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Innovation came to rescue during Covid: Modi

New Delhi: Inviting investors to the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday said that innovation came to the rescue during Covid as he highlighted India’s major benefits for both investors and innovators.

Delivering his keynote address at the 5th edition of VivaTech, one of the largest digital and start-up events in Europe, he said: “Covid-19 put many of our conventional methods to test. However, it was innovation that came to the rescue. By innovation, I refer to: Innovation before the pandemic. Innovation during the pandemic.”

“When I speak about innovation before the pandemic, I refer to the pre-existing advances which helped us during the pandemic. Digital technology helped us cope, connect, comfort and console. Through digital media, we could work, talk with our loved ones and help others,” he said.

Modi stated that the second part, innovation for the pandemic refers to how humanity rose to the occasion and made the fight against it more effective and in this, the role of the country’s start-up sector, has been paramount.

“India’s strides in the world of tech and start-up are well-known. Our nation is home to one of the world’s largest start-up eco systems. Several unicorns have come up in recent years,” he said.

The Prime Minister said: “India offers what innovators and investors need.I invite the world to invest in India based on the five pillars of Talent, Market, Capital, Eco-system and Culture of openness.”

Citing reforms in different sectors, he said: “We, in India, implemented huge reforms across sectors, be it mining, space, banking, atomic energy and more. This goes on to show that India as a nation is adaptable and agile, even in the middle of the pandemic.”

Stressing India’s extensive relation with France, he said: “India and France have been working closely on a wide range of subjects. Among these, technology and digital are emerging areas of cooperation.”

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Covid-19 and the invisibilization of rural India

By Barkha Dutt

As the government declares the worst of the second wave of the pandemic over in our cities and gets ready to unlock, in our villages, our citizens have been dying. And they have been dying uncounted, and mostly at home, from illnesses that match the exact symptoms of Covid-19, including plummeting oxygen levels.

On the ground, in every hamlet, even the smallest ones across states, residents say, anywhere between 20-40 deaths have taken place in May. Though rural health care infrastructure in our southern states is distinctly better than in the north, the struggle for testing and vaccines is exactly the same in large swathes of rural India, irrespective of geography.

In Tamil Nadu’s Chennasandiram panchayat of seven villages, the panchayat president Jayakumar Reddy tells me that the surge in sudden deaths in the last two months has made people even more terrified to make the trek to nearby towns and cities — the only places where they have a hope of getting a vaccine.

Among the dead is 27-year-old Vijay, who was discharged from a private hospital and told he was well enough to go home, only to die the next morning, eight hours later. We also meet Shobha, the sister of Rudresh, a young man who travelled from Bengaluru to Hosur in the hope of finding a hospital closer to his home. He ended up riding in an ambulance for 250 kilometres before dying in the vehicle, unable to find an oxygenated intensive care unit (ICU) bed. “No one cares about the poor,” his sister says, barely able to form the words through a cascade of tears.

“We want vaccines,” implores Reddy. “We are all farmers. As poor people, are we going to be completely overlooked?” he asks.

The invisibilization of rural India is the stage of the pandemic we are now at, relegated to the margins of public and policy discourse and attention.

Tragedies abound in our villages where hardly anyone is chronicling them. Not only are their deaths slipping through the official cracks — of deep concern in a week that saw Bihar reconcile its death data in thousands, causing India to breach the 6,000 mark for daily fatalities — the absence of vaccines and testing also means we may not be measuring the trajectory of the second wave accurately. The crests and troughs in Covid-19 cases and the spikes and falls of daily infographics by which we now measure the wellness of our lives have been based mostly on city-driven data.

Reddy reports 20 confirmed Covid deaths in the villages under him in Hosur. He does not think most of them have been certified.

Hundreds of miles away in Ramana village in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, the village pradhan (headman) reports twice as many deaths, 40 in the last few weeks. Ram Gopal, who lost two family members, an uncle and a grandfather, shows us all the related medical paperwork. In one case, no death certificate has been provided. In another “typical pneumonia”, and not Covid-19, is listed as the reason for the fatality.

In UP’s Kannauj, at the cremation ground, residents say four or five hearses have left their villages every day in the past few weeks.

The ethical issue with these deaths remaining uncounted and unrecognised is obvious. But from the perspective of framing public policy too, there is a real conundrum.

If sickness and death in India’s villages remain on the margins of public and media attention, do we really know for sure if cases are coming down? Is the decision to ease restrictions based on data that is entirely city-centric? And once movement between villages and cities resumes, isn’t there a real danger that the virus will also travel up and down, undetected?

