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Wildlife trade poses health threats to humans, but Chinese wildlife farms are profiting

In China, the wildlife trade is thriving, driven by the increased demands for luxury goods and traditional medicine. But there is real concern about the threat of diseases that can cross over to humans.

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White raccoon dogs are prized for their unusual fur. (Shutterstock)

In November 2021, scientists from various disciplines published a “warning to humanity” on wildlife trade because of the risk of “diseases transmitted from wildlife to humans.”

As COVID-19 swept across China last year, the Beijing government closed the live-animal sections of numerous markets and shut down 20,000 wildlife farms across the country. Unknown to the outside world, however, three-quarters of the sector’s value comes from breeding animals for fur, traditional medicine and entertainment purposes. Many of those wildlife farms are still in business.

These wildlife farms have become a focal point in the search for the origins of COVID-19, and a touchy issue for the Chinese — so much so that Beijing barred researchers, who were part of a mission organized by the World Health Organization (WHO), from visiting wildlife farms and bat caves in southern China.


Read more: Coronavirus has finally made us recognise the illegal wildlife trade is a public health issue


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In late 2020, researchers at the Belgium-based Humane Society International (HSI) visited 13 fur farms across China. The researchers found that not only were animals still being killed, but that no measures were being taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19:

“The fur farms we visited did not follow health and safety regulations,” says Wendy Higgins, director of international media at HSI. “Epidemic control rules were breached and our investigators were welcomed to the farms without having to follow basic biosecurity measures like disinfection stations at entry and exit points, wearing safety clothing, and having a quarantine area for ill animals,” says Higgins.

In March 2021, the WHO concluded that the novel coronavirus was most likely transmitted to humans through an “intermediary” rather than through direct infection by bats, packaged food or a laboratory accident.

The WHO researchers identified mink, civets and raccoon dogs as possible “intermediary host species,” with mink being “highly susceptible” to COVID-19. While the focus so far has been on the risk posed by humans consuming meat from these animals, the WHO report notes that direct contact with infected animals or their body waste can also spread the virus.


Read more: Origin of the Covid-19 virus: the trail of mink farming


Livestock or wildlife?

Concerns about these animals’ role in spreading COVID-19 have been fuelled by outbreaks at 431 mink fur farms across Europe and North America.

Denmark and Poland, the world’s top two fur-producing countries after China, have temporarily banned mink farming because of COVID-19 concerns. British Columbia will phase out mink farming by 2025, and France recently banned mink farming.

B.C. plans to end mink farming by 2025.

China farmed an estimated 14 million foxes, 13.5 million raccoon dogs and 11.6 million mink in 2019. But rather than ban fur farming, the Chinese government classified mink, foxes and raccoons as livestock, explicitly excluding them from the wildlife ban.

“Virologists are concerned the virus can lay dormant at fur farms. The virus is capable of mutating so as we develop vaccines, new variants can emerge that are resistant. To leave such a potential threat untouched, just to boost the world of fashion, seems a far too great risk,” says Higgins.

In May 2020, Chinese authorities offered buyouts to farmers who raise wildlife for food, but the same incentive was not offered to fur farmers. Recent data is hard to come by, but in 2016, fur farming was valued at an estimated 389 billion Chinese yuan (US$55 billion), as opposed to only 125 billion yuan (US$17 billion) for wildlife food production.

Luxury and profits

As a result of the closure of fur farms in other parts of the world, Chinese producers experienced a price hike of 30 per cent in December 2020.

Wildlife is considered a luxury product affordable only to a small but growing segment of consumers. A World Wildlife Fund survey found that in China, 10 per cent of respondents had purchased wild animals at an open market in 2019.

Worryingly, scientists found that banning wildlife markets has “not discouraged online wildlife trade.”

