Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.
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Matt Ridley's latest book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with scientist Alina Chan from Harvard and MIT's Broad Institute, is now available in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
My article for The Telegraph:Sri Lanka’s collapse, from one of the fastest growing Asian economies to a political, economic and humanitarian horror show, seems to have taken everybody by surprise.
Five years ago, the World Bank was extolling “how Sri Lanka intends to transition to a more competitive and inclusive upper-middle income country”. Right up to the middle of last year, despite the impact of the pandemic, the country’s misery index (inflation plus unemployment) was low and falling. Then the misery index took off like a rocket, quintupling in a year.
What happened? There is a simple explanation, one that the BBC seems determined to downplay. In April 2021, president Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced that Sri Lanka was banning most pesticides and all synthetic fertiliser to go fully organic. Within months, the volume of tea exports had halved, cutting foreign exchange earnings. Rice yields plummeted leading to an unprecedented requirement to import rice. With the government unable to service its debt, the currency collapsed.
My article for The Telegraph:
Fusion energy is coming. Last week’s announcement of a significant energy yield from the Joint European Torus in Oxfordshire is just a milestone on the path but all the signs are that there’s probably going to be reliable fusion power on tap some time in the next decade thanks to breakthroughs in superconductivity.Also, private money is pouring into fusion, which has forced the public projects to speed up, as it did with genomics. It would be a foolish person who repeated Ernest Rutherford’s clanger of 1933 about nuclear fission: “Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of the atom is talking moonshine.”True, there is every chance we will make a mess of the opportunity by adopting an extreme precautionary approach to regulation. In the case of nuclear (fission) power, we bound it into such a straitjacket of cumbersome rules that we ended up making it a lot more expensive, slightly less safe and incapable of even trying new designs that might bring down the price and drive the safety even higher. Innovation should have rendered both Chernobyl and Fukushima redundant long before they blew up, and Hinkley is going to be grotesquely, needlessly costly. If we make a similar unforced error with fusion, forget it.
But fusion is very different from fission, producing vastly less radioactive material and almost no long-term waste. It cannot melt down or blow up. So regulating it is simpler: treat it like any other industrial facility and set up the regulation to give quick decisions, be flexible and focus on the safe outcome not the process of getting there. If we do that, we might have a great opportunity, because Britain is already a leader in fusion.So it’s worth casting our minds forward to how the world might look if small power stations start making huge quantities of energy from tiny quantities of water (the source of deuterium) and lithium (the source of tritium). We could heat our homes and power our cars with cheap electricity. We could synthesise fuel for planes and rockets. We could speed up productivity through automation. We could desalinate seawater. We could suck carbon dioxide out of the air, achieving net zero painlessly. We could rewild all wind and solar farms. Above all, we could tell the eco-killjoys who preach that our use of energy is not just a problem but a sin to get lost.And therein lies the problem, because they will fight us every step of the way, inventing ludicrous objections to fusion. Remember, for the eco-elite, hair-shirt asceticism is a feature not a bug. Giving ordinary people unlimited energy would horrify these high priests. What they love about climate change is the excuse it gives them to disapprove of people having fun. Imagine the scowl on Greta’s face when we tell her electricity is going to be abundant, cheap, reliable and low-carbon. It’s shooting their fox.Notice too how it would make a mockery of the urgent rush to net zero today. The BBC’s Jon Amos delivered a predictable sermon on this theme this week following the fusion announcement: “Fusion is not a solution to get us to 2050 net zero. This is a solution to power society in the second half of this century.”He’s got it backwards: if fusion does come after 2050, why spend trillions and force people into austerity in the rush to net zero by 2050 instead of say 2070? We are hurrying to shut down coal, gas and nuclear prematurely with no reliable replacement. Looking back that might prove to have been very foolish.
My article for the Telegraph:
The news that Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation, is to attend the Winter Olympics in Beijing is baffling on a number of levels. Has he not got a day job to do? There is a pandemic on.
“Sources close to” him say it would be a “political statement to turn down the invitation”, which indicates ludicrous delusions of grandeur: he is a bureaucrat, not a head of state, let alone a “dignitary”.