In 2020 we saw the poorest Indian citizen suffer as migrant workers, in the hundreds of thousands, fled the cities on foot, sometimes barefoot, to return to the villages.

In 2021, the virus came home for the wealthy and upper-middle-class Indians. Of course, low-income households suffered the most, financial penury compounding their grief and loss.

But as the situation in the metropolises slowly comes under tenuous control, the Delta variant’s damage has once again exposed the great class divide of the virus and our response to it.

(The Op-Eds appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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Investigating the roots of the coronavirus

By Shashi Shekhar

Since early last year, many experts have voiced apprehensions that the coronavirus, which has wreaked such devastation on us, could have originated in a laboratory. But we took little notice of what many dismissed as conspiracy theories. Last week, United States (US) President Joe Biden ordered intelligence officials to submit an investigation report about this within 90 days, completely changing the narrative.

Before this, former US President Donald Trump had also expressed apprehensions that the virus was not natural but, given his character, people did not take him seriously enough. But, even at that time, many scientists, including Nobel Prize-winning virologists as well as military experts, were voicing similar concerns in Australia, the United Kingdom and France, among other countries. All this suggests that there is a pressing need for a thorough investigation into the antecedents of the virus.

The P-4 lab in Wuhan where the virus is said to have originated is run by Chinese air force scientists. A major general heads the facility. China started recruiting scientists to its army in 2015, a watershed year in Sino-US relations. At that time, Chinese officials told their American counterparts that since their defence system was on a par with that of the US, China deserved to be treated as an equal.

The then President Barack Obama was reportedly displeased with this contention. An Australian news report from that period claimed that the Chinese defence ministry had stated that World War III would be fought and won using biological weapons. This report carries some credibility since it was during this period that China is said to have prepared select military divisions to deal with biological weapons.

US intelligence agencies claim that in November 2019, three scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were infected by the virus. It was only in December that the Chinese authorities informed the World Health Organization (WHO) about this. It is also being questioned why Chinese President Xi Jinping restricted all internal movement in the country at that time but did not place any restrictions on international flights and travel by sea. Through these routes, the virus spread across the world.

Another question is what led China to begin using the RT-PCR test in hospitals in January 2020. Was it already prepared for the virus? The speed with which China brought the pandemic under control is staggering. While the world is grappling with the virus, China is well on the road to recovery. It is the only major country in the world where the annual budget is not in the red. Today, it would seem that biological weapons have replaced nuclear weapons as the currency which determines a nation’s superpower status.

China has been behaving like a major economic and military superpower for quite some time now. In 2001, former US President George W Bush had projected it as his country’s biggest rival. Had it not been for 9/11 that same year, the US and China may have started the battle for supremacy in right earnest. For several years after 9/11, the US was preoccupied with its fight against terror, pushing most other issues onto the backburner. This is why the help that scientists in Wuhan continued to get from many countries in the West, including the US, went largely unnoticed. Most of them could not have known that they may have been helping to create a virus which would one day bring the world to its knees.

But all this knowledge must be proceeded on with great caution. Every calamity or natural disaster brings in its wake a host of conspiracy theories. So, it is imperative that we investigate all claims thoroughly and scientifically. It cannot be forgotten that in the first decade of this century, the US, supported by its allies, destroyed much of Iraq on the grounds that it was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, a contention not borne out as facts unfolded. The world paid the price and the US got needlessly entangled in a war that ultimately yielded no results but which changed the geopolitical map forever.

(The opinion piece appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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How Indian-Americans shaped US response to India’s 2nd wave

By Frank F Islam

The United States has provided aid worth at least half-a-billion dollars since the devastating second wave of Covid-19 struck India. US tech and financial companies such as Google, Microsoft, MasterCard and others have donated money, medicine and medical devices to India to combat the virus.

A lot of the credit for this must go to the Indian-American community, whose response has been extraordinary. Apart from raising money, Indian-Americans also put pressure on the political establishment right from the Oval Office down to statehouses to urge them to send aid to India.

As a result of these efforts, the Joe Biden administration backed New Delhi’s call for temporarily waiving the intellectual property rights of Covid vaccines, which, partially, opens the door to allow India to produce them locally.

The Indian-American community’s response has been two-layered: One within the community and the other focused on mainstream America.

At the grassroots level, various community organisations representing the large Telugu, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Bengali and Malayali communities primarily raised funds for the various regions to which they belong. At the national level, organisations such as the American India Foundation, Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, Indiaspora and Sewa International have led the mobilisation efforts.

