4 reasons why a gas-led economic recovery is a terrible, naïve idea



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Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

Australia’s leading scientists today sent an open letter to Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, speaking out against his support for natural gas.

Finkel has said natural gas plays a critical role in Australia’s transition to clean energy. But, as the scientists write:

that approach is not consistent with a safe climate nor, more specifically, with the Paris Agreement. There is no role for an expansion of the gas industry.

And yet, momentum in the support for gas investment is building. Leaked draft recommendations from the government’s top business advisers support a gas-led economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. They call for a A$6 billion investment in gas development in Australia.

This is a terrible idea. Spending billions on gas infrastructure and development under the guise of a COVID-19 economic recovery strategy — with no attempt to address pricing or anti-competitive behaviour — is ill-considered and injudicious.

It will not herald Australia’s economic recovery. Rather, it’s likely to hinder it.

The proposals ignore obvious concerns

The draft recommendations — from the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission — include lifting the moratorium on fracking and coal seam gas in New South Wales and remaining restrictions in Victoria, and reducing red and “green tape”.

It also recommends providing low-cost capital to existing small and medium market participants, underwriting costs at priority supply hubs, and investing in strategic pipeline development.

But the proposals have failed to address a range of fundamental concerns.

  1. gas is an emissions-intensive fuel

  2. demand for fossil fuels are in terminal decline across the world and investing in new infrastructure today is likely to generate stranded assets in the not-too-distant future

  3. renewable technology and storage capacity have rapidly accelerated, so gas is no longer a necessary transition resource, contrary to Finkel’s claims

  4. domestic gas pricing in the east coast market is unregulated.

Let’s explore each point.

The effect on climate change

Accelerating gas production will increase greenhouse gas emissions. Approximately half of Australian gas reserves need to remain in the ground if global warming is to stay under 2℃ by 2030.

Natural gas primarily consists of methane, and the role of methane in global warming cannot be overstated. It’s estimated that over 20 years, methane traps 86 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.




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And fast-tracking controversial projects, such as the Narrabri Gas Project in northern NSW, will add an estimated 500 million tonnes of additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Accelerating such unconventional gas projects also threatens to exacerbate damage to forests, wildlife habitat, water quality and water levels because of land clearing, chemical contamination and fracking.

These potential threats are enormous concerns for our agricultural sector. Insurance Australia Group, one of the largest insurance companies in Australia, has indicated it will no longer provide public liability insurance for farmers if coal seam gas equipment is on their land.

Fossil fuels in decline

Investing in gas makes absolutely no sense when renewable energy and storage solutions are expanding at such a rapid pace.

It will only result in stranded assets. Stranded assets are investments that don’t generate a viable economic return. The financial risks associated with stranded fossil fuel assets are prompting many large institutions to join the growing divestment movement.




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Solar, wind and hydropower are rolling out at unprecedented speed. Globally, renewable power capacity is set to expand by 50% between 2019 and 2024, led by solar PV.

Solar PV alone accounts for almost 60% of the expected growth, with onshore wind representing one-quarter. This is followed by offshore wind capacity, which is forecast to triple by 2024.

Domestic pricing is far too expensive

Domestic gas in Australia’s east coast market is ridiculously expensive. The east coast gas market in Australia is like a cartel, and consumers and industry have experienced enormous price hikes over the last decade. This means there is not even a cost incentive for investing in gas.

Indeed, the price shock from rising gas prices has forced major manufacturing and chemical plants to close.

The domestic price of gas has trebled over the last decade, even though the international price of gas has plummeted by up to 40% during the pandemic.




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As Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair Rod Simms declared in the interim gas report released last week, these price issues are “extremely concerning” and raise “serious questions about the level of competition among producers”.

To date, the federal government has done very little in response, despite the implementation of the Australian Domestic Gas Security Mechanism in 2017.

This mechanism gives the minister the power to restrict LNG exports when there’s insufficient domestic supply. The idea is that shoring up supply would stabilise domestic pricing.

But the minister has never exercised the power. The draft proposals put forward by the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission do not address these concerns.

A gas-led disaster

There is no doubt gas producers are suffering. COVID-19 has resulted in US$11 billion of Chevron gas and LNG assets being put up for sale.

And the reduction in energy demand caused by COVID-19 has produced record low oil prices. Low oil prices can stifle investment in new sources of supply, reducing the ability and incentive of producers to explore for and develop gas.




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It’s clear the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission’s recommendations are oriented towards helping gas producers. But investing in gas production and development won’t help Australia as a whole recover from the pandemic.

The age of peak fossil fuel is over. Accelerating renewable energy production, which coheres with climate targets and a decarbonising global economy, is the only way forward.

A COVID-19 economic strategy that fails to appreciate this not only naïve, it’s contrary to the interests of broader Australia.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

340,000 Melburnians have little or no parkland within 5km of their home


Ali Lakhani, La Trobe University; Dennis Wollersheim, La Trobe University; Elizabeth Kendall, Griffith University, and Prosper Korah, Griffith University

Under the stage 4 restrictions enforced throughout metropolitan Melbourne, residents can exercise for one hour each day, within five kilometres of their home.

While such restrictions are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, they can potentially harm people’s physical and mental well-being.

Parks are great for exercising, getting fresh air, and getting close to nature, all of which boost our physical and mental health.

Unfortunately, some Melburnians have little or no access to parkland within their permitted 5km radius, meaning they are likely to miss out on these benefits.

Space to breathe

Our map analysis looked at mesh blocks, the smallest geographical area defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, typically containing 30-60 homes.

For each mesh block zoned as residential, we tallied up the total area zoned as parkland within a 5-kilometre radius. The results are shown in the interactive map below, in which darker greens indicate a larger area of available parkland (very light green: 0-4.5 sq km; light green: 4.5-9.2 sq km; mid-green: 9.2-13.2 sq km; dark green: 13.2-19 sq km; very dark green: more than 19 sq km).

