West raises concern over Russia's race for coronavirus vaccine

Agencies
August 7, 2020

Russia boasts that it's about to become the first country to approve a Covid-19 vaccine, with mass vaccinations planned as early as October using shots that are yet to complete clinical trials -- and scientists worldwide are sounding the alarm that the headlong rush could backfire.

Moscow sees a Sputnik-like propaganda victory, recalling the Soviet Union's launch of the world's first satellite in 1957.

But the experimental Covid-19 shots began first-in-human testing on a few dozen people less than two months ago, and there's no published scientific evidence yet backing Russia's late entry to the global vaccine race, much less explaining why it should be considered a front-runner.

“I'm worried that Russia is cutting corners so that the vaccine that will come out may be not just ineffective, but also unsafe,” said Lawrence Gostin, a global public health law expert at Georgetown University. “It doesn't work that way... Trials come first. That's really important.”

According to Kirill Dmitriev, head of Russia's Direct Investment Fund that bankrolled the effort, a vaccine developed by the Gamaleya research institute in Moscow may be approved in days, before scientists complete what's called a Phase 3 study.

That final-stage study, usually involving tens of thousands of people, is the only way to prove if an experimental vaccine is safe and really works.

Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said members of “risk groups,” such as medical workers, may be offered the vaccine this month.

He didn't clarify whether they would be part of the Phase 3 study that is said to be completed after the vaccine receives “conditional approval.”

Deputy Prime Minister Tatyana Golikova promised to start “industrial production” in September, and Murashko said mass vaccination may begin as early as October.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease specialist, questioned the fast-track approach last week.

“I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing a vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone, because claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing I think is problematic at best," he said.

Questions about this vaccine candidate come after the US, Britain and Canada last month accused Russia of using hackers to steal vaccine research from Western labs.

Delivering a vaccine first is a matter of national prestige for the Kremlin as it tries to assert the image of Russia as a global power capable of competing with the US and China.

The notion of being “the first in the world” dominated state news coverage of the effort, with government officials praising reports of the first-step testing.

In April, President Vladimir Putin ordered state officials to shorten the time of clinical trials for a variety of drugs, including potential coronavirus vaccines.

According to Russia's Association of Clinical Trials Organizations, the order set “an unattainable bar” for scientists who, as a result, "joined in on the mad race, hoping to please those at power.”

The association first raised concern in late May, when professor Alexander Gintsburg, head of the Gamaleya institute, said he and other researchers tried the vaccine on themselves.

The move was a “crude violation of the very foundations of clinical research, Russian law and universally accepted international regulations" the group said in an open letter to the government, urging scientists and health officials to adhere to clinical research standards.

But a month later, the Health Ministry authorized clinical trials of the Gamaleya product, with what appeared to be another ethical issue.

Human studies started June 17 among 76 volunteers. Half were injected with a vaccine in liquid form and the other half with a vaccine that came as soluble powder.

Some in the first half were recruited from the military, which raised concerns that servicemen may have been pressured to participate.

Some experts said their desire to perform well would affect the findings. “It's no coincidence media reports we see about the trials among the military said no one had any side effects, while the (other group) reported some," said Vasily Vlassov, a public health expert with Moscow's Higher School of Economics.

As the trials were declared completed and looming regulatory approval was announced last week, questions arose about the vaccine's safety and effectiveness.

Government assurances the drug produced the desired immune response and caused no significant side effects were hardly convincing without published scientific data describing the findings.

The World Health Organization said all vaccine candidates should go through full stages of testing before being rolled out.

“There are established practices and there are guidelines out,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said Tuesday.

“Between finding or having a clue of maybe having a vaccine that works, and having gone through all the stages, is a big difference.”

Offering an unsafe compound to medical workers on the front lines of the outbreak could make things worse, Georgetown's Gostin said, adding: “What if the vaccine started killing them or making them very ill?”

Vaccines that are not properly tested can cause harm in many ways — from a negative impact on health to creating a false sense of security or undermining trust in vaccinations, said Thomas Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

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Agencies
September 15,2020

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Washington, Sept 15: Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has said India's willingness to play a "big role" in manufacturing Covid-19 vaccine and allow it to supply to other developing countries will be a critical part in containing the coronavirus pandemic globally.

