Was coronavirus really in Europe in March 2019?


Claire Crossan, Glasgow Caledonian University

The novel coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2 – may have been in Europe for longer than previously thought. Recent studies have suggested that it was circulating in Italy as early as December 2019. More surprisingly, researchers at the University of Barcelona found traces of the virus when testing untreated wastewater samples dated March 12, 2019.

The study was recently published on a preprint server, medRxiv. The paper is currently being subject to critical review by outside experts in preparation for publication in a scientific journal. Until this process of peer review has been completed, though, the evidence needs to be treated with caution.

So, how was the experiment conducted and what exactly did the scientists find?

One of the early findings about SARS-CoV-2 is that it is found in the faeces of infected people. As the virus makes its way through the gut – where it can cause gastrointestinal symptoms – it loses its outer protein layer, but bits of genetic material called RNA survive the journey intact and are “shed” in faeces. At this point, it is no longer infectious – as far as current evidence tells us.

But the fact that these bits of coronavirus RNA can be found in untreated wastewater (known as “influent”) is useful for tracking outbreaks. Indeed, they can predict where an outbreak is likely to occur a week to ten days before they show up in official figures – the reason being that people shed coronavirus before symptoms become evident. These “pre-symptomatic” people then have to get sick enough to be tested, get the results, and be admitted to a hospital as an official “case”, hence the week or so lag.

As a result, many countries, including Spain, are now monitoring wastewater for traces of coronavirus. In this particular study, wastewater epidemiologists were examining frozen samples of influent between January 2018 and December 2019 to see when the virus made its debut in the city.

Experts around the world are monitoring wastewater for signs of coronavirus.
arhendrix/Shutterstock.com

They found evidence of the virus on January 15, 2020, 41 days before the first official case was declared on February 25, 2020. All the samples before this date were negative, except for a sample from March 12, 2019, which gave a positive result in their PCR test for coronavirus. PCR is the standard way of testing to see if someone currently has the disease.

PCR involves getting samples of saliva, mucus, frozen wastewater or whatever else the virus is thought to be lurking in, clearing all the unnecessary stuff out of the sample, then converting the RNA – which is a single strand of genetic material – into DNA (the famous double-stranded helix). The DNA is then “amplified” in successive cycles until key bits of genetic material that are known to only exist in a particular virus are plentiful enough to be detected with a fluorescent probe.

Not highly specific

In coronavirus testing, scientists typically screen for more than one gene. In this case, the researchers tested for three. They had a positive result for the March 2019 sample in one of the three genes tested – the RdRp gene. They screened for two regions of this gene and both were only detected around the 39th cycle of amplification. (PCR tests become less “specific” with increasing rounds of amplification. Scientists generally use 40 to 45 rounds of amplification.)

There are several explanations for this positive result. One is that SARS-CoV-2 is present in the sewage at a very low level. Another is that the test reaction was accidentally contaminated with SARS-CoV-2 in the laboratory. This sometimes happens in labs as positive samples are regularly being handled, and it can be difficult to prevent very small traces of positive sample contaminating others.

Another explanation is that there is other RNA or DNA in the sample that resembles the test target site enough for it to give a positive result at the 39th cycle of amplification.

Further tests need to be carried out to conclude that the sample contains SARS-CoV-2, and a finding of that magnitude would need to be replicated separately by independent laboratories.

Reasons to be circumspect

A curious thing about this finding is that it disagrees with epidemiological data about the virus. The authors don’t cite reports of a spike in the number of respiratory disease cases in the local population following the date of the sampling.

Also, we know SARS-CoV-2 to be highly transmissible, at least in its current form. If this result is a true positive it suggests the virus was present in the population at a high enough incidence to be detected in an 800ml sample of sewage, but then not present at a high enough incidence to be detected for nine months, when no control measures were in place.

So, until further studies are carried out, it is best not to draw definitive conclusions.The Conversation

Claire Crossan, Research Fellow, Virology, Glasgow Caledonian University

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

Coronavirus Update


General

Australia

Saudi Arabia

Europe

Croatia

Spain

United Kingdom

USA

Chile

Coronavirus Update: International


Europe

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania

Canada

USA

China

Coronavirus Update: International


sing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKDx098WLPA

eu https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9gEKJSp_2QI

Italy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f09UEjxzd0c

USA https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThT-GAKwXpY

Africa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgxGqexBiS4

UK https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_E9A-Z4QW-c

Coronavirus Update: International


UK https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTj1cKA4Gf8

e https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7sx5j1iCRQo

usa https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rg0Vsp02ddw

sing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AUZuZkIw_g

Coronavirus Update


Why Trump has made Europe more fearful of a possible Russian attack


Jean S. Renouf, Southern Cross University

US President Donald Trump’s eyebrow-raising visit to Europe has confirmed Europeans’ worst fears: if another “Crimea-like” take-over by Russia occurs somewhere on the continent, they will likely be on their own.