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Of the 42,199 residential mesh blocks currently under stage 4 restrictions, 3,496 have between 0 and 4.5 square kilometres of parkland within 5km. This equates to about 135,000 homes or 340,000 people with little or no access to parks within their permitted area for exercising.

On average, residents in Cardinia, Mornington Peninsula and Melton have the least parkland within a 5km radius, whereas those in Knox, Yarra and Banuyle have the most.

Haves and have-nots

Our findings confirm that some Melburnians are more fortunate than others in their ability to access urban green space during stage 4 lockdown.

For those less fortunate, the state government should consider replacing the blanket 5km rule with a special provision that allows people to travel outside this radius if they would otherwise be unable to access a park.




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Bespoke rules could also help others, such as residents with a disability or older Melburnians who use a mobility aid. While many members of these groups might have plentiful parks within their 5km radius, they may have problems accessing them. Issues can include uneven pavements, kerbs without ramps, or steeply sloped paths.

The state government could help these people by auditing public spaces to establish where structural barriers exist, and then work to remedy them. Alternatively, once again, the blanket 5km rule could be amended with a special provision that allows older Melburnians, or those with a disability, to travel outside their 5km radius to get to the most suitable nearby park.The Conversation

Ali Lakhani, Senior Lecturer in Public Health, La Trobe University; Dennis Wollersheim, Lecturer, Health Information Management, La Trobe University; Elizabeth Kendall, Professor, The Hopkins Centre, Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Griffith University, and Prosper Korah, PhD Researcher, Urban Studies and Planning, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Carbon dioxide levels over Australia rose even after COVID-19 forced global emissions down. Here’s why



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Zoe Loh, CSIRO; Helen Cleugh, CSIRO; Paul Krummel, CSIRO, and Ray Langenfelds, CSIRO

COVID-19 has curtailed the activities of millions of people across the world and with it, greenhouse gas emissions. As climate scientists at the Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station, we are routinely asked: does this mean carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have fallen?

The answer, disappointingly, is no. Throughout the pandemic, atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO₂) levels continued to rise.

In fact, our measurements show more CO₂ accumulated in the atmosphere between January and July 2020 than during the same period in 2017 or 2018.

Emissions from last summer’s bushfires may have contributed to this. But there are several other reasons why COVID-19 has not brought CO₂ concentrations down at Cape Grim – let’s take a look at them.

Measuring the cleanest air in the world

Cape Grim is on the northwest tip of Tasmania. Scientists at the station, run by the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, have monitored and studied the global atmosphere for the past 44 years.

The air we monitor is the cleanest in the world when it blows from the southwest, off the Southern Ocean. Measurements taken during these conditions are known as “baseline concentrations”, and represent the underlying level of carbon dioxide in the Southern Hemisphere’s atmosphere.

The Cape Grim station
The Cape Grim station measures the cleanest air in the world.
Bureau of Meteorology



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A drop in the CO₂ ocean

Emissions reductions due to COVID-19 started in China in January, and peaked globally in April. Our measurements show atmospheric CO₂ levels rose during that period. In January 2020, baseline CO₂ was 408.3 parts per million (ppm) at Cape Grim. By July that had risen to 410 ppm.

Since the station first began measurements in 1976, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased by 25%, as shown in the graph below. The slowdown in the rate of carbon emissions during the pandemic is a mere tug against this overall upward trend.

The CO₂ increase is due to the burning of fossil fuels for energy, and land use change such as deforestation which leaves fewer trees to absorb CO₂ from the air, and changes the uptake and release of carbon in the soils.

Baseline CO₂ record from Cape Grim.
Baseline CO₂ record from Cape Grim.
Author provided

Atmospheric transport

Large air circulation patterns in the atmosphere spread gases such as CO₂ around the world, but this process takes time.

Most emissions reduction due to COVID-19 occurred in the Northern Hemisphere, because that’s where most of the world’s population lives. Direct measurements of CO₂ in cities where strict lockdown measures were imposed show emissions reductions of up to 75%. This would have reduced atmospheric CO₂ concentrations locally.

But it will take many months for this change to manifest in the Southern Hemisphere atmosphere – and by the time it does, the effect will be significantly diluted.

Natural ups and downs

Emissions reductions during COVID-19 are a tiny component of a very large carbon cycle. This cycle is so dynamic that even when the emissions slowdown is reflected in atmospheric CO₂ levels, the reduction will be well within the cycle’s natural ebb and flow.

Here’s why. Global carbon emissions have grown by about 1% a year over the past decade. This has triggered growth in atmospheric CO₂ levels of between 2 and 3 ppm per year in that time, as shown in the graph below. In fact, since our measurements began, CO₂ has accumulated more rapidly in the atmosphere with every passing decade, as emissions have grown.

Annual growth in CO₂ at Cape Grim  since 1976. Red horizontal bars show the average growth rate in ppm/year each decade.
Annual growth in CO₂ at Cape Grim since 1976. Red horizontal bars show the average growth rate in ppm/year each decade.
Author provided

But although CO₂ emissions have grown consistently, the resulting rate of accumulation in the atmosphere varies considerably each year. This is because roughly half of human emissions are mopped up by ecosystems and the oceans, and these processes change from year to year.

For example, in southeast Australia, last summer’s extensive and prolonged bushfires emitted unusually large amounts of CO₂, as well as changing the capacity of ecosystems to absorb it. And during strong El Niño events, reduced rainfall in some regions limits the productivity of grasslands and forests, so they take up less CO₂.

The graph below visualises this variability. It shows the baseline CO₂ concentrations for each year, relative to January 1. Note how the baseline level changes through a natural seasonal cycle, how that change varies from year to year and how much CO₂ has been added to the atmosphere by the end of the year.

Daily baseline values for CO₂ for each year from 1977 relative to 1 January for that year
Daily baseline values for CO2 for each year from 1977 relative to 1 January for that year.
Author provided

The growth rate has been as much as 3 ppm per year. The black line represents 2020 and lines for the preceding five years are coloured. All show recent annual growth rates of about 2-3 ppm/year – a variability in the range of about 1 ppm/year.




