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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Matt Ridley's latest book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with scientist Alina Chan from Harvard and MIT's Broad Institute, is now available in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
If you don't subscribe to the new newsletter or follow me on Facebook and Twitter, you may not have heard: My new book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with the young and brilliant scientist Alina Chan, published this day last week and is now available to purchase.
Less than a week before that, Alina and I met in person for the first time, which you can watch on my YouTube channel.
We explore both natural spillover and lab leak possibilities in depth—and share which we determined, over the course of writing it, to be more likely.It was a challenging, frustrating, intriguing journey.
My article for the Telegraph:
It is almost exactly two years since the pandemic began. According to an official document seen by the South China Morning Post, the first retrospectively diagnosed case of Covid in Wuhan was on November 17 2019, while genetic analysis points to a similar date, November 18. (The so-called “patient zero” discussed in the media this week has been known about for months and is very unlikely to be the first case even according to the World Health Organisation.)
In the case of Sars, 19 years ago, and Mers, nine years ago, the first known cases were followed within a couple of months by unambiguous clues as to how the virus jumped from an animal source into people. Both viruses live naturally in bats, which had somehow infected intermediate animal hosts such as palm civets and camels before transmitting into people.
My article for Spectator:Two years in, there is no doubt the Covid pandemic began in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But there is also little doubt that the bat carrying the progenitor of the virus lived somewhere else.
Central to the mystery of Covid’s origin is how a virus normally found in horseshoe bats in caves in the far south of China or south-east Asia turned up in a city a thousand miles north. New evidence suggests that part of the answer might lie in Laos.
My blog for the Radix think tank:
I was pleased to speak at the recent Radix Big Tent Meet the Leaders session about innovation, a topic that is close to my heart and one of great importance.
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My article for Spectator:
China’s President Xi Jinping has apparently not yet decided whether to travel to Glasgow next month for the big climate conference known as COP26. That is no doubt partly because he’s heard about the weather in Glasgow in November, and partly because he knows the whole thing will be a waste of his time. After all, the fact that it is the 26th such meeting and none of the previous 25 solved the problem they set out to solve suggests the odds are that the event will be the flop on the Clyde.
But another reason he is hesitating was stated pretty explicitly by his Foreign Minister, Wang Yi: ‘Climate cooperation cannot be separated from the general environment of China-US relations.’ Roughly translated, this reads: we will go along with your climate posturing if you stop talking about the possibility that Covid-19 started in a Wuhan laboratory, about our lack of cooperation investigating that origin, or about what we are doing to Hong Kong or the Uighur people.
My article, for The Telegraph:
The Government wants to unleash innovation. If it were to be presented with a magic wand that could by 2040 feed millions more people, avoid tens of millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and improve biodiversity on hundreds of thousands of hectares, while benefiting the economy and reducing the footprint of farming, it would surely grab it.
My article for The Daily Mail:
Had it not been so exceptionally calm in the run up to this autumn equinox, one could call the energy crisis a perfect storm. Wind farms stand idle for days on end, a fire interrupts a vital cable from France, a combination of post-Covid economic recovery and Russia tightening supply means the gas price has shot through the roof – and so the market price of both home heating and electricity is rocketing.
But the root of the crisis lies in the monomaniacal way in which this government and its recent predecessors have pursued decarbonisation at the expense of other priorities including reliability and affordability of energy.
With a laboratory leak in Wuhan looking more and more likely as the source of the pandemic, the Chinese authorities are not the only ones dismayed. Western environmentalists had been hoping to turn the pandemic into a fable about humankind’s brutal rape of Gaia. Even if ‘wet’ wildlife markets and smuggled pangolins were exonerated in this case, they argued, and the outbreak came from some direct contact with bats, the moral lesson was ecological. Deforestation and climate change had left infected bats stressed and with nowhere to go but towns. Or it had driven desperate people into bat-infested caves in search of food or profit.
Green grandees were in no doubt of this moral lesson. ‘Nature is sending us a message. We have pushed nature into a corner, encroached on ecosystems,’ said Inger Andersen, head of the United Nations Environment Programme. The pandemic was ‘a reminder of the intimate and delicate relationship between people and planet,’ said the director-general of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. ‘God always forgives, we forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives,’ added Pope Francis, enigmatically. ‘Climate change is a threat multiplier for pandemic diseases, and zoonotic diseases,’ said John Kerry. Covid-19 was ‘the product of an imbalance in man’s relationship with the natural world,’ said Boris Johnson. ‘Mother Nature… gave us fire and floods, she tried to warn us but in the end she took back control,’ tweeted Sarah, Duchess of York.
