One vaccine to beat COVID, Sars, Mers and common cold – possible?



PhotobyTawat/Shutterstock

Sheena Cruickshank, University of Manchester

SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – belongs to the family of betacoronaviruses that cause everything from the common cold to Mers (which kills about one in three people infected). Despite causing a wide range of symptoms, these viruses all share similarities. If they’re similar enough, could one vaccine prevent infection from them all? Scientists have certainly been considering it.

Before we explore this question, though, we first need to take a detour into the fascinating anatomy of betacoronaviruses.

Betacoronaviruses are microscopic balls covered in spikes that encapsulate a central core of genetic material. The virus must infect cells in order to replicate, and to do this it must first attach to the cells.

Betacoronaviruses use their spikes to attach to cells by latching onto specific targets on the cells called receptors. Scientists from countries including the US and France have examined these spikes and discovered that they are made up of two pieces, or “domains”, imaginatively called S1 and S2.

These spike domains help the virus attach to host cells in a variety of ways. For example, the viruses that cause COVID-19 and Sars both use a part of the S1 domain called the receptor binding domain (RBD) to stick to the host cell receptor (ACE2). But the cold-causing viruses do not.

By comparing the features of the spikes between all the betacoronaviruses that cause human disease, researchers have discovered similarities and differences between them. Whereas S1 domains are quite variable between virus family members, the S2 domains are quite similar.

Similarities in virus structure are important because they can help our immune system get tricked into responding and fighting several types of closely related viruses. This happens because similar domains will have similar features that can be detected by our antibodies.

Antibodies are made by specialised white blood cells called B cells. They have several functions in infection, such as helping other white blood cells detect and kill viruses or virally infected cells. Antibodies can also stop viruses from getting into cells by blocking the cell receptors, such as ACE2 in the case of COVID-19.

However, as powerful as they are, antibodies take time to generate – it can take seven to ten days to start making protective antibodies. Once the B cells know what antibodies to make, they will remember, and if they meet the same infection again, they can react almost instantly and make even more antibodies than before. This feature is termed the memory response.

Vaccines work by trying to create immune memory by supplying the features of the virus that will trigger natural antibody production without the need for a full-blown infection. Could structural similarities between related betacoronaviruses be used to make vaccines that will generate antibodies recognising several virus family members?

Cross-reactivity

To unpick this puzzle, it is necessary to look at whether antibodies can recognise more than one type of virus, a phenomenon known as cross-reactivity. Tests like this showed that antibodies to the RBD part of the S1 domain of the spike protein that causes Sars cross-reacted with the virus that causes COVID-19.

Researchers have also found that antibodies to parts of the S2 domain of the spike protein were cross-reactive (albeit weakly) with the other betacorononaviruses in a study that has not yet been peer-reviewed. However, antibody binding is not enough to say whether a target is suitable for further development into a vaccine or drug.

These discoveries of potentially cross-reacting antibodies are exciting because they could open the door to new drugs and vaccines that tackle COVID-19. A side product could be the potential to offer some protection against future coronaviruses that we have yet to encounter.

Disease enhancement

However, a cautionary note is warranted. Although antibodies can be powerful allies in the fight against infection, they can pose serious threats to our health. Antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE) is a phenomenon that can occur when an antibody bound to a virus actually helps the viruses to enter and infect cells, including cells it could not normally infect, such as some types of white blood cell.

Once the virus gets inside the white blood cell, it hijacks the cell and effectively turns it into a Trojan horse. These Trojan horses enable the virus to hide and thrive within the cell and get spread around the body – in effect amplifying and accelerating the course of disease.

ADE is not known to occur in COVID-19 but has been observed in dengue fever. There is still much we don’t understand about ADE, but the likelihood appears to be highest when there are several variants of a particular virus circulating in a population.

Disease enhancement has been seen in dengue fever.
khlungcenter/Shutterstock

A huge question, therefore, is whether a vaccine that exploited similarities between the cold-causing viruses and COVID-19 would cause a bigger risk of ADE? Most COVID vaccine trials are focused on the RBD region of the spike protein, which does not elicit such broadly cross-reactive antibodies and, as such, are less likely to pose a risk of ADE.

