The Early Worm Shoots the Bird; Granted Wishes; January and Inconvenient Curiosity.

I shall forever remember the recent wolf moon. I’ve certainly seen one before, though without knowing that the full moon in January was given this, and several other monikers centuries ago, at least in the U.S.A., by native American tribes.

After enthusing about woodcock of late, (am I becoming a woodcock obsessive?) I’d figured that it was well nigh impossible to take a photo of a woodcock silhouetted against a full moon, similar to my commissioned one which Fiona had created by skillfully merging 2 of my images in our ancient Corel photo software, for my recent Scolopax poem post. Simply because they fly so fast, and so low, in such poor light that it would be technically almost impossible with my camera, and a total fluke to ever be in the right place, at the right time, with the right angle to capture such a thing.

And yet, after a run of improbable co-incidences, I’ve nearly achieved this.

It began with a complete departure from my normal routine on Monday morning. I always roll out of bed, and over the winter months always walk across the bedroom to switch on the computer, before always going down stairs to make the first tea of the day, switch on assorted dehumidifiers and small electric tubular heaters, and maybe gauge the weather by nipping out for a pee. Aware of the extra insulation from our drawn curtains or quilts (we do, as in days gone by, hang old quilts over our doorways for exactly this reason as well as their aesthetic qualities), we stay in internal darkness until dawn has properly broken. However for the first time in months, for no explicable reason, as soon as I switched on the computer monitor on Monday, I reached up and pulled down the simple cardboard sheet from our small bedroom Velux conservation style roof light.

After all these years, we’ve still not got round to a proper blind to cover these! And even with my blurry 6.30 am eyes, I was immediately  struck by a bright torch like focal white light streaming in from behind the trees at the top of our hay meadow. It didn’t take me too long to focus and see that this was the moon, just about to disappear below the horizon, and as I moved slightly, it was obvious that it was framed over the gate in the North West corner of the upper hay meadow. Realising it would be gone it a flash, and might not even then be visible from the (lower) bank behind the house, I abandoned the rational precaution of pulling on socks, jumper and beanie, and rushed downstairs, grabbed the camera, and headed out into the freezing, minus 5 degrees C, air. Walking up to the gateway at the bottom of the field, I was pleased to see that from this lower standpoint, the moon was still perfectly framed in the gateway, just about to dip below the top bar of the gate, which for historical reasons I won’t bore you with, is, unusually, covered in small gauge chicken wire.

Quickly fiddling in the dark, with ISO dials, apertures and screen focus options, I clicked a few images, as the moon visibly crept ever lower, and further North West. I was experimenting with auto-focus options, with a handheld camera and quite slow exposures, and finding that getting the moon surface in focus meant that the gate bars became a bit blurry. So sensing that the images of the crisp gate bars, backlit with a bright moon was even more appealing, I adjusted focus options and snapped away as the moon dipped even lower, trying to edge myself further South on the icy, steeply sloping ground, in order to keep the central gate bar nearly across the middle of the moon.

More gate bars became silhouetted in the viewfinder, and it was just as the moon reached grass level at its base, that the amazing thing happened. With the viewfinder still close to my eye, a large bird suddenly appeared and dropped across the face of the moon, to the ground.

Instantly, I knew it was a woodcock. I pressed the shutter button again as fast as I could manage. Had I captured anything, give reaction times – both mine and the camera’s? Well actually, yes at least part of a wing as the bird flew down, above.

No matter, after further frantic adjustments, (and please bear in mind that I was trying to photograph something nearly 100 yards away from me in near darkness, save the moonlight), I was able to make out the silhouette of the surprisingly large bird, standing just to the left of the moon, on this side of the gate. It remained stationary for nearly a minute, and even seemed to extend its head upwards, in an odd moongazing posture, at one point.

For a crepuscular, solitary bird, that spends most of its nights probing soggy or frozen turf for earth worms simply to sustain itself, I sensed that this was a very brief, rare, special moment to pause.

To be dazzled. Perhaps, with wide eyes adapted to excellent night vision, maybe even literally caught out by such intensity of light? Or maybe even awestruck, as this huge, dominant, shimmering silver sphere, dipped further below the horizon, and the world returned to more familiar nocturnal gloom? And the bird could take off again and return to safety amongst the brambled scrub, before the sun rose, diametrically opposite across the valley and shocked the icy scene into day light.

Reviewing all the grainy images later, I could see that eventually the bird obligingly turned its head to the left, so that the characteristic beak became visible, above, before slowly walking across the face of the moon, which by now had dipped even lower. The whole sequence of photo taking lasted no more than 5 minutes, but I couldn’t wait to look at what, if anything, I’d managed to capture of this. The images don’t match Fiona’s tweaked one, but to experience this spectacle, and try to work out the chances of me ever having seen it, place it up amongst the most wonderful I’ve ever witnessed in all our time living in this magical place. It wasn’t until I was back inside, that I realised just how chilly I’d become, but it was definitely worth it!

Apart from the drama of seeing this, I’ve also now learned that during winter months, the full moon always rises in the North East, and always sets in the North West, so perhaps it could even make for an annual early morning foray? Looking for that elusive woodcock shot. Not caught in the crosshairs of a gun sight, but the cross bars of a gate. Amazing!

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Bring me sunshine, was my New Year plea. The sample of images from the first weeks of January show that once we got the drama of red sky dawns out of the way, and the first 10 days of mainly grey gloom and damp, we have indeed been blessed with some lovely days, a few light frosts, and generally excellent conditions for snowdrop splitting and potting.

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January

The pristine virgin, blank page lies
The littered, layered dank leaves cry,
Forgotten, fading stories shed,
A New Year beckons. Hope or dread?

In light so dim, the warm air stirs
A speckled storm-cock songster’s fir.
No longer naked, steepled church
Rings in the month, from high-topped perch.

Beneath, the waiting masses wake
First Mary’s tapers show, a pink bud breaks.
At last, the air’s sublimely filled
With Daphne’s scent, the flock is thrilled.

