Belmont Club

Minority Report

Most public facts fall into the “maybe” category. Let’s review the maybes in three categories of recent headlines.

  1. the conflict with Russia;
  2. the situation in Iraq;
  3. the transmissibility of Ebola.

The conventional wisdom is that “Putin is on the run” and “Edward Snowden was a patriotic whistleblower.”  Ed Epstein has recorded a YouTube video that might make you rethink the proposition that Snowden acted with good intentions.  Epstein argues that the vast majority of documents Snowden stole pertained to U.S. penetrations of Chinese and Russian systems. Only a very small portion of his take bore upon NSA domestic surveillance, and that has been selectively released to people like Glenn Greenwald.  Epstein makes a thoughtful case for the possibility that Snowden was — objectively at least — a Russian intelligence op.

Timothy Ash disputes the idea that Putin is on the run. In a closely reasoned article he asserts that Putin is far more likely to escalate the crisis in Ukraine, probably via some sort of invasion carried on under the cover of restoring peace to that troubled land.  Michael Weiss at Foreign Policy writes, “Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine won’t be an armored blitzkrieg. It’s a slow, seditious drip — and it’s already underway.”

For those living the reality of having a portion of their country occupied by Russian intelligence agents and insurgents — all armed with Moscow-dispatched weapons, of course — the question isn’t whether Vladimir Putin will launch a full-scale assault on his neighbor, but when he’ll do it. This week, U.S., NATO, and European officials all seemed to agree that the prospect of that event occurring has risen precipitously.

Is Putin on the run before a triumphantly advancing Obama?  The situation in Iraq is rather interesting. The conventional wisdom is that the Obama has finally arrived to save the day. The best place to begin examining the alternatives is the map provided by the Institute for the Study of War Iraq Updates site.

The map (click to make it bigger) below makes it clear that ISIS is encircling Baghdad to the north and northwest. The black dots represent ISIS control. Moreover, it is apparently trying to sever the links between Baghdad and the Kurdish area, as can be noted from the distribution of the dots.

That would leave the Kurds with their backs to a hostile Turkey and Iran, which fears the prospect of Kurdish statehood.  But the killer move is shown by the black arrow I’ve inserted into the graphic.  If ISIS can control the southern corridor, including the so-called Triangle of Death, then it is game over for Maliki.  Baghdad will effectively be under siege.

ISIS manuevers

But for now, as another Institute for the Study of War map shows, the action is in the north. ISIS is moving in phases. The southern strike is probably going to be left for another phase. Note that the U.S. airstrikes making the headlines are in almost direct defense of Kirkuk. The strikes are far too few and far too localized to affect the overall situation.

2014-08-08 Situation Report high res-01

What Obama is trying to achieve was probably articulated by Elizabeth Warren. She explicitly asserts that Obama is not out to beat ISIS, but to negotiate with them.

“It’s a complicated situation right now in Iraq and the president has taken very targeted actions to provide humanitarian relief that the Iraqi government requested, and to protect American citizens,” Warren told reporters. “But like the president I believe that any solution in Iraq is going to be a negotiated solution, not a military solution. We do not want to be pulled into another war in Iraq.”

For this to work, Obama needs to force Maliki and his Iranian backers to the negotiating table with ISIS. His probable endgame is an agreement between the Shia and ISIS, with some sort of guarantees for the Kurds. My own guess is that Obama hopes that ISIS will turn south and threaten to complete the encirclement of Baghdad. Then Obama can step in with his “negotiated solution.” As Obama notes, his strategy may take “some time.” But from the scale and location of the American blows, the endgame is not victory over ISIS.

I can almost imagine Ken Watanabe reprising his immortal Godzilla lines in the White House, intoning with great gravity: “The arrogance of the Obama administration is thinking the Saudi lobby is in their control and not the other way around. Let them fight.” Even though the monsters will lay waste to everything before they return to the vasty deeps of history. “Let them fight! Let them fiiiight!”

The last topic of today’s post is the debate over the transmissibility of Ebola. Tara Smith at ScienceBlogs cites a study which confirms that Ebola cannot be transmitted air to air, as suggested through a study of pigs. The study had an import caveat. The pigs achieved a pseudo-airborne transmission because they breathed out a lot of mucus particles.

