Antibody tests: to get a grip on coronavirus, we need to know who’s already had it


Larisa Labzin, The University of Queensland

With much of society now effectively in lockdown, how will we know when it’s safe to resume something like normality?

It will largely depend on being able to say who is safe from contracting the coronavirus, officially named SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease called COVID-19, and who still needs to stay out of harm’s way. A blood test to detect who has antibodies against the virus would be a crucial aid.

An antibody test – which would identify those whose immune systems have already encountered the virus, as opposed to current tests that reveal the presence of the virus itself – will be an important part of efforts to track the true extent of the outbreak.

This is because the antibody test will be able to determine whether someone has been infected with virus, even if they haven’t shown symptoms.




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Coronavirus: how long does it take to get sick? How infectious is it? Will you always have a fever? COVID-19 basics explained


When we get infected with the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), one of the ways our immune system fights the virus is by making antibodies. These small molecules bind specifically to SARS-CoV-2 (and not other viruses or bacteria), and combat the infection, mainly by preventing the virus from entering our cells.

Even after we’ve cleared a particular virus infection, these antibodies stay in our bloodstream, ready to protect us if we encounter the same virus again. This is the principle behind vaccination.

Because antibodies are specific to a particular virus, that means if we can detect SARS-CoV-2 specific antibodies in someone’s blood, we know that person has already been infected with the coronavirus.

Scientists in the United States and Europe have already developed specific antibody tests for SARS-CoV-2. Laboratory tests show that only antibodies from SARS-CoV-2 patients will bind to SARS-CoV-2 (and not to the 2003 SARS virus, for example). This tells us the test is specific.

Testing times

Antibody tests are different from the current testing kits used at COVID-19 clinics, which reveal the presence of the virus itself (by detecting its genetic material), rather than our antibodies against it.

That is useful for determining whether someone is currently infected, but cannot spot people who have already fought off the virus. In contrast, the antibody tests won’t be able to detect if someone is newly infected with SARS-CoV-2, as it takes our immune system a week or more to make antibodies. So we still need to do the existing tests to accurately diagnose a current infection.

Many companies have developed rapid test kits for detecting anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. The UK is already rolling out 3.5 million antibody tests, while Australia has ordered 1.5 million antibody tests to determine whether patients showing symptoms of fever and cough are infected.

What still needs to be tested is how specific those kits are. It’s vital that these antibody test kits are only able to detect antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, and not other coronaviruses or even viruses of other types. Otherwise, people might think they are protected against SARS-CoV-2 when in fact they aren’t.

Additionally, because the onset of symptoms may appear within 2-14 days after exposure, a person might test negative to the antibody test but actually be infected. So we really still need to use the two tests together to accurately diagnose patients with COVID-19.

A new test developed by NSW Health Pathology will also be able to determine whether the antibodies in the blood are able to kill the virus. These kinds of tests will help clinicians and scientists measure exactly how soon after infection we develop antibodies, what levels are needed to be protective, and how long these antibodies stay in our body.

This will also help scientists track the spread of the virus and know if someone is going to be immune to reinfection with SARS-CoV-2.

Rapid response

These antibody tests have been developed much more rapidly than vaccines, which are still many months away. This is because the antibody tests are done outside the body, using just a small blood sample, perhaps just a pinprick.

In contrast, a vaccine needs to be injected into the body, so it has to be tested for safety as well as effectiveness.

For a vaccine, we first need to understand how the immune response to the virus itself works, because essentially a vaccine is trying to trick the immune system into thinking it’s seen the virus before so it makes protective antibodies. Then, we need to thoroughly test any candidate vaccine to ensure it doesn’t make people ill. This means we probably won’t see any vaccines for at least 12 months.

The new antibody tests will also help guide vaccine development. By measuring antibody levels in infected and recovered patients, we’ll have a much better idea of the levels of protective antibodies a vaccine needs to elicit.




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While we wait for a vaccine, the new antibody tests will give scientists, doctors and public health officials much more information about who gets infected, who has already been infected and recovered, and how protected we are against reinfection.

But there is still a long way to go before we can test people’s blood for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 and confidently say it is safe for people to go back to work or into the community without getting sick.

Ultimately it is up to our community leaders and public health officials to decide when it is safe for us to resume normal life.The Conversation

Larisa Labzin, Research Fellow, Institute for Molecular Bioscience, The University of Queensland

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

Who can get tested for coronavirus?


Hassan Vally, La Trobe University

To control the spread of COVID-19 we need to identify as many people with the virus as possible. If we know who has it, we can isolate them so they can’t infect others and quarantine their close contacts in case they’ve already been infected.

But some experts are concerned we’re not testing enough. Because of restrictions on who can be tested, they argue, we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, the virus could be spreading much more than we think.




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To get on top of the coronavirus, we also need to test people without symptoms


The federal government recently expanded its testing guidelines and now allows states and territories to set their own rules for testing. But before we get to what they say, let’s look at the symptoms.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

Colds, influenza and COVID-19 are all respiratory illnesses and share many of the same symptoms.

For COVID-19, the most common symptoms are fever and a dry cough. Other symptoms might include fatigue, the production of phlegm, shortness of breath, a sore throat and a headache.

But some people experience no, or mild, symptoms.


The Conversation, CC BY-ND

What is Australia’s testing criteria?

Across Australia, if you develop a respiratory illness, with or without a fever, you can be tested for coronavirus if you:

  • have returned from overseas in the past 14 days or spent time on a cruise ship

  • have been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case in the past 14 days

  • have severe community-acquired pneumonia and there is no clear cause.