Before the sun has shown her face,
Such innocence sustains a grace,
For challenges ahead, whatever they may be.
This garden’s pact, with you and me.

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It’s turning out to be another stonking year for our Daphne bholua bushes. I read recently that Roy Lancaster fondly remembers seeing thickets of these winter flowering shrubs up to 7 feet tall in their native setting on early plant hunting trips to the Himalaya. Eat your heart out Roy, for West Wales hillsides must be to their liking even more, since several of our clumps now tower over us, maybe to 9  to 10 feet in places, and are covered in masses of inflorescences beloved by early foraging honeybees. They just need enough sunshine, or warmth, and lack of wind to travel the short distance to and from the hive to fill up with nectar, collect a little pollen, and make it back before the inevitable rapid chilling in such low temperatures makes maintaining their flight muscles at around 36 degrees C a lost cause, and fatal hypothermia sets in.

So where the shrubs are sited isn’t just important for our senses – in fact the scent travels so far, they can be enjoyed from many parts of the garden. But I really only worked out this year – far too late – that as far as the bees are concerned, they’re most valuable if they’re located somewhere where they’ll catch any sun from around 11.30 am to 3 pm. Why? Well, if the weather is clear at this time of the year, then a frost is almost certain, and it takes until about mid morning, for the air to warm enough for the bees to sense/trial their first foraging flights. So having your flowers in glorious sunshine earlier than this, (which equates to a more open aspect to the East), may mean that if the shrubs are in more shade later on, they’re less valuable as foraging options, when the bees are actually flying. And let’s face it, apart from some early snowdrops, there really aren’t any other flower options yet in our upland garden.

So a direct, open, South or South Westerly aspect is best. Once the bees are out and about, the message clearly gets out that there are flowers to be plundered, and D. bholua scores well on this front – there are so many individual flowers on a large shrub to be raided. Literally tens of thousands. And a single flower can keep a bee occupied for many seconds.

This year, I’ve been struck by the significantly different floral characteristics of the 3 seedling D. bholua which we bought back in 2018, from Pan Global plants, when we stopped off on our snowdrop garden tour. Bought with no flowers, from a selection of variable looking, short but well grown plants, it was a risky punt, but I figured that they’d all be on their own roots and so should eventually sucker and thicket in the same way that our (fortunately) micro-propagated D. b.  ‘Jaqueline Postill'(‘JP‘) does, below.

The set of photos below show how variable the different plants now are both in terms of vigour, winter leaf retention, stem colour and flower buds. One of the great things about any range of cultivars, is the ability to extend the flowerings season. With the Daphne, there’s the added interest of scent. But the point that got me really excited with one of these novel forms, below, is both the flower colour and the number of flower buds per inflorescence. By my reckoning there are typically around 16 to 20 flowers in each cluster, compared with the more usual 10 to 14 buds on the ‘JP‘. To my nose, the scent is almost identical to ‘JP’, added to which the new stems are a wonderful glossy cinnamon colour. The overall effect with the pale rose pink flowers is, in my humble opinion, even more appealing than the classic ‘JP’. Worth naming or propagating? Maybe so, once it gets a little larger!

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As hinted at above, early January with much still, gloomy and damp weather has been ideal for lifting and potting on snowdrop bulbs to have a reasonable selection available for any garden visitors who might be tempted up here from February onwards. Our snowdrops still seem to be around 7-10 days later than in many recent years, which should mean that many will last well into early March this year, barring a sudden very warm spell.

As always, the first task is to collect and mix up my own potting mix – roughly 50/50 home made compost mixed with decayed logs/leaf litter from a huge pile of sawn logs which has been rotting for the last 15 years or more. To which a dash of vermiculite, dried seaweed meal, wood ash and minimal slow release fertiliser is added.

Then some snowdrop clumps are selected, dug up and teased apart. Although a little brutal, if one can get the bulbs out and potted on before the flowers have emerged and the leaves have developed fully, they do seem to cope with the shock better, and provided they’re planted out and watered in well, most seem to survive, and after sulking for a year, will grow away. Sadly, this isn’t always the case with bought in snowdrops. I’ve had many over the years, which never return, or are still only producing 1 flower 6 or 7 years later, or else (particularly for me with many named doubles) they seem to split into many tiny bulbs and then take several years to begin to flower properly. Glancing through my snowdrop records, gives an idea of how variable they are in performance. For example, G. ‘Heffalump’, below, has taken about 7 years from purchase to begin to recover to this point where it’s produced 3 flowers, but it does at least now look like it’s getting going!

If you do dig snowdrops up in active growth, you also get to see how big the bulb is, and more critically what the root system is like. And on this front, they’re tremendously variable – the very best, most vigorous cultivars have amazing root systems. The worst just a few feeble ones. I do wonder if some of the best hybrids even have multiple chromosome numbers to account for this. No matter, the problem is that no snowdrop selling nursery, understandably, gets close to communicating just how variable in vigour different cultivars seems to be, with any accuracy. Added to this variability, there’s almost certainly a huge variation in how the bulbs get linked into the underground mycorrhizal networks, and it’s the inevitable disruption to this fungus/snowdrop root symbiosis which is the biggest downside to splitting and moving clumps.

I miserably failed to find any serious research on this, though a very recent paper, link below, implies that there’s still a huge lack of understanding of the basic biochemistry of how all bulbs, or geophytes, manage to control the complex life strategy that they rely on – lying dormant for much of the year and then bursting into vegetative growth, whilst also controlling the complex timing of events necessary for stimulating flower bud initiation, stimulating bulb offset formation, and then often quite quickly becoming dormant again. (PEBP: the conductors of dual reproduction in plants with vegetative storage organs – click here).

However, as I’ve noted before, the only practical way that one ever achieves spectacular en-masse snowdrop displays is either waiting decades, or even centuries for slow natural passive spread to work its magic, or having the determination to lift, split and replant a proportion every year.

Having learned this year about how trees are linked together by fungal mycelia, and how water, nutrition and other chemicals get shifted around underground through these fungal conduits, I wonder about just how little we understand about what our garden bulbs really require to happily co-exist in our garden based plant communities?

