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US scientist says he overstated Wuhan lab-leak ‘smoking gun’

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A Nobel prize-winning US biologist, who has been widely quoted describing a “smoking gun” to support the thesis that Covid-19 was genetically modified and escaped from a Wuhan lab, has said he overstated the case.

David Baltimore, a distinguished biology professor, had become one of the most prominent figures cited by proponents of the so-called lab leak theory.

Originally quoted in an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in May, and widely requoted since, Baltimore had appeared to suggest that a specific feature in Covid-19’s genome, known as the furin cleavage site, was the “smoking gun” to the theory the virus had been contained inside a laboratory and then escaped via a leak.

“These features make a powerful challenge to the idea of a natural origin for Sars2,” he said at the time.

In recent days, however, Prof Baltimore has told a fellow researcher, the scientific journal Nature and the LA Times that – while he had been quoted accurately in the bulletin – he should not have used the phrase “smoking gun” and was uncertain what the feature proved regarding the origins of the virus – natural or otherwise.

In an email exchange with the Los Angeles Times, Prof Baltimore conceded he had overstated the case and that he had an open mind on the matter.

“[I] should have softened the phrase ‘smoking gun’ because I don’t believe that it proves the origin of the furin cleavage site but it does sound that way.

“I believe that the question of whether the sequence was put in naturally or by molecular manipulation is very hard to determine but I wouldn’t rule out either origin.”

Prof Baltimore also clarified his stance in an exchange with Nature, saying: “There are other possibilities and they need careful consideration, which is all I meant to be saying.”

Resurgence of interest

Given his considerable reputation, Prof Baltimore’s dramatic “smoking gun” quote in early May had driven a lot of the recent resurgence of interest in the Wuhan lab leak theory in tandem with renewed reporting of unverified intelligence claims that three staff at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalised in November 2019 with symptoms consistent either with Covid-19 or seasonal flu.

That in turn led the US president, Joe Biden, to order intelligence agencies to report back in 90 days on what was known about the origins of the virus, amid calls from the World Health Organisation to “depoliticise” the debate around how Covid-19 first infected humans.

Mr Biden’s call is set to be underlined in a joint statement by the US and the EU which is expected to call for “progress on a transparent, evidence-based, and expert-led WHO-convened phase 2 study on the origins of Covid-19, that is free from interference”.

In the midst of the renewed controversy, one of the key scientific debates has drilled down into whether the virus’s furin cleavage site is so novel that it occurred through human manipulation rather than evolving naturally.

Supporting the latter theory, some scientists point out that the same feature occurs in other common coronaviruses including ones that cause colds and that it appears intermittently in the family tree of coronaviruses.

Prof Baltimore’s clarification came as he was also challenged in Nature on another of his claims relating to Covid-19, that the coding of a segment found in the furin cleavage site was not usually found in viruses, with a fellow scientist pointing out the same coding was also a feature of the Sars virus. – Guardian

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Six Great Russian-Language Films on YouTube

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Are you resisting the urge to set fire to historic structures in downtown Moscow? Are you still stinging from your foray into the world of self-mutilation as protest?

You may be suffering from Poser Rip-Off Artistic Tourette’s (also known as PRAT). Fortunately, for sufferers of PRAT, there is help for your frustrated artistic urges. I’ve compiled a list of some great Russian-Language films available for viewing on the interwebz (with English subs) in their entirety. All of these films are excellent listening practice for those who are learning Russian, or for anyone who wants to immerse themselves in Russian culture and art offerings sans the need for antibiotics.

<figcaption>This one time at band camp...</figcaption>
This one time at band camp…

Enjoy!

Admiral (Адмиралъ)

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Downton Abbey what?

For those who like their foreign films with a side of war footage and people sobbing in corsets, I highly recommend Admiral. Taking place during World War I and the October Revolution, and based on real events, Admiral details the tragic love story between the married Aleksandr Kolchak, and the lovely and equally married Russian poet Anna Timiryova. Comparisons to Dr. Zhivago are not without merit, so if you are looking for a romantic movie set against the backdrop of Russian history, and you need a good cry, put this in your YouTube queue. The film stars Konstantin Khabensky as Aleksandr (Night Watch, Day Watch) and Elizaveta Boyarkskaya as Anna. Andrey Kravchuk directs.

Brest Fortress (Брестская крепость)

I have seen Saving Private Ryan. I have seen Letters from Iwo Jima. I’ve seen Schindler’s List. I’m pretty solid on my Hollywood World War II epics. Hands down, Brest Fortress is one of the best World War II movies I have ever seen. This gem hails from Belarus, and details the early days of Operation Barbarossa, as told through the eyes of the orphaned Sasha Akimov.

