South Koreans wear masks to protest against Mers. Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
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As Mers hits the headlines, we have to ask: is this a golden age for pathogens?

It’s not just people who are at risk from the 21st-century way of life. Plants are suffering, too.

With billions of human beings living in close proximity – and with so many of them travelling in mass transport all over the globe so frequently – these are good times for pathogens.

South Korea and China are trying to halt the spread of Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers). The problem arose after a South Korean businessman picked up the pathogen on a trip to the Middle East and returned home. The man is known to have infected a couple of dozen people.

Worryingly, Mers was not known to be a particularly contagious disease. That is because the virus sits in the lower respiratory tract, making it difficult to pass on. It may be that the South Korean cases have arisen from a new strain that is more virulent than those encountered before. To investigate this possibility, researchers are sequencing the pathogen’s genome.

The Chinese government is particularly keen to get the outbreak controlled, as it has already arrived on the Chinese mainland. This occurred when a man who visited infected relatives at a hospital in Seoul flew to Hong Kong, then completed his journey to Guangdong Province by bus. The Chinese authorities have quarantined more than 80 people who might have been infected by the traveller.

It’s not just people who are at risk from the 21st-century way of life. Plants are suffering, too. Italian olive trees, for instance, are being plagued by the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium, a state of affairs so catastrophic that claims and counterclaims regarding the cause have led to a police investigation.

Xylella was first identified in Europe in 2013 after years of endemic status in South America, California and Costa Rica. It affects different plants in different ways, but in Puglia it has brought widespread withering and death to the region’s olive groves.

Local people have suggested that Italy’s agricultural scientists could be to blame. As a result, regional police have confiscated computers from research institutes and questioned several scientists about their practices. Even the country’s ministry of agriculture has had papers seized.

The chief concern is over whether the scientists imported the Xylella strain. Back in 2010, researchers brought in a sample of the Californian bacterium to carry out training for local agriculturalists. Their accusers claim that this was the source of the plague and that the scientists involved should be prosecuted. However, their science will almost certainly save them from a protracted investigation. Genetic analysis of the infected plants shows that the bacterium is identical to those found in ornamental coffee plants imported from Costa Rica.

Here’s another problem: consumer gardening. Researchers have traced the UK’s ash dieback problems to a similar desire for exotic ornamental plants. As with Xylella, the fungus involved in ash dieback peacefully coexists on many plants and is only a threat to some. Because of this, it can live undetected on plants being fast-grown for export in places such as China or southern Europe, then cause devastation when introduced to suburban gardens. Evolution also allows it to co-opt genetic resources available in the new environment, creating a pathogen never seen before.

We are unwittingly accelerating such developments. According to a paper by French researchers in the May issue of Annals of Forest Science, we are living in times when new diseases are occurring at an “unprecedented rate” because of human factors. They were writing about tree pathogens but the basics of biology dictate that it is true of all kinds: 21st-century life is convenient not only for human beings. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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The Brexiteers' response to John Major shows their dangerous complacency

Leave's leaders are determined to pretend that there are no risks to their approach.

Christmas is some way off, but Theresa May could be forgiven for feeling like Ebenezer Scrooge. Another Ghost of Prime Ministers Past in the shape of John Major is back in the headlines with a major speech on Brexit.

He struck most of the same notes that Tony Blair did in his speech a fortnight ago. Brexit is a blunder, a "historic mistake" in Major's view. The union between England and Scotland is under threat as is the peace in Northern Ireland. It's not unpatriotic for the defeated side in an electoral contest to continue to hold to those beliefs after a loss. And our present trajectory is a hard Brexit that will leave many of us poorer and wreck the British social model.

But, as with Blair, he rules out any question that the referendum outcome should not be honoured, though, unlike Blair, he has yet to firmly state that pro-Europeans should continue to advocate for a return to the EU if we change our minds. He had a note of warning for the PM: that the Brexit talks need "a little more charm and a lot less cheap rhetoric" and that the expectations she is setting are "unreal and over-optimistic".

On that last point in particular, he makes a point that many politicians make privately but few have aired in public. It may be that we will, as Theresa May says, have the best Brexit. France may in fact pay for it. But what if they don't? What if we get a good deal but immigration doesn't fall? Who'll be blamed for that? Certainly we are less likely to get a good deal while the government passes up pain-free opportunities to secure goodwill from our European partners.

As with Blair, the reaction says more about British politics after Brexit than the speech itself. Jacob Rees-Mogg described it as "a craven and defeated speech of a bitter man". Iain Duncan Smith, too, thinks that it was "strangely bitter".

There is much to worry about as Britain leaves the European Union but the most corrosive and dangerous trend of all is that section of the Leave elite which requires not only that we implement Brexit but that we all pretend that there are no risks, no doubts and that none of us voted to Remain on 23 June. That Blair and Major's speeches - "You voted for it, so we'll do it, but it's a mistake" - are seen as brave and controversial rather than banal and commonplace statements of political practice in a democracy are more worrying than anything that might happen to the value of the pound.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.