My impression in recent years, after many sessions of splitting and replanting, is that the majority of snowdrops seem to thrive much better in clumps, rather than singly. Might this be because they are supportive of each other in some hidden unknown way, in the way that trees in forests clearly are? Or even groups of people – families or societies?

Often once a bulb has settled down in a new location, and reached past 3 or 4 bulbs in number within a clump, which might take many years in some cases, they seem much happier and vigorous. This observation highlights the dilemma for any galanthophile – do you leave established healthy clumps alone, or regularly split them up? I’m beginning to think that it might even be worthwhile planting out singletons of more finicky, expensive snowdrops reasonably close to an established clump of a more ordinary snowdrop, in case it makes it easier for them to tap into any invisible pre-existing fungal networks in the soil in that particular location.

We’re already getting a few enquiries about garden visits this year, and all the information is on this page of the website. We’ve also just been tipped off that the garden has received a plug, just after posting this, in the Daily Telegraph Gardening SectionJanuary 23rd. So if you do fancy a trip out to see the garden, have a look at the weather forecasts, and once we’re into February drop us an email, and we hope we’ll be able to accommodate you, but do remember that visits to the garden are only ever for small numbers who have pre-booked a visit.😊.

Early February won’t quite have the massed displays of later in the month, but there are sometimes advantages to being an early bird. Or worm?

And the great thing for me is that any potted bulbs left over at the end of the season, can easily be planted out here into areas of the garden without them. This was one of the huge pluses from last year, when Welsh gardens remained closed for the whole of the snowdrop season, so the few hundred which I’d potted on last winter now grace the garden, to form clumps in the years ahead.

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Finally, a brief (?) discussion of a couple of books which arrived beneath the Christmas tree for me this year.

Perhaps inevitably given my academic training and profession, I’ve been intrigued for some time about the likely origin of the SARS CoV-2 virus (SCV). Vets spend quite a bit of time learning about zoonotic diseases – ones which can jump from an animal species, as its principal host, to affect people, so just where did SCV arise?

A chance snippet alerted me to “Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19”. I recognised one of the authors, Matt Ridley, since in 2019, we’d stood in his extensive and beautiful home library at Blagdon estate in Northumberland, during a privately organised Northumberland garden tour which I’d written about here. So I knew Ridley was both a member of the House of Lords, but also an author of several previous science based books. More digging, amongst some possibly politically motivated criticism of him as the chairman of Northern Rock at the time that it failed, led me to discover that not only did he gain a First Class degree in zoology from Magdalene College, Oxford, but also completed a D. Phil there after investigating the mating strategy of pheasants. So as well as evidently being a readable author, he’s also someone clearly at ease with scientific jargon, research, and the finer details of genomic structures and biochemistry.

His book, “Viral”, is co-authored with Alina Chan, a Canadian molecular biologist focusing on gene therapy and cell engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard. Ridley didn’t (courtesy of travel restrictions) actually meet Chan until just after the book was published! They have apparently elected to donate half the proceeds of the sales from the book to charity. I mention this, since my sense is that he was principally led into this project out of scientific curiosity, and not the need to make a quick buck, or indeed pander to any vested interest in this field.

To complement and contrast with their investigative take in trying to unravel the issue of origin of this novel virus, I’d also added to my stocking, “Spike”  written by Sir Jeremy Farrar, working with Anjana Ahuja, a British Indian science journalist. Farrar trained as a doctor at UCL medical school, and later completed, like Ridley, a D. Phil at Oxford on the neurological condition myaesthenia gravis.

To quote from the Wellcome website, “Sir Jeremy Farrar OBE FMedSci FRS is the Director of Wellcome, a global charitable foundation which supports science to solve urgent health challenges”. He has sat on the UK SAGE committee (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and thus played a key role in developing the UK government’s response to the pandemic. Interestingly, he also has very longstanding historic links, and authored collaborative scientific papers with both Sir Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick Vallance, and Neil Ferguson – 3 other now very familiar and key players in the scientific advisory teams guiding our extremely science-light, and by comparison, very recently assembled and inexperienced government cabinet team. I was intrigued to read about Farrar’s “inside story” on the pandemic, since I also had my own limited awareness of what, in my university days, was known as The Wellcome Trust.

I can recall winning the Wellcome prize for animal health in my fourth year, and can still  picture the blue book label that came with this dubious accolade, which I rashly opted to stick into my copy of “An Introduction to Animal Neurology”, a necessary book for our final 2 years, and authored by the Cambridge vet school’s very own Tony (A.C.) Palmer. This book, along with most of my other textbooks were donated to the Vet School, many years ago, once I’d hung up my stethoscope. But I do remember that another part of the prize was a day trip to look around the Wellcome Trust’s Berkhamstead site. I can recall very little of this day out, save that it clearly didn’t fire me up to move into veterinary research after qualifying. I also couldn’t recall how “Wellcome”, as it now seems to be known, came into being, with its current £38 billion pot of assets.

In fact, it developed from the considerable wealth accumulated by Henry Wellcome, and there is this brief history from their website.

“The Wellcome Trust was founded in 1936, in accordance with Henry Wellcome’s will.  He left us three things in his will: his wealth, his collection of historical medical items, and a mission to improve health through research. Funding for this mission came from the profits of the pharmaceutical business he had built up over 50 years. (sic – I shall return to the highlighted mission statement a little later)

In 1880, Silas Burroughs and Henry Wellcome, two pharmaceutical salesmen from America, started a new company in London called Burroughs, Wellcome & Co. They used mass production and proactive marketing to sell remedies and medicines throughout the UK and territories colonised by the British, building the company’s reputation on scientific rigour.

Henry Wellcome became a wealthy and prominent figure in the growth of the modern pharmaceutical industry. After his death in 1936 (Silas Burroughs had died in 1895), the company became the property of the newly formed Wellcome Trust, which used the profits to fund charitable activities supporting research related to health.”

With this background to the 2 books, and the key authors, how helpful were they in my quest for knowledge?

