Why it took 20 years to ‘finish’ the human genome — and why there’s still more to do

Originally published on theconversation.com

Webridge/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

The release of the draft human genome sequence in 2001 was a seismic moment in our understanding of the human genome, and paved the way for advances in our understanding of the genomic basis of human biology and disease.

But sections were left unsequenced, and some sequence information was incorrect. Now, two decades later, we have a much more complete version, published as a preprint (which is yet to undergo peer review) by an international consortium of researchers.

Technological limitations meant the original draft human genome sequence covered just the “euchromatic” portion of the genome — the 92% of our genome where most genes are found, and which is most active in making gene products such as RNA and proteins.

The newly updated sequence fills in most of the remaining gaps, providing the full 3.055 billion base pairs (“letters”) of our DNA code in its entirety. This data has been made publicly available, in the hope other researchers will use it to further their research.

Why did it take 20 years?

Much of the newly sequenced material is the “heterochromatic” part of the genome, which is more “tightly packed” than the euchromatic genome and contains many highly repetitive sequences that are very challenging to read accurately.

These regions were once thought not to contain any important genetic information but they are now known to contain genes that are involved in fundamentally important processes such as the formation of organs during embryonic development. Among the 200 million newly sequenced base pairs are an estimated 115 genes predicted to be involved in producing proteins.



Read more:
Explainer: what is the Human Genome Project?

Two key factors made the completion of the human genome possible:

1. Choosing a very special cell type

The newly published genome sequence was created using human cells derived from a very rare type of tissue called a complete hydatidiform mole, which occurs when a fertilised egg loses all the genetic material contributed to it by the mother.

Most cells contain two copies of each chromosome, one from each parent and each parent’s chromosome contributing a different DNA sequence. A cell from a complete hydatidiform mole has two copies of the father’s chromosomes only, and the genetic sequence of each pair of chromosomes is identical. This makes the full genome sequence much easier to piece together.

2. Advances in sequencing technology

After decades of glacial progress, the Human Genome Project achieved its 2001 breakthrough by pioneering a method called “shotgun sequencing”, which involved breaking the genome into very small fragments of about 200 base pairs, cloning them inside bacteria, deciphering their sequences, and then piecing them back together like a giant jigsaw.

This was the main reason the original draft covered only the euchromatic regions of the genome — only these regions could be reliably sequenced using this method.

The latest sequence was deduced using two complementary new DNA-sequencing technologies. One was developed by PacBio, and allows longer DNA fragments to be sequenced with very high accuracy. The second, developed by Oxford Nanopore, produces ultra-long stretches of continuous DNA sequence. These new technologies allows the jigsaw pieces to be thousands or even millions of base pairs long, making it easier to assemble.

The new information has the potential to advance our understanding of human biology including how chromosomes function and maintain their structure. It is also going to improve our understanding of genetic conditions such as Down syndrome that have an underlying chromosomal abnormality.

Is the genome now completely sequenced?

Well, no. An obvious omission is the Y chromosome, because the complete hydatidiform mole cells used to compile this sequence contained two identical copies of the X chromosome. However, this work is underway and the researchers anticipate their method can also accurately sequence the Y chromosome, despite it having highly repetitive sequences.

Even though sequencing the (almost) complete genome of a human cell is an extremely impressive landmark, it is just one of several crucial steps towards fully understanding humans’ genetic diversity.



Read more:
How much ‘junk’ is in our DNA?

The next job will be to study the genomes of diverse populations (the complete hydatidiform mole cells were Eurpean). Once the new technology has matured sufficiently to be used routinely to sequence many different human genomes, from different populations, it will be better positioned to make a more significant impact on our understanding of human history, biology and health.

Both care and technological development are needed to ensure this research is conducted with a full understanding of the diversity of the human genome to prevent exacerbation of health disparities by limiting discoveries to specific populations.

Melissa Southey receives funding from the NHMRC, NBCF, PCFA, NIH (USA), VCA, CCV, DJPR (VIC) and Monash University. She is affiliated with Cancer Council Victoria and The University of Melbourne.

Tu Nguyen-Dumont is a recipient of a Fellowship from the National Breast Cancer Foundation (ECF-17-001).

Research now backs routinely offering pregnant women the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine

Originally published on theconversation.com

Shutterstock/MIA Studio

New Zealand and Australia will now routinely offer the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to women at any stage of pregnancy, following an update of vaccination advice.

This comes as research suggests the risk of severe outcomes from infection is significantly higher for pregnant women compared to the general population. At the same time, data from pregnant women who have already been vaccinated around the world have shown no safety concerns associated with COVID-19 vaccines.

Vaccination during pregnancy may also protect the baby. Research has identified antibodies in cord blood and breast milk, suggesting temporary protection (passive immunity) for babies before and after birth.

This is similar to influenza and whooping cough vaccines given during pregnancy to protect pēpi. There are no safety concerns for breastfeeding women receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, and women trying to become pregnant do not need to delay vaccination or avoid becoming pregnant after vaccination.

