Science

New research suggests Darwin got sexual selection backwards

Tamas Szekely, University of Bath

Charles Darwin was a careful scientist. In the middle of the 19th century, while he was collecting evidence for his theory that species evolve by natural selection, he noticed it didn't explain the fancy tails of male peacocks, the antlers paraded by male deer, or why some the males of some species are far larger then their female counterparts.

For these quirks, Darwin proposed a secondary theory: the sexual selection of traits that increase an animal's chance of securing a mate and reproducing. He carefully distinguished between weapons such as horns, spurs, fangs and sheer size that are used to subdue competing rivals, and ornaments that are aimed at charming the opposite sex.

Darwin thought that sexually selected traits could be explained by uneven sex ratios – when there are more males than females in a population, or vice versa. He reasoned that a male with fewer available females would have to work harder to secure one of them as a mate, and that this competition would drive sexual selection.

In a new study, my colleagues and I have confirmed a link between sexual selection and sex ratios, as Darwin suspected. But surprisingly, our findings suggest Darwin got things the wrong way round. We found that sexual selection is most pronounced not when potential mates are scarce, but when they're abundant – and this means looking again at the selection pressures at play in animal populations that feature uneven sex ratios.

Since Darwin's time, we've learned a lot about uneven sex ratios, which are common in wild animal populations. For instance, in many butterflies and mammals, including humans, the number of adult females exceeds the number of adult males.

This skew is most extreme among marsupials. In Australian antechinus, for instance, all males abruptly die after the mating season, so there are times when no adult males are alive and the entire adult population is made up of pregnant females.

In contrast, many birds parade more males than females in their populations. In some plovers, for example, the males outnumber females by six to one.

So why do many birds species have more males, while mammals often have more females? The short answer is that we don't know. But there are smoking guns.

Explaining uneven sex ratios

Some uneven sex ratios can be partially explained by lifespan differences. Female mammals, including humans, usually outlive their male counterparts by a wide margin. In humans, females live on average about 5% longer than males. In African lions and killer whales, the female lifespan is longer by up to 50%.

Predator preferences could also play a part. African lions kill approximately seven times more male than female buffalo, because male buffalo tend to roam alone, whereas females are protected within herds. In contrast, cheetahs kill many more female Thompson's gazelles than males, presumably because they can outrun female gazelles easier – especially the pregnant ones.

A lion in front of a herd of buffalo

Lions don't appear to fancy their chances against a herd of female buffalo.

Seyms Brugger/Shutterstock

Finally, males and females often suffer differently from parasites and diseases. The COVID-19 pandemic is a striking example of this: the number of infected men and women is similar in most countries, but male patients have higher odds of death compared to female ones.

Sex ratios and sexual selection

Despite our growing knowledge of uneven sex ratios, Darwin's insight linking sex ratios with sexual selection has received little attention from scientists. Our study sought to address this, pulling together these two strands of evolutionary theory in order to revisit Darwin's argument.

We looked in particular at the evolution of large males in different species, which are often several times larger than their female counterparts. We see this in male baboons, elephant seals and migratory birds, for example.

Sometimes, females are larger than males – as with some species of bird, such as the African jacana. The scientific term for when one sex in a species is larger than the other is “sexual size dimorphism".

A larger female African janaca and a smaller male

The female African jacana, on the left, is larger than the male.

Bernard DUPONT/flickr, CC BY-SA

It's clear how sexual selection can sometimes create size dimorphism. Knocking out an enemy requires muscular power, while fight endurance requires stamina. So being bigger often means dominating rivals, thereby winning the evolutionary lottery of reproduction.

Analysing 462 different species of reptiles, mammals and birds, our study found a tight association between sexual size dimorphism and sex ratios, vindicating Darwin's conjectures.

But the trend was the opposite to the one Darwin predicted with his limited evidence. It turns out the most intense sexual selection – indicated by larger males relative to females – occurred in species where there were plenty of females for males to choose from, rather than a scarcity of females as Darwin suggested.

Implications for sexual selection

This in no way invalidates Darwin's theories of natural selection and sexual selection. Our finding simply shows that a different mechanism to the one Darwin proposed is driving mating competition for animals living in sex-skewed populations.

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Could a human actually be engulfed by a whale? A marine biologist weighs in

Last week, headlines about a humpback whale briefly "swallowing" a lobster diver in Cape Cod splashed across news outlets. "Diver describes being nearly swallowed by a humpback whale," CNN reported of the modern-day Jonah. "MA lobster diver survives being swallowed by whale," The Daily Beast stated.

For the record, the diver wasn't swallowed; indeed, it is inaccurate to say that because he was allegedly engulfed in the humpback whale's mouth, and did not go down the whale's esophagus. According to the Cape Cod Times, Michael Packard was on his second dive of the day just before 8 AM, about 10 feet above the sandy ocean floor, when he was engulfed by a humpback whale.

"All of a sudden, I felt this huge shove and the next thing I knew it was completely black," Packard said. "I could sense I was moving, and I could feel the whale squeezing with the muscles in his mouth."

At first, he thought he was getting attacked by a great white shark, but said he quickly realized it was a whale because he couldn't feel any teeth and hadn't suffered from any immediate injuries. On the Jimmy Kimmel Show, Packard said he was "struggling and banging and kicking," as he thought he was going to die. He estimated in a Reddit thread that he was in the whale's mouth for 30 to 40 seconds, and that he was released when the whale surfaced.

Since the story has been published, many skeptics have voiced their opinions on whether or not the account is true. According to The New York Post, the lack of barotrauma from ascending from 45 to 35 feet deep to the surface in such a short amount of time would likely cause more serious injuries. Yet, as a lobster diver, Packard is presumably an experienced diver, and perhaps knew how to adjust his body to avoid compression or decompression injuries.

Regardless, this latest tale of a man getting caught in a whale's mouth touches on an ongoing narrative in human history that intersects with the mysteriousness of whales, and perhaps our subconscious fear of their size. Humpback whales usually range from 39 to 52 feet in length and weigh around 36 metric tons — which equates to around 79,000 pounds. That's about the same weight as a fully loaded big rig semi truck. And while Packard's situation is very rare, it is not the first time there has been a report of such an incident.

In the late nineteenth century a man reported being trapped in a whale's mouth, although the accuracy of his story has been debated as well. Most famously, there's the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, in which the prophet Jonah allegedly spent three days and three nights in a whale's stomach. More recently, in California in November 2020, kayakers got in the way of a whale feeding by the surface — an incident that was documented on video.

But clearly, the most important question is one of plausibility. Does Packard's story add up? And if Packard, as he claims, did get engulfed in a whale's mouth, what would that be like?

To help answer these questions, I interviewed comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg, Ph.D., who is a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; her research focuses on whales. As always, this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

So, what would it be like inside a humpback whale's mouth? Especially 45 feet below the surface?

