SARS-CoV-2 Shows Tremendous Capacity to Adapt and Change
When I wrote about SARS-CoV-2 variants in the March edition of my column, no one could say with certainty how new variants of SARS-CoV-2 would change the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. But many public health officials and experts, myself included, feare
When I wrote about SARS-CoV-2 variants in the March edition of my column, no one could say with certainty how new variants of SARS-CoV-2 would change the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. But many public health officials and experts, myself included, feared they would cause serious problems. In the months since, this prediction has become our reality, casting a long shadow over our collective attempts to control the pandemic and prevent further death and disease. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has gone on record to say that a vaccine-proof variant might be “only a few mutations away.”
Initially, variants from different geographical regions exhibited similar mutations, fueling speculation that the virus had only a limited number of changes within reach. Over time, the hope was, SARS-CoV-2 would assume an evolutionary trajectory similar to that of cold-causing coronaviruses, becoming no more harmful than another common cold. Though not far-fetched, this scenario was dubious for several reasons. One, this did not prove to be the case for a virus very similar to SARS-CoV-2, influenza, which requires new batches of flu shots each year to account for its rate of variation. Two, the behavior and virological profile of SARS-CoV-2 is demonstrably different from that of its more benign cousins.
What we didn’t know then—though a mounting pile of evidence has since confirmed—is that SARS-CoV-2 does, in fact, have a tremendous capacity for adaptation and change. We’re also beginning to understand why.
First and foremost we must consider the ecological nature of this virus. Every species has its niche—the place it occupies in a broader ecosystem. Viruses are no exception. Some viruses, like respiratory syncytial virus, affect mostly newborns and children. Others, like HIV, hepatitis B, and syphilis, are sexually transmitted and circulate among humans by way of our intimacies.
SARS-CoV-2 falls into a third category: influenza and cold-causing viruses. Their ecological niche is much broader, consisting of long-lived, immunocompetent, gregarious adults who have been previously infected by the selfsame virus. Viruses that occupy this niche develop the capacity to reinfect their human hosts over and over again, no matter the immune defenses we develop in response. Viruses possess nothing remotely like human intelligence, but they do have time on their side—a rapid mutational variation akin to artificial intelligence. Each generates countess mutations. The variants that allow them to continue to spread through a population come to dominate.
Remarkably, we were able to develop vaccines that protected against the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 in less than a year. But studies conducted in the wake of the emergence of the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and particularly Delta variants show that the strength and durability of that protection might not hold if the virus continues to become more virulent and, in the worst-case scenario, more lethal.
What follows is an overview of what we’ve learned over the course of several months of studying the variants.
Lesson 1. We don’t know how much the virus will evolve, but it is possible we’re only in the beginning stages.
To initiate and sustain infection, SARS-CoV-2 binds to the ACE2 receptors that are expressed in abundance across our airways and nasal passages. The tighter the virus binds to the cells of the nasal mucosa, the fewer the number of particles required to infect—a definite selective advantage.
Just how avid could the virus become? According to a recent study the limit is far beyond what new variants have exhibited thus far. Scientists were able to increase its binding capabilities 600-fold. The avidity of SARS-CoV-2 variants currently in circulation is likely lower by several orders of magnitude.
Some changes in avidity seem to balance other changes in immune evasion that may render the mutant less fit. Further study of such interactions is needed to see whether they could play a role in vaccine and drug development.
Sites of mutation and potential drug targets
The primary target of the neutralizing antibodies in COVID-19 vaccines and monoclonal antibodies in certain drugs is the spike protein, which contains the receptor binding domain that affixes to ACE2. Several of the mutations identified across the new variants are located on the spike.
One region of the spike protein can be thought of as the primary antigen of the primary neutralizing enemy—a waving flag that lures antibodies its way. Remarkably, this part of the spike, called the receptor binding domain, can mutate to decrease immune recognition and still bind to the ACE2 receptor to permit virus entry. Sometimes, when the receptor binding domain changes to avoid immune detection, the mutations it incurs may actually decrease infectivity. We’re now learning that changes occurring outside the receptor binding domain can regain these losses through adjoining mechanisms. Called compensatory mutations, these changes ensure the virus can still evade immunization while simultaneously becoming more infectious.