The Ridley/Chan work is an incredibly detailed analysis aimed at trying to explore their two different hypotheses for where the new virus might have come from, and how it jumped into humans:

Firstly, that as with the earlier SARS CoV-1 (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus outbreak in China in 2002 -2004, (bats, via civets eaten in restaurants, through food handlers and into humans more widely) and the MERS CoV (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) virus in 2012-2015 (bats and camels and thus into humans), it was entirely possible that a proven direct route of transmission from animal host into humans would quickly be confirmed. One just needed to find the link, which with current genomic sequencing capabilities is a lot easier than it was even 15 years ago. However, convincing evidence for this jump still hasn’t been found to date, after all this time, in spite of multiple commonly disseminated stories about frozen food origins, animals held in markets, pangolin, etc.

Secondly, that the virus escaped in some way from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which although over 1,000 miles from the bat cave sources of the previous SARS CoV- 1 outbreak, had sent many scientists on many occasions, to actively collect, sequence and research other bat origin CV viruses over the previous 9 to 10 years.

Ridley and Chan present a forensic like examination of data, communications and many examples of misleading or confusing Chinese information, before reprising their arguments in the final 2 brief chapters, as barristers for each side of a case might do. They are still open minded about the options, though frankly I would be surprised if anyone sitting on a jury to examine the evidence detailed in the book, didn’t come to the conclusion that a leak was the most likely origin of the novel CV virus. Moreover that it had likely been tweaked (whether intentionally or not) within the lab to make it much more contagious in people, from a starting point of one of the viruses the Wuhan team had isolated from their multiple trips to the bat roost mine responsible for the mini – outbreak in 2012, in which 6 miners died from another, little publicised, novel Covid like respiratory syndrome.

An interesting point raised by Ridley and Chan, which struck a chord with me, with my ex animal health hat on, was that apart from humans, no mammals other than bats regularly spend a long time together in large numbers, in extreme proximity, in an enclosed space – the perfect conditions indeed for an airborne virus both to be transmitted, and have plenty of opportunities to mutate.

At Cambridge, our principle lecturer in animal health, which was frankly at the time not the most exciting subject on the course, was Dr. David Sainsbury, a cheerful, short, bearded fellow, who was really keen on pointing out how critical ventilation was for all housed farm animals in order to minimise respiratory disease.

Although it’s only in writing this post, that I’ve reflected that most vets, and indeed most doctors, have a binary focus on disease, and its prevention or treatment, and not health. What causes disease, and how it can be dealt with – medically with drugs or vaccines, or indeed surgically. Very small amounts of time, or effort are spent during their initial education, or thereafter, on what we need to get right for our animal or human populations in the way of environment, diet and lifestyle to ensure that they actually enjoy good health, and never even need the professional’s pills, jabs, or knives.

Haven’t we all largely lost sight of the fact that health is what we should be striving for? Maybe this just isn’t sufficiently challenging a goal, or too nebulous a target? Maybe it’s not so sexy, or easy to monetise?

But David Sainsbury’s animal health discussion, stressing the need for slatted sided, open, airy sheds was a message not forgotten by me when a couple of decades later, our then neighbours down our track, constructed a typical new tall shed for housing their growing herd of milking Golden Guernsey goats. It had a few simple ridge vents, but otherwise was totally enclosed save the access doors.

I remember saying to Fiona at the time, that I felt this was a mistake – animals can cope very well with cooler temperatures if they’re kept dry, but winters spent inside in stagnant air isn’t a healthy scenario. Several years later, one of their goats was clearly having health issues, obvious from even from a field away – a chronic cough, obvious weight loss, and a lack of vigour. However even I wasn’t prepared for the eventual scenario. Just after they’d dispersed their herd, prior to selling up and moving on, the news started to filter out that some of their goats had developed tuberculosis. Eventually this even made it into the profession’s journal The Veterinary Record, as the first recorded case of caprine tuberculosis in the UK. We hadn’t even been taught about goats as being a host species for TB. Reading the paper’s abstract again now, it looks like all the herd were afflicted, and thus infected many other herds, once they’d been dispersed around the country.

So, one of the things which I really feel hasn’t been given sufficient attention as risk mitigation for Covid, is a major re-think on all communal internal spaces, from the point of view of adequate ventilation. Even if this might conflict with the drive to eliminate draughts for energy conservation. Never mind the criticism that OVO energy received recently for the suggestion we could all save a bit on our energy bills by turning down the thermostat and if necessary putting on some thicker clothing, actually it’s really good health advice to keep windows slightly open, or install adequate ventilation/air filtration systems, at least in public places. It would have big benefits for limiting the spread of respiratory infections, and this aspect of contagious respiratory disease transmission is of course one of the primary reasons why most human respiratory infections historically peak during the winter months, when most spend the majority of their time indoors.

Ridley and Chan’s book closes with a time line of critical points during the development of the saga, followed by around 65 pages of 312 detailed references for all the data and links discussed, and for anyone really trying to understand the possible origins of CV, I can thoroughly recommend getting it, even if you need to skip read some of the most technical bits, as I did.

What of Farrar’s book? I can only really endorse the first review left on Waterstone’s website about this book.

“This book is less about the pandemic and more about the author. To listen to Farrar, he is the only person with any foresight, surrounded by incompetents… If you want to hear a scientist singing his own praises, read this book.”

It’s a complete contrast to the Ridley, Chan book. Full of namedropping, personal networks of key players, disturbed skiing trips, trips to Davos for the world economic forum, rubbing shoulders with the world’s movers and shakers, as well as discussion and criticism of others on the committees and in government who were grappling with how to respond to the rapidly evolving scenario. It ends with 7 pages of references, but a further 8 pages comprising his personal resume of the key people involved, with a few pithy comments about many.

The book is centred around Farrar’s diary notes, and includes a smattering of Farrar’s tweets and edited emails, and discussion of his acquisition of a “burner phone” early on, for allowing him to have untraceable communications. Although interestingly, he includes none of the significant early emails he had with key players, including Anthony Fauci in the U.S.A., which paint a very different picture of what these key scientists were thinking about the lab leak theory early on. These emails only came to light very recently, and have made Ridley comment that he felt duped by the public utterances of key scientists early on. An extract from a very recent piece (19/01/2022) Ridley has written on this is included below:  

“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, (sic – highlights) 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.