Another possible risk antibodies can cause is the condition known as vaccine-associated enhanced respiratory disease (ERD). ERD occurs when high levels of antibodies bind to viruses, causing clumps of virus and antibody. The clumps can cause blockages in the small airways in the lungs with potentially devastating results. This risk, although rare and unlikely, emphasises the need for caution to ensure any vaccines and new drugs are properly tested for safety before they are widely used.

On balance, given the questions around the functionality of cross-reactive antibodies alongside the potential risks, it seems unlikely that in the near future there will be a COVID-19 vaccine that will also protect us from Sars, Mers and some types of common cold. What is clear, though, is that the more we learn about how these viruses evolve, their similarities and differences and the way our immune response reacts, the better chance we have to win the war against COVID-19.The Conversation

Sheena Cruickshank, Professor in Biomedical Sciences, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

With prizes, food, housing and cash, Putin rigged Russia’s most recent vote



Russian President Vladimir Putin at a polling station to cast his ballot in a nationwide vote on constitutional reforms in Moscow on July 1, 2020.
Alexey Druzhinin/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images)

Regina Smyth, Indiana University

When Russians voted in early July on 200 constitutional amendments, officials rigged the election to create the illusion that President Vladimir Putin remains a popular and powerful leader after 20 years in office.

In reality, he increasingly relies on manipulation and state repression to maintain his presidency. Most Russians know that, and the world is catching up.

At the center of the changes were new rules to allow Putin to evade term limits and serve two additional terms, extending his tenure until 2036. According to official results, Putin’s regime secured an astounding victory, winning 78% support for the constitutional reform, with 64% turnout. The Kremlin hailed the national vote as confirmation of popular trust in Putin.

The vote was purely symbolic. The law governing constitutional change does not require a popular vote. By March 2020, the national legislature, Constitutional Court and Russia’s 85 regional legislatures had voted to enact the proposed amendments.

Yet, the president insisted on a show of popular support and national unity to endorse the legal process.

The Kremlin’s goal was to make Putin’s 2024 reelection appear inevitable. Given the stakes, the outcome was never in doubt – but it did little to resolve uncertainty over Russia’s future.

Declining social support

Why hold a vote if a vote isn’t needed?

As a scholar of Russian electoral competition, I see the constitutional vote as a first step in an effort to prolong Putin’s 20-year tenure as the national leader. The Kremlin’s success defined the legal path to reelection and the strategy for securing an electoral majority in the face of popular opposition.

Protesters in line at the presidential administration in Moscow, waiting to deliver statements that they don’t accept the results of the constitutional amendment vote, July 4, 2020.
Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Its effect on societal attitudes is less clear. A recent poll by the independent polling organization the Levada Center showed that while 52% of respondents supported Putin’s reelection, 44% opposed. At the same time, 59% want to introduce a 70-year-old age cap for presidential candidates. This change would bar the 68-year-old president from running again.

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The government’s disorganized and weak response to COVID-19 highlighted the inefficient and corrupt system and produced an unprecedented drop in Putin’s public approval ratings.

Growing signs of popular discontent in Russia suggest this polling data underestimates demand for change. Local protest against pollution, trash incineration and state reforms continue to grow across the Federation. Focus group data reveals that ordinary Russians are concerned about state repression and civil rights violations.

In the leadup to the constitutional vote, internet influencers read the public mood and refused payments for their endorsement, fearing a backlash from followers and advertisers.

A new Putin majority

Declining popular support highlights the difficulty of building a new voting coalition. Manufacturing a demonstration of national unity was the first step in reinventing Putin’s links to core supporters in the runup to the next national election cycle.

By 2012, Putin’s first coalition, forged in the economic recovery of the early 2000s, was eroded by chronic economic stagnation punctuated by crisis.

In the mid-2010s, Putin’s new majority was based on aggressive foreign policy actions. That coalition declined, as conflicts in Ukraine and Syria dragged on, and public support for expensive foreign policy adventures decreased.

The constitutional vote marks Putin’s third attempt to reconstruct electoral support rooted in patriotism, conservative values and state paternalism that echoes the Soviet era.

