Splainer
Wednesday, October 14 2020

Cow dung will protect everyone, it is anti-radiation... It is scientifically proven... This is a radiation chip that can be used in mobile phones to reduce radiation. It will be safeguarded against diseases.

That’s Vallabhbhai Kathiria, chairman of Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog (RKA)—a body set up in 2019 to promote the conservation of cows. Yesterday, he presided over the grand unveiling of a ''chip'' named Gausatva Kavach… made of, umm, cow dung. Watch it here.

Big Story

The hefty price tag of vaccinating India

The TLDR: We are all waiting for a vaccine to rescue us from our pandemic woes. But even when it arrives, delivering that golden jab to a country of 1.38 billion people will not be easy. We took a close look at each stage of the vaccine delivery chain to assess the enormity of the challenge. This is the first of our two-part series.

Will we have enough vaccines?

The model for distribution: The Fair Priority Model drawn up by a team of global medical experts calls for prioritising regions that have higher infection rates to prevent spread. The WHO’s Global Access Initiative aims to cover at least 3% of every country’s population at the outset—and gradually increase to 20%.

 

But the US, China and Russia have opted out of WHO’s initiative, and the richer countries—US, UK, EU and Japan—have reserved 1.5 billion doses in advance.

 

The good news: India is one of the largest manufacturers of vaccines in the world—supplying 60% of those distributed to the developing world. The Serum Institute is stockpiling the Oxford vaccine, and plans to make one billion doses if it works—and  is reserving half of those for India and other developing countries. The company claims it can make 60 million to 70 million doses a month at full capacity.


Point to note: Serum Institute is also testing four other vaccines. A number of other Indian companies like Biologicals E are working on other candidates. And there are two ‘Made in India’ vaccines under development as well.

Can we afford to pay? 

Experts estimate that India will need $10 billion in just the first year. 

 

The pricetag: Take the Oxford vaccine, for example:

 

“The Serum Institute has priced the Oxford vaccine at 225 rupees (US$3) a dose. That means the cost of vaccinating 400 million people [who are at greatest risk] will be at least $1.2 billion. Typically, the government buys vaccines for less than the price of bottled water — 60 rupees. ‘We have never paid $3 for a vaccine,’ [virologist Gagandeep] Kang says.”

 

The government’s bill: will include more than just the cost of the vaccine. In September, Serum CEO Adar Poonawalla tweeted: "Quick question; will the government of India have 80,000 crores available, over the next one year? Because that's what @MoHFW_INDIA needs, to buy and distribute the vaccine to everyone in India.” 

 

The threat: When asked about that number, the Health Ministry flatly said it “did not agree with that calculation”—without offering a counter-estimate or explaining why. But a leader of an RSS-affiliated group openly threatened: 

 

"May it be known to you @adarpoonawalla that India's Patent Act has a section on Compulsory Licensing and we can force you and your peers to produce vaccine free from exploitative royalty."

 

But those threats are meaningless for foreign-patented vaccines. The government will have far less leverage in determining the price of AstraZeneca’s vaccine than a Bharat Biotech-made Covaxin. And that’s why many economists worry

 

“Amir Ullah Khan, a professor of development economics, felt that the philanthropic route appears to be closed. ‘Therefore, the money can come from the PM Cares Fund or through a covid cess. There doesn’t seem to be any other way to raise a lakh crore,’ he said. ‘Borrowing could be tough. The government could also put half the burden on the states and ask them to raise the money,’ he added.”

 

Who gets it first?

Most countries, including India, plan to target those most at risk: frontline workers, the elderly and those with underlying conditions. That’s around 30% of India’s population—or 400 million people. In the first phase, the government aims to vaccinate 250 million. 

 

But even here, there will be some key challenges in identifying that first 250 million. 

 

One: As StatNews points out, it is very difficult to determine who has underlying conditions anywhere in the world. This will be even tougher in India where poorer Indians do not have proper health records—and that criteria will inevitably favour the rich. 

 

Two: The vaccines are not being tested on elderly people in human trials. So we have no clue how they will react to an approved vaccine.


Coming up: Once the vaccines are bought, they have to be stored, transported and finally administered. Do we have a sufficient number of cold storage facilities—and are they cold enough? How about vials and syringes? Most importantly, do we have enough people who are trained in actually administering the vaccine? In our next installment, we look at the Covid vaccine’s big delivery challenge.

 

Reading list

Nature and Mint offer two deep dives on India worth your time. StatNews points to the biggest questions about who will qualify for the first phase of vaccination. Science Magazine has more on the WHO plan to equitably distribute the vaccine. Also handy: The Conversation’s primer on vaccinations for kids.