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If you have a fever or a respiratory illness, you can be tested (and in some cases, must be tested), if you:

  • work in health care, aged care or other residential care sectors

  • have spent time in a location with elevated levels of community transmission

  • have spent time at a “high-risk” location where there are two or more linked cases of COVID-19. This could be an aged care facility, a remote Aboriginal community, a correctional facility, a boarding school, or a military base with live-in accommodation.

Who else can get tested?

Australians in all states and territories can get tested if they meet the criteria above, but some states have expanded their criteria.

In Western Australia, if you have fever of 38℃ and over and have signs of a respiratory infection, you may be tested.

In New South Wales, GPs have discretion to test anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19. People who identify as Aboriginal in rural and remote communities may also be tested, as can people who live in communities with local transmission.

South Australia has had a cluster of cases among airport baggage handlers. Therefore, anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 and has been at the airport in the past 14 days, including the carpark or terminal, should also present.

Queensland will offer testing for people who have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and live in a Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander communities, as Indigenous Australians are more vulnerable to COVID-19.




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Victoria has introduced random testing at screening centres, testing every fifth person who presents. This should provide a snapshot of the spread of the virus among a broader section of the community.

The ACT, Northern Territory and Tasmania are following the national guidelines and haven’t included any other groups or situations in which someone can be tested.

So what if you think you have COVID-19?

If you think you have symptoms of COVID-19, call your your GP and advise them of your symptoms and other relevant details, such as travel or contact with a known case.

If you don’t have a usual GP or want to discuss your concerns, call the National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080. You will be given information on where the closest COVID-19 testing clinic is and detailed advice on whether you should be tested.

If you’re asked to come to a COVID-19 clinic, you’ll need to take precautions. These include driving yourself if possible, wearing a mask if you have one, staying at least 1.5 metres from other people and coughing or sneezing into your elbow.The Conversation

Hassan Vally, Associate Professor, La Trobe University

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

To get on top of the coronavirus, we also need to test people without symptoms


C Raina MacIntyre, UNSW

As the World Health Organisation keeps reminding health officials around the world, in order to get COVID-19 under control, we must “test, test, test”.

Along with tracing contacts of cases, travel bans and social distancing, testing is one of the four key planks in our pandemic response to SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Widespread testing has been the key to reducing transmission in South Korea, which was able to use only limited lockdowns because it tested at a mass scale.




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Both South Korea and Japan tested people at high risk who didn’t have symptoms. On the Diamond Princess ship, for example, which was quarantined for two weeks in the port of Yokohama, Japanese testers found 634 people were infected and of these, 328 had no symptoms.

In the United States, asymptomatic spread has likely driven the silent growth of an epidemic that was only realised when the health system began overloading. We’ve seen the same in Italy and Spain, which also restrict testing.

Australia’s federal government has expanded the testing criteria beyond just returned travellers and those with close contact with an infected person.

But testing remains restricted to people with symptoms and doesn’t go far enough. Like South Korea, we should also be testing people without symptoms who are in high risk groups, such as close contacts, evacuees from cruise ships, and health workers who request a test.

How do we test for coronavirus?

There are two kinds of laboratory tests. One is a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test, which detects fragments of the virus RNA in the sputum (phlegm), throat, nose or other body fluid.

The other is a blood test for antibodies to the virus. This can identify people who have been exposed to the virus and produced antibodies, whose swab may be negative.

Currently only PCR tests are widely available, but blood tests (serology) should be available soon.

PCR tests have some shortcomings. Throat swabs in particular can give you a false negative, so it may be necessary to repeat the test in someone who seems to have COVID-19. A nasal swab or sputum (phleghm) specimen is more likely to be positive in an infected person.

The PCR tests will only be transiently positive, while the serology remains positive once you have been infected. Blood tests are less likely to miss infected people, including children and young people. However, a blood test doesn’t tell you if someone is infectious at that time. PCR and serology can be used together for optimal results.




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Rapid, point-of-care tests which use a swab and have results available in 45 minutes are especially useful in outbreaks in closed settings such as aged care facilities or prisons. These aren’t yet available in Australia.

The government has ordered 1.5 million rapid tests which use blood. But it takes five days for a patient to develop antibodies and become positive to that kind of test. Only a PCR-based test can give an early diagnosis.

Chest CT scans were also used in China for rapid diagnosis because of the problem with PCR being negative.

Australian testing guidelines

The current Australian guidelines, which were expanded yesterday (March 25), restrict testing to people with a fever or respiratory illness who:

  • have been in contact with a known COVID-19 case

  • are return travellers including on cruise ships

  • are in a high-risk setting where at least two COVID-19 cases have been confirmed, such as an aged care facility, prison, boarding school, detention centre, Indigenous community or military base

  • are being hospitalised with pneumonia or a respiratory illness of unknown cause

  • have illness clinically consistent with COVID-19 in a geographically localised area with elevated risk of community transmission, as defined by health authorities

  • are health care workers, aged or residential care workers.

While these guidelines have expanded the testing criteria, they still restrict testing to people with symptoms.

Why more people should be tested

Australia has a high rate of testing compared to many other countries, and a low positive rate.

But we don’t have data on silent transmission that could be bubbling under the surface when infected people don’t have any symptoms or have very mild illness.

On February 14, the Spanish health minister laughed and told the Spanish people there was no COVID-19 in Spain:

Six weeks later the country has around 40,000 cases and a health system in collapse.

Who we should test

To make social distancing measures successful, they must be accompanied by a broadened testing criteria to ensure every new case can be identified rapidly.




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We should be testing people without symptoms who fall into the groups outlined in the current Australian guidelines, so that we do not miss asymptomatic cases in high risk groups.

This would include asymptomatic people who are: close contacts of people with COVID-19; evacuees from cruise ships; health or aged care workers who request a test; as well as asymptomatic people in closed outbreak settings (aged care centre, prison, boarding school, detention centre, Indigenous community or military base).