It's about the size of a small Volkswagen Bug. Think about the size of a Beetle car, in terms of the volume — and that's when it's fully expanded. Getting into a whale's mouth is kind of like getting into a small car. It's got about that much room, but you take out all the chairs in the car, the wall and, of course, the walls are going to be very different depending which part you reach out and touch.

Once you're inside a space like that, the throat and tongue area is extremely stretchy. So I would imagine it's a lot like jumping on a bouncy castle, one of those air castles, that kids play on. The sides will be very hard because there's the jaw itself which will have closed around you at that point. So that's bone, that will be hard, and the upper jaw is also made of bone, and it has the baleen plates hanging down from it on either side.

So, imagine a Polynesian hut with the statue roof that has the palm fronds on it. It's kind of like having that kind of material all around you on either side. It's very hairy, very brushy, a bit pointy — maybe a little bit more like hairs than like palm fronds — but just imagine that there's there's a lot of this hairy stuff hanging down on either this side, but very stiff bristles of hair are baleen plates which are used for filter feeding. So they have a brushy surface on the inside, but the plates themselves look like giant fingernails, and they're made of the same kind of material as your own fingernails. So while they're hairy on the tongue side, on the outside, they are very stiff almost like the edges of your fingernails are.

What is it like to touch the baleen plates?

If you push against them, they might feel like wire mesh, but it has a little bit of give to it. You couldn't swim between the plates because you could barely get your pinky finger in between each plate — that's how close together they are, and that particular pattern allows for water to be pushed out between the plates. The hairs trap the food that they're eating, like a sieve. You wouldn't be able to swim out through those planes, you'd have to wait for the whale to open its mouth to get back out again.

And I imagine it's pretty dark in there too?

Absolutely. Well, you know, it's pretty dark anyway if you're diving near the bottom of the sea floor which is where this guy was — I'm not sure how deep he was. But when you're inside the whale's mouth it would just be dark because there's no light in there. And so that's why I've only described that you'd feel as opposed to what you would see. You might not even see this whale coming. I'm sure trying to eat him wasn't intentional — which is why he was released — but if you are a fish, the camouflage of the whale's mouth is perfectly adapted for the way that it feeds. The inside throat area is actually black where the tongue is. So it's just like darkness coming toward you.

It doesn't really look like anything that you would recognize. Looking down from the surface of the ocean it's pretty dark. And if you look up, it's pretty light. So the baleen plates are lighter colored, they look a little bit more like sky, whereas the tongue looks more like the darkness you'd see if you look down in the water.

So what would it be like in a whale's mouth for 30 to 40 seconds?

Well, it's a long time if you think about it. Most people can't even hold their breath for that long. The problem is twofold: one is that you become very disoriented right away because you're now being swept up inside this animal's mouth. If you're trying to force your way out, you don't even know which way is out because everything's dark. But at least you know you won't be swallowed.

Right... because that's impossible?

Yes, it is impossible for a whale to actually swallow him. I want to draw that distinction. I know people are thinking of [Packard] as some modern day Jonah, but if you believe the story of Jonah, literally, Jonah was swallowed by technically a big fish. In those days, they didn't have the taxonomy we have today.

So whales were considered fish, but we don't know if they really meant giant fish or meant a giant whale.

Anyway, a whale's throat is actually pretty small. I've dissected a lot of whales, and I've tried to put my arm down the throat of a dead whale, and I can barely get my arm down that throat. So it'd be really hard for my whole body to go down that throat. It's too small of an opening, and that's because these animals are not swallowing large prey — they're swallowing lots of little tiny things. Feeding is kind of like drinking a thick milkshake for them. They squeeze out the water and then they have this flurry of little tiny fish or tiny shrimp-like animals that they swallow, and that flurry can go down to very small things. They don't want to drink the seawater — the kidneys have to work extra hard to get rid of all that extra salt. So they exclude the water by pushing it out through the baleen plates, and essentially licking off the baleen plates to get the snack that they want to eat, and just swallow the flurry of little tiny fish.

So if a whale has got a diver in their mouth, it would be like if you eat cherries and there's a pit — you feel it with your tongue you know it's there, you're like — I have to spit that out.

Do you know if the whale could have tasted the diver?

That's a really good question and nobody knows for sure because no one can really ask a whale: "Does it taste good?" But I will say anatomically there are taste buds in whales. It's been studied more in those small-toothed whales like dolphins. It's not really clear on the big whales. But there are anatomical structures that are taste buds, but they're just not as prevalent as the ones we have and it's not clear what they sense they work. Whales could be sensing salinity, or the mucus that sits on the outside of a fish's body, to know that it's fish and not a rock or whatever they might be scooping up, especially for feeding at the bottom, which is what this whale was doing.

So what would the journey to the surface be like?

Well, the whale would probably be trying to squeeze out the water at that point so they could then swallow its prey. At that point it would realize, "hey, there's nothing in here, and there's a thing that's way too large to just be prey because it's not compressing when I squeeze these muscles." So I imagine it would get tighter around the person as the muscles contract that throat area; your Volkswagen is starting to collapse.

To me, the biggest danger is actually the fact that the whale is moving to the surface. When you change pressures, which you would be doing if you are heading to the surface, the air in your body starts to expand. And as a diver, if you get panicked you could really injure yourself by not releasing the extra air, because you might get scared and hold your breath, which is you know a lot of us, We're scared, we freeze, and we hold our breath. That's the worst thing for a diver to do if they're being pulled up towards the surface. As an experienced diver, he probably knew to continue to breathe out when he felt the weight if he realized he was in a whale, which I assumed he did pretty soon afterwards. When you realize the whale was taking him upwards, he probably was breathing out, which is a good thing to do because then the air in his lungs would not tear the lung tissue as it expands.

And then what about when he reached the surface, how much force does the whale use to spit something out?

I'm sure it's hardly any pressure at all. It's just a little push to push him out.

The FDA’s big gamble on the new Alzheimer’s drug

C. Michael White, University of Connecticut

The Food and Drug Administration set off a firestorm of debate when it approved a new drug, aducanumab, for Alzheimer's disease via an accelerated approval pathway. This decision ignored the recommendation of the FDA's external advisory panel to reject the drug.

The FDA grants accelerated approvals for drugs to treat serious illnesses for which there are no known, or at least very few, treatments. The type of data used to support accelerated approvals is very different from the typical benchmark safety and efficacy data required for approval. As a pharmacist and researcher, I have documented several reasons drug research conducted in a laboratory environment differs substantially from what is ultimately seen in people. The challenge lies in striking a balance between taking the time to ensure a treatment works and meeting urgent patient need.