Prioritising pregnant women

When the New Zealand government announced its vaccine rollout plan in March, pregnant women were designated as a priority in the third group, which includes 1.7 million people who are at higher risk if they catch COVID-19.

This decision reflected the available information at the time from international research showing pregnant women with COVID-19 were more likely to be hospitalised and admitted to intensive care, compared to the rest of the population.

Vaccinating women during pregnancy is likely to provide temporary protection for babies as well.
Shutterstock/Natalia Deriabina



Read more:
COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective for pregnant women and their babies – new study

The higher risk of hospitalisation is similar to other priority populations, including people aged 65 and over, and those with underlying health conditions or disabilities. People in these groups are also more likely to get very sick if they get COVID-19.

New Zealand’s decision was part of a principled strategy that aims to provide fair and equitable care based on scientific evidence, acknowledging research that places pregnant women in a high-risk group if they were to be infected.

Changing advice to pregnant women

Initial advice from the Immunisation Advisory Centre was that women could receive the vaccine at any time during pregnancy, but for those at low risk of exposure, they recommended delaying vaccination until after birth.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) published similar early advice, stating that women could choose to have the vaccine at any stage of pregnancy, particularly if they were in a high-risk population. But they did not recommend routine universal vaccination if levels of community transmission were low.

So what has changed since March? It became urgent to review the early advice as local vaccination centres have started vaccinating people in the third group of the rollout. Also, travel bubbles with Australia and the Cook Islands meant people were possibly more exposed to transmission.

The early advice in New Zealand and Australia was also diverging from other countries, such as Canada. And more research is coming out about the risks of COVID-19 infection in pregnancy, while international experience with mRNA-based vaccines (such as Pfizer-BioNTech) in pregnant women is growing.



Read more:
COVID-19 and pregnancy: what we know about what happens to your immune system

Pregnant women were not included in the original clinical trials to test COVID-19 vaccines for safety. But there is no evidence of any harm associated with the vaccine during pregnancy.

Vaccine trials in the US are now actively recruiting pregnant women. We can expect research results by the end of this year. In the meantime, we can be reassured by registries, which are studies that track women who have had the vaccine during pregnancy and have given consent to have information collected about them and their babies.

Researchers in the US found women who received the vaccine during pregnancy had outcomes similar to background rates for the mother (regarding rates of miscarriage, diabetes, high blood pressure) and the baby.

Side effects from receiving the vaccine were also the same in pregnant and non-pregnant women, and it is safe to take paracetamol as needed to manage these.

Other countries, including the UK, have published decision aids to help with this important decision. I encourage professional groups to create one for New Zealand women planning or going through pregnancy.

Research supports routinely offering the vaccine to pregnant women, and it is up to individuals to decide whether to receive it or not, as part of a shared decision-making process with their midwife or doctor.

Michelle Wise does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Victoria’s COVID lockdown reminds us how many rely on food charity. Here’s how we plan for the next inevitable crisis

Originally published on theconversation.com

Sara Carpenter/www.shutterstock.com

Melbourne’s latest lockdown and increased demand for emergency food aid reminds us how many people don’t have enough food for themselves and their family.
We’ve also seen this in past lockdowns.

However, our research shows many Australians rely on emergency and community food relief for years, not just for short periods.

So how do we make emergency food aid available whether or not there’s a lockdown or other crisis?



Read more:
Too many Australians have to choose between heating or eating this winter

Why are people turning to food aid?

Australian cities have some of the highest costs of living in the world. Housing costs are increasing and wage growth is stagnant. So many people are running short and turning to charity to fill the gaps in their budgets.

The food charity sector has grown in Australia since the 1990s and more rapidly so over the past decade.

Four main organisations — FareShare, OzHarvest, SecondBite, and Foodbank — distribute over 50,000 tonnes of food each year to charities in Australia. And it’s these charities that provide subsidised and free food parcels, school breakfasts, and prepared meals to their communities.

People use food charity for many reasons including: poor health, long and short-term unemployment, high costs of living, domestic violence, family breakdowns, and emergencies including fires, floods, and pandemics.

For instance, our research with single mothers tells us low levels of government welfare and high costs of housing in Australia mean some go without food so they can afford to pay other bills.



Read more:
The average Australian wastes 200kg of food a year – yet two million of us also go hungry. Why?

During COVID, many turn to food aid

As Melbourne has gone in and out of lockdown over the past year or so, many casual workers, including international students, found themselves out of work and needing assistance for the first time.

Our research, conducted during the second COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne in May 2020, confirmed more people needed food assistance.

Foodbank Australia also reported a huge increase in the number of people needing food assistance since the start of the pandemic; 1.4 million people sought food aid during May 2020 up from 815,000 before the pandemic.

But the COVID-19 pandemic exposed vulnerability in Australia’s emergency and community relief sector.

COVID exposed vulnerabilities

The increase in need for food charity, stresses on food supply chains in Australia and globally, and the impact of panic buying, meant some charities had food shortages.