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Research in May estimated that due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, global annual average emissions for 2020 would be between 4.2% and 7.5% lower than for 2019.

Let’s simplistically assume CO₂ concentration growth reduces by the same amount. There would be 0.08-0.23 ppm less CO₂ in the atmosphere by the end of 2020 than if no pandemic occurred. This variation is well within the natural 1 ppm/year annual variability in CO₂ growth.

CO₂ is released in industrial emissions
CO₂ levels in the atmosphere are increasing due to fossil fuel burning and land use change.
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The road ahead

It’s clear COVID-19 has not solved the climate change problem. But this fact helps us understand the magnitude of change required if we’re to stabilise the global climate system.

The central aim of the Paris climate agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2℃, and pursue efforts to keep it below 1.5℃. To achieve this, global CO₂ emissions must decline by 3% and 7% each year, respectively, until 2030, according to the United Nations Emissions Gap Report.

Thanks to COVID-19, we may achieve this reduction in 2020. But to lock in year-on-year emissions reductions that will be reflected in the atmosphere, we must act now to make deep, significant and permanent changes to global energy and economic systems.


The lead author, Zoe Loh, discusses the CO₂ record from Cape Grim in Fight for Planet A, showing now on the ABC.




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The Conversation


Zoe Loh, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO; Helen Cleugh, Senior research scientist, CSIRO Climate Science Centre, CSIRO; Paul Krummel, Research Group Leader, CSIRO, and Ray Langenfelds, Scientist at CSIRO Atmospheric Research, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why bats don’t get sick from the viruses they carry, but humans can



Bats are key pollinators and seed-spreaders, and keep pests away.
(Shutterstock)

Livia O. Loureiro, University of Toronto

One of the first questions scientists ask when a new disease appears is, “Where did this come from?”

Many viruses jump from animals to humans, a phenomenon known as “zoonotic spillover.” Although it remains unclear which animal was the source of the current coronavirus pandemic, all the attention is on bats.

The transmission of viruses from bats to humans is not just a matter of a bat biting someone or licking their blood. (Bats do not suck blood as they do in vampire stories.) It is often a much more complex scenario that may involve an intermediary host.

Many other animals are also known to be repositories for human diseases. Rodents carry the plague, pigs transmit influenza and birds transport the West Nile virus. So, why are bats so often blamed for transmitting disease?

As a scientist who has spent years studying the evolution of bats in several countries in South America, North America and the Caribbean, I think that these night creatures are often the victims of misinformation. Most people are afraid of bats, and there is a tendency to connect them to bad things.

Heating up

One reason bats are blamed for disease has nothing to do with science. Bats are associated with vampires and horror stories, which causes fear and misunderstanding towards these flying creatures.

The other reasons are grounded in evidence. Bats are the second-most species-rich order of mammals. There are more than 1,400 species distributed worldwide, except in Antarctica. They live in urban and natural areas, and they all have the potential to carry viruses. Bats are also mammals, and this relatedness to humans makes them more likely to be hosts of zoonoses than birds and reptiles, for example.




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Some bat species prefer to live in colonies, close to one another, creating a perfect setting for pathogens to spread between each other — and to other species who might also share the space. Bats are also the only mammals capable of true flight, making it easier for them to spread diseases through their guano (bat feces).

But what is particularly interesting is their tolerance to viruses, which exceeds that of other mammals. When bats fly, they release a great amount of energy, which increases their body temperature to 38–41 C. The pathogens that have evolved in bats are able to withstand these high temperatures. This poses a problem for humans because our immune system has evolved to use high temperatures — in the form of fevers — as a way to disable pathogens.

Seed dispersers

Despite all the negative press bats receive, they make positive contributions to the environment and to our lives.

The majority of species feed on insects, helping protect crops from infestations. They are involved in seed dispersal, such as those from fig trees and silver palms, and the pollination of many plants, including several commercial ones, such as the eucalyptus and agave, which provide natural fibres and beverages, such as tequila and mescal.




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Bats have also been used in scientific research to understand adaptive evolution (how beneficial mutations become common in a population) and how ecosystems function. They have also be used in studies on aging, cancer, immunity and biomimetic engineering.

And most importantly, bats might actually help to provide the solution for COVID-19 and other viruses. Bats do not get sick from many viruses that might kill humans, and research on how bats achieve this could hold the key to help us fight this and future outbreaks.

‘Bad reputation?’

It is clear that researchers around the world are doing whatever they can to report the origin of SARS-CoV-2. So far, the most accepted hypothesis is that the novel coronavirus originated in bats. The genome of the virus found in humans is 96 per cent identical to one found in bats. But are these findings being reported the way they should?

Not always, from the bat’s perspective, at least.

Complex scientific studies are being published very fast, which is understandable considering the urgency of this new disease. However, this hastiness is leading to mistrust, confusion and sometimes even fear and hatred towards these flying mammals.

In some places, this growing “bad reputation” has led to the intentional and needless killing of bats in the name of protecting public health. But this could have negative consequences: disturbing hibernating bats causes abnormal arousal and stress, which could lead to the spread of new diseases.

But even if bats are proven to be the source of this virus, they are not to blame for the transfer of SARS-CoV-2 — humans are. We destroy natural habitats at a frenetic speed; we kill threatened species, changing entire food chains; we pollute the air, the water and the soil.

It is expected that new pathogens that were previously locked away in nature will come in contact with people and spread fast as people move around the world. The people who blame bats for COVID-19 should look in the mirror to see if the real vampire resides within.The Conversation

Livia O. Loureiro, Research Fellow, The Cente for Applied Genomics — Sickkids Hospital, University of Toronto

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Health care has a huge environmental footprint, which then harms health. This is a matter of ethics



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Anthony Capon, Monash University; Arunima Malik, University of Sydney; David Pencheon, University of Exeter; Helga Weisz, Humboldt University of Berlin, and Manfred Lenzen, University of Sydney

The health impacts of environmental change are now squarely on the radar. Australia’s recent intense wildfires is one glaring example. Spillover of the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic from animals to humans is another.