Freedom of Information requests sent last year produced farcical results in both Britain and America: ghost emails with all the contents redacted. Now, the US government has been forced to make unredacted versions available to Republicans on the House of Representatives’ oversight committee for an “in camera review”.

Thankfully, staffers transcribed some of the contents. They show that Dr Fauci, Dr Collins and Sir Patrick Vallance, our Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, were briefed, on and after February 1, by several virologists who thought at the time that the new virus showed signs of having been manipulated in the laboratory.

Not only did they never breathe a word of this suspicion to the media or the public, they rubbished it. The meeting on February 1 led to an article from the very virologists who were making the case that the virus showed signs of having been in a lab. Yet, in the words of Dr Collins, the job of that article was to “settle” the matter and “put down this very destructive conspiracy” lest the rumours do harm to “international harmony”.

Perhaps Ridley and Chan will eventually publish a second edition to incorporate more recent revelations like these emails and indeed the Chinese authored paper (slipped out just before Christmas) on the likely evolution of the much discussed omicron variant. Perhaps like me you’ve been inconveniently curious about how the omicron variant arose? All those multiple mutations, which, thankfully and very beneficially mean that although it’s way more infective, it’s dramatically less serious in its clinical impact for most people. The Chinese group have spent a lot of time comparing omicron’s genomic sequences with other CV viruses, and indeed SARS CoV-2 variants, and very carefully conclude that it didn’t evolve in HIV immunosuppressed people in South Africa, where it first came to light.

Rather, wait for it, they conclude that it evolved in mice.

At least a year previously.

Having escaped into that species from humans.

And then, a year later, it jumped back across the species divide, to infect people once more, and whizz around the world faster than could have been imagined.

As Ridley has commented on this latest news. “And would that be house mice? Or laboratory mice?”

Should you be as curious as I was for the detail, you can read their paper here. (“Evidence for a mouse origin of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant”). This news does imply, however, that if it’s now successfully circulating in the rodent population, it’s certainly well on the way to being a long term endemic entity. It also explains why the authorities have very recently been so quick off the mark to cull hamsters in Hong Kong, after a pet shop worker was shown to have become infected through handling SARS CoV-2 infected animals.

Why does any of this matter you might ask? I’ll put aside the incalculable suffering, in so many ways, of so many people throughout the world over the last 2 years. And the incalculable ongoing scars which will have been left across many societies, and which will take many years to rectify. I will note however a few significant figures, some vast, some not so.

  • Professor Bhaskar Vira, professor of political economy at Cambridge University, has recently estimated that the G20 group of nations have mobilised around $100 billion in the last decade to tackle the impacts of climate change, but the same G20 have spent around $11 trillion, (i.e. 100 times as much) in around 18 months on reacting to this virus. Click here.
  • Also reflect on some more whopping figures, from our own governments’ Trade and Investment factsheets: “In the four quarters to the end of Q2 2021, total UK exports to China amounted to £25.7 billion (a decrease of 29.5% or £10.7 billion compared to the four quarters to the end of Q2 2020). UK imports of goods from China increased by 38.3% or £17.6 billion for the four quarters to the end of Q2 2021 compared to the four quarters to the end of Q2 2020.”
  • Globally, 7.7 million are estimated to die annually from smoking related diseases. Last year, globally, an estimated 2.5 million people died from Covid (based on death certificate records). A recent freedom of information request, extracted this data in December 2021 from the UK Office of National statistics“Deaths from Covid with no other underlying causes”:   2020: 9,400;  2021: 7971 (First 3 quarters)”.  So it seems that in the UK, a total of 17,371, have died since the pandemic began from Covid up to October 2021, with no other underlying causes. Clearly a very significant and tragic number, and Covid has also clearly been a factor in the deaths of many more with co-morbidities, but this mortality figure is nevertheless almost 90% smaller than the other 2 official statistics that we’re all much more used to hearing of around 152,000 deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test; or 174,000 deaths, where Covid is mentioned on the death certificate.
  • I guess the whole pandemic saga could best be summarised by concluding that huge numbers of people globally have suffered enormously; all have been impacted to some degree; whilst a very few have amassed vast amounts of wealth, all from a previously unknown, miniscule novel infectious virus particle,  which Ridley estimates could all be contained within the volume of a drinks can, could they be collected in one place at one time. (addendum – with wonderful synchronicity, 6 hours after posting this, I read that 2 executives of Wellcome received £7.9 million and £7.8 million respectively after helping to generate £9 billion capital gains and dividends for the charity in 2021 – I’d love to see what they’d actually invested this “charity’s” funds in. And aren’t these almost obscene annual pay awards for a “charity’s” employees? No matter how clever they’ve been in exploiting the recent global rises in asset values).
  • Ridley and Chan conclude that this tiny toxic entity probably escaped from a specific laboratory undertaking work on it. Lest this strikes you as unlikely, Ridley includes shocking statistics on just how many times fatal pathogens have escaped from “secure” facilities over the last 30 years or so.

 

However, I want to leave you with another more worrying observation than all of these.

Indeed, what I found the single most concerning thing I learned from both Ridley and Chan’s book, as well as Farrar and Ahuja’s. Ridley and Chan devote an entire chapter, (one of their 14 chapters indeed) to this. Farrar just a few lines. The phrase isn’t even referenced in the index of Farrar’s book:

‘Gain of Function’.

Ridley and Chan’s chapter begins with a quote from Stephen Hawking from way back in 2001:

“Nuclear weapons need large facilities, but genetic engineering can be done in a small lab. You can’t regulate every lab in the world. The danger is that either by accident or design, we create a virus which destroys us.”

‘Gain of function’  is a phrase I’d never heard of before, or certainly can’t recall it, and in floating it past a few intelligent friends and relatives recently, I’ve found no one else who’s ever heard of it either, or what this phrase refers to. Which is why I thought it merited an airing here.

