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?

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.