Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.
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His new book How Innovation Works is now available in the UK as well as in the US and Canada.
This is a more detailed version of the long article co-written with Alina Chan on the origin of the virus causing the covid pandemic which was published in the Telegraph on 6 February.
"Virus" by Matt Ridley is coming later this year. Sign up for his newsletter and follow him on Facebook or Twitter to find out when it arrives.
My article for The Spectator:
In the genetic diaspora of an epidemic, there is ferocious competition between strains of virus to get to the next victim first. That leads to apparently purposeful outcomes, as if the virus had a mind. One of the things people find hardest to grasp about evolution is that it appears purposeful but the mutations on which it feeds are random. How come dolphins evolved to swim if all they had to work with were random changes in genes? Viruses also mutate at random — but most people talk as though the rise and fall of these mutant versions is mainly down to chance or luck. It’s not.
Mutations occur all the time in RNA viruses; what matters is which ones find favour in natural selection. The champions of ‘Darwinian medicine’ have been calling for their colleagues to take evolution and adaptation more into account for years, and one of them, Paul Ewald of the University of Louisville, has something very relevant to say about this pandemic. Years ago, Ewald came up with a theory of why some diseases are lethal and others are mild. He argues it is all about the mode of transmission. Infections that you catch from coughs and sneezes are mostly mild; we get more than 200 different kinds of common cold virus and on the whole none of them puts you in bed, let alone kills you. Yet insect-borne diseases such as malaria, plague and yellow fever, and water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid, seem quite content to kill you.
My article for the Wall Street Journal, with Dr. Chan:
In the first week of January, scientists representing the World Health Organization (WHO) were due to arrive in China to trace the origins of Covid-19. The team membership and terms of reference were preapproved by the Chinese government, yet at the last minute Beijing denied entry to the investigators. This prompted WHO to take the rare step of criticizing China, which relented and allowed the group to enter the country this week.
The brief standoff highlights a more serious problem: the inadequacy of WHO’s current investigative framework for exploring all plausible origins of Covid-19. The world needs an inquiry that considers not just natural origins but the possibility that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, escaped from a laboratory. The WHO team, however, plans to build on reports by Chinese scientists rather than mount an independent investigation. Given that Chinese authorities have been slow to release information, penalized scientists and doctors who shared clinical and genomic details of the novel coronavirus, and have since demonstrated a keen interest in controlling the narrative of how the virus emerged, this is not a promising foundation for WHO’s investigation.
My latest article, for The Telegraph:
Britain probably leads the world in self-criticism. So maybe we don’t always notice when the country leads the world in something a bit more useful. During the pandemic a lot has been done badly here – the modelling, testing and lockdown policies have been harmful, clumsy, and chaotic – but it’s worth reflecting on what we have done well, especially in science.
My article for The Telegraph:
Boris Johnson's fondness for the metaphor of the US cavalry riding to the rescue is risky: ask General Custer. With the vaccine cavalry in sight, and just when we thought we had earned a Christmas break, the virus has ambushed us with a strain that seems more contagious, and which is rapidly coming to dominate the epidemic in south-east England.
It is now a race between the virus and the vaccine as to which can get into your bloodstream first.
My article for Spectator:
Almost 60 years ago, in February 1961, two teams of scientists stumbled on a discovery at the same time. Sydney Brenner in Cambridge and Jim Watson at Harvard independently spotted that genes send short-lived RNA copies of themselves to little machines called ribosomes where they are translated into proteins. ‘Sydney got most of the credit, but I don’t mind,’ Watson sighed last week when I asked him about it. They had solved a puzzle that had held up genetics for almost a decade. The short-lived copies came to be called messenger RNAs — mRNAs – and suddenly they now promise a spectacular revolution in medicine.