Examining the full extent of variation across the viral genome, we see that across the vast spectrum of cold-causing coronaviruses, the protein sequence of the entire spike diverges only two to four percent every eight years, while divergence in the receptor binding domain, at its peak, reached 17 percent. The conclusion is, once again, that SARS-CoV-2 may be nowhere near the limits of its own variation. The latest round of variants including Mu, Lambda and C.1.2 show that twenty months into the pandemic SARS-CoV-2 is still developing new variants that may challenge our best vaccines.
Lesson 2. The virus selects for changes that increase its ability to jump from one person to another.
Stability of the virus particle
The survivability of SARS-CoV-2 is directly dependent upon its transmission from host to host. Mutations could enhance this ability by increasing the stability of the virus particle and how long it can maintain structural integrity outside the host environment. Some the new variants include mutations in the structural proteins E, M and N. These should be investigated not only for their effect on virus replication but also for the possibility that they confer increased stability to the free virus particle, a property which could provide a selective advantage.
SARS-CoV-2 is a master at evading both the defenses of an infected cell and the entire immune system. It is a tale of stealth and disguise worthy of any great mystery novel. The primary story, perhaps paradoxically, is one of immune suppression, not hyper-activation, which is seen so strikingly in those who fall seriously ill. To establish infection all viruses must first defeat the body’s well-honed defenses. Early on, the virus acts at multiple levels to counteract innate immunity, the first line of defense against microbial invaders, allowing enough time for the virus to enter and exit before the full set of antiviral defenses can mobilize.
The original SARS-CoV-2 virus encoded many proteins in its genome that modify and suppress the immune system. New variants appear to improve upon these existing capabilities, allowing the virus to replicate to high concentrations without drawing the attention and ire of cellular immune sensors. They take particular aim at interferon and the genes and proteins induced by interferon.
Beyond the structural proteins I already touched on—the spike, membrane, envelope, and nucleocapsid—SARS-CoV-2 has nonstructural proteins (NSPs) and accessory genes, including open reading frames (Orfs), that contribute collectively to this effort. Like Swiss army knives, the viral proteins of SARS-CoV-2 are multifunctional, with many performing several highly specific tasks. NSP3 alone encodes seven distinct functional domains, including protease cleavage, de-ubiquitination, de-ADP-ribosylation, and autophagy modulation.
All the virus’ mechanisms of immune suppression ultimately come in one of two forms: nonspecific and specific.
Nonspecific immune suppression
Nonspecific suppression, such as the obstruction of protein synthesis and export, indiscriminately affects entire cellular processes, even the machinery that potentiates viral propagation. This blunt apparatus of suppression forms an intensive blockade against immune signaling pathways, activated in coordination with counterbalancing elements that allow SARS-CoV-2 to continue replicating even as general cellular functioning is disrupted.
Specific immune suppression
Specific suppression is more precise as a mode of attack, zeroing in on microscopic structures, interactions, and processes with equally specific effects. Many of the Orfs, as far as we know, only interact with select innate immune signals, like interferon and interferon-responsive genes, while NSP1, in addition to its nonspecific functions, also specifically inhibits RIG-I, a pattern recognition receptor critical to the activation of the innate immune response.
Whether specific or nonspecific, any one of these mechanisms can, with the right mutations in place, increase in effectivity, which in turn will allow the virus to replicate more prolifically and reach higher titers. We now have evidence that this is what happened with the Alpha variant. Studies that used deep sequencing techniques to investigate differences in protein transcription and expression between the original and Alpha strains found an 80-fold increase in the amount of Orf9b subgenomic RNA produced by the Alpha variant and a ten-fold increase in the messenger RNA corresponding to the Orf6 proteins. Both Orf9b and Orf6 are inhibitors of innate immunity.
While we don’t yet understand the evolutionary trajectory of the Delta variant in depth, there is reason to suspect that its immunosuppressive capabilities are heightened compared to previous, less infectious variants. Even single point mutations in various genes are enough to substantiate change, the consequences of which have affected the development of influenza vaccines and hepatitis C drugs.
Lesson 3. We need to reevaluate our timeline and approach to pandemic control in light of what we know about new SARS-CoV-2 variants.