We also need to scale up capacity

Social distancing measures also need to be accompanied by scaled-up testing capabilities including:

  • expanded capacity for PCR (swab) testing

  • the ability to repeat testing (at least three tests) for suspected cases when the initial PCR (swab) test is negative

  • drive-through testing sites to make testing accessible and safer for infection control

  • increased capacity for Australian laboratories to conduct blood tests at mass scale

  • continued investment and development of rapid point of care and commercial serological tests.

If we cannot procure or make enough tests, we could ask South Korea for help as the United States is doing.

It is essential we can identify all cases before we take the foot off the brakes of lockdowns.




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The Conversation


C Raina MacIntyre, Professor of Global Biosecurity, NHMRC Principal Research Fellow, Head, Biosecurity Program, Kirby Institute, UNSW

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

The coronavirus outbreak is the biggest crisis ever to hit international education


Christopher Ziguras, RMIT University and Ly Tran, Deakin University

The coronavirus outbreak may be the biggest disruption to international student flows in history.

There are more than 100,000 students stuck in China who had intended to study in Australia this year. As each day passes, it becomes more unlikely they will arrive in time for the start of the academic year.

Of course international affairs are bound to sometimes interfere with the more than 5.3 million students studying outside their home country, all over the world.

After the September 11 attacks in 2001, the United States closed its borders temporarily and tightened student visa restrictions, particularly for students from the Middle East. Thousands were forced to choose different study destinations in the following years.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia’s government instructed all its citizens studying in Canada to return home, in protest at the Canadian foreign minister’s call to release women’s rights activists held in Saudi jails.

A significant proportion of the 12,000 or so Saudi students in Canada left to continue their studies elsewhere, before the Saudi government quietly softened its stance.

So we have seen calamities before, but never on this scale. There are a few reasons for this.

Why this is worse than before

The current temporary migration of students from China to Australia represents one of the largest education flows the world has ever seen. Federal education department data show there were more than 212,000 Chinese international students in Australia by the end of 2019.


Screenshot/Department of Education

This accounts for 28% of Australia’s total international student population. Globally, there are only two study routes that involve larger numbers of students. The world’s largest student flow is from China to the United States and the second largest is from India to the US.

It’s also difficult to imagine a worse time for this epidemic to happen for students heading to the southern hemisphere than January to February, at the end of our long summer break.

Many Chinese students had returned home for the summer and others were preparing to start their studies at the end of February.

By comparison, the SARS epidemic in 2003 didn’t significantly dent international student enrolments in Australia because it peaked around April-May 2003, well after students had started the academic year.




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Ending in July that year, the SARS outbreak infected fewer than half the number of people than have already contracted coronavirus. Even during the SARS outbreak Australia didn’t implement bans on those travelling from affected countries.

What will the impact be?

This crisis hits hard for many Chinese students, an integral component of our campus communities. It not only causes disruptions to their study, accommodation, part-time employment and life plans, but also their mental well-being.

A humane, supportive and respectful response from the university communities is vital at this stage.

Australia has never experienced such a sudden drop in student numbers.

The reduced enrolments will have profound impacts on class sizes and the teaching workforce, particularly at masters level in universities with the highest proportions of students from China. Around 46% of Chinese students are studying a postgraduate masters by coursework. If classes are too small, universities will have to cancel them.

And the effects don’t end there. Tourism, accommodation providers, restaurants and retailers who cater to international students will be hit hard too.

Chinese students contributed A$12 billion to the Australian economy in 2019, so whatever happens from this point, the financial impact will be significant. The cost of the drop in enrolments in semester one may well amount to several billion dollars.

The newly-formed Global Reputation Taskforce by Australia’s Council for International Education has commissioned some rapid response research to promote more informed discussion about the implications and impacts of the crisis.




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If the epidemic is contained quickly, some of the 100,000 students stuck in China will be able to start their studies in semester one, and the rest could delay until mid-year. But there might still be longer-term effects.

Australia has a world-class higher education system and the world is closely watching how we manage this crisis as it unfolds.

Prospective students in China will be particularly focused on Australia’s response as they weigh future study options.

The world is watching

Such a fast-moving crisis presents a range of challenges for those in universities, colleges (such as English language schools) and schools who are trying to communicate with thousands of worried students who can’t enter the country.

Australian universities are scrambling to consider a wide range of responses. These include:

  • delivering courses online
  • providing intensive courses and summer or winter courses
  • arrangements around semester commencement
  • fee refund and deferral
  • provision of clear and updated information
  • support structures for starting and continuing Chinese students, including extended academic and welfare support, counselling, special helplines, and coronavirus-specific information guidelines
  • support with visa issues, accommodation and employment arrangements.

A coordinated approach involving different stakeholders who are providing different supports for Chinese students is an urgent priority. This includes education providers, government, city councils, international student associations, student groups and professional organisations.




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This outbreak further raises awareness within the international education sector of the need for risk management and crisis response strategies to ensure sustainability.

Most importantly, we need to ensure we remain focused on the human consequences of this tragedy first. Headlines focusing on lost revenues at a time like this are offensive to international students and everyone involved in international education.The Conversation

Christopher Ziguras, Professor of Global Studies, RMIT University and Ly Tran, ARC Future Fellow, Deakin University

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

Partner or customer? Why China is Scott Morrison’s biggest foreign policy test



Scott Morrison is relatively inexperienced on foreign policy, but he’s certain to be tested by China in his first full term in office.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Euan Graham, La Trobe University

The 2019 federal election, unlike previous campaigns, did not feature a dedicated debate on foreign affairs or defence. The conventional cynicism – that there are no votes in foreign policy – does not adequately explain this. It seems Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Labor leader Bill Shorten reached a shabby consensus that foreign and security policy questions were uniformly too hot to handle.

