WILDFIRES – IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE — Sept 23rd 2020

WILDFIRES: THE IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE

Allan Maynard, September 23, 2020

In just a matter of a few weeks, California has experienced 6 of the largest wildfires in its modern history creating untold misery for tens of thousands. Moreover, the state has toppled all-time temperature records from the desert to the coast. Millions are suffering from some of the worst air quality in years due to heat-triggered smog and fire smoke. An apocalyptic plume has blanketed most of the West Coast, blotting out the sun and threatening people’s lungs during a deadly pandemic. Cities across the state have opened “cleaner-air centers”, where people who can’t afford purifiers or don’t have homes can escape the smoke for a few hours. But they have been less frequented than in previous years because of concerns about Covid-19. Public spaces such as libraries have been closed, eliminating another respite.

Fires have also been raging at unprecedented levels in Oregon and Washington. Unlike 2017 and 2018, British Columbia, has had a modest fire season. However, the southern half of the province became blanketed in smoke from the fires south. Vancouver BC, during the period September 11 to 19, 2020, had the worst air quality readings in the world. 

In addition to concerns in North America, the year 2020 has seen unprecedented fires cause havoc across the world. Australia recently battled its largest bushfire on record, while parts of the Arctic, the Amazon and Central Asia are still experiencing severe blazes. 

The resulting health concerns are considerable. Wildfire smoke is a very complex type of air pollution consisting of a variety of gases and small particles (Sarah Henderson – UBC). Of particular concern, is particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter (about 30 times smaller than the diameter of human hair)—also referred to as PM 2.5. These small particles, and ones even smaller, are capable of penetrating deep into a person’s lungs. The body responds by releasing the same immune cells it would deploy to attack a virus. Unlike a virus, however, particulate matter isn’t broken down by that immune response. This can then result in long-lasting inflammation in many people. It is estimated that wildfire smoke is responsible for 5 to 8% of the 3.3 million annual worldwide deaths due to poor air quality. 

Forest management is a significant factor in the continuing issue of wildfire crises. Fires are a critical component of forest ecosystems. Fires thin out the vegetation, and create the required conditions for forest renewal. However, a century of trying to suppress all forest fires, and a population boom at the “wild-and-urban” interface has resulted in an abundance of ignitable fuel. 

Unfortunately, forest management has become the primary talking point of some media along with the current US federal administration. Like President Trump, conservative media stars dismiss climate change and point to the poor management of forestland by local officials. In fact – a fringe right-wing website, “The Gateway Pundit”, has outlandishly blamed ‘left wing arsonists” for the fires. 

Visiting California on September 14, 2020 to witness the destruction firsthand, Mr. Trump took western states to task for failing to manage the forests properly (forgetting that most forest lands are under federal jurisdiction). During a meeting with California officials who pushed him to acknowledge the role of climate change in the wildfires, the president said: “It’ll start getting cooler – You just watch.” He went on to claim “I don’t think science knows actually”. He is dangerously wrong. The science is clear. 

Climate change – It needs to be clearly stated, no amount of forest management can stop the disasters in an ever-more flammable world. The link between fires and climate is basic physics: Human greenhouse gas emissions have warmed the planet. Higher temperatures evaporate more water, drying out vegetation and making it more likely to ignite. In the American West — where temperatures are already as much as 4 degrees Fahrenheit (approx. 2 C) hotter than in the preindustrial era — landscapes are burning in fundamentally different and more destructive ways.

The trends alone can tell the tale:

  • There are 10 times more fires than in the 1970s
  • In the western US, the climate crisis has doubled the area burned by wildfire from 1984 to 2015, according to research cited in the federal government’s climate assessment.
  • Fifteen of California’s 20 worst fires have occurred in the past 20 years
  • As of mid-September of this year – 3.2 million acres (5000 square miles) of California forests have been incinerated – almost double the area burned last year.
  • The Camp Fire of 2019, considered one of the most intense fires in modern history, destroyed the town of Paradise, CA (26,000 population). It burned at a rate of 1 acre per second, incinerating100, 000 acres of forest, and 19,000 structures. Lives lost – 86.   
  • Australia – As of mid- March 2020, the 2019/ 2020 fires burnt an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres), destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and killed at least 34 people. Nearly three billion terrestrial vertebrates alone – were affected and some endangered species are now believed to have been driven to extinction. At its peak, air quality was at hazardous levels in all southern and eastern states.
  • On May 1, 2016, a wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. … With an estimated damage cost of C$9.9 billion, it was the costliest disaster in Canadian history. The fire spread across approximately 590,000 hectares (1,500,000 acres) destroying 2400 homes and forcing the evacuation of over 80,000 people before it was declared to be under control on July 5, 2016.
  • The Arctic is burning like never before.  These fires are releasing record levels of carbon dioxide, partly because they are burning ancient peatlands that have been a carbon sink for millennia.

The graphic below adds an additional perspective on areas burned in California since 1975. It is noteworthy that the October to December period is increasingly significant due to longer lasting dry seasons – from Increase in California areas burned by wildfires, 1975 to 2015. WILLIAMS, ABATZOGLOU ET AL., EARTH’S FUTURE

These are stunning statistical trends adding to a growing body of evidence that climate change is the main driver. Such statistics need to be addressed within more rigorous research that is then published in peer review literature. This is how science works. Scientists build on the work of others to create greater and more conclusive scientific knowledge.  The studies review trends, work with complex models, along with considering metrics such as fuel and soil aridity, fire temperatures, speed of fire spread, wind factors and more. The research on wildfires is abundant and increasingly clear. A few examples are provided below:

Dr. F Otto – acting director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, has rigorously assessed the Australian fires. She concluded that temperatures during the 2019/2020 bushfires were 1 to 2 degrees hotter than they would have been in the early part of the 20th century. A quote for this author —  “We found that climate change made the bushfires at least 30% more likely – and that is a conservative estimate”.  

In Canada – a study by Dr. M. Kirchner-Young concluded that Canada’s 2017 fire season, which saw a record 1.2 million hectares of land burned, was driven by “extreme warm and dry conditions” heightened by climate change. The study estimated that the total area burned across the season was made seven to 11 times larger by climate change.

 A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that human-caused climate change doubled the amount of forest burned between 1984 and 2015. California’s own climate assessment in 2018 predicted that higher temperatures would cause 2.5 million acres to burn annually — the models just did not expect it to happen until 2050.

This article would be many more pages if I cited all the relevant literature I have reviewed. Suffice to say – climate change is the most significant factor associated with the wildfire crises around the world. Climate change leads to increased aridity, prolonged droughts, longer seasonal dry seasons, decreased snow packs and a shift in wind direction and intensity. Wildfires will get increasingly disastrous unless governments around the world tackle climate change in a significant manner. Citizens around the world that have the privilege to vote need to elect leaders that acknowledge the climate crisis and have significant plans to address the many challenges we face. 

Some References

Forest Fires – A Clinical Primer. BC Medical Journal, August 2016

Attribution of the Australia Bushfire Risk to Anthropologic Climate Change. World weather attribution – June 10, 2020

Explainer: How climate change is affecting wildfires around the world – July 14, 2020

A GREEN RECOVERY – THERE IS NO CHOICE

BY – Allan Maynard – July 24, 2020

The international CoVid-19 crisis demonstrates – in real, fast forward time, stark lessons about the consequences of unsustainable development, the limitations of our economic systems and the critical need for informed, evidence based leadership. We have learned the harsh lesson that our dependence on animal protein has placed humans and animals (farmed and in some cases wild) in close proximity allowing viruses to jump from animals to humans who have limited immunity to the new (novel) infections. We have also learned that air pollution is an important contributor to deaths from respiratory viruses such as Covid-19. 

On the positive side, we did observe, for short time – that the tragic pandemic that is causing so much human misery did indeed give Planet Earth a much-needed “breather”. Air pollution levels, especially oxides of nitrogen and fine particulates, were drastically reduced around the world. In Beijing, residents were able see the stars at night, an impossibility for the past number of years. 

We also have seen how rapidly some governments were able to mobilize human resources, infrastructure and financial measures in response to a crisis whilst simultaneously gaining the confidence of their citizens to ensure full cooperation. But, unfortunately we have also seen the dire consequences of bad leadership that has resulted in deadly delays and muddled communications. 

RECOVERY – BUSINESS AS USUAL IS NOT AN OPTION –It is clear that we cannot, in recovering from this pandemic, go back to ‘business as usual”. It was business as usual that got us into this mess

The ever changing nature of the CoVid crisis and the politics involved has, for the past number of months, pushed news about a host of environmental crises (climate change, accelerated extinctions, toxic exposure, micro-plastic pollution and more) off the front pages. This is understandable but also unfortunate. Environmental issues are, and will continue to be, orders of magnitude greater in terms of overall human cost. For example, the combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections (WHO – 2019 report). The numbers associated with climate change due to drought, hurricanes, wild fires, land use degradation and massive human migrations and more are even more worrying but harder to quantify.  

Some facts re climate change:

Carbon Dioxide280 PPM in 1970 // 420 ppm in 2020
Temperature1 degree C higher globally since 1900 / over 7 degrees warmer in parts of the Arctic
Sea IceShrunk by over 1,000,000 sq. miles (2.6 million sq. km)
Sea levelsHave risen over 20 cm since 1900 – flooding in many cities
Fires2019 – tens of millions hectors lost – unprecedented – each year is worse
Heat wavesEach year – more days of extreme heat and more deaths due to the heat
Ocean acidityIncreasing due to carbon dioxide dissolving – threats to sea life / coral bleaching

There are many more stark examples. The main point – we are seeing dramatic levels of damage and health consequences due to environmental degradation and it’s getting worse each year. 

Despite the mountains of evidence, there is still significant denial and/or ignorance of climate change and environmental degradation. In fact we are seeing some governments moving 180 degrees in the wrong direction. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro has decided that it’s a good idea to burn precious Amazon forests to make way for beef farming. In the US, the Trump administration is weakening a host of air, water, land-use and climate change regulations. Around the world, many industries are advocating for even more reductions in health, safety and environmental regulations citing economic “emergency factors” due to the lockdowns.  Moreover, the fossil fuel industry is lobbying for significant portions of economic stimulus funds despite having been heavily subsidized and raking in enormous profits for decades. Unfortunately, some poorly led governments will comply without a consideration for more sustainable options. It does not have to be this way.

A SUSTAINABLE RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE – I am not an economist, but as an environmental scientist, it is clear to me that our conventional economic orthodoxy is failing us in so many ways in terms of addressing the environment (climate change, mass extinctions, water quality and quantity, habitat loss, air quality, etc.), human wellness (health, equality, access to healthy food, happiness), and a sustainable use of resources. 

