San Escobar, a Masterclass in Accidental Nation-Building

A minister misspeaks - and accidentally creates an entire Latin American country

San Escobar, a Masterclass in Accidental Nation-Building

Fake news is so yesterday. The future belongs to entirely fake nations. Like San Escobar, created in January this year by a slip of the tongue of the Polish foreign minister. Despite being wholly fictional, the tiny Caribbean country soon boasted many of the trappings of actual statehood: a flag, an anthem, a map, a Wikipedia entry, a Facebook page and of course a Twitter account.

Rewind to Tuesday, January 10. Poland's foreign minister is in New York to drum up support for his country's bid for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council in 2018-'19. And it's going well, Witold Waszczykowski tells the assembled Polish press corps: “I have had meetings with officials from more than 20 countries, including some Caribbean nations with which we have never had bilateral diplomatic contact before. Countries like Belize, and San Escobar”. 

The Belizeans must have been delighted that their diminutive, obscure nation was name-checked by the minister. But the San Escobarians can't have been: that country simply does not exist. Poland's internet community picked up quickly on the gaffe, and directed howls of derision at Waszczykowski. A foreign ministry spokesperson tried to limit the damage by hastily explaining that the minister, tired after a 22-hour flight, had simply misspoken: he was actually referring to St Kitts and Nevis, a two-island Caribbean state known in Spanish as San Cristóbal y Nieves.

To no avail: it was too late. By the end of the week, San Escobar was a many-splendoured reality, albeit an entirely virtual one, and one whose main raison d'être seemed to be to mock the minister and his right-wing government. Witold Waszczykowski had inadvertently created one of the new year's first major internet memes.

Almost immediately, a Twitter account popped up for the República Popular Democrática de San Escobar (handle: @rpdsanescobar; hashtag: #SanEscobar). In a weird twist on the trope of the self-fulfilling prophecy, one of the account's first tweets was to offer San Escobar's full support for Poland's Security Council ambitions. Fleshing out fledgling country's bilateral relations with Poland (to say nothing of reality in general), the non-existent republic's official Twitter account further informed the world that:

  • LOT Polish Airlines would soon introduce daily flights between Warsaw and San Escobar in a codeshare with that country's national carrier, Escobariana de Aviación.
  • San Escobar's counter-intelligence services were verifying reports of St. Kitts & Nevis interfering with its relations with Poland.
  • Tomato exports rose by 23% in 2016.
  • Poles would be able to travel to San Escobar visa-free.
  • Parliament had declared the Frente Comunista de San Escobar an illegal terrorist organization (the San Escobarian communists have a Facebook page that rivals the 'official' one).
  • Responding to articles in the British press calling San Escobar “non-existent”, the government had urged the EU to force a 'hard Brexit' for the UK.
  • Within a day, #SanEscobar was tracked by over 2 million Twitter users. The account itself soon had thousands of followers.

    San Escobar also boasted a Wikipedia entry, showing the coat of arms and flag for the Caribbean nation. According to the article, San Escobar has an area of 459 km2 and a population of about 360,000 San Escobarians. Its president is Nemo Incognito, and the capital is Vinatusca, also known as Santo Subito (a play on words, as it refers to the cries from the Italian faithful after the death of the Polish pope John Paul II – santo subito: '(make him a) saint now').

    A map of San Escobar, previously shown on the Wikipedia page, seems to have disappeared (but retrieved from this PRI article). As it shows, San Escobar is bounded to the east by the ocean, and has land borders with five non-specified neighbours. On the coast north from the capital is Ciudad Polaca, literally 'Polish city'. Few cities dot the interior: SenderosDos RiosAsboledaFrontera and Al Pacino. 

    The San Escobar Facebook page features a load of touristy pictures and information on the country – much of which is a more or less indirect dig at the Polish government, such as the news that the citizens of San Escobar had erected a giants statue of Waszczykowski for his efforts to place their country on the map.

    The Facebook page has over 100,000 followers, and you can even order San Escobar t-shirts. YouTube features the country's national anthem. And so on and on.

    Why has the San Escobar meme proved such a runaway success? Because it allows the many Poles who abhor the increasingly authoritarian tilt of their right-wing government to poke fun at its pretentions of international respectability. Also because the inadvertent naming of the nation might be an indication of the minister's viewing habits: Narcos, the Netflix series based on the life of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, is very popular in Poland. But San Escobar also plays into an outdated, but persistently popular stereotype of Latin America as a continent composed of interchangeable banana republics, all equally comical in their pompous backwardness. To name just a few other fictional San-Something states:

  • San Lorenzo, the tiny Caribbean island nation from Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle.
  • San Pedro, the South American country in the Sherlock Holmes short story The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge.
  • San Theodoros, the South American nation in several Tintin comics.
  • San Marcos, the Latin American republic in Woody Allen's Bananas.
  • San Seriffe, the April-fools gag perpetrated upon the readers of the Guardian in 1977 (and discussed earlier on this blog at #318).
  • So, will the San Escobar craze flame out and die off? Perhaps. But, as the tweet below suggests, it is also possible that San Escobar will morph into an anti-government platform (anti Polish government, to be clear), in which case it might have some life in it yet.

    Update - many thanks to Andrzej Jaroszkiewicz for sending in the most recent, much more detailed map of San Escobar. Original context here at the Polish newspaper Polytika.

    Many thanks to Robert Capiot for sending in this article in Die Welt on San Escobar - featuring a very Julian Assange-esque picture of the Polish foreign minister. 

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    It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

    This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

    If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

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    The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

    The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

    The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

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    Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

    For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

    A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

    Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

    "In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

    H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

    H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

    Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

    Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

    If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

    "Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

    One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

    The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

    And, potentially, people.

    "This work should never have been done"

    The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

    "When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

    In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

    Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

    But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

    The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

    As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

    Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

    Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

    "You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

    The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

    There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

    "Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

    While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

    Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

    They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

    Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

    And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

    "Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

    The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

    There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

    "The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

    No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

    "Nature will continue to do this"

    They were dead on the beaches.

    In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

    The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

    "We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

    Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

    "If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

    "With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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