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.
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.
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.
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.
Against seemingly all the odds, we have a new Brexit deal. As an apparent vindication of UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s strategy to ramp up the threat of a no-deal departure from the EU and to force concessions from Brussels, one would imagine that Number 10 is rather happy right now. But that happiness will be tempered with caution, because some major issues lie ahead.
Negotiations in Brussels have produced legal texts on arrangements for Northern Ireland and on the political declaration, which outlines the broad outline of what the two sides want from their future relationship. These are the product of months of planning by the British government, so it’s reasonable to ask what has actually changed since former prime minister Theresa May struck her original deal.
Reading the text, the first impression is that there’s much more that hasn’t changed than has.
The protocol on Northern Ireland and Ireland has long been in the firing line. It proposes a backstop arrangement that would keep Northern Ireland in close alignment with the EU unless and until both UK and EU agreed to change that.
On that front, the introduction of a section on “democratic consent” is an important shift on the EU side. This provides a mechanism for the Northern Ireland Assembly to vote on whether to maintain the provisions of the protocol, with a requirement to have cross-community support. That means the UK is now no longer subject to the EU’s approval if it wants to end the backstop arrangement.
That said, a voting requirement to have majorities from both unionist and nationalist groupings makes it very hard to achieve – especially since the Northern Ireland Executive broke down several years ago and is still not in operation. While the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) might control unionist voting, it can only do the same with nationalists if it creates a much more benign and cooperative environment. And even if that does happen and arrangements are voted down by Stormont, there is still a long phasing-out period, so things cannot move too quickly.
From the EU’s perspective, this arrangement provides a degree of security, mainly because any decision to overturn the system is not solely in the hands of the UK – which has not been the most reliable partner of late.
The other big change is on customs arrangements. Instead of creating a temporary customs area for the whole of the UK, the revised Protocol makes Northern Ireland a part of the UK’s customs territory. Because that would imply border controls, a rather convoluted system of custom duty collection is set out.
In essence, the system collects duties from businesses, dependent upon where goods are coming from and going to, with the possibility of various exemptions that will be agreed down the line.
It’s a much more complex system than before, but it does allow Johnson to argue that the entire UK is leaving the EU’s customs union, allowing it to benefit from any new trade deals that might be concluded.
Meanwhile, the political declaration, the main change is that the UK now suggests it is looking for a much looser future relationship, based on a free trade agreement, rather than anything that might include participation in the EU’s single market or customs union.
While these are all noteworthy, they do represent only a very small part of the totality of the withdrawal agreement, as agreed by May last November. The Protocol still kicks into effect at the end of a transition period and the effect is still that Northern Ireland is kept very close to EU’s regulatory standards for many years. The future relationship remains as aspirational as May’s plans – until such a document is negotiated and ratified, by some future British government, no one can be sure what it will look like.
Nor did this negotiation touch on citizens’ rights, financial liabilities, the power of the EU’s courts to issue definitive rulings on matters of dispute (an important matter for hard Brexit supporters in the Conservative Party) or the institutional arrangements for managing all of this. Even as Number 10 goes into its selling mode, those continuities from last year’s text will be present in many people’s minds.
The plan still seems to be for the government to present this deal to the UK parliament in a special Saturday sitting on October 19. We already know that the DUP has issues with the revised text because it places Northern Ireland in a different legal position to the rest of the UK, so winning that vote looks even harder than it already did. The government will hope that it can present the deal to MPs as the last, best hope for a Brexit settlement – but, with wobbles from the DUP, Johnson will struggle to get close to a majority.
Even if he does, the potential to keep that majority together for the subsequent passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill looks even less likely. And remember that, as things stand today, this text isn’t even signed off by the 27 EU member states – there’s now not really enough time for them to digest and approve something that moves them off their previous position.
In short, this might still fall apart for Johnson, just as it did for May.
There is a song by the Melbourne band Little Heroes, called One Perfect Day, from back in 1982 (though it still attracts a cult following). In it, the lead singer asks his ex-girlfriend in England: tell me, is it still raining there in England, and did the government fall last night?
Well, it is still raining. And there is still talk of the government of Theresa May falling. We just observed a week of three parliamentary votes on Brexit, where the government was defeated in two of them.
In another extraordinary day yesterday, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, invoked the “Erskine May” parliamentary rules of procedure. That means that an amendment “which is the same, in substance” as an issue that has already been voted on cannot be proposed again in parliament. The speaker said that a new proposal must be “not different in terms of wording, but different in terms of substance”. Unless there are significant changes to the substance of the government’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement, it cannot be sent back to the House for a third “meaningful” vote.