An increase in demand

We saw queues of people lining up at Centrelink in the first weeks of the pandemic. However, many people were protected from the worst of the economic impacts, and protected from poverty and food insecurity. This was thanks to the temporary increase in social welfare through the introduction of the JobKeeper wage subsidy and doubling of the JobSeeker employment-seeking benefit in 2020.

However, according to treasury figures, within four weeks of JobKeeper ending in March 2021, about 56,000 people lost their jobs.

The impact of panic buying

Australia produces enough food to feed itself. However, during COVID-19, many Australians saw bare supermarket shelves.

Panic buying, which reflected the uncertainty many people felt, meant those who could afford to, hoarded more food than they needed. This put pressure on supermarkets and left those on lower incomes reliant on whatever food was left available, often at an increased price, or on charity.

Fewer volunteers

Several food charities also reported a drop in volunteers. Without volunteers to collect and distribute food, food charities struggled to meet the increased demand.

Here’s how we could do this better

To ensure we can assist all in need during the next inevitable crisis, we need to make sure charities are better funded, and can quickly respond to increased need.

Many charities apply for short-term funding often tied to helping a specific group of people. But governments need to provide long-term funding, and more of it, so charities can feed anyone who is in need. This is important if we are to cater for people, as we’ve seen during the pandemic, who have never had to worry about food before and are turning to food charity for the first time.

Most food charities are non-profit and rely heavily on volunteers. And finding volunteers will continue to be a challenge. We have seen the Army pick up some of the slack, but this is not a long-term solution. So finding creative ways to increase the numbers of volunteers will be essential.

Food assistance is also usually just one part of a complex web of people’s needs. Food charities also provide a range of other services, including referring clients to accommodation, family support/domestic violence, medical and mental health care, and financial services. So we need a network that allows people to be referred to other services when they need them.

This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay foundation. You can read the rest of the stories here.

Fiona McKay has received funding from the Give Where You Live Foundation.

The ‘most significant’ police operation in Australian history — how it worked and what it means for organised crime

Originally published on theconversation.com

AAP/Victoria Police/supplied

The Australian Federal Police made global news this week with the revelation its Operation Ironside had help sting organised crime gangs around the world.

This was part of a broader, three-year operation with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews described it as the “most significant operation in policing history here in Australia”.

How did it start?

Operation Ironside started with an investigation and closing down by the FBI of a company called Phantom Secure in 2018.

The Vancouver-based company provided modified Blackberry phones that operated on an encrypted network that could not be decrypted or wire-tapped by police. These devices were used exclusively by criminal networks to conduct various criminal enterprises on a global scale.

Clients included the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel and the Hells Angels outlaw motorcycle gang in Australia. Some 20,000 devices were believed to be in use at the time the company’s CEO, Vincent Ramos, was arrested in February 2018.

Next, the AFP and FBI worked together to fill the void left by Phantom Secure with a new encrypted device named AN0M.



Read more:
How an app to decrypt criminal messages was born ‘over a few beers’ with the FBI

Under Operation Trojan Shield, police distributed AN0M among criminals, using a confidential human source — a convicted narcotics importer. This source had been working with FBI agents since 2018 in exchange for the possibility of a reduced sentence for other charges he was facing.

This source has previously distributed Phantom Secure devices and agreed to distribute the devices to his existing network of distributors and clients.

As the AFP explained:

You had to know a criminal to get hold of one of these customised phones. The phones couldn’t ring or email. You could only communicate with someone on the same platform.

Little did criminals know that law enforcement and the source had built a master key into the existing encryption system. This master key surreptitiously attached to each message, enabling police to decrypt and store messages as they were transmitted. So, AN0M was a Trojan horse, not with Greeks inside, but law enforcement.

Australia’s role

Court records unsealed this week provide a fascinating insight into how the operation unfolded.

In October 2018, the source distributed 50 devices to targets in Australia. In this test phase, Australian police saw 100% of the AN0M users were using the app for criminal activity.

Intercepted conversations also showed targets were willing to provide the devices to senior members of organised crime groups overseas. So, a global criminal investigation was now underway.

Since October 2019, the FBI has catalogued more than 20 million messages from a total of 11,800 devices in more than 90 countries. The top five countries where AN0M devices are currently used are Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Australia, and Serbia.

AFP officers talk about Operation Ironside.

With the assistance of Europol – the European Union’s law enforcement agency — the FBI identified more than 300 transnational organised crime groups using the AN0M devices for criminal enterprises.

The sophistication of the criminal operations is revealed by the fact criminal organisations compartmentalised their activities with multiple brands of hardened encrypted devices.

For example, some users assigned different types of devices to different parts of drug trafficking transactions. In some instances, AN0M was used for the logistics of the drug shipments, but Ciphr or Sky were used to coordinate the concealment of the illicit proceeds.

This compartmentalisation shows how connected the encrypted communications device industry is to organised criminal activity.

Implications for Australia

The haul from Operation Ironside is impressive.