Besides food and fur, wild animal parts are also used in traditional Chinese medicine, a growing market actively promoted by the government. Chinese consumers were expected to spend US$420 billion annually on these items by the end of 2020.

older women sit in front of a window display of a traditional Chinese medicine shop
A group of women sit in front of a window display of a traditional Chinese medicine shop. The growing demand for traditional Chinese medicine has fed the legal and illegal trade in exotic animal parts. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

China legalized the use of rhino horn and tiger bone in traditional medicine in 2018. It went further last year with a law criminalizing any public criticism of traditional medicine. More recently, the government started promoting the use of traditional medicine to cure COVID-19 without any evidence to that effect.

Mitigation and policy

The government’s policy towards wildlife farming echoes its actions during the SARS outbreak in 2003. It initially shut down wildlife markets when the disease was traced to animals, but after two years, enforcement “lessened as the wildlife trade industry lobbied against it and pointed out the economic and job contributions to the country.”

The WHO continues its search for the definitive origin of COVID-19. It recently announced the formation of a scientific advisory group to further the investigation, and has recommended conducting “targeted surveys of fur farms” as one line of inquiry.

Despite close encounters with Ebola, SARS-CoV-1, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and H1N1, and decades of warnings from infectious diseases specialists, stricter regulation and additional mitigation strategies are needed.

Anrike Visser 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.

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UBC researchers discover ‘weak spot’ across major COVID-19 variants

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have discovered a key vulnerability across all major variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including the…

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Researchers at the University of British Columbia have discovered a key vulnerability across all major variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including the recently emerged BA.1 and BA.2 Omicron subvariants.

Credit: Dr. Sriram Subramaniam, UBC

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have discovered a key vulnerability across all major variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including the recently emerged BA.1 and BA.2 Omicron subvariants.

The weakness can be targeted by neutralizing antibodies, potentially paving the way for treatments that would be universally effective across variants.

The findings, published today in Nature Communications, use cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to reveal the atomic-level structure of the vulnerable spot on the virus’ spike protein, known as an epitope. The paper further describes an antibody fragment called VH Ab6 that is able to attach to this site and neutralize each major variant. 

“This is a highly adaptable virus that has evolved to evade most existing antibody treatments, as well as much of the immunity conferred by vaccines and natural infection,” says Dr. Sriram Subramaniam (he/him), a professor at UBC’s faculty of medicine and the study’s senior author. “This study reveals a weak spot that is largely unchanged across variants and can be neutralized by an antibody fragment. It sets the stage for the design of pan-variant treatments that could potentially help a lot of vulnerable people.”

Identifying COVID-19 master keys

Antibodies are naturally produced by our bodies to fight infection, but can also be made in a laboratory and administered to patients as a treatment. While several antibody treatments have been developed for COVID-19, their effectiveness has waned in the face of highly-mutated variants like Omicron.

“Antibodies attach to a virus in a very specific manner, like a key going into a lock. But when the virus mutates, the key no longer fits,” says Dr. Subramaniam. “We’ve been looking for master keys — antibodies that continue to neutralize the virus even after extensive mutations.”

The ‘master key’ identified in this new paper is the antibody fragment VH Ab6, which was shown to be effective against the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Kappa, Epsilon and Omicron variants. The fragment neutralizes SARS-CoV-2 by attaching to the epitope on the spike protein and blocking the virus from entering human cells.

The discovery is the latest from a longstanding and productive collaboration between Dr. Subramaniam’s team at UBC and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, led by Drs. Mitko Dimitrov and Wei Li. The team in Pittsburgh has been screening large antibody libraries and testing their effectiveness against COVID-19, while the UBC team has been using cryo-EM to study the molecular structure and characteristics of the spike protein.

Focusing in on COVID-19’s weak points

The UBC team is world-renowned for its expertise in using cryo-EM to visualize protein-protein and protein-antibody interactions at an atomic resolution. In another paper published earlier this year in Science, they were the first to report the structure of the contact zone between the Omicron spike protein and the human cell receptor ACE2, providing a molecular explanation for Omicron’s enhanced viral fitness.

By mapping the molecular structure of each spike protein, the team has been searching for areas of vulnerability that could inform new treatments.

