Must-Read Reports

Deadly facts about Covid-19 virus

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Horseshoe bat habours many coronaviruses

Everyone is affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. For us in Malaysia, large gatherings for wedding are out. Mosque attendance is limited by number. Masks are required to enter premises.

We noted an interesting article written by Robert Lee Hortz and Natasha Khan about deadly facts of Covid-19 virus on September 8th, 2020, in Wall Street Journal online.

They likened the Covid-19 virus as a killer with a crowbar, breaking and entering human cells with impunity. It hitchhikes across continents carried on coughs and unclean hands, driven by its own necessity to survive. Cheap and modern travels make it easy for Covid-19 virus to spread to frequent fliers.

Initially, it was believed that the virus lives in horseshoe bats, which habour hundreds of different kinds of coronavirus. Then it moves to a new animal species (human).  A professor at the University of Hong King, Yuen Kwok Yung, who studied SARS outbreak in 20023, showed that 39 per cent of Chinese horseshoe bats could be harbouring SARS-related coronaviruses.

Why bats?

He noted that bats’ cells can survive surges  in metabolism that their hearts can go from 10 beats a minute during hibernation to 1,000 beats a minute in flight.  It is thought their constitution makes them ideally suited to be reservoir where a virus can stay, biding its time before jumping to another host species, an event known as a spillover.  

Even with a spillover, a virus that jumps to a new species doesn’t always spread. Some like avian flu, an influenza originally in birds that can infect humans, largely stops with the new host and don’t move from human to human. According to the article, there are more viruses than stars in the known universe. Trillions upon trillions of virus float in the air and ride the clouds. Scientists at the University of British Columbia, Canada, estimate that 800 million viruses rain onto every square metre of our planet every day. A coronavirus itself is so small that 500 of them could fit within the diameter of a human hair.

Many scientists can’t decide whether a virus is actually alive in any conventional sense. Viruses lead a kind of borrowed life, chemists say. They are a sub-microscopic essence of the need to reproduce that by nature is at cross-purposes with humankind.

“Viruses don’t think. They don’t have desires, “ said Columbia University virologist Angela Rasmussen.

In the absence of desire, they have purpose: to spread, multiply  and survive.    

Covid-19 virus                                                                                          

There are at least 320,000 different viruses that infect mammals. About 219 species are known to be able to infect humans. The article noted that one researcher found more than a hundred different viruses living inside human lungs. At least six other types of coronavirus are known to infect humans. Several cause the common cold. SARS-CoV-2 isn’t the first virus to have its impact broadened by travels. Smallpox, which killed 300 million people or more in the 20th century alone, first traversed the world by sailing ships with the Vikings a thousand years ago, new research into the history of epidemics suggests.

The coronavirus belongs to a category of viruses that work by transmitting chemical code, called RNA, which is sealed in a protective protein envelope. RNA is a nucleic acid present in all living cells that usually acts as a messenger to relay genetic instructions in DNA, telling the cells what to do. Once the virus gets inside a host cell, it seizes the cell’s reproductive machinery.

Without that maneuver, the coronavirus is impotent. It could never reproduce and churn out the millions of new virus cells in a spreading infection. When it kills, it is almost out of carelessness. Its own survival depends on sparing its victims as vehicles for its propagation.

While estimates vary, SARS-CoV-2 appears to kill about 0.6 per cent of the people it infects—six times that of a typical flue. By comparison, two other human coronaviruses are far more lethal but harder to contract. SARS-CoV, the original  SARS in the 2003 outbreak, has a case fatality of 9.6 per cent, while MERS, which stands for Middle East respiratory syndrome, which was reported in 2012, has an even higher case fatality rate of 34 per cent.

The current coronavirus causes serious symptoms in many of its victims. The effects are severe in approximately 20 per cent of the people it afflicts, according to David Hui, a respiratory expert of the Chinese University of Hong  Kong. Investigators realized that SARS-CoV-2 usually seeks out type II lung cells in the people it hijacks. These coat membranes lining the nose, throat and sinuses, and deep into the lungs. The coronavirus pries the cell open with a molecular structure called a spike protein that it uses like a crowbar to force entry.

