On the origins of smallpox

THE death date of smallpox is clear. After killing more than 300 million people in the twentieth century, it claimed its last victim in 1978; two years later, on 8 May 1980, the World Health Assembly declared that the variola virus, which causes smallpox, had been eradicated. But the origins of this devastating virus are obscure. Now, genetic evidence is starting to uncover when smallpox first started attacking people…

Korean smallpox goddess, late Joseon era (17th-19th Centuries)

This article first appeared in Nature on 23 July 2020. To continue reading, click here (paywall).

 

On plague memory (again)

RUMINATING on why the 1918 flu pandemic wasn’t better remembered, the African historian Terence Ranger concluded in the early 2000s that the story wasn’t being told right. The vast majority of the victims—50 million of them at a conservative count—perished in a mere 13 weeks at the tail end of 1918, all over the globe. It was a planetary convulsion that was over in the blink of an eye, but whose impact reverberated through human societies for decades to come…

The Pull of the Stars, by Emma Donoghue (2020)

This article first appeared in Wired on 20 July 2020. To  continue reading, click here.

The flawed brilliance of J.B.S. Haldane

TOWARDS the end of his life, J.B.S. Haldane was inseparable from a pebble that had been found in the Valley of Elah in Israel, where David felled Goliath with a similar projectile. A king-size man who towered over British biology for several decades in the middle of the 20th century, Jack Haldane—the “half-Dane”—was a more obvious Goliath, but he always took the side of the underdog…

Haldane in Spain during the civil war

This story first appeared in The Economist  on 18 July 2020. To continue reading, click here.

 

 

Phylloxera – a pest’s genome reveals its past

A CENTURY and a half ago an alien insect alighted in Europe. It displaced millions, ruined local economies and forced scientists, politicians and ordinary folk into a frenzy of defensive activity. Phylloxera, a member of the group known to entomologists as Hemiptera, or “true” bugs (as opposed to all the other critters known colloquially as bugs), appeared in France in the 1860s and proceeded to eat its way through many of the Old World’s vines…

“The phylloxera, a true, gourmet, finds out the best vineyards and attaches itself to the best wines.” Cartoon from Punch, 6 September 6, 1890

This article first appeared in The Economist online on 4 July 2020, and in the print edition of 11 July 2020. To continue reading, click here (paywall).

 

 

 

‘It’s not over’: intimate diaries from the eye of the UK’s coronavirus storm

WHEN the Oxford team working on a Covid-19 vaccine first started holding weekly catchups in early February, Christina Dold, a 35-year-old senior postdoctoral researcher, jokingly referred to them as “Cobra” meetings. But it was in one of these early sessions that she found out how many volunteers they would be immunising daily, once the vaccine was ready to be tested. “I remember looking at a colleague. We were either going to cry or laugh, because the huge number of samples we’d have to process – potentially more than 100 a day – scared the living daylights out of us…”

Christina Dold, vaccine scientist. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 4 July 2020. To continue reading, click here.

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