My article for Telegraph:
In a key milestone on the road to harnessing fusion power, Lawrence Livermore laboratory announced this week that it had extracted energy from an object the size of a lemon pip at the rate of 10 quadrillion watts (joules per second), albeit for only 100 trillionths of a second. That’s roughly 500 times faster than the entire human population consumes energy.
The experiment is a reminder that the energy density achieved when atoms merge is vastly greater than anything in a lump of coal, let alone a puff of wind. It is also far bigger than can be achieved by nuclear fission and much safer too: no risk of meltdown and with much less high-level radioactive waste.
My article for The Critic:Near Fukushima, ten years after the nuclear accident that followed the tsunami, wild boar have colonised the suburbs. Near Chernobyl, bison and wolves wander abandoned streets. There is no doubt that if humans vanished, indigenous wildlife would return in abundance, minus the mammoths and sabre-tooths that our ancestors extinguished.
Rewilding is all the rage, and it is coming soon to a hillside near you. But what form should it take and how should it be done? In practice, rewilding began quite a long time ago. A recent study found that, contrary to what most people believe, the world now has more trees than 35 years ago and much of the regrowth is natural regeneration: Europe alone has gained an area of tree cover greater than France.
New England was once wall-to-wall fields; now it is a deer-filled forest pockmarked with cities and freeways. Wolves and beavers are spreading in Europe; cougars and bears in North America. There are 80,000 humpback whales today: there were 5,000 in the 1960s. Where I used to fish in the river Tyne as a boy, otters, buzzards and salmon were vanishingly rare; now they are common.
My article for the Times:
Like a lobster in boiling water, a parliamentary bill on animal sentience is being tortured in the House of Lords. The problem is political rather than ethical. Nobody objects to some animals being declared sentient, but the government seems to be saying to one audience that the bill is a dramatic change that will do more to prevent suffering, while to another audience it insists that the bill is an empty gesture that will change nothing.
The real reason for the bill goes back to 2017. Some alert activist who did not like Brexit spotted that in leaving the European Union we would lose the passing reference in Article 13 of the Lisbon Treaty that animals are sentient. This was quickly weaponised in a letter-writing campaign to MPs. But there were two problems with the argument.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, the head of the Wellcome Trust, writes that ‘the last year has been an eye-opener for me. I thought, probably like most people, that the world works through official or formal channels, but much of it operates through private phone calls or messaging apps’. Hence his book, written with the journalist Anjana Ahuja, is a gossipy, sometimes angry, fast-paced tale, which quotes frequently from his own messages sent to other important people. No holds are barred or formal channels kept to.It is therefore a fascinating and valuable account from somebody who was close to the action, as a member of the famous Sage, and one who played a key role in several important initiatives, including, for example, kicking off the successful Recovery trial of anti-Covid treatments after a chance meeting on a bus. Many of his observations are acute, and some of his suggestions are well made, not least his passionate call for Britain to set an example by sending vaccines to the rest of the world rather than vaccinating the relatively invulnerable young.Farrar is full of praise for some people, such as fellow Sage members and Dominic Cummings, and full of contempt for others, including Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and any lockdown sceptic. He may or may not be right, but after a while the reader begins to feel a little uneasy at a certain double standard. ‘Intermittent lockdowns’ are the answer in chapter 5, but reopening after the first lockdown is a disastrous mistake in chapter 6. Johnson is criticised for not paying attention to the crisis in February 2020 a few pages after Farrar describes his own skiing holiday in... February.
My article for the Telegraph:On Twitter this week an unfortunate hiker showed a short video of the midges swarming in their tens of thousands over his backpack and his arms in the Scottish Highlands. It was itchy just to watch. It would be silly to argue that his video is evidence that insects are increasing in number. Yet the evidence for a dramatic decline in insect numbers, an “insect apocalypse”, which activists and journalists have been proclaiming recently, is about as weak as such a claim would be.
A film called Insect O Cide is coming out soon. Its ludicrous central theme is that “human beings are on the verge of extinction due to the rapid decline in the insect populations”. “The Insect Apocalypse is here”, said the New York Times in 2018. “Plummeting insect numbers ‘threaten collapse of nature’” said the Guardian in 2019. The source for this claim was a paper published in the journal Biological Conservation by two Australian scientists that claimed to reveal “dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40 per cent of the world’s insect species over the next few decades”.
This was junk science of the worst kind. As three other scientists then pointed out, “there is so much wrong with the paper, it really shouldn’t have been published in its current form: the biased search method, the cherry-picked studies, the absence of any real quantitative data to back up the bizarre 40 per cent extinction rate that appears in the abstract … and the errors in the reference list.” Of the studies cited by the apocalypse paper, the three said, “we were really surprised to discover how many of them we had to discard, because they contained no data”.
