South Koreans wear masks to protest against Mers. Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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?

Getty
Show Hide image

Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.