In images that scientists made to study it, the round virus bristles with spikes. The spike protein locks onto a receptor called the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE 2, which typically regulates a protein that increases blood pressure and inflammation. The receptors seem to be more numerous among older people and generally higher among men than women.

Once inside a human cell, the new coronavirus has a rare ability to silence alarms that would normally alert the immune system to mobilize antibodies and virus-killing cells, according to microbiologists at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, USA.

Confusing complications

Doctors who first encountered it diagnosed it as a respiratory virus. They looked for symptoms of fever, coughs and shortages of breadth. But Covid-19 virus triggered  bewildering complications.

People complained of nausea or diarrhea. Some had arrhythmias or even heart attacks. Some suffered kidney damage or liver failure. Some lost their sense of smell or taste. Other patients turned up at clinics with blood clots or swollen purple bumps on their toes.

 In most countries where the virus triggered an outbreak, it sent people to the hospital with delirium, blackouts, brain inflammation or strokes.

The virus has infected millions of people who never got sick or were only mildly ill, which allowed it to reproduce while its victims spread it in ever-widening social circles.

The virus’s own internal chemistry alone wasn’t enough to account for so much variations of symptoms, severity and deaths.

Variations of contributing causes

There are many possible contributing causes: old age, gender, underlying chronic diseases such as  diabetes, lack of healthcare and poor diet. Investigators also turned their attention to gene variations that make some uniquely vulnerable.

“The immune system in people is as diverse as beauty, height, intelligence and any other human feature, “ said molecular immunologist  Michel Nussenzweig at Rockefeller University in New York, US. “Not everybody is the same in their ability to fight infection.”

At Rockefeller and New York Genome Center, scientists are comparing the entire genomes of those most severely affected by the virus to those who experience only mild symptoms—and then to the coronavirus itself.

These scientists extract the virus from the nose swab mucus collected from the people it infected and, through high-speed genome sequencers, reduce it to biochemical code for analysis.  Some are samples drawn from people who suffered no more than a fever and a cough. Others come from autopsies.

The bad news is that the virus is evolving

The four bases of virus RNA are written in an alphabet composed of nucleotide chemicals: adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and uracil (U). In its rush to make new copies of itself, the virus is prone to random errors.

“The virus changes on a fairly clockwork basis, “ said computational biologist Michael Zody at the genome centre. “ Every two weeks or so, it seems that the virus picks up a new mutation.”

That adds up about 25 random changes a year, much less than the seasonal flu, which has a mutation rate of almost 50 mutations a year. Most of the changes in the coronavirus don’t make any difference now. In time, it is possible that some might make it easier to transmit from person to person or become deadlier.

Recently, researchers led by biologist Bette Korber at Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, US, identified a small change in the 30,000 chemical characters of the coronavirus. In a section of the code that affects its spike protein, a single “A” had turned to “G”. That version has become more common in almost every country, compared with the original version that first arose in Wuhan, China. It may have outcompeted the original  strain, but may not be making patients any sicker, scientists said.

That is the only good news.

The article quoted Emma Hodcroft at the University of Basel, Switzerland. “Any of these mutations could functionally make the virus different. But this virus is young and we haven’t seen any evidence of this happening yet. It’s only been in humans a few months, and it’s doing very well.”

The coronavirus pandemic will be with us for a long time. Innovators from drug developers, medical equipment engineers, test kit biochemists, architects and telecommunication companies need to come out with novel solutions to combat this new coronavirus, and new ones that could emerge in the future. 

Economic Matters for Innovators

What innovators should know about modern monetary theory

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The Covid-19 pandemic is changing the way Governments in many countries, especially developed countries, run their economies. They have adopted the so-called modern monetary theory or MMT. A clear explanation on MMT has been written by David Smith in the Times London on August 14th, 2020. The following  is the extract of the article.   

Today, something is slightly different. This is in the nature of an economic version of a request show. I have had many requests to write about what is known as modern monetary theory (MMT) and this is my response. MMT has been around for some time — decades, or even centuries, according to its advocates — but it is relevant now.

My reluctance to write about it has been in part because its true believers can get very exercised when faced with criticism, even if it is constructive.