Taking these new findings into consideration, what is the bottom line for the future of pandemic control?
A report recently released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), an independent body of experts that advises the UK government in times of crisis, outlined four potential scenarios that can help frame our expectations for the future, as well as corresponding action items. They are as follows:
Scenario One: A variant that causes severe disease in a greater proportion of the population than has occurred to date. For example, with similar morbidity/mortality to other zoonotic coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV (~10% case fatality) or MERS-CoV (~35% case fatality).
Scenario Two: A variant that evades current vaccines.
Scenario Three: Emergence of a drug resistant variant after antiviral strategies.
Scenario Four: SARS-CoV-2 follows an evolutionary trajectory with decreased virulence.
To gain a deeper understanding of the paths laid out before us, we must first examine how a variant emerges and becomes dominant in a given population. The evolutionary potential of a virus is comparable to the computational power of machine intelligence. It doesn’t evolve by choice or design, but by generating random combinations of mutations until one rises above the rest as superior. Viruses aren’t the sole catalysts of this process, however. Ultimately the behavior of humans, as the SAGE report points out, is what changes the behavior of a virus like SARS-CoV-2. Over the course of the pandemic we’ve abandoned our previous way of life and gone to great lengths to protect ourselves from harm. Only variants that overcome the myriad obstacles we put in their way—including masks, vaccines, drugs, and basic prevention measures like social distancing—stand a chance of surviving.
Three specific enhancements, none mutually exclusive and all already documented, can improve the survival prospects of current and future SARS-CoV-2 variants. I described them independently of one another in the sections above but will summarize the sum total of their effects here.
The first is an increase in the speed and volume of replication activity. If higher concentrations of virus are produced in and released through our nasal passages, it makes logical sense they might reach a larger number of hosts.
The second is an increase in stability. The more stable the virus particle, the longer it can retain structural integrity and remain infectious.
Last but not least is an increase in avidity. The latest crop of variants has mutated from the original strain to stick tighter and longer to the surfaces of our cells—a trend that has potential to continue if, as in lab experiments, the avidity of the virus has an upper limit 600-fold greater than that of the original strain.
Scenario Five: Increased immune suppression
There is a possibility that the Delta variant represents the worst SARS-CoV-2 has to offer. But according to the SAGE report, this version of events—in which virulence decreases from here on out—remains unlikely, at least in the short term. That we’re only at the beginning of the variant taxonomical alphabet goes to show how much variation might occur before the tail end of this trajectory is in sight. Adding to the uncertainty is the epidemiological data we have on brutal COVID-19 surges that overwhelmed cities in India and Brazil. Despite the fact that their populations already had extensive exposure to the virus previously—in the case of Manaus, Brazil, enough to push past the theoretical threshold of herd immunity—they still suffered from high rates of hospitalization and death. Given that the Gamma variant originated in Brazil and the Delta variant in India, it is only fair to speculate that conditions in both places were ripe for the emergence of a variant that existing antibodies couldn’t neutralize.
There will likely be more variants to watch out for in the coming months. Currently on our radar are the Lambda variant, MU, prevalent in South America, and C.1.2 from South Africa. Sewer sleuths report the discovery of multiple novel, yet functional mutations in genomes exacted from treatment plants. Some of these variants encode changes that elude neutralization by sera of both those vaccinated or naturally infected as well as from approved monoclonal antibody treatments.
The current generation of COVID-19 vaccines is certainly preventing a reiteration of these catastrophic events in countries that have access to them, but their initial rollout has only gone so far. Even in a country like the US, where half the nation is fully vaccinated and 64 percent have received at least one dose, there are enough cracks in our collective defenses for SARS-CoV-2 to experiment with new recipes for increased infectivity and, by a stroke of our bad luck, crack the code for increased virulence, too. The SAGE report scenario in which SARS-CoV-2 evolves to become deadlier, killing one in 10 like SARS-CoV or even one in three like MERS-CoV, cites point mutations and recombination events as possible catalysts for this transformation. Such phenomena can come down to a shift as small as a single amino acid. Unless we act now to patch up the holes it might emerge from, who’s to say it won’t happen tomorrow?
