Foreign Bodies and Home Truths

  1. When is a virus not a virus?
  2. When it’s a plague?

A fortnight off Twitter has given me some perspective on various phenomena currently plaguing humanity, among them, those associated with the Coronavirus “Covid-19” (& co.) – which we all know all about. We’ve seen the colour photos taken by scientists with electron microscopes. Lovely.

Odd that, Googling the word, the images that immediately appear are all in different colours: has the globe of the cell in light blue and the crowns in coral; opts for light green throughout, but with the base of the crowns cleverly backlit; uses the same effect but with contrasting shades of green – and the preferred palette of (I must say, rather unpatriotically) is quite horrible. Blue and green should never be seen. And that hot pink doesn’t help at all!

Of course, scientists know that electron microscopes are produced by capturing electrons, not photons – so are these images fake? Well…it is true that since 2016 micrographs have been produced by “a false-color visualization of key features found within microscopic objects” that uses rare earth metals painted onto biological structures. However, today’s quickfire media just doesn’t have the time to wait for authentic micrographs, monochrome or not, and instead usually makes do with a quick artist’s impression.

I’m not knocking artistry. Luke Jerram’s glass sculptures of microbes are mindblowing. He’s not only honest enough to tell us he’s colourblind (so am I, like most men, to some extent) but also that, when it comes to electron microscopy, we all are:

“viruses have no color as they are smaller than the wavelength of light. Viruses are so small they can only be seen under an electron microscope (EM) as quite undefined grainy images”

And who wants grainy images when you can have lots of lovely detail in pretty pastel shades? Coloured detailed images of microbes, whether based on simply on artistic preference or informed guesswork, are not usually presented as such to the general public – or, if they are (in the small print) their fabrication is not highlighted.

Fabricated illustration is not the only aspect of popular science often not highlighted for Jo Public. Having been involved (one way or another) for decades with teaching methodology to postgraduate students of various academic disciplines, I realise how opaque most scientific research writing is. The duty of a popular science writer should be to clarify the confusing jargon that scientists use as a shorthand, and the duty of any journalist should be to check his or her facts!

Instead, many such writers don’t take the time to do either. I’m not suggesting that non-experts try to contend with experts. There are often enough experts in the field in disagreement with the establishment view whose views can be reported too, for balance. That’s the approach I took when I wrote Silence and Dissent: Expert Doubt in the AIDS Debate. I quoted Gallo but I also quoted Duesberg. I’m not an expert; they are.

I am suggesting that, expert or not, we can stand back from the details and look at the line of argument, the train of logic. Is it a straight line? Does it derail?

Take this, standard, advice on the Coronavirus posted yesterday by a medical doctor and a registered nurse (who describes herself as a “clinician”):

“Given the threat this epidemic presents, managers shouldn’t hesitate to send employees who present with Covid-19 symptoms home.”

Yet only at the end of January, Chu et al. (2020) admitted:

“The spectrum of this disease in humans is yet to be fully determined. Signs of infection are highly nonspecific, and these include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, dyspnea, and viral pneumonia. Thus, diagnostic tests specific for this infection are urgently needed for confirming suspected cases, screening patients and conducting virus surveillance.” (end of Introduction)

Meanwhile, the good old BBC, while certainly taking the party line, does provide some interesting information:

“The WHO says the virus appears to particularly affect those over 60, and people already ill. In the first large analysis of more than 44,000 cases from China, the death rate was 10 times higher in the very elderly compared to the middle-aged.”

The bar chart below that quote (unfortunately the BBC doesn’t seem to be able to format a bar chart differently from a histogram) explains what “already ill” means: about 11% cardiovascular; 7% diabetes; 6% respiratory disease; 6% hypertension – with only about 1% having “none”. Which means that 99% had something other than the virus that made them ill enough to be described as such.