Fixing the vote

The constitutional reform campaign focused on state benefits rather than the Putin presidency.

Putin offered something for everyone in the 200 amendments.

As an antidote to unpopular pension reforms, a new provision guarantees pensioners annual adjustments linked to inflation. Other amendments codified existing policies guaranteeing housing and a minimum wage. New clauses codify Putin’s version of conservative values, with measures that add a reference to God, a prohibition against same-sex marriage and support for patriotic education. Other provisions take aim at corruption, by prohibiting state officials from holding offshore accounts.

A massive PR campaign framed starkly different appeals to different voter groups. For those concerned with international security, ads depicted apocalyptic visions of Russia’s future after a NATO invasion. For younger voters, appeals depicted happy families voting to support a bright future.

State television featured supportive cultural icons and artists, including Patriarch Kirill, who is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin himself argued that participation was a patriotic duty. No one mentioned the controversial loophole that would allow Putin to run again.

The campaign foretold the outcome: The regime would stop at nothing to secure success. Officials coerced employees of government agencies and large businesses to turn out. Voters were offered prizes, food and chances to win new housing and cash for participating.

Ostensibly in response to COVID-19, the Electoral Commission altered voting procedures to evade observation, developing a flawed online voting system and creating mobile polling stations in parks, airports and outside apartment blocks. There is overwhelming evidence that the Kremlin resorted to falsification to produce the desired outcome.

Most Russians understand that the manufactured outcome does not accurately reflect attitudes about Putin’s reelection.

Limits of disinformation

There is growing evidence that the public is no longer persuaded by disinformation and political theater such as the rigged constitutional vote. Trust in state media, the president and the government are declining precipitously.

Members of a local electoral commission empty a ballot box at a polling station, July 1, 2020.
Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

The realities of sustained economic stagnation and the Kremlin’s anemic response to COVID-19 stand in sharp contrast to its all-out approach to the symbolic national vote. It can rig a vote, but it can’t control a virus.

The Kremlin’s pandemic response raises doubts about its ability to fulfill new constitutional mandates. Widely publicized efforts to reform the Soviet-era health care system still left hospitals unprepared to manage the pandemic. The state proved incapable of delivering bonuses to first responders and medical workers. The Kremlin refused to use its substantial emergency fund to support entrepreneurs, families with children and the unemployed.

Given these realities, upcoming elections will test the illusion of a new pro-Putin majority defined by this rigged vote. And if the voters abandon Putin, the new Constitution provides a final path to remain in office: the unelected chairmanship of the powerful new State Council.The Conversation

Regina Smyth, Professor, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 COVID-19 myths politicians have repeated that just aren’t true



The purveyors of these myths aren’t doing the country any favors.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Geoffrey Joyce, University of Southern California

The number of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has jumped to around 50,000 a day, and the virus has killed more than 130,000 Americans. Yet, I still hear myths about the infection that has created the worst public health crisis in America in a century.

The purveyors of these myths, including politicians who have been soft peddling the impact of the coronavirus, aren’t doing the country any favors.

Here are five myths I hear as director of health policy at the University of Southern California’s Schaeffer Center that I would like to put to rest.

Myth: COVID-19 is not much worse than the flu

President Donald Trump and plenty of pundits predicted early on that COVID-19 would prove no more lethal than a bad flu. Some used that claim to argue that stay-at-home orders and government-imposed lockdowns were un-American and a gross overreaction that would cost more lives than they saved.

By the end of June, however, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that national antibody testing indicated 5% to 8% of Americans had already been infected with the virus. With over 130,000 confirmed COVID-19-related deaths – and that’s likely an undercount – the case fatality rate is around 0.49% to 0.78% or about four to eight times that of the flu.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who also downplayed COVID-19 as the death toll grew, calling it a “little flu,” announced on July 7 that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Myth: Cases are increasing because testing is increasing

At one point, the idea that COVID-19 case numbers were high because of an increase in testing made intuitive sense, especially in the early stages of the pandemic when people showing up for tests were overwhelmingly showing symptoms of possible infection. More testing meant health officials were aware of more illnesses that would have otherwise gone under the radar. And testing predominately sick and symptomatic people can result in an overestimate of its virulence.