In addition to the four SAGE scenarios, I would like to propose a fifth. Since the primary means by which SARS-CoV-2 entrenches itself among humans appears to be immune evasion and suppression, I could anticipate a turn of events in which SARS-CoV-2 becomes not just more adept at evading vaccines and drugs, but the immune system writ large. In this scenario, the period of asymptomatic transmission and duration of infectivity would be longer; the amount of virus produced, higher; and our defenses against the virus, fundamentally indisposed to neutralize it. This includes, of course, vaccines.
Effects on vaccines
Four components predict the effectiveness of vaccine protection. The first is how well the vaccine works against the original strain. Second, how long protection lasts. Third, how well it protects against variants. And fourth, individual variation determined by age, preexisting conditions, and so on. Of these four variables, the one we can control least is the duration of protection. But if what we’ve learned since January is any indication, it might also be our greatest cause for concern. However capable we may be of designing new vaccines that combat viral variation, there is only so much they can do if they can’t withstand the test of time.
We now know two things about the duration of vaccine-mediated immune protection that before, we could only suspect. First, the antibody concentrations elicited by vaccines wane over time; and second, SARS-CoV-2 has become increasingly adept at evading them. We can’t predict with precision how thorough their capacity for immune evasion may become, but if the virus goes the way of influenza and cold viruses, it could be disastrous—for the elderly and other clinically vulnerable populations especially. Already studies show that for individuals over the age of 60, the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine against the Delta variant—the best we have, along with Moderna’s—drops to 16 percent after just 10 weeks. Vaccines that fail to protect high-risk groups simply won’t cut it. As long as one population is susceptible to disease and death, we all are.
Recent data shows a third dose of existing vaccines, or adding one or more doses to vaccines approved as a single dose, will provide additional protection as the titer of neutralizing antibodies against both the original virus and the variants tested exceeds that of the original vaccination. Unknown is how long the additional protection will last and how effective it will be against new and emerging variants.
To combat a virus so proficient at adaptation, we need to bulk up and shore up our containment methods accordingly. Only one viable option exists for long-term disease control: a strategy that combines longer-lasting and broadly protective vaccines with antiviral drugs, rigorous public health measures, and sustained cooperation between governments, scientists, drugmakers, and health agencies. I call the sum total of these many layers of defense multimodal therapy. It requires no shortage of effort, funds, and coordination, but such lengths constitute the bare minimum of what it takes to beat SARS-CoV-2 at its own evolutionary game.
Four layers of defense in total make up multimodal therapy. The first layer consists of COVID-19 vaccines—not just the ones we presently have on hand, but second and third generations and booster shots that protect against the variants and possibly even coronaviruses more broadly.
Antiviral drugs and prophylactics—drugs that prevent infection rather than treat it—form the second layer. Current COVID-19 treatments are experimental, high-cost, and limited in use to intravenous administration in clinical settings. Developing orally ingestible drugs that come in pill form would be of tremendous help in long-term care centers, schools, businesses, and other hermetic environments where infection spreads and must be contained quickly.
The third ring of defense comes from public health measures that curb spread on the national and population level, including widespread testing, exhaustive contact tracing, mandatory isolation, tight border controls, and quarantines for new arrivals. Such policies have had demonstrable success in countries like Australia, China, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan. While not every nation currently has the infrastructure necessary for comprehensive testing, tracing, and quarantine programs, they should all work to build them.
But the first three layers of protection are only as good as the fourth and outermost ring: international cooperation. The international community needs to band together and invest in global disease surveillance, sequencing, and data-sharing. With this collective hub of information, scientists, researchers, and pharmaceutical researchers the world over must also combine expertise to determine how vaccines and treatments must be modulated in the face of new variants. Such an infrastructure would increase pandemic preparedness for decades to come.
For nearly two years COVID-19 has lived among us, and the new variants promise it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If we take what we’ve learned and use it to develop and implement long-lasting countermeasures against this virus and all to come, we will emerge from the current pandemic weary and battle-scarred, but stronger, wiser, and more resilient than before. The virus will only continue to adapt. The question becomes whether we can, too.
