Tag: coronavirus

Public health and private profits under COVID-19 pandemic

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The pandemic might be devastating countries, the people and their livelihoods, but is good for some companies and their stockholders, like the ones that hold patents for N95 masks, lifesaving medicines or vaccines.

By Prabir Purkayastha

MELBOURNE, 25 April 2020: During an interview with Jonas Salk, the creator of the polio vaccine, CBS newsman Edward R. Morrow asked who owned the patent for the vaccine. “Well, the people, I would say,” said Salk, adding, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” This is what drives science and scientists like Salk, that science must be for public good and not the private profit of companies.

While public domain science – universities or public research institutions – create the key components of knowledge for most medicines or vaccines, it is appropriated by private companies, and governed by the World Trade Organization’s patents’ regime. The global stock market may have completely tanked in the last few months, but Gilead Sciences, the holder of the patent on the drug Remdesivir, currently in clinical trials against COVID-19, has seen its share price rise by a whopping 25% in the same period.

Pandemics might be devastating countries, the people and their livelihoods, but are good for some companies and their stockholders. Riding the pale horse of Apocalypse are companies that hold patents for N95 masks, lifesaving medicines or vaccines.

I am not going to get into the debate of many people are likely to get sick, and how sick they are going to be. The simple answer, with the global numbers already nearing 200,000, is that the COVID-19 fatalities are likely to be in millions. As Harry Kennard from Financial Times shows us with UK data, the death rates are far higher for this current period than any flu epidemic we have seen in the past except the 1918 flu pandemic.

The world has forgotten what a pandemic looks like, as the plague and the 1918 kind of virulent flu epidemics have not been repeated for almost a century. Now that we confront the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we realise humanity is only one genetic mutation away from a new pandemic. Medicines and vaccines against viruses and bacteria are not just for the poorer countries, but also crucial for countries who thought they had left this history behind them.

There are three broad areas that are critical in our battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. They are personal protective equipment (PPE), critically the N95 masks, the drugs that are currently being tested against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the vaccines that will probably take another 12 months before they are available for the general public.

I will start with N95 respirators or masks that the frontline health workers – from doctors, nurses and other health staff – have to use to protect themselves. It is the lack of N95 masks and other protective equipment that have seen infections among the hospital staff, with hospitals themselves becoming hot spots for spreading the infections. In Delhi, we had the Delhi Cancer Hospital shut down for two weeks as 27 of its staff members tested positive from the virus. In Italy, 20% of the healthcare workers in Lombardy became infected due to shortage of protective equipment.

So, who are the world’s largest manufacturers of N95 masks? Eight of the top ten global manufacturers of N95 masks are US companies, with 3M and Honeywell topping the list. 3M holds a number of patents – by one account 400 such patents – on the N95 respirator. Again, its share price is doing comparatively well even under the current stock market meltdown. We are already aware of the importance of N95 masks with stories of shipments being hijacked by the US even from the tarmac, and Trump threatening 3M with dire consequences under Korean War-era Defense Production Act. 3M was also asked to stop exports to US allies Canada and in Latin America, and ship to the US on a priority basis masks produced in 3M factories abroad.

While protective equipment is critical for the hospital staff, for the bulk of the people the question is do we have medicine that can cure us if we fall sick?

The short answer is currently we do not have any, and will not be able to develop a medicine tailor-made for this disease in a short period. What we are doing instead, is to look for medicines – re–purposing existing medicines – that are likely to have some effect on the virus. We are currently testing our entire kitty of medicines to see if something works.

Apart from hydroxychloroquine that has made headlines, currently WHO’s Solidarity clinical trials are testing a set of anti–virals to see whether they would provide some relief in helping the body to fight the virus. The sets of medicines being tested are: a) Remdesivir b) Chloroquine or Hydroxychloroquine c) Lopinavir with Ritonavir d) Lopinavir with Ritonavir plus Interferon beta-1a.

All these medicines, except the old anti–malarial drugs chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine, are currently under patent protection. Remdesivir was originally developed against Ebola but did not work well and was moth-balled. It seems to have a better efficacy in COVID-19 cases, though the evidence for benefits are similar to the French trials that used a combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin. That means that none of them have yet been tested using the standard double blind trials for drug development.