Now, with millions of tests conducted and fewer than 10% coming back positive, the U.S. knows what it is facing. Testing today is essential to finding the people who are infected and getting them isolated.

Unfortunately, Trump has been a leading purveyor of the myth that we test too much. Fortunately, his medical advisers disagree.

Myth: Lockdowns were unnecessary

Given the current spike in infections after reopening the economy, more people are arguing that the lockdowns were unsuccessful in crushing the virus and shouldn’t have been implemented at all. But what would the country look like today if state governments had tried to build herd immunity by letting the disease spread rather than promoting social distancing, prohibiting large gatherings and telling the elderly to stay home?

Most epidemiologists who study pandemics believe that reaching herd immunity could only be achieved at enormous cost in terms of illness and death. About 60% or 70% of Americans would have to become infected before the spread of the virus diminished. That would result in 1 to 2 million U.S. deaths and 5 to 10 million hospitalizations.

These are horrific, yet conservative estimates, given that mortality rates would surely rise if that many people were infected and hospitals were overrun.

Myth: The epidemiological models are always wrong

It is not surprising that many people are confused by the proliferation of predictions about the course of the virus. How many people become infected depends on how individuals, governments and institutions respond, which is hard to predict.

Faced with the warning early in the pandemic that 1 to 2 million Americans could die if the U.S. simply let the coronavirus run its course, federal and state governments imposed restrictions to constrain the spread of the virus. Then, they relaxed those restrictions as new cases ebbed and pressure mounted to reopen the economy.

Now, they must consider reimposing some of those restrictions as infection rates rise in a majority of states, including Texas, Arizona, Florida and California. The models were based on data and assumptions at that time, and likely influenced responses which in turn changed underlying conditions. For example, new cases of COVID-19 are rising in the U.S., while fatalities are falling. This reflects a shift in infection rates toward younger populations, as well as improved treatment as providers learn more about the virus.

Just like an investment disclaimer that past returns do not guarantee future performance, modeling a pandemic should be seen as suggestive of what might happen given current information and not a law of nature.

Myth: It’s a second wave

Sadly, the myth here is that we have contained the virus enough to buy time to prepare for a second wave. In fact, the first wave just keeps getting bigger.

A second wave would require a trough in the first wave, but there is little evidence of that from either an epidemiologic or economic perspective.

During the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, the weekly UK death toll from influenza and pneumonia, shown here, reflected three clear waves.
Taubenberger JK, Morens DM. 1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics. Emerg Infect Dis. 2006;12(1)

The U.S. recorded a record number of new cases during the first week of July, exceeding 50,000 per day for four straight days. The rising number of cases led several states to halt or roll back their reopening plans in hopes of stemming the spread of the virus.

Meanwhile, most consumers are reticent to return to “normal” economic activity: Fewer than one-third of adults surveyed by Morning Consult in early July were comfortable going to a shopping mall. Only 35% were comfortable going out to eat, and 18% were comfortable going to the gym. For almost half of the population, an effective treatment or vaccine may be the only way they will feel comfortable returning to “normal” economic activity.

COVID-19 is an immediate threat that requires a unified, science-based response from governments and citizens to be successful. But it is also an opportunity to rethink how we prepare for future pandemics. Some misinformation is inevitable as a new virus emerges, but perpetuating myths for political or other reasons ultimately costs lives.

[The Conversation’s most important coronavirus headlines, weekly in a new science newsletter.]The Conversation

Geoffrey Joyce, Director of Health Policy, USC Schaeffer Center, and Associate Professor, University of Southern California

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Alzheimer’s disease: protective gene uncovered in human cell model – bringing promise for new drug discoveries



Our method could someday potentially detect the disease before it starts developing in a person’s brain.
Robert Kneschke/ Shutterstock

Dean Nizetic, Queen Mary University of London

Every three seconds, someone in the world develops dementia. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. While researchers have identified a number of risk factors that are linked to dementia – including genetics, smoking, and high blood pressure – there is currently still no cure.

Part of the reason for this is because of how complicated it is to test potential Alzheimer’s drugs. In order to conduct clinical trials participants need to have symptoms. But by the time symptoms appear, it’s usually too late for treatments to have a large effect as many of their brain cells have already died.