So, what might happen now, with nine days to go until the UK is supposed to leave the EU?
If there is no parliamentary support for the Withdrawal Agreement, that does not mean the UK does not leave. The UK will leave on 29 March unless the UK government requests an extension to Article 50, which was activated by Theresa May two years ago on 29 March 2017. The Article says, among other things:
The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
If the UK leaves in a little over a week, it will no longer be in the EU and will no longer be party to hundreds of international treaties and thousands of pieces of legislation.
What are the options in order to avoid crashing out this way? Could the British government somehow get the Withdrawal Agreement through parliament on a third attempt?
One step that Theresa May might be contemplating is taking the extraordinary measure of “proroguing” the parliament. Proroguing effectively means terminating the current session, without actually dissolving it, and having parliament reconvene in a new session. The government would then have the option – if the temporary suspension of the parliament goes smoothly – to re-send the Withdrawal Agreement for a meaningful vote to a newly-convened parliament.
This may not occur in time for the looming exit deadline, and May is unlikely to attempt to present the deal for a third time, unless the Speaker changes his position. So, May could be obliged to yet again set out for Brussels and some EU national capitals to shore up support for an extension of Article 50.
The EU has just received a formal request for an extension of Article 50. The House of Commons voted last week for such an extension and May indicated she would request one.
Perhaps giving a sense of the frustration in some EU capitals about the negotiations, Loiseau revealed she has called her cat Brexit because it is indecisive, as it “meows loudly to be let out each morning, but then refuses to go outside when she opens the door”.
The EU would no doubt request that an extension be fully justified – and there is little European appetite to reopen negotiations with Britain. The EU has been preparing for Brexit for some time.
It is conceivable that the UK could need to justify a further request that Article 50 be extended well beyond the 30 June 2019 date that Theresa May has requested in her letter to European Council President Donald Tusk. But there are major problems with this, as the UK would need to take part in the European Parliament elections to take place in May this year. It could also be obliged to contribute to the new EU budget round, known as the Multiannual Financial Framework.
Of course, the idea of voting more than once on a Brexit deal in Parliament raises again the call for a second referendum on EU membership by the people – a people’s vote.
Alternatively, the UK could remain in the EU and revoke Article 50. A recent EU court ruling that this does not require the consent of the other 27 EU states has emboldened those who are campaigning for a new referendum – although it is far from clear what questions would appear on the ballot paper.
The possibility of Theresa May resigning is never far from the minds of her detractors – whether the European Research Group in her own party, or the Labour party leadership under Jeremy Corbyn.
Meanwhile, the UK Trade Secretary Liam Fox has announced a trade deal that has just been initialled with Iceland and Norway. He stated that this was in addition to the agreement signed with Liechtenstein. At least Norway and Iceland are larger than Liechtenstein, a country of fewer than 38,000 people – famous for being the world’s largest exporter of false teeth.
These new trading partners are considerably smaller than the EU Single Market of over 500 million that the UK currently belongs to. They will certainly not fill the huge void left by Brexit.
Yet again, Theresa May’s government is no doubt hoping for just One Perfect Day, but it is not looking likely at the moment.
In electing to disentangle from Europe without first understanding the full implications, ordinary Britons either leaped for the abyss, or more likely, expected their representatives to continue doing their jobs.
Such core responsibilities as scoping out the proposed divorce terms, then proceeding to minimise the costs through whatever arrangements were necessary to vouchsafe the national interest.
What they got instead was epic levels of political class posturing and, functionally speaking, a kind of institutional surrender.
While “leavers” implicitly sold the hope of concentrating and thus strengthening “Little Britain” against a culturally amorphous world, their project has done the opposite, materially weakening their nation, cleaving it politically, socially, economically.
Whole new fault lines have appeared. Ominously, they cut across the old party silos, divide the generations, split city from country, delineate the tertiary educated from the rest, and widen the gap between the people and their parliament.
It’s a story of how low-level grumbles about a peculiarly “English” identity ruptured by globalism – in London, you’re never more than three metres from a Polish plumber, and so on – were turned against the elites and used to fracture Britain from within.
The misleadingly titled United Kingdom Independence Party might well have stayed as a fringe operation nibbling away at the Tory pie-crust. But through cravenness, and sheer mendacity, UKIP’s niche project enlivened the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party. Bit by bit, the whole divisive project was allowed to go mainstream, eventually engulfing a hapless polity.
UKIP successes, mainly in European parliament elections (ironically), caused panic on the Conservative side, leading to David Cameron’s promise of a post-election referendum.
In the great unravelling since that June 2016 vote, British prestige abroad has been shredded and the country’s guileless political leaders reduced to laughing stock. All sides have proved incapable of moving forward, yet unwilling to go back.
