Prabir Purkayastha

How Modi’s privatization agenda fueled the COVID disaster in India

While the incompetence of the Indian government is starkly visible in its handling of the second wave of the COVID-19 crisis, its performance has been far worse on the vaccine front. The BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which seems to believe in the ideology of free-market capitalism, thinks that the market will magically produce the number of vaccines the country needs. This would explain why it has starved seven public sector vaccine manufacturing units—according to an April 17 article in Down to Earth—of any support instead of ramping up much-needed vaccine production.

The rights to produce the public sector vaccine, Covaxin, which has been developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and National Institute of Virology (NIV), in collaboration with Bharat Biotech, have been given to the private company partner on an exclusive basis. The Indian government also believed that Serum Institute of India, another private sector company and the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, which has tied up with AstraZeneca for producing Covishield, would make vaccines according to the country's requirements without any prior orders or capital support. The government did not even see the necessity to intervene and prevent India's new Quad ally, the U.S., from stopping sending India supplies of the required raw materials needed by India for manufacturing vaccines.

The sheer negligence by the government is further highlighted by the fact that even though India has about 20 licensed manufacturing facilities for vaccines and 30 biologic manufacturers, all of which could have been harnessed for vaccine manufacturing, only two companies are presently producing vaccines. That too is at a pace completely inadequate for India's needs.

India has a long history of vaccine development, which can be traced back to the Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing, in Mumbai, in the 1920s. With the Patents Act, 1970 and the reverse engineering of drugs by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) laboratories, the country also broke the monopoly of global multinationals. It is this change, fought for by the Left, that led to India emerging as the largest generic supplier of drugs and vaccines in the world and becoming the global pharmacy of the poor.

Bill Gates recently spoke to Sky News in the UK regarding India and South Africa's proposal to the World Trade Organization on the need to lift intellectual property (IP) protection for COVID-19 vaccines and medicines during the pandemic. Gates claimed that IP is not the issue and that "moving a vaccine… into a factory in India… It's only because of our grants and our expertise that can happen at all." In other words, without the white man coming in to tell India and other middle-income countries how to make vaccines and provide them with his money, these countries would not be able to make vaccines on their own.

This is a rehash of the AIDS debate, where the Western governments and Big Pharma argued that developing generic AIDS drugs would lead to the manufacturing of poor-quality drugs and theft of Western intellectual property. Bill Gates, who built his fortune on Microsoft's IP, is the leading defender of IP in the world. With his newfound halo as a great philanthropist, he is leading Big Pharma's charge against the weakening of patents on the global stage. The role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major funder of the World Health Organization, is also to dilute any move by the WHO to share patents and knowledge during the pandemic.

Indian companies are the largest manufacturers of existing vaccines by volume in the world, according to the WHO's Global Vaccine Market Report 2020. When it comes to measuring vaccine manufacturing by value, however, the global share held by multinational corporations or Big Pharma is much bigger than that of India. For example, as per the WHO report, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), with 11 percent of the global market by volume, generates 40 percent of the market by value, while Serum Institute with 28 percent of the market by volume has only 3 percent of the market by value. This shows that the patent-protected vaccines with monopoly pricing get much higher prices. This is the model that Bill Gates and his ilk are selling. Let Big Pharma make the big bucks even if it bankrupts the poorer countries. The Western philanthropic money of Gates and Warren Buffett will 'help' the poor Third World to get some vaccines, albeit slowly. As long as they get to call the shots.

The Modi government's approach to vaccines is based on the central pillar of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideology—which serves as the ideological parent of the ruling BJP—that the task of the state is only to help big capital. Anything else including planning is seen by the right wing as socialism. In the case of vaccines, it means not to make any attempt to get the companies, both in the public and private sectors, to make necessary preparations for a quick vaccination program: to put in the money and provide the necessary supply chain. Instead, the government believed that India's private pharmaceutical industry would do all of this on its own.