Foreign affairs is in fact among the most important challenges facing the Morrison government. The simple reason: the status quo that has served Australia so well in the past couple of decades is fast coming to an end.

Australia has uniquely avoided recession among the developed economies because it has surfed a once-in-a-generation wave of Chinese demand for commodities. Australia’s security has also been assured through its longstanding alliance with the US, while its military commitments have been kept largely at arm’s length in the Middle East and Afghanistan.




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However, as Asia-Pacific scholar Nick Bisley has commented, Australia now finds itself caught between two different forms of revisionism: the strategic revisionism of Xi Jinping’s China and the economic revisionism of Donald Trump’s United States.

Trump’s trade wars and protectionist policies are likely to be a continuing point of friction with Australia, which remains heavily reliant on Asian markets (not only China) for trade.

But China is the most important external challenge Australia faces. It’s so all-encompassing that it transcends traditional foreign, trade and defence policy silos, and includes a significant domestic dimension in terms of political interference, as well.

Even though Morrison has already served the better part of a year in office, it’s hard to be sure of his convictions on China. With his mandate secured, he now has both the opportunity and obligation to show his true colours.

Caught between a rock and a hard place

In theory, the Coalition’s election victory should mean continuity in foreign policy, as signalled by Morrison’s decision to retain Marise Payne as foreign minister.

When China was – belatedly – raised during the campaign, Morrison repeated a well-worn mantra about not having to “pick sides” between the United States and China. The former he characterised as Australia’s “friend”, labelling China as a “customer”. While this description no doubt raised eyebrows in Beijing, Morrison was arguing Canberra could “stand by” both.

The Morrison administration has generally sought to position Australia somewhere in between its chief ally and its chief customer. His reticence thus far to make waves with the country’s number one customer may be borne of a desire to maintain Canberra’s room for manoeuvre as a middle power, though this is getting steadily harder.

Australia could find itself in an awkward position if the rift between China and the US deepens.
Roman Pilipey/EPA

If the prime minister truly believes Australia can play an intermediary role, few in Canberra’s foreign policy and defence circles would agree. To do so would only expose Australia to heightened risk, precipitating the kind of invidious strategic choices that Morrison wishes to avoid.

It also plays into the Chinese Communist Party’s objective of sowing discord between the US and its Pacific allies.




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If Morrison is privately more attuned to the strategic risks China poses – and after nine months of intelligence briefings he should be – then he has a duty to prepare the public for the likelihood of tougher times ahead. Should Australia-China relations take a darker turn, it may prove difficult for the government to persuade the public to back a significant adjustment in national security policy, including increased defence spending.

Moreover, there are risks to publicly framing US-China strategic competition as a destabilising factor for Australia’s security. Australians could judge the prospect of entrapment in a confrontational US policy towards China as potentially more threatening to Australia’s security than Beijing’s deliberate challenge to the “rules-based order” in the region.

This could undermine public support for Australia’s alliance with the US, which remains the bedrock of our security.

Stepping up in the Pacific

The Pacific is where the strategic interests of China and Australia clash most directly. Morrison’s most important security policy decision thus far, announced at last year’s APEC summit, was to establish a joint naval base with the US and Papua New Guinea at Lombrum on Manus Island. This was partly aimed at denying the location to China, as well as establishing a forward ADF presence in the Pacific.

It is also notable that Morrison will visit the Solomon Islands on his first post-election overseas trip. China is inevitably part of the subtext here, as Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare is reported to be swaying towards switching allegiances from Taiwan to Beijing – yet another sign of China’s growing influence in the region.

Of course, there is more than geopolitics to the Pacific region and Morrison must be careful to demonstrate empathy and humility, given Australia’s patchy engagement with the region and the Coalition’s ambivalence on climate change – a major grievance for most Pacific nations.

Morrison’s appointment of Alex Hawke as both minister of international development and Pacific and assistant defence minister provides easy ammunition to critics, who will charge that the government’s Pacific “step up” is narrowly conceived through a geopolitical lens.

But Morrison appears to take the step up seriously, and a commitment to reversing the relative decline in Australia’s influence in its immediate neighbourhood (note: not “backyard”). A volatile political situation in PNG further demands a close watch on the Pacific.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made Australia nervous by courting Pacific leaders like PNG’s Peter O’Neill.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Other key alliances to shore up

Elsewhere in the neighbourhood, Morrison has fallen on his feet now that friendly incumbents in Indonesia and India – President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Prime Minister Narendra Modi – were also returned in recent elections, making it easier for continuity to be maintained.

Morrison was quick off the mark to congratulate Jokowi on Twitter, who promptly replied that Australia is one of Indonesia’s “greatest allies.”

By pulling off an unlikely election victory, Morrison is in the fortunate position of being the first prime minister for some time who is not looking immediately over his or her shoulder for political assassins within their party.

Morrison also has more bandwidth to devote to foreign issues than any leader since Kevin Rudd. He is disadvantaged, however, by his relative inexperience and the thinness of his front bench. That places a special burden on whoever will be advising Morrison on international security – a role sure to take on greater importance in his administration – to provide the counsel he needs and to wrangle the bureaucracy into line. For there will be no shortage of challenges ahead.The Conversation

Euan Graham, Executive Director, La Trobe Asia, La Trobe University

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

India destroys its own satellite with a test missile, still says space is for peace


Bin Li, University of Newcastle

On March 27, India announced it had successfully conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test, called “Mission Shakti”. After the United States, Russia and China, India is now the fourth country in the world to have demonstrated this capability.