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the monetary value of all finished goods and services made within a country during a specific period. GDP provides an economic snapshot of a country and thus used to estimate the size of an economy and growth rate. However, GDP does not provide information about the overall wellbeing of a country since activities that are detrimental (like deforestation, strip mining, over-fishing, prison populations, terrorism) actually and strangely increase today’s GDP.

Jonathan Aldred, an economist from Cambridge states that “conventional economic theories have had little to offer. On the contrary, they have acted like a cage around our thinking, vetoing a range of progressive policy ideas as unaffordable, counter-productive, incompatible with free markets, and so on. Worse than that, economics has led us, in a subtle, insidious way, to internalise a set of values and ways of seeing the world that prevents us even imagining various forms of radical change.

Since economic orthodoxy is so completely embedded in our thinking, escape from it demands more than a short-term spending splurge to prevent immediate economic collapse, vital though that is. We must dig deeper to uncover the economic roots of the mess we’re in. Putting it more positively, what do we want from post-coronavirus economics?”

Fortunately – there are many economic thinkers proposing sustainable ways of moving forward. A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them whilst in use, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.

A related but even more progressive concept is the doughnut economy described by Kate Raworth, an English economist working for the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Doughnut economics, is a visual framework for sustainable development – shaped like a doughnut or lifebelt – combining the concept of planetary boundaries with the complementary concept of social boundaries. The name derives from the shape of the diagram, i.e. a disc with a hole in the middle. The centre hole of the model depicts the proportion of people that lack access to life’s essentials (healthcare, education, equality, etc.) while the outer crust represents the ecological ceilings or planetary boundaries that life depends on and must not be overshot.  See visual below.

The framework was proposed to regard the performance of an economy by the extent to which the needs of people are met without overshooting Earth’s ecological ceiling. In this model, an economy is considered prosperous when all social foundations are met without overshooting any of the ecological ceilings. This situation is represented by the area between the two rings, as the safe and just space for humanity.

These types of progressive concepts are not “pie in the sky’. A growing body of technological achievements along with associated financial undertakings underpins them. However there is predictable pushback from those entrenched in the traditional linear economy. The upcoming US election is providing a clear case study about the opposing forces. A ‘New Green Deal’ however it might be finally laid out, is already being branded as ‘socialist’. It is a false narrative as is commonly the case when progressive programs are initially proposed. 

Make no mistake – despite ill-informed pushback, progress on many fronts is already occurring. The price of solar modules has plummeted 99% since the 1970s thanks to forward thinking research, public policy and increasing demand. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the fastest growing occupation over the next 10 years will be solar panel installer. The second: wind turbine technician. Major financial institutions have taken note with investments in renewables growing each year accompanied by decreasing investments in fossil fuels. 

Despite these good news stories, sustainability is nonetheless a political issue. Unfortunately, this is stalling progress. We have observed this exact outcome with the CoVid crisis. Politics lead to a denial followed by a delay in needed action with a deadly outcome.

Policy shifts at all levels of government are needed to speed our transition to clean energy, sustainable and safe food production, proper use of resources and greater equality. Political will and informed planning are needed more than ever now. These goals though can be met. We have the knowledge and the financial resources. Moreover, people can adapt quickly to change once convinced that the change is necessary and even useful. 

LEARNING TO LIVE WITH COVID 19

LIVING WITH COVID — 19

The virus is not going away anytime soon so we have to adjust how we live in order to cope.

By Allan Maynard – June 12, 2020

We have been living with the CoVid-19 virus for over 6 months now and it is still a mystery in many ways. While governments around the world are looking at ways to open up their economies, the scientific community is urging caution and trying its best to keep current with developments. New information is published almost daily – in what many are calling ‘fast science’. Unfortunately, scientists are also having to battle misinformation and wishful thinking coming from some political leaders along with wacky conspiracy theories that are multiplied through social medial platforms – (see previous article on this web site). 

The CoVid-19 pandemic presents one of the clearest examples in modern history regarding the critical need for evidence-based decision-making. In terms of leadership around the response to this pandemic, we are witnessing first-hand – the good, the bad and the ugly. And leadership is critical. Some areas are now benefitting from flattened coronavirus curves. Meanwhile, parts of the US, India, Russia and Latin America are still recording thousands of new cases every day. The first wave of the coronavirus is not over. If anything close to this trend continues, we have to wonder what the threshold will be for many areas to reinstate stay-at-home orders and close businesses again, just as they are starting to reopen. 

The future shape of the pandemic will be decided by informed leadership, human action in the form of social distancing and hygiene, testing and other traditional methods of disease control, but also gaining more knowledge around several unanswered questions about the nature of the virus itself. 

WE KNOW WHAT WORKS TO LIMIT INFECTION RATES — For countries that implemented highly effective interventions such as testing and contact tracing, this first wave of coronavirus cases may be the last they experience, at least for some time. For one example, New Zealand, has managed to virtually eradicate the virus, acting early to implement a lock down and installing robust systems to monitor outbreaks. The country will likely be able to avoid future waves until a vaccine arrives.

Countries with small populations and isolated geography such as New Zealand and Australia may be able to pull this off. South Korea and Taiwan also provide examples whereby virus detection and suppression systems may be advanced enough to smother any future outbreaks. But this will be extremely difficult for most countries, especially those with large populations and porous borders.

We have been fortunate to have such good leadership in BC. We are successfully entering the first phase of re-opening and the numbers of new cases are falling significantly. Moreover we were able to avoid overwhelming our medical facilities. So again – early intervention, science based leadership, adequate testing and contact tracing proved successful. It is worth looking at some numbers (from June 11, 2020) for BC, Canada, USA, Washington State (as this is closest to BC) and New Zealand as mentioned above.

JurisdictionCases /M populationDeaths/M population
B.C53833
Canada2585212
USA6313351
Washington State 2958156
New Zealand3014

            M – million

We can see how successful New Zealand has been even though it is an isolated country and had some advance warning. However it is clear that strong and effective leadership, made the difference. That applies to BC as well. The messaging has been factually constant, consistent, and considerate of people’s concerns. In the messaging, kindness to one another was constantly emphasized and most BC residents have cooperated without reservation.  

To further re-enforce this message of what works is a large study recently published in “Nature” concerning 11 European countries. The authors state the following: “We estimate that, across all 11 countries, between 12 and 15 million individuals have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 up to 4th May, representing between 3.2% and 4.0% of the population. Our results show that major non-pharmaceutical interventions and lockdown in particular have had a large effect on reducing transmission. Continued intervention should be considered to keep transmission of SARS-CoV-2 under control.”

UNDERSTANDING TRANSMISSION – From the early days of this pandemic, the experts have recommended wearing masks, staying at least six feet away from others, washing hands frequently and avoiding crowded spaces. What they’re really saying is: Try to minimize the amount of virus we encounter. It’s likely that a small amount of virus particles will not make us sick as our immune system would react and vanquish the invaders.

But how much virus is needed for an infection to take root? What is the minimum effective dose? A precise answer is impossible, because it’s difficult to capture the moment of infection. 

Not surprisingly, the current body of knowledge is clear that the worst-case scenario for outbreaks have occurred in care homes, cruise ships, prisons, factories, places of worships, large office settings and more – all as a result of people indoors and in close quarters, for a period of time. One oft-quoted case was a choir practice in Washington State wherein one infected person spread the virus to 87 percent of the choir members – with 2 members dying. Recently, in BC Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry revealed the isolation of an outbreak that erupted as a result of a family dinner inside (and outside) a residence. Of the 30 people at the gathering, 15 have become infected. 

There is now a growing concern that the recent protests in cities around the world will also cause spikes in infection rates. Especially worrying is the use of tear gas, which makes people cough whilst in close proximity to one another. There are also major concerns about the prospect of political rallies related to the upcoming election in the US. The first one – an indoor event, is planned for June 19th in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This plan goes against all scientific advice, as it’s likely to produce a virus fog within the facility. The organizers know this and in fact those planning to attend the rally will be required to indemnify the Trump campaign and others involved in the event so they will not be able to sue if they contract coronavirus.

The Achilles Heal – in understanding transmission is the fact that people who are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic are nonetheless spreaders of the virus. For example, one study published  (early June) in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggested asymptomatic people seem to account for 40 to 45 percent of CoVid 19 infections and they can transmit the virus to others for an extended period of time. Another study found 23 percent of transmissions in Shenzhen, China were from asymptomatic people. Also, a study published in Nature found people shed the virus most when their symptoms are mild (likely pre-symptomatic).

Apart from avoiding crowded indoor spaces, most experts are now claiming the most effective protocols are to practise good hygiene and to wear masks.   Even if masks don’t fully shield us from droplets loaded with virus, they can cut down the amount we receive, and perhaps bring it below the infectious dose.

SO MUCH MORE TO LEARN – There is so much more to learn about the CoVid 19.  It is reassuring to know that there are significant research undertakings on many fronts and in many countries that should provide better tests, drug therapies, a clear understanding of immunity and hopefully an eventual vaccine. All this will take time. Some points:

  • Immunity — Recent data shows that fewer than 10% of populations in countries studied have developed the antibodies that would be evidence of having caught the virus and, in theory, becoming immune for at least a short time. That also means the vast majority of populations remain susceptible.
  • Immunity – There is not yet a clear understanding of immunity to the CoVid 19. Resistance to some earlier discovered coronaviruses has been thought to fade within a year. This could be a concern with respect to a vaccine if the resulting immunity is short-lived. 
  • By age – CoVid-19 is definitely a disease of the elderly. Recent analysis is showing that the chance of a person over 75 dying from this disease is 10,000 times likely than it is for a 15 year old
  • Children – Emerging evidence suggests children are not significant transmitters of Covid-19. These data, coupled with the enormous adverse impacts of continuing closures, argue for reopening schools by fall of 2020. Of about 400,000 Covid-19 deaths worldwide, only about two-dozen children are known to have died. Moreover reports of serious complications among young people are statistically rare and, if detected early, most afflicted youths recover within weeks. It is hoped that more will be learned from the recent partial reopening of schools in many locations that can thereby help to aid in decisions for a more widespread opening. 
  • Drug Therapies – Trials are now under way for a number of antiviral drugs that were developed to deal with other diseases but are now being repurposed in the hope that they can be used to tackle Covid-19. Results are expected in a few months. If successful, some of these could help cut death rates. It should also be noted that hydroxyl-cholorquine, despite the very strangely hyped promotion by President Trump appears to be an unlikely therapy and may even cause heart issues when used. 
  • Vaccines – the holy-grail – At last count there are over 100 initiatives around the world to develop a successful and effective vaccine. With testing underway on five short-listed experimental vaccines in China and four in the United States, the race to produce a vaccine for Covid-19 has taken on political dimensions that echo jockeying for technological dominance during the Cold War. Moreover – both countries are also taking huge financial risks to scale up production of possible vaccines even before they know any are safe and effective — a gambit to ensure their citizens won’t have to wait. “We’re going to start manufacturing doses of the vaccines way before we even know that the vaccine works,” Anthony S. Fauci said in an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association. Most experts agree though – the prospect of a vaccine is IF – not WHEN. They also predict that it will be at least another year away. But who knows, perhaps with so much effort worldwide, it could come sooner. We can only hope. 
  • Seasonality – Most influenzas spread more easily in the winter because the virus is thought to prefer dry air over humidity, and because people in cold environments spend more time indoors and close to each other. Existing coronaviruses (common cold) also follow seasonal patterns. If this coronavirus behaves in the same way – and there is not yet strong evidence that it does – we could see some improvements at least in the Northern Hemisphere. However these is significant information to contradict this hypothesis. CoVid 19 infections are increasing in many warm climates – such as Brazil, Texas and Arizona. The point is, the vast majority of people around the world are still susceptible. 