Sasha and his brother are living at Brest Fortress in Belarus SSR, under the care of the 33rd Rifle Regiment of the Red Army. Sasha plays the euphonium in the regiment band, and nurses a crush on Anya Khizevatova, the daughter of the outpost leader Khizevatov. Sasha’s life centers around the fortress and its inhabitants, until one day in June of 1941, when the fortress comes under attack by the Wehrmacht and Lutfwaffe. The Nazi assault on the Soviet army and citizens is brutal and heart-wrenching, although the surviving Red Army forces manage to hold onto the fort for nine days. The resistance is led by Efim Moiseevich Fomin, who proudly declares to his German executioners that he is all the things they despise: a Red Army commissar, a Communist, and a Jew.

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“We are here to save you from the Bolsheviks and Jews. No, for real, you guys. You should totally surrender.&rdquo

Misfits/ Inadequate People (Неадекватные Люди)

Basically, this is a modern-day, less icky, comedic retelling of Lolita, and if anyone is entitled to do an update on Vladimir Nabokov’s cult classic, it is his compatriots.  Misfits is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve included it here for those who might have an outdated view of modern-day Russia.

Ilya Lyubimov stars as Vitaly, a thirtysomething who moves from a rural part of Russia to Moscow after his girlfriend is killed in a car accident. In Moscow, he develops a close, if odd, relationship with his sassy 17-year-old neighbor, Kristina, while having to stave off the advances of his vampy new boss.

Misfits was shot on a budget of about $100,000, raised by writer/director Roman Karimov. It’s a really great piece of independent Russian cinema (Wait! I thought there was no independent media in Russia! I’m confused!)

Olympus Inferno (Олимпиус Инферно)

Every time someone watches this movie, Victoria Nuland has to clap her hands really hard so that Mikhail Sakashvili doesn’t fall down dead.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty accused the film of “pushing the Kremlin’s line” on the Georgian conflict. By “pushing the Kremlin’s line,” they mean “what actually occurred.” Wired called it awesomely bad, but that’s only because Wired is used to made-for-TV movies that involve marine creature-themed weather events, or weird, inaccurate opi starring that one girl from Heroes.  

Of course, since Olympus Inferno aired on Russian television, it does take a sympathetic view of the Russian side of the conflict. However, if one does look into the actual facts behind the Georgian war, it is easy to see that, although there was tension mounting on both sides, Georgian forces were responsible for attacking South Ossetia.

The story follows Michael Orraya, an American entomologist who is studying butterflies, and a former classmate, a young Russian woman named Zhenya, who is working as a journalist. They develop a close relationship, but are caught up in the chaos of the Georgian war.

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“What can we do? The Georgian president only wants to live in gentrified neighborhoods, like Brooklyn.”

Russian Ark (Русский ковчег)

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I really like this movie. Granted, I am probably distracted by the fancy costumes.

A disembodied voice guides the viewer through the dream-like quality of Russian Ark. The narrator is in conversation with “the European,” symbolized by the Marquis de Custine, this super racist 18th century travel writer. His travelogue,  La Russie en 1839, decries the “backwardness” of the Russian Orthodox church, and the “Asian” overlay to the society and culture. (La Russie en 1839 was later published as an illustrated collection of bedtime stories for U.S. State Department employees.)

Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov, we are taken on a tour of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the “ark” of Russian culture, with cameo appearances by Catherine II and Peter the Great. Gorgeous cinematography and high production values certainly helped this 2002 film win a nomination for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and a Visions Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Russian Ark is also available on Netflix streaming, but for the poor unfortunates who do not have Netflix, and thus are also robbed of the Pussy Riot documentary, there is YouTube.

The Return (Возвращение)

Remember everyone in Hollywood falling all over themselves to praise Andrey Zvyagintsev for Leviathan because he bravely portrayed today’s Russia as a bleak and hopeless wasteland? Well, it actually turns out that bleak is sort of his oeuvre. Like Leviathan, The Return received widespread critical acclaim when it was released internationally in 2004. Although Hollywood acknowledged the film with a Golden Globe nomination, there was no obsequious praise for Zyvaginitsev’s earlier offering.

The plot centers on two boys, Andrei and Ivan, who are reunited with their father after his mysterious twelve-year absence. Their mother reluctantly allows the boys to go on a road trip with their father through the Russian wilderness, and the tension between Ivan and his father mounts to a tragic conclusion.

The Return is driven by the subtle, yet effective, performances by the film’s two young actors, Vladimir Garin (Andrei) and Ivan Dobronravov (Ivan). Desolately beautiful Russian landscapes add to Zyvangintsev’s gray-blue palette and the overall meditative quality of the piece.