Those speaking on behalf of India have included Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, both of whom announced multi-million-dollar packages on behalf of their respective organisations. Indian-American lawmakers such as Ro Khanna and Raja Krishnamoorthi called for help not just on humanitarian grounds, but also to ensure US national security. Indian-American public health experts such as Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, chipped in with explaining the dangers of the new variants, what India needed, and what the US could do.

In my five decades in the US, I have never seen the community step up in such large numbers. In the past, they have indeed helped in the aftermath of natural disasters in India. They have also helped out when India’s national interests were at stake, lobbying to mobilise support for the country. This included efforts following the US sanctions against India after the 1998 nuclear tests, and prior to the signing of the historic US-India Civil Nuclear Deal in 2008.

There are two reasons why the Covid-19 relief efforts have been more successful and are being sustained now. Unlike relief efforts in the past, this time around, India was dealing with a pandemic of which the US is intimately aware. It did not require any hard-selling. The second major difference is the growing size and prominence of the Indian-American community.

In 2001, when the Gujarat earthquake struck, the Indian-American population stood at 1.7 million and there were very few Indian-Americans in leadership positions. This is no longer the case. Members of the Indian-American population, almost four million now, are leaders in business, politics, academia and health care, among other fields.

With its leadership in mobilising America’s efforts to help combat the pandemic in India, the Indian-American community has demonstrated what it can accomplish when it comes together for a common purpose. It has also demonstrated that although the community has made great progress, this is just a fraction of what it can achieve. There are many stories waiting for the Indian American community to script, as it continues to help India in its hour of dire need.

(The article appeared in The Hindustan Times)

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Getting to the bottom of origins of coronavirus

GOF (gain of function) research is used to reverse engineer genes of an existing virus to enlarge and manipulate it and make it more lethal. Did GOF undertaken at Wuhan cause the enlarged virus to escape?

Analysis by Neera Kuckreja Sohoni

Nearly 20 months into the Corona pandemic, America is finally WOKE to the possibility of the Covid virus emerging from a virological research institute located in Wuhan, China. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) since 1984, very quickly became the guru and the face of Corona pandemic mitigation efforts in the US. During these long nightmarish months, he repeatedly and bravely rejected any suggestion that the pandemic was man-made or lab-created and could have escaped from Wuhan.

As it turns out, his valor may have been misplaced. With the Wuhan lab leak theory becoming more plausible, both Republicans and mainstream media are pressuring the US to get to the bottom of Covid’s origin. Responding to the pressure, President Biden recently asked the intelligence agencies to study the evidence and report back in 90 days their consensus opinion of whether Covid virus was lab-created and accidentally escaped from Wuhan lab or it was a natural mutation of an existing virus.

In the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on June 7, his Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed his master’s voice by underlining how an accurate understanding of Covid’s origin would better prepare US and the world to tackle future pandemics.

Months ago, Blinken’s predecessor Mike Pompeo had tried to get the same department to actively investigate the Corona-Wuhan link only to have his suggestion pooh-poohed by mainstream media and Democrats including Biden, causing the department to stonewall the inquiry. In fact, the Biden administration is credited with prematurely shutting down an investigation into the suspected Wuhan virus leak.

Fauci both led and followed the same tune, carefully avoiding any hint of China, Wuhan or the Chinese Communist Party’s connection to the virus, or holding China accountable for its role in allowing the virus to spread to other countries while carefully shutting down Wuhan to any domestic travel or interaction with the rest of China. He even advised Trump against banning entry into the US of visitors from China. WHO and its China-beholden Director Tedros took the same “hands-off China” approach.

Whether mythical or true, cautious scholarship traditionally is highly accommodating, ever ready to settle two opposing points of view with the benign conclusion, “Both are correct”!  Fauci, the Apostle of Infectious Disease prognosis, fits the above approach to the tee. He also epitomizes the flip-flop scientist who moves the needle in response to the shift in politics.

From being Trump’s covert adversary to becoming Biden’s trusted messenger, Fauci has shown his indefatigable ability to move with the times. He deftly used the dynamic flexibility in science, and its inherent amenability to change based on emerging data, to fit recommended actions to the shifting political exigencies. On so many issues ranging from masking to social distancing, and school, stadium or church reopening et cetera, he abused and harnessed an otherwise healthy feature of science, to dictate and demand unreasonable conduct by all of us.