It can seem very discouraging indeed to face the prospect of having to deal with this pandemic for an undetermined period of time. However there’s a degree of hope with respect to drug therapies and vaccines. Moreover we know what we must do to control and even contain this virus. We are learning to take the needed intervention measures and yet still return to some semblance of normality. We should in time be able to safely open schools, do some limited local travel, have small groups visitors in our homes and most importantly see loved ones that we have been separated from. However, we must be prudent to note that most of society is still susceptible. Thus – a return to political rallies, major sporting events, concerts, extensive air travel, cruising, and hosting large gatherings, will (or should) not be considered for some time. Our elected leaders must recognize this reality and adhere to the advice coming from the medical experts. As we can see from the numbers presented in the table above – leadership and societal cooperation make the difference. 

COVID 19 – MYTHS LIES AND PROFOUND BULLSHIT

COVID 19 – MYTHS, LIES AND PROFOUND BULLSHIT

Allan Maynard, May 18, 2020

The CoVid 19 pandemic presents one of the clearest examples in modern history regarding the critical need for evidence based decision-making. Unfortunately, the presentation of scientific evidence has often been undermined by deadly denial (see paper – on this web site – Deny Delay Deadly), misinformation about the consequences of such denial and even outright wacky conspiracy theories.  As citizens and voters, we need to be vigilant in seeking out the truth by using trusted sources. 

Wacky Conspiracies 

A documentary-style video called ‘Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind COVID-19′ has been removed by social media platforms after peddling potentially dangerous conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic. The documentary features a Dr. Mikovits’, a discredited scientist who states that the coronavirus pandemic was planned. In the video, she claims that the virus was created in a laboratory, that wearing masks actually makes people sick, and that flu vaccines increase people’s odds of contracting COVID-19. No medical or scientific evidence exists to support any of Mikovits’ claims in the video.

An even more whacky conspiracy claims that the pandemic is really caused by the rollout of 5G (high speed -5th Generation Cellular) networks around the world.  Despite there being no scientific links, a number of 5G towers have been set on fire. The 5G conspiracies make no sense whatsoever. The virus is spreading in countries without access to 5G – in other words – the correlation falls apart.

It is indeed a head-scratcher to understand the motivations for such nonsense let alone fathom how these wacky theories gain traction – but they do. And with social media, the false information spreads quickly. Our willingness to share content without thinking is exploited to spread various forms of disinformation.

Lacking Leadership 

It does not help when we have world leaders also peddling misinformation. When the President of the United States promotes unproven drug therapies and even muses about injecting sanitizing chemicals to kill the virus, the implications are worrying. The scientific community is understandably growing increasingly frustrated. This frustration boiled over when, on May 16, the Lancet, perhaps the preeminent international medical journal, took an unprecedented step and published a front page editorial calling on the US administration to properly recognize science and even concluded by stating “Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics.”

The lack of evidence-based leadership in the USA, the UK, Russia, China, Brazil and others has resulted in enhanced infection rates in these and other countries. For example, Brazil, led by a full-on anti-science president, now has more CoVid cases than China. The United States accounts for about 4.25% of the world’s population, but currently has about 29% of the confirmed deaths from the disease.

Information Disorder

What we are dealing with here is a pandemic of information disorder.  It has sprouted a whole new area of investigation in how lies originate and spread. Generally, the language commonly used to discuss misinformation problems can be too simplistic. Effective research and interventions require clear definitions, yet many people use the problematic phrase “fake news.” Used by politicians around the world to attack a free press, the term is dangerous. Recent research shows that audiences increasingly connect it with the mainstream media. It is often used as a catchall to describe things that are not the same, including lies, rumours, hoaxes, misinformation, conspiracies and propaganda, but it also papers over nuance and complexity.

The 3 main categories of untruths is well presented in a paper by Clare Wardle in Scientific American entitled “Misinformation Has Created A New World Disorder” The following schematic is from this article.

Most of what we are dealing with in the context of the science associated with CoVid 19 crisis and in the push back against climate change science is mainly that overlapping area in the circles of misinformation and disinformation. 

Understanding the motives for the lies

For the most part, the misinformation and disinformation can be understood in terms of the motives of those initiating the falsehoods. Withstanding the wacky conspiracy theories the motivations regarding the falsehoods by politicians are not all that difficult to discern. 

Initially – the motivations were all about money. The denial or initial downplaying of the CoVid crisis by a number of leaders (USA, UK, Russia, China, Brazil, Italy and more) is well documented and for certain linked to a determination to protect markets. See paper on this web site – Denial, Delay, Deadly. Of course we all know now that the denial strategy backfired.

Now that the virus has spread around the world, the motivation for the spread of misinformation and disinformation is to distract and even cover-up mistakes that were made and also to offer optimism even though not backed up by science.  A few examples:

  • The world cup of testing – an example of exaggeration. You would think in watching the news that testing rates is now an international competition. Donald Trump has falsely stated a number of times that the US has done more testing than any other country. His latest  – more than twice as much testing as all other countries combined. This is not even remotely true. Moreover, it’s irrelevant. The correct metric is tests per capita and the US is improving but still is not doing enough. (Some numbers – US – 36,000 tests per million population, Canada – about the same, Italy 50,000, Denmark – 80,000). Most scientists point to Denmark as the benchmark to attain or even exceed. 
  • Miracle cures – an example of wishful thinking – Despite cautions by medical experts, there has been a dangerous promotion by many in politics citing so called evidence that malaria drugs can treat the CoVid virus. This caused a major run on supplies creating dangerous shortages in some countries. Results from a number of studies, including the first randomized controlled trial, are providing further evidence that the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine may not help COVID-19 patients and in fact can cause premature deaths from heart problems. 
  • Origin of CoVid 19 – an example of the blame game. China and Russia initially blamed the USA. The Trump administration has continued to claim the virus came from a lab in Wuhan although it has recently backed off this stance. The evidence strongly suggests the source of the corona virus is bats. A new University of California study finds that bats have a fierce immune response to viral infections, which likely causes the viruses to replicate more rapidly. 

These are only 3 examples – there are many more especially in other crises such as climate change. It is disconcerting to see how these lies spread and even more so, how they are blindly believed. But, in many ways it’s not surprising. Social scientists and propagandists have long known that humans are wired to respond to emotional triggers and share misinformation if it reinforces existing beliefs and prejudices. The success of the purveyors of falsehoods also relies on people’s cognitive dissonance – when someone feels genuine mental discomfort when confronted with a view that upends their viewpoint or belief system. So – an alternative story winds up being believed even if lacking in facts. 

No government could have been completely ready for the pandemic, but taking the public for fools is destroying trust. The truth is out there if we are willing to dig – using fact-check sites, listening to medical experts and trusting our own instincts not be fooled by bullshit even if it appears profound.  

UPDATE ON TESTING FOR COVID 19

UPDATE ON TESTING FOR COVID-19
Allan Maynard – May 8th, 2020


There is a great deal of new information along with political noise about testing for the CoVid 19. For the past 6 weeks, almost all countries have been in various forms of lock-down; in some cases a complete shut down. Understandably there is desire by most citizens to be able to safely move past this phase and return to some sense of normality, however that may be defined for our post CoVid future. Most medical experts caution though, that the key to slowly re-opening our economies is to significantly ramp up testing, followed by quarantining those who test positive and additionally tracing and testing their contacts.


For most countries, the testing frequency is insufficient despite the statements of some politicians. Some examples – testing totals per 1000 citizens as of May 3rd, 2020 – Italy -34, Germany – 30, USA – 20, Canada – 22, South Korea – 12, France – 11. The South Korea numbers may seem low in comparison but that country was very quick to implement widespread testing, combined with combined with contact tracing and isolation which enabled the country to ‘flatten the curve’ (slow infection rates) much earlier than other countries. The USA had a slow start due to a defective test system but is now catching up. The UK also had a late start. Both countries have unfortunately, been following an infection trajectory comparable to Italy.


According to most medical experts, even though testing numbers increased through April, the numbers are still insufficient to allow a substantial opening of commerce. For instance – the USA has now conducted just over 6 million tests in total but the target should really closer to 1 million per day (about 10 times more than over the past 2.5 months). France is now conducting 700,000 tests per week. In the UK the target is 100,000 tests per day. Canada has set a goal of over 500,000 tests per week. It should be noted however that increased testing will not have the desired outcome unless it is accompanied by contact tracing and isolation. Moreover, herd immunity, an epidemiological concept that describes the state where a population is sufficiently immune, will not be possible until a vaccine is available – likely 1.5 years away at the earliest.


To meet the ever-increasing demand for more testing, research has expanded around the globe to produce more, better and faster tests. The latest count – there are over 60 forms of the viral swab PCR tests and over 130 forms of the antibody tests. Many of these have been introduced without undergoing full approval processes in the various countries. In the USA – the FDA provides an “Emergency Use Application (EMA)” for many of the new tests. This can be sensible in such dire situations as long as the tests’ performance characteristics are very carefully monitored.
So – how are the various tests performing?


THE PCR TEST FOR THE COVID 19 VIRUS – MAIN ISSUE – FALSE NEGATIVES. – As described in my earlier blog, the first type of test introduced worldwide, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, diagnoses CoVid infections by analyzing virus material in mucous collected from the nose and/or back of the throat. The test then isolates the genetic components of the virus and converts it into DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid). Then, using “polymerase enzymes”, the DNA is duplicated again and again so that there’s enough to be detected (if it is present at all). This process is known as “amplification.”