It forgot that the Indian pharmaceutical industry was the product of public domain science—the CSIR institutions—the public sector and nationalist companies like Cipla. They all came out of the national movement and built India's pharmaceutical industry. It is institutions like the Haffkine Institute under Sahib Sokhey's leadership and the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) built under the leadership of Dr. Pushpa Bhargava that led to India's vaccine and biologics capacity. It is on this base that India's vaccine manufacturing capacity rests.

It is not niji (private) companies that built the vaccine capacity in India, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims. The private sector companies rode on the back of public sector science and technology that was built in the country between the 1950s and the 1990s.

The Indian government recently opened up vaccinations for all adults in the country on May 1. To vaccinate all the eligible population—above 18 years of age—India would require about 2 billion doses of the vaccine in order to give the required two shots per person. To plan for the production of an order of this size, apart from technology and capital support, India also needs to plan for the complex supply chain that is required for production. This includes raw materials and intermediate supplies such as filters and special bags. There are at least 37 "critical items" that are currently embargoed by the U.S. from exports under the Defense Production Act, 1950, a relic of the U.S.'s Korean War.

On April 16, Adar Poonawalla, head of the Serum Institute of India, had taken to Twitter to ask U.S. President Joe Biden "to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the U.S. so that vaccine production can ramp up."

If India puts together the production capacity of the Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech, Biological E, and Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited, and the five other companies that have signed up to manufacture Sputnik V, developed by the Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology, India could have planned for an annual production capacity of more than 3 billion doses. If it also included the public sector units idling under the Modi government, India could have easily boosted its vaccine manufacturing capacity to 4 billion doses and produced the necessary 2 billion doses and more in 2021. It would then have made it possible for India to completely vaccinate its target population and yet have enough left to meet its export commitments including for the WHO's Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT)-Accelerator program and its vaccines pillar of COVAX. What is missing is a planning commission that could plan this exercise and create the political will to carry it forward. Not a vacuous Niti Ayog—the public policy think tank of the Indian government—and an incompetent government.

Instead, the Modi government did not even bother to place an order with the Serum Institute until January 11, and that too for a measly 11 million doses. The next order of 120 million Covishield and Covaxin doses was placed only in the third week of March when the number of cases had reached a daily caseload of nearly 40,000, and India was well into its deadly second wave. The government seemed to bank on its belief in the magic of the capitalist market, which it thought would solve all its problems, without any real effort on the center's part.

India and South Africa have asked the WTO to consider waiving the rules relating to intellectual property during the pandemic, and further sought that knowledge, including patents and know-how, should be shared without restrictions. This proposal has been backed by the WHO and has huge support among most countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The holdouts predictably are from the rich countries that want to protect the global vaccine market for their Big Pharma companies. Under pressure from the global community and the bad optics of the U.S. hoarding vaccines, the Biden administration has finally just decided to accept South Africa and India's initiative of a temporary patent waiver, after stonewalling it in the WTO until now. But this waiver is restricted to vaccine patents only and does not extend to other patents or associated intellectual property as South Africa and India's proposal had suggested. This is still a victory for the global public health community, though only a first step.

While India is spearheading the need to share know-how with all companies capable of manufacturing vaccines, it still has explaining to do as to why it has given an exclusive license to Bharat Biotech to manufacture a vaccine developed with public money and in public institutions like ICMR and NIV. Why is it not being shared under a nonexclusive license with both Indian companies and those companies outside India? Instead, ICMR is receiving royalties from Bharat Biotech from sharing its know-how exclusively with Bharat Biotech. Under public pressure, ICMR is now sharing its know-how with the government of the Indian state of Maharashtra's public sector Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation Limited, while giving Bharat Biotech six months' lead time with financial support money from the central government.

Modi had dreamed that India would be the vaccine arm of the Quad. He forgot that in order to compete with China, India needs a vaccine production base that not only takes care of its vaccination needs but also fulfills all its external commitments. China can do this because it has developed at least three vaccines already—from Sinopharm, Sinovac, and CanSino—that have been licensed to others. Their production is now being ramped up, and China is the largest supplier of vaccines to countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. And it has also managed to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus, unlike India.