But less is known about the reverse: environmental harms from health care. This is what our study, the first global assessment of the environmental footprint of health care, aimed to do.




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We quantified resource consumption and pollution by the health-care sector in 189 countries, from 2000 to 2015. We found health care is harming the environment in ways that, in turn, harm health, thereby counteracting the primary mission of health care.

For example, we found the health-care sector causes a substantial share of the world’s emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants: 4.4% of greenhouse gases, 2.8% of harmful particulate matter (air particles), 3.4% of nitrogen oxides and 3.6% of sulphur dioxide.

A vicious cycle

As part of broader economic systems, the health-care sector can inadvertently harm health through purchased resources, and the waste and pollution produced. In other words, it can unwittingly harm health in efforts to protect and improve it.

The aim of our study was not to assign blame to health care. Rather, as our dependence on health care increases, we need to support this sector to become more sustainable so we don’t enter a vicious cycle, where more health care means more environmental damage, and vice versa.




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Using a global supply-chain database, we measured direct and indirect environmental damage driven by health-care demand.

We focused on environmental stressors the health-care sector contributes to with known adverse feedback cycles for health, such as greenhouse gas emissions, particulate matter (10 micrometers or less in diameter) and scarce water use.

We found health care causes environmental impacts that range between 1% and 5% of total global impacts, depending on the indicator. It contributes to more than 5% for some indicators at the individual country level.

For example, along with its contributions to greenhouse gases and air pollutants, health care uses 1.5% of scarce water in the world. Scarce water is measured as water consumption weighted by a “scarcity index”, which takes into account insufficient access to clean water in different countries.

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To begin addressing the problem, all health-care professionals should first understand how their work impacts the environment.

Polluting economies lead to polluting health care systems

For all stressors, countries with large populations, economies and health budgets (the US and China, for instance) dominate the results in absolute terms.

The key message is that we need to understand how these stressors are trending over time, and what measures can be taken to improve health and protect the environment at the same time.

For example, in South Korea emissions of greenhouse gases, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from health care decreased by between 27% and 60% during 2000 and 2015.

Whereas in China, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from health care increased by between 91% and 173% in the same period.

For some indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions and particulate matter, a majority of impacts are hidden in upstream supply chains. Unravelling supply chain connections will help us understand the hotspots of environmental impacts, such as pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.

A matter of ethics

The environmental impact of health care is both a practical and ethical issue for health-care professionals.

In 2015, more than 460,000 premature deaths were related to coal combustion globally. Frankly, why should any hospital purchase coal-fired energy when it produces toxic air pollution that harms health?

Some health professionals may baulk at this additional responsibility because they’re busy providing life-saving treatments and don’t have time to worry about the pollution they cause.

And some might say a global pandemic is not the time to burden health-care professionals with another responsibility.

We argue there’s no better time to raise this issue than when the eyes of the world are on health care. The pandemic has shown us we can achieve change at pace and scale if the evidence is clear and the collective will is shared.

The pandemic has brought attention to waste from single-use personal protective equipment. However, we are yet to develop consistent systems for monitoring these environmental impacts, and to implement effective strategies to reduce these impacts across the world.

Waste from single-use personal protective equipment has no doubt skyrocketed since the pandemic began.
Shutterstock

The way forward

Health-care organisations at every level (national, regional, hospital, primary care) should measure and track their environmental footprint over time, as they do for health outcomes and financial costs.




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All health-care professionals – from doctors and nurses, to managers and members of hospital boards – should understand the environmental footprint of the health care they provide and take steps to reduce it.

The purchasing power of health care should be harnessed to drive sustainability transitions in other sectors. For example, health-care organisations purchase large amounts of food for patients. The managers responsible for this food procurement should ensure the food is healthy, value for money and produced in sustainable ways.

Some health-care organisations are already making progress. Civil society organisations like Global Green and Healthy Hospitals are spreading the word. But there is an urgent need for all health organisations to step up.

As health professionals around the world increasingly call for action on climate change, it’s important to ensure their own house is in order.The Conversation

Anthony Capon, Director, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Arunima Malik, Lecturer in Sustainability, University of Sydney; David Pencheon, Honorary Professor, Exeter UK / Adjunct Professor, Monash Sustainable Development Institute / Visiting Professor, Surrey UK, University of Exeter; Helga Weisz, Professor of Industrial Ecology and Climate Change, Humboldt University of Berlin, and Manfred Lenzen, Professor of Sustainability Research, School of Physics, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What zoologists should learn from a zoonotic pandemic



The best-known example of a zoonotic pandemic is HIV/AIDS, which originated from chimpanzees.
GettyImages

Aliza le Roux, University of the Free State and Bettine van Vuuren, University of Johannesburg

Zoology has an illustrious history; it has triggered paradigm shifts in thinking. One of the best known was Darwin’s theory of evolution, based on his observations of the natural world. It became the cornerstone of current zoological research.

Very few sub-disciplines of zoology are not firmly anchored on ideas around change over time, driven by some advantage that individuals get from specific heritable characteristics. In this spirit of observation of nature, linked to robust and detailed analyses of trends, zoologists have been sounding the alarm for many years about the current mass extinction and the negative consequences of disrespecting nature.

Those chickens have come home to roost.

Ultimately, COVID-19 is zoological in origin. And now, in the midst of the pandemic, it is modellers, virologists, medical specialists and engineers who are driving the scientific response to the global crisis.

Their role is crucial because they can contribute to preventing zoonotic outbreaks in future. But how? What could zoologists do differently?