The destroyed satellite was one of India’s own. But the test has caused concerns about the space debris generated, which potentially threatens the operation of functional satellites.

There are also political and legal implications. The test’s success may be a plus for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is now trying to win his second term in the upcoming election.




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But the test can be viewed as a loss for global security, as nations and regulatory bodies struggle to maintain a view of space as a neutral and conflict-free arena in the face of escalating technological capabilities.

According to the official press release, India destroyed its own satellite by using technology known as “kinetic kill”. This particular technology is usually termed as “hit-to-kill”.

A kinetic kill missile is not equipped with an explosive warhead. Simply put, what India did was to launch the missile, hit the target satellite and destroy it with energy purely generated by the high speed of the missile interceptor. This technology is only one of many with ASAT capabilities, and is the one used by China in its 2007 ASAT test.

Power and strength

Since the first satellite was launched in 1957 (the Soviet Union’s Sputnik), space has become – and will continue to be – a frontier where big powers enhance their presence by launching and operating their own satellites.

There are currently 1,957 satellites orbiting Earth. They provide crucial economic, civil and scientific benefits to the world, from generating income to a wide range of services such as navigation, communication, weather forecasts and disaster relief.

The tricky thing about satellites is that they can also be used for military and national security purposes, while still serving the civil end: one good example is GPS.

So it’s not surprising big powers are keen to develop their ASAT capabilities. The name of India’s test, Shakti, means “power, strength, capability” in Hindi.

Danger of space debris

A direct consequence of ASAT is that it creates space debris when the original satellite breaks apart. Space debris consists of pieces of non-functional spacecraft, and can vary in size from tiny paint flecks to an entire “dead” satellite. Space debris orbits from hundreds to thousands of kilometres above Earth.

The presence of space debris increases the likelihood of operational satellites being damaged.

Although India downplayed the potential for danger by arguing that its test was conducted in the lower atmosphere, this perhaps did not take into account the creation of pieces smaller than 5-10 cm in diameter.

In addition, given the potential self-sustaining nature of space debris, it’s possible the amount of space debris caused by India’s ASAT will actually increase due to the collision.

Aside from the quantity, the speed of space debris is another worrying factor. Space junk can travel at up to 10km per second in lower Earth orbit (where India intercepted its satellite), so even very small particles pose a realistic threat to space missions such as human spaceflight and robotic refuelling missions.

Regulatory catch-up

As we’re seeing clearly now in social media, when technology moves fast the law can struggle to keep up, and this leads to regulatory absence. This is also true of international space law.

Five fundamental global space treaties were created 35-52 years ago:

  • Outer Space Treaty (1967) – governs the activities of the states in exploration and use of outer space
  • Rescue Agreement (1968) – relates to the rescue and return of astronauts, and return of launched objects
  • Liability Convention (1972) – governs damage caused by space objects
  • Registration Convention (1967) – relates to registration of objects in space
  • Moon Agreement (1984) – governs the activities of states on the Moon and other celestial bodies.



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These were written when there were only a handful of spacefaring nations, and space technologies were not as sophisticated as they are now.

Although these treaties are binding legal documents, they leave many of today’s issues unregulated. For example, in terms of military space activities, the Outer Space Treaty only prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space, not conventional weapons (including ballistic missiles, like the one used by India in Mission Shakti).

In addition, the treaty endorses that outer space shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. However, the issue is how to interpret the term “peaceful purposes”. India claimed, after its ASAT test:

we have always maintained that space must be used only for peaceful purposes.

When terms such as “peaceful” seem to be open to interpretation, it’s time to update laws and regulations that govern how we use space.

New approaches, soft laws

Several international efforts aim to address the issues posed by new scenarios in space, including the development of military space technologies.

For example, McGill University in Canada has led the MILAMOS project, with the hope of clarifying the fundamental rules applicable to the military use of outer space.




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A similar initiative, the Woomera Manual, has been undertaken by Adelaide Law School in Australia.

Though commendable, both projects will lead to publications of “soft laws”, which will have no legally binding force on governments.

The UN needs to work much harder to attend to space security issues – the Disarmament Commission and Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space can be encouraged to collaborate on the issues regarding space weapons.

It is in everyone’s best interests to keep space safe and peaceful.The Conversation

Bin Li, Lecturer, University of Newcastle

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

In his first major foreign policy test, Morrison needs to stick to the script



File 20181113 194500 179zyor.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
After a positive start, Morrison’s relations with his Indonesian counterpart, Joko Widodo, cooled off after he suggested moving the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Susan Harris Rimmer, Griffith University

Attending a global leaders summit might look easy – all interesting shirts, family-style photos and unusual handshakes – but these occasions can prove extremely difficult for leaders who focus solely on domestic politics or brand new leaders with uncertain electoral prospects.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is both.

Morrison faces a busy week of foreign policy tests in his first big moment on the global stage. He first travels to Singapore for the ASEAN and East Asia Summit, then hosts Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s historic visit to Darwin before jetting off for the APEC Summit in Papua New Guinea on the weekend. This power week will be followed by the G20 Leaders Summit in Buenos Aires at the end of month.

This week, Morrison will have his first meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, US Vice President Mike Pence and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in addition to new (but not so new) Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.




Read more:
With Bishop gone, Morrison and Payne face significant challenges on foreign policy


So what can we expect from Morrison’s debut summit season and in particular his meetings with Xi?

Pundits have been speculating whether Morrison might try to use the August leadership spill and appointment of new Foreign Minister Marise Payne as a way of pressing the reset button on relations with China.

Payne’s recent visit to Beijing was viewed by both parties as a success, so Morrison should have a more pleasant meeting with Xi than former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull might have.

