous virus active in Wuhan for several crucial weeks.

Dr Li Wenliang, the first person to raise the alarm about a viral outbreak on social media, was warned by the police not to spread rumors. (He died recently after being infected with COVID-19.)

The mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, admitted last month that he had delayed taking public action to slow the spread of the virus – like banning Wuhan residents from travelling elsewhere for Chinese New Year, for example. Why? Because local government had to get permission (from Communist Party headquarters) before fully disclosing information about the virus.

Secondly, the Chinese version of the internet is now seething with stories about how the United States developed the virus in its secret labs and deliberately planted it in China. There are conspiracy theorists everywhere, but in China the hundreds of thousands of censors who man the Great Firewall instantly take down posts that deviate from the official line. They aren’t doing it this time, which tells you all you need to know.

Indeed, while the Chinese Communist Party initially accepted that the outbreak began in China, denial is growing even in official statements. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian complained last week that by calling the outbreak ‘China virus’ or ‘Wuhan virus’ “and thus suggesting its origin without any supporting facts or evidence, some media clearly want China to take the blame and their ulterior motives are laid bare.”

Zhao insisted that no conclusion has been reached on whether the coronavirus originated in China, and the Chinese military’s online portal Xilu.com recently published an article claiming that the virus is “a biochemical weapon produced by the US to target China.” But behind all the bluster and denial, China is actually doing the right thing.

Folklore, superstitions and ‘old wives’ tales’ abound in every culture, but beliefs about the power of’jinbu’ are unique to China, and explain why eating specific wild animals plays a major role in traditional Chinese medicine. The exotic meat ‘fills the void’, allegedly enhancing sexual performance in men and beauty and fertility in women.

Yi-Zheng Lian, former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, noted in a recent Washington Post article that eating bats, thought to be the original source of both the current coronavirus and the SARS virus, is said to be good for restoring eyesight. Bile and gallbladders harvested from live bears are good for treating jaundice; tiger bone, or snakes and bulls’ penises for the impecunious, are for erections.

Small wild animals are often the intermediaries that transmit the new coronaviruses to people. The ground-up scales of pangolins supposedly cure cancer and asthma, but are also implicated in passing the Wuhan virus to human beings. Palm civets, suspected of having transmitted the SARS virus to humans, are said to cure insomnia when stewed with snake meat.

China’s ‘wet markets’ sell a wide variety of these animals– and they often sell them live, because that supposedly makes the ‘jinbu’ stronger. China is not the only source of new viral diseases, but it certainly produces more than anywhere else. Yet in all the previous epidemics, the Chinese regime did not dare to shut down the trade in wild animals. Popular belief in jinbu was just too strong.

Now it has finally done it. Late last month all the enterprises breeding wild animals were shut down permanently, markets have been forbidden to sell them, and even eating them has been banned. They’re closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, you might say, but it will help a great deal in the future.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Dr Li…COVID-19″; and “Yi-Zheng…erections”)

Is the ‘Devil Virus’ a ‘Black Swan’?

China officially went back to work on Monday, after an extended two-week Lunar New Year holiday, while the authorities struggled to get the spread of the new coronavirus under control. But a lot of Chinese are not going back to work yet, and the spread of the ‘devil virus’ (as President Xi Jingping called it) is manifestly not under control.

This virus has already killed over 800 people – more fatalities in two months than the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2002-03 caused in seven months– and it’s accelerating. The last few days have seen more than 80 deaths a day, and the death rate in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, the point of origin of the disease and still its epicentre, is now 4% of those infected.

The death rate is still only 2% nationally, but infections elsewhere are generally more recent than those in Hubei province and may not reflect the final death rate. And it’s still spreading fast within China: four large cities in Zhejiang province on the coast are now also locked down.

Significantly, President Xi is no longer claiming that he is “personally commanding” the anti-virus fight. If this is going to be a complete disaster, somebody else should take the blame, and the man in charge of the national campaign against the virus is now vice-premier Sun Chunlun.

Well aware that he is now the designated fall guy, Sun immediately visited Wuhan and declared that the city and country now face ‘wartime conditions’. Waxing full-on hysterical, he warned: “There must be no deserters, or they will be nailed to the pillar of historical shame forever.” But mere rhetoric won’t save him if the epidemic goes nationwide.

It probably will: the two or three weeks that were wasted after the virus was first detected cannot be recovered. But the enforced holidays, travel curbs and lockdowns, belated though they are, may still limit the spread of the virus beyond China.

Or maybe not, but even if the virus is largely contained within China the risk of financial infection is high. High enough, in fact, to qualify as a potential ‘black swan’.

A ‘black swan’ is an unforeseen event that has a huge impact on the normal course of events. The SARS epidemic in 2002-03 was a black swan: it knocked about two percentage points off China’s economic growth that year. However, that epidemic did not cause a global recession, because back in those days China was only a small part of the global economy.

Now the Chinese economy is the world’s second-biggest. It takes up four times the space in the global economy that it occupied in 2002, so a 2% fall in Chinese economic growth translates into at least a half-percent hit to the entire global economy. Which would not be a big deal if the global economy was in good shape, but it isn’t.