It has led to the arrest of 224 offenders on 526 charges in every mainland Australian state. Since 2018, 3.7 tonnes of drugs, 104 weapons, A$44,934,457 million in cash, and assets worth millions of dollars have been seized.

The AFP also responded to 20 threats to kill, potentially saving the lives of innocent bystanders, with intelligence referred to state police. For example, last week, police rescued former bikie Dillon Mancuso, who was allegedly snatched from his Sydney home by a group of armed men.

The challenge ahead

But the operation has also shown how Australia has become a destination of choice for transnational organised crime groups.

In its annual report, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission notes about 70% of Australia’s serious and organised criminal threats are based offshore or have strong offshore links.

There is also a strong market for illegal drugs. As AFP Commissioner Reece Kershaw acknowledged:

Organised crime syndicates target Australia, because sadly, the drug market is so lucrative. Australians are among the world’s biggest drug takers.

Examples of this are the Mexican drug cartels expanding into Australia’s lucrative methamphetamine market.

Law enforcement should be congratulated for the outcome of this operation — but this is far from the end of their work. While we have dealt transnational organised crime a heavy blow, the war will continue as law enforcement seek to stay one step ahead in the race against organised crime.

Terry Goldsworthy does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Climate change is making ocean waves more powerful, threatening to erode many coastlines

Originally published on theconversation.com

Shutterstock

Sea level rise isn’t the only way climate change will devastate the coast. Our research, published today, found it is also making waves more powerful, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere.

We plotted the trajectory of these stronger waves and found the coasts of South Australia and Western Australia, Pacific and Caribbean Islands, East Indonesia and Japan, and South Africa are already experiencing more powerful waves because of global warming.

This will compound the effects of sea level rise, putting low-lying island nations in the Pacific — such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands — in further danger, and changing how we manage coasts worldwide.

But it’s not too late to stop the worst effects — that is, if we drastically and urgently cut greenhouse gas emissions.

An energetic ocean

Since the 1970s, the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the heat gained by the planet. This has a range of impacts, including longer and more frequent marine heatwaves, coral bleaching, and providing an energy source for more powerful storms.

Since at least the 1980s, wave power has increased worldwide as more heat is pumped into the ocean.
Shutterstock

But our focus was on how warming oceans boost wave power. We looked at wave conditions over the past 35 years, and found global wave power has increased since at least the 1980s, mostly concentrated in the Southern Hemisphere, as more energy is being pumped into the oceans in the form of heat.

And a more energetic ocean means larger wave heights and more erosive energy potential for coastlines in some parts of the world than before.



Read more:
Ocean warming threatens coral reefs and soon could make it harder to restore them

Ocean waves have shaped Earth’s coastlines for millions of years. So any small, sustained changes in waves can have long-term consequences for coastal ecosystems and the people who rely on them.

Mangroves and salt marshes, for example, are particularly vulnerable to increases in wave energy when combined with sea level rise.

To escape, mangroves and marshes naturally migrate to higher ground. But when these ecosystems back onto urban areas, they have nowhere to go and die out. This process is known as “coastal squeeze”.

These ecosystems often provide a natural buffer to wave attack for low-lying coastal areas. So without these fringing ecosystems, the coastal communities behind them will be exposed to more wave energy and, potentially, higher erosion.

Mangrove forests are among the most imperilled ecosystems as sea levels rise and ocean waves crash harder against the coast.
Shutterstock

So why is this happening?

Ocean waves are generated by winds blowing along the ocean surface. And when the ocean absorbs heat, the sea surface warms, encouraging the warm air over the top of it to rise (this is called convection). This helps spin up atmospheric circulation and winds.

In other words, we come to a cascade of impacts: warmer sea surface temperatures bring about stronger winds, which alter global ocean wave conditions.



Read more:
Curious Kids: why are there waves?

Our research shows, in some parts of the world’s oceans, wave power is increasing because of stronger wind energy and the shift of westerly winds towards the poles. This is most noticeable in the tropical regions of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the subtropical regions of the Indian Ocean.

But not all changes in wave conditions are driven by ocean warming from human-caused climate change. Some areas of the world’s oceans are still more influenced by natural climate variability — such as El Niño and La Niña — than long-term ocean warming.

In general, it appears changes to wave conditions towards the equator are more driven by ocean warming from human-caused climate change, whereas changes to waves towards the poles remain more impacted by natural climate variability.

Ocean waves are generated by winds blowing across the ocean surface.
Shutterstock

How this could erode the coasts

While the response of coastlines to climate change is a complex interplay of many processes, waves remain the principal driver of change along many of the world’s open, sandy coastlines.

So how might coastlines respond to getting hit by more powerful waves? It generally depends on how much sand there is, and how, exactly, wave power increases.

For example, if there’s an increase in wave height, this may cause increased erosion. But if the waves become longer (a lengthening of the wave period), then this may have the opposite effect, by transporting sand from deeper water to help the coast keep pace with sea level rise.