In an exclusive interview to PTI, Gates, whose foundation is focusing on fighting the pandemic, called it the "next biggest thing" the world has been confronted with after the World War.

The Microsoft co-founder said the world is looking to India for large scale production of Covid-19 vaccine once it is rolled out.

"Obviously, all of us want to get a vaccine out in India as fast as we can, once we know that it's very effective and very safe, and so the plans are coming into focus that sometime next year, it's very likely that roll-out will take place and take place in fairly big volume," he said.

"The world is also looking to India for some of that capacity to be available to other developing countries. Exactly what that allocation formula looks like will have to be figured out," Gates added.

Scientists and pharmaceutical companies globally are racing against time to find a vaccine for the coronavirus pandemic which has killed about 9,32,000 people and infected around 24 million. Some of the vaccine candidates have entered the third and final phase of testing.

"This is not like a world war, but it's the next biggest thing after that that we've ever had," he said.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world's largest charities, has been involved in global efforts to contain the pandemic. In India, the foundation has entered into a partnership with the Serum Institute to accelerate the manufacturing and delivery of Covid-19 vaccines.

"India's willingness to play a big role in the manufacturing and to allow some of those vaccines to go to other developing countries will be an absolutely critical part of that," said Gates.

"India will be helping to make sure we have equity. We have a model that shows that getting the vaccine out to those who need it the most will save half the lives that you'd lose if you only send it out to the rich countries," he said.

In the telephonic interview, the Microsoft co-founder who has donated billions of dollars to fight poverty and diseases, talked extensively about India's strength in production of vaccines and referred to companies like Serum Institute, Bio E and Bharat Biotech.

"We've been brokering the idea of taking a vaccine and manufacturing it in India, even if it comes from AstraZeneca, Oxford or Novavax or Johnson & Johnson. We've publicly talked about the arrangement where a Serum will be able to make very high volume of the AstraZeneca and the Novavax vaccine," said Gates.

"There's discussions with Bio E, their connection with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and whether they'll be able to ramp that up," he said.

Gates also said that the foundation has been having "great discussions" with India's NITI-Aayog, adding the ICMR is looking at the regulatory aspects of the Covid-19 vaccines.

"I'm actually very impressed with how our discussions with the government on these issues and the companies, including the Western companies collaborating with these new companies, that's all gone very well," Gates said.

The American business magnate said he was optimistic that by the first quarter of next year, that several of these vaccines will reach the phase three emergency licence approval.

"We still could be disappointed in that. But we have a variety of constructs and the early data from the phase one and phase two, for example the antibody levels, looks pretty promising for quite a few of these vaccines," he said.

He said the focus should be to keep the cost of the vaccines low and it should be ensured that they can be made in very high volume.

"We have to remember that even once a vaccine is approved, the bar for that vaccine in terms of the effectiveness was set as 50 per cent, and so we still may want to continue with other vaccines to get higher effectiveness," he said.

Gates also complimented India's digital cash transfer scheme.

"Getting payments out through digital cash transfers, that has been a fantastic thing, and obviously, India has done that at a scale that no other country ever has," he said.

"The whole Aadhaar digital financial system in India has proven to be once again a huge asset," he said, adding it can be extended to all the countries of the world.

The philanthropist also referred to the foundation's annual Goalkeepers report saying it normally takes stock of the ongoing progress on things like economic growth, literacy, child survival and average lifespan.

"This year's report, unfortunately, we're unable to say that there's been progress. In fact, we talk about the setback, and one way we dimensionalise that for like vaccine coverage globally, which went from 84 per cent to 70 per cent, is we say that's a 25-year setback," he said.

Asked whether India's economic downturn will impact implementation of social welfare schemes, Gates said the foundation is a huge believer that investments in health pay off very strongly.

"It's tragic that all health activities have been so disrupted, and that will lead to increased deaths from other diseases, not just COVID," he said.

"In fact, in many places, and I'm not sure if India will be included in this, but there's a chance that there would be more deaths from other diseases because of the health disruption than from COVID itself," he said.

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News Network
September 24,2020

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A bottled-water and vaccine tycoon has become China's wealthiest person in a day also marked by massive losses among the world's tech elite.

Zhong Shanshan's net worth reached $58.7 billion on Wednesday, $2 billion more than Jack Ma's, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Zhong is now Asia's second-richest person, behind India's Mukesh Ambani, and is the 17th wealthiest in the world, ahead of Charles Koch and Phil Knight.

