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April 24, 2003

SARS & Genetic Bombs

OK, away from the race-wars, toward some health/genetics related topics.

Randall Parker has another SARS post up. I've basically started ignoring most analytical SARS stories and just bug Randall to post on it ;) Also, this week's print edition of The Economist has a bunch of SARS articles. I quickly cut & pasted the ones that require registration on the extended entry area below.

Also-Aziz Poonwalla emailed about a controversy that has erupted between Winds of Change & him.

Here is his email:

dunno if you've seen the critique over at WindsOfChange.net yet, but I was wondering what your opinion was regarding the feasibility of a genetic Bomb, that targets a specific ethnic group. I believe it is theoretically possible, Joe K. disagrees. Whats your take/.opinion?

When I went over and read the post over and WindsofChange.NET it was more about anti-Semitism & Mid-East politics than genetics. These topics I have little interest in. I am going to start out by asserting that any posts on this thread related to Grand-Jewish-Conspiracies shall be deleted-partially just to deter a pro-Jew data-flood from godless ;) As for the genetics of it, Aziz is wondering if Israel is developing a genetic weapon of mass destruction against the Arabs.

Is this possible? Well-I think we're pretty far away from it. I've been away from science for a long-time (4 years is a long time) but my friends who were grad students would always whine how wimpy their "genetically engineered" organisms were. We'll do a lot of gene therapy first before we get to being biologically sophisticated enough to do this sort of thing, so if our race is going down the tubes, at least we'll cure a lot of ailments first. But in the future I don't think it will be impossible to re-design a naturally occuring virus and have it target individuals with specific genetic traits. The only problem is that it would probably open up a can of worms, most genetic tendencies that are different in frequencies still occur throughout a host of populations. Nukes & the like are probably going to be far more efficient for the time before our species destroys itself or proceeds toward transhumanism.

One thing that did come up on the WindsofChange.NET is the fact that "40% of Israeli Jews are ethnically Arab." This is a semantic issue, but the studies now indicate that though mtDNA lineages are shared with majority populations, Jews seem to have preserved their male lineages pretty well, so though the Sephardic & Oriental Jews spoke Arabic, they were genetically different from Arabs-though they originate (at least in the Levant) among the same Aramaean culture complex in greater Syria. Additionally the Ashkenazi Jews are separated on the mtDNA lineage from the Arabs pretty clearly so that could be used as a difference to key in on.

But one thing that occurs to me, "the Arabs" are far more genetically diverse than "the Jews," so it seems that genetic WMD would be more plausible against the latter rather than the former. Genetic WMD might have utility against endagomous minorities but would probably be less appropriate in dealing with diverse and amorphous groupings of people-the kind of thing that states would care about (it seems wacked-out bug-eyed individuals tend to be fixated on "problem" minorities).

Since I've been out of science for several years now, I'm curious as to what godless, grady & others, as well as Future Pundit have to say on this. What I'm not curious about is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Fellow bloggers-ban & delete away please to keep this blog evil in its more esoteric fashion rather than in a more conventional way....

The SARS epidemic

China wakes up

Apr 24th 2003 | BEIJING
From The Economist print edition


A health scare may herald much more profound changes

AT BEIJING'S international airport, a parting couple hug and press their mask-covered mouths together in a prophylactic kiss. On the streets of the capital, mask-wearing is fast becoming the norm. Outside foreign embassies, armed police have been reinforced with a new contingent of guards clad in masks and gloves. After weeks in denial, Beijing is suddenly confronting the problem of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

This virus, though less infectious than influenza, is more than twice as deadly as influenza in a pandemic. Its mortality rate, at around 5%, is close to that of bacterial meningitis; and, like meningitis, it gains in horror by killing the young and vigorous as well as the old and frail.

Five months after the first appearance of SARS in the southern province of Guangdong, something snapped at the end of last week. On April 18th, the government information office invited the foreign media to attend a briefing on SARS, to be given two days later by the health minister and the mayor of Beijing. But neither showed up. They had been dismissed—the party's first public sacking of top officials in mid-crisis for incompetence, rather than political incorrectness.