The first Covid-19 vaccine given to British people this month is not just a welcome breakthrough against a grim little enemy that has defied every other weapon we have tried, from handwashing to remdesivir and lockdowns. It is also the harbinger of a new approach to medicine altogether. Synthetic messengers that reprogram our cells to mount an immune response to almost any invader, including perhaps cancer, can now be rapidly and cheaply made.
Happy Christmas! The BioNtech/Pfizer vaccine’s approval, with others to come, is the best possible news at the end of a ghastly year. Vaccination is humankind’s most life-saving innovation, banishing scourge after scourge from the face of the earth. It is a technology that is so counterintuitive as to seem magical, but when it works it is unbeatable. The extinction of smallpox in 1977 was probably science’s greatest achievement.
Britain has been among the most incompetent countries at managing the pandemic, taking far too top-down and centralised an approach, but it will be the first to get vaccinating, weeks before America and a month before the lumbering bureaucratic dinosaur across the channel. We can thank Kate Bingham, our brilliant biologists and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. I recall being told by somebody with insider experience long before this that the European Medicines Agency added very little to what we do domestically, except duplication and delay.
'I don’t think that word means what you think it means,’ says the Spaniard Inigo Montoya in the film The Princess Bride, when Vizzini keeps saying it is ‘inconceivable’ that the Dread Pirate Roberts is still on their tail. I muttered those words to myself during a parliamentary debate just before the start of the latest lockdown, when the minister twice said that the wave of infections was increasing ‘exponentially’.
Far from increasing, let alone exponentially, the data showed that the wave was faltering if not cresting already. The lockdown came in on a Thursday. The very next day data from three reliable sources – the Office for National Statistics, the government and the Covid Symptom Study – showed slight falls of the number of positive cases or some levelling off. The fall was steep in some places such as Liverpool. The cynic in me wondered whether the haste with which the government had rushed to bring in the national lockdown, at the urging of its questionably sage advisors, was so that lockdown could be credited with the fall that was coming.
Ever since Giacomo Pylarini, a physician working in the Ottoman Empire, sent a report to the Royal Society in 1701 that Turkish women believed pus from a smallpox survivor could induce immunity in a healthy person – and was dismissed as a dangerous quack – inoculation has been as much an art as a science. But it has proven to be the greatest life-saver of all time, eliminating smallpox and suppressing many other diseases. In Pylarini’s prescient words, it is 'an operation invented not by persons conversant in philosophy or skilled in physic, but by a vulgar, illiterate people; an operation in the highest degree beneficial to the human race.'
It looks like a vaccine is probably going to work against Covid. That was never guaranteed: it’s been decades since scientists started seeking a vaccine for malaria and HIV, with no luck so far, and flu vaccines only last for a limited time before the virus mutates. But the announcement last week that the German firm BioNTech’s vaccine, developed in partnership with Pfizer, seems to prevent Covid infection is encouraging news. Kudos to Kate Bingham for spotting it early.
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My new book How Innovation Works is available now in the US, Canada, and UK.
I was in favour of a national lockdown in the spring. I am not now, for six main reasons.
Covid is not a very dangerous disease for most people. The death rate is probably around 0.2 per cent of those infected, and most who die are elderly and suffering from other medical conditions. The mortality of those in hospital with Covid has almost halved for the over 80s since the start of the epidemic as treatment has improved.
An expanded version of my article for Spectator:
It is counterintuitive but the current spread of Covid may on balance be the least worst thing that could happen now. In the absence of a vaccine, and with no real prospect of eradicating the disease, the virus spreading among younger people, mostly without hitting the vulnerable, is creating immunity that will eventually slow the epidemic. The second wave is real, but it is not like the first. It would be a mistake to tackle it with compulsory lockdowns (even if called ‘circuit breakers’), whether national or local. The cure would be worse than the disease and it won’t work anyway.