Put simply, it’s a phrase which has been used by scientists working within experimental genomics for at least 15 years. Forget about genetically modified crops, readers, this is much more significant.

The concept is simple.

You take a pathogen, let’s say a deadly H5N1 avian flu virus and decide that whilst it’s a pretty nasty disease for birds, at least it can’t transmit between mammals, or even worse, between humans. Because if it did, it could be really scary…

So, your research project is actually designed to make it transmissible between mammals. I quote this example, since this was indeed the first publicised example, from work completed before August 2011 when papers were almost simultaneously submitted for peer review from 2 separate research groups headed up by Kawaoka at Wisconsin/Tokyo and Fouchier in Rotterdam. Both groups having been legitimately funded by the US National Institute of Health – an interesting title for a funder of such work.

It turns out that this ‘gain of function’, on behalf of the virus, wasn’t that hard to achieve if, as these scientists did, you repeatedly pass it through a human like (immunologically) animal model. In this case ferrets were used. Essentially you’re encouraging the virus to survive in an alien species, rather than simply dying out, for lack of bird hosts. Hey presto, like many adaptable life forms, the virus was up to the challenge, and mutated. Within a fairly short period it was capable of transmitting directly by airborne transmission between ferrets housed in different lab cages. Fouchier reckoned that as few as 5 mutations by the virus were probably all that was needed to elicit this change in infectivity.

Clever stuff, this gain of function. Well at least on the part of the ever adaptable virus. And as well as this type of experiment, the technology to splice in bits of DNA or RNA to make a virus more infectious for different hosts, has also been known technology for many years; as has the ability to pass viruses through “humanised” mice which have been genetically engineered to behave more like human cell lines; or indeed to culture viruses in tissue culture lines of human lung cells, to make it a little easier for the virus to modify and adapt to a different host species.

Thank goodness a fair chunk of the scientific community threw up their hands in horror at the potential for disasters emanating from such work. Initially the above research work wasn’t even published, but quite a lot of scientists, including interestingly Farrar, were and as far as I can make out still, are in favour of ‘gain of function’ work, advocating many years ago that it was better to explore such lines of research and perhaps be better prepared for any novel viruses which might emerge in the future to cause a pandemic, and hone our tests, anti-vital drugs and vaccine manufacture preparedness… Well, that didn’t seem to have happened in time, recently, did it?

Farrar does however confirm an interesting point in his book with reference to what motivates scientists to move into such areas. Yes, for sure an interest in the scientific challenge, but also the desire to be ahead of the field, or their peers. To be the first to have a paper published. This resonates with stories my father told me years ago of his early post-graduation work assisting senior consultants in hospitals, when very often the patient was reduced to being just another case. Just another dot on the curve of the graph that was about to get published.

The scientific debate and backlash about these first two ‘gain of function’ papers was so significant (though it clearly completely passed me by), that in the U.S.A. such research was fairly quickly subjected to a moratorium, and President Obama even commissioned a weighty white paper review into the ethics, morals and even legalistic issues surrounding such ‘gain of function’ experiments. (White Paper Open Access – Published: 08 August 2016-Gain-of-Function Research: Ethical Analysis Michael J. Selgelid)

I read this from beginning to end.

Sat back and thought. And thought some more.

So, this complex topic has been analytically weighed up, and kicked around in great depth, several years ago. By scientists and even some higher level politicians and movers and shakers like Farrar. Meanwhile billions of the world’s population have carried on, struggling to live their lives as well as they can manage, blissfully unaware of what’s actually been going on in the world’s BL4 laboratories (biological laboratory level 4 – the most secure category of lab – such as the shiny new Wuhan Institute of Virology, currently China’s only BL4 lab, which opened in 2015. And indeed fictionally, in the central London, covert BL4 lab at the centre of the latest understandably delayed, and appropriately titled ” No Time To Die”, James Bond film, which by complete coincidence we watched on New Year’s eve, just after I’d read both books. I bet no one who developed the plot line for this years ago, could ever have anticipated how close to the bone, it would turn out to be).

For anyone who wants a flavour of Ridley and Chan’s thoughts and insights, and indeed how credible, or not, they seem as rational investigators, there are currently at least a couple of in depth interviews with them. One with an intelligent interviewer from Canada, the other when they were both questioned recently by the House Of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, along with the editor of “The Lancet” – a  British medical journal which added to confusion early on, by its decision to publish a critical letter denouncing the lab leak theory, without delving into the reasons why this letter was hastily put together by an American based British scientist with significant long term links to the Wuhan Institute and its research. (Ridley and Chan’s evidence in the second interview begins about 17 minutes in).

One of the interesting strands to Ridley and Chan’s investigation was their discovery of, and references to, a global network of amateur sleuths, using the collective ‘Drastic’ moniker, who were capable of mining and interpreting Chinese published data and computer systems, and spotting errors, deliberately made changes and discrepancies within them. Many of this group were identifiable, some chose to remain anonymous, but the role of this dispersed and disparate group was critical in gradually piecing together a coherent picture of the jigsaw of published information.

This whole story brought to mind the opening lyrics of one of my favourite ‘Mike and the Mechanics’ songs, released in 1991, and written by Mike Rutherford and Christopher Neil, which seem very appropriate now:

Now the world is getting older
There’s a few things to be said
Do you believe the things they told you
Do you believe the things you’ve read
There’s a rumour on the corner
But it’s always been denied
Cause they don’t want you any wiser
You’re just toeing the party line

From the west side to the east side
From the north side to the south
You’ll never get bad information
If you believe in the word of mouth

 

And in sourcing this rather jarring and mechanistic video, I made a track discovery for me, which I’ll also share below, and which illustrates the usually very catchy, melodic songs the group crafted over many years, before being rocked by the untimely death of one of their 2 lead singers, Paul Young.