This is where the Modi government has failed and failed badly. An incompetent, vainglorious leadership, combined with the RSS belief in magical capitalism, has led to the disaster that we are now facing.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

As India gasps to breathe, Modi abdicates responsibility

The COVID-19 pandemic continues its brutal march across India. Figures of new infections reached 355,828 on May 3—which accounted for more than 62 percent of the world's new infections on that day. As hospitals run out of beds, ICU capacity, and even oxygen, these factors have been contributing to the already skyrocketing death toll in the country. Dead bodies in mortuaries, crematoria and burial grounds speak of the awful toll of the pandemic.

India's daily numbers of COVID-19 cases have outstripped infection rates in other countries like the United States and Brazil. The end of the surge is nowhere in sight as more states and cities slip into the grip of the pandemic. The new confirmed cases are rising quite steeply in states like Karnataka, Bihar and West Bengal even as numbers in cities like Mumbai and Delhi are beginning to flatten. What is more worrying is that the positivity rates are rising quite steeply, indicating that the actual number of infected people is even higher.

After the first wave subsided in December 2020, the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared victory against the pandemic. Perhaps it truly believed in its own propaganda. At any rate, it was busy, chest-thumping on its great success. At the World Economic Forum in January, Modi said, "In a country which is home to 18 percent of the world population, that country has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively." The BJP's National Office Bearers meeting in February applauded the Modi government's performance in keeping the first wave of the virus under check. "The party unequivocally hails its leadership for introducing India to the world as a proud and victorious nation in the fight against COVID," said a press release issued by the BJP. This pyrrhic victory and these vainglorious claims are doubly painful as India grapples with a second wave that makes the first wave seem like a trailer.

The BJP was focusing on how to convert this so-called success into electoral victory in state elections when the second wave struck. As the numbers began to rise, the BJP decided that if it could not control the pandemic, it would try to control the narrative. It went on the offensive, with its troll army amplifying the message that the state governments have failed; people are to be blamed for abandoning the safety norms of masks and social distancing; everyone is to be blamed but the Modi government. This, notwithstanding the central government's signal of a return to normalcy by holding public rallies, election campaigns and huge religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela. If people did relax their adherence to the COVID-19 norms, they were only following the example of the leaders—Modi and others—on the dais during political rallies and roadshows, who appeared maskless while addressing large crowds during these events.

The first COVID-19 wave in India peaked around mid-September in 2020, touching nearly 100,000 new infections per day. It had gone down to about 10,000 by mid-February. This period should have been used to strengthen the public health system: increasing the numbers of hospital beds and ICU facilities, stepping up oxygen production and building a supply chain for delivery of medical oxygen. Tragically, the central government, which has centralized all powers under the Disaster Management Act, refused to prepare itself, or the states, or the public, for this second wave.

The worst failing in the current crisis is the lack of oxygen supply. When the lungs of patients are affected due to the virus, the most important medicine is oxygen. This shortage of oxygen has added to the rising death toll, as patients requiring oxygen are unable to get admissions in hospitals; they are dying as hospitals run out of oxygen; and oxygen cylinders are not available for home treatment. During the last week of April, several hospitals in Delhi reported that they had only a few hours of oxygen left. Failed oxygen supply has resulted in the deaths of patients in various hospitals, even in elite hospitals in the capital. If this is the situation in the nation's capital, and that too in elite hospitals, one can only imagine the plight of hospitals elsewhere in small towns and rural India.

That is the core of the current crisis. The major reason for deaths during a pandemic is when the number of serious patients outstrips the availability of hospital beds and the supply of oxygen. That is when fatalities start mounting. This is the case now in India.

In the first wave in India, the spread was limited to a few states, and to certain densely populated areas. This time, it is spreading across almost all states, and affecting a much larger cross-section of people.

