Happy Scribe

Hello and welcome to the Intelligence Economist Radio. I'm your host, Jason Palmer. Every weekday, we provide a fresh perspective on the events shaping your world. The seismic changes that covid-19 has brought to the health care industry have led to many worse outcomes, quite aside from the virus itself. Yet the pandemic has brought one silver lining. It's shown a better way to carry out early stage abortions. And for all the dangerous fauna of Australia, the funnel web spider is one of the most fearsome.


Its bite is lethal. But from an evolutionary standpoint, it shouldn't be. We look at new research that may at last explain this unhappy accident of evolution. But first. Armenia and Azerbaijan rejected international calls for a cease fire yesterday after deadly clashes broke out on Sunday, pushing the two countries to the brink of war.


Both have declared martial law and total military mobilization, at least 100 people have been killed in the fighting, which is involved artillery strikes and air power.


The two former Soviet republics are locked in a decades old conflict over the disputed province of Nagorno Karabakh. This marks the second time in less than three months that the countries have come to blows. But this time they're edging closer to all out war, one which could ensnare both Turkey and Russia. We haven't seen detailed death tolls from the Azerbaijani side, but the overall death toll now seems to be well north of one hundred people.


Zalewski is our Turkey correspondent.


That would make the fighting in Nagorno Karabakh the heaviest since twenty sixteen when at least two hundred people were killed and on pace to be the worst since nineteen ninety for the end of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan.


And what is that fight about?


It is about a region known as Nagorno Karaba, disputed province, legally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by Armenian forces to go back in history. Karabakh had been a part of the Kingdom of Armenia over two thousand years ago and has been ruled since by a succession of empires. But under the Soviets, they're going to. Karabakh was a part of Azerbaijan, and as the USSR crumbled, clashes erupted between the Armenian majority and the region, which sought union with Armenia or independence and the Azerbaijani minority.


And these devolved into the brutal war in which about 30000 thousand people were killed and about a million displaced. And this included episodes of ethnic cleansing and several atrocities. The war ended with a ceasefire in 1994. And as I mentioned, Armenian forces have held on to Nagarjuna Karabakh itself and to seven districts surrounding the region.


So it's been, despite the cease fire, still disputed since then. Correct.


Not only has it been disputed, there have been regular skirmishes, the one in twenty sixteen. And as recently as this year, in July, there were 16 people who were killed in areas north of Karabakh. Thousands of Azerbaijanis responded to this, also to the death of renowned Azerbaijani general by taking to the streets and demanding that their government retake all of the Karabakh.


So why is it that the conflict at this time seems to be escalating so quickly?


Analysts see the signs of a much broader military offensive by Azerbaijan and a return to a much broader conflict than what we saw in previous years. Some of them told me they saw this as a much better prepared campaign with more troops and fighting on all parts of the line of contact or the front line. And what we're seeing is, in addition to heavy weaponry, infantry, helicopters and masses of drones on both sides, there's the threat that fighting could spill over into civilian areas and also into areas where pipelines deliver gas and oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey through Georgia.


So it's clear on the ground then that this is a much more serious conflict. But I mean, what set it off?


There's a belief on both sides that there is no political solution. The new Armenian prime minister, Nikolai Bassendean, in a speech last year called for the reunification of the Kaaba in Armenia. The Azerbaijani side feels that the only way it can recover at least parts of Cordoba or the outlying provinces is through force. Perhaps because of covid-19. There has been next to no international mediation of the conflict since this spring. And that is said to have led to the clashes in July.


And the failure to mediate in the aftermath of July may have precipitated what we're seeing today. People in the region say that to some extent they saw this coming for miles and the international community failed to prevent it. And what is the international community's response now that it's escalated?


The U.N. Security Council has called on the two sides to put an end to the fighting. The European Union, the United States and Russia have also called for cease fire. Unlike other international actors, Turkey has urged Azerbaijan to push forward. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, said on September twenty eight that peace would only come to the region once Armenia withdrew from. His spokesperson added the next day that Turkey was, quote unquote, fully ready to help Azerbaijan recover.


The enclave's reports indicate that Mr. Erdogan government has sent Syrian mercenaries to help Azerbaijan. It is also providing drones to the Azerbaijani army and Armenia accuse Turkey of shooting down one of its warplanes, which is a charge that Turkish officials have denied.


And you mentioned Russia calling for a cease fire. How is Russia involved? Escalation on the part of Azerbaijan or further Turkish involvement could also drag in Russia, which sells arms to Azerbaijan but also has a mutual defense pact with Armenia. So in theory, because they're going to KARABA is not legally part of Armenia. Russia is not under any commitment to defend Armenia in case of an attack on they're going to. And so far, in fact, Russia has only gone so far as to ask Turkey to back its calls for a cease fire.