What is important about all the other combinations being tested in WHO’s Solidarity clinical trials is that they are all under patent protection. If any of them works – except chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine – the patent holders will make a windfall.

The key battle over the Uruguay Round of Trade negotiations that gave birth to WTO and Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) was whether countries like India who had disallowed product patents for medicines, could continue to do so. Unfortunately, India and other developing countries lost that battle. In 1994, the TRIPS regime came into existence, with countries like India getting a moratorium of 10 years, after which they had to grant product patents.

Unlike AIDS, where India could act as a global supplier of AIDS drugs, can it still act as the global pharmacy for a new COVID-19 drug? For Remdesivir?

The short answer is that it is still possible to break the Gilead patent by compulsorily licensing it under a sovereign right that a country has during health emergencies. Fortunately, India has strong provisions for compulsory licensing that the Left was able to retain when the Patent Act was changed to conform to the TRIPS requirements. The Left held sufficient votes in the Parliament to force the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government to accept its demands. While the Glivec case, in which Novartis was denied a patent in India as it fell foul of Section 3 (d), the section against ever–greening of patents is better known, its compulsory licensing provisions can be particularly useful in the current context. This provision can be used against any patent holder by issuing a compulsory license to a domestic producer, while paying them some royalty. WTO allows, under pandemics, countries to issue compulsory licenses and even import such drugs from other countries. So, countries, faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, and who might lack domestic manufacturing capability, can import such drugs from countries like India.

In the past, whenever India has considered use of compulsory licensing for producing, for example, life saving cancer medicines, the US has threatened India with dire consequences under USTR 301 Provisions. In 2019, too, this was one of the key contentious issue as outlined by USTR, while putting India in the Priority Watch List.

A group of Brazilian lawmakers have introduced a bill asking the Bolsonaro government to compulsorily license medicines that might have efficacy against COVID-19. Whether Modi, who rushed hydroxychloroquine to the US under Trump’s threat, will be willing to consider such a move against the US remains to be seen.

Finally, the vaccine. While in the short run, we have lockdowns, physical distancing, contact tracing and quarantine as our temporary weapons for prevention, the only long term preventive strategy is a vaccine. Herd immunity is not from the entire population (or 70-80%) being infected by the virus, as UK PM Boris Johnson believed, but by widespread vaccination. No major infectious viral disease – small pox, polio or measles – has been eradicated or contained without a vaccine.

So, here is the problem with vaccines. The genome sequences are put in public domain by countries, the private companies use these sequences to develop the vaccines, and if successful, can fleece the people and countries. This is the battle over the flu vaccine, where countries’ health systems submit the flu genome that are going around in their countries to public flu databases, but receive no or little benefits for doing so.

The question is, who are in the race for a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2? According to WHO, there are five companies that have entered the phase 1 trials, and another 71 in various stages of development. While most of the vaccine development is either public funded or funded by philanthropic institutions, the patent holder are mostly companies.

So, will the COVID-19 vaccines also sell like the flu vaccine for $20 a shot? Bankrupting poorer countries to protect their people? Or will we follow what Salk said about the polio vaccine – that it belongs to the people? The US is clear: it belongs to companies even if publicly funded. And if we want to compulsorily license it using the pandemic exception of WTO–TRIPS rules, USTR 301 and Super 301 sanctions can be still used against India. And as we know from the history of US sanctions, it believes it that it has a right to sanction any country in the world, even if such sanctions violate international humanitarian law.

Source: Peoples Dispatch

WHO reports fivefold increase in cyber attacks, urges vigilance

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By SAT News Desk/WHO, Geneva

MELBOURNE, 26 APRIL 2020: Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, WHO has seen a dramatic increase in the number of cyberattacks directed at its staff, and email scams targeting the public at large.

This week, some 450 active WHO email addresses and passwords were leaked online along with thousands belonging to others working on the novel coronavirus response.

The leaked credentials did not put WHO systems at risk because the data was not recent. However, the attack did impact an older extranet system, used by the current and retired staff as well as partners.