Sandy beaches, including those around South Australia and Western Australia, may see greater risk of erosion in coming decades as wave power increases.
Shutterstock

For low-lying nations in areas of warming sea surface temperatures around the equator, higher waves – combined with sea level rise – poses an existential problem.

People in these nations may experience both sea level rise and increasing wave power on their coastlines, eroding land further up the beach and damaging property.
These areas should be regarded as coastal climate hotspots, where continued adaption or mitigation funding is needed.

It’s not too late

It’s not surprising for us to find the fingerprints of greenhouse warming in ocean waves and, consequentially, along our coastlines. Our study looked only at historical wave conditions and how these are already being impacted by climate change.

But if warming continues in line with current trends over the coming century, we can expect to see more significant changes in wave conditions along the world’s coasts than uncovered in our backward-looking research.

However, if we can mitigate greenhouse warming in line with the 2℃ Paris agreement, studies indicate we could still keep changes in wave patterns within the bounds of natural climate variability.



Read more:
Seabirds are today’s canaries in the coal mine – and they’re sending us an urgent message

Still, one thing is abundantly clear: the impacts of climate change on waves is not a thing of the future, and is already occurring in large parts of the world’s oceans.

The extent to which these changes continue and the risk this poses to global coastlines will be closely linked to decarbonisation efforts over the coming decades.

This story is part of Oceans 21

Our series on the global ocean opened with five in depth profiles. Look out for new articles on the state of our oceans in the lead up to the UN’s next climate conference, COP26. The series is brought to you by The Conversation’s international network.

Nobuhito Mori receives funding from Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Japan.

Rodolfo Silva receives funding from CEMIE-Oceano.

Itxaso Odériz and Thomas Mortlock do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Scott Morrison says it’s vital to get to the bottom of COVID-19’s origins

Originally published on theconversation.com

Australia is still pursuing the origin of COVID-19, with Scott Morrison strongly supporting President Joe Biden’s efforts to get to the bottom of the outbreak.

In a speech ahead of his trip to the weekend G7 summit, which will discuss the pandemic, Morrison is set to say that “having led calls for an independent inquiry, it remains Australia’s firm view that understanding the cause of this pandemic is essential for preventing the next one”.

“I strongly support President Biden’s recent statement that we need to bolster and accelerate efforts to identify the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic”. The Prime Minister will also “lend Australia’s weight” to achieving a “more independent” World Health Organisation with stronger surveillance powers.

Australia’s push for an investigation into COVID-19’s origins infuriated the Chinese. The eventual WHO-sponsored inquiry was inconclusive.

Biden asked the US intelligence community to examine whether COVID-19 evolved from an animal or a laboratory accident. Late last month he said he wanted efforts redoubled, with a report within 90 days.

In Wednesday’s speech outlining “areas of Australian advocacy and agency” in advance of the G7 meeting, at which climate change will feature, Morrison vigorously defends Australia’s record.

A draft of his speech has been released ahead of its delivery in Perth.

Morrison repeats Australia is committed to achieving net zero emissions “as soon as possible, preferably by 2050”, but will not formally embrace the target, which is supported by the G7 countries.

In a pointed reference to some countries urging trade measures against high emitters, he says: “working cooperatively on clean technologies, rather than combatively through protectionist measures, will ensure that emissions abatement doesn’t come at the cost of growth and jobs”.

“It’s important that nation states be accountable for charting their own path to net zero based on their unique economic structures and energy sources.

“Australia does not support setting sectoral targets or timeframes for decarbonising particular parts of our economy or setting false deadlines for phasing out specific energy sources.

“Australia will continue to be a strong voice for a technology-focused approach, and for countries to work together to drive down the cost of low-emissions technologies.”

Australia is not a member of the G7 but is among several countries invited to attend the meeting, being held in the United Kingdom.

For Morrison, the issue of China will be central, and the G7 countries’ response to its increasing assertiveness, including its aggressive response on trade, which has seen it impose restrictions on Australian products as payback for Australian criticism and policy stances.

In his speech, Morrison says he has been greatly encouraged, in his discussions with other leaders, by “the support shown for Australia’s preparedness to withstand economic coercion in recent times”.

He says the most practical way to address economic coercion is to restore the World Trade Organisation’s binding dispute settlement system.

“Where there are no consequences for coercive behaviour, there is little incentive for restraint.”

He says the G7 meeting gives an opportunity to point a way forward on reforming the WTO’s appellate body when the WTO’s ministerial conference meets in November.

The appellate body is the final decision maker on disputes brought to the WTO. Its effective functioning is particularly important to Australia because of our trade disputes with China. The Trump administration vetoed appointments and it now has no members, so it cannot hear appeals. This means the WTO is unable to impose penalties on nations which have broken its rules.

One focus of Morrison’s discussions including in his bilateral meetings (which include a first face-to-face meeting with Biden since he became president) will be “enhanced cooperation for global security and stability”.