Indeed, twelve years after the 2008 sub-prime financial crisis the global economy is still in the intensive care ward. There has been no return to the pre-crisis high growth rates, and interest rates, except in the United States, are still at rock-bottom. That means the banks have no room to cut the cost of borrowing and stimulate demand if the economy is starting to tank.

This applies in particular to China itself, where the banks have been forced by the government to finance huge amounts of unproductive investment as the regime continuously ‘primed the pump’ in order to ward off a recession.

It worked, in the sense that the loans financed a further orgy of construction that has now equipped the country with 100,000 km of under-used expressways and four half-empty 60-storey apartment towers at all four corners of every major intersection in each of the country’s hundred biggest cities. China was the only major country to avoid a recession after 2008 – but it left the banks staggering under a mountain of bad debts.

By now China has a Potemkin economy where the official economic growth rate is 6% a year but the true number, as measured by electricity use or megatons of freight carried by the railways, is between 2% and 3%. Knock 2 percentage points off that and you have no growth at all – and a crisis of survival for the regime.

That would be the biggest black swan you ever saw, but remember that the lies and official incompetence that surrounded the Chernobyl disaster played a big part in making the Soviet public ripe for regime change a few years later. Could the coronavirus have a similar effect? It’s not likely, but it is conceivable.

The immediate and short-term deaths from the Chernobyl melt-down amounted to sixty people. The Wuhan coronavirus has killed a dozen times as many Chinese citizens already.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“The death…down”; and “It worked…debts”)

Pandemics and Politics

29 April 2009

Pandemics and Politics

 By Gwynne Dyer

At the time of writing, almost a week after we all learned that a lethal new strain of influenza had appeared in Mexico, every single death attributed to swine flu has been Mexican, and all but one of those deaths happened in Mexico itself. (The one exception was a Mexican toddler visiting Texas with his family.)

The media work themselves into a frenzy about how this may be a pandemic that kills tens or hundreds of millions of people around the world. Even with a prescription, you can no longer buy Tamiflu or Relenza, the leading antivirals that could lessen the impact of swine flu: in most countries, governments requisitioned the entire available supply last weekend. And yet air travel between Mexico and the rest of the world continues unhindered.

Our elders and betters assure us that a travel ban would not help.

The World Health Organisation’s assistant director-general, Keiji Fukuda, tells us that trying to contain the virus by enforcing travel restrictions “is not a feasible option.” Besides, he says, “the virus has already spread to several other countries.” Texas governor Rick Perry says that closing the US border with Mexico, crossed by tens of thousands each day, would be “a little premature.”

Am I alone in experiencing a desire to strangle these people? To begin with, Rick, you either close the US border now, or you don’t bother.

Closing it a week from now would be completely pointless. If human-to-human transmission of the virus has not already taken root in the United States, it will certainly have done so once another few hundred thousand people have crossed the border.

Obviously, people from other countries who are currently holidaying in Mexico (overwhelmingly Americans and Canadians) must be allowed to come home, but would it be unreasonable to monitor their health for a week or so in case they are carrying the virus? Indeed, shouldn’t we stop further holiday-makers from travelling to Mexico and ask Mexicans to stay home for a while? It would cause inconvenience, yes, but large numbers of lives are at stake here.

It may be too late to stop the spread of the virus by banning non-emergency travel to and from Mexico, but nobody knows that for sure.

The virus has already appeared in a dozen other countries, but at this point almost all the victims are still people who were recently in Mexico.

If the flow of further people from Mexico dwindled rapidly as the remaining tourists and business travellers came home, there would still be a chance of containing the virus.

If this “swine flu” really is like the “Spanish influenza” virus that killed tens of millions of healthy young adults in 1918-19, then we should be doing everything possible to hold it at bay. And even if the virus is bound to get out of Mexico in the end, it’s worth winning some time before it does.

It is spring across the northern hemisphere, where most of the world’s people live, and flu typically goes into retreat in the spring and summer. Even if it comes back in the northern autumn — and pandemic flu often comes in several waves some months apart, becoming more virulent in the later waves — by then we might have a vaccine ready. The process of designing and mass-producing the vaccine takes four to six months, which is exactly what immediate and severe restrictions on travel to Mexico now might win us.

So why do government bureaucrats everywhere, together with the international civil servants of the World Health Organisation, assure us in massed chorus that travel bans are futile? Because they work for governments whose economies could be severely damaged by those bans.

Governments do accept a certain responsibility for protecting the lives of their citizens, but even in the developed world, where resources are not scarce, they interpret that responsibility quite differently.

Britain and France have stock-piled antiviral medicines like Tamiflu for 50 percent of their citizens (and Britain is now going to over 80 percent).

Japan, Australia and New Zealand are all over 40 percent, but the United States only has 25 percent cover and Canada a mere 17 percent.

The biggest difference, however, is between the vague, general responsibility that governments feel for the lives of their citizens and the acute, real-time responsibility they feel for the health of their economies. They are inundated daily by demands from commercial and industrial organisations to keep the borders open and commerce flowing.

They are NOT inundated by demands by powerful citizen organisations to impose travel bans and save lives.