Payne’s visit to China was the first by an Australian foreign minister since Julie Bishop’s trip in 2016.
Thomas Peter/EPA

But Morrison’s first months in office show a leader who speaks without due care to the reactions of foreign governments – floating the idea of shifting the Australian embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is the most glaring example – and a leader with little political capital to spare.

He needs to stick to the script this week.

Danger signs

Morrison has already courted controversy on foreign policy in a short period of time. He skipped the UN General Assembly in September. He also missed the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, forcing Payne to reassure Pacific neighbours that he wasn’t “snubbing” them.

Morrison did go straight to Jakarta in his first overseas trip as leader to meet with President Joko Widodo and sign the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with Indonesia.

But he was then accused of playing “straight from Trump’s songbook” when he mused about moving Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem without consulting diplomats or generals beforehand. It was widely seen as a crude attempt to win the Jewish vote in the Wentworth by-election.

One downfall of Australian leaders is they can sometimes look parochial and small-town while on the big stage. For example, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott made a cringeworthy speech to G20 leaders in Brisbane in 2014 about GP co-payments and stopping the boats. Opposition leader Bill Shorten described it as “weird and graceless”.

In his case, Morrison failed to realise the negative reception his embassy musings would receive in Indonesia. Now, his meetings with Widodo are likely to be frosty, with no plans to sign the free-trade agreement by the end of the year.

Morrison’s meetings with Xi, Putin and Modi

In his recent headland speech, Morrison seemed to adopt a Malcolm Turnbull-style line on taking a middle path with the US and China, noting that a confrontation between the two powers:

risks unimagined damage to economic growth and the global order. Damage where no-one benefits. Lose-lose.

Nevertheless, the speech was strong on values, many of which China does not share.

It is also not clear how Xi will view the recent Pacific push from Morrison, though he seemed to offer the possibility for partnership in the region.

Morrison’s meeting with Putin at the East Asia Summit will likewise be interesting to watch. This is Putin’s first time at the summit, but by no means his first rodeo. His presence is perhaps indicative of Russia’s intention to pivot more attention towards the Indo-Pacific region, taking advantage of Trump’s absence.




Read more:
Russia is a rising military power in the Asia-Pacific, and Australia needs to take it seriously


In yet another foreign policy stumble, Abbott once famously vowed to “shirtfront” Putin over the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. Putin enjoys such displays of toxic masculinity; hopefully, Morrison can restrain himself.

Australia wants to enhance its partnership with India, so we should see Morrison make a beeline for Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ASEAN meeting, hoping for one of Modi’s signature hugs.

Before meeting Modi, Morrison will hopefully have carefully read the India Economic Strategy to 2035, authored by the former high commissioner to India and head of DFAT, Peter Varghese.

Modi got a hug of his own from Abbott during his high-profile visit to Australia in 2014.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Our Pacific family

Last week, Morrison made perhaps his most important foreign policy speech – a major strategic announcement on the Pacific. He said Australia would open five new embassies and launch an infrastructure bank in the region to the tune of A$2 billion, and declared the Pacific “our patch”:

This is our part of the world. This is where we have special responsibilities. We always have, we always will. We have their back, and they have ours. We are more than partners by choice. We are connected as members of a Pacific family.

The announcement came after he signed a deal for a joint naval base in Papua New Guinea. Both this and the infrastructure bank were seen as ways of countering Chinese influence in the Pacific, but Morrison did refrain from using any anti-China rhetoric.




Read more:
For Pacific Island nations, rising sea levels are a bigger security concern than rising Chinese influence


This is noteworthy. Tess Newton Cain has pointed out that Australia often misses the right tone of respect and partnership in its announcements to the region.

But despite this new push for Pacific engagement, Australia is still seen as weak on climate policy – a hugely important issue to Pacific leaders. This could result in difficult conversations for Morrison at APEC, as PNG has invited many Pacific nations to attend for the first time.

Sit down, be humble

Even if Morrison puts his best foot forward to overcome his poor start on foreign policy, he will still have difficulty standing out in the crowd.

Even leaders require some political capital to stand out in those big rooms.

The churn in Australian prime ministers means that some foreign leaders may not consider it worth the time or energy to build a relationship of personal trust with Morrison if they view him more like a caretaker. Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had spent 10 years building up this diplomatic trust and stability in her various roles, but that was severed abruptly.

My advice to Morrison? Stay humble and listen. Read the briefs, listen to the diplomats and do everything Payne and DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson say to do, to the letter.The Conversation

Susan Harris Rimmer, Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Griffith Law School, Griffith University

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

What ‘sniffer’ planes can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear tests



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Boeing WC-135 Constant Phoenix “sniffer plane” used to monitor radioactive emissions from nuclear bomb tests.
US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz

Kaitlin Cook, Australian National University

On Sunday, North Korea claimed it had completed its sixth nuclear test – a hydrogen bomb.

This test was performed underground by the notoriously secretive regime. So, how can the international community know the state news agency was telling the truth?

The 6.3 magnitude tremor tells us there was an explosion Sunday. But to know this was a nuclear test, we have to detect the signature of a nuclear explosion.


Read More: Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US


Nuclear weapons either produce energy through nuclear fission (fission bombs) or a combination of fission and fusion (thermonuclear or hydrogen bombs). In both cases, nuclear reactions with neutrons cause the uranium or plutonium fuel to fission into two smaller nuclei, called fission fragments. These fragments are radioactive, and can be detected by their characteristic decay radiation.

If we detect these fission fragments, we know that a nuclear explosion occurred. And that’s where “sniffer” planes come in.

Nuclear fission and fusion.

Enter ‘sniffer’ planes

Since 1947, the United States Air Force has operated a nuclear explosions detection unit.

The current fleet uses the WC-135 Constant Phoenix. The aircraft fly through clouds of radioactive debris to collect air samples and catch dust. By measuring their decay, fission fragments can be detected in minute quantities.