Why didn't the government prepare for a rise of this magnitude? This government is, unfortunately, completely centralized; only the prime minister and his trusted lieutenant, Amit Shah, the home minister, can act. The other ministers are harnessed only to dismiss any criticism, even constructive criticism—from former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for example. Modi's sights were set on winning the elections in the east, particularly West Bengal where the BJP recently faced a decisive defeat. Modi continued to hold political rallies and only stopped when he realized the poor optics of being in electioneering mode amid a major pandemic. By then it was too late, and his poor handling of the situation on the ground led to his party's defeat in the West Bengal elections.

The central government has also failed to ensure a smooth vaccination rollout and has provided misleading information about vaccinations, which might not address the immediate crisis, but will help with controlling any future waves that may follow by creating herd immunity. The government's announcement about having vaccinated 157 million people as of May 3 is misleading. While 157 million vaccine doses have been given, only about 27 million people have received the two required doses as of May 3.

At the beginning of April, states such as Maharashtra, Delhi and Punjab were complaining about their vaccine supplies running low. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan dismissed these complaints by states as politicizing their "failures to control the spread of pandemic." The figures of vaccinations, however, reflect a different reality than the one claimed by the health minister and show that the number of vaccine doses given per day has indeed fallen drastically in mid-April in comparison to what it was in early April.

With the vaccine supply still constrained, the Modi government has failed to explain why it is now proposing that everyone above the age of 18 be vaccinated under the third phase of its vaccination drive. No explanation has been offered, nor a plan announced on how the country will ramp up its production and delivery to meet the expanded target.

The central government has mostly abandoned its responsibility to ensure that vaccines are available for the entire population, after its initial push to inoculate health workers and people above the age of 45. The government said that it will continue to provide 50 percent of the country's vaccine production to states and union territories for free under the third phase of the National Vaccine Strategy. The rest of the 50 percent will, however, have to be acquired by the state governments and the private hospitals from the two vaccine suppliers in India—Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech. The center has also removed all price controls on vaccines, creating a competition for scarce vaccines among the states, which will ultimately benefit the private suppliers. Instead of a well-thought-out plan to increase vaccine production, distribute it centrally and vaccinate all the people, this appears to be a cynical exercise in abandoning the central government's responsibility and shifting the blame to the state governments for failing to vaccinate the people.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute of Virology (NIV), in collaboration with Bharat Biotech, had developed Covaxin. There is no reason why ICMR-NIV should not have given licenses to other vaccine manufacturers, including half a dozen public sector units that are idling today, to ramp up production of this vaccine. Instead, the Modi government granted the rights to produce the vaccine, which was created with public-sector technology and public money to Bharat Biotech only. And no explanation has been given about why the Modi government refused to take issue with the United States on its denial to provide vital supplies for the production of vaccines in India until it reached the current crisis.

The Modi government believes in centralizing all political power in its hands and letting the "free market," led by big capital, solve the problems of the country. And if this policy fails, it can always blame the state governments, the anti-national forces and, finally, the opposition for its own failures.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter. Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Why Google is facing serious accusations of monopoly practices

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Google-Alphabet (Alphabet is Google's parent company) on October 20 for a range of anti-competitive practices using its monopoly power in the search market. It is the only major action in the U.S. against tech monopolies in recent years, the last one being the 1998 action against Microsoft. Eleven state attorneys general have joined the Department of Justice suit, with more expected to follow.

Google's current market share in online searches globally stands at about 92 percent and rises to more than 98 percent in countries like India. The only market in which it has virtually no market share is in China, where it shut shop for its search engine in 2010.

The four major tech companies—Google-Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple—are globally on the radar for their monopoly power and their ability to drive out competition. The recent hearings in the U.S. Congress relating to the Big Four were followed by a staff report of the subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law that recommended appropriate legislative action to Congress to either break up or limit these companies.

Facebook has additionally come under the scanner for being an instrument of hate speech, helping the formation of violent militias, and promoting conspiracy theories, including COVID-19 conspiracies. A Delhi assembly committee—Committee on Peace and Harmony—is investigating Facebook's role in Delhi's communal riots that took place earlier in 2020 (full disclosure: I also deposed before this committee).