The most senior official to attend was a deputy minister of health, Gao Qiang, who announced that there were 339 confirmed SARS cases in Beijing and another 402 suspected cases, compared with a mere 37 confirmed cases (and an undisclosed number of suspected cases) declared previously. By the 24th, confirmed cases in the city had risen to 774, with another 863 suspected and 39 deaths. This compared with 49 fatalities and 1,359 confirmed cases in the worst-affected area (by official counts), Guangdong. Beijing alone now accounts for a third of all China's reported deaths from SARS.

The upcoming week-long May Day holiday—normally a time when millions travel in crowded trains and buses—was promptly cancelled. Transport operators were ordered to screen out passengers showing possible signs of SARS, such as fever and persistent coughing. Citizens were advised to avoid crowded areas and warned they would be quarantined if they had contact with a SARS patient. On Wednesday, schools in the capital were ordered to close for two weeks.

Why the change of tack? Not out of concern for public health, to be sure; the central government is still lethargic in the face of the far bigger problem of HIV/AIDS, which, according to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, may result in between 10m and 20m Chinese being HIV-positive within seven years. More important to the leaders was the damage being done to China's image abroad, and the realisation that the economic consequences of being honest may, in the long run, be less severe than those of obfuscation.

Even before the higher figures began to leak out, international events in Beijing were being cancelled because foreigners were refusing to attend and foreign tour-groups were staying away. Dependants of foreigners living in Beijing were beginning to leave the country. China's cover-up of the spread of SARS was causing the country's biggest credibility crisis abroad since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. On April 23rd, compounding the regime's fears, the WHO advised travellers not to go to Beijing—advice not heard since those violent days.

Finding scapegoats
At home, the credibility of China's new leaders, who took office at a party congress last November and a parliamentary session in March, is also at stake. The president and party chief, Hu Jintao, and the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, have been trying to present themselves—as new leaders do, even here—as men attuned to the feelings of ordinary citizens. They have been failing. Hence the unaccustomed rolling of at least a few official heads.

Cynics say, however, that the ousted officials were scapegoats for policymaking errors at a higher level and for the ingrained weaknesses of China's sclerotic and secretive bureaucracy. Bates Gill of the CSIS says the ousted health minister was “a breath of fresh air”, who helped secure the release of an activist detained last year for revealing a secret document on the spread of HIV in China. Neither of the dismissed officials was responsible for the decision to order a news blackout on the development of SARS as it spread across Guangdong in February and reached the capital in March.

The two-week annual session of parliament, which began on March 5th, was an event that no leader wanted marred by panic over a disease. The party controls the media through secret directives issued by the party's Propaganda Department, which is overseen by a member of the Politburo's Standing Committee. The Standing Committee, headed by Mr Hu, would have known about the decision to suppress news coverage of SARS, as well as to avoid preventive measures in Beijing that might alert the public to the problem.

It was not until April 2nd that China's cabinet, headed by Mr Wen, held its first meeting to discuss the SARS problem. This might have been a good time to sideline the health minister, Zhang Wenkang, if he was felt to be underperforming, but instead he was put in charge of SARS prevention. At a news conference the next day, Mr Zhang told a correspondent that “The ordinary people of the mainland are not like the ordinary people of Hong Kong. Their education level is lower. If we released information like they did in Hong Kong, there would be chaos.” Mr Zhang would hardly have made such a remark if Mr Wen had told him to be completely open about the epidemic.

And then there is Jiang Zemin, Mr Hu's predecessor, who is still the country's most powerful man as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. There is little evidence that Mr Jiang has played a significant role in handling the SARS crisis. If he had, the problem in Beijing might have been a little easier to tackle. Of Beijing's 175 hospitals, 16 are under the control of the armed forces and, until last week, were under no obligation to report SARS cases to the city authorities (even though, with their often superior facilities, they are a magnet for military and civilian patients alike). But though bringing such hospitals to heel may help in gathering statistics, their previously separate status does not help explain why Beijing's SARS figures were so seriously understated. The only plausible reason is that people were lying.