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US Sent Billions in Funding to China, Russia For Cat Experiments, Wuhan Lab Research: Ernst
US Sent Billions in Funding to China, Russia For Cat Experiments, Wuhan Lab Research: Ernst
Authored by Mark Tapscott via The Epoch Times…
Authored by Mark Tapscott via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),
Hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars went to recipients in China and Russia in recent years without being properly tracked by the federal government, including a grant that enabled a state-run Russian lab to test cats on treadmills, according to Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).
Ernst and her staff investigators, working with auditors at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Congressional Research Service, as well as two nonprofit Washington watchdogs—Open The Books (OTB) and the White Coat Waste Project (WCWP)—discovered dozens of other grants that weren’t counted on the federal government’s USASpending.gov internet database.
While the total value of the uncounted grants found by the Ernst team is $1.3 billion, that amount is just the tip of the iceberg, the GAO reported.
Among the newly discovered grants is $4.2 million to China’s infamous Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) “to conduct dangerous experiments on bat coronaviruses and transgenic mice,” according to a May 31 Ernst statement provided to The Epoch Times.
The $4.2 million exposed by Ernst is in addition to previously reported funding to the WIV for extensive gain-of-function research by Chinese scientists, much of it funded in whole or part prior to the COVID-19 pandemic by National Institutes for Health (NIH) grants channeled through the EcoHealth Alliance medical research nonprofit.
The NIH has awarded seven grants totaling more than $4.1 million to EcoHealth to study various aspects of SARS, MERS, and other coronavirus diseases.
Buying Chinese Puppy Parts
As part of another U.S.-funded grant, hearts and other organs from 425 dogs in China were purchased for medical research.
“These countryside dogs in China are part of the farmer’s household; they were mainly used for guarding. Their diet includes boiled rice, discarded raw food animal tissues, and whatever dogs can forage. These dogs were sold for food,” an NIH study uncovered by the Ernst researchers reads.
Other previously unreported grants exposed by the Ernst team include $1.6 million to Chinese companies from the federal government’s National School Lunch Program and $4.7 million for health insurance from a Russian company that was sanctioned by the United States in 2022 as a result of the invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s gravely concerning that Washington’s reckless spending has reached the point where nobody really knows where all tax dollars are going,” Ernst separately told The Epoch Times. “But I have the receipts, and I’m shining a light on this, so bureaucrats can no longer cover up their tracks, and taxpayers can know exactly what their hard-earned dollars are funding.”
The problem is that federal officials don’t rigorously track sub-awards made by initial grant recipients, according to the Iowa Republican. Such sub-awards are covered by a multitude of federal regulations that stipulate many conditions to ensure that the tax dollars are appropriately spent.
The GAO said in an April report that “limitations in sub-award data is a government-wide issue and not unique to U.S. funding to entities in China.”
“GAO is currently examining the state of federal government-wide sub-award data as part of a separate review,” the report reads.
The Eco-Health sub-awards to WIV illustrate the problem.
“Despite being required by law to make these receipts available to the public on the USAspending.gov website, EcoHealth tried to cover its tracks by intentionally not disclosing the amounts of taxpayer money being paid to WIV, which went unnoticed for years,” Ernst said in the statement.
“I was able to determine that more than $490 million of taxpayer money was paid to organizations in China [in] the last five years. That’s ten times more than GAO’s estimate! Over $870 million was paid to entities in Russia during the same period!
“Together that adds up to more than $1.3 billion paid to our adversaries. But again, these numbers still do not represent the total dollar amounts paid to institutions in China or Russia since those numbers are not tracked and the information that is being collected is incomplete.”
Adam Andrzejewski, founder and chairman of OTB, told The Epoch Times, “When following the money at the state and local level, the real corruption exists in the subcontractor payments. At the federal level, the existing system doesn’t even track many of those recipients.
“Without better reporting, agencies and appropriators don’t truly understand how tax dollars were used. We now know that taxpayer dollars are traded further downstream than originally realized with third- and fourth-tier recipients. These transactions need scrutiny. Requiring recipients to account for where and how they actually spend each dollar creates a record far better than agencies are capable of generating.”
Read more here...