But if Armenia does come under attack by Azerbaijan or by Turkey, it seems Russia will have no choice but to defend Armenia. And do you think that's the way things are heading? I mean, is there a way to calm the tensions here?


So far, calls for a cease fire have fallen on deaf ears. It may be that Azerbaijan will succumb to Russian pressure and that both sides will lay down arms. It may be that Azerbaijan will simply settle for partial gains, especially in the seven districts near going to Karabakh and declare victory, which would placate public opinion at home. But this may yet get out of control.


And as for the outside powers, Turkey and Russia are already tangled up in two proxy wars in Libya and in Syria. They now run the danger of fighting a third one over Nagorno Colaba. Pyotr, thank you very much for your time. Thank you for yours.


For more analysis like this, from our international network of correspondents subscribed to The Economist to find the best introductory offer. Wherever you are, just go to economist dotcom slash intelligence offer.


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A Sky Original. All episodes available now. For many women, getting access to reproductive health services during the pandemic has been a nightmare. Fertility treatments have paused, sexual health clinics have closed, and giving birth has come with its own set of challenges. It's also presented problems for those wanting abortions. In some parts of the world, rules have been changed to try and overcome these difficulties for abortion.


Regulations in England and Wales have changed significantly this year because they've been changed to allow women to have a medical abortion at home, which 23000 women did between April and June.


Amy Hawkins is a journalist for The Economist. This is only possible because of rule change due to the covid-19 lockdown. Normally, the first of the two medications required for a medical abortion must be taken at a hospital or a clinic after an ultrasound and an in-person consultation. Now, women's homes also count basically as a clinic up to 10 weeks of gestation. And this was introduced so women can actually have their medications posted to them at home rather than going to the clinic to pick them up.


So the abortion happens at home rather than at a hospital or clinic. So I spoke to a woman called Sylvi that's not her real name, who is one of those 23000 women who had an abortion at home this year. And in her case, she found out that she was pregnant in late April and in early May decided pretty quickly that she didn't want to continue with the pregnancy.


You know, I quickly was the sole breadwinner due to the pandemic, which was a large factor in my decision. And also the the primary caregiver for another child who is my priority, say once she'd made that choice, she had a few phone appointments with doctors who talked her through the process.


And then later that week, she took the pill and miscarried at home.


I still have the tape shed. I think the pasteurize arrived within four days. So the entire process was no more than about a week of having it done at home. And it was done in private. Say it was done quickly. I was comfortable. I would say I'm not saying it was a nice thing to do, but it couldn't have gone any better.


And was it just England and Wales that changed these these rules? No. So Ireland introduced similar rules to Britain and France extended the limits at home abortions and the seventh to the ninth week of pregnancy. But they said the pill must still be collected from a doctor or a pharmacist. You do have to leave the house in America. A federal judge lifted regulations that required women to collect the abortion pill from a surgery clinic, a hospital, because the judge ruled that the obligation to go to a clinic with a substantial obstacle in the path of women during a pandemic.


And are there any safety issues around these kinds of changes?


There's no evidence for having an abortion at home is any more dangerous than taking the pill that can make for early stage abortions. The early term abortion can be safely carried out outside of a clinic in the first trimester. And in some countries, the actual termination already happened at home. So to have a medical abortion, you have to take two drugs which are taken a couple of days apart in England and Wales before covid, the first drug has to be administered by a doctor and a second drug was taken at home and the pregnancy would end four to six hours after the second one was administered in most cases.


And taking a broader look.


How has changing these restrictions changed the overall number of abortions so far in England and Wales?


When the first half of this year there were about one hundred and ten thousand abortions and 50 percent of the abortion performed before seven weeks, that's compared to 40 percent in the same period the year before the earlier a termination of the safer. So this is a good thing. But abortions are happening earlier in terms of the overall number in England and Wales has seen a four percent rise in the number of terminations in the first half of this year. So that could be due to people's economic and financial stress, relationships and locked arms, all access to contraception.


So it doesn't necessarily mean that having abortions leads to more abortions. So it's really just a matter of letting people do what they would have done in the absence of the pandemic.


So one way to compare this is we can also look at a country that didn't change the rules. So women on the Canadian charity that provides health to women in countries where abortions are illegal and during the pandemic inquiry than Italy and Portugal, shot up by 70 percent and one hundred and forty percent, respectively. And they are both countries that didn't introduce any covid measures to allow women to have abortions at home in Britain, after women were allowed to order that pill over, the phone request of women in the world fell to negligible levels.