Inch by painful inch, the truth is being dragged out about how this pandemic started. It is just about understandable, if not forgivable, that Chinese scientists have obfuscated vital information about early cases and their work with similar viruses in Wuhan’s laboratories: they were subject to fierce edicts from a ruthless, totalitarian regime.
It is more shocking to discover in emails released this week that some western scientists were also saying different things in public from what they thought in private. The emails were exchanged over the first weekend of February 2020 between senior virologists on both sides of the Atlantic following a meeting arranged by Sir Jeremy Farrar, head of the Wellcome Trust, with America’s two top biologists, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, and Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The one thing that cheered us Northumbrians up as we waited for power to come back on after Storm Arwen (some wit points out that naming these daughters of Boreas only seems to encourage them) was to grumble: “if this was in the Home Counties we would never hear the end of it”. But it is not funny that thousands of homes are still waiting for reconnection, some with elderly occupants.
I can vouch that five days of living in the cold and dark when the nights are more than twice as long as the days does not half remind you of the value of reliable electricity, diesel cars (how else do you charge a phone?) and gas stoves to cook on – all three of which are about to be banned by the eco-commissars.
Here we go again, fighting the last war. Because governments are perceived to have moved too slowly to ban flights when the delta variant arose in India, we jumped into action this time, punishing the poor South Africans for their molecular vigilance. But nothing was going to stop the delta going global, and the latest set of government measures to stop the spread of the new omicron variant are about as likely to succeed as the Maginot line was to stop General Guderian’s tanks. The cat is already out of the bag. Just because we can take action does not make it the right thing to do.
This pandemic has mocked public-health experts. They told us to wash our hands and then realised it was spreading through the air. They told us masks were useless and then made them mandatory. They sent Covid cases to ordinary hospitals where they infected patients.
It is almost exactly two years since the pandemic began. According to an official document seen by the South China Morning Post, the first retrospectively diagnosed case of Covid in Wuhan was on November 17 2019, while genetic analysis points to a similar date, November 18. (The so-called “patient zero” discussed in the media this week has been known about for months and is very unlikely to be the first case even according to the World Health Organisation.)
In the case of Sars, 19 years ago, and Mers, nine years ago, the first known cases were followed within a couple of months by unambiguous clues as to how the virus jumped from an animal source into people. Both viruses live naturally in bats, which had somehow infected intermediate animal hosts such as palm civets and camels before transmitting into people.
My article, for The Telegraph:
The Government wants to unleash innovation. If it were to be presented with a magic wand that could by 2040 feed millions more people, avoid tens of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and improve biodiversity on hundreds of thousands of hectares, while benefiting the economy and reducing the footprint of farming, it would surely grab it.
My article for Telegraph:
In a key milestone on the road to harnessing fusion power, Lawrence Livermore laboratory announced this week that it had extracted energy from an object the size of a lemon pip at the rate of 10 quadrillion watts (joules per second), albeit for only 100 trillionths of a second. That’s roughly 500 times faster than the entire human population consumes energy.
The experiment is a reminder that the energy density achieved when atoms merge is vastly greater than anything in a lump of coal, let alone a puff of wind. It is also far bigger than can be achieved by nuclear fission and much safer too: no risk of meltdown and with much less high-level radioactive waste.
My article for the Telegraph:On Twitter this week an unfortunate hiker showed a short video of the midges swarming in their tens of thousands over his backpack and his arms in the Scottish Highlands. It was itchy just to watch. It would be silly to argue that his video is evidence that insects are increasing in number. Yet the evidence for a dramatic decline in insect numbers, an “insect apocalypse”, which activists and journalists have been proclaiming recently, is about as weak as such a claim would be.
A film called Insect O Cide is coming out soon. Its ludicrous central theme is that “human beings are on the verge of extinction due to the rapid decline in the insect populations”. “The Insect Apocalypse is here”, said the New York Times in 2018. “Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’” said the Guardian in 2019. The source for this claim was a paper published in the journal Biological Conservation by two Australian scientists that claimed to reveal “dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40 per cent of the world’s insect species over the next few decades”.