“The epitope we describe in this paper is mostly removed from the hot spots for mutations, which is why it’s capabilities are preserved across variants,” says Dr. Subramaniam. “Now that we’ve described the structure of this site in detail, it unlocks a whole new realm of treatment possibilities.”

Dr. Subramaniam says this key vulnerability can now be exploited by drug makers, and because the site is relatively mutation-free, the resulting treatments could be effective against existing—and even future—variants.

“We now have a very clear picture of this vulnerable spot on the virus. We know every interaction the spike protein makes with the antibody at this site. We can work backwards from this, using intelligent design, to develop a slew of antibody treatments,” says Dr. Subramaniam. “Having broadly effective, variant-resistant treatments would be a game changer in the ongoing fight against COVID-19.”


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German Official Trashes Cost Of Living Protesters As “Enemies Of The State”

German Official Trashes Cost Of Living Protesters As "Enemies Of The State"

Authored by Paul Joseph Watson via Summit News,

A top German…

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German Official Trashes Cost Of Living Protesters As "Enemies Of The State"

Authored by Paul Joseph Watson via Summit News,

A top German official has trashed people who may be planning to protest against energy blackouts as “enemies of the state” and “extremists” who want to overthrow the government.

The interior minister of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Herbert Reul (CDU), says that anti-mandatory vaxx and anti-lockdown demonstrators have found a new cause – the energy crisis.

In an interview with German news outlet NT, Reul revealed that German security services were keeping an eye on “extremists” who plan to infiltrate the protests and stage violence, with the unrest being planned via the Telegram messenger app, which German authorities have previously tried to ban.

“You can already tell from those who are out there,” said Reul. “The protesters no longer talk about coronavirus or vaccination. But they are now misusing people’s worries and fears in other fields. (…) It’s almost something like new enemies of the state that are establishing themselves.”

Despite the very real threat of potential blackouts, power grid failures and gas shortages, Reul claimed such issues were feeding “conspiracy theory narratives.”

However, it’s no “conspiracy theory” that Germans across the country have been panic buying stoves, firewood and electric heaters as the government tells them thermostats will be limited to 19C in public buildings and that sports arenas and exhibition halls will be used as ‘warm up spaces’ this winter to help freezing citizens who are unable to afford skyrocketing energy bills.

As Remix News reports, blaming right-wing conspiracy theorists for a crisis caused by Germany’s sanctions on Russia and is suicidal dependence on green energy is pretty rich.

“Reul, like the country’s federal interior minister, Nancy Faeser, is attempting to tie right-wing ideology and protests against Covid-19 policies to any potential protests in the winter.”

“While some on the right, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), have stressed that the government’s sanctions against Russia are the primary factor driving the current energy crisis, they have not advocated an “overthrow” of the government. Instead, they have stressed the need to restart the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, end energy sanctions against Russia, and push for a peaceful solution to end the war.”

Indeed, energy shortages and the cost of living crisis are issues that are of major concern to everyone, no matter where they are on the political spectrum.

To claim that people worried about heating their homes and putting food on the table this winter are all “enemies of the state” is an utter outrage.

As we highlighted last week, the president of the Thuringian Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Stephan Kramer, said energy crisis riots would make anti-lockdown unrest look like a “children’s birthday party.”

“Mass protests and riots are just as conceivable as concrete acts of violence against things and people, as well as classic terrorism to overthrow it,” Kramer told ZDF.

*  *  *

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Tyler Durden Thu, 08/18/2022 - 03:30

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Las Vegas Strip Gets a Brand New Technology

It’s not just Caesars and MGM innovating on the Strip. A number of other companies are trying big idea.

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It's not just Caesars and MGM innovating on the Strip. A number of other companies are trying big idea.

Las Vegas has quietly become a hotbed for innovation. Some of that has been driven by the major casino operators -- Caesars Entertainment (CZR) - Get Caesars Entertainment Inc. Report, MGM Resorts International (MGM) - Get MGM Resorts International Report, Resorts World Las Vegas, and Wynn Resorts (WYNN) - Get Wynn Resorts Limited Report -- trying to outdo each other to win over customers.