The health ministry said on Sunday that it knew of no deliberate cover-ups, but one of the more daring official newspapers has suggested otherwise. The China Business Times accused the Beijing city authorities of “making false reports” and in another article said provincial authorities were giving tardy, incomplete and falsified figures in order to avoid blemishing the careers of officials. Lying is endemic in China's bureaucracy, partly because leaders at all levels are fearful that any mishap reported in their jurisdiction may be used as an excuse to pass them over for promotion or have them dismissed.

The China Business Times also pointed out the discrepancy between the government's decision last weekend to scrap the week-long May Day holiday (citizens will still get one day off) and a statement on April 6th by a senior tourism official that China should take advantage of the movement of tens of millions of holidaymakers around May Day to demonstrate that China is “the safest tourist destination”. Again, the official was presumably speaking in the knowledge that the prime minister would fully agree with him. Mr Wen, it appeared, was determined to play the crisis down and pretend that all was normal, even as Beijing's hospitals were struggling with an upsurge of cases.

Town and country
On roads leading into Beijing's neighbouring province of Hebei, officials have begun stopping some vehicles to check passengers for signs of SARS to prevent the disease from spreading. But such measures have come too late. Official figures show that SARS has now affected 20 of the country's 31 provinces and municipalities. Apart from Guangdong, Beijing and the northern province of Shanxi, each has reported only a tiny handful of cases. Tianjin, the port city closest to Beijing, has reported only eight, the whole of Hebei province has declared only six and Shanghai a mere two. But it is safe to assume that the actual number of cases around the country is significantly higher. With the best will in the world, cash-strapped local governments whose health-care and disease-surveillance systems have fallen into disarray in recent years for want of funds would be extremely hard pressed to monitor the spread of a new disease.

Even in Beijing, the official figures still convey only a partial picture. The city has offered free treatment for poor SARS patients. But this is little consolation to the large numbers with no health insurance, particularly the unemployed and the 3m or so ill-paid migrant labourers (about one-fifth of the city's population) who are too poor to consider hospital treatment in the city. Many with SARS-like symptoms would think twice about any offer of free treatment, since their ailment may well turn out to be something else for which they would have to pay. Compounding this fear is the risk that days of quarantine for themselves and family members could cause a big loss of earnings.

In rural areas, the situation is particularly bleak. The “barefoot-doctor” system established under Mao Zedong to provide basic health care to peasants has broken down. Many township hospitals can now do little more than dispense medicine. As many as 70% of country people cannot afford to pay for medical treatment. On Sunday, the deputy health minister said that if SARS was found to be spreading in the countryside, “the consequences would be extremely serious.” But how will anyone know? On April 23rd the government announced a fund of 2 billion yuan ($240m) to support anti-SARS work in the countryside and among the urban poor. The problem, however, could only be solved by a massive overhaul of the health-care and insurance system that would cost many times more than that.

With their political U-turn, Mr Hu and Mr Wen may help to shore up their image. In Beijing, the party's legitimacy rests largely on its ability to deliver economic growth. Although a severe downturn could precipitate serious social unrest, China's SARS crisis (unlike Hong Kong's) occurs at a time of strong growth. As long as the death toll does not rise (or is not rumoured to rise) dramatically in key urban areas such as Beijing and disruption is short-lived, the new leadership will probably muddle through. But the trust of the rest of the world, which had come to believe that China was beginning to understand the need to play by international rules, could take far longer to repair.

Copyright © 2003 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

Hong Kong's economy

In intensive care

Apr 24th 2003 | HONG KONG
From The Economist print edition

From hopes for a strong recovery to fears of recession within weeks

Masked for school

Get article background

SARS is not bad news for everybody. Makers and retailers of Chinese medicine are struggling to meet demand, as people in Hong Kong and China turn to traditional herbs to boost their immune systems. Telecoms companies are doing well as businessmen cancel meetings and tele-conference instead. Rentals of DVDs and sales of instant noodles have been soaring, as people stay at home.

