Geopolitics

COVID-19, The Weight Of The Animal Factor

Meat and seafood stalls at the North Point Wet Market in Hong Kong.
Meat and seafood stalls at the North Point Wet Market in Hong Kong.

Preventing an epidemic like the coronavirus doesn't just require a robust human healthcare system, it also demands a full rethinking of our relationship with the animal kingdom. Just a few examples of what we need: a crackdown on the illicit "wet markets"" trade of exotic animals, where the virus may have originated; veterinary medicine needs to be taken more seriously; and the entire meat industry needs an overhaul to prevent the spread of diseases even more dangerous than COVID-19, which could happen sooner than we think.


Almost all infectious diseases are "zoonotic," meaning they were transmitted to humans from animals. The vectors of these viruses aren't necessarily victims of illegal commerce: While SARS was born in a wet market, mad cow disease came from infected livestock in perfectly legal UK farms. Today, the widespread use of antibiotics in the animal agriculture industry to fatten up livestock and prevent the spread of diseases in factory farms has created a serious risk of bacteria evolving to resist antibiotics.


Three researchers and activists recently lamented this scary state of affairs in The Guardian: "Oddly, many people who would never challenge the reality of climate change refuse to acknowledge the role meat-eating plays in endangering public health. Eating meat, it seems, is a socially acceptable form of science denial."


In the meantime, what can be done for this outbreak? A good starting point would be recognizing the importance of animal health. The momentum is already starting, as more than 100 animal rights groups, politicians, scientists and celebrities recently came together to publish a call in the French daily Journal Du Dimanche for animal protection laws to be included in France's economic recovery plan.


Another smart move would be to elevate the work of veterinarians, who were already very familiar with strains of coronavirus, according to a report by Le Figaro. As one veterinarian argued in the French edition of The Conversation, "Let's highlight that major medical advances come from the veterinary world," citing major discoveries by veterinarian researchers in embryo transfer and immunology that changed the human medical world.


One of the latest breakthroughs is research released last week in veterinary medicine at the University of Mississippi that provides four potential treatments for COVID-19 Paying attention to these animal whisperers will lead to a more holistic, humane and healthier future for the entire animal kingdom — homo sapiens included.


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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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