The inherent issue with this test is that the incidence of false negatives can be high. This makes sense. If a patient is tested too early in the disease, there may not be a sufficient viral load to be detectable. If a patient is tested later in the disease, the viral material is likely concentrated more in the lungs and trachea and thus may not be isolated.
Furthermore, there are now a number of more rapid PRC tests on the market without the same degree of amplification of the DNA. This may mean there is less genetic material within the test, for detection. There are now a number of studies underway or reported that show the incidence of false positives can be significant. In the early stages of the pandemic, Chinese scientists published a paper that found the false negative rate of some of the tests conducted at the Third People’s Hospital in Shenzhen, southern China, between Jan. 11 and Feb. 3, were as high as 40 percent.


More recent studies (University of Cleveland, Mayo Clinic) calculate a false positive rate of closer to 15% and stress the need for follow-up tests to reduce the health risk created by infected people mistakenly being told they are infection-free. This objective of repeated testing is hampered by the shortage of supplies needed to conduct the PCR tests. Many who should be re-tested or even initially tested, are not able to do so.


These problems may seem untenable but that is not the case. The PCR test is highly complex. The global developments to expand testing and speed up test results are impressive. The main point, the limitations of the test must be well understood and further assessed as we deal with the CoVid health crisis.


ANTIBODY TESTING – MAIN ISSUE IS FALSE POSITIVES – The second kind of test involves testing blood samples for the presence of antibodies to the virus. Antibodies are evidence of the body’s reaction to an infection. The presence of CoVid antibodies might then suggest that the person is now immune to the virus. It should be cautioned however, that the notion of immunity to the CoVid virus being acquired through infection is only, for now, an assumption based on past experience with other viruses. No scientific studies have confirmed this hypothesis yet. Nonetheless – serology testing for antibodies is a critical part of national testing programs.


Antibody testing is generally less complex and certainly more rapid that testing for the virus itself (the PCR test). In fact there are even test kits on the market that are similar to home pregnancy tests. Most kits however, involve the need for a blood sample to be collected with a finger prick, which is then analysed in a lab setting. However, as stated above most of the new tests on the market have bypassed the needed oversight.


The issue is that many of the new tests have a high rate of false positives. This makes sense given the many types of antibodies in our blood stream, with some, such as the common cold corona virus, very similar in structure to the CoVid virus. Of the 12 antibody tests that were studied by the CoVid testing project in the USA, one of the tests gave false positives more than 15% of the time, or in about one out of seven samples. Three other tests gave false positives more than 10% of the time.


It is a work in progress though and some of the larger firms (Roche, Abbot and others) seem to be close to getting full approval by organizations such as WHO, and the FDA. It seems likely that by June 2020, there will be more reliability in antibody testing.


NEW APPROACH – TESTING FOR COVID GENETIC MATERIAL IN BLOOD SAMPLES – In what could be a significant breakthrough is a blood-based test that will be able to detect the virus’s presence as early as 24 hours after infection – before people show symptoms and several days before a carrier is considered capable of spreading it to other people. In other words — around four days before current tests can detect the virus.


The test has emerged from a project set up by the US military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) aimed at rapid diagnosis of germ or chemical warfare poisoning. It was hurriedly repurposed when the pandemic broke out. The new test is expected to be forwarded for emergency use approval (EUA) by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 2020.


Like the viral test, the new blood test hunts for the virus’s RNA (Ribonucleic acid) — in this case it is messenger RNA (mRNA). “Target mRNA is part of the immune response to viral infection,” a Darpa representative said. The test needs about 1 ml of blood – thus blood collection would need to be done in a clinical setting. More will be known about this potential test by June 2020.

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In summary – testing for the CoVid virus is expanding in scope and the tests are improving in terms of their reliability. However the limitations of the tests must be fully considered in analysing data concerning infection rates and disease mitigation measures.

TODAY IS EARTH DAY

TODAY IS EARTH DAY – IN THE MIDST OF A GLOBAL PANDEMIC.  By Allan Maynard, April 22nd, 2020

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Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. By many measures our planet’s environment is having one of its best earth days in decades. The tragic pandemic that is causing so much human misery is also giving Planet Earth a rest – a much needed “breather”. Air pollution levels, as confirmed around the world, have been reduced drastically. Of special note is the reduction of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) along with fine particulate matter.  In Beijing, residents can see the stars at night, an impossibility, even a few months ago. Also impossible a few months ago, fish can be clearly seen swimming in the canals of Venice. Yes – Planet Earth is experiencing a reprieve. 

But, these outcomes give us little comfort. They come with a tragic cost from an invisible enemy. An enemy that has caused a global pandemic. We can however learn about earth’s ability to begin healing as we plan for the future beyond CoVid 19. 

Earth Day was initiated on April 22, 1970. I can remember the euphoria of this recognition – with millions (20 million in the US alone – 10% of the population) marching around the world. I can recall clearly watching the symbolic act of students burying a brand new yellow Ford Maverick in San Jose, California.  I can also recall being among more than a thousand like-minded students at Simon Fraser University and deciding then and there that I will enter the field of environmental science.   

In 1970, the planet was home to 3.7 billion people. There were about 200 million cars on the road and oil consumption was around 45 million barrels a day. Today there are over 8 billion people on earth along with 1.5 billion cars. Meat consumption has almost quadrupled and fish stocks are being depleted. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has increased from 280 parts per million in 1970 to over 420 ppm today thereby warming the planet. Arctic sea ice has shrunk by over a million square miles. Sea levels are rising faster than most predictive models resulting in ‘sunny day flooding’ from unusually high tides in many cities around the world. In 1970 it was rare to see wild fires that burned more than 100,000 acres. In 2019, fires burning in California, Australia and even Siberia have ravaged tens of millions of acres. There are many more stark examples but – the main point – we are seeing dramatic levels of damage due to environmental degradation and it’s getting worse each year. Over the past 50 years we have demanded more and more from Planet Earth and we are paying the price all over the globe. A case could even be made that this current pandemic is one such price. 

Despite the mountains of evidence, we are still seeing significant denial of climate change and environmental degradation. In fact we are seeing some governments moving 180 degrees in the wrong direction. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro has decided that it’s a good idea to burn precious Amazon forests to make way for beef farming. In the US, the Trump administration is weakening a host of air, water, land-use and climate change regulations. How can anyone make sense of these kinds of ludicrous decisions?  

We already know how deadly denial, delay and even defiance, can be as we review the responses to the CoVid crisis. In fact, the analogy between the two crises is eerily precise. First there is denial of the problem, followed by deadly delay. Then it’s argued that it’s too costly to the economy to tackle the problem. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself’ became the mantra that greatly exacerbated the problem (of CoVid) itself. Both crises show, in stark reality, the threats of catastrophes arising from the clash of nature and modern human activity.

The two crises are also related in other ways. High levels of air pollution may be “one of the most important contributors” to deaths from Covid-19, according to some recent research. For example recent research from the Martin Luther University in Germany shows that, of the coronavirus deaths across 66 administrative regions in Italy, Spain, France and Germany, 78% of them occurred in just five regions, and these were the most polluted. The research examined levels of nitrogen dioxide, a pollutant produced mostly by diesel vehicles, along with weather conditions that can prevent dirty air from dispersing away from a city. Short-term exposure to nitrogen oxides can lead to irritated respiratory systems, while prolonged exposure can aggravate respiratory diseases, particularly asthma, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This lung damage can, in turn, exacerbate the attacks by any respiratory virus – including CoVid-19.  

For now, environmental degradation and climate change issues have been temporarily pushed aside. However, it is vital that we acknowledge, that these issues will be orders of magnitude greater in terms of overall human cost. The combined effects of ambient (outdoor) and household air pollution cause about 7 million premature deaths every year, largely as a result of increased mortality from stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and acute respiratory infections (WHO – 2019 report). The numbers associated with climate change due to drought, hurricanes, wild fires, land use degradation and more are even more worrying but harder to predict.  

For these crises we need good leaders who embrace a vision for the future. Certainly we know that we cannot, in recovering from this pandemic, go back to ‘business as usual”. It was business as usual that got us into this mess. As such, we need to remove politicians who impede progress by denying problems identified by good science, even exist. That must be the pledge for this 50th anniversary of Earth Day

DENIAL DELAY DEADLY


Allan Maynard, MSc. April 17, 2020


It is impossible to escape the daily barrage of news about the CoVid Pandemic unless we were to add an additional dimension to our isolation by turning off all screens and cancelling all publications. In following the news outlets we are seeing examples of informed, decisive leadership. We are also seeing examples of responses riddled with muddled misinformation and untruths. For certain, the muddled responses are providing us with the clearest examples of the dreaded “Ds”: DENIAL (the problem does not exist); DELAY (we don’t know for certain – let’s wait and see and not disturb the economy), DODGE or DEFLECT (the questions that then come) – all leading to DEADLY OUTCOMES. Clearly, the need for evidence-based decision-making is critical with this kind of crisis.


Risk Assessment – it would be expected that progressive governance involves sound policies around societal risk assessment. Broadly speaking, risk assessment is the combined effort of identifying and analyzing potential events that may negatively impact individuals, assets and/or the environment followed by making judgments on the tolerability of such risks. Another way of putting it – prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. It is frustrating indeed to consider how different things might look had these principals been rigorously applied. Of course hindsight is 20/20 and casting back can look like a blame game. However it is a necessary exercise to acknowledge the many failings that have exacerbated this mess. That is the only way to learn for future planning.


There has been extensive research around the world and particularly in China about zoonotic corona viruses – especially the role of bats as primary carriers. The CoVid 19 virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December, and is thought through most investigations (but not all) to have leapt to humans at a seafood and wild-animal market (Huanan Market), where many of the first people to become infected, worked. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, the Chinese government closed wet markets and banned the ‘farming’ of wildlife. But this ban was later reversed. This is a clear failing in terms of risk management. While it is not straightforward to close these markets, the Chinese government had over 17 years to work on solutions to this, but denial and complacency set in.


The first signs of danger associated with this new (novel) corona virus were probably detected in November or early December, 2019. The Chinese government first tried to keep it quiet (and contained?) and even silenced one of the early researchers that made the information public (a Dr. Li Wenliang who later died of the disease). The Chinese first notified the World Health Organization (WHO) on December 31, 2019. This should have been done sooner. Moreover they did not initially reveal that human-to-human transfer was occurring – likely because of lack of evidence of such.