Meanwhile, Google faces the following charges in the lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice:

  • Creating a web of exclusionary and interlocking business agreements to shut out competitors
  • Paying mobile phone manufacturers and web browsers to make Google as their preset, default search engine
  • Controlling the online ad market with its selling and buying tools to ensure that web publishers are locked in
  • Using its control over the Android operating system to position its Chrome web browser and search engine as the default for mobile platforms

Much of these sound like legalese and beyond our ability to understand what Google is doing. The simple issue is that Google uses its monopoly over the search engine and its other Google properties to grab more than 30 percent—$103.73 billion in 2019—of the global digital ad revenue pie. Facebook has a little more than 20 percent, but today's story is Google and not Facebook.

Google and Facebook have one similarity. Neither of them generates any content; they show users content generated by others. Their entire business model is capturing our eyeballs so that we, or our attention, can be sold to advertisers. Those who create content may get a small fraction of the ad revenue that Google generates, but the bulk of the digital revenue is appropriated by Google as the major gatekeeper of the digital world.

How does Google get so much of the ad revenue? Does its search engine not show other sites that a person searching on Google would also visit? And would these sites also not get a share of the online advertisements?

Visiting other sites via Google searches is decreasing year by year, as pointed out by Rand Fishkin, a leading expert on search engine optimization. During the House hearing on July 16, 2019, the chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law, David Cicilline, said, "In 2004, Google's cofounder Larry Page said the purpose of Google is to have people come to Google, quickly find out what you want and to get you out of Google and get you to the right place as fast as possible." Fishkin shows with figures that this is not the case anymore; if it ever was. Today, the majority of searches on Google lead to no further clicks on the links in the displayed search pages (zero clicks).

In the browser search market, more than 50 percent of searches generate zero clicks on the search result page links. If clicks do occur, a significant share of such outgoing clicks is only for other Google sites such as YouTube, Google Maps, etc. Clicks on search pages leading outside the Google universe are dwindling every year.

The situation is worse with mobile searches than for the desktop market, where Google has a more dominant position. It might seem that Apple mobile phones should be independent of Google and, therefore, non-Google websites might fare better in Apple's ecosystem of iPhones, iPad, etc. That, however, is not the case. Google pays an estimated $8 billion to $12 billion, nearly 20 percent of Apple's annual profits, for Apple to carry Google search and maps as the default setting for Apple phones and Siri.

These figures relate to the search engine outputs and the resulting clicks. What about the proportion of web traffic referrals that sites receive, meaning when sites are visited from other sites, where do they come from? Seventy percent of such web referrals on any site still come from Google properties. If a website gets on Google's bad side, the site could fall into a deep black hole, which only the faithful will visit.

So, if a website owner wants to generate traffic for a site, the owner will have to configure the site in a way that Google can catalog all the content on the website easily. If Google makes changes, the website owner will have to adapt; otherwise, the site will not show up on Google searches, Google Amp pages, and Google News. All sites have to spend money to make Google's task of crawling the web for content easier. If people want their videos to be viewed, the only realistic option is YouTube. And there is no way to fight with Google even if that means a dwindling share of ad revenue for a website owner. Google holds all the cards!

How does Google ensure that most search queries on Google lead to zero clicks? Zero clicks happen because Google increasingly curates the results of the queries, displaying the required information on the search result page itself so that most searchers do not go further. Even Wikipedia is worried, as its clicks from Google are dwindling.

Even when queries lead to other sites in the list of results, they also still lead to Google properties as they promote either the sites or the content of such sites—for example, YouTube videos on the search page are curated in such a way that people do not visit the world outside Google.

The rules of ranking that Google imposes on others do not apply to Google properties and sites, which have consistently higher rankings on Google searches than searches on other search engines like DuckDuckGo, Bing, etc. As Fishkin puts it, the answer to the question of how to be ranked number one on a Google search is an easy one: be owned by Google!