Using a different standard

The FDA created an accelerated approval pathway for drugs treating serious diseases for which many patients feel a desperate need for more options. This has included treatment for advanced-stage cancer, multiple sclerosis and HIV, among others.

When considering accelerated approval, the agency examines a drug's efficacy using what's called a “surrogate endpoint." While most drug trials measure success based on clinical endpoints that determine whether a drug helps people feel better or live longer, like reducing heart attacks or strokes, surrogate endpoints measure biomarkers that suggest potential clinical benefit. These surrogate endpoints are viable substitutes for hard clinical endpoints because they're proven to be directly linked to the desired clinical outcomes. For example, the clinical endpoints of reducing heart attacks and strokes could use reduced blood pressure and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol as surrogate endpoints.

While many hypotheses on the correct surrogate endpoints to treat certain diseases have panned out, several others have been shown to be off-base or only partially correct. A great example is homocysteine, an amino acid once thought to be a driver of cardiovascular diseases which since has been shown to be a marker of disease only. People with elevated levels of homocysteine are more likely to have cardiovascular disease, but lowering levels doesn't make heart attacks and strokes less likely to occur. All those who rushed the science and purchased dietary supplements to lower their homocysteine were flushing their money down the drain.

Testing the amyloid beta hypothesis

Though the effect of aducanumab, the Alzheimer's drug developed by biotechnology company Biogen, on hard clinical endpoints are lackluster, it has been shown to reduce the formation of amyloid beta plaques in patients with early-stage Alzheimer's. Amyloid beta denotes proteins that clump together to form plaques commonly seen in patients with Alzheimer's. It's been hypothesized that these plaques drive the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's. Animal models have shown that interfering with amyloid beta plaque formation could lead to improvements in functioning.

The data linking amyloid beta plaques to hard clinical endpoints is not a slam-dunk. Unlike hypertension and elevated LDL cholesterol, which has been proved to be linked to cardiovascular events, amyloid beta has not seen such definitive results.

Two large clinical trials assessing aducanumab have been conducted, one that started with a higher dose and one that started with a lower dose that was later increased. Both trials were stopped early, and the lower-dose trial found no benefits. The higher-dose trial found modest benefits in maintaining mental functioning, but the trial did not have enough patients to show that these benefits were due to the drug and not to chance. After the fact, the researchers combined data from patients who received high-dose aducanumab in both trials and found an improvement in mental functioning. However, many experts running clinical trials bristle at combining trial outcomes like this: These after-the-fact analyses have been shown in some circumstances to not pan out in the future.

Other initially promising experimental drugs targeting amyloid beta for Alzheimer's also fell short in reducing hard clinical endpoints in their clinical trials. After one of these drugs, solanezumab, failed to achieve study aims, additional data analysis post-trial suggested it might be effective in a select population with mild Alzheimer's. Researchers conducted an additional large clinical trial focusing on that subpopulation, but again failed to demonstrate significant benefits. No one knows if aducanumab will find significant benefits when the new clinical trial completes or if it will fail as solanezumab did.

If amyloid beta turns out to be simply a marker and not a cause of Alzheimer's, it will be a costly mistake: Aducanumab is estimated to cost over US$56,000 a year.

The role of amyloid beta plaques in Alzheimer's disease is still debated among scientists.

Was the FDA's ruling a mistake?

Over 6 million Americans now have Alzheimer's disease, and deaths from Alzheimer's have risen over 145% over the past 20 years. Alzheimer's disease not only robs individuals of their autonomy but also places a huge burden on family members and the U.S. economy: $355 billion is spent annually on caring for people with Alzheimer's. Current FDA-approved treatments are only modestly effective at controlling disease symptoms, and none target a possible underlying cause.

The accelerated approval pathway allows patients with early-stage Alzheimer's to access aducanumab while a larger and more definitive clinical trial is conducted. Biogen says it hopes to have the clinical trial completed by 2030. If the study does not find reductions in the hard clinical endpoints, the drug will be withdrawn.

If aducanumab is ultimately found to be effective, many patients with early-stage Alzheimer's will reap the benefits in reductions in hospitalizations, doctor visits, nursing home costs and societal burden.

If aducanumab is found to be ineffective, however, Medicare, insurers and patients will have spent tens of millions of dollars on a drug that not only did not work but also exposed patients to adverse events, including the risk of bleeding in the brain..

Should physicians prescribe aducanumab, and should insurers pay for it?

For patients in the earlier stages of Alzheimer's disease, there is reason to try aducanumab based on the current clinical trial data and the lack of alternatives. But in advanced disease, it is unlikely that aducanumab or any drug targeting amyloid beta will provide benefits.

In a cost-effectiveness assessment of aducanumab, the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review, an independent organization assessing the value of medical treatments, suggested an annual price range from $8,300 to $23,000. This is a far cry from the $56,000 a year the company is expecting to charge, and that doesn't account for the thousands of dollars in additional testing required to reduce the risk of brain swelling and bleeding.

The annual cost of the drug will likely greatly exceed the cost savings in other areas like reduced doctor visits and hospitalizations. Until further results are released, such high costs could lead private insurers to not cover or charge higher copays for the drug. Given the average age of those with Alzheimer's disease, however, most people receiving aducanumab will be eligible for Medicare and will most likely be covered. Whether the drug will actually treat the disease – the biggest issue in question – remains uncertain.

Let us all hope that the FDA's gamble pays off.The Conversation

C. Michael White, Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Pharmacy Practice, University of Connecticut

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

Here's what we know about how COVID-19 affects the brain

by Cameron Watson, Queen Mary University of London and Jonathan Rogers, UCL

Although COVID-19 was first described as a disease of the lungs, as its relentless march has continued we've realised that it has a far wider reach in the human body. COVID-19 has been associated with skin rashes, bleeding disorders and structural damage to the heart and kidneys. It has also been implicated in disorders of both the brain and the mind.

Early studies prompted fears that healthcare services would collapse under a crushing wave of strokes, brain inflammation and muscular disorders. Moreover, reviews of previous coronavirus outbreaks warned that those recovering from COVID-19 may face an increased burden of psychiatric disorders like depression and PTSD.

But despite research on COVID-19 and the brain being produced at unprecedented scale and speed during the pandemic – with hundreds of new articles appearing every week – it was hard initially to find reliable data to confirm or disprove these fears.

So, as a team of doctors, students and researchers from disciplines including psychiatry, psychology and neurology, we joined forces to analyse all the available research on the effects of COVID-19 on the brain. By doing so, we aimed to cut through a lot of the speculation surrounding COVID-19's neurological and psychiatric effects. Here's what we found.

Different conditions, different frequencies

Our team soon realised that many of the associations between COVID-19 and the brain were being drawn from small, highly selected groups of patients, which risks bias. So to combat this, we whittled down the vast number of potentially relevant papers on the neurology and psychiatry of COVID-19 (more than 13,000) to 215 that were robust enough to be analysed. Collectively, these covered 105,000 people from 30 countries.