Letter from 12 Conservative peers to The Times:
Sir, It is now clear that a policy of lockdown failed to bring the virus under control while having crippling economic and social side effects. Sweden has achieved a lower death rate from Covid-19 than the UK, with far less economic and social damage, despite being a slightly more urbanised society. If lockdown were a treatment undergoing a clinical trial, the trial would be halted because of the side effects. We suggest the government try a new approach, more in keeping with the Conservative philosophy of individual responsibility. Anyone who wishes to be locked down, whether because they are vulnerable or for other reasons, should be supported in doing so safely. Anyone who wishes to resume normal life, and take the risk of catching the virus, should be free to do so. The choice would be ours.
Lord Ridley; Lord Cavendish of Furness; Lord Dobbs; Lord Hamilton of Epsom; Lord Howard of Rising; Lord Lamont of Lerwick; Lord Lilley; Lord Mancroft; Baroness Meyer; Baroness Noakes; Lord Robathan; Lord Shinkwin; House of Lords
My article for the Wall Street Journal:
The Covid-19 pandemic has stretched the bond between the public and the scientific profession as never before. Scientists have been revealed to be neither omniscient demigods whose opinions automatically outweigh all political disagreement, nor unscrupulous fraudsters pursuing a political agenda under a cloak of impartiality. Somewhere between the two lies the truth: Science is a flawed and all too human affair, but it can generate timeless truths, and reliable practical guidance, in a way that other approaches cannot.
My article with MP David Davis, for the Telegraph:
As we face six tough months of curfews, isolation and economic misery, with vaccines a distant hope, testing struggling to control the virus, and the hospitalisation rate once again rising, it’s surely time to try anything reasonable to slow the pandemic down. There is one chemical that is known to be safe, known to be needed by many people anyway, known to have a clinically proven track record of helping people fight off respiratory diseases, and is so cheap no big firm is pushing it: vitamin D. It is not a silver bullet, but growing evidence suggests that it might help prevent Covid turning serious in some people.
In May, arguments on the link between Vitamin D deficiency and its association with poor Covid outcomes started to gather pace. That month, the Health Secretary’s attention was drawn to two studies showing a strong association between the incidence and severity of Covid-19 with vitamin D deficiencies in the patients. Vadim Backman of Northwestern University, one of the authors of one of those studies, said about healthy levels of vitamin D that “Our analysis shows that it might be as high as cutting the mortality rate in half.”
Like the ancient mariner, the virus refuses to leave us alone. Resurging in Blackburn, Spain, and America, it is still going to be around here when the winter comes. As we head indoors, it will be back for a dreaded second wave, disguised among a host of colds and flus. Yet I am now optimistic that the nightmare will end this year or at least by the spring. Here are five reasons.
First, vaccine trials were promising. Having proved safe and capable of raising both a T-cell response and an antibody response, Oxford University’s vaccine, developed in collaboration with Astrazeneca, is now more likely to succeed than to fail, so long as its side effects are manageable in the elderly. And behind it comes a stream of other vaccines, some of which will surely work.
My article for the Telegraph:
It is now three weeks since thousands of protesters first gathered in Trafalgar Square, and two weeks since London filled with even larger crowds, few of whom wore masks or kept two metres apart, and some of whom got involved in fights, resulting in arrests and injuries: a perfect recipe for spreading the coronavirus. Yet there has been a continuing decline in new cases of the disease and no uptick in calls to 111 or 999 about suspected Covid-19. By now, some effect should have shown up if it was going to. In June, London has seen fewer deaths from all causes than in a normal year. Why is this?
While respiratory viruses nearly always evolve towards lower virulence, essentially because the least sick people go to the most meetings and parties, this one was never very dangerous for most people in the first place. Its ability to kill 80-year-olds in care homes stands in sharp contrast with its inability to kill younger people. Fewer than 40 people under the age of 40 with no underlying conditions have died in Britain. On board the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, 1,100 sailors tested positive, many had no symptoms and only one died.