The European Union regulators have penalized Google on occasions, but Google has been happy to pay the fines, as the monopoly it has achieved through its anti-competitive action cannot be reversed. It is like license fees that telecom companies pay to secure the monopoly of the airwaves. In India too, Google has been fined, but the amount of the fine was a paltry $21 million. It does not even count as a rap on the knuckles for Google.

These tech monopolies are also facing action in the European Union and Australia and even in the UK. In the UK, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (now renamed as the Competition and Markets Authority) was replaced with a weakened Competition Commission in 1999, a step which India quickly copied in 2002. Even with a weaker regulatory framework than the earlier anti-monopoly regulations, the UK's Competition and Markets Authority stated in its recent report that these companies "are now protected by such strong incumbency advantages—including network effects, economies of scale and unmatchable access to user data—that potential rivals can no longer compete on equal terms… We need a new, regulatory approach."

India has been charting a very different course. Not only have the government and its regulatory agencies sheltered Reliance Jio in controlling the national telecom monopoly, but they have also 'blessed' huge investments from Google and Facebook of $4.5 billion and $5.7 billion respectively, helping cement all three of their monopolies. While all other technology partners bring in their technology tools and platforms, Jio's key to success is its old-fashioned monopoly over India's telecom network. India is slated to be the world's biggest market after China in the coming decades.

The global anti-monopoly actions show that what we are witnessing is a tectonic shift in the way big tech companies and their owners are being viewed. Not as Ayn Rand's imaginary captains of industry, who through superman-like powers are creating a new world, but simply as venal and predatory monopolies. Even in the fractured politics of the U.S., there seems to be a bipartisan consensus that monopolies are inherently dangerous to consumers and competitors alike. Otherwise, why would a Justice Department under Trump file a case against Google-Alphabet, in which, according to its spokespersons, nothing—presumably even breaking up the monopolies as advocated by Senator Elizabeth Warrenis off the table.

Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

Why 2020 is the year of black holes

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

The Nobel Prize in physics for 2020 has been shared by Roger Penrose, the mathematical physicist, for his work on the theoretical basis of black holes, and astronomers Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez, who led independent teams, for verifying the existence of such a black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

Penrose showed that the consequence of Einstein's general theory of relativity is the formation of black holes, not only in collapsing stars but also in certain dense regions of space. Such black holes capture everything: nothing can come out, not even light. Genzel and Ghez and their respective teams independently showed by tracking the trajectory of a star that a superheavy object — around 4 million solar masses — exists at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Ghez is the fourth woman to win a Nobel Prize in physics, the first one being Marie Curie, who won in 1903.

The Nobel Prize has assumed a halo that it does not deserve. Alfred Nobel was paying blood money for creating dynamite, which magnified the horror of war. But in sciences, it is still seen as the touchstone of greatness, even as its value is going down in peace and literature, which are seen to be far more guided by politics. How else do we explain Kissinger's peace prize in 1973 and Churchill's literature prize in 1953?

There are two Indian connections to black holes. The first is through physics. It was Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, an Indian physicist, who had shown in 1930 that if a star was larger than 1.4 times the solar mass, it would not stop collapsing. Chandrasekhar was the nephew of C.V. Raman, who was India's first Nobel laureate in physics. Chandrasekhar received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1983. He moved to the United States in 1936 and assumed American citizenship in 1953. Below the mass now known as the Chandrasekhar limit, the star would become a white dwarf. If the mass of the star was higher, he did not speculate on what would happen.

We now know that it would blow up in a supernova, and then collapse with its atoms squeezed into the nucleus-sized spaces forming a neutron star; or not stop collapsing at all, thereby creating a black hole.