We found that in these studies the most common neuropsychiatric symptoms were loss of smell (anosmia), weakness, fatigue and a change in taste (dysgeusia), which all happen quite frequently. Anosmia and weakness appeared in more than 30% of the patients the studies we looked at, for example. It's therefore very likely that neuropsychiatric symptoms in COVID-19 are the rule and not the exception.

But reassuringly, initial fears about more serious brain-related conditions – such as widespread inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) and Guillain-Barré syndrome, where the immune system attacks the nerves – seemed to be based only on very rare events. Concerns about vast waves of such conditions seem unfounded.

However, we did find that some important mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, were each occurring in as many as 25% of people with COVID-19. These may represent a huge burden to patients in years to come. Even neurological events reported less frequently, like stroke (which occurred in about 2% of hospitalised patients), will still represent an enormous challenge to patients and healthcare systems due to the sheer scale of this pandemic's reach and the fact that they often have life-changing results.

Interestingly, we found that several symptoms (including muscle pain and loss of smell) were actually reported more commonly in those with less severe COVID-19 – the opposite of what you might expect. Of course, there may be a simple explanation for this: perhaps critically unwell patients are less likely to be probed about certain symptoms, particularly those that are less severe. We also saw many disabling symptoms (including fatigue and headache) present in those who were not hospitalised at all.

But answers are far from final

While reading this, you may have been struck by a big question surrounding all these studies: how do we know that COVID-19 is actually causing any of these problems? Depression is common – might these people have developed it anyway without getting COVID-19? And what if having a psychiatric illness makes you more likely to get COVID-19? One large study with US data suggests that this is the case.

These are all real issues in the data available up to this point, as unless you have a comparison group of individuals without COVID-19, it's impossible to know whether the people you are studying were going to have high rates of neuropsychiatric disorders regardless of catching the coronavirus. Ideally, you need a group of people without mental illness as your baseline, and to then see what happens when some of them are exposed to COVID-19.

Without such studies, it's hard to draw any hard conclusions – and unfortunately almost all of the studies we looked at didn't have comparison groups. However, we're starting to get some comparative data now. For example, we now know that people who have had COVID-19 are more likely than the general population to develop a new mental illness. In addition, most psychiatric and neurological problems seem to be more common after COVID-19 than after flu.

Another issue is that the research done so far contains biases that can't be eliminated. It's biased towards patients in hospital, when most people with COVID-19 never go near a hospital. It's biased towards acute illness, rather than the longer-term effects of COVID-19. And it's biased towards China, the US and other western countries, with little known about what is happening in Africa or much of the Pacific region. To get a more comprehensive view, we need future research to have a wider scope.

What we do know is that people with COVID-19 very often experience a range of neurological and psychiatric problems, so healthcare providers need to prepare not only for the immediate care of these patients, but also the intensive and often lengthy rehabilitation needs that follow. Early research (yet to be reviewed by other scientists) is raising concerning signs of neuropsychiatric symptoms persisting many months following the onset of illness.

Finding out the true impact of COVID-19 on the brain is only a first step. In reality, the disease's neurological and psychiatric impacts are likely to pose a challenge to clinicians and healthcare systems for many years to come.The Conversation

Cameron Watson, Junior Doctor and Dementia Researcher, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Queen Mary University of London and Jonathan Rogers, Wellcome Trust Clinical Fellow in Psychiatry, UCL

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

This federal judge included a dangerous lie about vaccines in his ruling against an assault weapon ban

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez issued an inflammatory and high-profile ruling on Friday striking down a decades-old assault weapons ban in California as unconstitutional. In a widely cited opening passage, Benitez — who was appointed by President George W. Bush — compared the AR-15 to a "Swiss Army knife," an analogy many critics found absurd and thought undermined his argument.

But that wasn't the only unnecessarily incendiary portion of the ruling. As several legal commentators pointed out on Twitter, Benitez included a dangerous, superfluous, and outright false claim about COVID-19 vaccinations:

The evidence described so far proves that the "harm" of an assault rifle being used in a mass shooting is an infinitesimally rare event. More people have died from the Covid-19 vaccine than mass shootings in California. Even if a mass shooting by assault rifle is a real harm, the evidence also shows that AWCA's prohibited features ban has not alleviated the harm in any material way. (emphasis added)

It's notable that, given how heavily cited and documented legal rulings often are, the judge offered no citation or source for his claim — not for the number of deaths from the vaccine nor from mass shootings. It was simply a lazy yet explosive aside.

And to be completely clear, the statement is entirely baseless. According to the CDC, no deaths have been conclusively linked to the COVID vaccines — certainly not in California specifically:

A review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records has not established a causal link to COVID-19 vaccines.

It is possible that there have been a few deaths linked to blood clots from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the CDC said, but such a causal connection has not been established. Even if such a link were established to the small number of these cases, the judge's claim would still be spurious, because the vaccines save far, far more lives on the whole. And there have been multiple deadly mass shootings in California this year alone.

Some noted that the judge's offhand comment may be based on Fox News host Tucker Carlson's fear-mongering about the vaccines. Carlson used unverified data from a federal reporting system to suggest thousands of Americans might have died from the COVID vaccines, even though no such links have been established. Instead, it's simply the case that when more than 100 million people in the country get a vaccine, thousands will die afterward — just as they would've if they hadn't been vaccinated.

It's hardly reassuring if a federal judge is getting his information and misinformation from Fox News — and passing it along to the public in his rulings.

Many were critical of the ruling on traditional legal grounds. Legal analyst Luppe Luppen, for instance, pointed out that while Benitez relies on the landmark Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller to justify his ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in that very decision that its reasoning wouldn't apply to guns like the M16 and AR-15.

But putting aside the merits of the decision, a judge making such a radical and significant ruling that can affect life and death in the United States should have the decency and restraint to make their arguments in ways that can be justified to all citizens and residents of the country. Including flippant remarks about AR-15s being like Swiss Army knives and wedging in erroneous and reckless claims about vaccine deaths shows contempt for the public.

NASA is returning to Venus — after a controversial finding hinted at the possibility of life

by Gail Iles, RMIT University

NASA has selected two missions, dubbed DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, to study the “lost habitable" world of Venus. Each mission will receive approximately US$500 million for development and both are expected to launch between 2028 and 2030.

It had long been thought there was no life on Venus, due to its extremely high temperatures. But late last year, scientists studying the planet's atmosphere announced the surprising (and somewhat controversial) discovery of phosphine. On Earth, this chemical is produced primarily by living organisms.