By January 23rd, 2020 Wuhan was in full lock down and the virus had spread to other countries – mostly in Asia. Despite this WHO decided that it was ‘too early’ to declare a global health emergency. This was then declared a week later but without recommending trade and travel restrictions, claiming these would be an unnecessary disruption. As well, from December 31 to January 14th, WHO and China stated that there was no clear evidence of human-human transfer. By January 23rd however, this statement was updated with the warning of clear evidence of human-to-human infection.


By March 11, WHO declared the outbreak to be a Global Pandemic. By then the CoVid virus was found in almost all countries with infections rates often doubling every 2 to 4 days. At least by then, WHO had developed a fairly reliable test, which was rapidly put to use in many afflicted countries. Those (example South Korea and Taiwan) that did extensive testing, followed by quarantine and contact tracing – along with social distancing and lock downs, demonstrated an ability to start reducing infection rates. But many of the European countries were slow to accept the gravity of the CoVid virus and infection rates ramped up drastically and rapidly.


By some measures the responses from early January through February can seem acceptable but not through the lens of rigorous risk management. The most significant failings in retrospect were the warnings about human-to-human transfer. Because of the similarity of the CoVid 19 to SARs, it would have been prudent to assume human-to-human transfer right from the onset. The primary obstacle to taking more drastic action at some of the critical points seemed to be the fear of disrupting the economy. Initial denial and delay were evident from the onset. Of course – the delays made both the health crisis and the economy much worse.


In no country was the denial/delay/dodge strategy more glaring that the USA. That is because President Trump, from mid- January until around March 10th, verbalized the denial almost daily. Six to eight precious weeks were mostly squandered. This was made worse by the unfortunate roll out of a faulty test protocol. Now the USA has the most cases worldwide and one of the highest rates of infection. These failings cannot now be re-written.


Claims by Trump and his administration that they could not possibly have been ready for this pandemic and was then misinformed by WHO, are incorrect. Seven days before Donald Trump took office, his incoming team faced a sober briefing from the outgoing Obama administration about the possibility of a global pandemic and the need to be prepared. The Obama administration had learned from the H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks. As such, the Obama administration had created a pandemic preparedness team within the White House that was then ‘reorganized’ in 2018 with the loss of expertise. Moreover, the US embassy in China initially had a large team of health professionals which was then cut over 60% by the Trump administration thereby removing expertise that would have been ‘on the ground’ at the onset of the outbreak. Furthermore – in 2018/19 a pandemic simulation conducted by the Dept. Of Health and Human Services showed the nation was unprepared for a pandemic, according to a critical draft assessment. The exercise, code named “Crimson Contagion,” had eerie similarities to the current real-life coronavirus pandemic. As well, a program funded by USAID (named PREDICT) that was set up to investigate corona viruses in bats and pangolins, was cancelled in 2019.
The failings in response to this pandemic are wide spread and in many locations continuing. In most cases the failings have resulted in denial leading to delay. Delay is not an option in fighting a pandemic. It’s deadly. Time matters. Expertise matters. Evidence based decision-making matters. The countries that were much more successful in dealing with this crisis such as Germany, South Korea, Taiwan and others, prove this.


The corona virus pandemic has brought a definite urgency to the defining political question of our age: how to deal with risk on a global scale. For certain, this question also applies to climate change, which is an even greater crisis in the making. There can be no question about that. The CoVid pandemic is a crisis in fast-forward whereas climate change has been building over 50 years and counting. But the same principles of risk assessment and evidence-based decision-making, apply. Denial followed by delay of both crises is deadly.

TESTING FOR THE CORONA VIRUS

TESTING FOR THE COVID 19 VIRUS

April 2, 2020 – Allan Maynard, MSc. 

This is a topic of great interest to me because my career was in the field of measurement science – in my case measurements for environmental contaminants. Reliable measurements are required for many aspects of our lives from ensuring safety of foods, medicines, infrastructure, water supplies and of course to the monitoring of our health. Now testing is critical for the CoVid 19 pandemic.

It has become increasingly evident that reliable, wide spread testing is one of the key strategies to slow down the rate of infection from the CoVid -19 virus. Germany is one of the best examples of this. Germany’s preparedness was helped in part by an early recognition that coronavirus was likely to become a global problem. Lacking a gene sequence for the new virus, the German team designed their first test kit based on SARS and other known coronaviruses. The protocol was published by WHO (World Health Organization) on January 17, even before the Chinese had a test. By the end of February, the Germans were producing 1.5 million test kits per week. Globally – Germany is among the lowest in infection and mortality rates. 

Another of the earliest tests was developed in mainland China by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control, and details of it were posted on the World Health Organization website on January 24, just after the Wuhan lockdown was announced. Fortunately, we are seeing unprecedented speed in CoVid research thanks in large part to early Chinese efforts to sequence the genetic material of the virus that causes Covid-19. China shared that sequence in early January, allowing research groups around the world to grow the live virus. Having this viral material has resulted in research groups around the world to work on developing tests.

HOW DOES THE CURRENT TEST WORK? – A short biochemistry lesson.

The shorts version – a swab is used to collect viral material from the back of the nose, the swab is sent to a lab that isolates the genetic component. The genetic material is rapidly grown (replicated) and then detected by very specific dyes. 

A more complete description – For a patient, the process of being tested for the virus is easy and can potentially be done anywhere. It is the same basic protocol used to test for other viral infections. It typically involves taking a swab from deep in a patient’s nasal cavity to collect cells from the back of the nose. The sample is then sent to a lab, where it will be tested to determine if the patient’s cells are infected with the virus. 

The swabs are then tested in specialized labs that are able to look for genetic material. The genetic material in the CoVid 19 virus is called RNA – (Ribonucleic Acid). RNA and DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid) are nucleic acids and, along with lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates constitute the macromolecules essential for all life. 

In the test – the RNA must be converted to DNA. The DNA then replicates itself millions upon millions of times until there is enough genetic material for detection. The method is referred to as “polymerase chain reaction” or PCR.  The PCR test was developed by Kary Mullis from California who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993 for this important discovery.   

The resulting genetic material during the PCR chain reaction binds with a special fluorescent dyes. During the test the fluorescence increases and the genetic material amplifies. There are variations of this test in terms of the way the chain reaction is carried out and in the manner by which the genetic material (DNA – from the RNA) is detected. 

The turn around time for this standard test (as is the case for most other viral tests) usually  24 to 72 hours – mainly because of the need to transport the samples to special labs and high volume in these labs. This is clearly has not  been adequate and more rapid tests are in development – see below. 

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE USA?

As mentioned, China developed its own test. The WHO first adopted a test from German researchers in mid-January. These 2 protocols were basically adopted by other countries in order to produce their own tests.  Some countries simply used tests provided by WHO. 

The CDC (Center for Disease Control) made the decision to develop its own test towards the end of January with the intention of being the conduit for testing in the US. But there were warnings that the CDC would struggle to keep up with the volume of screening and should focus on working with private industry to develop easy-to-use, rapid diagnostic tests that can be made available to providers. Unfortunately, the CDC did the opposite. When it became clear that testing had to be ramped up, the CDC created tests kits for distribution to state labs.  It soon became evident that the test kits sent were not reliable (faulty reagents). This meant that only the CDC could carry out the initial test work. As such the testing had to be restricted to only ‘high-risk patients’ who had recently travelled from China. CDC was ‘back to the drawing board and valuable weeks were lost.

This was a significant set back for the US and is one of the reasons the US has one of the highest rates of infection in the world. Fortunately, this is rapidly changing with more widespread testing now occurring. 

TESTING NOW GREATLY ENHANCED AROUND THE WORLD

The short version – due to the urgency of this crisis government incentives were rapidly in place for research organizations and the private sector to develop more rapid and portable test methods. There are a number of these methods now coming on-line. It is encouraging. 

A more complete version – Human ingenuity can be amazing when we face a crisis. The research efforts pertaining the CoVid virus around the world has been more than impressive. Now testing protocols have been developed in many countries with 2 main objectives in mind – 1) much more rapid and 2) being portable for use in multi-locations. For the most part – the technology is the same in that the tests focus on identifying viral genetic material. It’s the overall process that has improved in a major way. Here are just 2 examples but needless to say, there are many more. 

Abbot Labs – USA – Recently (3 days ago), Abbot Labs announced a new test kit. The “ID NOW” machine as it has been dubbed can test samples one at a time. A health care provider would use a swab to take a sample from a sick patient’s nose or throat and then mix the swab into a chemical solution that breaks open the virus and releases its genetic material. The sample is then placed into the ID NOW instrument, which uses a special “isothermal technology” to replicate and amplify, if present in the sample, the small section of the virus’ genetic sequences in order to quickly detect whether a person is positive or negative for COVID-19. Such a test will allow frontline health care workers to see a patient, quickly diagnose them and make immediate decisions regarding treatment and care, thus helping prevent further transmission of the virus to other people. 

Simon Fraser University – Simon Fraser University researchers will use their pioneering imaging technology — called ‘Mango’, for its bright colour — to develop coronavirus testing kits. They’re among a small set of Canadian researchers who responded to the rapid funding opportunity recently announced by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to help address COVID-19. The latest research, involves using special reagents to detect individual molecules of RNA within a living cell. Dubbed the “Mango system’ it consists of an RNA Mango aptamer. Aptamers are short, single-stranded DNA or RNA molecules that can selectively bind to a specific target — in this case a special dye. The aptamer acts like a magnet – targeting and binding those dye molecules. The dye becomes excitable when bound and glows brightly. RNA molecules modified to contain the aptamer ‘magnet’ now stand out from the other parts of the cell, which makes it much easier for researchers to see and study RNA molecules under a microscope.

WHAT ABOUT A BLOOD TEST?

Short version – blood samples can be collected and tested for antibodies that are formed if a person is infected with the virus. The test mainly determines if a person had the disease rather that for use in early detection. 

A more complete version – Blood tests can be very rapid and in some ways easier to get a reliable sample. To do a blood test for the CoVid 19 virus would involve analysing for antibodies to the virus. An antibody, also known as an immunoglobulin, is a large, Y-shaped protein produced mainly by plasma cells and used by the immune system to neutralize pathogens such as pathogenic bacteria and viruses.

Antibody tests are different from the typical diagnostic tests used to determine whether someone has COVID-19. As mentioned above, the latter involves taking samples of mucus and saliva and running a test in a lab to see if those samples contain the coronavirus’ genomic sequence. A serological test, on the other hand, can tell whether a person has coronavirus antibodies in 10 to 15 minutes. In some ways the test can be developed along the lines of a home pregnancy test.