This was junk science of the worst kind. As three other scientists then pointed out, “there is so much wrong with the paper, it really shouldn’t have been published in its current form: the biased search method, the cherry-picked studies, the absence of any real quantitative data to back up the bizarre 40 per cent extinction rate that appears in the abstract … and the errors in the reference list.” Of the studies cited by the apocalypse paper, the three said, “we were really surprised to discover how many of them we had to discard, because they contained no data”.
My article for the Telegraph:Back in the early 1950s scientists were baffled by one aspect of life itself. Our cells were full of proteins whose properties depended on their precise shapes, and the key feature of life was the ability to copy itself, but how on earth do you copy three-dimensional shapes? The unexpected answer was that you don’t: you copy a one-dimensional, linear sequence in a recipe book called DNA, which automatically determines how each protein folds into its shape.
Surprisingly, until last week, working out how this folding worked was beyond even big computers: tiny shifts in angles could result in wildly different shapes, and forecasting what shape would result from what sequence was as hard as predicting the weather. Now, thanks to the brilliant London AI firm DeepMind (which sold itself to Google a few years back), a learning algorithm has cracked the problem and has predicted hundreds of thousands of shapes from sequences. It did so as an encore after defeating the world champion at the fiendishly complicated game of Go: in neither case was it taught by experts but learned from examples.
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel prize for figuring out the structure of the ribosome (the machine that translates DNA into proteins), told me last week that he thinks the DeepMind breakthrough is huge: “we probably have not yet grasped its impact and all the ways it will change the way we do biology.”
Britain leads the pack on vaccination, but lags far behind America, Germany and France on liberation. A big reason is that our Government remains in thrall to a profession that has performed uniquely badly during the pandemic: modellers. The Government’s reliance on Sage experts’ computer modelling to predict what would happen with or without various interventions has proved about as useful as the ancient Roman habit of consulting trained experts in “haruspicy” – interpreting the entrails of chickens.
As Sarah Knapton has revealed in these pages, the brutal postponement of Freedom Day coincided with the release of a bunch of alarmist models predicting a huge new wave of deaths. The most pessimistic, inevitably from Imperial College, forecast 203,824 deaths over the next year. It did so by assuming just a 77-87 per cent reduction in hospitalisations following two vaccinations, despite the fact that real world data shows two vaccinations to be between 92 per cent (AstraZeneca) and 96 per cent (Pfizer) effective in preventing hospitalisation. That would cut the Imperial forecast of deaths by a gob-smacking 90 per cent to 26,854.
My article for the Telegraph:The whole aim of practical politics, said HL Mencken, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
It is hard to avoid the impression that officials are alarmed rather than pleased by the fading of the pandemic in Britain. They had a real hobgoblin to hand, and boy did they make the most of it, but it’s now turning into a pussy cat. So they are back to casting around for imaginary ones to justify their draconian – and deliciously popular – command and control over every detail of our lives. Look, variants!
And yes, the pandemic is fading fast. The vaccine is working “better than we could possibly have imagined”, according to Calum Semple, of the University of Liverpool, based on a study which found that it reduced hospitalisation by 98 per cent. With deaths from the virus now falling by more than 20 per cent a week and with overall mortality from all causes now below the long-term average, “we’ve moved from a pandemic to an endemic situation”, according to Sarah Walker, Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at Oxford and Chief Investigator on the ONS’s Covid-19 Infection Survey. The UK’s covid positivity rate at 0.2 per cent is now the fifth lowest in the world and lower than Taiwan and Israel.
It is a year ago last week since the World Health Organisation conceded, belatedly, that a pandemic was under way. The organisation’s decisions in early 2020 were undoubtedly influenced by the Chinese government. On 14 January, to widespread surprise, the WHO was still echoing China’s assurance that there was no evidence of person-to-person spread: “it is very clear right now that we have no sustained human-to-human transmission,” said an official that day. Within days even China conceded this was wrong.
Later that month the WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said his admiration for China’s speed in detecting the virus and sharing information was “beyond words”, adding “so is China's commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries”. At the time China’s government was punishing whistleblowers, taking down databases, censoring scientists and ordering samples destroyed.
There is something rather apt in the coincidence of an Italian ban on vaccine exports to Australia and the negotiation by Liz Truss, the trade secretary, of lower tariffs on trade with the United States. One is as pure a demonstration of spiteful EU protectionism as one could imagine; the other a clear demonstration of mutual gains from freer trade.