It’s almost 2 years now since I first wrote anything about the newly emerged virus, in my post “Overwhelmed? My Welsh origin snowdrop, “Whelm”, with the long ovary (Ova – Whelm), named by me in January 2022 has yet to appear this January. I do hope that this will turn out to be one of my last efforts in this sphere, but my final question to leave hanging in the air, is why have organisations like Wellcome with their quoted mission statement of improving health through research, particularly given their charitable status, seem to have avoided sponsoring research, as far as I can establish, into any simpler solutions to improve the general winter season health of populations in Northern hemisphere countries?

Surely an ongoing project to collect population scale data to assess baseline winter plasma vitamin D levels, age, obesity/body mass index, diet, exercise regimes and relating these to both the incidence and severity of any winter respiratory disease requiring hospital treatment, would be a thoroughly worthwhile project, and likely to get widespread support from members of the public?

Instead I read recently of yet another “Panoramic” project, from Oxford University recruiting thousands of patients, whether vaccinated or not, to trial a new anti-covid viral treatment, with a price tag of hundreds of pounds a dose.

Perhaps I’ve answered my own question with those last 9 words?

And if by now you feel in need of a little relaxation, and restorative reflexion, try watching this amazing artistic enterprise.

https://ericwhitacre.com/the-virtual-choir/history/vc2-sleep

20 thoughts on “The Early Worm Shoots the Bird; Granted Wishes; January and Inconvenient Curiosity.

  1. Good Morning Julian! I turned on the computer to send you a mail and then discovered your new post waiting to be read! How fortuitous! I wanted to say it was a delight to see your garden in the paper today recommended as a snowdrop garden to visit! Well done! Wonderful photos as usual in your post and again …how fortuitous….(I’m really loving that word today!) ….to see the moon and woodcock. I can feel your excitement! Love the poem too.I envy you your daphne my ‘Jacqueline Postill’ was caught in a night of frost last year! I’ll leave you to read the science books – I’ll just get back to the Sunday paper ! Best wishes to you both.

    • Hello Marianne,
      Thanks for that, and for the heads up about the publicity – I’m assuming it was in the D. Telegraph, since I’ve just found a recent on-line article in which Gelli Uchaf gets a plug, which is very nice, though of course we knew nothing about it!!!
      Actually some of the tips on snowdrop growing in this great article by Val Bourne are really good – I learned a few new points!
      Glad you got a buzz about the moon and woodcock, which was such an tiny, brief, though amazing thing to witness.
      Sorry to hear about your Daphne – has it gone for good? I think we’re fortunate in that all the coldest air always rolls down the hill, and for no particular skill or effort on our part, the Daphnes are now the best we’ve seen anywhere. I suppose you could always chance another one, but they are a bit pricey to buy, aren’t they?
      As to the books – I suspect few will be interested, but I wanted to share the info. particularly about all the dodgy experimentation that’s going on, without wider public awareness,
      Hope you’re fully recovered and wrap up well – we’re just back from a very chilly bike ride,
      best wishes
      Julian

      • Thanks Julian. It was in the Sunday T. I was so pleased to read it. Val Bourne always writes very interesting articles but I always learn lots from your posts too. The daphne has definitely had it! I remember there used to be a number growing up Bishop Rudd’s Walk at ABG but they too have disappeared over the years- you are very fortunate to have so many survive the pockets of frost and bloom so magnificently. We are fully recovered from the virus now …thank goodness I don’t want to go through it again!
        Too cold for gardening today so you were hardy going for a bike ride! Best wishes.

      • Thanks Marianne and I agree about Val Bourne, but there really were some great new tips in this piece. I remember all the Daphne at ABG too, and how they seemed to go in harsh winter. I think we are very lucky. We also have an Edgeworthia which is a bit borderline, but last years freezing spring winds followed by the hot dry spell have nearly seen it off… at least the snowdrops don’t seem to mind, though they could do with a little more warmth and light to get them to open.
        Glad that you’re fully recovered now, and we finished off today with a bonfire, since at last we had a zephyr of wind – I’ve done quite a bit of hedge laying and we’ve been waiting for a chance to shift some of the brash,
        best wishes
        Julian

      • Well done Julian having a bonfire. It’s so cleansing getting all the bits and bobs burned! I had an enormous fire last month- my neighbours must hate me! The snowdrops need a bit of something to wake them up…mine seem to be cowering ..as you say some sunshine is needed! Best wishes

  2. Devotion is taking photos in minus five temperatures with no socks on! Any chilblains? I like your idea of planting the new snowdrops next to the established clumps, any mycorrhizal fungi and friends should outreach to the establishing plants. I was pleased to read your analysis of the arguments as to whether the virus evolved naturally or was manipulated. I do not have the energy to take on those two books and I appreciated the synopsis. I agree it does seem that health does not pay as the primary drivers are clear but require self discipline and cannot be sold in a bottle or put in a pill. I had never heard of a virtual choir, it was excellent. Amelia

    • Hello Amelia,
      Thanks for all those comments on another too long post. No chillblains from the photography, though interestingly for the first time ever, I’ve recently had a nasty one on a finger after a combination of a bike ride and then chainsawing on a cold damp day. I had no idea what it was, but a swelling purple finger is a little disconcerting, so double gloves now, as well as socks. But any longer than the 5 minutes outside and I’d have had problems I think!
      It’s only very recently this year that I’ve started to think about bulbs as family groupings, maybe linking in via fungi to other plants – I’m sure something like this explains the behaviour of some snowdrops in taking ages to settle in, and perhaps why most don’t do very well in pots in the longer term.
      Hats off to you for sticking with my review of the books – I really can’t see any long term investigation ever achieving anything politically, but I do wish mankind could devote a little more time and energy to really helpful lines of enquiry and discovery. Glad you liked the choir – I only found it at the last minute and thought it was a stupendous effort,
      best wishes
      Julian

  3. Oh, how I wish there was another photographer standing behind you to capture the scene: you, the woodcock, the gate and the moon. Now, that would have been an entertaining shot! I’m delighted to see the garden promoted as a snowdrop garden and, from your photographs, I believe it is a status well deserved. Re the virus: we have had all restrictions, except the wearing of masks in indoor spaces, removed overnight and I find there is a sense that this has come upon us too suddenly and that we are not ready for it; not ready yet to go out there and mix with other people. After two years of careful living, it is now daunting to begin socialising once again. Let’s hope we can return to normal soon, though gradually would suit me better.