Firstly, multidisciplinary research will be the cornerstone, forging links that haven’t existed before. Secondly, we will need to broaden our species focus. So far, research has targeted species known for carrying diseases that can infect other species – such as bats and primates. But this will need to be expanded to, for example, small carnivores.

What do we know already?

Zoologists have known for decades that some of the most virulent viral infections are animal in origin. These viruses occur naturally and at low levels. In their natural animal hosts they are often not harmful.

Viruses are not autonomous. They require the host’s DNA to replicate. Many viruses are therefore species-specific and cannot replicate outside their natural host. But a random mutation in the right location in the virus’s DNA can allow the virus to establish in a new host species.

Perhaps the best-known example is HIV/AIDS, which is simian (chimpanzee) in origin. Here, the simian immunodeficiency virus successfully transitioned to humans – through contact with animal blood or meat – to become the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV, causing AIDS.

Since the first record of HIV-1 in humans, this virus has mutated several times. The two main types present in humans have different animal origins. HIV-1 is closely related to viruses found in chimpanzees and gorillas (great apes), while HIV-2 is more closely related to viruses in sooty mangabeys (Old World monkeys) in West Africa.

We’re therefore dealing with at least two independent host jump events, and possibly many more. Decades after HIV-1 was identified and sequenced from humans, we are still no closer to a vaccine, and an estimated 32 million people (at the end of 2018) have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the pandemic.

Very little is known about the coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2 – that causes COVID-19, even though it isn’t the first time that a member of the coronavirus family has jumped from its natural animal host to humans. According to the National Foundation for Infection Diseases fact sheet, human coronaviruses were first identified in the 1960s. Seven coronaviruses that can infect humans have since been identified.

These have included MERS-CoV, causing Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, and SARS-CoV, causing severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. The current pandemic is the result of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

Initial ideas about SARS-CoV-2 were that it originated from two hosts – bats and later from pangolins. To date, the full genomes of more than 17,000 SARS-CoV-2 viruses have been sequenced, but the exact origin is still unknown.

This is important because to fully understand the properties of the virus, we need to know the animal host (so called patient zero). This information may be critical to developing vaccines.

It won’t be easy. There is a very real possibility that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 may be a bat. But they are difficult to work on, given their habits of nocturnality, flight, and roosting in places that are hard to access. And there’s a strong possibility that bat diversity is underestimated. This is a real problem given that viruses may be species-specific.

Focus areas

There are some simple steps that zoologists are following.

The first is to home in on data that we can collect easily but which will still provide relevant information.

One example is faeces. Defecation is near universal in the animal kingdom, and zoologists have been cashing in on the rich data that faeces can deliver. We collect, store and analyse faeces for parasite load, hormonal data and DNA, relating these data to the health, behaviour and social structures of species.

But this source of information can be mined for much more by, for example, taking advantage of advances in metagenomic sequencing. This means we can now use faeces – properly stored and prepared – to identify entire viromes in the wildlife hosts, enabling us to proactively identify potential zoonotic viruses.

This requires zoologists to make connections through linkages with virology and medical laboratories to provide multidisciplinary perspectives.

Another rich area that we can use more extensively is the massive volume of animal movement data. It has spawned a proliferation of websites dedicated to the sharing of GPS points tracking everything from ants to elephants, often using animal collars that transmit location signals. We understand that animal movement patterns can affect disease outbreaks and spillovers to humans; can’t we use these resources more proactively?

It’s vital for zoologists to collaborate with social scientists too, to understand human interaction with wildlife better. Ultimately, the jumps from animal to human are driven by us, and our behaviour. We can – and should – use the existing connections that many zoologists have with local communities to do more than reduce human-wildlife conflict.

This information provides rich pickings for zoologists as we battle to unravel the latest mysteries of what happens within species and between species.The Conversation

Aliza le Roux, Associate Professor, University of the Free State and Bettine van Vuuren, Professor, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Birdwatching increased tenfold last lockdown. Don’t stop, it’s a huge help for bushfire recovery



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Ayesha Tulloch, University of Sydney; April Reside, The University of Queensland; Georgia Garrard, RMIT University; Michelle Ward, The University of Queensland, and Monica Awasthy, Griffith University

Many Victorians returning to stage three lockdown will be looking for ways to pass the hours at home. And some will be turning to birdwatching.

When Australians first went into lockdown in March, the combination of border closures, lockdowns and the closure of burnt areas from last summer’s bushfires meant those who would have travelled far and wide to watch their favourite birds, instead stayed home.

Yet, Australians are reporting bird sightings at record rates – they’ve just changed where and how they do it.

In fact, Australian citizen scientists submitted ten times the number of backyard bird surveys to BirdLife Australia’s Birdata app in April compared with the same time last year, according to BirdLife Australia’s Dr Holly Parsons.

But it’s not just a joyful hobby. Australia’s growing fascination with birds is vital for conservation after last summer’s devastating bushfires reduced many habitats to ash.

Birds threatened with extinction

Australia’s native plants and animals are on the slow path to recovery after the devastating fires last summer. In our research that’s soon to be published, we found the fires razed forests, grasslands and woodlands considered habitat for 832 species of native vertebrate fauna. Of these, 45% are birds.

Some birds with the largest areas of burnt habitat are threatened with extinction, such as the southern rufous scrub-bird and the Kangaroo Island glossy black-cockatoo.

Government agencies and conservation NGOs are rolling out critical recovery actions.

But citizen scientists play an important role in recovery too, in the form of monitoring. This provides important data to inform biodiversity disaster research and management.

Record rates of birdwatching

Birdwatchers have recorded numerous iconic birds affected by the fires while observing COVID-19 restrictions. They’ve been recorded in urban parks and city edges, as well as in gardens and on farms.

In April 2020, survey numbers in BirdLife Australia’s Birds in Backyards program jumped to 2,242 – a tenfold increase from 241 in April 2019.

Change in the number of area-based surveys by Australian citizen scientists over the first six months of 2019 compared with 2020. Data sourced from BirdLife Australia’s Birdata database.