The reason for writing about MMT now is the book by Stephanie Kelton, professor of economics and public policy at America’s Stony Brook University, and one of MMT’s leading advocates. She advised Bernie Sanders, who ran Joe Biden close for the nomination as Democratic challenger for the US presidency. Her book, The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and How To Build a Better Economy, is published by John Murray.

Professor Kelton is a leading advocate of MMT

It is proving popular, for good reason. Not only are plenty of people interested in MMT, but it is written in a non-technical, accessible, even folksy style. It is being read by non-economists, as all the emails I have received urging me to write about it attest, as well as being on the summer reading lists for many economics students. Last time I looked, it was Amazon’s bestseller in macroeconomics and inside the online retailer’s top 1,000 among all titles.

It is arranged as a series of myth-busting chapters, although people who are aware of conventional economics do not believe many of these myths. The first “myth” is that the government’s budget is not the same as a household budget; something I thought had been buried many years ago. The same goes for most of the other myths.

The central idea of MMT is simple. It distinguishes between currency issuers and currency users. The only currency issuer in America is the US Treasury, with the Federal Reserve acting as its agent. Everybody else is a currency user.

As a currency issuer, the government has the ability to print as much money as it needs. The budget deficit itself is not a constraint, and neither is government debt. Some claim — wrongly, I think — that MMT has already been adopted in response to the Covid-19 crisis in the form of quantitative easing (QE).

In the world of MMT, the government can print enough money to cover a deficit of any size and, in extremis, to pay off all the accumulated debt of the past. The only tests of whether a budget deficit is too large or too small are inflation and unemployment. If inflation is low, the budget deficit cannot be too high, and if there is unemployment, the budget deficit must be too low.

Many people will catch their breath at this point, not least because Kelton claims that this is not just a theory but an explanation of how the world works. However, that requires us to be taken down a rabbit hole of implausibility.

If deficits can be costlessly funded and managed by the simple device of issuing currency, why do governments need to levy taxes? In perhaps the least plausible explanation of how incentives work, people apparently need to work to meet their tax obligations. If they did not have to pay tax, they would not need to work. I rather think they would, to satisfy their wants. Another reason for taxing — to redistribute wealth and income — does not wash either: you can redistribute wealth and income within the tax system without raising any net revenues by taking from the rich and giving it to the poor in tax credits.

Taxation exists in the real world to raise revenue. And borrowing by governments also plainly exists. Kelton says this is not to raise money, because governments don’t need to, but “to offer people a different kind of government money, one that pays a bit of interest”. Try telling that to US and British governments in the past, which have paid a lot of interest to fund borrowing and sometimes struggled to do so.

There is plenty more in the book. Some of it, like the policy of a job guarantee for everybody, is not so much part of MMT but an add-on to it, although at a time of high unemployment possibly a popular one.

MMT is misnamed because it is not monetary at all but almost entirely fiscal. As Kelton puts it: “MMT requires us to demote monetary policy and elevate fiscal policy as the primary tool for macroeconomic stabilisation.”

So what should we think of this? MMT has drawn robust criticism from some eminent economists. Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, writing last year under the headline “Modern Monetary Nonsense”, described its central idea as “just nuts”. An exasperated Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, described debating with MMT advocates as like playing Calvinball, a game where players make up the rules as they go along.

Larry Summers, economist and former US treasury secretary, attacked “ludicrous claims” by “fringe economists . . . offering the proverbial free lunch: the ability of the government to spend more without imposing any burden on anyone”.

I am going to be polite. We always need new, fresh thinking and nobody wants to kill off ideas clearly in a state of gestation and in no way workable in their present form. Some, like the economists above, might say it is necessary to kill off MMT because it is dangerous. There is, however, little chance of it being adopted as real-world policy. Not even Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell embraced MMT, despite being urged to by some supporters.

They were wise not to do so, because there are fundamental problems with MMT. It would take another book to address them fully. Kelton has fun with Margaret Thatcher’s “backward dictum” because Thatcher described a government’s finances in the way you would describe a household’s finances.