My article for Spectator:It is mystifying to me that organic food is still widely seen as healthier, more sustainable and, most absurdly, safer than non-organic food.
Following the publication of part two of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy last week, the organic movement was quick to suggest that organic food and farming offer a way to achieve the strategy’s vision. ‘The recommendations of the National Food Strategy offer genuine hope that by embracing agroecological and organic farming, and adopting a healthier and more sustainable diet, we can address the climate, nature and health crises,’ said Helen Browning, chief executive of the Soil Association, Britain’s most vocal organic lobbying organisation. Browning also highlighted the strategy’s recognition of the Soil Association’s ‘Food for Life’ programme — essentially a vehicle to promote greater procurement and use of organic food in schools and hospitals.
The trouble is that scientific evidence indicates that the food safety risks of eating organic food are considerably greater than those of eating non-organic food. This is primarily because organic crop production relies on animal faeces as a fertiliser, an obvious vector for potentially lethal pathogens such as E.coli, but also because organic crops can be prone to harmful mycotoxins as a result of inadequate control of crop pests and diseases.
My article for the Telegraph:Back in the early 1950s scientists were baffled by one aspect of life itself. Our cells were full of proteins whose properties depended on their precise shapes, and the key feature of life was the ability to copy itself, but how on earth do you copy three-dimensional shapes? The unexpected answer was that you don’t: you copy a one-dimensional, linear sequence in a recipe book called DNA, which automatically determines how each protein folds into its shape.
Surprisingly, until last week, working out how this folding worked was beyond even big computers: tiny shifts in angles could result in wildly different shapes, and forecasting what shape would result from what sequence was as hard as predicting the weather. Now, thanks to the brilliant London AI firm DeepMind (which sold itself to Google a few years back), a learning algorithm has cracked the problem and has predicted hundreds of thousands of shapes from sequences. It did so as an encore after defeating the world champion at the fiendishly complicated game of Go: in neither case was it taught by experts but learned from examples.
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, who won the Nobel prize for figuring out the structure of the ribosome (the machine that translates DNA into proteins), told me last week that he thinks the DeepMind breakthrough is huge: “we probably have not yet grasped its impact and all the ways it will change the way we do biology.”
My interview with Tunku Varadarajan in the Wall Street Journal:
“Science” has become a political catchword. “I believe in science,” Joe Biden tweeted six days before he was elected president. “Donald Trump doesn’t. It’s that simple, folks.”
But what does it mean to believe in science? The British science writer Matt Ridley draws a pointed distinction between “science as a philosophy” and “science as an institution.” The former grows out of the Enlightenment, which Mr. Ridley defines as “the primacy of rational and objective reasoning.” The latter, like all human institutions, is erratic, prone to falling well short of its stated principles. Mr. Ridley says the Covid pandemic has “thrown into sharp relief the disconnect between science as a philosophy and science as an institution.”
From the "Lords Diary" feature at PoliticsHome:I wandered the ghostly corridors of Westminster hoping to spot a few colleagues and got lost in a one-way system. This hybrid Parliament seems to have made the government’s job more time-consuming, as we all drone on from home, but less challenging, as the cut-and-thrust of debate atrophies: the worst of both worlds.On the day I came to London I had finished writing a new book: always a moment of relief mixed with anxiety about whether it could be better. This time it was especially difficult to sign off the last edits because the topic is a moving target – the origin of the virus that caused the pandemic. New information keeps breaking.Also for the first time I am co-authoring, with Alina Chan, a brilliant young scientist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. I was warned that co-authors often fall out, and we have never actually met in person, but we only really disagreed over one word. I refuse ever to use the word “blueprint” as a metaphor for a genome. It’s inaccurate, because it implies that each bit of a genome maps onto each bit of a creature’s body; and it’s unfamiliar. Who even knows what a blueprint is these days? I prefer “recipe”.As I argued in the Lords the next day, whether the virus jumped species in a wildlife market or a laboratory is an urgent question requiring a full and independent investigation – because, if we don’t find the answer, we risk a repeat. Both kinds of jump have happened in the past, and viruses of precisely this kind were being collected, brought uniquely to Wuhan (more than 1,000 miles away) and experimented on by scientists, so it was wrong of some scientists and the World Health Organization to try to dismiss the possibility of a lab leak prematurely.A laboratory accident is by definition not a “conspiracy theory” and science needs to demonstrate it can investigate itself or its enemies will do so instead. Fortunately, the mood has changed in the last two months, partly sparked by an open letter in the journal Science, calling for a full investigation, signed by 18 scientists and initiated by my co-author.Later I supported Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville’s amendment to the environment bill on the topic of fly tipping. About once a week a new load of rubbish appears overnight in one of the gateways on my farm. Cameras in favoured spots would help, but you have to put up signs saying they are there. My other bugbear is birthday balloons. They are the only form of litter on remote moorland in the Pennines. We should insist that each one carries a manufacturer’s address so you can return to sender.Gareth Southgate’s redemption since his penalty miss in 1996 is a wonderful story. A faster reversal of reputation came to my newly and deservedly en-damed friend Kate Bingham. I asked how it felt like to be widely admired now after being denounced and vilified last year with the help of bad mouthing from her enemies. Memories are fading of how much of the media were determined to bring her down.I told her of a call from a journalist who asked me to comment on the fact that a) Bingham had hired as a PR consultant b) a woman who is married to c) a man who has sat on the board of a small charity with d) the father of e) the wife of f) Dominic Cummings. My answer was to laugh, but Kate reminded me the Financial Times actually ran that story as if it implied corruption. The more we find out about the negotiation she did to acquire vaccines, and the contrast with how other countries did it, the more remarkable the story becomes.