To create the test, the researchers began by designing a slightly altered version of the “spike” protein on the CoVid 19 outer coat. They also isolated the short piece of the spike protein called the receptor-binding domain (RBD), which the virus uses to attach to cells it tries to invade. They then used cell lines to produce large quantities of the altered spike proteins and RBDs. Those lab-made molecules provided the basis for the test, in which antibodies in a sample of blood or plasma trigger a color change when they recognize a target protein.

This test is being used extensively in New York. But it’s main objective will be to determine who has had the disease.  It will not provide early detection as it takes time for the antibodies to form in the blood stream of an infected patient. 

WHAT ABOUT THE RELIABILITY OF THE TESTS

Tests are generally judged in terms of their sensitivity, accuracy (or in this case specificity) and precision (applies to quantitative tests). 

The tests are proven to be “sensitive” in laboratory conditions — in this case, a technical measure of the smallest amount of the target virus they can detect. The tests must also be “specific” — for example, ensuring they do not mistake other pathogens, such as the cold coronaviruses, for the new CoVid 19 virus.

The genetic tests being used are typically very sensitive and specific under lab conditions, but in the real world, how the swab was done and the stage of illness the person was in can make a big difference. To complicate the situation, there isn’t one test.  Many different tests are now being used by commercial laboratories, hospital labs and governments around the world.  The interpretation of the results will therefore depend on not just the test, but other external factors. 

The tests have not been around long enough to know precise information about the sensitivity and selectivity of each one. The rule of thumb that seems to becoming adopted is to assume a 5% chance of false negatives. In essence if a sick patient get’s a negative result, they should be tested again. That is acceptable given the urgency of our situation.

It is encouraging to see how quickly researchers have stepped in to enhance testing around the world. It will make a difference. 

CORONA VIRUS – BASIC FACTS AND UPDATES

THE CORONA VIRUS – BASIC FACTS 

By Allan Maynard                March, 2020 

Updated – March 29th, 2020. 

I have made some updates to my article that was initially posted on March 14, 2020. The new information is in blue font. So much has changed over the past 2 weeks. It is very difficult to keep up. In many cases – do we really want to focus on such dire news? But we must. 

There is a great deal of concern and even hysteria about the spread of the corona virus. I have done a lot of research on the topic and decided to collect the information for those interested. I have a strong personal interest in this topic given that my wife is in a care home and I am currently not allowed to visit. Should we worry? Yes – to the point that we take precautions and listen to the advice coming from medical authorities. Should we panic? No – it will be temporary and the disease does seem to be peaking in China and South Korea. Moreover, the majority of those infected do not need hospitalization. 

There’s no doubt though that this outbreak is upending our lives in ways that we could not have guessed even 1 month ago. There has never been a better of example of why we need evidence based decision-making. The following is the evidence taken from reputable sites such as the WHO (World Health Organization) and others. 

What is a corona virus?

Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases. The current crisis is due to a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.  

Researchers first isolated human coronaviruses in the 1960s, and for a long time they were considered generally mild. Mostly, it resulted in a cold. But the most famous coronaviruses (SARS, MERS and this one – CoVid19) are the ones that jumped from animals to humans.

NOTE – SARS – Sever Acute Respiratory Syndrome – outbreak in 2003

            MERS – Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – outbreak in 2012

The name comes from the ‘studded spikes’ within the virus. It looks like a ring when viewed under an electron microscope – like a crown (corona is Latin for crown). The current corona virus outbreak – the virus was initially called novel corona virus because it is new (novel). It was more recently recently given the name CoVid 19.

Names of outbreaks matter!  This is why there has been a significant outcry when a number of politicians and media personalities have been referring to this outbreak as the “Chinese Virus” of the “Wuhan Virus”. In 2015, the World Health Organization issued guidelines on how to name diseases. These guidelines stipulated that the names should NOT single out particular human populations, places, animals or food. Names that commit those sins often wind up being wrong but by then the damage can be done.

Consider for example the so-called “Spanish” Flu. That name came from a major misunderstanding.  Spain was one of only a few major European countries to remain neutral during World War I. Unlike in the Allied and Central Powers nations, where wartime censors suppressed news of the flu to avoid affecting morale, the Spanish media was free to report on it in gory detail. Since nations undergoing a media blackout could only read in-depth accounts from Spanish news sources, they naturally assumed that the country was the pandemic’s ground zero. The Spanish, meanwhile, believed the virus had spread to them from France, so they took to calling it the “French Flu.” But there is also evidence that it started in the United States since the first known case was reported on March 11, 1918 – in an army base in Kansas and spread into other army bases before being transported to Europe. 

It is vital that science based factors drive discussions on disease outbreaks. Global cooperation is needed as opposed to useless finger pointing. As an example – we are seeing unprecedented speed in CoVid research thanks in large part to early Chinese efforts to sequence the genetic material of the virus that causes Covid-19. China shared that sequence in early January, allowing research groups around the world to grow the live virus and study how it invades human cells and makes people sick.

Origins of COVID 19

Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people.  Detailed investigations found that SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans. Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans. 

CoVid 19 is thought to have originated in bats that in turn infected animals held for human consumption. It has also been suggested that pangolins (ant eating mammals) could be carriers.

The virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December, and is thought to have leapt to humans at a seafood and wild-animal market (Huanan Market), where many of the first people to become infected, worked. Pangolins were not listed on an inventory of items sold at the market — although the illegality of trading pangolins could explain this omission. These kinds of markets are referred to as wet markets and there is growing concern that they will continue to be the source of other virus outbreaks.  After the SARS outbreak in 2003, the Chinese government closed wet markets and banned the ‘farming’ of wildlife. But this ban was later reversed. After the recent outbreak of the CoVid 19 – a large number of wet markets have again been closed – hopefully for good. 

More information has been published of late about the role of bats. A new University of California study finds that bats’ have a fierce immune response to viral infections which likely causes the viruses to replicate more rapidly. The bats carry huge viral loads which can be easily shed and thus transfer to other animals – including humans. A research team in China is headed by a well-known virologist (Dr. Shi Zhengi) who is now known as the ‘bat lady’. Her team has identified hundreds of corona viruses – most harmless but dozens belong to the same group as SARS and CoVid 19. 

‘Wet markets’ where wild and domestic animals are kept alive in cages for purchase are prevalent in warmer climates (Africa, China, SE Asia, etc) where refrigeration is scarce. There’s no doubt that wet markets were the source of SARS and CoVid 19. As such there will be an intense pressure to close these markets down. But it will not be easy as millions of poorer people rely on them for food. However, a good start would be to disallow the inclusion of wildlife in these markets. It should also be noted that factory farming of domestic animals (eg. highly crowded chicken farms in North America) could also easily become a source of viral outbreaks. 

Infection route

The pathogen can travel through the air, enveloped in tiny respiratory droplets that are produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. These droplets fall to surfaces within a few feet (6 to 10 feet or 2 to 3.5 meters). That makes the virus harder to get than pathogens like measles, chickenpox and tuberculosis, which can travel 100 feet through the air. The droplets land on surfaces where the viruses can remain infections for a number of hours. When people touch these surfaces, the viruses are transferred to hands and then eventually to the face near the mouth, nose and eyes. The virus can also be inhaled from the air if close to a person who sneezes or coughs. In both cases the virus then lodges in the trachea and lungs and the infection takes hold. The incubation period is likely around 5 days. Hand washing and keeping distance from others are two of the most effective ways to prevent this route of infection.  

There has been some recent reports concerning how long the virus lasts on certain surfaces. The New England Journal of Medicine just published a study that tested how long the virus can remain stable on different kinds of surfaces within a controlled laboratory setting. They found that it was still detectable on copper for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic and steel for up to 72 hours. But it’s important to note that the amount of virus decreased rapidly over time on each of those surfaces and so the risk of infection from touching them would probably decrease over time as well.

Degree of contagion

Research is still in its early stages, but some estimates now suggest that the CoVid virus is 20 times more contagious than the seasonal flu. That is enough to sustain and accelerate an outbreak, if nothing is done to reduce it.  Projections as to how widespread this will become vary widely. In some locations the rate of infection is increasing around 30% each day. Italy and Iran provide worst-case examples of a rapid spread. Projections for the United States vary widely with some estimates showing 1/3 to ½ of the population eventually becoming infected. 

The ease by which people can become infected is the worrisome piece.  In fact – 2 studies have shown that people not displaying symptoms can nonetheless spread the virus. An analysis of infections in Singapore and Tianjin in China revealed that two-thirds and three-quarters of people respectively, appear to have caught it from others who were incubating the virus but still symptom-free. It should be cautioned that these were 2 relatively small studies but it is nonetheless a note of concern. 

Despite some of these more dire warnings, it is encouraging to note that when global health authorities methodically tracked and isolated people infected with SARS in 2003, they were able to bring the average number each sick person infected down to 0.4, enough to stop the outbreak. Also note – frequent hand washing can reduce the chances of infection by 50% or more. 

The current growth of CoVid 19 infections is in most countries is considered to be exponential. Something is said to increase or decrease exponentially if its rate of change must be expressed using exponents. A graph of such a rate would appear not as a straight line, but as a curve that continually becomes steeper or shallower. Perhaps a better way to consider the growth is the number of days it takes for the infections to double. According to “Our World in Data” – associated with a number of prestigious universities, the rates of infections doubling are: World (number of infections doubled in 6 days), Italy (7 days), Spain (4 days), USA (3 days), Canada (4 days), China (45 days). It is clear that China’s rate of infections are levelling while most other locations are still in the exponential growth phase. 

Symptoms

The coronavirus outbreak hit amid flu season in the northern hemisphere and even doctors can struggle to distinguish between the two The overlap in symptoms probably contributed to slow detection of community infections in some countries, including Italy. Typical flu symptoms, which normally come on quickly, include a high fever, sore throat, muscle aches, headaches, shivers, runny or stuffy nose, fatigue and, more occasionally, vomiting and diarrhea. 

Doctors are still working to understand the full scope of symptoms and severity for Covid-19, but early studies of patients taken to hospital found nearly all of them developed a fever and dry cough, and many had fatigue and muscle aches. Pneumonia (lung infection) is common in coronavirus patients, even outside the most severe cases, and this can lead to breathing difficulties. A runny nose and sore throat are far less common, reported by just 5% of patients. The only real confirmation of having Covid-19 is taking a test though.

Mortality Rate

Early research indicates the virus may be significantly more deadly than the seasonal flu, which kills roughly one in 1,000 people. An analysis of outcomes for more than 44,000 confirmed patients in China found that roughly one in 50 died (2% mortality rate). Eighty-one percent of patients infected with the new coronavirus had mild illness, 14 percent had severe illness and 5 percent had critical illness, according to the study. 