WHO is now migrating affected systems to a more secure authentication system.

Scammers impersonating WHO in emails have also increasingly targeted the general public in order to channel donations to a fictitious fund and not the authentic COVID-19 Solidary Response Fund. The number of cyberattacks is now more than five times the number directed at the Organization in the same period last year.

“Ensuring the security of health information for the Member States and the privacy of users interacting with us a priority for WHO at all times, but also particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are grateful for the alerts we receive from the Member States and the private sector. We are all in this fight together,” said Bernardo Mariano, WHO’s Chief Information Officer.
WHO is working with the private sector to establish more robust internal systems and to strengthen security measures and is educating staff on cybersecurity risks.

WHO asks the public to remain vigilant against fraudulent emails and recommends the use of reliable sources to obtain factual information about COVID-19 and other health issues.

For more information, please visit: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

Global leaders unite to ensure everyone everywhere can access new vaccines, tests and treatments for COVID-19; US stays away from the initiative

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By SAT News Desk/ WHO Media

GENEVA, 24 April 2020 – Heads of state and global health leaders today made an unprecedented commitment to work together to accelerate the development and production of new vaccines, tests, and treatments for COVID-19 and assure equitable access worldwide. It was a global endorsement of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The United States, China, Russia, and India did not participate in the initiative.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already affected more than 2.4 million people, killing over 160,000. It is taking a huge toll on families, societies, health systems, and economies around the world, and for as long as this virus threatens any country, the entire world is at risk.

There is an urgent need, therefore, while following existing measures to keep people physically distanced and to test and track all contacts of people who test positive, for innovative COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments.

“We will only halt COVID-19 through solidarity,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “Countries, health partners, manufacturers, and the private sector must act together and ensure that the fruits of science and research can benefit everybody.”

Work has already started. Since January, WHO has been working with researchers from hundreds of institutions to develop and test vaccines, standardize assays, and standardize regulatory approaches on innovative trial designs and define criteria to prioritize vaccine candidates. The Organization has prequalified diagnostics that are being used all over the world, and more are in the pipeline. And it is coordinating a global trial to assess the safety and efficacy of four therapeutics against COVID-19.

The challenge is to speed up and harmonize processes to ensure that once products are deemed safe and effective, they can be brought to the billions of people in the world who need them. Past experience, in the early days of HIV treatment, for example, and in the deployment of vaccines against the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, shows that even when tools are available, they have not been equally available to all.

So today leaders came together at a virtual event, co-hosted by the World Health Organization, the President of France, the President of the European Commission, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The event was joined by the UN Secretary-General, the AU Commission Chairperson, the G20 President, heads of state of France, South Africa, Germany, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Italy, Rwanda, Norway, Spain, Malaysia and the UK (represented by the First Secretary of State).

Health leaders from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), GAVI-the Vaccine Alliance, the Global Fund, UNITAID, the Wellcome Trust, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (IFRC), the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers (IFPMA), the Developing Countries Vaccine Manufacturers’ Network (DCVMN), and the International Generic and Biosimilar Medicines Association (IGBA) committed to coming together, guided by a common vision of a planet protected from human suffering and the devastating social and economic consequences of COVID-19, to launch this groundbreaking collaboration. They are joined by two Special Envoys: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Gavi Board Chair, and Sir Andrew Witty, former CEO of GlaxoSmithKline.

They pledged to work towards equitable global access based on an unprecedented level of partnership. They agreed to create a strong unified voice, to build on past experience and to be accountable to the world, to communities, and to one another.

“Our shared commitment is to ensure all people have access to all the tools to prevent, detect, treat and defeat COVID-19,” said Dr. Tedros. “No country and no organization can do this alone. The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator brings together the combined power of several organizations to work with speed and scale.”

Health leaders called on the global community and political leaders to support this landmark collaboration and for donors to provide the necessary resources to accelerate the achievement of its objectives, capitalizing on the opportunity provided by a forthcoming pledging initiative that starts on 4 May 2020. This initiative, spearheaded by the European Union, aims to mobilize the significant resources needed to accelerate the work towards protecting the world from COVID-19.