The news sparked renewed interest in Earth's “twin", prompting NASA to plan state-of-the-art missions to look more closely at the planetary environment of Venus — which could hint at life-bearing conditions.

Conditions for life

Ever since the Hubble Space Telescope revealed the sheer number of nearby galaxies, astronomers have become obsessed with searching for exoplanets in other star systems, particularly ones that appear habitable.

But there are certain criteria for a planet to be considered habitable. It must have a suitable temperature, atmospheric pressure similar to Earth's and availabile water.

In this regard, Venus probably wouldn't have attracted much attention if it were outside our solar system. Its skies are filled with thick clouds of sulphuric acid (which is dangerous for humans), the land is a desolate backdrop of extinct volcanoes and 90% of the surface is covered in red hot lava flows.

Despite this, NASA will search the planet for environmental conditions that may have once supported life. In particular, any evidence that Venus may have once had an ocean would change all our existing models of the planet.

And interestingly, conditions on Venus are far less harsh at a height of about 50km above the surface. In fact, the pressure at these higher altitudes eases so much that conditions become much more Earth-like, with breathable air and balmy temperatures.

If life (in the form of microbes) does exist on Venus, this is probably where it would be found.

The DAVINCI+ probe

NASA's DAVINCI+ (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging) mission has several science goals, relating to:

Atmospheric origin and evolution

It will aim to understand the atmospheric origins on Venus, focusing on how it first formed, how it evolved and how (and why) it is different from the atmospheres of Earth and Mars.

Atmospheric composition and surface interaction

This will involve understanding the history of water on Venus and the chemical processes at work in its lower atmosphere. It will also try to determine whether Venus ever had an ocean. Since life on Earth started in our oceans, this would become the starting point in any search for life.

Surface properties

This aspect of the mission will provide insights into geographically complex tessera regions on Venus (which have highly deformed terrain), and will investigate their origins and tectonic, volcanic and weathering history.

These findings could shed light on how Venus and Earth began similarly and then diverged in their evolution.

The DAVINCI+ spacecraft, upon arrival at Venus, will drop a spherical probe full of sensitive instruments through the planet's atmosphere. During its descent, the probe will sample the air, constantly measuring the atmosphere as it falls and returning the measurements back to the orbiting spacecraft.

The probe will carry a mass spectrometer, which can measure the mass of different molecules in a sample. This will be used to detect any noble gases or other trace gases in Venus's atmosphere.

In-flight sensors will also help measure the dynamics of the atmosphere, and a camera will take high-contrast images during the probe's descent. Only four spacecraft have ever returned images from the surface of Venus, and the last such photo was taken in 1982.

VERITAS

Meanwhile, the VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) mission will map surface features to determine the planet's geologic history and further understand why it developed so differently to Earth.

Historical geology provides important information about ancient changes in climate, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. This data can be used to anticipate the possible size and frequency of future events.

The mission will also seek to understand the internal geodynamics that shaped the planet. In other words, we may be able to build a picture of Venus's continental plate movements and compare it with Earth's.

In parallel with DAVINCI+, VERITAS will take planet-wide, high-resolution topographic images of Venus's surface, mapping surface features including mountains and valleys.

At the same time, the Venus Emissivity Mapper (VEM) instrument on board the orbiting VERITAS spacecraft will map emissions of gas from the surface, with such accuracy that it will be able to detect near-surface water vapour. Its sensors are so powerful they will be able to see through the thick clouds of sulphuric acid.

Key insight into conditions on Venus

The most exciting thing about these two missions is the orbit-to-surface probe. In the 1980s, four landers made it to the surface of Venus, but could only operate for two days due to crushing pressure. The pressure there is 93 bar, which is the same as being 900m below sea level on Earth.

Then there's the lava. Many lava flows on Venus stretch for several hundred kilometres. And this lava's mobility may be enhanced by the planet's average surface temperature of about 470°C.

Meanwhile, “shield" volcanoes on Venus are an impressive 700km wide at the base, but only about 5.5km high on average. The largest shield volcano on Earth, Mauna Loa in Hawaii, is only 120km wide at the base.

The information obtained from DAVINCI+ and VERITAS will provide crucial insight into not only how Venus formed, but how any rocky, life-giving planet forms. Ideally, this will equip us with valuable markers to look for when searching for habitable worlds outside our solar system.

The Conversation
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Here's what scientists really think about the coronavirus 'lab leak' theory

For a long time, the notion that the SARS-CoV-2 virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory was considered a fringe view. In recent weeks, however, mainstream news media outlets are reporting on this scenario as being at least a possibility. President Joe Biden himself has announced an intensified review in the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19, one that he ordered in part because of Chinese government stonewalling. Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci's emails are being scrutinized because of correspondence with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

In other words, what was once beyond the Overton Window is now fair game.

If the Wuhan lab leak scenario is true, the ramifications would be tremendous, and ripple across international affairs as well as the biology world. Yet few people possess the technical know-how that would allow a thorough debunking (or confirming) of such a shocking hypothesis. Indeed, when you're dealing with something as complex and technically specific as understanding the DNA of a virus, you have to turn to experts in immunology and virology.

So in the spirit of scientific inquiry, Salon reached out to researchers about the lab leak question; they, in turn, responded by stressing the importance of doing more science to unravel the mystery. One of the foremost rules of the scientific process is the imperative to balance an open mind with skepticism, while rigorously testing each plausible hypothesis.

With that in mind, how does the lab leak theory hold up?

"I think we can't rule out some kind of lab accident," Dr. Stephen Goldstein of the University of Utah told Salon.

Goldstein said the lab leak hypothesis implied multiple unique scenarios.

"I would split the lab leak hypothesis into two things," he added. "One possibility that's been raised within that hypothesis is that this is a natural virus that was brought into the lab and somebody was working with it and got infected, and that's how it got out. And the other one that I think is very heavily pushed in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article is that this virus was somehow created in a lab. I think the likelihood of that latter possibility is close to zero."

Goldstein made it clear that he still thinks the lab leak hypothesis is unlikely. Still, he acknowledged it is within the realm of possibility that someone at the Wuhan Institute of Virology swabbed a bat for coronaviruses, brought those viruses back to the lab to be studied, and then got accidentally infected.

The same cannot be said for the idea that it was manufactured, as Dr. Susan Weiss — a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied coronaviruses for decades — explained.

"I definitely believe it was not manmade," the microbiologist told Salon. "I can't prove that it didn't quote-unquote escape from the lab, but I'm sure it was not, and this is the reason. When you manufacture a virus, first of all, you always have to start with the backbone of another virus. You can't just say go make a virus of 30,000 nucleotides, because it wouldn't make any sense. You couldn't possibly design something, so you'd have to see what looks like remnants or resemblance to another known virus."