So they yield to the greater pressure, as governments generally do.

At the extreme, they conspire to hide the disease altogether, as China did with SARS (and Mexico may have done for some time with swine flu). And they lie routinely about the usefulness of stopping travel from infected countries, because to do so would gum up international commerce and damage economies.

The less reflective ones may not even realise any more that they are lying, because within WHO and the various national governments it has become an article of faith that you can’t contain pandemics once they move beyond the first few villages. But that is quite obviously bullshit.

Bullshit that could kill your kids.

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NOTE: YOU MAY WISH TO SUBSTITUTE “nonsense” FOR “bullshit” (TWICE) IN THE LAST PARAGRAPH.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“The media…unhindered”; and “Obviously…here”)

SARS

17 April 2003

SARS and China: Get It Right Next Time

By Gwynne Dyer

The virus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was identified on 15 April in a ten-country collaboration between 13 laboratories as a corona virus related to those that cause the common cold. “Now we can move away from methods like isolation and quarantine and move aggressively towards modern intervention strategies including specific treatments and eventually vaccination,” said David Heymann, executive director of the World Health Organisation’s communicable diseases programmes.

That’s the optimistic view. In Canada, where most of the SARS cases outside Asia have occurred, the tone is more cautious. “The problem in China is out of control so this is a virus that’s not going away. We’ve got this forever,” said Dr. Donald Low, chief microbiologist at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. But if quarantine measures continued to restrict the disease’s spread, he hoped, there would be time to develop a vaccine, or at least better therapeutic measures and diagnostic tests, before it spread too widely.

Almost on the same day, however, news broke that around five hundred members of a religious group in Toronto had been exposed to SARS and had continued to move around the city in the course of their normal lives for a week afterwards, raising the risk that the city is about to tip over into ‘community spread’. That happens when the diffusion has become so wide, and the difficulty of tracing all the contacts of each infected person so great, that individual quarantine ceases to be effective and it may be necessary to consider quarantining the whole community.

The worst of the four scenarios developed by scientists advising the SARS team in Toronto and leaked last week to the ‘Globe and Mail’ envisaged an epidemic spread of SARS in the city in which “the health-care system would be overwhelmed. Case fatality rates could rise due to inability to provide optimal care. Considerable societal disruption could occur and maintaining even essential services could become problematic.” That is the extreme case, of course, but it is not inconceivable.

The SARS virus is actually deadlier than the ‘Spanish influenza’ virus that caused the great pandemic of 1918, which infected between 20 and 40 percent of the world’s population and killed 20 million people in four months. SARS kills 4 percent of its victims compared to 2.5 percent for the Spanish ‘flu. The difference is in the speed with which it spreads: when the Spanish flu struck with full force in the autumn of 1918, tens of thousands died in just the first few weeks — and the young and healthy died just as fast as the old and those suffering from chronic health problems.

SARS, on the other hand, has probably killed fewer than 200 people in three months, and most of the victims have been over 65. The only worrisome thing is that the Spanish flu began with a mild version that travelled around the world in the spring of 1918, and then came back a few months later in a far more virulent form to ravage the planet — at which point public health care did collapse in many places and families had to look after their own as best they could. “I don’t think we know where on the path we are (with SARS),” said Dr. Edwin Kilbourne, professor emeritus at New York Medical College and one of the world’s leading experts on the 1918 pandemic.

The speed with which the medical world can identify new diseases and generate new vaccines is far greater than in 1918, but so is the speed with which new diseases can travel around the globe, thanks to cheap air travel. Since the main way for viruses to mutate into new and lethal strains is by hopping back and forth between people and their domestic animals, the urgent lesson to be learned from this episode is that China must clean up its act.

South China, where many rural people live under the same roof as their animals but also travel widely in the world, is a leading source of new viruses. The SARS virus first appeared there, in Guangdong province, in mid-November, but the Chinese government suppressed the news. It only came to the world’s notice when Dr. Stephen Cunnion, president of International Consultants in Health Inc, of Silver Springs, Maryland, which is currently installing modern labs in China, posted a query about the rumoured epidemic in Guangdong on an infectious diseases website in mid-February. By then, 305 people had been infected and five had already died.

“If (Beijing) would have acknowledged this early, and we could have seen the virus as it occurred in south China, we probably could have isolated it before it got out of hand,” said Dr. Cunnion. “But they completely hid it. They hide everything. You can’t even find out how many people die from earthquakes.”

The cover-up continues even down to the present: Alan Schnur, head of WHO’s office in Beijing, visited military hospitals in Beijing this week after Jiang Yangyon, a former surgeon at one of the hospitals, accused Health Minister Zhang Wenkang of systematically understating the number of those infected in China. Schnur concluded that Beijing probably has “between 100 and 200” cases of SARS, not the 37 officially declared.

This has got to stop. No considerations of Chinese pride or pecial political circumstances can excuse this kind of behaviour, which exposes the whole world to risk. Pressure should be brought on the Chinese government to guarantee that next time, everybody in the world hears about a new disease at the same time. How much pressure? As much as necessary.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 9 and 10. (“Almost…community”; and “If…declared”)