Trump had made it abundantly clear that European leaders can no longer rely on the US for its protection. He was not only harshly criticised by his own party for being too conciliatory with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their Helsinki summit, he also lashed out at US allies once more, going so far as to call the European Union a “foe”.

The US may have more than 60,000 troops stationed in Europe, but a recent report stating the Pentagon is assessing the impact of a possible reduction of troop numbers, coupled with Trump’s unpredictability, has made America’s traditional allies nervous.

Indeed, by initiating trade wars and continuously attacking his closest allies, Trump has weakened the entire West.

Another war in Europe remains possible

Despite his reassurances last week that the US still values NATO, Trump’s divisive visit to Europe may embolden Putin in his assessment that occupying more European land may not be met with much military resistance.

Poland is so concerned, it has recently offered to pay the US up to US$2bn to permanently deploy an armoured division on its soil.




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The on-going conflict in Ukraine, coupled with Putin’s increased emphasis in recent years on Russia’s “right” and “obligation” to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian speakers beyond its borders, contribute further to the unease between Moscow in the West. This is particularly being felt in the Baltic states, two of which (Estonia and Latvia) have sizeable Russian minorities.

It certainly doesn’t help when Russia conducts military drills or dispatches warplanes on the borders with the Baltics, giving a real sense that military escalation in this part of Europe is entirely plausible.

Tensions are building in Eastern Europe

The focus of any possible Russian military incursion could be a thin stretch of land between Poland and Lithuania known as the Suwalki Gap (named after the nearby Polish town of Suwałki), which would allow Russia to reinforce its only access to the Baltic Sea through its Kaliningrad exclave and cut the Baltics off from the rest of Europe.

The Suwalki Gap also links Kaliningrad with Belarus, a staunch Russian ally. Moscow regularly organises joint strategic military exercises with Minsk, the most recent being the Zapad (meaning “West” in Russian) war games last September.

Kaliningrad is strategically important, as well, as the site of recently deployed nuclear-capable short-range missiles and an upgraded nuclear weapons storage site.




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Reflecting their concerns about a possible invasion, NATO members held military exercises last June that focused for the first time on defending this 104km strip of land from a possible Russian attack. Then, last month, NATO held the Trojan Footprint 18 joint military exercise in Poland and the Baltics, which was one of its biggest-ever war games in the region.

These military build-ups on NATO’s eastern flank are reminiscent of the Cold War and feed both Russia’s “deep-seated sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis the West” and Europe’s own feelings of insecurity.

Going it alone

But should Russia decide to invade the Suwalki Gap, would Europe go to war over it?

It may not be able to. European military options remain limited as NATO does not have the military means to go to war against Russia without the US. Acutely aware of this, European leaders launched a new regional defence fund last year to develop the continent’s military capabilities outside of NATO.

While a direct Russian invasion of a NATO member would be the worst-case scenario, it’s more likely that Putin would seek to further destabilise the bloc’s eastern flank through a hybrid war involving cyber-attacks, divisive propaganda campaigns and the use of armed proxies like the “little green men” that appeared during the Ukraine conflict.

Even here, though, it’s clear that Europe cannot provide a unified front to counter potential Russian actions. Some countries like Hungary and Italy seek a closer relationship with Russia, while others like the UK are already embroiled in diplomatic conflicts with it.




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How Vladimir Putin outfoxed Donald Trump at Helsinki before their meeting even began


France and Germany have already announced plans to increase defence spending not because of commitments made to Trump during the latest NATO summit, but out of real concerns that another confrontation with Russia is becoming a real threat.

The ConversationTrump has weakened the Western alliance at a time when Europe is not ready to step up and ensure its own security. He may have united Europeans around shared fears and their collective response, but he’s also made them more vulnerable.

Jean S. Renouf, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Southern Cross University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Germany’s (not so) grand coalition may cause ripple effects on European refugee policy


Kelly Soderstrom, University of Melbourne and Philomena Murray, University of Melbourne

After a tumultuous 2017 election and six months of political uncertainty, Germany finally has a government. The so-called “grand coalition” made up of the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU), its right-wing sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), will govern Germany for the next four years.

At the centre of it all is the coalition agreement. The 179-page document sets out the goals for the government, including a new approach to Germany’s refugee policy.

The agreement explains “a new direction for Europe, a new dynamic for Germany, a new cohesion for our country”. It notes two changes in German leadership: a change in the power dynamics among the ruling parties, and a strong emphasis on using the European Union (EU) to achieve German political objectives.