Supporting Brexit used to be difficult to explain to foreigners. I remember a Mexican friend flatly refusing to believe I voted for it. “Surely you are joking,” he said, finding it hard to imagine me as a racist, isolationist xenophobe – the only kind of Brexiteer recognised by CNN, the Economist and the New York Times.
This is a more detailed version of the article co-written with Alina Chan on the origin of the virus causing the Covid pandemic which was published in the Telegraph on 6 February.
"Viral" by Matt Ridley is coming later this year. Sign up for his newsletter and follow him on Facebook and Twitter to learn when it arrives.
My latest article, for The Telegraph:
Britain probably leads the world in self-criticism. So maybe we don’t always notice when the country leads the world in something a bit more useful. During the pandemic a lot has been done badly here – the modelling, testing and lockdown policies have been harmful, clumsy, and chaotic – but it’s worth reflecting on what we have done well, especially in science.
Boris Johnson's fondness for the metaphor of the US cavalry riding to the rescue is risky: ask General Custer. With the vaccine cavalry in sight, and just when we thought we had earned a Christmas break, the virus has ambushed us with a strain that seems more contagious, and which is rapidly coming to dominate the epidemic in south-east England.
It is now a race between the virus and the vaccine as to which can get into your bloodstream first.
Happy Christmas! The BioNtech/Pfizer vaccine’s approval, with others to come, is the best possible news at the end of a ghastly year. Vaccination is humankind’s most life-saving innovation, banishing scourge after scourge from the face of the earth. It is a technology that is so counterintuitive as to seem magical, but when it works it is unbeatable. The extinction of smallpox in 1977 was probably science’s greatest achievement.
Britain has been among the most incompetent countries at managing the pandemic, taking far too top-down and centralised an approach, but it will be the first to get vaccinating, weeks before America and a month before the lumbering bureaucratic dinosaur across the channel. We can thank Kate Bingham, our brilliant biologists and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. I recall being told by somebody with insider experience long before this that the European Medicines Agency added very little to what we do domestically, except duplication and delay.
Our fearless leader has descended from the mountain with a 10-commandment plan for a green industrial revolution. At a cost of £12 billion, he will have all Britons driving electric cars powered by North Sea wind turbines and giving up their gas boilers to heat their homes with ground-source heat pumps. He will invent zero-emission planes and ships. This vast enterprise will create 250,000 jobs. I am a loyal supporter of the prime minister, but this Ed Miliband policy makes no sense any way you look at it. Here are 10 reasons why.
First, if it’s jobs we are after then spending £48,000 per job is a lot. Cheaper, as Lord Lawson put it, to create the same employment erecting a statue of Boris in every town. Anyway, it’s backwards: it’s not jobs in the generating of energy that count but jobs that use it. Providing cheap, reliable energy enables the private sector to create jobs for free as far as the taxpayer is concerned.
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I was in favour of a national lockdown in the spring. I am not now, for six main reasons.
Covid is not a very dangerous disease for most people. The death rate is probably around 0.2 per cent of those infected, and most who die are elderly and suffering from other medical conditions. The mortality of those in hospital with Covid has almost halved for the over 80s since the start of the epidemic as treatment has improved.
My article with MP David Davis, for the Telegraph:
As we face six tough months of curfews, isolation and economic misery, with vaccines a distant hope, testing struggling to control the virus, and the hospitalisation rate once again rising, it’s surely time to try anything reasonable to slow the pandemic down. There is one chemical that is known to be safe, known to be needed by many people anyway, known to have a clinically proven track record of helping people fight off respiratory diseases, and is so cheap no big firm is pushing it: vitamin D. It is not a silver bullet, but growing evidence suggests that it might help prevent Covid turning serious in some people.
In May, arguments on the link between Vitamin D deficiency and its association with poor Covid outcomes started to gather pace. That month, the Health Secretary’s attention was drawn to two studies showing a strong association between the incidence and severity of Covid-19 with vitamin D deficiencies in the patients. Vadim Backman of Northwestern University, one of the authors of one of those studies, said about healthy levels of vitamin D that “Our analysis shows that it might be as high as cutting the mortality rate in half.”