How to counter stigmatizing attitudes in COVID-19 pandemic ?: WHO

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Image Credit @witchtropolis (UNICEF)

By SAT News Desk

MELBOURNE, 19 April: There have been instances of naming or blaming of this or that community relating to the COVID-19 pandemic in many countries. There is a lot of fake news and misinformation in the media and social media. The WHO says, “Since the emergence of COVID-19 we have seen instances of public stigmatization among specific populations, and the rise of harmful stereotypes. Stigmatization could potentially contribute to more severe health problems, ongoing transmission, and difficulties controlling infectious diseases during an epidemic.”

So how can one counter this rather tough situation? The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) ‘Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Report- 35′(released on 24 February 2020) details the possible stereotypes that can emerge and gives some examples and tips on possible actions to confront stigmatizing attitudes. Reproduced below is what the WHO said in the Situation Report-35:

SUBJECT IN FOCUS: Risk Communications to Address Stigma

Stigma occurs when people negatively associate an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, with a specific population.
In the case of COVID-19, there are an increasing number of reports of public stigmatization against people from
areas affected by the epidemic. Unfortunately, this means that people are being labelled, stereotyped, separated,
and/or experience loss of status and discrimination because of a potential negative affiliation with the disease.
Given that COVID-19 is a new disease, it is understandable that its emergence and spread cause confusion, anxiety
and fear among the general public. These factors can give rise to harmful stereotypes.
Stigma can:
• Drive people to hide the illness to avoid discrimination
• Prevent people from seeking health care immediately
• Discourage them from adopting healthy behaviours
Such barriers could potentially contribute to more severe health problems, ongoing transmission, and difficulties
controlling infectious diseases during an infectious disease outbreak. The International Federation of Red Cross and
Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), UNICEF and the WHO are developing community-based guides and global campaigns
to thwart the effects of stigma on people and the COVID-19 response.
Do your part. Governments, citizens, media, key influencers and communities have an important role to play in
preventing and stopping stigma. We all need to be intentional and thoughtful when communicating on social media
and other communication platforms, showing supportive behaviors around COVID-19.
Here are some examples and tips on possible actions to counter stigmatizing attitudes:
• Spreading the facts: Stigma can be heightened by insufficient knowledge about how the new coronavirus disease
(COVID-19) is transmitted and treated, and how to prevent infection.
• Engaging social influencers such as religious leaders on prompting reflection about people who are stigmatized
and how to support them, or respected celebrities to amplify messages that reduce stigma.
• Amplify the voices, stories and images of local people who have experienced COVID-19 and have recovered or
who have supported a loved one through recovery to emphasise that most people do recover from COVID-19.
• Make sure you portray different ethnic groups. Materials should show diverse communities that are being
affected, and show communities working together to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
• Balanced reporting. Media reporting should be balanced and contextualised, disseminating evidence-based
information and helping combat rumour and misinformation that could lead to stigmatisation.
• Link up. There are a number of initiatives to address stigma and stereotyping. It is key to link up to these
activities to create a movement and a positive environment that shows care and empathy for all.
For more information, visit EPI-WIN.com and download Social Stigma associated with COVID-19 – A guide to preventing and addressing social stigma.

CovidGyan: Pan-institutional India website on COVID-19 launched with information minus misinformation

By SAT News Desk

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MELBOURNE, 12 Apri 2020: The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. We have already crossed a million confirmed infections. The actual number of untested cases is undoubtedly much higher. The frontline warriors in this disaster are the doctors, nurses, and other supporting health workers. At the back end, thousands of scientists and engineers are collaborating—also at an unprecedented scale—to understand the exact behavior of the coronavirus, transmission dynamics of the disease, diagnostics, innovative technologies to scale up the fight, means of coping up with physical distancing and critical assessment of communications.