Weiss added that it is possible to manipulate an existing virus, making changes to its genes so that it will mutate. But she noted that this new virus would, ultimately, still resemble the other viruses from which it took its pieces.

Weiss was also skeptical that the virus could have leaked from the laboratory, saying that she has met Dr. Shi Zhengli (the so-called "Batwoman"). "I just don't think her lab would operate that way," she said.

She added, "I could be naive. I could be naive."

Also, Weiss was skeptical that such a secret could have been kept so well.

"I know that China keeps things under wraps, but still they're humans," Weiss observed. "There are a bunch of people in that lab. I haven't heard anything about that, anything through the coronavirus grapevine or anything like that, with any credibility."

Salon also previously spoke with Dr. Stanley Perlman of the University of Iowa; Perlman, who has also studied coronaviruses for decades, broke down the science behind the ongoing debate. Perlman noted that the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 emerged naturally has attracted skepticism — in part "because it's been very, very difficult to find these intermediate animals or that virus that is close to SARS-CoV-2." In other words, if SARS-CoV-2 jumped from animals to humans, as many viral epidemics do, there should be a close relative virus still living in an animal somewhere.

At the same time, Perlman observed that based on his anecdotal experiences, "I think what people are saying is that first of all, the two sets of ideas are converging because almost everyone believes it's a natural virus and that it ended up in Wuhan. I think we all agree on that, but whether it was a lab leak or occurred there by the natural route is certainly unknown."

Salon also previously spoke with Dr. Stanley Perlman of the University of Iowa; Perlman, who has also studied coronaviruses for decades, broke down the science behind the ongoing debate. Perlman noted that the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 emerged naturally has attracted skepticism — in part "because it's been very, very difficult to find these intermediate animals or that virus that is close to SARS-CoV-2." In other words, if SARS-CoV-2 jumped from animals to humans, as many viral epidemics do, there should be a close relative virus still living in an animal somewhere.

At the same time, Perlman observed that based on his anecdotal experiences, "I think what people are saying is that first of all, the two sets of ideas are converging because almost everyone believes it's a natural virus and that it ended up in Wuhan. I think we all agree on that, but whether it was a lab leak or occurred there by the natural route is certainly unknown."

I’m fully vaccinated but feel sick – should I get tested for COVID-19?

by Arif R. Sarwari, West Virginia University

Imagine last night you developed a little runny nose and a sore throat. When you woke up this morning you started coughing and had a fever. In the past year, your mind would have immediately jumped to COVID-19. But if you are already fully vaccinated, you might wonder: Should I still get tested for COVID-19?

As an infectious disease physician, I am often asked this question. The answer is yes. If you have symptoms of COVID-19, you should get tested for COVID-19 even if you are fully vaccinated. You won't be at high risk for hospitalization or severe disease, but if you are infected you may pass the virus to an unvaccinated person, who could then get very sick.

Vaccines work but aren't 100% effective

Researchers have developed some amazing COVID-19 vaccines over the past year. The high efficacy of these vaccines in the closely controlled environment of clinical trials matches their effectiveness in real life. The mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna remain over 90% effective in preventing hospitalization or death.

That does not, however, mean that you have the same degree of protection from getting infected.

The latest research estimates that the mRNA vaccines offer 70% to 85% protection from getting infected at all. It's impossible to know whether a person is fully protected or could still develop a mild case if exposed to the coronavirus.

If you did happen to get infected, you could still spread the virus. And that's why testing is still important.

What is a breakthrough case?

When a person gets infected with the coronavirus after being fully vaccinated, this is called a breakthrough case. Breakthrough cases demonstrate a basic principle of infectious disease – whether or not a person gets infected depends on the balance between two factors: intensity of exposure and immune competence.

Intensity of exposure relates to how close an uninfected person is to a highly infectious individual spewing virus while talking and how long the two people are in contact. Immune competence relates to the body's inherent protection against COVID-19. Unvaccinated individuals who've never been infected with the coronavirus have no protection – this is a completely new virus after all – while fully vaccinated people will be much more protected.

According to the CDC, as of April 30, 2021, there had been a total of 10,262 known SARS-CoV-2 vaccine breakthrough infections in U.S. states and territories. These are usually asymptomatic or only mildly symptomatic cases, and most don't result in hospitalization. Breakthrough cases will continue to occur, and though these people are less likely to spread the coronavirus to others than are unvaccinated individuals, they still probably can.

And what about the SARS-CoV-2 variants? Well, the world has been fortunate that the mRNA vaccines in particular afford significant protection against all major variants that have emerged so far. But it is entirely possible that at some point a coronavirus strain could mutate and partially or fully escape the protection from vaccines. This is yet another good reason to get tested if you are feeling sick.

[Get our best science, health and technology stories. Sign up for The Conversation's science newsletter.]

As vaccination rates rise and daily case counts fall in the U.S. and other countries, it is also important to keep a close eye on the coronavirus. COVID-19 testing allows officials to keep track of how much virus is in a community, and positive test results can help people quarantine before unknowingly spreading the virus to others. So, yes, please get tested if you have concerning symptoms, even if you are fully vaccinated.The Conversation

Arif R. Sarwari, Physician, Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases, Chair of Department of Medicine, West Virginia University

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

The next major extinction event is here

Roughly 66 million years ago, an asteroid or comet struck the planet and wiped out three-quarters of every animal and plant species alive. Known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event (K–Pg), it has been immortalized in popular culture because of its association with the end of the dinosaurs' reign on Earth.

That is why scientists are hopeful that a new study regarding the rate of extinction nowadays may hammer home the urgency of our pollution problems. In an international study led by the Justus Liebig University Giessen that included geologists, paleontologists, evolutionary biologists and many others, researchers found that in some cases, man-made factors are causing an extinction rate that surpasses that of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event.

The study, which was published last month in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, closely analyzed past extinction rates for freshwater animals and plants, then used that information to extrapolate likely future extinction rates. They discovered that the average predicated rate for freshwater animals and plants today is three orders of magnitude higher than it was during the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. If current trends continue unabated, one-third of all freshwater species alive today may be forever gone by 2120.

If that happens, we can expect that the damage to our freshwater ecosystem — which, inevitably, has an impact on ecosystems everywhere else on the planet — will be effectively permanent.

"Our results indicate that, unless substantial conservation effort is directed to freshwater ecosystems, the present extinction crisis will have a severe impact to freshwater biota for millions of years to come," the authors write.

Even after the extinction event itself abated, the extinction rate remained high for 5.4 million years; the ecological recovery period required another 6.9 million years. Hence, the authors believe that our current situation might be comparable. Even if the man-made impact on life on Earth "ceases immediately, the already triggered phase of extinction might still involve several million years," they write.