 

Sanity Break #1

This is a 7-foot statue of Medusa holding the severed head of Perseus—which will soon be installed in a Manhattan park across the court where Harvey Weinstein stood trial. Why is it intriguing: In the original myth, Medusa was raped by Poseidon, cursed by Athena and in the end, beheaded by Perseus. Yahoo News has more. (h/t subscriber Sowmya Swaminathan)

Headlines that matter

Apple’s iPhone 12 is here!

The latest and highly anticipated overpriced Apple product has arrived! Here’s what we know about it:

 

  • It has a brand new/retro design with flat edges, similar to iPhone 5. 
  • All of them are 5G-enabled and have a “Ceramic Shield” glass cover to make them less fragile. 
  • The series includes iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, iPhone 12 Pro Max and a smaller version called iPhone 12 Mini—with a 5.4-inch screen.
  • The high end version iPhone 12 Pro Max has a 6.7-inch screen, three back cameras that offer a 5X optical zoom range, a LiDAR sensor for things like improved augmented reality apps and faster autofocus, and a stainless steel outer band. 
  • The Mini starts at Rs 69,900 and the most expensive is Rs 1,59,900. All the price points are available over at Mint.
  • You can reach for that credit card starting October 23.

The Verge has more details on the big reveals.

 

The big takeaway: Apple is kissing wires goodbye. The new series gets rid of wired headphones and wall chargers. Instead, you get two kinds of wireless charging pads: MagSafe Charger charges one device at a time; you can charge two with MagSafe Charger Duo. Quartz explains why Apple will permanently change the way we charge our phones.

A hateful end to a love-filled ad

Tanishq rolled out this 45-second ad that features a Muslim mother-in-law hosting a traditional Hindu ceremony for her pregnant daughter-in-law. Hindutva haters immediately targeted the company for celebrating ‘love jihad’. The jewellery company withdrew the ad “keeping in mind the hurt sentiments and well-being of our employees, partners and store staff.” Now, everyone else is disappointed with Tanishq for “bowing down” (see: this well-argued blog post here). But we can’t help wondering how many of us would be willing to personally safeguard Tanishq stores or employees? In these hazardous times, a ‘controversial’ ad advocating widow remarriage (which Tanishq has stood by in the past) isn’t quite the same as one that threatens the “well being” of real human beings. In any case, irrespective of Tanishq’s response, the ad is lovely and very much available—and we are all free to share it.

 

Not just in India: Kraft Heinz is in trouble in the United States for a jokey marketing campaign for its mac and cheese. The reason: It encourages people to "send noods"—i.e. noodles—to their loved ones. Yes, it sounds like nudes. And yes, angry parents have attacked the company for “sexualizing” the humble dish and encouraging predators: "This is not okay. Don’t you realize that a huge portion of the people who actually eat your mac n’ cheese are children?!" Umm, don’t kids past the age of two mostly eat the same things as adults? Buzzfeed News has more on this strange story.

 

Facebook’s ‘evolved’ thinking on the Holocaust

The Zuck announced that his company is updating its hate speech policy to ban all content that denies the Holocaust—or spreads misinformation about it. If people search for the Holocaust on Facebook, it will direct you to “authoritative sources to get accurate information.” The reason offered

 

“I've struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust. My own thinking has evolved as I've seen data showing an increase in anti-Semitic violence, as have our wider policies on hate speech. Drawing the right lines between what is and isn't acceptable speech isn't straightforward, but with the current state of the world, I believe this is the right balance.”

 

This from a guy who declared in 2018:

 

“I'm Jewish and there's a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened. I find it deeply offensive. But at the end of the day, I don't believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don't think that they're intentionally getting it wrong." 

 

Better late than never? Or too little, too late? We leave it to you to decide. 

 

An Indian restaurant in Armenia

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a six-year war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh that ended in 1994 with a ceasefire—which has been broken since September (BBC News offers an excellent explainer). Thousands have been left homeless, and 500 killed. In the midst of the chaos and bloodshed, an Indian restaurant run by Parvez Ali Khan has been distributing free meals to refugees. India Today has that story. Clip of the daily prep below. Bonus: Indian Express on India’s position on the conflict.

 

The great pandemic: A quick update

  • First it was AstraZeneca, now Johnson & Johnson has suspended its human trials due to an unexplained illness in one of the participants. Point to note: both vaccines are based on a modified cold virus. However, AstraZeneca’s glitch proved to be temporary, and its trials are back on track (read our explainer here).
  • Also paused: the experimental drug cocktail from Eli Lilly—most recently talked up by Trump. Again: one of the participants fell ill.
  • Football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo has tested positive but is "doing well, without symptoms, and in isolation.” The rest of the Portugal team, however, has not been infected.
  • The International Monetary Fund now predicts that the Indian economy will shrink by 10.3% during this fiscal year—that’s more than double the estimate (4.5%) in June. China, OTOH, improved its forecast from 1% to 1.9% of growth.
  • New data analysis shows that the United States had one of the worst mortality rates in the world (71.6 deaths/100 000) between March 1 and August 1—largely due to its failure to handle the pandemic. The actual number of deaths were 20% higher than expected—leading to 225,530 “extra deaths.” If nothing changes, there will be 400,000 “extra deaths” by the end of 2020. Ars Technica has more.
  • Peruvian officials reopened Machu Picchu for a single Japanese tourist who was stranded in the country due to the pandemic for seven months: “He had come to Peru with the dream of being able to enter… The Japanese citizen has entered together with our head of the park so that he can do this before returning to his country.”
  • Good read: GQ profiles Sean Penn’s one-man battle against the virus.
  • Meanwhile, folks at this Hyderabad night club were partying like it’s 2019. The pub has since been shut down.