The current (as of March 12, 2020) number of cases worldwide is about 135,000 resulting in 5000 deaths. That equates to a 3.7% mortality rate. In Italy there are just over 15,000 cases with 1000 deaths (6.6 % mortality rate). In the USA – 1600 cases with 41 deaths (4.1 % fatality rate). Note – the numbers are changing daily. NOTE – see new number below. 

It is assumed, however that there are many more mild cases that do not get to hospital and are not being counted, which would bring the mortality rate significantly down. Most researchers feel the true mortality will calculate to about 1 to 2 % making the CoVid 19 ten to 20 times more fatal than the flu. The mortality rate for the H1N1 (swine flu) of 2009 was 0.02%.

Deaths are highest in the elderly, with very low rates among younger people, although medical staff who treat patients and get exposed to a lot of virus are thought to be more at risk. But even among the over-80s, 90% will recover.

Some current numbers as of March 29, 2020 – 17:29 GMT

World             707,738 cases                     33,526 deaths (4.74% mortality rate)

Italy                 97,689                                   10,779 (11%)

Germany       60,659                                   482 (0.79%)

USA                133,146                                 2363 (1.7%)

Canada         6213                                       63 (1.0%)

China             81,439                                   3300 (4.0%)

One of the most notable points is the difference in mortality rate between Italy and Germany but there are considerations as to why.  Firstly, Italy has one of the highest ratios of elderly residents.  Secondly, it cannot be fully confirmed that each recorded death over the past month or so is directly due to the corona virus. In one study that involved a re-evaluation by the National Institute of Health, demonstrated that only 12 per cent of death certificates showed a direct causality from coronavirus, while 88 per cent of patients who died had other factors that could have contributed. A third factor is a suggested higher rate of lung issues due to air pollution and a high percentage of smoking within the population. 

Is it seasonal? 

Regular flu outbreaks are generally seasonal in the Northern Hemisphere. People are outside more and a degree of immunity can set in. For the CoVid 19 however, no one can say if this will be the case. 

Cures and Vaccines

Efforts to develop an effective vaccine for Covid-19 have been quick compared with historical epidemics, such as Ebola. A number of teams are already testing vaccine candidates in animals and preparing to carry out small trials in people. However, the second and third phases of development will involve thousands of volunteers and will look more closely at efficacy. It is currently felt that a vaccine to protect people from the coronavirus would require a timeframe of a year or 18 months.

There is also work being done on antiviral drugs.  The most hopeful at present are Kaletra, which is a combination of two anti-HIV drugs, and remdesivir, which was tried but failed in Ebola patients in west Africa in 2013 and 2016. Some Chinese doctors are also trying chloroquine, an antimalarial drug, which is off patent, therefore cheap and highly available, and would be very useful in low-income countries. The first results are expected in mid-March and should indicate if the drugs will at least help those who are most severely ill. A miracle cure is not expected.

Vaccination development is being undertaken on many fronts as is drug therapies. See upcoming article on my blog.

Going Forward

It is very difficult to predict what will happen over the coming months and year. We need to be concerned but also act in a rational way. The medical community is extremely knowledgeable with monumental efforts underway to decrease the risks we face. Life must to go on. It is crucial though that science based decisions are made. 

The 3 largest impact measures will be – 

  1. TESTING – South Korea is demonstrating that testing on a massive scale is very effective. That country is testing people at a rate of 10,000 people per day. The USA is very far behind having only tested 11,000 people to date. This is a worry. Fortunately, in Canada – testing is about where it should be. It is becoming more and more clear that testing is absolutely critical in fighting this pandemic. In Canada we have so far carried out 66,000 tests (as of March 20th). This is not enough. The main reason is a shortage of supplies and a back-log in labs. In the US – the situation is more dire as the country lost about 6 weeks due to a deficient test protocol and a slow federal undertaking. As of March 20th – the US had conducted 313 tests per million people as opposed to over 6000 tests per million people in South Korea. This is changing as some new test protocols are being developed. I will write about testing in a new blog. 
  • READYING HOSPITALS – Most hospitals are already at maximum capacity so it is important that emergency measures are considered to expand available beds and ventilators. 
  • FULL SOCIETAL COOPERATION – it is critical that all citizens follow the advice of the medical experts – hand washing, social distancing, staying home if sick, restricting travel, avoiding large groups and getting tested if needed.

I could political here but I might get carried away. In closing – we need to pay attention to health experts — NOT politicians and nonsense flying around on social media.

COMMUNICATING THE ISSUE OF CLIMATE CHANGE

By: Allan Maynard, MSc.                           March 2020

The scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels is the main cause of global warming over the past many decade is likely close to 100 percent now. Remaining doubts seem to be mostly cleared. Despite this far-reaching consensus there is a definite disconnect of acceptance by many within the general public thereby hindering the needed and long overdue action to combat and prepare for climate change. There are a few reasons this disconnect still exists despite the mountains of evidence that continues to accumulate. 

Firstly – the climate change denial groups are highly organized, well funded and well versed at undermining the evidence of global warning and the resulting changes to the world’s climate.  Secondly, it is an extremely complex topic. It is very difficult to fathom that a colorless, odorless gas that we have been discharging for centuries could be the cause of a global crisis.  Our brains are simply not wired to readily make this kind of connection. There can be the sense that the dire predictions could not possibly be true. Thirdly, even when we accept the need to confront climate change, there can be a reluctance to face what must be done. It will require some changes that can be perceived by some as a set-back to our way of life. 

So – how do scientists – the vast majority of whom see climate change as an existential threat, communicate to general public – and thereby the elected officials that business as usual is not an option? It is easy enough to ‘preach to the converted’ and denigrate that climate change deniers but that will not be enough. The goal must be to bring the vast majority of voters on board to vote for politicians prepared to take on this immense challenge. Three ideas are presented:

1. Promote the Consensus – Public opinion scholars are recommending that the broad consensus among scientists about human-caused global warming, be widely promoted.  A study from Yale University labeled this as a “Gateway Belief” – that indeed the general public will be more accepting of the science of global warming and resulting climate change when the consensus message is heard repeatedly. “Perceived scientific consensus acts as a key gateway belief” wrote the authors of this study. “Repeated exposure to simple messages that correctly state the actual consensus (….). is a strategy likely to help counter the concerted efforts to misinform the public.”

  • Deny the deniers – For the fossil fuel industry climate change denial

 is a multi-million dollar endeavour. In her book “Merchants of Doubt”, Naomi Oreskes coined the term “The Tobacco Strategy”, referencing the strategy employed by the tobacco industry aimed at stopping or at least delaying any regulation on sales or consumption of cigarettes. The “Tobacco Strategy” is for “maintaining the controversy” and “keeping the debate alive”. It doesn’t matter if there really is an argument going on or not. All that matters is for people to have that impression. This is exactly the case for the denial the science underpinning climate change.

It is extremely challenging to counter such well-funded misinformation campaigns. Their communications have a tone of credibility and for politicians that lack the courage to tackle environmental issues, these denial reports are their salvation. The first line of challenge should be to communicate that the denial reports are prime examples of bad science. The authors of the denial reports are ‘experts for hire’ and they are hired by think tanks funded by industry – most notably the fossil fuel industry. The articles they write are not published in scientific journals that require peer-review. Moreover, many (or even most) of these ‘experts for hire’ have never worked in the field of climate science. 

The second line of defense is to counter each of the denial arguments pointing out how wrong they are. This must be done for each phony argument they put forward. It’s a challenge because counter-arguments can be overly complex and detailed thus possibly confusing the average reader. Nonetheless it must be undertaken using all available communication tools.  

When possible, the use of graphics can greatly aid the argument. For example, one of the denial arguments is that the current warming is due to enhanced solar activity and not carbon emissions. This is simply not true. For the past number of decades solar activity has decreased as the graph below clearly demonstrates.

3. Frame the Message – Communicating inconvenient science also requires a sensitivity to the values and beliefs of the audience.  People do not want to be lectured or presented with an endless stream of facts and figures. It must be acknowledged that there is a reluctance, or in some cases, even an extreme resistance to hear the message.  As such, emphasis away from the negative aspects (possible job losses in some industries for instance) and towards the positive is vital. Indeed, studies show that, in tackling climate change, co-benefits such as reducing deaths from air pollution and boosting technological innovation may lower the net costs of climate action to zero or even lead to a net economic benefit rather than a cost. This needs to be continually stressed. 

As well, the many success stories in environmental initiatives (such as the fight to save the ozone layer) need to be told and re-told. In looking back at many of the issues now being resolved, it is clear that the truth does and will win out in the end. It takes time and the need to develop effective strategies to communicate inconvenient science. 

HUMANS ARE THE MAIN CAUSE OF GLOBAL WARMING

By : Allan Maynard, MSc.  

 November 26, 2019

At this critical point in humankind’s history, we must not delude ourselves. Carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are warming the planet at an alarming rate. The warming of the planet is in turn affecting our climate in ways that are even more dramatic than past predictions.  

THE FACTS – There is a mountain of evidence provided by climate scientists around the world that leads to irrevocable conclusion that climate change is THE issue of our times. This conclusion has been endorsed by the national science academies of almost every country in the world. It has been clear for some time now, that without monumental action on a global scale, our world is facing drastic consequences. The mean global temperature has warmed about 1 degree C since 1900 most of which has occurred since 1960. Some parts of the Arctic have warmed by over 7 degrees C.  The previous decade was the warmest since records were kept. 

Record-breaking heat waves are now 5 times as likely as they once were. Sea levels have risen 20 cm (8 inches) since 1900 and are now rising at an accelerated rate. As well, due to the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, our oceans are becoming more acidic thus threatening sea life and coral reefs. We have seen devastating floods and landslides in some areas and extreme droughts along with related wildfires in others. These extreme weather events have been costly. The insurance industry has certainly taken note as annual climate event costs have risen from 50 billion annually in the 1980s to over 200 billion dollars annually in the last decade. 

It is acknowledged that planet earth has been warm (or even warmer) in eons past. But those climate events occurring, over thousands of years, have their own explanations. The warming over the past 70 years can only be linked to carbon dioxide emissions. 

MEASUREMENTS – So, how can scientists definitively claim that carbon emissions are the main causative factor? Firstly it can be stated emphatically that carbon dioxide, emitted when we burn fossil fuels, is a greenhouse gas. That is never questioned. There are other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere but none have the same radiative impact as carbon dioxide. This is what happens.  Energy from the sun enters the atmosphere as visible and ultra-violet radiation that is low in heat. The earth’s surface re-emits this energy as infra-red radiation (or heat). Greenhouse gases (and especially carbon dioxide) ‘capture’ this heat, thereby warming our atmosphere. Without greenhouse gases our planet would be more than 30 degrees C cooler. The planet would be uninhabitable. 