We can blame ourselves but infinitely more our politicians for ceding to him. As Thomas Frank writes in his brilliant confessional essay (The Guardian, June 1, 2021), “Covid came and forced us to do so, elevating our scientists to the highest seats of social authority, from where they banned assembly, commerce, and all the rest.”

Very early in the pandemic, when President Trump first floated the Wuhan theory, the media and his opponents rushed to savage him. He was the anti-Science anti-Christ with racist fascist leanings who was calling it the China or the Wuhan virus, Kung-Flu, and so on. Those who found him turning a deaf ear to Fauci’s and CDC guidelines on social distancing and masking, while holding massive super spreader events at the White House and political rallies elsewhere, blamed his ignorance and dumbass behavior for turning the virus into an epidemic. To cite Frank, “In reaction to the fool Trump, liberalism made a cult out of the hierarchy of credentialed achievement”, elevating the Media’s Darling Fauci to the rank of Sage Fauci.

The Wuhan lab-created virus theory seems less of a conspiracy now with writers and anchors jumping in to support it. Trump may have been vindicated on his early implication of China except most pundits lack the courage to say so. Nor will they credit him with being the first to make the right call on China’s likely culpability. This reluctance was exemplified by Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki who when claiming “everyone” supports a thorough independent investigation into the virus’ emergence – mentioned Biden, Democrats, Republicans, even Mike Pompeo, but not Trump!

American scientists have been divided on the China origin theory. But the few who were courageous to openly state their suspicion of China did so all along, well before the drumbeat became popular. Simply for raising the Chinese link possibility, social media pounced on them as irresponsible promoters of wild ideas, even banning and castigating them as anti-Chinese fascist racists.

Now, with more readiness to explore the Wuhan link, resistance to never question science is breaking down. There is confirmed knowledge, through recently released email exchanges between Fauci and his scientist colleagues, that NIAID supported “gain of function (GOF)” research to the tune of six million dollars of which about 600,000 went to the Wuhan Institute.

Put simply, GOF research is used to reverse engineer genes of an existing virus to enlarge and manipulate it and make it more lethal. Although Fauci and his counterparts at National Institutes of Health (NIH) during congressional testimony and media appearances categorically denied any direct US support to GOF research, the published emails offer proof to the contrary. By some accounts, since the Obama administration had banned such research in 2012, and in the face of additional restrictive regulations introduced by the Trump administration, Fauci’s decision to support GOF research borders on criminality.

If GOF undertaken at Wuhan did cause the enlarged virus to escape, the field of science as a whole becomes tarnished, and American dollars, however meager compared to billions of dollars that constitute Wuhan Institute’s budget, begin to stink.

Thrown now into the public arena our controversial engagement with Wuhan research forces us to seriously question the ethics of genetic manipulation of viruses. It also pushes us to challenge the supremacy of science and demolish the infallibility of scientists.

To truly get to the bottom of what caused Covid, we will need an independent forthright assessment of the research undertaken and the raw data and findings – completely free of Chinese interference and manipulation.  Previous efforts to expose Wuhan to sunshine caused a massive cover up by China through gag orders, imprisoning scientists who spoke out, destroying samples, hiding records, and even imprisoning journalists who asked questions.

A united and determined global community of scientists and governments – fully armed with carrots and sticks– could help overcome Chinese resistance and gain a candid insight into what caused Corona and who most deserves to be held accountable for allowing Wuhan’s flu-like outbreak to turn into a consuming fiery pandemic.

But that would amount to asking for the moon…


Ms. Sohoni is a freelance writer and published author.

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Trump demands $10 Trillion in reparations from China for COVID-19

Washington: Donald Trump returned to the GOP political scene Saturday with a speech at the North Carolina Republican Convention, where he called on China to pay “reparations” to the U.S. for coronavirusrelated damages.

“All nations should work together to present China a bill for a minimum of $10 trillion to compensate for the damage,” Trump said, adding that the figure was lower than it should be. “As a first step, all countries should collectively cancel any debt they owe to China as a down payment on reparations,” he said.

Trump said he also thought the U.S. should put a 100% tariff on any goods imported from China.

In a lengthy speech Saturday night, the former president echoed sentiments from Republicans on the Hill and went after infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci for reversing his stance on the importance of wearing masks early in the pandemic.

“Fauci said powerfully at the beginning, no masks,” Trump chided Saturday. “Then he became a radical masker,” he said, adding that  “he’s been wrong on almost every issue.”

