Features Australia

Pandamaniacs unleash pandamonium

Pandemic escapes from Pandora’s box

25 April 2020

9:00 AM

25 April 2020

9:00 AM

China has unleashed a pandemic, provoking Panda-monium, and our lives will never be the same.  Just as 9/11 marked the end of an era, ushering in the age of Islamic terrorism, so the Sars-2 coronavirus has given us, not a cold, but a cold war and a brave new world of biological weapons,

We were warned. About the looming biological threats at least, if not the loss of our civil liberties. At Davos, for example, in 2019, the World Economic Forum prepared an excellent report on the dangers posed by pandemics and pointed out that ‘emerging technologies make it increasingly easy for new biological threats to be manufactured and released — either deliberately or by accident.’ In 2018, a Canadian team demonstrated that all they needed was $100,000 to cook up horsepox, a close relative of smallpox, which killed 300 million people in the 20th century. Not content to leave it at that, they published the recipe, which will make it considerably easier for a disgruntled Doctor Strangelove to make at home.

Which brings us to the murky origins of Covid-19, which have been pieced together like an international thriller. Bizarrely, while Chinese scientists bravely told us the virus was not an act of nature but had escaped from a lab, various Western scientists  — some on the payroll of Chinese universities or the WHO — insist there is no sign that the virus was engineered. As it turns out, that means nothing. According to the WEF, ‘the current state of microbial forensics would make it difficult to reliably attribute a biological attack.’ Yet in the case of the Wuhan flu, or the Chinese Communist Party Coronavirus, to give it its technical term, there are rather obvious clues.

A team of highly respected Indian scientists were the first to point out that the novel coronavirus had four ‘unique inserts’ that bore an ‘uncanny similarity’ to an HIV-AIDs protein. The corresponding author is a specialist in protein genetic and genetic engineering and has published about 41 papers in prestigious journals. They explained that the inserts were not found in the spike protein of the original Sars virus or in any other member of the coronaviridae family. ‘This is startling as it is quite unlikely for a virus to have acquired such unique insertions naturally in a short duration of time,’ they explained. It gets worse. The insertions not only made the virus more infectious but more deadly, giving it the capacity to invade human CD4 T cells and create a high-affinity binding site for a chemokine co-receptor to create a lethal cytokine storm. The scientists were bullied into removing their paper which they said they would resubmit.

Yet French virologist Professor Luc Montaigner who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medecine in 2008 for his discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus, put his head above the parapet and said that the virus had been genetically manipulated and that some sequences of the Aids virus had been meticulously added.

Naturally, the French medical establishment backed the Beijing line and Chinese daily Xinhua reported Olivier Schwartz, head of viruses and immunity at France’s Pasteur Institute, saying, ‘Professor Montagnier spreads whimsical theories’ and ‘fake news’. Whimsical? Trillions of dollars have been wiped off the world economy, 180,000 people are dead, 2.5 million people are infected and at least a third of the world is in lockdown.

So, who might the meticulous microbiologists be who sliced up snips of HIV with CRISPR and inserted them into the horseshoe bat virus? Suspicions first fell on China’s famous Bat Woman, Shi Zhengli, a world-renowned researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. She herself said when she first received samples from early Covid-19 patients, she immediately did a thorough investigation at her department, finding no match between the viruses her lab had been working on, and Covid-19 patients. ‘That really took a load off my mind,’ she said, confessing she had not slept a wink for days.

But there is at least one other somewhat sinister and plausible explanation. A team of scientists working on bat coronaviruses based at the Institute of Military Medicine, Nanjing Command were busy infecting baby rats with Sars-like coronaviruses and in 2018, they published a paper on the ‘Genomic characterisation and infectivity of a novel Sars-like coronavirus in Chinese bats.’ They sequenced the genomes of hundreds of bat viruses one of which was the next closest sequence to the killer coronavirus currently on the loose. Did they manipulate the virus? There were other teams who engineered bat coronavirus and published the results in international peer-reviewed journals. What is incontrovertible is that the Chinese have published numerous papers demonstrating that they have the capacity to manipulate viruses including by creating pseudoviruses out of HIV packaging to insert into Sars-like coronaviruses and make them infectious to people. And those trying to rubbish these propositions don’t say that it is impossible just that it is improbable. It’s hardly persuasive. Especially when the Chinese government has stripped anything about the origins of the virus from the internet and banned Chinese researchers from posting anything without prior approval.

For most of human history, germs have been an ever-present threat. It was only with the discovery of penicillin in 1928 leading to the development of antibiotics that dramatically reduced deaths and amputations in the second world war that we walked into a halcyon day when previously life-threatening infections became harmless. The frightening thing about the Covid-19 outbreak is that it could easily have been so much worse. By accident or design, the fatality rate could have been much higher. It could have targeted young people in the prime of life or our children.

Sars was the wake-up call for Taiwan and Hong Kong. It infected 8,000 people, killed 774 and sliced more than $50 billion from the global economy. In Australia, Tony Abbott, as health minister, created the Australian Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre for Emerging Infectious Disease, which was funded for seven years but which the Gillard government declined to continue. That is the reality, at least in the West. Too often outbreaks are met with panic and then neglect.

Anyone over the age of 30 will remember how easy it used to be to board a plane, just as baby boomers will recall — fondly or not — how the contraceptive pill effortlessly morphed into in the summer of love, The Female Eunuch and the zipless f-ck. It was bacchanalian orgies all round, until herpes simplex types 1 and 2 and HIV/Aids put an end to the party and sent roués in search of rubbers.

Having seen the havoc this virus has wrought, it seems reasonable to conclude that like scanners at airports or condoms, social distancing, sanitiser, hand washing, and face masks are here to stay.

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