Nicknamed “Lone Wolf” for his eschewing of politics and clubby business groups, Zhong's fortune has jumped $51.9 billion in 2020, more than anyone else in the world except Amazon.com Inc.'s Jeff Bezos and Tesla Inc.'s Elon Musk. Both suffered heavy declines on Wednesday as tech stocks stumbled and Tesla plunged after its “Battery Day” event fell short of expectations. Musk's fortune dropped by almost $10 billion.

The initial public offering of bottled-water company Nongfu Spring Co. -- which turned out to be Hong Kong's most popular among retail investors -- propelled Zhong to China's top three richest earlier this month. That came after the April listing of vaccine maker Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise Co. pushed his net worth to $20 billion by early August.

Zhong now leads a wealth ranking in China that is typically dominated by people who made their fortunes from tech companies.

While Zhong has surpassed Ma as China's wealthiest, the tech tycoon might soon regain the top spot, which he's held for most of the past six years after Alibaba went public in the U.S. Ant Group's IPO next month is poised to boost his fortune, with his stake estimated at $28 billion if the company achieves the $250 billion valuation people familiar with the matter have said it's targeting.

Wednesday was brutal for U.S. tech stocks, which tumbled the most since earlier this month. The plunge in Musk's wealth was the biggest among the people on the Bloomberg ranking of the world's 500 richest, followed by Bezos, whose net worth dropped by $7.1 billion. Musk is now worth $93.2 billion and Bezos $178 billion. Zhong added almost $4 billion Wednesday, more than anyone else in the index.

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Agencies
September 15,2020

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Washington, Sept 15: Facebook has been accused of ignoring fake accounts undermining political affairs around the world, according to a memo by a former employee of the social networking giant shared with BuzzFeed News.

In the 6,600-word memo, former Facebook data scientist Sophie Zhang wrote that she found evidence of coordinated campaigns to boost or hinder political candidates or outcomes in India and other countries like Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

"I've found multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry, and caused international news on multiple occasions," she wrote in the memo, as reported by BuzzFeed News on Monday.

"I have personally made decisions that affected national presidents without oversight, and taken action to enforce against so many prominent politicians globally that I've lost count," according to the memo that details her her experiences of working with the social networking giant over the past two-and-a-half years.

Zhang said in the memo that in countries like Azerbaijan and Honduras, heads of government and political parties made use of fake accounts or misrepresented themselves to sway public opinion.

Giving an example of how slow Facebook was in acting against global political manipulation, she said that it took Facebook's leaders nine months to act on a coordinated campaign "that used thousands of inauthentic assets to boost President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras on a massive scale to mislead the Honduran people."

Her LinkedIn profile said she "worked as the data scientist for the Facebook Site Integrity fake engagement team" and dealt with "bots influencing elections and the like".

"I know that I have blood on my hands by now," Zhang wrote.

However, giving a reference to her work related to India, the memo detailed that she worked to remove "a politically-sophisticated network of more than a thousand actors working to influence" the Delhi Assembly election that took place in February.

Facebook did not reveal the detection of such a a network or that it had taken it down, according to the report.

"We've built specialized teams, working with leading experts, to stop bad actors from abusing our systems, resulting in the removal of more than 100 networks for coordinated inauthentic behavior," Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois was quoted as saying in a statement.

"It's highly involved work that these teams do as their full-time remit. Working against coordinated inauthentic behaviour is our priority, but we're also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue carefully, including those that Ms. Zhang raises, before we take action or go out and make claims publicly as a company."

These revelations come barely a month after a Wall Street Journal report on August 14 said that the top leadership at Facebook's India office refused to apply the company's own rules to politicians from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), despite clear violations of Facebook's policies against incitement to violence, hate speech, and misinformation.

Facebook India's public policy head Ankhi Das reportedly "told staff members that punishing violations by politicians from Mr. Modi's party would damage the company's business prospects in the country."

Following the report, the opposition Congress Party raised the issue of what it calls "unholy nexus" of the ruling BJP with Facebook and WhatsApp.

On August 18, the Congress Party wrote a letter to Facebook Inc expressing concern and asking them to acknowledge the issue and take corrective action. Congress had raised alarm over "interference in India's internal affairs by a foreign company".

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