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This blog post was adapted from this Twitter thread:
Articles often claim that the Delta variant is more virulent, e.g. "Citing the spread of the more virulent Delta coronavirus variant in the United Kingdom". Earlier in the year the same was said about the Alpha (Kent) variant, that it was more "virulent". That was untrue. Virulent means "harmful", not "infectious".If anything, the evidence suggests that the Delta variant may be less virulent, but more transmissible/infectious—although it is hard to be sure this is true, given that the vulnerable old are now protected by vaccines."The suggestion that the Indian variant is more pathogenic needs to be taken with a big dose of salt. The same was initially suggested for the Kent variant but was later shown not to be true" writes Professor Ian Jones.Respiratory viruses tend to evolve to be more transmissible but less virulent: they do better if you go out and about meeting people. This is not true of insect-borne or water-borne viruses, which don't care how sick you are: insects or water do the going out about about for you.
Photo by Edward Howell on Unsplash
My article for The Telegraph:
Britain leads the pack on vaccination, but lags far behind America, Germany and France on liberation. A big reason is that our Government remains in thrall to a profession that has performed uniquely badly during the pandemic: modellers. The Government’s reliance on Sage experts’ computer modelling to predict what would happen with or without various interventions has proved about as useful as the ancient Roman habit of consulting trained experts in “haruspicy” – interpreting the entrails of chickens.
As Sarah Knapton has revealed in these pages, the brutal postponement of Freedom Day coincided with the release of a bunch of alarmist models predicting a huge new wave of deaths. The most pessimistic, inevitably from Imperial College, forecast 203,824 deaths over the next year. It did so by assuming just a 77-87 per cent reduction in hospitalisations following two vaccinations, despite the fact that real world data shows two vaccinations to be between 92 per cent (AstraZeneca) and 96 per cent (Pfizer) effective in preventing hospitalisation. That would cut the Imperial forecast of deaths by a gob-smacking 90 per cent to 26,854.
My article for the Genetic Literacy Project:
The Government was right to make provision for a temporary and limited derogation for the use of the neonicotinoid seed treatment Cruiser SB on sugar beet for the 2021 season, although the colder conditions of recent months mean it will not be required this year.
The impact of virus yellows on last year’s beet crop for many growers was absolutely devastating and explains why the UK, after resisting in previous years, followed 13 EU member states in granting this emergency derogation. But I cannot help calling out the sheer hypocrisy of those in the organic and anti-pesticide lobby who portrayed the Government’s decision as heralding the extinction of all bees and other pollinating insects.
In March last year, it was widely agreed by everybody sensible, me included, that talk of the pandemic originating in a laboratory was pseudoscientific nonsense almost on a par with UFOs and the Loch Ness monster. My own reasoning was that Mother Nature is a better genetic engineer than we will ever be, so something as accomplished at infection and spread could not possibly have been put together in a lab.
Today, the mood has changed. Even Dr Anthony Fauci, the US President’s chief medical advisor, now says he is ‘not convinced’ the virus emerged naturally. This month a letter in Science magazine from 18 senior virologists and other experts — including a close collaborator of the Wuhan lab at the centre of the debate, Ralph Baric — demanded that such a hypothesis be taken seriously. Suddenly, too, journalists have woken up and begun writing articles admitting they might have been hasty in dismissing a lab leak as a Trumpian conspiracy theory last year. CNN reported this week that the Biden administration shut down the State Department’s investigation into this.