And what about in in America, where this is such a charged debate?


So in America, medical abortions were to start off with in most European countries, around two thirds of abortion, the medical abortions rather than surgical. In the US, only 40 percent are. And there are still some barriers to abortion by post because the federal judge's ruling doesn't mean much in the 15 states that require a doctor's presence when a woman collects abortion medication. And aid access, which is the charity that post drugs to women when no one else. Well, the FDA has asked them to stop.


But for example, in Texas, after all, abortions are canceled for several weeks, seven to eight weeks, that's nearly doubled.


And so it's still early days yet. But do you get the sense that that these kinds of changes to restrictions will will stick after the pandemic in America?


The Trump administration has asked the Supreme Court to overturn the federal judge's ruling. And in September 20, Republican senators wrote a letter to the FDA urging it to take one of the drugs required for an abortion off the market because it was, quote unquote, dangerous. But in Britain, I think it's more likely the government has launched a public consultation on the matter. The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have both called for the changes to be made permanent.


But all this is not about giving women any new right. It's about allowing them to exercise their rights safely and more efficiently.


Amy, thank you very much for joining us. Thanks for having me on. You don't have to go deep into the Bush of Australia to find funnel web spiders, they're found in suburbia just as on the forest floor. But keep your distance.


Their powerful fangs can cut right through your shoes. Then you're in trouble. Left untreated, the venom can kill within hours. Australia has no shortage of animals that pose a threat to humans, but why the funnel web should be so good at killing them has always remained something of an enigma to biologists.


While they are truly lethal to people, dogs, cats and other mammals are not slain by them very often, they don't like them very much in the venom hurts, but it doesn't kill them. And so researchers for years have struggled with trying to understand why they're so dangerous.


Matt Kaplan is our science correspondent.


This led Dr Brian Frye at the University of Queensland to question what it was about the Delta Hexa toxins, which are the molecules in the venom that are particularly lethal to people. And he wanted to look at their evolution and figure out when did these things start becoming such a problem? And that's where the puzzle really started to come together. What did he find? Dr Fry figured that the best way to try to unpick this puzzle was to look at the evolutionary history of Delta Hexa toxins in these spiders.


And that analysis revealed that this very ancient group of spiders appeared just over two hundred million years ago under the feet of the dinosaurs, and these spiders were hunting insects. So they needed those Delta exotoxins to be able to nab those bugs. But what's really interesting is the venom evolves very rapidly from two hundred to one hundred and fifty million years ago and then stops evolving much at all, which suggests that it was still serving a purpose. But there wasn't any more of this evolution and escalation, this arms race, something happened.


And that thing that happened, Dr Fry suspects, is the evolution of mammals. And so he speculates that the venom shifted at that time from being used exclusively to hunt bugs, to being used to keep mammals off the spiders back.


And so before it stopped, how did that evolutionary arms race play out?


So the thing is, when an animal is hunting other animals with venom, then there is a powerful pressure for those animals to develop resistance to the spider's venom. If even one individual develops some resistance because that individual will survive and breed lots, that resistance will spread through the population quickly. And then the spider is now under pressure to develop a more potent venom of its own. It's an evolutionary arms race. We don't see that with defensive venoms when an animal is using venom to protect itself.


So, for example, another animal is coming up to harass the spider. It's helpful for the venom to not kill that animal, especially if that animal that's harassing the spider raises its young and teaches. Because then if it survives the bite and goes off right, those spiders stay away from them. The young will learn that, too, and never even harass the spiders in the first place.


So everything was progressing as you'd expect based on evolutionary theory until the mammals arrived. But that still doesn't get us to the answer of why the current toxin is still so deadly to humans.


Yeah, so the reason why the venom hurts mammals in general so much is the concept that the venom around one hundred and fifty million years ago started being used primarily by wandering males that were in search of females to keep the mammals that were on the landscape from bothering them and therefore it was being used defensively. Mammals didn't have much of a reason to develop resistance to the bite because it wasn't killing any of them at the time. And then sixty five thousand years ago, suddenly people arrive in Australia and the funnel web spiders meet primates for the first time.


So there was no coevolution. And sixty five thousand years is not very long for the venom to start shifting from being deadly to primates to being just painful.


And so really, it's extraordinarily unlucky that the biochemistry of this very painful venom that keeps mammals off the spiders back is so utterly lethal to people. It is truly an evolutionary accident, but it is no accident that it hurts a lot but doesn't kill the rest of the mammal family tree. Matt, thank you very much for joining us, Jason. It's been my pleasure.


That's all for this episode of the intelligence, if you like us, give us a reading on other podcasts and see you back here tomorrow.