Some innovations are ostentatious and hard to miss, like the MSG (MSGE) - Get Madison Square Garden Entertainment Corp. Class A Report Sphere being built at the Venetian. That first-of-its-kind concert venue looks as if it dropped to Earth from a technologically advanced civilization, and it has raised the bar for performance venues.

Many innovations, however, aren't as obvious. Caesars, for example, uses an artificial intelligence text-based concierge that's surprisingly effective. "Ivy," as it goes by, can answer questions, help with mundane tasks like getting clean towels delivered, or advance your issue to a human where needed.

Innovations big and small are happening up, down, and under the Las Vegas Strip. Elon Musk's Boring Co. has been building a network of tunnels under the city that will eventually use driverless Tesla  (TSLA) - Get Tesla Inc. Report electric vehicles to ferry people all over the city. 

That's a revolutionary idea -- but now a rival has emerged.  

Image source: Daniel Kline/TheStreet

Musk Goes Low, Lyft Goes High?

Musk's Boring Co. has a bold plan for more than 50 stations connecting the Las Vegas Strip to the airport, the Convention Center, Allegiant Stadium, and Fremont Street using driverless Teslas. 

Currently, only a small portion of that network has been built -- a section connecting the two halves of the Las Vegas Convention Center (and one connecting Resorts World Las Vegas to that same location.

For Musk and Boring Co., it's all about taking traffic off the city's busy streets and bringing it underground.

"During typical peak hours, driving from the Las Vegas Convention Center to Mandalay Bay, for example, can take up to 30 minutes. The same trip on Vegas Loop will take approximately 3 minutes," the company says on its website.

If Musk's plan is fully built, it'll effectively give Las Vegas a modern subway, helping alleviate road congestion. It will not, however, stop tourists from using ride-share and taxi cabs.

Now, ride-share company Lyft  (LYFT) - Get Lyft Inc. Report has brought a solution to Sin City that may ultimately help it solve another problem: a shortage of taxi and ride-share drivers. 

Lyft Brings Driverless Cars (Sort of) to Las Vegas

Labor in Las Vegas has been in short supply since the pandemic hit. Some people left the city and others found work outside the service-industry jobs that fuel the Las Vegas economy. At times, that has made the wait for a cab, or a ride-share from Uber (UBER) - Get Uber Technologies Inc. Report and Lyft, longer than usual.

Lyft plans to fix that by partnering with Motional to bring Motional's "Ioniq-5-based robotaxi, an autonomous vehicle designed for fully driverless ride-hail operation, to the Lyft network in Las Vegas," the ride-share company shared in a news release.

The Ioniq 5 is Hyundai's  (HYMTF)  prominent EV. Motional is the Boston joint venture between Hyundai and automotive-technology specialist Aptiv.  (APTV) - Get Aptiv PLC Report

"Launching Motional’s all-electric Ioniq 5 on Lyft’s network in Las Vegas represents tremendous progress in our vision to make an electric, autonomous, and shared future a reality for people everywhere," said  Lyft CEO Logan Green.

It's Self-Driving Lyfts, But...

There is, however, a pretty big catch.

"Each vehicle arrives with not one but two backup drivers standing by to take control of the car should anything go wrong" Casino.org's Corey Levitan reported.

Lyft has promised a truly driverless system at some point in 2023, but current laws and the state of driverless technology make the backups necessary.

Motional and Lyft have quietly been testing driverless vehicles in Las Vegas since 2018. In the news release, Lyft explained how the system works.

"This means riders are able to easily control their ride without assistance from a driver. The enhanced experience includes unlocking the doors through the Lyft app and starting the ride or contacting customer support from the new in-car Lyft AV app, an intuitive in-ride display tailored to autonomous ride-sharing," the company said.

Lyft and Boring Co. are not working together. But if Musk's plan takes vehicles off Las Vegas's streets, the new program makes the experience better for any that remain. 

Ride sharing and taxis will continue to cost significantly more than using Boring Co's subway-like system, so it's easy to see how the two options will work well together.   .

 

  

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