COVID-19 Testing Resumes In Beijing, Shandong, As Reinfection Cases Surge
COVID-19 Testing Resumes In Beijing, Shandong, As Reinfection Cases Surge
Authored by Alex Wu via The Epoch Times,
China has resumed COVID-19…
Authored by Alex Wu via The Epoch Times,
China has resumed COVID-19 PCR testing in Beijing and Shandong Province amid rising re-infections, while the regime’s top health advisers have warned of a new wave of mass infections.
Since May 29, mainland netizens have posted on Chinese social media platforms that PCR test kiosks in Beijing are quietly back in business.
Mainland media “City Interactive,” a subsidiary of Zhejiang “City Express,” reported on May 30 that one of the PCR testing booths that netizens posted about was in Beijing’s Xicheng District, where the central government and the Beijing municipal government are located.
The staff of that testing kiosk said that the PCR test there has never stopped, reported “City Interactive”, without being clear how long it had been open.
“We have been doing nucleic acid testing in Xicheng District, but I’m not sure about other districts in Beijing,” a staff member said.
The staff member said the laboratory she works for is mainly responsible for nucleic acid testing within Xicheng District. Currently, there are more than ten testing points outdoors, and one person is on duty for each booth from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Residents get swabbed during mass COVID-19 testing in the Chaoyang District in Beijing on June 14, 2022. (Andy Wong/AP Photo)
A testing kiosk in Chaoyang District, Beijing’s central business district, has been operating since March, reported “City Interactive.” The testing booth staff said it is in the health center near Jinsong Middle Street.
Ms. Wang, a Beijing resident, told The Epoch Times on May 28 that some people have taken the PRC test while others have chosen not to.
She said many people around her, including her child, have already re-infected twice.
“This time, the symptoms seem to include a high fever and then sore throat, very painful,” she said.
“Most people are just resting at home now. Seeing a doctor is very expensive, and now many medicines are paid for by ourselves.”
Gao Yu, a former senior media person in Beijing, confirmed what Wang said. She told The Epoch Times that the relatives around her have been re-infected two or three times, and most are just resting it off at home.
Shandong Resumes Testing
PCR testing booths in Qingdao City, Shandong Province, have also reopened.
A “Peninsula Metropolis Daily” report included a screenshot of an online notice posted by the Laoshan District Health Bureau in Qingdao, which announced that from May 29, the district will conduct COVID-19 PCR testing for “all people who are willing.”
It also listed the working hours of the testing sites, from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm, seven days a week.
Another mainland Chinese media, “Xinmin Evening News,” reported on May 31 that the staff in the district bureau confirmed that the testing has resumed and is for free.
Zhong Nanshan, China’s top respiratory disease specialist, predicted on May 22 that a new wave of COVID-19 infections in China will likely peak in late June when weekly cases could reach 65 million. Then, one Omicron-infected patient will be able to infect more than 30 people, Zhong said, adding that the infection is difficult to prevent.
A security personnel in a protective suit keeps watch as medical workers attend to patients at the fever department of Tongji Hospital, a major facility for COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, Jan. 1, 2023. (Staff/Reuters)
Chinese citizens across the country have said on social media that infections have been swelling since March.
Zhong also said there had been a small peak in infections at the end of April and early May.
Most COVID-19 infections in mainland China are currently caused by the XBB series mutant strains of Omicron. Among the locally transmitted cases, the percentage of XBB series variants increased to 83.6 percent in early May from 0.2 percent in February.
Zhang Wenhong, China’s top virologist and director of China’s National Center for Infectious Diseases, also warned in late April at a conference that COVID-19 infections would reoccur after six months when immunity gained from prior infections has worn out.
Florida ‘freakishness’: why the sunshine state might have lost its appeal
Florida’s image as a safe sun and theme park destination may be threatened by recent political divisions and gun crime.
Florida is known worldwide for its beaches, resorts and theme parks, but has recently made headlines for a different reason. The state has been rocked by political controversies, bitter debates and fatal shootings at odds with its previously laid back holiday destination image.
In his 1947 book, Inside USA, writer John Gunther described Florida’s “freakishness in everything from architecture to social behaviour unmatched in any American state”. If Gunther had been writing today, he might be just as judgemental.
Florida’s recent political turmoil can be attributed to some highly contentious policies. The state has witnessed heated debates and legislative battles on issues including abortion, gun control, education, LGBTQ+ rights and voting rights.