A large part of the explanation is that Westminster imbued what was merely an advisory plebiscite with supreme democratic virtue. In doing so, it has bizarrely written itself out of what is arguably the biggest single danger to British prosperity and foreign influence since the second world war.
Anyone quibbling with the plebiscite’s verdict is unfashionably at odds with the people and perhaps, democracy itself.
No matter that a majority of eligible voters did not vote to “leave”, or that so little could be known in advance of the colossal costs of withdrawal. Even if one accepts that the plebiscite expressed a clear public preference to withdraw, it must surely be conceded that it fell short of informed consent.
New examples of industries adversely affected have emerged on an almost daily basis since. And because negotiations with the other 27 member-states had not occurred in earnest, it was impossible to know which rules would be retained and which advantages of EU membership would be completely lost.
Everything from mobile phone roaming and the validity of British driver’s licences is up for grabs, along with border regulation, labour rules, pharmaceuticals, and countless others.
Nonetheless, in the vote’s shambolic aftermath, politicians have merely compounded the damage, cowering behind the “peoples’ will”.
In this sense, Britain’s Brexit careen is a double win for galloping populism. The the country will pull out of Europe at its own considerable expense while putting the viability of representative parliamentary government under acute new strains.
For conservatives, this represents a clear-cut betrayal of their responsibility as guardians of society’s bedrock conventions, not the least of which is the maintenance of public confidence in the parliamentary system itself.
Almost three years on from the vote, a bitterly divided country drifts rudderless towards the jagged rocks of a “no-deal” Brexit, with Westminster paralysed by brinkmanship, score-settling, and plain old mediocrity.
A riven government lacks the authority needed in the parliament but also the courage to return to the people with the news that what they approved in the abstract in June 2016 has turned out to be considerably more complicated, and demands reconsideration.
As well as facing vast upfront costs, which were known, Britons must also gird for living standards much lower than would otherwise be the case. Its own public officials have said so in a February UK briefing paper outlining a no-deal Brexit on March 29. It said:
The government has already published long term analysis of the impact of a no deal scenario that implicitly assumes a smooth, orderly transition to WTO rules.
This estimates that the UK economy would be 6.3-9% smaller in the long term in a no deal scenario (after around 15 years) than it otherwise would have been when compared with today’s arrangements, assuming no action is taken. There would also be significant variation across the UK (Wales -8.1%, Scotland -8.0%, Northern Ireland -9.1% and the North East of England -10.5%).
It goes on to say:
This analysis does not account for any short term disruptions, which would be likely to have additional short and long run economic impacts in an immediate no deal scenario.
And, that no amount of modelling can predict all of the “complex ways in which the UK economy could be affected by exiting the EU, particularly given the unprecedented circumstances of the UK’s departure.”
This week the OECD warned that Britain’s pale growth would dip into recession with a no-deal Brexit. Even if a deal is secured, it would drop by around 1%.
Belatedly, Prime Minister Theresa May, who has been ineptly playing “chicken” with both remainers and “no-dealers” alike, has accepted that crashing out on March 29 is unacceptable. Thus she has now blinked herself.
Her mishandling of the crisis has been marked by a series of ultimatums and repudiations – an unedifying pantomime in which weakness masquerades unconvincingly as strength.
In a significant departure from that approach, the embattled PM has signalled that MPs will get the opportunity to vote to extend the Article 50 deadline – effectively shifting the cliff of a no-deal exit until later in the year.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn too has blinked, the long-term Eurosceptic is reluctantly backing the only honourable course: a second public vote.
Until now, his woeful equivocation, sometimes referred to as “constructive ambiguity” has gleefully added to the misery, even if its main aim has been to bridge a divide in his own ranks.
As The Economist has pointed out, the reason that both leaders have finally yielded is that each is “losing control of their own parties”.
May has promised a meaningful parliamentary vote by March 12 with whatever further concessions she can eke out of European negotiators.
But assuming her deal remains unacceptable (she lost the last one by a staggering 230 votes) and Labour’s amendments fail also, a second plebiscite appears the only legitimate option.
This would not dishonour the first plebiscite, as May and others fulminate, but rather recast the 2016 referendum as the first leg of a two-stage process. The first is approval to negotiate the best deal possible with Brussels. The second becomes voters’ approval or rejection in the full knowledge of what leaving the EU means in terms of costs, the differential impact on critical sectors and regions of the country – not least the Irish partition.
Having handed this unquantified question to the people in 2016 and then failed to make it work, Westminster should finally admit it is incapable of resolving the mess its leaders unleashed.
A second plebiscite would at least get closer to informed consent.