My article for the Inside Sources network:
The scientific establishment in this country has had a bad war. Its mistakes have probably made the Covid-19 epidemic, as well as the economic downturn, worse. Britain entered the pandemic late, with lots of warning, so we should have done better than other countries. Instead we are one of the worst affected in Europe and one of the last to begin to recover.
Not all the mistakes were driven by science. The decisions by Public Health England not to go out to the market for testing, protective equipment and logistics, to cease testing almost completely in March and to send people to care homes from hospitals affected by the virus – these were just bureaucratic bone-headedness. But the obsession with mathematical modelling lies behind other mistakes and continues to this day with the ridiculous fixation on a meaningless generalisation called R.
The killer came from the east in winter: fever, cough, sore throat, aching muscles, headache and sometimes death. It spread quickly to all parts of the globe, from city to city, using new transport networks. In many cities, the streets were empty and shops and schools deserted. A million died. The Russian influenza pandemic of 1889-90 may hold clues to what happens next — not least because the latest thinking is that it, too, may have been caused by a new coronavirus.
In addition to the new diseases of Sars, Mers and Covid-19, there are four other coronaviruses that infect people. They all cause common colds and are responsible for about one in five such sniffles, the rest being rhinoviruses and adenoviruses. As far as we can tell from their genes, two of these coronaviruses came from African bats (one of them bizarrely via alpacas or camels), and two from Asian rodents, one of them via cattle.
New research has deepened, rather than dispelled, the mystery surrounding the origin of the coronavirus responsible for Covid-19. Bats, wildlife markets, possibly pangolins and perhaps laboratories may all have played some role, but the simple story of an animal in a market infected by a bat that then infected several human beings no longer looks credible.
My blog post for Human Progress:
When you think about it, what has happened to human society in the last 300 years is pretty weird. After trundling along with horses and sailboats, slaves and swords, for millennia, we suddenly got steam engines and search engines, and planes and cars and electricity and computers and social media and DNA sequences. We gave ourselves a perpetual motion machine called innovation. The more we innovated, the more innovation became possible.
It’s by far the biggest story of the last three centuries—the main cause of the decline of extreme poverty to unprecedented levels—yet we know curiously little about why it happened, let alone when and where and how it can be made to continue. It certainly did not start as a result of deliberate policy. Even today, beyond throwing money at scientists in the hope they might start businesses, and subsidies at businesses in the hope they might deliver products, we don’t have much of an idea how to encourage innovation at the political level.
My latest article for Spectator:
The argument that vitamin D deficiency may contribute to more severe cases of Covid is gaining ground. It is now reaching the point where it is surprising that we are not hearing from leading medical officials and politicians that people should consider taking supplements to ensure they have sufficient vitamin D.
This is not the same as arguing that vitamin D is a magic bullet that will cure the disease. Vitamins are not medication, the taking of which will have positive effects on everybody. They are top-ups: things that hurt you when you don’t have enough of them in your system but do no extra good when you have enough. Indeed, with many vitamins, including D, taking too much can be toxic.
Last week, I did an AMA with a community called whatshouldireadnext.com and the answers are now available on their blog.
I answered 23 questions in total from their community and staff as well as a few from social media, discussing the usual topics of innovation and the pandemic, but also some new ones like time management, murder hornets, and what the Earth might be like in one hundred or a thousand years. Here are some highlights:
The thing that most surprised me about this episode was realising how slow vaccine development still is. The big prize would be much faster and more oven-ready vaccines for viruses. But I suspect antiviral drugs will make big strides during this pandemic too as they did during ebola. And hand-held, instant DNA PCR testing kits will surely become a big part of the world's preparedness.
My article with MP David Davis for The Telegraph:
We know everything about Sars-CoV-2 and nothing about it. We can read every one of the (on average) 29,903 letters in its genome and know exactly how its 15 genes are transcribed into instructions to make which proteins. But we cannot figure out how it is spreading in enough detail to tell which parts of the lockdown of society are necessary and which are futile. Several months into the crisis we are still groping through a fog of ignorance and making mistakes. There is no such thing as ‘the science’.