“The simple reality is that Australia’s strategic environment has changed significantly over recent years. Accelerating trends are working against our interests. The Indo-Pacific region – Australia’s region – is the epicentre of renewed strategic competition,” he says in his speech.

“The risks of miscalculation and conflict are growing. And the technological edge enjoyed historically by Australia and our allies is under challenge,” he says.

“We must intensify our cooperation with others to meet the complex security challenges we face.

“Australia has been working hard in our region, building cooperation with the United States, Japan and India. Stepping up in the Pacific. Supporting Southeast Asia and engaging ASEAN as a steadfast partner.”

In relation to keeping supply chains open, Morrison says one priority in his talks will be the development of secure and diverse supply chains for minerals essential for clean energy technologies and military applications.

“At present, the supply chain for rare earths is not diverse – a single nation [China] currently accounts for about 85% of the world’s refined rare earths products.

“Given its endowment in critical minerals, Australia has a responsibility to contribute to greater diversity of critical minerals supply, as far along the value chain as possible.

“The same can be said for lithium.

“That effort will yield both a strategic and economic dividend for Australia.

“I also look forward to discussions on broader supply chain issues as they relate to our economic, health and social resilience.

“Australia is a keen advocate of efforts to keep supply chains open, transparent, competitive, trusted and diverse.”

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

What are the side effects of the Pfizer vaccine? An expert explains

Originally published on theconversation.com

As of Tuesday this week, all Australian adults aged 40-49 are eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Some states and territories had already opened up their rollout to under 50s, including Victoria, which invited 40-49-year-olds to come forward from late May in light of the current outbreak. In the Northern Territory, everyone aged over 16 is now eligible, while in Western Australia adults over 30 will be eligible from Thursday.

Most Australians under 50 will receive the Pfizer vaccine, which is the preferred COVID vaccine for people in this age group. This is based on advice from Australia’s Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation around the risk of rare blood clotting disorders following the AstraZeneca vaccine.

To this point, we’ve been quite fixated on the side effects and small risks associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine. But with many Australians now lining up for the Pfizer shot, let’s take a look at what we know about side effects and rare adverse events after this vaccine.

We’re monitoring the safety of the Pfizer vaccine in real time

In Australia the Pfizer vaccine is registered for use in people over 16. Two doses are needed, with a gap of at least three weeks between doses.

This vaccine has now been administered to many millions of people around the world. We know a lot about its safety from both clinical trials and safety surveillance programs in the community.

AusVaxSafety has been collecting and regularly updating vaccine safety data from Australians who have received a COVID vaccine, either Pfizer or AstraZeneca.

As of May 30, more than 245,000 people had responded to text message or email questionnaires on side effects after their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and over 140,000 people had responded after dose two.

Close to two-thirds of people reported no reactions after the first dose, and 40% reported no reactions after the second.

The most common side effects include headache, muscle aches and fatigue, and these are more common after dose two compared to dose one.

These sorts of side effects are very similar to those reported in clinical trials and what’s been set out in the Pfizer vaccine’s product information. They occur because our immune system is responding to the vaccine.

Side effects will usually present in the first 24-48 hours after vaccination. We know from AusVaxSafety surveillance and safety data from overseas they usually last less than two to three days, and nearly everyone who experiences side effects is back to normal one week after vaccination.

You can manage symptoms such as pain or fever with medicines like paracetamol or ibuprofen. But if your symptoms persist or get worse, you should see your GP.



Read more:
We’re gathering data on COVID vaccine side effects in real time. Here’s what you can expect

What about allergic reactions?

There have been reports of anaphylaxis after the Pfizer vaccine. Anaphylaxis is an acute allergic reaction where people experience a rash, lip and tongue swelling, trouble breathing and sometimes shock (low blood pressure and fast heart rate).

Overall it’s estimated anaphylaxis occurs in approximately five people per million doses of the Pfizer vaccine administered. Anaphylaxis nearly always happens in the first 15 minutes to half hour after vaccination, which is why people are asked to wait in the clinic after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

Anaphylaxis is easily treated (reversed) with an injection of adrenaline by nursing and medical staff at the vaccination centres, and people affected generally make a complete recovery.

If you happen to have had an acute allergic reaction after vaccination, it’s important you tell your doctor before getting a second dose of the same vaccine. You may be referred for a specialist allergy consultation.

Myocarditis and pericarditis

Recently there have been reports from overseas, including the United States and Israel, of myocarditis (heart inflammation) and pericarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart) following vaccination with the Pfizer vaccine.

The US Centres for Disease Control notes these cases have been mostly in younger males (aged 16 years and older), usually appear within several days of vaccination, and are more common after the second dose.

However, no causal link has been formally established. It’s important to note heart inflammation can be caused by many factors. These include infections, particularly from viruses or bacteria; or damage to the heart’s tissue or muscle as a result of autoimmune diseases, medicines, environmental factors, or other triggers, including, rarely, vaccines.



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The COVID-19 subcommittee of the WHO Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety is also reviewing this issue. They have noted that in most of the reported cases, the people have recovered.

Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration, meanwhile, is continuing to monitor myocarditis and pericarditis as “adverse events of special interest”.

Rigorous studies where we compare the number of myocarditis cases in vaccinated and unvaccinated populations are underway in countries such as Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States to assess whether there is any link between myocarditis and the Pfizer vaccine.

But at this stage, there’s no significant cause for concern.

The benefits outweigh any risks

Real-world studies are showing the Pfizer vaccine has clear benefits in reducing deaths and hospitalisations due to COVID-19.

As we’re seeing right now in Victoria, community outbreaks continue to pose a significant risk. Our path out of this pandemic relies on a high uptake of vaccines, and use of the highly effective Pfizer vaccine is key.

Nicholas Wood receives funding from the NHMRC for a career development fellowship. He holds a Churchill Fellowship

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Word from The Hill

Originally published on theconversation.com

As well as Michelle Grattan’s usual interviews with experts and politicians about the news of the day, Politics with Michelle Grattan now includes “Word from The Hill”, where all things political will be discussed with members of The Conversations’s politics team.

In this week’s episode, politics + society editor Amanda Dunn discusses with Michelle current issues and what’s coming up.

The pair dive into Speaker of The House Tony Smith’s efforts to reform Question Time, Scott Morrison’s agenda for the G7 Summit – taking place this weekend in the United Kingdom, and Victoria’s slow emergence out of lockdown.

Additional audio

A List of Ways to Die, Lee Rosevere, from Free Music Archive.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

What’s in a name? How recruitment discriminates against ‘foreign’ applicants

Originally published on theconversation.com

Since moving from Pakistan to Australia, Mariam Mohammed has gained a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, co-founded a social enterprise (teaching financial literacy to women) and made the Australian Financial Review’s 100 Women of Influence list.

But there was a time she was so disheartened at not being able to get a job she considered changing her name to something less “Muslim” and more “Anglo”.

Her experience is not unique.

In the past 50 years most Western countries have become more tolerant of cultural diversity. Laws now forbid overt forms of discrimination based on gender, ethnicity or age.

But unconscious biases remain – with one of the most well-documented being discrimination against job applicants with ethnic minority, “foreign” names.

Reviewing 123 resume studies

I have analysed 123 “resume studies” to get a more fine-grained understanding of name-based discrimination in recruitment.

Resume studies typically involve researchers responding to real job advertisements with very similar resumes of fictitious job candidates. In these studies, some resumes have names indicating an applicant comes from an ethnic minority group, while other resumes have more common names. This enables researchers to compare the responses for the different names.

My review covered studies conduct in many countries like Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Sweden, and the United States.

More than 95% of the studies identified high ethnic discrimination in recruitment. On average, ethnic minority applicants received about half as many positive responses to their job applications.



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Notable differences

There were, however, large differences in the degree of discrimination across the studies.

The following chart shows results from a selection of studies in different nations. The “net discrimination rate” is a common measure in resume studies. The higher the percentage, the higher the discrimination. So the resume studies show applicants with Moroccan names in Italy and African or German names in Ireland are more discriminated against than those with Turkish names in Germany.

Just three of the studies did not find any hiring discrimination against ethnic minorities. Only one reported hiring discrimination against the ethnic majority group – a study in Malaysia finding a Chinese name was more helpful than a Malay name. (Chinese Malaysians represent less than a third of Malaysia’s population, but are disproportionately represented in the business class.)

Yes, it really is the name that counts

The most noteworthy finding is the similar degree of discrimination against immigrants and the native-born children of immigrants (or second-generation immigrants).

Studies measured this effect through resumes for candidates with an ethnic minority name but with local educational qualification and work experience. Resumes for first-generation immigrants indicated attendance at foreign schools and universities and no local work experience. The response rate from recruiters was roughly the same.

These results show it is the ethnic minority name that’s the hindrance, rather than an assessment about a candidate’s language skills or a preference for local qualifications and work experience.

This point is underlined by US and Swedish study findings that adopting an ethnic majority name improves job application success.



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Anonymous resumes may not help

One common assumption among recruiters and human resource managers is that deleting the name of the job application should result in a more equal recruitment process.

But the research has returned mixed findings about anonymous resumes.

A 2012 Swedish study, for example, found anonymous resumes did indeed improve the chances for job candidates of non-Western origin (and also for female candidates).

In contrast, a 2015 study in France reported that anonymous resumes increased ethnic discrimination in recruitment. The researchers suggest anonymous resumes might have led to harsher judgments of “negative signals” such as employment gaps.

So anonymous resumes might not be the solution. What recruiters need to focus on instead is training to recognise their unconscious biases and better evaluate resumes based only on applicants’ actual skills and experience.

Mladen Adamovic does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Other Australians earn nothing like what you think. If you’re on $59,538, you’re typical

Originally published on theconversation.com
Mattz90/Shutterstock

I’m guessing you earn less than A$200,000.

And I’m guessing you think you’re missing out. People keep telling you so.