But these are exceptions to the rule. East Asia is now in the midst of an economic period, says the World Bank, “as troubled and uncertain as any since the 1997-98 financial crisis”. Bill Belchere, an economist at J.P. Morgan, thinks that Hong Kong's economy will shrink by 8% (annualised) during the current quarter and Singapore's by 2%, and that the region as a whole will grow by only 1%. His growth estimate before the outbreak was 4%.

Hong Kong, with more SARS cases than any other city in the world, is by far the worst-hit economy. Its tourist industry, which accounts for 5% of GDP, has been obliterated. Average hotel occupancy over the Easter holidays has fallen by around 80% and is now in single digits. Five hotels are for sale already. Cathay Pacific and Dragonair, Hong Kong's two passenger airlines, have lost two-thirds of their normal traffic. Restaurants are empty.

Domestic demand has dropped as well. Retail prices have been falling since 1998; in March, deflation turned virulent and hit 2.1%. Economists expect that April will be worse. The property market has been in the doldrums since 1997, even without SARS. Now transaction volumes are down sharply, and one property consultant reckons that luxury rental prices will fall by 10% this year.

Exporters, too, are suffering. Earlier this month, Hong Kong's jewellers and watch-makers were banned from an important trade fair in Switzerland, losing many orders. Last week, foreign buyers stayed away from a trade fair in nearby Guangzhou, where many Hong Kong entrepreneurs have factories. According to first estimates, only $730m-worth of orders were booked, compared to $17 billion last year.

The real effects of SARS will not be clear for some time. Hong Kong's small businesses, usually the economy's pride, appear to be hurt most, even if the pain is not yet shown on balance sheets. Bankruptcies will rise, leading to higher unemployment and more loan write-offs by banks.

All this comes at a particularly bad time for Hong Kong. As recently as budget day, March 4th—when the outbreak had begun but was not yet public knowledge—the city's biggest problem seemed to be its deficit. How fast priorities change. On April 23rd, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's chief executive, said that the government will spend $1.5 billion in rescue money: waiving utility charges for three months, giving out tax rebates and extending emergency loans to the most desperate industries.

Hong Kong is not yet a crisis economy. Forward rates on the Hong Kong dollar, a proxy for the territory's risk premium, have risen in recent weeks, though not enough to suggest that an attack on the currency's peg to the American dollar is imminent. Nevertheless here, as in Singapore and China, everything depends on whether this disease can be controlled.

Copyright © 2003 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

Canada's worries


Apr 24th 2003 | TORONTO
From The Economist print edition

The country's biggest city becomes a pariah

CANADA is the only country outside Asia to have had any deaths from SARS. As of April 22nd, 15 people had succumbed. All lived in or around Toronto. That city has the overwhelming majority of the 320-odd cases reported in Canada, almost all of them directly traceable to contact with travellers who went to Hong Kong in February and March. Hardest hit, both by the disease and by the fear of it, has been the large Asian community that is concentrated in various parts of the city.

Tourism has taken a hard knock, for Toronto is also Canada's tourism capital: 16.3m visitors came last year, spending a total of C$3.5 billion ($2.4 billion). In mid-April, the city's hotels are usually about three-quarters full; this year, occupancy has been about half that. Restaurants and tourist attractions are finding business slow; hundreds of workers have been laid off or put on reduced hours.

The biggest cancellations have been of a couple of medical conventions. The American Association for Cancer Research, for example, was supposed to bring 12,000 doctors to Toronto earlier this month, thereby pumping about $20m into the economy. On April 23rd the World Health Organisation added Toronto, with Beijing and China's Shanxi province, to the list of places to be avoided by international travellers. “You won't be able to take this mark off,” lamented Donald Low, the chief microbiologist at the city's Mount Sinai Hospital. “They could have waited another four or five days.”