To beat the information overload about COVID-19, a number of scientific and other institutions have launched a website ‘CovidGyan’, to spread reliable information while filtering misinformation. A multi-institutional, multi-lingual science communication initiative, called CovidGyan, has been created to deal with just this challenge. The initiative is the brainchild of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), and the Tata Memorial Centre (TMC). Other prominent partners include Vigyan Prasar, IndiaBioscience, and the Bangalore Life Science Cluster (BLiSC, which comprises InStem and C-CAMP, in addition to NCBS-TIFR). An outcome of this initiative is the launch of the CovidGyan website: https://covid-gyan.in.

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Scientists Speak about CovidGyan:

Coordinating this initiative is Prof. Rajesh Gopakumar, Centre Director of the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS) in Bangalore. According to Gopakumar, the mandate of the CovidGyan initiative is to, “create, curate and communicate scientifically credible and authentic COVID-19 related content and resources.” He underlines that the main target audience of this content is the general citizenry as well as the scientifically curious who would like to keep abreast of developments.

Prof. Satyajit Mayor, Centre Director of the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), emphasizes that NCBS houses expertise, knowledge, and experience in studying all scales of biology, from viruses to ecosystems that we inhabit. He adds, “At the time of the COVID-19 crisis, it is especially important that we utilize our deep scientific understanding of the biological world to provide a more holistic perspective on the situation we find ourselves in, and seek appropriate solutions for the resolution of this crisis.”

Prof. Arnab Bhattacharya, who leads the TIFR Mumbai science communication initiative Chai and Why?, says that reliable information based on science is an urgent need due to the infodemic of misinformation about COVID-19. This compels us to realize that, similar to climate change, ignoring science can quickly intensify problems to a global scale. CovidGyan is an attempt to build this with the coordinated effort of scientists across India in several Indian languages.

Prof. V. Chandrasekhar, Centre Director of TIFR Hyderabad, pointing out the urgency, adds that COVID-19 is affecting countries around the world; a situation that requires the scientific community to work together to meet several objectives. To this end, scientists of TIFR-Hyderabad are working along with several others in the TIFR system towards this effort.

Prof. K. Subramaniam, Centre Director of the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE) in Mumbai, mentions that the partner institutions in this CovidGyan initiative have diverse capabilities in scientific research, science communication, and science education. This combined capacity can be channeled to bring authentic and reliable information to the public as well as those engaging in the struggle against the pandemic in a variety of roles. He highlights that it is extremely important to localize reliable scientific information, which takes into account the individual complexity of Indian conditions.

Underlining the need for CovidGyan, Prof. Amol Dighe of the Department of Theoretical Physics TIFR, says that COVID-19 is affecting each and every individual in some form or the other, and the fight against it is going to be at the medical as well as societal level. This is why people from all strata of society should have access to trustworthy information in a language that they understand best. He maintains that CovidGyan will be making resources available in as many Indian languages as possible, so that the science, as well as the guidance for health and well-being, reaches the widest audience possible.

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Dr. Smita Jain, Executive Director, IndiaBioscience, adds that COVIDGyan is an effort to bring a validated pool of content either developed by practicing researchers from the partnering institutions or curated from across the web. IndiaBioscience has always brought interesting and latest news, columns and articles to its readers through its website and now as a partnering institutions of COVIDGyan, it hopes to continue to provide the best possible content to a much larger audience during this time of crisis.

Prof. Kaushal Verma, Office of Communications of Indian Institute of Science Bengaluru, concludes that CovidGyan is a timely portal that will go on to become a trustworthy and reliable source of information about various aspects of COVID-19.

Prof. Rajesh Gopakumar further emphasized the role of scientists, who are playing a dual role in the current crisis: the search for vaccines and cures and policy measures informed by science. The rationale for some of these steps may not be obvious to the general public and it is also the responsibility of scientists to explain these in a compelling way. The #CovidGyan initiative provides a forum to bring together scientists and communicators across TIFR and other partnering institutions to make an impact.

The CovidGyan website includes short informative videos, posters and infographics, FAQs, mythbusters, and articles, which are being actively translated into multiple Indian languages. Please visit in a few days for more and more multilingual content.

Website: https://covid-gyan.in
Videos in 12 languages: https://covid-gyan.in/videos

Contact email: contact@covid-gyan.in

Source: CovisGyan media release,3 April 2020.