The presence of transmission in the pig-NHP experiment and not the NHP-NHP experiment, both performed under similar conditions and environments, could be explained by the fact that EBOV disease in pigs is respiratory in nature with high amounts of infectious particles present in the oro-nasal cavities in the symptomatic phase of the disease which provided an opportunity for release into the environment. On the receiving end, NHPs are known to be susceptible to lethal EBOV infection through the respiratory tract putting the onus of the transmission on the ability of the source to shed infectious particles.

That’s the good news. The bad news is suggestions that the virus, while not airborne, is more virulent than previously encountered. We have an Israeli doctor from Medecins Sans Frontieres working in Guinea saying: “This is the most virulent Ebola virus I’ve encountered. We don’t know how to assess the scope yet, but the actual numbers are higher than the published ones. The outbreak is coming from all directions.”

Reinich, who has been in Guinea since May, spoke to Haaretz by satellite phone from the town of Guéckédou near the border with Sierra Leone and Liberia — the outbreak’s center.

“Entire villages have been wiped out,” he said. “You come to villages and only find bodies. You don’t know if all the inhabitants died or if some simply fled. It’s a virus with a 90-percent death risk in these regions and we don’t know what condition the people who have fled are in.”
The panic in the afflicted countries is making it hard to contain the epidemic, even before considering other scourges like the Lassa virus and malaria, which are also spreading.

“Villagers are fleeing as if it were a civil war, which increases the spread of Ebola,” Reinich said. “They disappear into jungles and other places and become vagrants. So we’re constantly finding the virus in places we didn’t know about.” In some cases, aid workers like local Red Cross people also panic and run, Reinich says.

The evidence is not entirely anecdotal. At the beginning of the outbreak in April, Dr. Stephan Gunther of the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that they were facing a new strain.

The new research analyzed blood samples from 20 patients in the current outbreak and found the strain was unique.

“It is not coming from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It has not been imported to Guinea” from that country or from Gabon, where Ebola also has occurred, Gunther said.

Researchers think the Guinea and other strains evolved in parallel from a recent ancestor virus.

The University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy noted that it was the unusual virulence which alerted doctors to the possibility. “In the NEJM report, researchers said Guinea’s health ministry first learned of clusters of a highly fatal mysterious disease that had been occurring in two cities in the forested region on Mar 10. The finding triggered an epidemiologic investigation by a European team from Doctors without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) and prompted the collection of blood samples and clinical data from 20 patients, which were sent to biosafety level 4 labs for analysis in Lyon, France, and Hamburg, Germany.” This led to the full genetic sequencing, whose findings were reported in the New England Journal of Medcine.

But perhaps the most suggestive evidence was a report by Replikins Ltd., a company which pioneered the technique of measuring virulence through replikin counts. Their analysis shows that Ebola is becoming progressively more deadly in Africa.

Synthetic vaccine developer Replikins, Ltd., released new data on Thursday showing changes in the gene structure of the ebola virus.

The mean ebola reston gene Replikin count, or number of Replikins per 100 amino acids, increased 16-fold in 2013, according to a Replikins press release.

The increase follows a twofold Replikin count increase in 2010 and a threefold increase in 2012. The mean Replikin count for the ebola gene between 1995 and 2002 was 1.1.

Replikins said the increase of the Replikin count in recent years predicted the current West African outbreak of ebola.

Replikin count technology was used in the past to predict other deadly outbreaks. An increase of gene Replikin counts for H1N1 influenza, found in 2008, preceded the 2009 pandemic. The count has also been used to predict outbreaks of H5N1 influenza.

In the balance therefore, the probability is that the virus is not airborne — yet — but it is more dangerous than its predecessors. This would account for its ability to slip through the protocols designed for less deadly strains of the disease.  It’s not World War E time, but it’s time to worry.

The world is a complex place. Getting at the truth is hard enough without spin doctors and media consultants. But in a world where deceit is practiced by Russian intelligence, the White House and the governments of West Africa, getting at the truth is becoming nearly impossible. Every day on the TV and radio we hear: it’s all under control.

Maybe. But there’s always room for the Minority Report. One day we may rediscover the importance of Mark Twain’s reminder: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

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