But our latest research developed a new human cell model that is able to rapidly simulate the development of Alzheimer’s disease in the lab. This allowed us to identify a gene, called BACE2, that is naturally able to suppress the signs of Alzheimer’s disease in human brain cells. Our research is the result of around five years’ work, and was the collaborative effort of teams based in London, Singapore, Sweden and Croatia.

Researchers already know a lot about which genes cause Alzheimer’s disease or make someone more likely to develop it. These genes contribute to certain toxic proteins accumulating in the human brain. So our team thought that the opposite must also be true: our brain cells must also have proteins that can naturally slow down the development of Alzheimer’s.

One gene that can definitely cause Alzheimer’s disease is a gene found on the 21st pair of human chromosomes that is responsible for making the amyloid precursor protein (APP). Research shows that 100% of people born with just one extra copy of the APP gene (called “DupAPP”) will develop dementia by age 60.

People with Down’s syndrome are born with three copies of APP because they have a third 21st chromosome. But by age 60, only 60% of them will develop clinical dementia. We wanted to know why some people with Down’s syndrome have delayed development of – or never develop – Alzheimer’s dementia compared to those who have one extra DupAPP gene.

The simple answer for this is because they have an extra dose of all other genes located in chromosome 21. We believed that there could be some dose-sensitive genes on chromosome 21 that, when triplicated, protect against Alzheimer’s disease by counteracting the effects of the third APP gene.

These genes must then appear to delay the onset of clinical dementia in some people with Down’s syndrome by approximately 20 years. Studies have even shown that any future drug able to delay dementia onset by just five years would reduce the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in the general population by half.

We re-programmed cells, turning them into brain cells.
arrideo/ Shutterstock

To study the potential of the extra genes, we took hair follicle cells from people with Down’s syndrome and re-programmed the cells to become like stem cells. This allowed us to turn them into brain cells in a Petri dish.

We then grew them into 3D balls of cells that imitated the tissue of the grey matter (cortex) of the human brain. The 3D nature of the culturing allowed misfolded and toxic proteins to accumulate, which are crucial changes that lead to Alzheimer’s disease in the brain.

We found all three major signs of Alzheimer’s disease (plaque build-up in the brain, misfolded “tau” proteins and dying brain neurons) in cell cultures from 71% of people with Down’s syndrome who donated samples. This proportion was similar to the percentage of clinical dementia among adults with Down’s syndrome.

We were also able to use CRISPR – a technology that allows researchers to alter DNA sequences and modify a gene’s function – to reduce the number of BACE2 genes from three copies to two copies on chromosome 21. This was only done in cases where there were no indications of Alzheimer’s disease in our cellular model. Surprisingly, reducing the number of BACE2 genes on chromosome 21 provoked signs of the disease. This strongly suggest that having extra copies of a normal BACE2 gene could prevent Alzheimer’s.

The protective action of BACE2 reduces the levels of toxic amyloid proteins. This was verified in our cellular models, as well as in cerebrospinal fluid and post-mortem brain tissue from people with Down’s syndrome.

Our study provides proof that natural Alzheimer’s-preventing genes exist, and now we have a system to detect new potential protective genes. Importantly, recent research showed the protective action of BACE2 might also be relevant to people who don’t have Down’s syndrome.

Our results also show that all three signs of Alzheimer’s disease can be potentially detected in cells from live donors. Though this requires a lot more research, it means we may be able to develop tests that identify which people are at higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease by looking at their cells.

This would allow us to detect the disease before it starts developing in a person’s brain, and could make it possible to design personalised preventative treatments. However, we are still a long way from reaching this goal.

