Saturday, August 29, 2020

Asian countries & the race for COVID-19 Vaccine

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Charvi Trivedi

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Asian countries & the race for COVID-19 Vaccine

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Global Views 360

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August 29, 2020

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Representative image of Vaccine

Representative image of Vaccine | Source: Dimitri Houtteman via Unsplash

Our relationship with the new strain of coronavirus is almost 8 months strong now. Countries like the US, Russia, UK, China, India, and many more have already set their brainy scientists in the task of developing a vaccine, turning it into a race which desperately needs a winner, since no one wants this deadly relationship to endure. Several attempts have proved to be successful, especially in countries like Russia, USA, India, and China.

China was the first to start scouring for a vaccine the day WHO declared that the new strain of SARS-CoV, originating in Wuhan-China, has resulted in a pandemic. It is a fierce competitor, especially to the US, as almost 8 of the 24 promising vaccines approved for clinical trials are from China. It used the technology of ‘inactivated vaccine’ which basically means killing the actual virus and using that to create a vaccine. This method is quite useful in treating measles and influenza, thus, increasing the chances of success in the case of COVID-19 as well.

“It’s a tried and true strategy”, Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said  about the inactivated vaccine. One potential vaccine from China-based Sinopharm is already in the phase 3 of trials whereas Sinovac will enter the third phase this month. Moreover, China has permitted Sinovac and Sinopharm to dilute phase 1 and 2 of vaccine trials on humans to hasten the process.

The head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, had also been injected with a potential vaccine on July 28, 2020. “I’m going to reveal something undercover: I am injected with one of the vaccines'' Gao Fu said in a webinar hosted by Alibaba Health, an arm of the Chinese e-commerce giant, and Cell Press, an American publisher of scientific journals. However, he did not reveal any more details about how and when exactly he administered himself with the vaccine and ‘hopes’ that the vaccine works.

Vladimir Putin, President of Russia | Source: Wikimedia

Elsewhere in Russia, on August 11, 2020, President Vladimir Putin proudly announced that Russia was the first country to grant regulatory approval to their vaccine after carrying out human trials for less than 2 months by the Gamalei Institute in Moscow. Regulatory approval permits vaccination of the masses. Although it has not undergone phase 3 of trials, Russia expects to initiate mass production of the vaccine by the end of this year. Kirill Dmitriev, head of Russia's sovereign wealth fund states that the vaccine will be called ‘Sputnik V’, named after Sputnik 1, the first satellite launched by Soveit Union which was a euphoric moment for Russia. More recently, China and Russia have joined hands in proceeding with the clinical trials of their vaccines.

These two instances seem to bring a new hope for the future, yet raise alarms and invite scepticism from the experts in the field of public health. One major concern is that without prolonged trials, vaccines should not be authorized for public use. Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert based in the US said “I do hope the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing the vaccines before they are administering the vaccine to anyone. Because claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing is problematic at the very least”. Hence, some people are still in doubt regarding the safety of the product. Putin, however, rubbished such concerns and said "I know that it works quite effectively, forms strong immunity, and I repeat, it has passed all the needed checks".

An Indian biotechnological company, Bharat Biotech developed ‘Covaxin’ in collaboration with Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), using the mechanism of inactivated vaccine. It was successful in getting approval for human trials which were scheduled to begin in July, 2020. Initial reports stated that it would be ready for mass use by August 15, 2020, which also marked the 73rd Independence Day of India. However, Bharat biotech was clear in letting the public know that phase 1 of the trials are still on-going. ICMR cleared the confusion by stating that it would prepare the results of the phase 1 trials by August 15, 2020, not the actual vaccine for use. Phase 2 of the trials are awaited in September, 2020.

So far, the results of phase 1 trials have been positive as no serious side-effects are observed in the vaccine candidates. “The vaccine has been safe. No adverse effect has been reported. Even the point of injection pain, which is normal in vaccines, has been very mild” said Dr Kushwaha of Prakhar Hospital.

Meanwhile, the South Korean government stated on August 21, 2020, that it will secure adequate vaccine supply to its citizens by cooperating with international bodies and promoting local drug development. Three South Korean companies have started the process of making a vaccine and all are in the clinical trial phase. Bill Gates asserts that the South Korean pharmaceutical company, SK Bioscience, will have around 200 million vaccine doses ready by June 2021.

Japan is jointly collaborating with the UK, France and other European countries to establish a $20 billion fund to buy coronavirus vaccines, with Japan pledging a contribution of $800 million. It’s vaccine program aims to focus on giving primary attention to its medical workers and the elderly people of the country when the first doses of the vaccine are made. The state-funded vaccination program is believed to be officially adopted by Japan in September this year with negotiations with the UK and US based drug makers already in place.

With the race to bring COVID-19 vaccine seemingly coming to a close and it will hopefully be ready by the end of 2020 or early 2021. Till then, the entire world is watching this race with bated breath.

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April 13, 2021 2:10 PM

Detecting The Ultra-High Energy Cosmic Rays With Smartphones

Smartphones have become the most commonplace objects in our daily lives. The unimaginable power that we hold in our hands is unrealized by most of us and, more importantly, untapped. Its creativity often gets misused but one can only hope that it’s fascinating abilities would be utilized. For example, did you know that the millions of phones around the globe can be connected to form a particle detector? The following article covers the CRAYFIS (Cosmic RAYs Found in Smartphones) phone-based application developed by the physicists from the University of California—Daniel Whiteson, Michael Mulhearn, and their team. CRAYFIS aims to take advantage of the large network of smartphones around the world and detect the cosmic or gamma rays bursts which enter the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly.

What Are Cosmic Rays?