My article for the Telegraph:The whole aim of practical politics, said HL Mencken, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”
It is hard to avoid the impression that officials are alarmed rather than pleased by the fading of the pandemic in Britain. They had a real hobgoblin to hand, and boy did they make the most of it, but it’s now turning into a pussy cat. So they are back to casting around for imaginary ones to justify their draconian – and deliciously popular – command and control over every detail of our lives. Look, variants!
And yes, the pandemic is fading fast. The vaccine is working “better than we could possibly have imagined”, according to Calum Semple, of the University of Liverpool, based on a study which found that it reduced hospitalisation by 98 per cent. With deaths from the virus now falling by more than 20 per cent a week and with overall mortality from all causes now below the long-term average, “we’ve moved from a pandemic to an endemic situation”, according to Sarah Walker, Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at Oxford and Chief Investigator on the ONS’s Covid-19 Infection Survey. The UK’s covid positivity rate at 0.2 per cent is now the fifth lowest in the world and lower than Taiwan and Israel.
In search of wisdom about how an officious government reluctantly relaxes its grip after an emergency, I stumbled on a 1948 newsreel clip of Harold Wilson when he was president of the Board of Trade. It’s a glimpse of long-forgotten and brain-boggling complexity in the rationing system. ‘We have taken some clothing off the ration altogether,’ he boasts, posing as a munificent liberator. ‘From shoes to bathing costumes, and from oilskins to body belts and children’s raincoats. Then we’ve reduced the points on such things as women’s coats and woollen garments generally and... on men’s suits.’
Does this remind you of anything? One day in November, George Eustice, the environment secretary, uttered the immortal words that a Scotch egg ‘probably would count as a substantial meal if there were table service’, only for Michael Gove to say the next day that ‘a couple of Scotch eggs is a starter, as far as I’m concerned’, later correcting himself to concede that ‘a Scotch egg is a substantial meal’. This is the sort of tangled descent into detail that central planning always causes. We have seen it again and again over the past year. What is essential travel? Is a picnic exercise? Can you go inside a pub to get to its outside space? Ask the man from the ministry.
I went on The Knowledge Project podcast with Shane Parrish to discuss "writing books about science, the age-old battle between viruses and humans, rational optimism, the difference between innovation and invention, the role of trial and error and the effects of social media on seeing others’ points of view."
It was a wonderful conversation, and good fun!
My article from Warp News:
At a time when the miraculous success of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 has transformed the battle against the pandemic, it is fitting to recall that the general idea behind vaccination was brought to the attention of the western world, not by brilliant and privileged professors, but by a black slave and a woman.
His name was Onesimus and he lived in Boston, as the property of Cotton Mather, a well-known puritan preacher. Her name was Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, the literary wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople.
It is a year ago last week since the World Health Organisation conceded, belatedly, that a pandemic was under way. The organisation’s decisions in early 2020 were undoubtedly influenced by the Chinese government. On 14 January, to widespread surprise, the WHO was still echoing China’s assurance that there was no evidence of person-to-person spread: “it is very clear right now that we have no sustained human-to-human transmission,” said an official that day. Within days even China conceded this was wrong.
Later that month the WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said his admiration for China’s speed in detecting the virus and sharing information was “beyond words”, adding “so is China's commitment to transparency and to supporting other countries”. At the time China’s government was punishing whistleblowers, taking down databases, censoring scientists and ordering samples destroyed.
There is something rather apt in the coincidence of an Italian ban on vaccine exports to Australia and the negotiation by Liz Truss, the trade secretary, of lower tariffs on trade with the United States. One is as pure a demonstration of spiteful EU protectionism as one could imagine; the other a clear demonstration of mutual gains from freer trade.
Supporting Brexit used to be difficult to explain to foreigners. I remember a Mexican friend flatly refusing to believe I voted for it. “Surely you are joking,” he said, finding it hard to imagine me as a racist, isolationist xenophobe – the only kind of Brexiteer recognised by CNN, the Economist and the New York Times.
My article for Discourse:
Innovation is the “main event” of the modern age. It’s the reason why after millennia of comparative stagnation, the last several hundred years featured sudden, dramatic improvements in technology and therefore living standards: from steam engines to search engines, from vaccines to vaping.
It’s also a strangely localized and temporary phenomenon. At any one time, there is usually one part of the world where innovation flourishes best, attracting talent from all over: California in 1960, the U.S. East Coast in 1920, Britain in 1800, Holland in 1650, Renaissance Italy in 1500, Song China in 1000, Abbasid Arabia in 800, ancient Greece in 500 B.C., the Ganges Valley before that. These were places that were relatively wealthy, free and open to trade at the time.
This is a more detailed version of the 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.
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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.
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