The crew are kept safe using filters to scrub cabin air. Radiation levels are monitored using personal measuring devices for each crew member.

A WC-135 Constant Phoenix from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron taxis in on the flightline.
US Airforce/Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz

Sniffer planes like Constant Phoenix can be rapidly deployed soon after a reported nuclear test and have been used to verify nuclear tests in North Korea in the past.

This year, Constant Phoenix has reportedly been deployed in Okinawa, Japan and has had encounters with Chinese jets.

On the ground, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) operates 80 ground-based monitoring stations across the globe that constantly monitor the air for fission products that have dispersed through the atmosphere.

Japan and South Korea operate their own radiation monitoring networks. These networks will also presumably be looking for signatures of the latest North Korean test.

CTBTO radiation monitoring system.

What can fission fragments tell us?

When a nuclear test occurs underground, the fission fragments are trapped except for noble gasses.

Because noble gasses don’t react chemically (except in extreme cases), they diffuse through the rock and eventually escape, ready to be detected.

In particular, some radioactive isotopes of the chemical element xenon are useful due to the fact these isotopes of xenon don’t appear in the atmosphere naturally, have decay times that are neither too long nor too short, and are produced in large quantities in a nuclear explosion. If you see these isotopes, you know a nuclear test occurred.

Something happened during this test that has people excited — there was an additional magnitude 4.1 tremor around eight minutes after the initial tremor, according to the United States Geological Survey. Among other things, this may indicate that the tunnel containing the bomb collapsed. If this happened, then other fission products and other radioactive isotopes could escape as dust particles.

This might have been accidental or deliberate (to provide proof to international viewers), but in either case, we may learn a lot, depending on how fast the sniffer planes arrived and how much dust was released.

For example, by looking at the probability of seeing fission fragments with different masses, the composition of the fission fuel could be determined. We could also learn about the composition of the rest of the bomb. These facts are things that nuclear states keep very secret.

Crucially, by looking for isotopes that could only be produced in a high intensity high energy neutron flux, we could suggest whether or not the bomb was indeed a hydrogen bomb.

What can’t they tell us?

The amount of information a sniffer plane can determine depends on how much material was released from the test site, how quickly it was released (due to nuclear decay) and how rapidly the sniffer plane got into place.

But fission fragment measurements probably can’t tell us whether the bomb tested was small enough to fit on an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). After all, it’s easy enough for North Korea to show a casing in a staged photograph and blow up something else.


Read More: North Korea panics the world, but ‘H-bomb’ test changes little


Whether or not North Korea has a thermonuclear device that is capable of being mounted to an ICBM is a question weighing heavily on the minds of the international community.

The ConversationSniffer planes and the CTBTO network will be wringing all of the data they can out of the debris in the atmosphere to help the world understand the nuclear threat from North Korea.

Kaitlin Cook, Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Nuclear Physics, Australian National University

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

Could you pass the proposed English test for Australian citizenship?



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English language tests will be used to decide Australian citizenship.
from shutterstock.com

Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

The Australian government is proposing tough new English language competency requirements for those seeking Australian citizenship.

Alongside a test of Australian values, and proof of your integration into Australian society, you’ll need to prove you can read, write and speak English at a competent level

We’ve been here before

Question: What do these two excerpts have in common – besides their clumsy sentence structure?

  1. If the land is ploughed when wet the furrows may, and in all probability will, wear a more finished appearance, and will be more pleasant to the eye, but land so ploughed will be more inclined to become set or baked, and when in this state will not produce a maximum yield.

  2. By carefully preplanning projects, implementing pollution control measures, monitoring the effects of mining and rehabilitating mined areas, the coal industry minimises the impact on the neighbouring community, the immediate environment and long-term land capability.

Answer: They are both language tests used to decide Australian citizenship.

The first is a 50 word dictation test that was key to the White Australia Policy. It was used to keep non-Europeans out of Australia.

Even if you passed the test in English, the immigration officer had the right to test you again in another European language. It was used from 1901 until 1958.

The second one is 50 words from a 1000 word reading comprehension exam with 40 questions that you must complete in 60 minutes.

This test is key to Australia’s proposed new Citizenship test. You must also write two essays, do a 30 minute listening test and a 15 minute speaking exam. If it passes through Parliament this week, it will be used from 2017.

Aspiring Australian citizens will need to score a Band 6 on the general stream of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test, the same score as those seeking entry to Australia’s top university.

So, could you pass the test?

The reading test

You have 60 minutes to read at least four texts taken from magazines, newspapers or training manuals, and answer 40 comprehension questions. Your short answer responses are also assessed for grammar and spelling. Here is an excerpt from a piece about bee behaviour.

The direction of the sun is represented by the top of the hive wall. If she runs straight up, this means that the feeding place is in the same direction as the sun. However, if, for example, the feeding place is 40 degrees to the left of the sun, then the dancer would run 40 degrees to the left of the vertical line.

Try the test for yourself.

The writing test

You have 60 minutes to complete two writing tasks. For example,

Write a letter to the accommodation officer complaining about your room mate and asking for a new room.

You are marked on the length of your response, its cohesion, vocabulary and grammar.

To give you something to gauge yourself by, this one didn’t achieve the required score of 6. It begins,

Dear Sir/Madam, I am writing to express my dissatisfaction with my room-mate. As you know we share one room, I can not study in the room at all any more if I still stay there.

As Senator Penny Wong observed about the test,

“Frankly if English grammar is the test there might be a few members of parliament who might struggle.”

Currently our national school test results from NAPLAN show that 15.3% of Year 9 students are below benchmark in writing. This means they would not achieve a Band 6 on the IELTS test.