Business leaders and the media are calling for a stronger lead from Toronto's mayor. But Mel Lastman, facing his own health problems and widely viewed as a lame duck, was almost invisible until the WHO announcement, which he energetically condemned.

One major issue is compensation for the 7,000-10,000 people in Toronto who have voluntarily quarantined themselves after possibly coming into contact with an infected person. At first, it seemed that these people would be eligible for financial relief only if they developed the illness; now, the federal government may relax its employment-insurance regime to cover them. On April 22nd, Sheila Copps, a senior federal cabinet minister, suggested that the government should classify SARS as a “national disaster”; but no one else in cabinet agreed with her.

Torontonians travelling elsewhere are under wide suspicion. Several countries have said they are not welcome. Torontonians are also becoming suspicious of each other. They are going out less (though the unseasonably cold weather could be partly to blame), and some are looking for alternatives to shaking hands. At one Chinese restaurant chain, managers are interviewing all employees daily to check whether they are showing symptoms.

Politically, the outbreak probably helped to persuade Ernie Eves, Ontario's premier, not to go to the polls this spring. Economically, the cost is harder to judge. The governor of the Bank of Canada, David Dodge, said the outbreak had the potential to cut growth this year, but it was too early to say by how much. The bank cut its growth forecast anyway on April 23rd, from near 3% in January to 2.5%.

Copyright © 2003 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

Posted by razib at 12:42 PM

I started a thread over at Trash Talk, and thus far the general sentiment also seems to be that it would be difficult. But not impossible.

link: http://www.cfis.org/ubb/Forum5/HTML/000187.html

Posted by: Aziz at April 24, 2003 12:52 PM

yeah-my first impression too.

but aziz-your problem seems less with the science than the politics ;) you need a publicist to do damage control man-otherwise you'll be consigned to the dark-side of the blogosphere-though i'll admit, it's not all that lonely here....

Posted by: razib at April 24, 2003 12:55 PM

I'm vaguely curious: a while ago I read something about Arthur Koestler's "Thirteenth Tribe" theory and the Khozar kingdom. Although I admire him as a novelist and intellectual, I never really knew what to make of his assertions.

Posted by: nietzsche at April 24, 2003 01:25 PM

Thanks, that's a real contribution.

Leave the mideast issues, bioweapon implementation issues, and intellectual hoensty stuff to us.

Posted by: Joe Katzman at April 24, 2003 01:47 PM

No, I dont want to think about PR. If I earn the wrath of the blogsphere, its mostly brought upon by myself. And in the midst of all the vehement denunciations by Meryl and Diana and Yehudit there has been thought-provoking arguments by Joe, so I count the experience as a net gain.

My main aim is to evaluate the issue oif WMD in the middle east (meryl and diana will never address this). Im interested in eth technical side of WMG, and also in the conventional armed forces strength of Israel's military (see SDB) because of how they pertain to the main issue. this is hwy i am grateful to you razib for posting on this, it will help provide some sorely-needed context.

Posted by: Aziz Poonawalla at April 24, 2003 02:07 PM

The eternal Jew/Arab conflict bores me to tears. I had a Jewish roommate in Law School who summarized the whole situation thus: "What you have to understand is that everyone in the Middle East is insane." It pretty much sums it up for me.

Posted by: nietzsche at April 24, 2003 02:57 PM

To make targetted pathogens one has to know what to target. It is a whole lot easier to target a surface protein difference than a difference in a junk area of the DNA. Also, it would be a lot easier to target a surface protein difference where the surface protein is involved in transport across the membrabe. In other words, the genetic difference should be easily visible for the pathogen to react to and useful as a way to make the pathogen progress differently.

There are, btw, differences in frequencies of transport protein variations that are probably due to different histories of exposure to pathogens way back when in evolutionary history. I can't think of any protein names for this but this might explain the gene variation frequencies for genes that affect the incidence of hemochromatosis. The problem might arise as a side effect of selecting for a transport protein that doesn't transport some pathogen as well.