However, Kelton has more in common with Thatcher than she thinks. In the early 1980s, when the Tories launched their monetarist experiment, Thatcher thought the key driver of inflation was the budget deficit. The deficit had to be cut to reduce money supply growth and inflation. It is why people associated monetarism with “cuts”. Kelton looks at it from the other end of the telescope but applying the same principle.

The causes of inflation are many and varied, particularly when you do not use the simplifying assumption of a closed economy. Dylan Grice, whose review of Kelton’s book was republished by Albert Edwards of Société Générale, is not unsympathetic but points to the “preposterous” idea that getting the Congressional Budget Office in America, or equivalents elsewhere, to predict inflation will take care of the inflation risk from large budget deficits. Given the forecasting record on inflation, it plainly will not. As Grice puts it: “In short, MMT is a recommendation that policymakers press harcelerator without knowing where the brake is.”

He is right and, while advocates of MMT see it as a two-way street in which spending would be reined in if inflation took off, politicians may see it differently. Would it be a recipe for huge instability in the provision of public services, with public spending cut in response to rising inflation in a way that would make George Osborne’s austerity look like a tea party? Or would the government decide it could live with a lot more inflation? Either way, it would not be pretty.

Malaysian Innovators

Southeast Asian Oil Palms Owe their High Productivity to a Weevil from Cameroon

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The oil palm industry in Malaysia used to hire thousands of female workers to just manually gather pollen grains from male flowers of oil palms to pollinate female flowers. On average, a group of three workers are required for a every hectare of oil palm plantation.

The oil palm flowers, courtesy of etawau.com

Teams of workers patrolled the oil palm estate daily, searching for male flowers to collect pollen grains. The pollen grains were distributed to other teams who went around pollinating receptive female flowers with hand puffers. I would imagine the oil palm plantation would be full of chatting noises of these women. Today, these chatting noises are gone. The task of pollinating the oil palm flowers is done in silence by a weevil imported from Cameroon of Central Africa.

Cameroon where E kamerunicus oringates

The weevil is known by its scientific name, Elaeidobious kamerunicus (E kamerunicus). The technique of pollinating the flowers by weevil was discovered by Datuk Leslie Davidson, a Scottish planter who worked for Unilever’s oil palm plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. The weevils were officially released into Malaysia on February 21st, 1981.

E kamerunicus is about 5 mm from the horn to the tail

Datuk Leslie Davidson , undeterred and unconvinced by textbook knowledge which claimed that oil palm fruits were wind-pollinated and that heavy rains washed pollen grains away, arranged for more research to prove that that pollination of oil palms in West and Central Africa was largely due to weevils which were not found in Malaysia.

Datuk Leslie Davidson and the scientists who brought in E kamerunicus into Malaysia

Under Davidson’s instruction, a group of four Malaysian scientists and experts, namely Dr Kang Siew Ming, Zam Karim, Dr Tay Eong Beok and Mahbo Abdullah, went to Cameroon to assess the work of Dr Rahman Anwar Syed, the entomologist who was assigned to study oil palm pollination by insects in Africa, especially the E kamerunicus specie.

Dr Rahman Anwar Syed proved, in a series of experiments, that the oil palm in its natural habitat was pollinated by different insects, the most important of which the weevil named E kamerunicus. It was also found out that the weevils had evolved with the oil palms and developed a very synergistic relationship with them.

Dr Rahman Anwar Syed started research on pollination by African weevils

Subsequently, the Malaysian government issued an import permit to introduce the weevils into Malaysia. In June 1980, Dr Rahman Anwar Syed arrived in Malaysia from Cameroon with 1,044 weevil pupae individually packed in plastic vials. Only 400 vigorous weevils were selected whilst the rest were destroyed. After six months of testing, the Malaysian government was finally satisfied that the weevils would bring no harm. The results of the tests were presented at a meeting of experts from various Malaysian research agencies. The final authorization was granted to release the weevils for commercial use at Unilever’s oil palm estate in Kluang, Johor, Malaysia. Since then, the weevils had been released in Indonesia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Island and India.

Unilever had sold its oil palm estates in Malaysia to a Malaysian palm oil conglomerate. 

When you tuck in to enjoy your fried KFC chickens, please remember E kamerunicus from Cameroon.