Cosmic rays are high velocity subatomic particles bombarding the Earth’s upper atmosphere continuously. Cosmic ray bursts have the highest energy compared to all forms of electro-magnetic radiation. When we say ultra-high energy particles (energy more than 1018^eV), we mean two million times more energetic than the ones that can be produced by the particle colliders on Earth.  These rays are thought to be more powerful than typical supernovae and can release trillions of times more energy than the Sun. They are also highly unpredictable as they can enter Earth’s atmosphere from any direction and the bursts can last for any period of time ranging from a few thousand seconds to several minutes.

Despite many theoretical hypotheses, the sources of these ultra-high energy cosmic rays are still a mystery to us even after many decades of their discovery. These rays were initially discovered in the 1960’s by the U.S. military when they were doing background checks for gamma rays after nuclear weapon testing. Cosmologists suggest that these bursts could be the result of super massive stars collapsing - leading to hypernova; or can be retraced to collisions of black holes with other black holes or neutron stars.

How Do We Detect Them?

When the high-energy particles collide with the Earth’s atmosphere, the air and the gas molecules cause them to break apart and create massive showers of relatively low-energy particles. Aurora borealis i.e., the Northern and the Southern lights are the lights that are emitted when these cosmic rays interact with the Earth’s magnetic field. Currently, these particles are hitting the Earth at a rate of about one per square meter per second. The showers get scattered to a radius of one or two kilometers consisting mostly of high-energy photons, electrons, positrons and muons. But the fact that these particles can hit the Earth anytime and anywhere is where the problem arises. Since the Earth has a massive area, it is not possible to place a detector everywhere and catch them at the exact moment.

Energetic charged particles known as cosmic rays hit our atmosphere, where they collide with air molecules to produce a shower of secondary particle | Source: CERN

Detecting such a shower requires a very big telescope, which logically means a network of individual particle detectors distributed over a mile or two-wide radius and connected to each other. The Pierre Auger Observatory in South America is the only such arrangement where 1,600 particle detectors have been scattered on 3,000 square kilometers of land. But the construction cost of the same was about $100 million. Yet, only a few cosmic ray particles could be detected using this arrangement. How do we spread this network around the Earth?

In addition to being cost-effective, such a setup must also be feasible. The Earth’s surface cannot possibly be dotted with particle detectors which cost huge fortunes. This is where smartphones come into the picture.

Detecting The Particles Using Smartphones

Smartphones are the most appropriate devices required to solve the problem. They have planet wide coverage, are affordable by most people and are being actively used by more than 1.5 billion users around the planet. Individually, these devices are low and inefficient; but a considerably dense network of such devices can give us a chance to detect cosmic ray showers belonging to the highest energy range.

Previous research has shown that smartphones have the capability of detecting ionizing radiation. The camera is the most sensitive part of the smartphone and is just the device required to meet our expectations. A CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) device is present in the camera- in which silicon photodiode pixels produce electron-hole pairs when struck by visible photons (when photons are detected by the CMOS device, it leaves traces of weakly activated pixels). The incoming rays are also laced with other noises and interference from the surroundings.  Although these devices are made to detect visible light, they still have the capability of detecting higher-energy photons and also low-ionizing particles such as the muons.

A screenshot from the app which shows the exposure time, the events- the number of particles recorded and other properties

To avoid normal light, the CRAYFIS application is to be run during nighttime with the camera facing down. As the phone processor runs the application it collects data from its surroundings using a camera as its detector element. The megapixel images (i.e., the incoming particles) are scanned at a speed of 5 to 15 frames per second, depending on the frame-processing speed of the device. Scientists expect that signals from the cosmic rays would occur rarely, i.e., around one in 500 frames. Also, there is the job of removing background data. An algorithm was created to tune the incoming particle shower by setting a threshold frequency at around 0.1 frames per second. Frames containing pixels above the threshold are stored and passed to the second stage which examines the stored frames, saving only the pixels above a second, lower threshold.

The CRAYFIS app is designed to run when the phone is not being used and when it is connected to a power source. The actual performance would be widely affected by the geometry of the smartphone’s camera and the conditions in which the data is being collected. Further, once the application is installed and is in the operating mode, no participation is required from the user, which is required to achieve wide-scale participation. When a Wifi connection is available the collected data would be uploaded to the central server so that it could be interpreted.

There is much complicated math used to trace back the information collected from the application. The most important parameters for the app are the local density of incoming particles, the detection area of the phone and the particle identification efficiency. These parameters are used to find the mean number of candidates (photons or muons) being detected. Further, the probability that a phone will detect no candidates or the probability that a phone will detect one or more candidates is given by Poisson distribution. The density of the shower is directly proportional to the incident particle energy with a distribution in x and y sensitive to the direction in which the particle came from. An Unbinned Likelihood (it is the probability of obtaining a certain data- in this case the distribution of the cosmic rays including their energy and direction, the obtained data is arranged into bins which are very, very small) analysis is used to determine the incident particle energy and direction. To eliminate background interference, a benchmark requirement has been set that at least 5 phones must detect and register a hit to be considered as a candidate.

It is impossible to express just how mind-blowing this innovation is. As the days pass, Science and Technology around us keep on surprising us and challenge us to rack our brains for more and more unique ways to deal with complex problems. The CRAYFIS app is simply beautiful and it would be a dream-come-true to the scientists if the project works out and we are able to detect these high energy, super intimidating cosmic rays with smartphones from our backyard.

Further Reading

The paper by Daniel Whiteson and team can be found here.

An exciting book “We Have No Idea” by Daniel Whiteson and cartoonist Jorge Cham can be found here.

The CRAYFIS app can be found here.

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