    • Hello Paddy,
      Yes indeed, it would have been a great shot, though what would they have focused on?? Always a dilemma isn’t it when one’s trying to capture different things in different planes. I’m afraid I’m not clever enough to splice multiple images together, as serious photographers can.
      I wonder whether you agree with my musings that (many but not all) snowdrops seem to do better, and certainly look better in larger clumps? Yours certainly seem to!
      I think why we sometimes seem to get promoted in this way because there aren’t a lot of other options currently in Wales for NGS snowdrop gardens, but given this plug, I’ve just spent a tedious 90 minutes trying to update my early snowdrop web page. By the time I hit February I’ve usually lost the will to continue!
      I did hear that Ireland have done this sudden relaxation, and I do sympathise with your thoughts. I’m sure over here too that there are a lot who’ll continue to be very cautious (including ourselves) until the weather warms up a bit – certainly in enclosed public spaces anyway, and I think this’ll be a message which will hold sway in future winters too, to some degree,
      best wishes
      Julian

      • Yes, I agree absolutely with your thoughts on how snowdrops look best – large clumps/ groups, even drifts and nothing saddens my heart more than to see a collection in small pots. That contradicts all my thoughts on growing snowdrops

      • I’ve only got one snowdrop here, which I think is our own lovely version of a X valentinei, which really seems to thrive in larger pots beneath herbaceous perennials, but it’s one of those with incredibly vigorous roots systems and I’m sure is some sort of extra chromosome set cultivar. It’s instantly recognisable in form, and at last I’m managing to build up the numbers.
        But the problem as I’m sure you’ll concur with Paddy, is that unless you’re loaded with money and could buy every new snowdrop in multiples, which I never do is it’s going to take nearly a lifetime, from scratch, to get a garden towards the really impressive drifts and clumps that could wow even the most snowdrop indifferent viewer,
        best wishes
        Julian

      • I thought, from previous posts, that you have large drifts of snowdrops in the garden. Big numbers always surpass a wide selection selection in little groups. Yes, the price of snowdrops is frightful and prohibitive and, I feel, there are very very few new introductions which sufficiently different or attractive to merit the cost. Of course, alongside the commercial side of snowdrops there is the old gardening practice of exchanging and this is how most of my snowdrops have arrived here.

      • You’re very fortunate Paddy… Living where we do, it’s an awfully long way into England to reach other significant snowdrop collections really. Which is partly why I thought it merited accumulating a few here so local people wouldn’t have as far to travel to look at them. Plus this side tracked into looking at local nivalis variants – principally from the point of view of flowering times and stature rather than any huge marking variations.
        I agree completely about new introductions, being mainly a way to fleece punters for a new name. I’m guessing very few will ever prove to be really garden worthy. I nearly didn’t get any this year, but in the end on a low ebb day, got one or two German origin bulbs 😊 We’re back to cold grey days here, and checking the latest emergences, along with bonfire making now that at last we have a breath of wind ( all very strange) is about the best way of chugging along..

      • I must write an update on the snowdrop season here but I have had a frightful week and hadn’t the heart to get working on it Tomorrow!

  4. Great perseverance in your moonshot adventure. And great perseverance in your reading too.

    I am thoroughly in agreement on the subject of treating health rather than illness. This was the first intention of the founding of the NHS I believe, but it was undone by pressure from the medical profession.

    • Hello TP.
      Thank you for slogging through some/all of this post – difficult to cover the science section succinctly without too much dumbing down, I’m afraid.
      Re. the health point, you’re quite right about our National “Health” Service, and if a lot more were spent on proper “health” promotion, exercise, diet, etc. I’m genuinely convinced that the savings in disease management would more than compensate. But it was very curious how it suddenly hit me a day ago, just before I was about to publish this piece, after all those years working within a profession so influenced and focused on the flip side of good health.
      What really brought it home was the Wellcome mission statement, The National Institute of “Health”‘s support for those ‘gain of function’ experiments, and then literally 6 hours after publishing it, reading in the regular “who’s getting what” column in Money week (which I have to subscribe to for a bit of alternative insight, looking after our own pension pot, as I do,) that 2 Wellcome executives were paid £7.9m and £7.8 m last year, after helping to generate £10 billion in capital gains and dividends for “the charity” in 2021. Not bad, eh? Which they’ll then be able to plough back into more pharmaceutical research… or experiments… I’d love to see the breakdown of what they invested the charity’s money into? Suppliers of vaccines, PPE and drugs perhaps? Or am I too cynical? Probably not bike manufacturers or whole food/organic sales. C’est la vie…
      Best wishes
      Julian.

      • One thing to consider is that doctors get a lot of satisfaction out of curing people (even of the diseases might sometimes have cured themselves with time.) It is rare to meet doctors like the highlander I met when we lived near Fort William who said to me, “Ah well, we’ll just let nature take its course, I think.”

        And there are the ‘patients ‘ to think about too. What are we to make of those taking ‘healthy exercise’ which leads to increased chances of accidents or long term sporting injuries, especially joint and head injuries?

        I speak as one with an artificial knee required after an orienteering injury.

      • Very good points TP, and worth making as a counter to my simplistic generalisation, although I still think we’ve missed a trick over basic advice and knowledge dissemination over options for us as individuals to improve our own well being. One of the huge benefits for me personally from the last 2 years, is doing much better in a few key areas, but it needed quite a lot of reading and thinking to work out what to do. Your regular exercise efforts are even more impressive, if you’re achieving them with an artificial knee!
        best wishes
        Julian

      • I agree with you Julian, the dissemination of information is the key but the means of dissemination is often in the hands of people who do not have our best interests at heart. I once spent some time on the internet to consider the comparative merits of sugar and sweeteners for my health. There were passionate advocatory groups, apparently of concerned people presenting exactly contradictory information. Closer examination made it clear the groups were respectively funded by sugar and sweetener manufacturers.

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