Of course, there are many Russian films available on YouTube that I have not listed here. These are a few that I have seen and enjoyed, and I hope you enjoy them as well.

Remember, If you or a loved one is experiencing PRAT, don’t suffer in silence. There is help.

Unless you are a pyromaniac exhibitionist. In that case, there is probably a selfie with Hillary Clinton in your future.

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Irish Times poll lays bare pandemic’s impact on political landscape

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Sinn Féin is on top again, with its highest-ever rating in an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll of support for the parties. Our latest such poll shows Sinn Féin on 31 per cent (up three points), ahead of Fine Gael, which has slipped three points to 27 per cent.

Fianna Fáil remains some way adrift of Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, although it has closed the gap considerably in this June poll, jumping six points to 20 per cent. The Green Party (on 6 per cent) and Labour (on 3 per cent) are unchanged. Independents and smaller parties combined attract 13 per cent of the vote (down six points). Within this bloc are People Before Profit/Solidarity (on 2 per cent) and Social Democrats (on 2 per cent).

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Delta variant: Is Denmark heading for another Covid surge as seen in the UK?

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Cases involving the highly contagious Delta coronavirus variant are cropping up in Denmark with growing frequency, with at least five pupils testing positive at Grønnevang School in Hillerød near Copenhagen on Monday, and a nearby kindergarten also closed after one of the children’s parents tested positive. 

The Hillerød outbreak comes after a similar school cluster in Risskov near Aarhus, which saw one school class and one kindergarten temporarily sent home after two cases were identified. 

The variant, which was first identified in India, now makes up to 90 percent of cases in the UK, forcing the country to delay the so-called “England’s Freedom Day” on June 21st, keeping restrictions in place for another four weeks? 

So, is there a risk of a UK-style outbreak? 

Tyra Grove Krause, acting academic director at the Statens Serum Institute on Tuesday said it was crucial that Denmark health authorities and local municipalities put as much effort as possible into containing any outbreaks. 

“This is a variant that we are concerned about and that we really want to keep it down for as long as we can,” she said. “This is because, according to English authorities, it is up to 50 percent more contagious and possibly more serious than other variants.” 

In a statement last week, her agency said the delta variant was “worrying”. 

The Danish Patient Safety Authority on Tuesday called for all residents in the areas surrounding the schools and kindergarten in Hillerød to get tested, and said that the authorities were increasing test capacity in the area, and also putting out “test ambassadors” on the streets.  

So how is it going in Denmark right now? 

Pretty well.

Despite the lifting of most restrictions, the number of cases registered daily remains low, even if the 353 reported on Wednesday is above the recent trend of under 200 cases a day, the share of positive tests is also slightly up at 0.37 percent. 

Just 93 people are now being treated in hospital for coronavirus, the lowest since September 23rd last year.

And how’s it going in the UK? 

Not so good, but not terrible either. Overall case numberS remain low, but they are starting to climb again despite the UK’s impressive vaccination rate.

The worry is the Delta variant – first discovered in India – which now makes up 90 percent of new cases in the UK and which experts agree is around 40 percent more transmissible than other variants.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Witty told a press conference on Monday that cases are rising across the country.

It is concerns over this variant that has lead the British government to delay the latest phase of lockdown easing – initially scheduled for June 21st – for another four weeks.

So will Denmark follow the UK’s trend? 

Probably. Christian Wejse, an epidemiologist at Aarhus University, told The Local that he believes it is inevitable that the Delta variant will eventually become dominant in Denmark too. 

“If it’s true that delta variant is 50 percent or 70 percent more contagious than the B117 (Alpha or UK variant), then I think, in the long run, we’ll see that it takes over because that’s what more contagious viruses do.,” he said. “I think that’s also what the health authorities assume it’s going to happen.” 

How much of a problem would that be? 

Not necessarily too much of a problem, according to Wejse.

For a start, he predicts that the end of the school term and the good summer weather should stop the virus spreading too rapidly for the next two months or so, meaning it will take longer to take over than the British variant did. 

B117 came at a time where the epidemic was rolling in Denmark at a very high level, back in December and January. Now the epidemic is growing much, much slower. That means it’s probably going to take more time,” he said. 

And by the time it does take over, in September perhaps, vaccination levels should be high enough to blunt its impact. 

“I seriously think and hope that, that when we get to the next fall, we’ll be in a different situation. There will be small outbreaks, but not really any big time spread, like we had last fall.” 

“At least with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, there’s data indicating the difference in terms of protection [from the delta variant] is quite small. So, there will be very good protective effects of the vaccines, so I’m certainly confident that it will be much less of a problem when we have a high vaccination coverage, which I assume we will have when we get into September.” 



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