On one side of politics Labor leader Anthony Albanese says anyone earning $200,000 dollars a year “can’t be described as being in the top end of town”.

On the other, Prime Minister Scott Morrison parries with interviewers when asked whether people on $180,000 to $200,000 (the biggest beneficiaries of his planned 2024 Stage 3 tax cut) are “high income”.

“They’re hardworking people working out on mines and difficult parts of the country,” he says. “They deserve a tax cut.”

Hardworking or not, Australians on more than $200,000 are rare. And an awful lot of them don’t work at all.

$200,000 is unusual

I’ve never quite understood why politicians are so keen to tell us such incomes are normal. It might be because they are on them. Each backbencher gets $211,250 plus a $32,000 electorate allowance (boosted by $19,500 if they turn down the use of a private-plated vehicle) plus home internet and travel allowances.

Very detailed tax office figures (updated on Monday) tell us what the rest of us earn, all 14.3 million of us.

Only 2% of those required to pay tax earned more than $211,365. Only 3% earned more than $188,667.

Everyone else — the other 97% — earned less than $188,667, most of them a good deal less, and many more earned even less and weren’t required to pay tax.

What you report to myGov, the ATO reports to us, with a lag.

The figures released on Monday are for 2018-19, because it takes a while for the tax office to receive and process all the forms. 2019 is when Albanese said $200,000 wasn’t the “top end of town”, 2018 is when Morrison unveiled Stage 3.

The typical taxable income (typical in the sense that half earned more than it, half less) was $59,538. If that’s what you’re on, you’re more likely to find people who earn close to what you do than anyone who earns more or less.

We can get an idea of how lonely it is at the top by examining the top 1%, those Australians with a taxable income of greater than $350,134.

There aren’t many of them, just 110,613 — 82,258 men and 28,355 women.

Only 39,209 have taxable incomes of more than $500,000, and of these only 14,467 have taxable incomes of more than $1 million.

Life at the top needn’t be taxed

You’re probably thinking there’s a difference between taxable incomes and actual incomes, and the tax office figures show you’re right.

15,358 Australians reported total incomes of more than $1 million. By the time they had applied legitimate tax deductions, the number had shrunk to 14,467.

Some of these million-dollar earners were able to shrink their taxable incomes very low indeed. 45 cut their taxable incomes to less than the tax-free threshold of $18,200 — meaning they didn’t have to pay anything, not even the Medicare levy.

Another eight managed to escape the Medicare levy even though their taxable incomes were above $18,200, and another 21 escaped income tax while paying the Medicare levy.



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Many of these millionaires weren’t “hardworking” in the sense Morrison meant. Only 9,144 of the 14,467 Australians on taxable incomes of more than $1 million worked. Only 17,883 of the 57,120 Australians on more than $250,000 worked.

Only nine of the 45 million-dollar earners who cut their taxable incomes to less than the tax-free threshold worked. 27 received so-called franked dividends from companies that had paid tax, enabling them to cut their own tax bills or receive rebates from the tax office. On average, each received dividends of $2.25 million.

Many who aren’t taxed are generous

Seventeen of the 45 million-dollar earners received capital gains, on average $6.4 million each. 38 received interest, averaging $290,000 each.

Against that were set expenses, small and large. Three claimed for work-related car expenses averaging $27,340 each, 13 claimed expenses averaging $57,200 for assistance with tax affairs, eight claimed for previous losses from farms averaging $684,000 each, and eight for losses from other businesses averaging $408,000.

But by far their biggest expense was donations. 14 gave away a total of $161 million in gifts or tax-deductible donations — an extraordinary average of $11.5 million each.

Most of us aren’t like these people.

Most of us claim more modest deductions

Three-quarters of Australians in the tax system earn less than $89,173.

Those on that income typically claim between $1,500 and $1,900 in deductions (men claim more than women) and, thanks to negative gearing, claim losses on properties of between $1,800 and $2,600 (again, men claim more than women).

Such Australians typically report between $1,200 and $2,100 in capital gains (more for women than for men).

If higher-earning Australians are unaware of how most of us live, it’s understandable. Surgeons mix with other surgeons. On average each of Australia’s 4150 surgeons earns $394,303, making surgery our highest-paying occupation.

We mix with, and marry, people like us

And they increasingly marry each other. In 2010 the Productivity Commission found that 68% of Australia’s high earners were married to other high earners. A decade earlier it was 49%.

And high earners live near each other. The average income in Sydney’s Double Bay (Australia’s highest-earning suburb) is $202,598. The average income in Ruse in Sydney’s Campbelltown is $55,100.

People in Double Bay don’t drive through Ruse on their way to the city.



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In the United States it is often the other way around. There, low-income suburbs are more likely to be near the city, meaning that high-income Americans at least see them as they go in to town.

That most of us have little idea of what others earn suits those in charge when they propose tax cuts skewed to high earners.

They can con us that most of us will be better off, and those on high incomes can con themselves they are not already better off.

Peter Martin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.