Similarly, reporting of iconic birds impacted by the recent bushfires has increased.

Between January and June, photos and records of gang-gang cockatoos in the global amateur citizen science app iNaturalist increased by 60% from 2019 to 2020. And the number of different people submitting these records doubled from 26 in 2019 to 53 in 2020.




Read more:
Want to help save wildlife after the fires? You can do it in your own backyard


What’s more, reporting of gang-gangs almost doubled in birding-focused apps, such as Birdlife Australia’s Birdata, which recently added a bushfire assessment tool .

The huge rise in birdwatching at home has even given rise to new hashtags you can follow, such as #BirdingatHome on Twitter, and #CuppaWithTheBirds on Instagram.

A gang-gang effort: why we’re desperate for citizen scientists

The increased reporting rates of fire-affected birds is good news, as it means many birds are surviving despite losing their home. But they’re not out of the woods yet.

Their presence in marginal habitats within and at the edge of urban and severely burnt areas puts them more at risk. This includes threats from domestic cat and dog predation, starvation due to inadequate food supply, and stress-induced nest failure.

That’s why consolidating positive behaviour change, such as the rise in public engagement with birdwatching and reporting, is so important.

A female superb lyrebird calling to her reflection in a parked car in suburbia. Her nest was later discovered 100 meters from the carpark.

Citizen science programs help increase environmental awareness and concern. They also improve the data used to inform conservation management decisions, and inform biodiversity disaster management.

For example, improved knowledge about where birds go after fire destroys their preferred habitat will help conservation groups and state governments prioritise locations for recovery efforts. Such efforts include control of invasive predators, supplementary feeding and installation of nest boxes.

Gang gang Cockatoo hanging out on a street sign in Canberra.
Athena Georgiou/Birdlife Photography

Better understanding of how bushfire-affected birds use urban and peri-urban habitats will help governments with long-term planning that identifies and protects critical refuges from being cleared or degraded.

And new data on where birds retreat to after fires is invaluable for helping us understand and plan for future bushfire emergencies.

So what can you do to help?

If you have submitted a bird sighting or survey during lockdown, keep at it! If you have never done a bird survey before, but you see one of the priority birds earmarked for special recovery efforts, please report them.




Read more:
Six million hectares of threatened species habitat up in smoke


There are several tools available to the public for reporting and learning about birds.

iNaturalist asks you to share a photo or video or sound recording, and a community of experts identifies it for you.

BirdLife’s Birds in Backyards program includes a “Bird Finder” tool to help novice birders identify that bird sitting on the back verandah. Once you’ve figured out what you’re seeing, you can log your bird sightings to help out research and management.

The majority of habitat for Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoos burnt last summer.
Bowerbirdaus/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

For more advanced birders who can identify birds without guidance, options include eBird and BirdLife’s Birdata app. This will help direct conservation groups to places where help is most needed.

Finally, if there are fire-affected birds, such as lyrebirds and gang-gang cockatoos, in your area, it’s especially important to keep domestic dogs and cats indoors, and encourage neighbours to do the same. Report fox sightings to your local council.




Read more:
Lots of people want to help nature after the bushfires – we must seize the moment


If you come across a bird that’s injured or in distress, it’s best to contact a wildlife rescue organisation, such as Wildcare Australia (south-east Queensland), WIRES (NSW) or Wildlife Victoria.

By ensuring their homes are safe and by building a better bank of knowledge about where they seek refuge in times of need, we can all help Australia’s unique wildlife.The Conversation

Ayesha Tulloch, DECRA Research Fellow, University of Sydney; April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Georgia Garrard, Senior Research Fellow, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group, RMIT University; Michelle Ward, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland, and Monica Awasthy, Visiting Research Scientist, Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why going camping could be the answer to your lockdown holiday woes



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Carol Southall, Staffordshire University

For many of us, the forced confinement of lockdown has reiterated the importance of being out and about in nature – along with the benefits it can bring.

So as the UK begins to reopen, it’s likely that many people will be craving space away from crowds and busy, built-up areas. And given that, one in eight British households has no garden, there is likely to be a surge in people heading off to enjoy the great outdoors and British countryside.

Indeed, outdoor areas and activities – think gardens, national parks and coastal areas – are likely to be busier than usual. Predominantly indoor activities and venues, meanwhile – such as restaurants, museums and galleries – are likely to face lengthier periods of subdued demand.

As a result, the tourism industry is anticipating a surge in people taking active outdoor breaks close to home. In the US for example, a national marketing campaign from the National Park Foundation will promote lesser-known parks as destinations. While Airbnb’s recent Go Near initiative aims to support the “growing desire for domestic travel”.

In the UK, VisitBritain’s weekly UK COVID-19 Consumer Tracker Report shows that 20% of adults in the UK plan to take a short break or holiday within the UK by September. Coastal areas (both urban and rural) are emerging as top destinations.

Heading outdoors

Spending time outdoors, can improve your blood pressure and digestion and boost the immune system. Spending time in green space, near trees, also means that we take in more oxygen, which in turn leads to release of the feelgood hormone serotonin.

Spending time outdoors can give you that natural boost.
DisobeyArt/Shutterstock

Many families incorporate outdoor activity in green space into their holiday plans as a way of improving wellbeing and mental health. Active pursuits in the outdoors can also bring families together to enjoy themselves.

Camping, more than most forms of holiday, involves family members doing more together and encourages a more active, back-to-nature lifestyle. And, according to research from the University of Plymouth, children who go camping do better at school and are healthier and happier. So it’s a win-win.

The children who took part in the research were asked what they love about camping and the most common themes were making and meeting new friends, having fun, playing outside and learning various camping skills. Children also recognised camping’s value for problem solving and working together – out in the fresh air, away from the TV and computers.

Quality family time

The make-up of family units has changed massively over the past two decades. And many families now live spread out – no longer in one place, town or city. So for many families, holidays offer the offer the chance to spend time and reconnect with different generations of their family – along with quality time together that is so fundamental to family life.