There are many ways science can make the connection between increased carbon emissions and planet warming. Carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere has increased from 270 parts per million (ppm) in 1940 to over 400 ppm today. When this increase is graphed with the rising temperature the correlation is remarkable. 

Description: Macintosh HD:Users:allan:Desktop:co2_temp_1900_2008.gif

Other climate forcings – such as volcanic and solar activity do not show this kind of correlation. 

The influence of carbon emissions can also be found in the spectrum (actual wavelengths) of greenhouse radiation. Using high-resolution instrumentation, climate scientists have measured the influence of CO2 on both incoming solar energy and outgoing long-wave (heat) radiation.  According to NASA, two-thirds or the warming of the atmosphere has occurred since 1975. Satellites have recorded the spectrum of the outgoing radiation over the period 1970 to 1997. Over that period, when atmospheric temperatures increased dramatically, there is a corresponding decrease in infra-red (heat) radiation. In other words – less long-wave  (heat) radiation is escaping to space at the specific wavelengths of greenhouse gases. And, this corresponds to increased long-wave radiation measured at the surface of the Earth at these same wavelengths. This is empirical evidence. 

UNFORTUNATE DENIAL – Unfortunately there has been a well-organized denial industry that has been successful in undermining the scientific evidence of global warming and the resulting climate change. The ‘denial industry’ refers to public relations companies that publish supposedly scientific papers that are not peer reviewed and indeed contain cherry-picked data to support a pre-ordained conclusion. These are the same kinds of companies along with their so-called ‘scientists’ that were hired to deny the truth about studies that linked lung cancer to cigarettes, industrial discharge to acid rain and CFCs (chloro-fluoro carbons) to ozone depletion.  In these 3 cases they have been soundly proven wrong and they are in the process of being proven wrong about climate change.  They fight science with junk-science but their message sticks. For politicians who lack the courage to confront the global warming threat (and this is especially the case now in the United State), these denial reports are their salvation. 

MOVING ON – Fortunately, there is increasing hope that the existential threat of climate change is being addressed. Now that we have the Paris Agreement – a strong message has been sent to private markets regarding the need to divest away from fossil fuels and expand into low-carbon technologies. This transformation is already creating jobs and will create wealth on a monumental scale. A number of economic studies have determined that investments in energy-efficient and renewable energy sources yield more jobs for a set amount of spending than investing in maintaining or expanding the fossil fuel industry. In fact, 2014 was the first year that total world investments in renewable energy sources surpassed investments in fossil fuels and related industries. However, with the Trump administration taking the appalling step of withdrawing from the Paris agreement, there is deep worry that this impressive progress is in jeopardy. 

The key elements of the Paris Accord are: 

  • To keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times and “endeavour to limit” them even more, to 1.5C
  • To limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100 (in other words our world will become carbon neutral). 
  • To review each country’s contribution to cutting emissions every five years so they scale up to the challenge
  • For rich countries to help poorer nations by providing “climate finance” to adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy.

This will not be easy and will require a 180- degree paradigm shift in our thinking. But for the sake of our grandchildren and generals beyond, this must happen. 

WHEN SCIENCE BECOMES INCONVENIENT

By Allan Maynard, MSc.                                  

December 2019

In April of 2019, scientists accomplished what was previously thought to be impossible, capturing an image of a black hole’s silhouette – a black hole that was thousands of light years from planet Earth. It was a stunning discovery that most people could not even comprehend. Yet it was generally accepted. Often however, science will reveal a truth that causes humanity great discomfort. What do we do when discoveries go beyond a ‘wow’ moment and force us to reexamine what we have become used to or even the way we live?

The benefits of science have become so ubiquitous that we can fall prey to taking these amazing advances for granted. Globally, life expectancy has more than doubled since 1900. Communication is now almost instantaneous. Many killer diseases, such as smallpox, which killed over 300 million people in the 20th century alone, have been eradicated. We can identify sub-atomic particles and simultaneously understand vastness; that our planet revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy that is one of a hundred billion galaxies in the universe.  

Even within our day-to-day routines we benefit constantly from the advances of science – our morning hot coffee, our transportation to and from work, our ability to communicate and be entertained at concerts or watching live streamed movies in our living rooms.  Our lives are convenient and improving because of advances in science. 

Despite the obvious advantages science is providing, there can be selective skepticism and even distain of some scientific discoveries.  For example, fluoride is not added to most water supplies in Canada despite overwhelming evidence as to its safety and obvious benefits for dental health. Referendums have been carried out in many cities, with plans to fluoridate defeated by wide margins. The voters simply did not believe what the science concluded. Why?

In recent years a more dangerous skepticism has emerged – an unwarranted fear of vaccinations. Social media sites and web pages are rife with vaccine myths and conspiracy theories designed to mislead parents and scare them away from vaccinating their children. This, in spite of the fact that few scientific advances have had as much impact on public health as vaccines. Before widespread vaccination, diseases like polio, smallpox, diphtheria and whooping cough killed thousands of people a year. Those who survived were sometimes left with lifelong disabilities. The most recent myth is that the vaccine for measles and mumps causes autism. This fear originated from a now widely discredited research paper published in 1998. The paper was based on a weak study of only 12 subjects. However, over the next two decades, multiple studies looking at hundreds of thousands of cases show vaccines do not increase a child’s risk of autism even when the child is at an increased risk of autism already. And yet, despite such overwhelming evidence, vaccination rates are down and measles cases are on the rise. How can this be rationalized? 

There’s no doubt that we live in a bewildering world and we have to decide what to believe and what not to believe. And that does not come naturally to us. Consider the case of Galileo in the early 17th century when he proclaimed that the earth spins on its axis and orbits the sun. This was heresy. He was rejecting the doctrine of the church but also asking people of the day to believe something they could not see. A person standing on the famous bridge in Florence (Ponte Vecchio) could observe the sun seemingly moving around the earth. Moreover, that is precisely what he or she would have been told by the church leaders. Galileo’s findings were abhorrent to the church and he was put on trial and forced to recant. His students though, had the last word. After his death, Galileo’s finger was removed and pickled for eternity. Today the middle finger sits in a small glass egg among lodestones and telescopes, the only human fragment in a museum devoted entirely to scientific instruments. The middle finger points upwards to the sky, eternally defiant to the church that condemned him.

With the case of Galileo – and indeed Charles Darwin who followed centuries later, the science was very inconvenient. It upended the beliefs of the day. In the last number of decades, science information is upending more that just beliefs – it is upending many of the pillars of our economy. The tobacco industry is a multi-billion dollar (over 600 billion) global enterprise. It is thus not at all surprising that the industry would fight hard against the scientific evidence that linked cigarette smoking to health issues such as lung cancer and heart disease. Confronted by compelling peer-reviewed scientific evidence of the harms of smoking, the tobacco industry, beginning in the 1950s, used sophisticated public relations approaches to undermine and distort the emerging science. The industry campaign worked to create the appearance of a scientific controversy. The main thrust was to create doubt by countering the science with junk science that seemed, at least to the general public, to be plausible.  The public relations firms hired by the industry did not have to prove that smoking was harmless nor disprove the peer-reviewed science about the health risks. They only had to create doubt. And it worked for almost 2 decades. This strategy of producing scientific uncertainty undercut public health efforts and regulatory interventions designed to reduce the harms of smoking. 

In her book “Merchants of Doubt”, Naomi Oreskes coined the term “The Tobacco Strategy”, referencing the strategy employed by the tobacco industry aimed at stopping or at least delaying any regulation on sales or consumption of cigarettes. The “Tobacco Strategy” is for “maintaining the controversy” and “keeping the debate alive”. It doesn’t matter if there really is an argument going on or not. All that matters is for people to have that impression.

This strategy has been adopted in many other situations when scientific evidence becomes inconvenient and upends multi-billion dollar industries. It is not convenient for the National Football League to accept the link between head injuries and the incidence to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. It is not convenient for ‘Big Sugar’ to accept the link between diabetes to the over consumption of sugar.  It has not been convenient to the marine industry to be forced to face the truth about industrial fishing methods depleting fish stocks worldwide. In these and other cases, the status quo was in jeopardy and denial strategies were put in place. 

For the fossil fuel industry, climate change denial is a multi-million dollar endeavour. After all, trillions of dollars of assets will have to be left in the ground as the world moves towards renewable energy and away from energy based on fossil fuels. It is well documented that the public relations firms used to undermine climate change science are the same kinds of companies (along with their so-called ‘scientists’) that were hired to deny the truth linking lung cancer to cigarettes, industrial discharge to acid rain and CFCs (chloro-fluoro carbons) to ozone depletion.  In these cases they have been soundly proven wrong and they are in the process of being proven wrong about climate change.  They fight science with junk-science but their message sticks. The denial reports, even though wrong, become the salvation for politicians who lack the courage to confront the global warming threat, or even worse must bow to the wishes of mega-donors. This seems to especially be the case now in the United States where climate change denial is higher than any in any other developed country. No wonder the president was able to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord with barely a whimper (along with some alarming praise) from members of the Republican Party. 

The well-funded obfuscation of science represents a unique challenge for communicating scientific consensus that upends important economic engines. Scientists are not uniquely trained in this way; the signature practices include detailed research, double-blind studies when needed, peer review and publication. Most are not prepared to have to fight against well-funded think tanks or have to convince politicians who simply don’t want, or even worse are not able to deal with, the truth. 

“Never have human societies known so much about mitigating the dangers they faced and yet agreed so little about what they collectively know,” writes Yale law professor Dan Kahan, a leading researcher in science communication. His and other groups have been increasingly studying science communication, to better understand what does and does not work for discussing different scientific topics. Language and how the topic is framed can make a big difference. It is also important to understand the audience and ensure that people’s values are not unduly attacked. Certainly it is important to use all available communication tools – especially social media to influence knowledge and belief. Moreover – emphasis away from the negative aspects and towards the positive is vital. For instance, studies show that, in tackling climate change, co-benefits such as reducing deaths from air pollution and boosting technological innovation may lower the net costs of climate action to zero or even lead to a net economic benefit rather than a cost, studies show.

In looking back at many of the issues now being resolved – especially with success stories such as the fight to save the ozone layer, it is clear that the truth does and will win out in the end. It takes time and the need to develop effective strategies to communicate inconvenient science.