This is not surprising or shameful; ignorance is the natural state of things. Every new disease is different and its epidemiology becomes clear only gradually and in retrospect. Is Covid-19 transmitted mainly by breath or by touching? Do children pass it on without getting sick? Why is it so much worse in Britain than Japan? Why are obese people especially at risk? How many people have had it? Are ventilators useless after all? Why is it not exploding in India and Africa? Will there be a second wave? We do not begin to have answers to these questions.
A striking feature of Covid-19 is how medieval our response has had to be. Quarantine was the way people fought plagues in the distant past. We know by now that it will take many months to get a vaccine, whose job is to prevent you getting the disease. But what about a cure once you have caught it: why is there no pill to take? The truth is that, advanced as medical science is, we are mostly defenceless against viruses. There is no antiviral therapy to compare with antibiotics for treating bacteria.
Arguably, virology in 2020 is where bacteriology was in the 1920s. At the time, most of the experts in that field — including Alexander Fleming and his mentor, the formidable Sir Almroth Wright (nicknamed Sir Always Wrong by his foes) — thought a chemical therapy that killed bacteria without harming the patient was a wild goose chase. Instead, they argued, theway to fight bacteria was to encourage the body’s immune system. ‘Stimulate the phagocytes!’ was the cry of Wright’s semi-fictional avatar Sir Colenso Ridgeon in George Bernard Shaw’s play The Doctor’s Dilemma (referring to white blood cells). Vaccines should be used to treat as well as prevent infections, thought Wright and Fleming. Fleming then turned this theory upside down with his discovery of penicillin in 1928.
My article for The Wall Street Journal:
RaTG13 is the name, rank and serial number of an individual horseshoe bat of the species Rhinolophus affinis, or rather of a sample of its feces collected in 2013 in a cave in Yunnan, China. The sample was collected by hazmat-clad scientists from the Institute of Virology in Wuhan that year. Stored away and forgotten until January this year, the sample from the horseshoe bat contains the virus that causes Covid-19.
The scientists were mostly sampling a very similar species with slightly shorter wings, called Rhinolophus sinicus, in a successful search for the origin of the virus responsible for the SARS epidemic of 2002-03. That search had alarming implications, which were largely ignored.
When the pandemic passes, which it will, there will be a reckoning to determine who could have stopped it early and did not. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has suggested that it would have to be carried out by the World Health Organisation: "Obviously, after the crisis has abated I think the time will be right to conduct a kind of 'lessons learned' [inquiry] and I'm sure the World Health Organisation will be at the forefront of that.”
This is a terrible idea. WHO is full of good people with good intentions, but as a body it has very serious questions to answer about its own conduct before we trust it with looking at that of others.
Despite what Corbynites like to claim, Britain’s National Health Service has always relied heavily on the private sector for lots of things. The food it serves to patients is not grown on state-owned farms, nor are the pills it prescribes manufactured in state-owned factories. Yet when it comes to diagnostic tests there seems to be a reluctance to buy them in, even from other public bodies let alone from private firms. This ideological prejudice is proving costly.A new report by Matthew Lesh for the Adam Smith Institute, published today may explain the British failure compared with other countries when it comes to tackling the current pandemic by testing. On 14 March, Britain was the fifth best country for quantity of Covid-19 viral tests performed per capita. By 30 March it had fallen to 26th in the league.
‘This pestilence was so powerful that it was transmitted to the healthy by contact with the sick” wrote Giovanni Boccaccio of the Black Death, in his preface to The Decameron. The trouble with the coronavirus is almost exactly the opposite – it is transmitted to the sick by contact with the healthy. The people most at risk of dying are those who already suffer from underlying illnesses. And evidence is accumulating that the virus is passed on very early in the progression of the disease, often when you are still without much in the way of symptoms.