Trump also reiterated unproven claims regarding the integrity of the 2020 election – comments that resulted in his two-year ban from Facebook.

The former president claimed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg “broke the law spending millions of dollars” on encouraging voting in Democratic-led areas in the country.

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Delhi HC issues summons to Ramdev over Coronil kit

New Delhi: The Delhi High Court has issued summons to yoga guru Ramdev on a plea accusing him of making statements against allopathic medicines and claiming Patanjali’s Coronil kit is a cure for COVID-19 but refused to restrain him at this stage saying the allopathic profession was not so fragile.

The high court however orally asked Ramdev’s counsel to tell him not to make any provocative statements.

“Mr Rajiv Nayar is a very respectable senior (advocate). I am sure his client will listen to him,” Justice C Hari Shankar said.

The high court issued summons to Ramdev on the suit filed by Delhi Medical Association (DMA) and asked him to file a response in three weeks and listed the matter for hearing on July 13.

“Considerable time has passed since the passing of allegedly injurious statements. The counsel says defendant no. 1 (Ramdev) continues to make a statement. No injunctive order can be given without giving an opportunity to the plaintiff, especially in view of the objections. Issue summons on the suit,” Justice Shankar said.

The court also issued summons to social media platforms Twitter and Facebook and Astha channel, who are made parties to the petition.

DMA, on behalf of its doctor members, submitted before the court that Ramdev”s statement affects as Coronil medicine does not cure coronavirus and it is misleading. It has claimed a token damage of Rs 1 from him.

The court said it cannot say as to whether Coronil is a cure or not and that it was something to be decided by medical experts.

“Ramdev is a person who doesn’t have faith in allopathy. He believes everything can be cured by Yoga and Ayurveda. He may be right or wrong,” he said.

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Second Made-in-India vax coming; deal signed for 30 crore doses

New Delhi: In another landmark move in the fight against Covid-19 pandemic, the Central government has booked 30 crore doses of another Made-in-India vaccine to be manufactured by Hyderabad-based Biological-E’s Covid vaccine, which is still in the final phase of clinical trials.

Biological-E’s vaccine is currently in Phase-3 clinical trials after showing promising results in Phase 1 and 2, and it is likely to be available in the market in the next few months, said a Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) statement.

The Ministry is learnt to have made an advance payment of Rs 1,500 crore to the firm — the second made-in-India vaccine manufacturer after Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin.

“The doses will be manufactured and stockpiled by Biological-E from August to December and are likely to be available “in the next few months,” the Ministry said.

The move is expected to be a sigh of relief for the Centre facing wide criticism amid shortage of Covid vaccine during the second wave of the pandemic.

Biological-E’s shot, the Ministry said, was given Rs 100 crore in financial assistance by the Department of Biotechnology, which also partnered with the company to conduct various studies.

This is part of the government’s mission to support five or six new COVID-19 vaccine candidates, said the statement.

Biological-E’s indigenous vaccine was recommended for approval by the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 or National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19.

Biological-E also has a separate deal to produce about 600 million doses of Johnson and Johnson’s Covid-19 shot annually. The company said on Tuesday it entered into a licensing agreement with Providence Therapeutics Holdings to manufacture mRNA Covid-19 vaccines in India.

Besides Covaxin and Serum Institute of India’s Covishield, Russia’s Sputnik V will soon be used to vaccinate people as the government races towards a target of one crore vaccinations a day by August. It is also in talks with foreign makers like Pfizer and Moderna, who have insisted on an indemnity clause.

The new vaccine arrangement is “part of the wider endeavor of the government to encourage indigenous vaccine manufacturers” by providing them support in research and development and costs, the Centre said.

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UK reports zero daily coronavirus deaths since last March

London: Britain reported zero daily coronavirus-related deaths for the first time since March last year, according to official figures released on June 1.

The total number of coronavirus-related deaths in Britain remain at 127,782. These figures only include the deaths of people who died within 28 days of their first positive test.

Another 3,165 people in Britain have tested positive for Covid-19, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the country to 4,490,438, according to the official figures, Xinhua news agency reported.

Professor Adam Finn from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, which advises the government on vaccine priority, said the country remains vulnerable as large numbers of people remain unvaccinated.

More than 39.4 million people, about three-quarters of adults in Britain, have been given the first jab of the coronavirus vaccine, according to the latest official figures.

Experts have warned that coronavirus may continue to evolve for years to come, and eventually, it is likely current vaccines will fail to protect against transmission, infection, or even against diseases caused by newer variants.

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