With a weakened CDU under Chancellor Angela Merkel ceding considerable control to the anti-immigration CSU and the socialist SPD, the centre of German political power has shifted. This shift will have a profound impact on German and EU refugee policies.




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The issue of refugees is discussed deeply in German society. Since the height of the refugee crisis in 2016, when 722,370 people applied for asylum in Germany, the number of asylum applicants has decreased significantly.

However, 1.6 million refugees remain in Germany and Europe’s refugee crisis appears to be far from over. Not unexpectedly, this is a huge source of tension in the government.

At first, Merkel gained praise for her humanitarian, liberal refugee policy focused on refugee reception and integration. However, growing anti-immigrant sentiment, evident in the rise of groups like Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA), the electoral success of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the difficulties in integrating a large number of refugees all resulted in increasingly protectionist sentiment.

Germany needs to provide a feasible refugee policy that is manageable and does not split the coalition.
Shutterstock

Merkel had pushed for refugee responsibility-sharing across the EU. However, no pan-EU approach drawing on the German example eventuated. Many EU member states refused to honour the major instrument for delegating responsibility for refugees, the Dublin Regulation, or participate in the EU-wide refugee redistribution scheme.

Given Merkel’s weakened position in the coalition, it is not clear that Germany will continue her humanitarian approach.

The government faces two leadership challenges in refugee policy. Firstly, it needs to provide Germany with a feasible refugee policy that is manageable and does not split the coalition. Secondly, it is attempting to lead a different type of coalition – namely, the EU’s 28 member states.




Read more:
Why Europe shouldn’t follow Australia’s lead on asylum seekers


Leadership in Germany: Can Merkel still say ‘wir schaffen das’?

In domestic refugee policy, Germany is fractured. Of the three coalition partners, the anti-immigration CSU is the primary winner in migration and refugee policy. CSU leader and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer is leading dramatic restrictions in refugee policy. Although the SPD negotiated a modest victory with 1,000 family reunification visas per month for refugees, government parties are refusing to do more than this.

Creating a cap on refugee visas was a major point of controversy between the CDU and CSU. The CSU prevailed, with the coalition agreement calling for an annual cap of 180,000-220,000 refugees. However, that cap may not take effect as only 198,317 first-time asylum applications were filed in Germany in 2017. Yet this threshold creates distraction from Merkel’s humanitarian approach as it prioritises immigration control over humanitarian obligation.

There is some good news for refugee integration in Germany.
Shutterstock

This, coupled with the limitations on movement of refugees imposed by centralised processing centres and repatriation centres for failed asylum seekers, demonstrates new constraints in refugee policy. This in turn demonstrates the CDU’s diminishing power and the fracturing of the centre of policy leadership.

Yet there is some good news for refugee integration. The grand coalition still maintains a focus on refugee integration, especially through language acquisition and participation in the labour market.

As Germany struggles with its fractured leadership and seeks consolidation and centralisation of refugee processing procedures, the German approach is becoming increasingly binary: if you are not a refugee, you must leave; if you are a refugee, you must integrate.




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Leadership in Europe?

When it comes to the EU, the grand coalition government has four objectives: halt secondary movement of refugees; toughen the EU’s external borders; tackle external push factors; and create a robust mechanism for responsibility-sharing.

The Common European Asylum System aims for common application procedures for refugees and accommodation standards to prevent asylum-shopping across countries. The German government is also renewing calls for a quota-based refugee redistribution and resettlement scheme among EU states.

In calling for increased policing of the EU’s external borders and a common approach to push factors, these mechanisms paint refugee protection as a security issue rather than a humanitarian one.

During the Eurozone crisis, Germany showed strong leadership in EU policy. However, it has failed to persuade other member states to follow its leadership on refugees. Its leadership may further weaken as other states refuse to follow.

Will Germany step up to lead in Europe?

The EU is deeply divided on refugee policy and distracted by other concerns. The United Kingdom is consumed by Brexit negotiations, while many eastern and central European states refuse to participate in EU-level refugee resettlement schemes.

The anti-refugee populist parties have increased influence across Europe. Merkel has few natural allies, if any, in the grand coalition or within the EU on this issue.




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Yet Germany regards leadership of the EU as the key to achieving its interests. Merkel is emphatic that “Germany will only do well if Europe is doing well”.

However, Germany is falling in line with more restrictive policies, rather than leading the EU towards a more comprehensive and humanitarian solution to the refugee crisis.

The ConversationIf Germany leads EU policy change, we may well see increased blocking of access to the EU for refugees and policies that emphasise control and expediency over humanitarian values.

Kelly Soderstrom, PhD Candidate in International Relations, University of Melbourne and Philomena Murray, Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences and EU Centre on Shared Complex Challenges, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.