I spent an hour talking to philosophy expert, business expert and Ayn Rand Institute Chairman Yaron Brook about my upcoming book, and the painful yet important lessons that the epidemic is teaching us about innovation.
Please check it out, and consider sharing and subscribing:
The generational effect of the corona-virus is cunning and baffling. By often being so mild in the young and healthy it turns people into heedless carriers. By often being so lethal in the old and sick, it makes carriers into potential executioners of friends and neighbours.
Because of the global coronavirus crisis, I have agreed with my publisher's request to delay publication of the UK edition of my new book How Innovation Works from 14 May till 25 June.
The US edition will be published on 19 May as planned, because printing has already begun.
The book already includes a chapter on public health and the role of innovation in the battle against epidemics of smallpox, polio, typhoid, whooping cough, malaria and cholera. But I will now add a short section for the end of the book about this year's pandemic and its implications for our attitude towards innovation. (Spoiler: we need more, not less.)
In 1934, in their spare time, two American biologists, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering, developed a vaccine for whooping cough, then the biggest killer of children in the United States. Within four years their vaccine was being used throughout Michigan and within six it was being used nationwide. Whooping cough rapidly retreated.
Since then there have been spectacular advances in biology, including the identification of the genetic material, the ability to read its code, an understanding of the structure of viruses and the proteins from which they are made, plus knowledge of how immunity works. So why are we facing a wait of at least a year, maybe much more, for a vaccine for coronavirus? It has been one of the shocks of recent weeks to realise how little progress vaccine development has made. It’s still a bit of an art.
On Sunday, lonely as a cloud, I wandered across a windswept moor in County Durham and passed a solitary sandstone rock with a small, round hollow in the top, an old penny glued to the base of the hollow. It is called the Butter Stone and it’s where, during the plague in 1665, coins were left in a pool of vinegar by the inhabitants of nearby towns and villages, to be exchanged with farmers for food. The idea was that the farmer or his customer approached the rock only when the other was at a safe distance.
This is a real threat. But we will beat this. And we'll go on to make an even better life for people in the years ahead.
I took a deep dive into the Covid-19 epidemic, how to manage risk, solutions to past health crises, innovation in public health, and much more in a candid one hour interview with my energetic social media consultant:
My article for Reaction:
In Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried “Wolf!”, the point of the tale is that eventually there was a wolf, but the boy was not believed because he had given too many false alarms. In my view, the Covid-19 coronavirus is indeed a wolf, or at least has the potential to be one. Many people, including President Trump, think we are over-reacting, because so many past scares have been exaggerated. I think that’s wrong.
In the 19th century Ignaz Semmelweis was vilified and ostracised when he tried to make doctors wash their hands after doing autopsies on women who had died from childbirth fever before going straight upstairs to deliver more babies. We have come a long way since then in public health, but we can go much further still.
My article from The Spectator:
I’m no Nostradamus, but 20 years ago when I was commissioned to write a short book about disease in the new millennium, I predicted that if a new pandemic did happen it would be a virus, not a bacterium or animal parasite, and that we would catch it from a wild animal. ‘My money is on bats,’ I wrote. We now know that the natural host and reservoir of the new coronavirus, Covid-19, is a bat, and that the virus probably got into people via a live-animal market in Wuhan.
This is not the first disease bats have given us. Rabies possibly originated in bats. So did, and does, Ebola, outbreaks of which usually trace back to people coming into contact with bat roosts in caves, trees or buildings. Marburg virus, similar to Ebola, first killed people in Germany in 1967 and is now known to be a bat virus. Since 1994 Hendra virus has occasionally jumped from Australian fruit bats into horses and rarely people, with lethal effect. Since 1998 another fruit-bat virus, Nipah, has also infected and killed people mainly in India and Bangladesh. Sars, which originated in China in 2003, is derived from bats, though possibly via civet cats. So is Mers, a similar bat-borne coronavirus that’s killed hundreds of people and camels in the Middle East since 2012.
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