Most importantly, our work shows that all three signs of Alzheimer’s disease detected using our model could be prevented by drugs known to inhibit the production of the toxic amyloid protein – and this can be detected in as little as six weeks in the lab. We hope our discovery could lead to the development of new drugs aimed at delaying or preventing Alzheimer’s disease, before it causes brain cell death.The Conversation

Dean Nizetic, Professor of Cellular and Molecular Biology, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Brazil’s Bolsonaro has COVID-19 – and so do thousands of Indigenous people who live days from the nearest hospital



Satere-mawe Indigenous men in face masks paddle the Ariau River, in hard-hit Manaus state, during the coronavirus pandemic, May 5, 2020.
Ricardo Oliveira /AFP via Getty Images

Nadia Rubaii, Binghamton University, State University of New York and Julio José Araujo Junior, Rio de Janeiro State University

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has denied the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and ridiculed social distancing, tested positive for the novel coronavirus on July 7 after showing mild symptoms.

Bolsonaro is one of 1.9 million confirmed COVID-19 victims in coronavirus-wracked Brazil. But as a white, wealthy and powerful man, he is not a member of the most hard-hit group. Data shows that Black Brazilians and Indigenous people are getting sick and dying at much higher rates.

Indigenous communities face particularly daunting odds to survival during the pandemic. Most of Brazil’s roughly 896,000 Indigenous people live in the Amazon region, where the nearest hospital may be days away by boat and offer limited care. Indigenous Brazilians also have higher rates of malnutrition, anemia and obesity than the general population – risk factors for severe COVID-19.

As of July 6, Brazil’s Health Ministry reported 7,958 COVID-19 infections among Indigenous people and 171 deaths. The National Committee for Indigenous Life and Memory, an advocacy group for Indigenous people during the pandemic, estimates 12,000 infections and 400 deaths.

The situation is dire for the Amazonian Yanomami people. If current trends continue, 5,600 Yanomami – or 40% of their entire population – could become infected with COVID-19, according to a report from Brazil’s Indigenous Environmental Institute.

COVID-19 is just the latest deadly threat to Indigenous people under Bolsonaro, whose policies and rhetoric are so openly hostile that they essentially amount to a campaign of genocide, our research finds.

A 92-year-old Baniwa Indigenous patient who recovered from COVID-19 leaves the hospital in the Amazonian city of Manaus in May 2020, holding a sign reading ‘Another Recovered Warrior.’
Andre Coelho/Getty Images

What is genocide

Under Bolsonaro, who took office in January 2018, Brazil has dismantled environmental protections of the Amazon, allowing deforestation to spike. He has also curtailed the land rights of Indigenous people and turned a blind eye to illegal mining, logging and farming operations on their territory.

In late 2019, those policies led two leading Brazilian human rights organizations to report Bolsonaro to the International Criminal Court, alleging that the right-wing leader was “inciting genocide” against Indigenous people. This case is still pending.

Under international law, the crime of genocide requires “intent to destroy, in whole or in part,” a group based on their nationality, ethnicity, race or religion. While genocide often involves explicit killing, it can also include causing serious harm to a population and destroying their way of life.

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As scholars of mass atrocity prevention and Indigenous rights, we have watched with alarm as Brazil showed warning signs that this latter, slower type of genocide was underway. Now COVID-19, which is actually killing Indigenous people by the hundreds, could be the final straw.

A protest demonstration honoring Brazilian COVID-19 victims in the capital of Brasilia, June 28, 2020. At the time, Brazil had 57,070 coronavirus deaths.
Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Warning signs

In theory, many Brazilian Indigenous people should be well situated to escape COVID-19 exposure. An estimated 10,000 live in voluntary isolation across the Amazon, separated from broader Brazilian society. Many others have only limited contact with the outside world.

Their rights to self-determination and isolation are confirmed by two international agreements on indigenous rights, both of which Brazil signed. In recent years, however, loggers, miners and farmers have aggressively violated these land rights and set up shop in the Amazon, sometimes with the Bolsonaro government’s explicit endorsement.

The illegal land grabs have worsened during the pandemic, as the world’s attention turned away from the Amazon. The number of non-Indigenous gold miners working on Indigenous lands in Brazil increased from 4,000 in 2018 to over 20,000 so far in 2020. Such incursions risk bringing the coronavirus into Indigenous communities.

The systematic violation of Indigenous land rights also endanger their very survival.

Indigenous people have lived in the Amazon for centuries, protecting the rainforest in a manner that not only supported their traditional way of life but also protected this global natural resource. Historically, they could count on at least minimal government regulations intended to defend the Amazon rainforest, though deforestation has long been a challenge.