Speaking to the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the study's lead author Dr. Thomas A. Neubauer explained that "losing species entails changes in species communities and, in the long run, this affects entire ecosystems. We rely on functioning freshwater environments to sustain human health, nutrition and fresh water supply." He added that "despite our short existence on Earth, we have assured that the effects of our actions will outlast us by millions of years."

In the study itself, the authors explained that the extinction crisis "has consequences on many levels," noting that smaller changes compound into larger ones that eventually have devastating consequences.

"Radical changes in ecosystem functioning, in turn, may have severe implications on ecosystem services for humanity, such as food provision, disease resistance or economic benefits," the authors write. "Thus, if we continue to lose species at the fast pace our analysis suggests, we will continue to impair ecosystem services to our own disadvantage."

The new study is one of many red flags being thrown up by the planet about a number of pollution issues that threaten our survival. A February report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Global Wildlife Conservation revealed that roughly one-third of the world's 18,075 freshwater fish species face possible extinction. The reasons for this include climate change, the introduction of invasive species, habitat destructions, pollution, and overly aggressive draining and damming.

In September a report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found that overall population sizes of "mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish" have dropped by 68 percent since 1970, indicating that the planet "is being destroyed by us at a rate unprecedented in history." Some scholars have already coined a term, Anthropocene, to describe the geological epoch brought about by climate change and marked by the proliferation of mass extinctions. We are already in the midst of what scientists refer to as the Holocene extinction, or the sixth known mass extinction event in the Earth's history, this one due to human activity.

Biden in space: NASA budget includes largest boost ever for science programs

This week, President Joe Biden released a proposed budget for fiscal year 2022. Parts of that budget include proposals already working their way through Congress—or smashed up against Republican opposition in the Senate—such as the infrastructure portion of the American Jobs Plan, or the energy proposals that recently emerged from committee as the Clean Energy for America Act. The $6B proposal includes programs to address homelessness, historic investments in education at all levels, along with a whole slew of programs to support children and families.

The $6 trillion proposal also includes $24.8 billion for NASA which, historically, is a long way from the amount of the budget dedicated to space back in the 1960s and '70s. However, it does represent a $1.5 billion boost over 2021. It also features a record $7.93 billion for science programs, including boosting the planetary science program from $500 million to $3.2 billion. Which means, of course, that there are cuts in other areas.

For more than two decades, NASA has been subject to wild swings in programs. Return to the moon. Mars. No, the moon. In the process, a whole generation of heavy lift vehicles disappeared in the midst of wild swings in funding and changes of direction. At present, the agency is aimed at heading back to the moon this decade, with both a space station that will orbit the moon rather than Earth, and a recently rewarded contract for a giant lunar lander. The Space Launch System, years behind schedule, just finished a successful test, and the first rocket is on its way to Kennedy for a launch in coming months. Plans are on the table for both future manned missions, some truly challenging voyages around the solar system, and still more instruments that could study planets around distant stars.

With a new administration coming to town, NASA is looking—again—at the potential of shifting goals that could potentially invalidate years of work, and redirect the agency at new targets which could last only until the next team arrives. So what does Biden's $24.8 billion budget really buy?

Earth-oriented programs

One thing that's been restored to the NASA budget that was cut under Donald Trump: Earth science. It may seem contradictory, but the best system for studying what's going on down here (including the climate) often requires getting new instruments into orbit. Under Trump, every instrument that might even potentially provide a clue about melting polar ice, or rising CO2, went on the chopping block. But the first Biden budget for NASA restores $250 million aimed at continuing a program known as the Earth System Observatory. The expansion of the program was announced a week ago, and should lead up to an additional four launches between now and 2030.

That large expansion of the planetary sciences program includes another program that's really more about what could (potentially, but hopefully not) be going on back on Earth. That's where the Near Earth Object Surveyor mission comes in. This would launch a telescope designed not to look at the most distant objects in the universe, but to seek out the asteroids and comets that skim closest to Earth. This is part of NASA's aptly named "Earth Defense" program which, presumably, will also direct any real space lasers if all those recent UFO videos signal a hostile invasion.

When it comes to the space just above Earth, the budget for 2022 includes a large boost in funding for commercial development of low Earth orbit (LEO). The $101.1 million allocated here is an increase of almost 500% from the 2021 actual numbers. It includes continued support for both cargo and crew missions to the International Space Station, and additional funding that should help expand the presence of commercial launches to orbit. That could include more funds for the development of SpaceX's Starship and expanding the use of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser space plane. And, while NASA will continue to support ISS beyond it's original projected last-use data of 2025, it will also provide funds that could help private companies building their own next-generation space stations (something that has picked up more interest in the face of China's expansive plans for their own station). Actual funds to the ISS are essentially flat.

There is one Earth-related cancellation. That's the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) program. This isn't a rocket, but an instrument mounted in a Boeing 747 that scans the atmosphere for water vapor data that's used in climate modeling. NASA has felt for some time that they get better information from other sources and has been trying to cancel SOFIA for the last seven years … only Congress keeps putting the money back.

Planetary Science

Right now, the Perseverance rover is not just taking pictures as it drives across the surface of the red planet, it's also collecting rock samples in a way that protects them from potential contamination and readies them for a possible return to Earth. Only the Perseverance mission included no way to get those Mars rocks back to Earth. The 2022 budget includes over $650 million for the follow-on Mars Sample Return Mission that would drop a unique vehicle onto the Martian surface. This system would be designed to collect those samples already drilled out and packaged by Perseverance and blast them back to Earth with something that looks very much like space-bound artillery.

Concept art for NASA
The Mars Ascent Vehicle is just one part of the Mars Sample Return mission.

Human exploration

Maybe the biggest sigh of relief for NASA watchers may be that when it comes to NASA's current plans for the moon and beyond, the biggest message sent by Biden's proposed budget is simply … carry on. The overall exploration budget goes up from $6.5 billion in 2021, to $6.8 billion in 2022, but the biggest news is that nothing major appears to have been shifted around. SLS is still on. The plan to fly an Orion capsule around the moon in the next year is still there. And the whole Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 remains in place … even though everyone knows that date is going to slip. Then slip again.

One thing that NASA-watchers wanted to see was whether NASA's recent selection of SpaceX's enormous lunar version of Starship survived into the coming budget. It did. The biggest reason for this is the same reason that NASA made the selection in the first place: SpaceX radically undercut the proposed price of every competing lunar lander proposal, while promising much more capacity.

The proposed next generation lunar lander created by SpaceX Proposed next generation lunar lander created by SpaceX. There are people in this picture. Look closely.

Right now the SpaceX contract to build the lander has been suspended because a team involving Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin (and a long list of traditional NASA subcontractors) has launched a suit contesting the decision to award the contract to SpaceX. If they win their suit, Congress will have to lay out more funds, because each of the competing proposals was far more costly.