The targetting of surface proteins really limits how many differences one can use to get selectivity and therefore it affects the amount of achieveable selectivity. Someday when it becomes possible to build a way more sophisticated pathogen the pathogen could check a specific section of DNA to see if it has the offending sequence or even to check several sections for offending sequences. But that sort of ability is a long way off and perhaps by then we will have nanotech defense bots floating around in our blood streams.

To make genetically specific attacks easier to carry out one way that technology has to advance is in the development of far more extensive data about the incidence of various genetic variations in different populations. Give it 5 or 10 years when new DNA sequencing technologies make DNA sequencing a lot cheaper (my Biotech Advance Rates archive has relevant posts) and then the data will be available.

But the other thing that needs to be figured out to be able to plan such attacks is how the various pathogens infect cells and what variations in them make them more virulent and why. That all is coming along too. I'd mention some horrible discoveries along that line but the ways that pathogens can be made more virulent and deadly are really not the sorts of memes I want to play a role in circulating.

I think the conspiracy theorists are really premature in seeing each new pathogen outbreak as a sign of genetic engineering. To seee a new outbreak as a sign of genetic engineering aimed at a particular group is even more premature.

BTW, this reminds me of a pet peeve: I get annoyed by science fiction shows that assume science at levels that is either way too low or way too high. The Dark Angel TV show (which featured pathogens engineered to target specific individuals btw) took place supposedly in 2012 (2011? close to that anyway) and Max Guevera, given her age, was supposedly genetically engineered 18 or 20 years previously. Only one problem with that: In the early 1990s we were so far away from knowing how to genetically engineer a superwoman that the premise of the show is absurd.

Now, I'm all for genetically engineering women to look more like Jessica Alba. I look forward to the day. But the superstrength, hearing, eyesight, coordination and other superpower genetic engineering is not even going to start until the 2010s as I see it.

To get back to the topic: Right today someone could genetically engineer a more deadly form of some pathogen that lives in a particular environment. Therefore it would be far easier to selectively kill people of particular racial and ethnic groups by aiming at the kinds of environments they are found in in greater numbers than other racial and ethnic groups. That would be easier to do than to genetically engineer a pathogen that keyed on the ethnicity of the victim.

Posted by: Randall Parker at April 24, 2003 06:09 PM

Remember the sewers! Remember the sewers!
Religious intuitions tend to control human behavior. Certain civilizations fail to give religious instruction regarding sewage.
I will one day post a theory on ancient sewage management, and it will be quite clear that early Mesopotamian idolatry (i.e., worship activity) actually involved a primitive attempt at public waste management. It wasn't very effective, but, it was an attempt at it.

Posted by: David Yeagley at April 25, 2003 10:07 AM

GC and Randall are right. (except a carbohydrate-targeted bioweapon would be impossible--glycoforms are not really under direct genetic control).

Posted by: David at April 26, 2003 10:55 AM

The Khazars were a Turkish people who ran a trade empire north of the Caspian and Black Seas ca. 800? -- 1000? A.D. Their ruling group converted to Judaism and was in contact with more established Jewish centers for awhile. The Kingdom was extremely pluralistic and Jews were a small minority.

It's reasonably well established that, while some of the Khazars ended up in Poland or thereabouts, that the bulk of the Eastern Jews came from Germany and other places to the west. Basically Koestler's strong argument was disconfirmed.

Conversion of barbarians is usually a political deal. The Lithuanians remained pagan so long because they were playing the Catholics against the Orthodox. The Khazars were playing the Orthodox against Islam and probably Catholicism. In Xinjiang, now China, the Uighur Turks kept Manichaeanism alive until about 1200 A.D., mostly as a way of distinguishing themselves from the Chinese.

Having some literate identity was important, but being absorbed by that identity was to be avoided.

Posted by: zizka at April 28, 2003 05:43 PM