But Bolsonaro does not believe in defending the Amazon or its inhabitants. One of his first acts in office was to roll back environmental protections. Deforestation of the Amazon has increased 34% since 2018, according to the Brazilian Amazon monitoring program. Deforestation of Indigenous lands is up almost 80%.

Illegal property seizure and rights violations like those experienced by Indigenous Brazilians under Bolsonaro are known warning signs of genocide. So is the physical destruction of a persecuted group’s homeland. According to the UN, “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its
physical destruction in whole or in part
” constitutes genocide.

Yanomami Indigenous Brazilians wait to receive health care from missionaries in Roraima state, July 1, 2020.
Andressa Anholete / Getty Images

Denying the humanity of a group is another frequent precursor to genocide, history shows. Before the Holocaust, for example, Nazis referred to Jews as rats.

Bolsonaro has not gone so far as to characterize Indigenous Brazilians as vermin. But he refers to them using derogatory language.

“The Indians do not speak our language, they do not have money, they do not have culture,” he told Campo Grande newspaper in 2015, when he was still a congressman. Earlier this year, Bolsonaro said Indigenous people exposed to the outside world are “increasingly becoming human beings, like us.”

Time for intervention

Land grabs, insufficient health care, deforestation and stigmatization all threatened Indigenous Brazilians before the pandemic. Genocides can be that way. They are a process, not sudden, isolated events.

Risk factors and warning signs can smolder for years in a country. Then a “trigger” like COVID-19 ignites them, resulting in mass death.

We’re not alone in making this dire forecast. On June 29, a Brazilian indigenous rights organization and six political parties jointly requested an order of protection for Indigenous people during the coronavirus pandemic to prevent genocide from occurring.

The plaintiffs insist that the government must provide adequate health care to all Indigenous Brazilians; physically secure Indigenous land to prevent illegal miners, loggers and others from entering; and expel those who do trespass. Failing these emergency measures, they assert, Brazil’s Indigenous peoples face extinction.

If the court grants their request, there’s no guarantee the government will comply. But it could saves lives. For indigenous communities with just a few hundred members, that may make all the difference.

There is a newer version of this article that reflects latest developments. The updated version can be found here.The Conversation

Nadia Rubaii, Co-Director, Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, and Professor of Public Administration, Binghamton University, State University of New York and Julio José Araujo Junior, PhD student of law, Rio de Janeiro State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How misinformation about 5G is spreading within our government institutions – and who’s responsible



Aris Oikonomou/EPA

Michael Jensen, University of Canberra

“Fake news” is not just a problem of misleading or false claims on fringe websites, it is increasingly filtering into the mainstream and has the potential to be deeply destructive.

My recent analysis of more than 500 public submissions to a parliamentary committee on the launch of 5G in Australia shows just how pervasive misinformation campaigns have become at the highest levels of government. A significant number of the submissions peddled inaccurate claims about the health effects of 5G.

These falsehoods were prominent enough the committee felt compelled to address the issue in its final report. The report noted:

community confidence in 5G has been shaken by extensive misinformation
preying on the fears of the public spread via the internet, and presented as facts, particularly through social media.

This is a remarkable situation for Australian public policy – it is not common for a parliamentary inquiry to have to rebut the dodgy scientific claims it receives in the form of public submissions.

While many Australians might dismiss these claims as fringe conspiracy theories, the reach of this misinformation matters. If enough people act on the basis of these claims, it can cause harm to the wider public.

In late May, for example, protests against 5G, vaccines and COVID-19 restrictions were held in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Some protesters claimed 5G was causing COVID-19 and the pandemic was a hoax – a “plandemic” – perpetuated to enslave and subjugate the people to the state.




Read more:
Coronavirus, ‘Plandemic’ and the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking


Misinformation can also lead to violence. Last year, the FBI for the first time identified conspiracy theory-driven extremists as a terrorism threat.

Conspiracy theories that 5G causes autism, cancer and COVID-19 have also led to widespread arson attacks in the UK and Canada, along with verbal and physical attacks on employees of telecommunication companies.