Skeptics of NASA's whole SLS investment—now at least $2 billion and four years behind in development—have argued that the whole system should be cancelled. Just as the Commercial Crew program has seen astronauts return to the ISS at a fraction of the cost of developing a new NASA vehicle for that purpose, there has been considerable pressure to scrap SLS in favor of getting astronauts back to the moon on heavy lift vehicles, such as SpaceX's upcoming SuperHeavy/Starship, or Blue Origin's New Glenn. Plans have even been put forward for vehicles that might be launched using the existing Falcon Heavy or upcoming ULA Vulcan. But NASA has remained committed to SLS as America's ride to deep space, despite arguments that the fully-disposable rocket represents little advance over systems used 50 years ago.

That said, even those who oppose SLS are likely happy with Biden's proposed budget for what it doesn't do. It doesn't signal another enormous shift in priorities. That welcome signal of relative stability is something that everyone at Kennedy has to welcome … assuming any of this survives Congress.

Officially, NASA still hopes for a late 2021 launch of the first SLS system. Unofficially, don't be surprised if, after being delayed in Mississippi for extended testing, that launch slips into 2022.

There are 3 primary sources of Christian pandemic denial

by Robin Willey, Concordia University of Edmonton

The GraceLife Church in Alberta has been at the centre of a recent controversy about pandemic restrictions. The rural church located outside Edmonton has resisted restrictions on public gatherings issued to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The pastor James Coates was charged with violating the Public Health Act in December after the church failed an inspection. He was jailed shortly thereafter when he would not agree to his bail conditions. After being released, Coates continued to conduct services that flouted the province's COVID-19 protocols, leading Alberta Health Services (AHS) to order the church closed on April 7.

There have been at least 12 reported outbreaks in Alberta churches to date. The most tragic occurred at Living Spirit United Church early in the pandemic, when 41 people attended a birthday celebration of an elderly congregant. Twenty-four people contracted the virus as a result and two died.

Research out of Australia has demonstrated the elevated risk of COVID-19 transmission in places of worship. This is not surprising, given the activities commonly undertaken in church: singing, shaking hands, hugging — which all come with a high transmission risk. What is surprising, however, is that churches have emerged at the centre of pandemic skepticism movements that resist public health measures.

Pandemic skepticism meets pandemic reality

While recent research has found a connection between religiosity and elevated pandemic skepticism, the vast majority of Albertan faith communities have followed public health guidelines without protest. GraceLife Community Church is an outlier in their resistance to these measures.

While GraceLife has not reported an outbreak, Southside Victory Church in Calgary has been less fortunate. AHS has not reported any official numbers in relation to the church, but we can assume there have been at least 10 cases due to its inclusion on the provincial outbreak list.

In an April sermon, Senior Pastor Craig Buroker struggled to acknowledge the suffering of his sick congregants, while still questioning the severity of the pandemic. He referred to COVID-19 as “the flu" and emphasised the “99 per cent" survival rate for the infected.

This is a classic example of cognitive dissonance — a state of internal contradiction usually reserved for apocalyptic religious groups who are forced to reckon with their continued existence when the world fails to end as planned.

Sources of Christian pandemic denial

Three primary factors contribute to pandemic denial and resistance to public health orders in churches: finances, political culture and theology.

Some research suggests that the pandemic has not significantly impacted church finances. However, many churches are indeed struggling and have flouted public health regulations as a means of increasing funds. It worked for Grace Community Church in Los Angeles, whose weekly donations increased six-fold after the church's pastor openly mocked health restrictions. The church has close ties with GraceLife.

Second, what drives a church to resist public health orders isn't its Christianity, but the political culture in which the church is situated. These churches are already filled with people inclined to question restrictions and the severity of the virus.

GraceLife's public statement on the pandemic repeats numerous themes circulated by pandemic skeptics, including Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's comparison of COVID-19 to influenza. GraceLife's statement mirrors those of U.S. churches who repeated Donald Trump's pandemic skepticism to justify their own resistance to public health measures.

This rhetoric also aligns the churches with fringe anti-government elements like far-right groups and QAnon conspiracy theorists.

Shortly after GraceLife was ordered shut, groups that describe themselves as “patriots" — a label commonly used in QAnon conspiracy circles — arrived to protest a barrier placed around GraceLife to prevent people entering the church.

Theology as an afterthought

Theology only appears in GraceLife's argument to support their financial and political positions. They argue that public health regulations prevent members from taking part in the Great Commission. In other words, it inhibits their ability to evangelize.

Restriction resistant churches read public health guidelines through the “Christian persecution complex." This perspective assumes an attack on a single Christian is an attack on all Christians, and has played out in right-wing U.S. media coverage of Gracelife.

Researchers suggest Americans subscribing to Christian nationalism are more likely to eat in restaurants, visit people indoors, gather in larger groups and are less likely wear a mask or wash their hands. Christian nationalists think of Canada and the United States as distinctly Christian nations. As such, they look to fuse Canadian and American politics and civic life with a narrow conservative version of Christian culture and morality.

GraceLife's leaders have accused churches following health restrictions of being allied with “Caesar". A reference to the Roman Empire, which many Christians understand as being complicit in Jesus' execution and a persecutor of the early church.

Coates has claimed the government does not have the right to protect us from death. His words to this effect are quite chilling:

We live in a fallen world. Viruses and death are inevitable. A virus has unleashed on the world, God is sovereign over that virus. The effects of that virus are not the government's responsibility. They do not have the responsibility to protect us from the virus. There is no culpability when someone dies from COVID‐19.

Coates is trying to justify his dismissal of the pandemic and the death that inevitably comes with it.

Challenging government authority has also led Coates and others who have joined this pandemic skeptic bandwagon to target Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw and other healthcare workers. Coates says he has “demonstrated clearly that the threat to Alberta is not COVID-19. It is AHS". This language is dangerous and it places a target directly on AHS employees, who have already received threats.

It will be a year or two before we can fully look into the financial benefits of pandemic denial through both Canadian Revenue Agency data and benefits gained though speaking fees and book deals. In the meantime, we do have examples of American churches benefiting financially from pandemic denial and a GoFundMe setup to assist James Coates sits at over $45,000.

Persecution stories are like currency in some Christian circles. In this case they are being used to produce actual currency. The public health charges, the arrest of church leaders, and the ongoing criticism of the church play into these narratives.

In sociology, we often note that privilege is more difficult to acknowledge than poverty. The fact that the Alberta government has allowed communities of faith to meet in person for most of the pandemic, albeit in a reduced capacity, while non-religious cultural communities have not, does not seem to cross the minds of Christian leaders like Coates. With GraceLife and other churches resisting health orders, their argument is not actually about persecution; it's about keeping their privilege.The Conversation

Robin Willey, Assistant professor, Sociology, Concordia University of Edmonton

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

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