All posts by Daniel Davies

Chelsea Manning: Obama rights a wrong before leaving office

With only days to remaining on his second term, President Obama has agreed to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who will now be released from prison on 17 May 2017.

Manning entered military custody in 2010, and was set to serve a 35 year sentence for passing more than 700,000 classified documents and videos to Wikileaks.

“Chelsea deserves her freedom, and the world’s respect, for her courageous, inspiring actions in 2010. Chelsea’s releases through WikiLeaks helped bring an end to the US war on Iraq, galvanised Arab Spring protesters and inspired subsequent truthtellers,” said Sarah Harrison, acting director of the Courage Foundation, a legal defence group that’s backed Manning.

“Chelsea should also be admired for the way she has drawn international attention to battles for transgender rights and against prison abuse, in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable.”

Manning’s original sentence of 35 years was the longest ever attached to her crime, and her experiences in detention included having to endure torturous solitary confinement, which included being locked up alone for 23 hours a day over an 11-month period.

Since Manning’s incarceration in 2010, she revealed that she identifies as a woman (Manning had previously been known as Bradley Manning), however her gender dysphoria went unacknowledged, and Manning remained in an all-male facility.

In the past year Manning attempted suicide twice, but rather than provide psychological care, the Army responded to Chelsea’s attempt by punishing her with a week in solitary confinement.

“Obama may well have just saved Chelsea Manning’s life. Freeing her is clearly and unambiguously the right thing to do, and not just for the obvious humanitarian reasons, though those are absolutely compelling,” said Harrison.

Manning’s release has been celebrated by fellow whisteblower Edward Snowden, who tweeted his thanks to President Obama, and by Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, whose site reposted a statement from the first day of Manning’s trial, which Assange claimed was “show trial” where “the verdict was ordained long ago.”

A week ago, Wikileaks also tweeted, “If Obama grants Manning clemency Assange will agree to US extradition despite clear unconstitutionality of DoJ case.”

However, it is unclear at this point whether Assange will stand by this commitment.

Viruses like HIV may have followed us from the sea to the land

New research has suggested the family of viruses that includes HIV survived the evolutionary transition from sea to land, which would make them several hundred million years older than previously thought.

The study by scientists at Oxford University found that retroviruses – including the HIV virus responsible for the AIDS pandemic – are almost half a billion years old. But until recently, it was thought that retroviruses were only 100 million years in age.

“Our new research shows that retroviruses are at least 450 million years old, if not older, and that they must have originated together with, if not before, their vertebrate hosts in the early Paleozoic era,” says study author Dr Aris Katzourakis, from Oxford University’s Department of Zoology.

“Furthermore, they would have been present in our vertebrate ancestors prior to the colonisation of land and have accompanied their hosts throughout this transition from sea to land, all the way up until the present day.”

Image courtesy of Oxford University

In order to date retroviruses, the researchers overcame one of the key limitations in studying the deep evolutionary history of viruses: their rapid evolution.

To combat this, a new model was used that allowed for the reconstruction of the viruses’ distant past in addition to their recent history.

Using this model, the researchers were able to speculate on the present-day activity of retroviruses as well as the adaptations that have been developed to combat them.

“Our inferred date of the origins of retroviruses coincides with the origins of adaptive immunity, and thus it is likely that retroviruses have played an important role in the emergence of this key tool in vertebrate antiviral defence,” says Katzourakis.

The Oxford scientists’ next step will be to consider the adaptations that vertebrates have developed to combat viruses and the corresponding viral countermeasures, as well as discerning viruses like HIV’s exact origin.

“As we understand the nature of the interaction between viruses and host immunity, we will be better placed to intervene in this delicately balanced arms race in order to develop novel treatments and interventions,” says Katzourakis.

“And as we build a clearer picture of the origins of the diverse groups of viruses that infect us today, we should come closer to unravelling the mystery of their ultimate origins.”

The paper ‘Marine origin of retroviruses in the early Palaeozoic Era’ is published in Nature Communications.