Note: This article is extracted from my book, The Palm Oil Multinationals from Malaysia, published by Lap Publishing. The book is available from Amazon.com.

Malaysian Innovators

Another 140-year old tree: The oldest rubber tree in Malaysia

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The motor industry in Europe and the US in the early 1900s led to the mad rush for plantation rubber in British Malaya (Malaysia now). There was not enough supply of rubber gathered from the Amazon rainforest of Brazil.

A large part of British Malaya was cleared of its forests and planted with rubber trees. Roads and railway lines were laid out to transport smoked rubber sheets to make tyres to ports and exported to UK and the US.

Financiers in London formed financial syndicates to open-up rubber plantations in British Malaya. Many financial syndicates listed their vehicle on the London Stock Exchange. Thus, more lands were cleared to plant rubber trees in British Malaya. Many young Scottish men went to British Malaya to seek their fortunes by becoming rubber planters.

Before the 1900s, many British farmers were involved with coffee plants and reluctant to switch to rubber, which had unknown market. However, Sir Henry Ridley, a government official, believed in the potential the plantation rubber industry. A few British Advisors to the Malay States in British Malaya worked hard to convince British farmers and local Chinese businessmen to consider rubber trees. One British Advisor to the Malay State of Perak, Sir Hugh Low, planted a rubber tree near a polo club at the royal town of Kuala Kangsar, Perak.

The 140-year old rubber tree in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, Malaysia
Hand-operated rubber sheet rolling machine

I visited the huge rubber tree two weeks ago. A plaque near the rubber tree noted the rubber tree was planted in the 1880s by Sir Hugh Low to convince the locals to plant rubber trees in a big scale.

The trunk is huge

Then, the rubber tree could only be tapped for rubber latex after 7 to 10 years.  Today, the rubber tree can be tapped after 3 to 4 years. As seen in the photos, the oldest rubber tree has a huge trunk as compared to a smaller trunk of today’s rubber trees.

Today’s rubber tree with smaller trunks
Rubber sheet hung to dry

I used to walk passed the oldest rubber tree in Malaysia as a student at the nearby famous Malay College in the 1970s. The rubber tree is still thriving after 140 years.

Interlude

140-year old rain trees at Lake Garden, Taiping, Malaysia

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Last weekend, we visited a few relatives in the Malaysian northern state of Perak. We also admired about 20 140-year old rain trees at the Lake Garden, Taiping. The rain trees were planted by British botanists in 1880s. We were sure that the rain trees were maintained by Malay gardeners. The rain trees are like magnets for locals, enjoying a picnic under them. Newly weds use the rain trees as the background for their photo sessions.

We hope the rain trees can live another 140 years. Please enjoy the rain trees.

Must-Read Reports

Bill Gate’s latest investment that tries to solve a major problem

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In a recent blog, we reported that Bill Gates invested in a company, C16 Biosciences Inc.,that plans to produce palm oil using fermentation process.  The company aims to reduce the need to reduce the impact on clearing tropical forests to plant oil palms.

It is reported by The Times, London on June 24th, 2020, that Bill Gates has made an investment in a new venture that aims to solve another global problem. He has put his money in a start-up hopes to develop artificial breast milk to reduce the carbon footprint of mothers who choose not to breastfeed.

Estimates suggest that at least 10 per cent of the world dairy market, a major source of greenhouse gases, is used to produce baby formula milk. The company, Biomilq, an American company, has provided a proof of concept top show the feasibility of its plan. It hopes to produce breast milk artificially from cultured human  mammary epithelial cells in about five years (mammary epithelial cells are cells in the thin layer of of tissue that coat and lines the surface of the milk ducts in the breast)

This would be an alternative to formula milk. The firm has already shown that the process can produce lactose and casein, to components of human breast milk. Biomilq is being assisted by an investment of US$3.5 million, mostly from a fund set up by Bill Gates. The idea of growing breast milk in a laboratory is likely to be less alien to the public after the popularity of lab-grown meat.

Biomilq was founded by Michelle Egger and Leila Strickland. Ms Egger was a food scientist, while Ms Strickland was a cell biologist.