Time outdoors can give families the chance to reconnect.
Shutterstock/Maksym Gorpenyuk

For families with busy lives, where parents are often working long hours, the chance to be together on holiday can feel key to the survival of the family unit. And many working parents – mums in particular – have found that the struggle to balance work and childcare has been exacerbated during lockdown.

But of course, families struggling to spend time together is not a new phenomenon. In 2011 a Thomson Holiday report found that, more than one-quarter of working parents spent less than an hour a day with their children. This is despite wanting more time together.

Time for a break

The benefits of family holidays are numerous. They can give all members of the family time to regain balance, reconnect and restore equilibrium. Holidays are also often an opportunity for people to try new skills, sports or activities – which can help to boost confidence and self-esteem.

So don’t despair if you’re no longer heading abroad this summer. Instead, head for the great outdoors and enjoy some quality family time – away from the house and daily lockdown routine.

This will not only give you a chance to relax and unwind in a new environment but will also encourage children and other family members to try something new – whether it’s toasting marshmallows and singing campfire songs, swimming in rivers, stargazing – or simply just being close to nature.The Conversation

Carol Southall, Course Leader and Senior Lecturer at Staffordshire Business School, Staffordshire University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Global report gives Australia an A for coronavirus response but a D on climate


John Thwaites, Monash University

The global Sustainable Development Report 2020, released this week in New York, ranks Australia third among OECD countries for the effectiveness of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, beaten by only South Korea and Latvia.

Yet Australia trundled in at 37th in the world on its overall progress in achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which cover a range of economic, social and environmental challenges – many of which will be crucial considerations as we recover from the pandemic. Australia’s worst results are in climate action and the environment, where we rate well below most other OECD countries.




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4 ways Australia’s coronavirus response was a triumph, and 4 ways it fell short


South Korea tops the list of effective COVID-19 responses, whereas New Zealand (which declared the coronavirus eliminated on June 8, albeit with a few sporadic cases since) is ranked ninth. Meanwhile, the United States, United Kingdom and several other Western European countries rank at the bottom of the list.

Nations’ COVID-19 responses, ranked by the UN.
United Nations, Author provided

South Korea, Latvia and Australia did well because they not only kept infection and death rates low, but did so with less economic and social disruption than other nations. Rather than having to resort to severe lockdowns, they did this by testing and tracing, encouraging community behaviour change, and quarantining people arriving from overseas.

Using smartphone data from Google, the report shows that during the severe lockdown in Spain and Italy between March and May this year, mobility within the community – including visits to shops and work – declined by 62% and 60%, respectively. This shows how much these countries were struggling to keep the virus at bay. In contrast, mobility declined by less than 25% in Australia and by only 10% in South Korea.

Australia outperformed the OECD average on COVID-19 reponse.
Author provided

Why has Australia performed well?

There are several reasons why Australia’s COVID-19 response has been strong, although major challenges remain. National and state governments have followed expert scientific advice from early in the pandemic.

The creation of the National Cabinet fostered relatively harmonious decision-making between the Commonwealth and the states. Australia has a strong public health system and the Australian public has a history of successfully embracing behaviour change. We have shown admirable adaptability and innovation, for example in the radical expansion of telehealth.

We should learn from these successes. The Sustainable Development Goals provide a useful framework for planning to “build back better”.




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The Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by all countries in 2015, encompass a set of 17 goals and 169 targets to be met by 2030. Among the central aims are economic prosperity, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. They are arguably even more important than before in considering how best to shape our post-pandemic world.

As the report points out, the fallout from COVID-19 is likely to have a highly negative impact on achievement of many of the goals: increased poverty due to job losses (goal 1), disease, death and mental health risks (goal 3), disproportionate economic impacts on women and domestic violence (goal 5), loss of jobs and business closures (goal 8), growing inequality (goal 10), and reduction in use of public transport (goal 11). The impact on the environmental goals is still unclear: the short-term reduction in global greenhouse emissions is accompanied by pressure to reduce environmental safeguards in the name of economic recovery.

How do we ‘build back better’?

The SDGs already give us a roadmap, so really we just need to keep our sights set firmly on the targets agreed for 2030. Before COVID-19, the world was making progress towards achieving the goals. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty fell from 10% in 2015 to 8.6% in 2018. Access to basic transport infrastructure and broadband have been growing rapidly in most parts of the world.

Australia’s story is less positive, however. On a composite index of performance on 115 indicators covering all 17 goals, the report puts Australia 37th in the world, but well behind most of the countries to which we like to compare ourselves. Sweden, Denmark and Finland top the overall rankings, followed by France and Germany. New Zealand is 16th.

It is not surprising, in light of our performance during the pandemic, that Australia’s strongest performance is on goal 3: good health. The report rates Australia as on track to achieve all health targets.




Read more:
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Australia also performs strongly on education (goal 4), and moderately well on goals relating to water, economic growth, infrastructure and sustainable cities. However, we perform extremely poorly in energy (goal 7), climate change (goal 13) and responsible consumption and production (goal 12), where our reliance on fossil fuels and wasteful business practices puts us near the bottom of the field.

On clean energy (goal 7), the share of renewable energy in total primary energy supply (including electricity, transport and industry) is only 6.9%. In Germany it is 14.1%, and in Denmark an impressive 33.4%.

Australia rates poorly on goal 12, responsible consumption and production, with 23.6kg of electronic waste per person and high sulfur dioxide and nitrogen emissions.

Australia’s performance on goal 13, climate action, is a clear fail. Our annual energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are 14.8 tonnes per person – much higher than the 5.5 tonnes for the average Brit, and 4.3 tonnes for the typical Swede.




Read more:
Climate action is the key to Australia achieving the Sustainable Development Goals


And whereas in the Nordic countries the indicators for goal 15 — biodiversity and life on land — are generally improving, the Red List measuring species survival is getting worse in Australia.