The source of conspiracy messaging

To better understand the nature and origins of the misinformation campaigns against 5G in Australia, I examined the 530 submissions posted online to the parliament’s standing committee on communications and the arts.

The majority of submissions were from private citizens. A sizeable number, however, made claims about the health effects of 5G, parroting language from well-known conspiracy theory websites.

A perceived lack of “consent” (for example, here, here and here) about the planned 5G roll-out featured prominently in these submissions. One person argued she did not agree to allow 5G to be “delivered directly into” the home and “radiate” her family.




Read more:
No, 5G radiation doesn’t cause or spread the coronavirus. Saying it does is destructive


To connect sentiments like this to conspiracy groups, I looked at two well-known conspiracy sites that have been identified as promoting narratives consistent with Russian misinformation operations – the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG) and Zero Hedge.

CRG is an organisation founded and directed by Michel Chossudovsky, a former professor at the University of Ottawa and opinion writer for Russia Today.

CRG has been flagged by NATO intelligence as part of wider efforts to undermine trust in “government and public institutions” in North America and Europe.

Zero Hedge, which is registered in Bulgaria, attracts millions of readers every month and ranks among the top 500 sites visited in the US. Most stories are geared toward an American audience.

Researchers at Rand have connected Zero Hedge with online influencers and other media sites known for advancing pro-Kremlin narratives, such as the claim that Ukraine, and not Russia, is to blame for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

Protesters targeting the coronavirus lockdown and 5G in Melbourne in May.
Scott Barbour/AAP

How it was used in parliamentary submissions

For my research, I scoured the top posts circulated by these groups on Facebook for false claims about the health threats posed by 5G. Some stories I found had headlines like “13 Reasons 5G Wireless Technology will be a Catastrophe for Humanity” and “Hundreds of Respected Scientists Sound Alarm about Health Effects as 5G Networks go Global”.

I then tracked the diffusion of these stories on Facebook and identified 10 public groups where they were posted. Two of the groups specifically targeted Australians – Australians for Safe Technology, a group with 48,000 members, and Australia Uncensored. Many others, such as the popular right-wing conspiracy group QAnon, also contained posts about the 5G debate in Australia.




Read more:
Conspiracy theories about 5G networks have skyrocketed since COVID-19


To determine the similarities in phrasing between the articles posted on these Facebook groups and submissions to the Australian parliamentary committee, I used the same technique to detect similarities in texts that is commonly used to detect plagiarism in student papers.

The analysis rates similarities in documents on a scale of 0 (entirely dissimilar) to 1 (exactly alike). There were 38 submissions with at least a 0.5 similarity to posts in the Facebook group 5G Network, Microwave Radiation Dangers and other Health Problems and 35 with a 0.5 similarity to the Australians for Safe Technology group.

This is significant because it means that for these 73 submissions, 50% of the language was, word for word, exactly the same as the posts from extreme conspiracy groups on Facebook.

The first 5G Optus tower in the suburb of Dickson in Canberra.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

The impact of misinformation on policy-making

The process for soliciting submissions to a parliamentary inquiry is an important part of our democracy. In theory, it provides ordinary citizens and organisations with a voice in forming policy.

My findings suggest Facebook conspiracy groups and potentially other conspiracy sites are attempting to co-opt this process to directly influence the way Australians think about 5G.

In the pre-internet age, misinformation campaigns often had limited reach and took a significant amount of time to spread. They typically required the production of falsified documents and a sympathetic media outlet. Mainstream news would usually ignore such stories and few people would ever read them.

Today, however, one only needs to create a false social media account and a meme. Misinformation can spread quickly if it is amplified through online trolls and bots.

It can also spread quickly on Facebook, with its algorithm designed to drive ordinary users to extremist groups and pages by exploiting their attraction to divisive content.

And once this manipulative content has been widely disseminated, countering it is like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.

Misinformation has the potential to undermine faith in governments and institutions and make it more challenging for authorities to make demonstrable improvements in public life. This is why governments need to be more proactive in effectively communicating technical and scientific information, like details about 5G, to the public.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, a public sphere without trusted voices quickly becomes filled with misinformation.The Conversation

Michael Jensen, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.