Florida has been derided as “the worst state” in which to live, one of the worst in which to be unemployed or a student, and not a good place to die.
Even Donald Trump, who moved to his Florida Mar-a-Lago home during his presidency, has called it “among the worst states” to live in or retire to. This was an attack on Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who is also running for the Republican presidential nomination.
What was once considered by many to be a purple state – one that could either be Republican or Democrat – is now fiercely Republican. In recent years, the divide between those of different political beliefs has become toxic.
Importance of international image
International tourism and trade is huge business for Florida. In 2022, more than 1.1 million people visited Florida from the UK, the second largest group of international visitors on an annual basis. The UK is also Florida’s eighth largest trade partner with bilateral trade reaching $5.8 billion (£4.6 billion) in 2022. So state leaders might worry about tarnishing its image abroad.
Business leaders are already fretting about a fall in international visitor numbers linked to COVID and negative media coverage of the state. Around US$50 million was invested in marketing the state to tourists in 2023, this is expected to rise dramatically in 2024. The state’s ability to attract workers to keep its tourism and other industries going is weakening, reports suggest.
Heather DiGiacomo, chief of staff at the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, told Florida senators that applications for jobs at state-run agencies were down and staff retention was down too. “These turnover rates … impacts the number of well-trained staff available to mentor new staff and puts additional strain on current staff without longer shifts in detention.”
Republican governor Ron DeSantis, now a presidential candidate, has been at the centre of Florida’s significant political divisions. The Republican state legislature’s controversial partisan bills, such as the recent redrawing of the electoral map to benefit the Republican party, was signed into law despite intense opposition.
While his conservative policies on taxes, regulation and immigration have won strong support from conservatives, critics argue that he prioritises partisan politics over the needs of all Floridians. His outspoken handling of the COVID pandemic sparked controversy, with accusations of downplaying the severity of the virus and prioritising economic interests.
Florida’s restrictive abortion laws have also attracted national and international attention. In April 2023, the state passed the foetal heartbeat bill, which prohibits abortions once a foetal heartbeat is detected, typically at around six weeks gestation. This law has faced significant backlash from reproductive rights advocates, who argue that many individuals may not even be aware of their pregnancy at such an early stage.
School shootings and gun laws
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act was passed into Florida state law after the tragic Parkland school shooting in 2018, in which 17 people were killed. But it was controversial because it did not place restrictions on gun ownership or introduce background checks before gun purchases, but allowed schools to employ armed “guardians”. Critics argued that it fell short of addressing the root causes of gun violence in Florida.
There were seven mass shootings in Florida in the first two months of 2023. Despite this, the state has just passed a law that will come into effect on July 1 that will allow anyone who can legally own a gun in Florida to carry one without the need for a permit.
Florida’s partisan divide has been exacerbated by the introduction and passage of several laws that discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. These laws cover areas including adoption, education, and transgender rights.
This year a massive LGBTQ event in a Florida theme park, which typically attracts 150,000 people, is taking out extra security measures, after new “don’t say gay” state laws were introduced in 2022. These rules ban teachers from discussing topics including sexual orientation. More generally, travel advisory warnings have been issued on the risks of travel to the state for LGBTQ+, African American and Latino people. A recent federal ruling overturned municipal bans on conversion therapy.
Although the “don’t say gay” bill was originally only aimed at third grade students and under, the bill has since been extended by Florida’s Board of Education to apply to all school pupils.
DeSantis has also become embroiled in a long legal and political battle with the Walt Disney Company, a major state employer, over the “don’t say gay” legislation. Disney recently announced it was cancelling a US$1 billion office complex project in the state.
Bills that restrict transgender students’ participation in school sports teams consistent with their gender identity have also sparked heated debate.
Meanwhile, changes in voting laws brought in by the state, including stricter identification requirements and limitations on the drop boxes where voters can leave mail-in ballots, have been criticised for making it more difficult for some people to vote.
Florida’s recent political turmoil has thrust the state into the national, and global, spotlight. Its deeply partisan divide, controversial policies and gun laws have created a toxic political climate, which has the ability to significantly damage the sunshine state’s appeal.
Dafydd Townley does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.trump governor pandemic therapy uk
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