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

Publication Date

August 29, 2020

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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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January 19, 2021 8:34 AM

Internet privacy in Brazil: An example of already weakened state of Democracy

Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro’s ascent to power attracted international attention for their potential impact on human rights. His highly controversial positions on Brazil’s past military dictatorship, civil rights and his greater support for conservative agenda is very likely to jeopardize freedom of expression and the nation’s fragile democracy. Bolsonaro’s ascent to power has not been welcomed by people around the globe.  His blind eye towards democracy has created a human rights crisis in Brazil. In 2017, violence reached a new record in the books of Brazil with an estimated 64,000 killings. More than 1.2 million cases of domestic violence were pending in the courts at the start of 2018. About 5,144 people were killed due to police brutality in 2017 and weakening state control of prisons has facilitated gang recruitments. Brazil has lost over 100,000 people to COVID-19, the pandemic which Bolsonaro strongly repudiated as a conspiracy. The president’s desperate authoritarian attempts to forcibly seize control has pushed the nation into a political crisis inter alia free fall of the economy, a pandemic, a human rights crisis and a democratic recession. “This is the worst crisis Brazil has faced in its history. It’s a political crisis, an economic crisis, and a public health crisis. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I can’t think of another moment when the country was in worse shape than it is right now.” These are the exact words of Professor James Green, a Brazilian studies teacher at Brown University, a man who has lived through the military dictatorship in Brazil which lasted from 1964 to 1985.

Amidst these crises, Bolsonaro has periled the integrity and autonomy of Brazil’s most vital democratic institutions. In May 2020, the scandalous president even contemplated ramping up the military to shut down Brazil’s Supreme Court as they continued investigations into his network of advisors and his family. The anti-terrorism bills pushed in the senate after the ascent of Bolsonaro is another key example of endangerment to democracy. The vague and broad definitions of terrorism in the bill potentially criminalizes protests and even basic social movements. These are inconsistent with the standard of precision that Brazilian criminal law maintains. The capricious characterization of a “terrorist act” leaves the door open to subjective and arbitrary decisions which is not new to the nation.

The anti-terrorism bill says that it is “terrorist act” to interfere or tamper computer systems or databases with any political or ideological motivation even without a malicious intent. This would jeopardize the work of several security researchers and journalists in Brazil. Unfortunately, they are not alone.

On 30th June 2020, the Senate of brazil passed the PLS 2630/2020   (Law of Freedom, Liability, and Transparency on the Internet) popularly known as the fake-news law. Fake news has definitely been a problem all over the world. 17 states have passed some form of regulation directing disinformation during the pandemic. The term “fake-news” has been engraved in the global political discourse in the last half decade. With the decline in global levels of press freedom, the domino effect of so-called “fake-news laws” is attracting some serious risks to press freedom and freedom of expression. It is certain that Bolsonaro took advantage of the pandemic situation and passed the fake-news law with the excuse of COVID-19 misinformation. There are several underlying concerns and apprehensions about this law.

  1. Traceability requirements for private messaging services like WhatsApp and Signal would require the apps to store the logs and records of “broadcasted messages” which implies all the messages sent by over 5 users which reaches at least 1000 people within the span of three months. Messaging service companies are required to report most of the information to the government of Brazil hence creating a centralized log of data interactions. This breaks the end-to-end encryption service provided to the users by some of the messaging apps. If companies do not oblige to weaken the technical protection given to the users of Brazil, the bill forces them to leave the country.
    This imposition of “tech mandate” was condemned by Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) as they called it out for weakening privacy protection. Attached to this is a “technical capability derivative”, whether or not platforms will be able to trace back individual messages.
  1. Article 37 of the law mandates all the private messaging and social networking apps having a customer base in Brazil to appoint a legal representative who will have the power to remotely access user logs and databases. This pseudo attempt to localize the measures not just gives rise to privacy concerns but also questions if the Brazilian Senate has undermined United States’ laws such as Electronic Communication Privacy Act and CLOUD Act. Both of these laws mandate US-based social networking service providers to follow and check certain legal safeguard before handing the private data to any foreign law enforcement agents.
  1. If any social media account is reported to be inauthentic or automated, the online platform would have to confirm the identity of the user and verify the identity with any government ID in Brazil or a passport for a foreigner. The government can also demand confirmation of identity for any account through the means of a court order. This provision broadly attacks anonymity and privacy of users online and ignores its benefits on the internet such as whistle blowing and protection from stalkers.
  1. This law also makes it illegal to create or share any content online which may pose a risk to” economic order or social peace” in Brazil. Both of these terms are vaguely defined and even vaguely present. This opens gates to a wide range of content creators to be called out as “illegal”. The law also criminalizes intentionally being a member of an online group whose main activity is sharing defamatory content. This includes all meme groups which primarily share memes about anyone in an authoritative position in Brazil. This definitely puts a subjective cap and poses significant challenges to the freedom of expression and restricts basic ability of Brazilians to engage in discourse on online platforms.

The fake-news law makes social media companies legally liable for content published online on their platforms which acts as an incentive to them to restrict the freedom of speech of Brazilians at the time of any social or political unrest or even times like the present. While Brazil faces a real problem of fake news, this hastily written statute is not the right solution. At the time of a pandemic, when most of the world is functioning on a virtual sphere, the reckless fake-news law has added weight onto the fragile thread holding Brazil’s democracy. Jair Bolsonaro has managed to push democracy to a breaking point even without the drastic steps that he earlier contemplated.

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