Breast feeding is widely touted for its health benefits for babies but many mothers do not have that option. Formula milk is the normal alternative for these mothers. This can cause problems, however, for some children’s digestive systems because it relies on cow’s milk or soy rather than human proteins. Biomilq aims to create something that is as digestible as human breast milk but have a smaller environmental impact than dairy.

The investment by Bill Gates into Biomilq was made through Breakthrough Energy Ventures, set up to focus on climate change. 

About Breakthrough Energy Ventures

According to Quartz, the digital business news website (www.qz.com, noted by its senior reporter,  Ashkat Rathi on August 26, 2019, Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) is a US$1 billion fund with the aims to fund those technologies that fight climate change.

To be eligible for BEV, a start-up needs to showcase a scientifically sound technology that has the potential to reduce annual global greenhouse-gas emission by at least 500 million MT. Global emissions currently measure about 40 billion MT per year.

Start-up that have these technologies usually struggle to scale, either because the engineering challenge is too big or the business environment to support the companies doesn’t exist. These companies need patient capital. BEV is fine if its investments don’t provide a return for up to 20 years. In September, 2018, Quartz revealed the first nine investments made by BEV. It included three start-ups building energy-storage technologies, two using microbes to cut emissions in agriculture products, and one each working on low-carbon cement, cheap geothermal, nuclear fusion, and a solar-powered technology to collect water from the air. Eight were based in the US and one in Canada.    

In the 12 months since the last tranche, of investments, BEV has found 10 more companies that it thinks could help the world cut emissions drastically.

  1. Arnergy: A Nigerian start-up  that deploys solar-power solutions for small businesses to provide reliable electricity.
  2. Baseload Capital: A specialized investment entity  based in Sweden that funds the deployment of technology developed by start-up Climeon, which uses waste heat to generate power.
  3. Boston Metal: A company based in Boston, US, that uses electricity, instead of coke, to convert iron ore into iron.  
  4. Kobold Metals: A company based in San Francisco, US, that uses artificial intelligence to accelerate the search from ethical sources of the metals, like Cobalt, needed to make lithium-ion batteries.
  5. Max: A Nigerian ride-sharing app that deploys two-wheeled motorcycles to move people in cities more safely. BEV’s money will help lower emissions by pushing for the electrician of Max’s vehicle fleet.
  6. Malta: A Boston-based start-up that has developed a way to store renewable electricity renewable energy in the form of heat and cold.
  7. Motif: A  Boston-based start-up that develops low-carbon alternatives for everyday food ingredients.
  8. Sierra Energy: A start-up spun out of University of California, Davis, US, that uses oxygen and steam to break down waste into gases, which can be used to make synthetic fuel. The process leaves behind solid sorb metals that can be safely discarded or re-used
  9. SparkMeter: A US-based start-up with a Kenyan office that develops smart meters to grow reliable access to electricity in poor countries.
  10. Sustainable Bioproducts: A Chicago-based start-up whose fermentation technology creates low-carbon proteins that can be used as nutrients for foods.

Breakthrough Energy Venture is the investment arm of Breakthrough Venture, an entity established in 2015 by Bill Gates and a coalition of private investors concerned about the impact of accelerating climate change (www.b-t.energy). The board member s and investors include prominent individuals such as follows:

  1. Mukesh Ambani: Investor
  2. John Arnold: Board member
  3. Jeff Bezos: Investor
  4. HRH Prince Alwaleed Talal: Investor
  5.  Michael Bloomberg: Investor
  6. Richard Branson: Investor
  7. Ray Dalio: Investor
  8. John Doerr: Board member
  9. Bill Gates: Chair of the Board
  10. Reid Hoffman: Investor
  11. Chris Hohn: Investor
  12. Vinod Khosla: Board member
  13. Jack Ma: Board member
  14. Dustin Maskovitz and Cari Tuna: Investor
  15. Patrice Motsepe: Investor
  16. Xavier Niel: Investor
  17. Hasso Palttner: Investor
  18. Julian Robertson: Investor
  19. David Rubenstein: Investor
  20. Nat Simons and Laura Baxter- Simons: Investor
  21. Masayoshi Son: Investor
  22. Ms Zhang Xin and Mr Pan Shiyi: Investor