There are many countries that consider themselves world leaders but now wish they had taken earlier and stronger action against COVID-19. Australia listened to the experts, took prompt action, and can hopefully look back on the pandemic with few regrets.

But on current form, there will be plenty to regret about our reluctance to follow scientific advice on climate change and environmental degradation, and our refusal to show anything like the necessary urgency.


The original version of this article reported that New Zealand was ranked sixth for its coronavirus response. It was in fact ranked ninth. This has been corrected.The Conversation

John Thwaites, Chair, Monash Sustainable Development Institute & ClimateWorks Australia, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We developed tools to study cancer in Tasmanian devils. They could help fight disease in humans



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Andrew S. Flies, University of Tasmania; Amanda L. Patchett, University of Tasmania; Bruce Lyons, University of Tasmania, and Greg Woods, University of Tasmania

Emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19, usually come from non-human animals. However our understanding of most animals’ immune systems is sadly lacking as there’s a shortfall in research tools for species other than humans and mice.

Our research published today in Science Advances details cutting edge immunology tools we developed to understand cancer in Tasmanian devils. Importantly, these tools can be rapidly modified for use on any animal species.

Our work will help future wildlife conservation efforts, as well as preparedness against potential new diseases in humans.

The fall of the devil

Tasmanian devil populations have undergone a steep decline in recent decades, due to a lethal cancer called devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) first detected in 1996.

A decade after it was discovered, genetic analysis revealed DFT cells are transmitted between devils, usually when they bite each other during mating. A second type of transmissible devil facial tumour (DFT2) was detected in 2014, suggesting devils are prone to developing contagious cancers.

A Tasmanian devil with devil facial tumour disease.
Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

In 2016, researchers reported some wild devils had natural immune responses against DFT1 cancers. A year later an experimental vaccine for the original devil facial tumour (DFT1) was tested in devils artificially inoculated with cancer cells.

While the vaccine didn’t protect them, in some cases subsequent treatments were able to induce tumour regression.

But despite the promising results, and other good news from the field, DFT1 continues to suppress devil populations across most of Tasmania. And DFT2 poses an additional threat.




Read more:
Deadly disease can ‘hide’ from a Tasmanian devil’s immune system


Following a blueprint requires tools

In humans, there has been incredible progress in treatments targeting protein that regulate our immune system. These treatments work by stimulating the immune system to kill cancer cells.

Our team’s analyses of devil DNA showed these immune genes are also present in devils, meaning we may be able to develop similar treatments to stimulate the devil immune system.

But studying the DNA blueprint for devils takes us only so far. To build a strong house, you need to understand the blueprint and have the right tools. Proteins are the building blocks of life. So to build effective treatments and vaccines for devils we have to study the proteins in their immune system.

Until recently, there were few research tools available for this. And this problem was all too familiar to researchers studying immunology and disease in species other than humans, mice or rats.

Into the FAST lane

You could build a house with just a saw, hammer and nails – but a better and faster build requires a larger, more versatile toolbox.

In our new research, we’ve added more than a dozen tools to the toolbox for understanding tumours in Tasmanian devils. These are Fluorescent Adaptable Simple Theranostic proteins – or simply, FAST proteins.

The term “theranostic” merges therapeutic and diagnostic. FAST proteins can be used as a therapeutic drug to treat a disease, or as a diagnostic tool to determine its cause and better understand it.

A key feature of FAST proteins is they can be tagged with a fluorescent protein marker, and can be released from the cells that we engineered in the lab to make them.

This way, we can collect and observe how the proteins attach and interact with other proteins without needing to add a tag later in the process.

To understand this, imagine trying to use a tiny key in a tiny lock in the dark. It would be difficult, but much easier if both were tagged with a coloured light. In the context of the immune system, it’s easier to understand what we need to turn on or off if we can see where the proteins are.

By mapping how proteins within the devil’s immune system interact, we can find better ways to stimulate the immune system.

An overview of the FAST protein system. Fluorescent proteins and immune system proteins from different species can be rapidly swapped to make new FAST proteins.
Andrew S. Flies/WildImmunity

The FAST system is also adaptable, meaning new targets can be cut-and-pasted into the system as they’re identified, like changing the bits on a drill. Therefore, it’s useful for studying the immune systems of other animals too, including humans.

Also, the system is simple enough that most people with basic cell culture and molecular biology experience could use it.




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Needle in a haystack

Cancer cells in humans and animals can travel via the bloodstream to spread, or “metastasise”, throughout the body. Identifying single tumour cells in blood can shed light on how cancer invades devils’ organs and kills them.

Using FAST tools, we discovered CD200 – a protein that inhibits anti-cancer responses in humans – is highly expressed in devils. With FAST tools, we were able to mix DFT2 cancer cells into devil blood and pick them out, despite there being about one cancer cell for every 1,000 blood cells.

CD200 is a powerful “off switch” for the immune system, so identifying this off switch allows us it can help us produce a vaccine that disables the switch.

A devil facial tumour 2 (DFT2) cell, with the cell nucleus shown in blue.
Andrew S. Flies/WildImmunity

By rapidly sifting out the best ways to stimulate the devil’s immune system, FAST tools are accelerating our research into developing a preventative vaccine to protect devils from DFT.

Why study animal immune systems?

COVID-19 has once again brought emerging infectious diseases onto the global stage. The ability to rapidly develop immunology tools for new species means we can jump into action when a new virus jumps into humans.

Additionally, species are going extinct at an alarming rate, and wildlife disease is increasingly threatening conservation efforts.

Understanding how the immune systems of other animals fight diseases could provide a blueprint for developing vaccines and therapeutics to help them.The Conversation

Andrew S. Flies, Senior Research Fellow in Immunology, University of Tasmania; Amanda L. Patchett, , University of Tasmania; Bruce Lyons, , University of Tasmania, and Greg Woods, Professional Research Fellow, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.