 

Courts hit reset on MJ Akbar case

Two years ago, MJ Akbar—the former editor of Asian Age and Rajya Sabha MP—filed a defamation case against Priya Ramani. The reason: she tweeted about his sexually predatory behaviour which unleashed a flood of far more serious allegations. Now, two years later—right after the final arguments were being made—the Delhi court has decided it doesn’t have jurisdiction over this case. 

 

The reason: It can only hear cases filed against an MP, not cases filed by an MP. The judge said: “There have been directions from the Supreme Court… This case has to be placed before the District and Sessions Judge for further directions.” Indian Express has more on this unexpected development.

 

Solving the big mystery of long-term relationships

For decades, psychologists have observed that couples start to resemble each other over time—but there has never been any definitive proof or refutation of this hypothesis. A new study may have finally cracked the puzzle using cutting-edge facial recognition software. The answer: nope, none of it is true. Yes, couples do look slightly more similar but that is likely due to a ‘selection bias’:

 

“The findings suggest that celebrity couples such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Sophie Hunter, and Gisele Bündchen and Tom Brady, will not grow to look more alike over time, but rather went for partners with similar features to themselves. Tea-makorn said people may seek out similar-looking partners, just as they look for mates with matching values and personalities.”

 

Chinese currency goes digital

Nope, this isn’t cryptocurrency but merely the digital version of the yuan—and it is meant to be an add-on to existing digital payment options. Beijing has issued 200 digital yuan ($30) to 50,000 citizens to kick off this innovation. Quartz has more. You can check out what it looks like here.


Speaking of innovations: IIT-Madras researchers have developed an anti-bacterial and biodegradable material to wrap food. It can preserve fruits, veggies and meat for up to 10 days at room temperature. And the material will degrade within 21 days, making it a great replacement for plastic. (Times of India)

Sanity Break #2

What we learned: all you need to do to take a sanity break is rewind to the not-so-distant past. Yup, that’s Arnab and Rajdeep. Yup, that’s a television news broadcast. Sigh!

Smart & Curious

A list of intriguing things

One: This rose-breasted grosbeak is half male on the red side, and female on the yellow side. National Geographic has more on this fascinating find in Pennsylvania. 

 

Two: The US military has developed augmented reality goggles for dogs to help soldiers give them visual commands when they are out of sight. BBC News has more.

 

Three: This is the letter director Sai Paranjpye wrote to Ravi Baswani insisting he take a role in ‘Dhuan Dhuan’—later to be renamed ‘Chashme Buddoor’. Sigh, we don’t think uncovering an equally famous email—decades from now—will have quite the same nostalgic effect.

 

Four: This is Virginia Woolf’s real-life room of her own which she liked very much, “though it was not ideal for concentration. She was always being distracted—by Leonard sorting the apples over her head in the loft... or the dog sitting next to her... leaving paw marks on her manuscript pages.” Yup, sounds about right. The Guardian has more writing sheds of other famous authors, including Roald Dahl and Dylan Thomas.

 

A short list of good reads

  • New York Times takes a baseball bat to bludgeon its own journalism and star reporter Rukmini Callimachi 👏👏👏
  • Ozy asks: Have the science Nobels become archaic in a world where the biggest breakthroughs are made by global teams and not individuals?
  • We learned a lot from this ‘terminology’ thread that looks at the difference between (extremist or terrorist) cells vs. groups vs. movements.
  • We missed this one on Monday: Asmita Bakshi’s lovely essay on her life with a person with bipolar disorder—and the unrecognised burden on women who are expected to play selfless caregivers.
Feel good place

One: This is the absolute best Twitter thread ever: Mock dating profile photos of dogs. The caption on our fave one reads: “Patricia 52 - divorced. Kids just gone off to uni - so time 'to get herself out there'. Not used a webcam before.”

 

Two: A Penguin—of the DC universe kind aka Colin Farrell… Yup, that’s what he looks like. This gossip site has way more shots of the set.

 

Three: Kunal Khemu channels Mumbai during a power cut (h/t founding member Ameya Nagarajan).

 

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