It is now three weeks since thousands of protesters first gathered in Trafalgar Square, and two weeks since London filled with even larger crowds, few of whom wore masks or kept two metres apart, and some of whom got involved in fights, resulting in arrests and injuries: a perfect recipe for spreading the coronavirus. Yet there has been a continuing decline in new cases of the disease and no uptick in calls to 111 or 999 about suspected Covid-19. By now, some effect should have shown up if it was going to. In June, London has seen fewer deaths from all causes than in a normal year. Why is this?
While respiratory viruses nearly always evolve towards lower virulence, essentially because the least sick people go to the most meetings and parties, this one was never very dangerous for most people in the first place. Its ability to kill 80-year-olds in care homes stands in sharp contrast with its inability to kill younger people. Fewer than 40 people under the age of 40 with no underlying conditions have died in Britain. On board the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, 1,100 sailors tested positive, many had no symptoms and only one died.
My article with MP David Davis for The Telegraph:
When the pandemic passes, which it will, there will be a reckoning to determine who could have stopped it early and did not. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has suggested that it would have to be carried out by the World Health Organisation: "Obviously, after the crisis has abated I think the time will be right to conduct a kind of 'lessons learned' [inquiry] and I'm sure the World Health Organisation will be at the forefront of that.”
This is a terrible idea. WHO is full of good people with good intentions, but as a body it has very serious questions to answer about its own conduct before we trust it with looking at that of others.
‘This pestilence was so powerful that it was transmitted to the healthy by contact with the sick” wrote Giovanni Boccaccio of the Black Death, in his preface to The Decameron. The trouble with the coronavirus is almost exactly the opposite – it is transmitted to the sick by contact with the healthy. The people most at risk of dying are those who already suffer from underlying illnesses. And evidence is accumulating that the virus is passed on very early in the progression of the disease, often when you are still without much in the way of symptoms.
In 1934, in their spare time, two American biologists, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering, developed a vaccine for whooping cough, then the biggest killer of children in the United States. Within four years their vaccine was being used throughout Michigan and within six it was being used nationwide. Whooping cough rapidly retreated.
Since then there have been spectacular advances in biology, including the identification of the genetic material, the ability to read its code, an understanding of the structure of viruses and the proteins from which they are made, plus knowledge of how immunity works. So why are we facing a wait of at least a year, maybe much more, for a vaccine for coronavirus? It has been one of the shocks of recent weeks to realise how little progress vaccine development has made. It’s still a bit of an art.
In the 19th century Ignaz Semmelweis was vilified and ostracised when he tried to make doctors wash their hands after doing autopsies on women who had died from childbirth fever before going straight upstairs to deliver more babies. We have come a long way since then in public health, but we can go much further still.
The fruit of a narrow-leaved campion, buried in permafrost by a ground squirrel 32,000 years ago on the banks of the Kolyma river in Siberia, has been coaxed into growing into a new plant, which then successfully set seed itself in a Moscow laboratory. Although this plant species was not extinct, inch by inch scientists seem to be closing in on the outrageous goal of bringing a species back from the dead. I don't expect to live to see a herd of resurrected mammoths roaming the Siberian steppe, but I think my grandchildren just might.
The mammoth is the best candidate for resurrection mainly because flash-frozen ones with well-preserved tissues are regularly found in the Siberian permafrost. Occasionally these have been fresh enough to tempt scientists to cook and eat them, usually with disappointing results. Just last week a Chinese paleontologist in Canada, Xing Lida, filmed himself frying and eating what he said was a small mammoth steak. Cells from such carcasses have been recovered, encouraging a rivalry between Japanese and Russian scientists to be the first to revive one of these huge, elephant-like mammals by cloning. Four years ago the mammoth genome was sequenced, so we at least now know the genetic recipe.
The news of the resurrected flower does, apparently, remove one obstacle. After 32,000 years the plant's DNA had not been so damaged by natural radioactivity in the soil as to make it unviable, which is a surprise. Mammoth carcasses are often much younger - the youngest, on Wrangel Island, being about 4,700 years old, contemporary with the Pharoahs. So the DNA should be in even better shape.
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