A fair test?

I prepared students for the IELTS test when I lived and taught in Greece. They needed a score of 6 to get into Foundation courses in British universities. It wasn’t an easy test and sometimes it took them more than one try to succeed.

My students were middle class, living comfortably at home with mum and dad. They had been to school all their lives and were highly competent readers and writers in their mother tongue of Greek.

They had been learning English at school since Grade 4, and doing private English tuition after school for even longer. Essentially they had been preparing for their IELTS test for at least 8 years.

They were not 40-year-old women whose lives as refugees has meant they have never been to school, and cannot read and write in their mother tongue.

Neither were they adjusting to a new culture, trying to find affordable accommodation and a job while simultaneously dealing with post-traumatic stress and the challenge of settling their teenage children into a brand new world.

Learning a language takes time

Even if we conclude that tests about dancing bees and recalcitrant room-mates are fit for the purpose of assessing worthiness for citizenship – and that is surely very debatable – we must acknowledge that it is going to take a very long time for our most vulnerable aspiring citizens to reach a proficiency that will enable them to pass the test.

Currently we offer them 510 hours of free English tuition. That is at least 5 years short of what the research says is required to reach English language competency.

Testing English doesn’t teach it

The three ingredients of successful language learning are motivation, opportunity and good tuition.

The Australian government must address all three if it wishes to increase the English language proficiency of its citizens.

An English language test may appear to be a compelling motivation to learn the language, but without the opportunity to learn and excellent tuition over time, the test is not a motivation. It is an unfair barrier to anyone for whom English is not their mother tongue.

The ConversationAnd then this new policy starts to look and feel like Australia’s old White Australia Policy.

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

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

English language bar for citizenship likely to further disadvantage refugees



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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has proposed tougher language requirements for new citizenship applicants.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Sally Baker, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, University of Newcastle

Citizenship applicants will need to demonstrate a higher level of English proficiency if the government’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship test go ahead. The Conversation

Applicants will be required to reach the equivalent of Band 6 proficiency of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS).

To achieve Band 6, applicants must correctly answer 30 out of 40 questions in the reading paper, 23 out of 40 in the listening paper, and the writing paper rewards language used “accurately and appropriately”. If a candidate’s writing has “frequent” inaccuracies in grammar and spelling, they cannot achieve Band 6

Success in IELTS requires proficiency in both the English language, and also understanding how to take – and pass – a test. The proposed changes will then make it harder for people with fragmented educational backgrounds to become citizens, such as many refugees.

How do the tests currently work?

The current citizenship test consists of 20 multiple-choice questions in English concerning Australia’s political system, history, and citizen responsibilities.

While the test does not require demonstration of English proficiency per se, it acts as an indirect assessment of language.

For example, the question: “Which official symbol of Australia identifies Commonwealth property?” demonstrates the level of linguistic complexity required.

The IELTS test is commonly taken for immigration purposes as a requirement for certain visa categories; however, the designer of IELTS argues that IELTS was never designed for this purpose. Researchers have argued that the growing strength of English as the language of politics and economics has resulted in its widespread use for immigration purposes.

Impact of proposed changes

English is undoubtedly important for participation in society, but deciding citizenship based on a high-stakes language test could further marginalise community members, such as people with refugee backgrounds who have the greatest need for citizenship, yet lack the formal educational background to navigate such tests.

The Refugee Council of Australia argues that adults with refugee backgrounds will be hardest hit by the proposed language test.

Data shows that refugees are both more likely to apply for citizenship, and twice as likely as other migrant groups to have to retake the test.

Mismatched proficiency expectations

The Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), where many adult refugees access English learning upon arrival, expects only a “functional” level of language proficiency.

For many adult refugees – who have minimal first language literacy, fragmented educational experiences, and limited opportunities to gain feedback on their written English – “competency” may be prohibitive to gaining citizenship. This is also more likely to impact refugee women, who are less likely to have had formal schooling and more likely to assume caring duties.

Bar too high?

The challenges faced in re/settlement contexts, such as pressures of work and financial responsibilities to extended family, often combine to make learning a language difficult, and by extension,
prevent refugees from completing the citizenship test.

Similar patterns are evident with IELTS. Nearly half of Arabic speakers who took the IELTS in 2015 scored lower than Band 6.

There are a number of questions to clarify regarding the proposed language proficiency test:

  • Will those dealing with trauma-related experiences gain exemption from a high-stakes, time-pressured examination?

  • What support mechanisms will be provided to assist applicants to study for the test?

  • Will financially-disadvantaged members of the community be expected to pay for classes/ materials in order to prepare for the citizenship test?

  • The IELTS test costs A$330, with no subsidies available. Will the IELTS-based citizenship/ language test attract similar fees?

There are also questions about the fairness of requiring applicants to demonstrate a specific type and level of English under examination conditions that is not required of all citizens. Those born in Australia are not required to pass an academic test of language in order to retain their citizenship.

Recognising diversity of experiences

There are a few things the government should consider before introducing a language test:

1) Community consultation is essential. Input from community/ migrant groups, educators, and language assessment specialists will ensure the test functions as a valid evaluation of progression towards English language proficiency. The government is currently calling for submissions related to the new citizenship test.

2) Design the test to value different forms and varieties of English that demonstrate progression in learning rather than adherence to prescriptive standards.

3) Provide educational opportunities that build on existing linguistic strengths that help people to prepare for the test.

Equating a particular type of language proficiency with a commitment to Australian citizenship is a complex and ideologically-loaded notion. The government must engage in careful consideration before potentially further disadvantaging those most in need of citizenship.

Sally Baker, Research Associate, Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education, University of Newcastle and Rachel Burke, Lecturer, University of Newcastle

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