Category Archives: Science

Round One: Coronavirus

I took a picture of London from the top of the North Downs in 2017 after I was so struck by the visibility of the pollution hovering over the city. Last week I stopped again at the same spot and took roughly the same photo.

What is so striking is that after only five weeks of lockdown, the dramatic drop in traffic has had such a noticeable visual effect on the air quality.

TomTom, the navigation company, has provided graphs of various cities around the world showing the change in traffic.

What a difference it would make if we could effect a change like this but without the huge downside of a pandemic.

Some cities such as Milan are already planning to reclaim some of their streets inspired by the experience of the traffic-drop. And given that social distancing is likely to be here to stay for quite some time – at least until widespread vaccines are available, others are bound to follow suit.

Wired reports that many cities around the world have already blocked off city streets to provide more open spaces for people to safely navigate.

We could of course go back to normal after the pandemic is over but as The Economist eloquently illustrated coronavirus is merely Round One; the next battle is the big one.

There have been notable examples of self-less co-operation during the coronavirus challenge, but also many examples of narrow-minded, nationalistic responses following the lead of the catastrophically inadequate President of the United States.

We can only hope the sobering example of fighting a pandemic will create real impetus for change which can create a common will to deal with the biggest global challenge of all. Fingers crossed.

Osborne wants to pay the drug companies rather than tackle the antibiotics problem at source

George Osborne has warned that antibiotic resistance is becoming such a serious problem that it will eclipse cancer as a cause of death worldwide by 2050. According to The Guardian “Osborne will warn of an enormous economic cost, which could cut global GDP by 3.5%, a cumulative cost of $100bn (£70bn). The chancellor will say: ‘Unless we take global action, antimicrobial resistance will become an even greater threat to mankind than cancer currently is’.”

He will be calling for urgent and radical action: “My message here at the IMF meeting in Washington is that we need the world’s governments and industry leaders to work together in radical new ways. We have to dramatically shift incentives for pharmaceutical companies and others to create a long-term solution to this problem, with new rewards, funded globally, that support the development of new antibiotics and ensure access to antibiotics in the developing world.”

But why is there such a problem with antibiotic resistance? It is generally accepted that it has been caused by the indesciminate use of antibiotics in agriculture where they are widely used in the farming of animals even when the animals are not sick. In the US, for instance, more than 70% of the total volume of antibiotics which we rely on are actually used on farms. 

One might think that an obvious solution would be drive through laws to limit the use of antibiotics on farms. But this doesn’t seem to be on his agenda. According to the Guardian Kerry McCarthy, the shadow environment secretary, speaking at the Antibiotics and Farming Conference in London, accused ministers of adopting a “negative role” in EU negotiations over calls by the European parliament to end the routine use of preventative antibiotics in farming.

It is interesting that the solution to this problem which Osborne says is so serious is to increase financial incentives to the pharmaceutical industry rather than step in to curb behaviour in the agricultural sector. Clearly there would be effects from a ban on antibiotics use in farms – you might expect yields to fall and prices of meat products to rise as a result. 

But would this be such a bad thing? Scientists overwhelmingly agree that reducing meat consumption would be good for health, and specifically that it would reduce the instances of cancer. 

This would seem to be another example of ideological thinking getting in the way of the win/win solution.