Underneath again, we have:

“But most patients have only mild symptoms and the death rate appears to be between 2% and 5%, the WHO said. By comparison, seasonal flu has an average mortality rate of about 0.1%, but is highly infectious – with up to 400,000 people dying from it each year.”


Could there be any other factor (apart from those poor bats) that might exacerbate normal seasonal flu mortality into something bigger?

Let’s look at the “treatment”. According to Sahar Esfandiari (citing Reuters and The Wall Street Journal) of Business Insider:

“People in China are so scared of contracting the deadly Wuhan coronavirus they are begging HIV patients for their medication in a bid to find a potential cure.”

Reuters gives details:

“Although there is no evidence from clinical trials, China’s National Health Commision said the HIV drug lopinavir/ritonavir can be used for coronavirus patients, without specifying how they might help. […] That triggered a rush, specifically for Kaletra, also known as Aluvia, which is drugmaker AbbVie’s […] off-patent version of lopinavir/ritonavir and the only version approved for sale in China.”

“Gatsby Fang, a Chinese cross-border buying agent, told Reuters that he ordered generic versions of Kaletra from India on Jan. 23, shortly after he firstly heard that the drug might be useful against the new coronavirus. Fang, whose primary job is in the financial industry, said he sold each bottle for 600 yuan ($86) each, bringing in 200 yuan to 300 yuan in profit on each. His stock was sold out by Jan. 25. Some clients ordered 600 tablets at once, he said. His buyers included infected patients, front-line doctors in Hubei, and those who did not need the drug but thought it might offer protection. Other drug sellers also approached him, pretending to be patients, Fang said.”

(Gatsby Fang. How wonderful! You just couldn’t make that up!)

HIV drugs are certainly being rebranded, as this rather horrifying article from Nature explains:

“From the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, medical practitioners have followed China’s guidelines set up in January and treated hospitalized patients with α-interferon combined with the repurposed drug Kaletra, an approved cocktail of the HIV protease inhibitors ritonavir and lopinavir.”

And yet, in the same article:

“But Erik De Clercq, of the Rega Institute for Medical Research in Leuven, Belgium, says that in searching for or designing effective drugs against COVID-19: “We should stay away from antivirals known to be acting at targets not playing a role in the replication of coronaviruses”.”

And his colleague, Rolf Hilgenfeld, from the Institute of Biochemistry at the University of Lübeck, Germany, also warns here against hasty action:

“Unfortunately, with previous outbreaks, there is the experience that not all of these studies are very sound, they have been done under tight pressure, and so one has to be a little bit cautious about the results”

Let’s put all this together.

  1. Seasonal flu is highly contagious; older people and those already ill are more likely to die from it.
  2. Wuhan has had specific public health challenges.
  3. The measurable signs (and moreso the reported symptoms) of Covid-19 are “highly nonspecific” and so are the tests currently in use (Chu et al., 2020). In other words, it’s indistinguishable from other forms of influenza and pneumonia.
  4. Globally, overuse of antibiotics is making flu strains more virulent and lessening the ability of the immune system to fight pneumonia (which even the biggest drug pushers admit).
  5. People showing signs or reporting symptoms of flu, most old and already ill, are being rounded up in China, in Hubei and especially in Wuhan where the panic is worst, and being given “emergency treatment”.
  6. China’s government health guidelines recommend giving chemotherapy drugs designed for HIV, which have known serious (and eventually fatal) side effects, twice daily to sufferers.
  7. Seasonal mortality in already-vulnerable demographics, augmented by antibiotics and antivirals (like drinking bleach to cure the common cold), confirms the hypothesis that this form of Coronavirus is really bad and to blame. The panic spreads as Steps 4-7 repeat, globally).

The colourful images the media presents to us as science ain’t necessarily so. Digging a little deeper, we find that science writing is deeply funded by large pharmaceutical companies. They’re set to make a fortune from China’s catastrophe.

  1. When is a virus not a virus?
  2. When it’s profitable.


Thanks to Dawn Hudson for releasing her image Red Germ into the Public Domain.