Friday, August 12

More on pandemic: Liz does math, Pundita does cryptic, and is there a Chinese biomedical expert in the house?

(This post was updated at 11:35 AM; see new paragraphs at end of the post.)

Re your post yesterday: Dave Schuler said, "I'm not saying that Chinese people are dirtier or have more disease or anything of the sort. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they were cleaner and less disease-prone than us Westerners. I'm just saying that the conditions there -- particularly in rural China with large numbers of people living in close proximity to domestic livestock -- may make the development of new strains of diseases more likely."

Another factor is the rapid change in living environment for millions of Chinese. Those who grow up in a "dirty" environment have a stronger immune system (recall the recommendations from Joe Katzman and your own prior discussion).(1)

Apply that to the massive rural to urban migration in China. Children raised in relatively cleaner urban areas exposed to pathogens from rural areas (whether transported into the cities or the kids in a rural area for whatever reason). Apply the hardy infection in a population with lesser immune systems, densely packed as Chinese cities are, especially with illicit housing for unofficial migrants ... think London and the cholera epidemics.

Exposure of more than one pathogen in this kind of environment offers more mix-and-match opportunities, especially if the strain is adaptable to begin with, such as human influenza.

One comment also about Dave's discussion of sampling (When you roll the dice enough times you eventually get all the combinations...):

With diseases, permutations may be more important than combinations -- the order of occurrence may matter. On the macro level, a disease which weakens one aspect of the body makes a follow-on disease/condition more serious than if the order of events were reversed.

On the micro level, the order in which the changes occur may affect whether other changes can occur, and how they will occur. Recombinomics is still an art for that reason, among others. And the number of permutations of a given pair of numbers is far greater than the number of combinations. Example, 5 objects taken 3 at a time:

P = 5!/3! = (5*4*3*2*1)/(3*2*1) = 20
C = 5!/[3!*(5-3)!] = (5*4*3*2*1)/[(3*2*1)(2*1)] = 10

Note the difference in denominators. Food for thought.
Liz in USA"

* * * * * *
Yesterday a letter from a medical doctor galvanized Pundita to visit the Agonist website. Pundita asks Liz and all readers who have been following the H5N1/Virus X tangle to study the human (vs. machine) translation of "Dr. Wang's" interview that is published on Agonist. (This is the interview presenting Wang's claim that virus samples he examined revealed Ebola virus.)(2)

Also, I urge you to study the entire discussion thread that follows on, and which includes Henry Niman's (Recombinomics, Inc.) comments.

I'm not prepared to fully explain at this time why I'm asking you to undertake the chore; I'm waiting for more data. But to put you in the ballpark:

Readers who studied the "Strange Days in China..." essay and all the links I provided know that I believe there's a shakeout in the CCP, which I think heated up after General Cao and his faction ousted Jiang Zemin and his crew from power in September 2004.

In any case, there have been many signs during the past year to suggest Jiang has not gone quietly. I have speculated that his faction is behind the new 'openness' campaign in China; e.g., talking more openly about corruption, publicly sympathizing with rioters, etc.(3)

With the above in mind, it struck me while taking in the data on Agonist (which includes speculations about whether Wang is a "government puppet" or a hero of the people) that his interview could have represented a nod from highly placed officials in China.

Of course even if this speculation is correct, Wang's discussion of Ebola cases could be a fabrication or simply a misdiagnosis. However, if Dr. Wang got the green light from on high, that could just as well mean that he revealed true cases about Ebola that have been covered up because they suggest a biowar experiment that jumped the lab -- revelations designed perhaps to embarrass General Cao's faction in the PLA.

That's a lot of "ifs" and "perhaps." And maybe the most that could be wrung out of the Wang interview is that it's another window on a battle between two powerful factions. Note that Wang and the interviewer harp on the corruption theme. Jiang's faction is pushing the theme hard and it has great resonance with China's rural population.

Also, for readers with a background in medicine and/or biology: Get ready to fall off your chair about the translator's admission that his knowledge of biology is very limited.

Dave Schuler and others who can read Mandarin to one degree or another, get ready to fall off your chair about the translator's admission that his Mandarin isn't that good. (See below.)

Do you realize there is not an adequate published English translation of the Wang interview? Yet many speculations of a highly technical biomedical nature have spun off from the poor translations.

I note the mention in the Agonist discussion thread about finding a Taiwan translator. For heaven's sake, the USA is stuffed with Chinese-American MDs and biologists and who speak fluent Mandarin.

And look at just some of the confusion that has been caused by poor translations of the interview: the tendency has been to dismiss all Wang's statements or view them with great skepticism because he describes bubonic plague as a "virus" (it's a bacterial infection). However, the "bubonic plague virus" remark could arise from the translation, as some of the posters to Agonist observe!

Here's the reply from the translator ("peter pan") to queries from "pxb" and "quiet bill" (the latter an Agonist editor):

"pxb: there was probably a significant error in the translation. my biology background is minimal, and my mandarin is fairly rudimentary as well. i'm not sure he specifically referred to plague is a bacteria or virus, because to me, i can't differentiate the difference between them in mandarin. so that error could be attributed to me. hopefully, with the new translator from taiwan coming aboard, she could better clarify such discrepancies.

"but as to the fleas portion, to the best of my knowledge, there was no mention of fleas. as for the bubonic plague, i myself, i'm not too sure as i didn't study biology in mandarin, but i relied on the google translation, and google shouldn't have gotten it wrong if it's such highly technical terms. their only problem, google that is, is that they can't make the sentences flow and most of the individual terms are translated individually so it tends to create a rather stuttered sentence. so i, or google, may be wrong on this, but i'd genuinely doubt so. but the gist of it is that it is a disease found in rats that can infect humans via biting.

"the vaccination part, i'm certain this is right. vaccination against THAT particular rat borne disease is mentioned to be widespread. although immunity levels drop in poor environments.

"quiet_bill: you're somewhat right. at more basic levels - my chinese language is only up to GCE 'AO' level, there probably is minimal difference and i may not know that such differences exist. however, at times like this, i again deferred to the google translation.

"pxb: i suspect it is a novell combination. in fact, if the article is true of course, that was what the doctor / researcher was trying to hint at. a synthesis between the ebola and the plague. he said that he did not take part in the experiments that tried to fuse them both in together."

Talk about the gang that couldn't shoot straight; why don't they first get a good translation then speculate about stuff that could kill everybody on the planet?

But as long as this is By Guess and By Golly Time, Wang might been discussing attempts to fuse Ebola virus and bubonic plague bacterium. When confronted with biomedical questions Pundita's Ouija board lapses into what I've theorized is an archiac Upper Croatian dialect. But according to an explanation I received from a medical doctor (who is admittedly not a molecular biologist), success with any such attempt would be extremely hard if not virtually impossible.

Yet Wang could have been referring to a biowar experiment that was at the extreme edge of gene science and maybe over the edge; i.e., fooling around in the lab at the expense of the Chinese military's biowar budget.

However we have no clear idea about what he was referring to because we don't have an adequate translation of his statements.

1) See August 9 Pundita post for link to Katzman post at Winds of Change. (Also see Pundita blogroll on the sidebar for link to The Glittering Eye and Winds of Change blogs.)


July 21 Pundita post "Strange Days in China: return to Mao Zedong era and a remarkable televised address to the mainland."

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