The second Indian connection, and an unhappy one, is how the term black hole came about. It is now established that Robert Dicke and John Wheeler, both physics professors from Princeton University, were the first to coin the term black hole for the gravitational collapse of a star creating a singularity. And Dicke's family remembers his use of the phrase black hole whenever he could not find something in the house, asking whether it had disappeared into the Black Hole of Calcutta. Black Hole of Calcutta was, as we know, was a grossly overblown myth about a number of English soldiers and East India Company European employees being shut in a small prison room with two small windows, killing a number of them due to suffocation. The numbers that were claimed then by the East India Company have been disputed by a number of historians, but provided the justification of wholescale killings, plunder and the seizure of lands that finally became the British Empire in India. It overshadowed—in English minds—the innumerable colonial massacres that the British carried out and the devastating famines that accompanied British rule.

Einstein's general theory of relativity, formulated in 1915, led Karl Schwarzschild, an astronomer serving in the German Army in World War I, to publish a solution to Einstein's field equations, which showed that if matter and energy exceeded a certain bound, it would cause space-time to collapse on itself, producing a singularity—or a black hole. The external world would feel its gravitational effect, but no mass or even light could escape from such a black hole.

Though Einstein's general theory predicted the possibility of black holes, even Einstein did not really believe that they could exist. One major objection about the formation of black holes was that it demanded the collapse to be symmetrical, and it was argued that no collapse could be perfectly symmetrical, and therefore the formation of a black hole was a remote possibility. Penrose showed, using a mathematical topology that he developed known as the Penrose transform, that unlike other derivations for black holes, his approach did not require perfect symmetry of the collapsing matter. Applying the general theory of relativity, Penrose showed that the only requirement was enough density of matter in a given space, and this condition was enough for the formation of a black hole.

Such a theoretical derivation is not enough for physicists; physics needs experimental evidence to confirm a theory. Or at least theory alone is not enough for the Nobel Prize and the Swedish Academy that privilege experimental physics over theory. This was the argument against giving Einstein the Nobel Prize, though the reasons ran far deeper.

Einstein had become world-famous for having turned the familiar world of Newtonian physics upside down. But despite his worldwide fame, he had his enemies both in Germany and in academia because of his opposition to World War I, his radical views including socialism, and the fact that he was Jewish. The prevailing orthodoxy of physics, including the Nobel Committee, dismissed Einstein for all these reasons and argued that Einstein's theories were only theories, and lacked experimental proof.

To end this argument, the English astronomer Arthur Eddington in 1919 proposed an experimental verification of the theory of relativity. If a massive object curves space around itself due to its mass, it should be possible to observe this curvature by measuring starlight passing close to the sun during an eclipse. Eddington did this during a solar eclipse of 1919 and was able to show that the results closely agreed with the predictions of Einstein's general theory of relativity. The Times of London declared, "Revolution in Science: New Theory of the Universe," a New York Times headline wrote, "Lights All Askew in the Heavens." Einstein became a rock star in physics, a stature unmatched by any scientist.

But even that did not get him the Nobel Prize in 1920 and 1921. The science historian Robert Friedman wrote in his book The Politics of Excellence that the Nobel Committee could not stomach a "political and intellectual radical, who—it was said—did not conduct experiments, crowned as the pinnacle of physics." The 1920 prize went to an eminently forgettable discovery of an inert nickel-steel alloy, and in 1921, the Nobel Prize was not awarded. By then, denying Einstein was possible for the committee even if it meant not bestowing the prize on anyone at all. Finally, in 1922, Einstein was awarded the held-over Nobel of 1921, not for the theory of relativity for which he was most famous, but rather for the discovery of the photoelectric effect—the discovery that light also behaves as a particle—that Einstein had made in 1905. It was also the same year that he had published the first of his relativity papers, on the special theory of relativity.

Penrose's work had laid a firm mathematical basis for black holes and, in the heart of such a hole, a space-time singularity. Stephen Hawking developed this concept using the general theory of relativity to show that if we project time into the past, we would find that the entire universe started with such a singularity in time, or a Big Bang. Penrose and Hawking worked together in the 1960s, and their work has been widely hailed for unraveling the origins of the universe. Although Hawking achieved iconic status, as perhaps the most famous physicist after Einstein, he never received the Nobel Prize. Penrose's Nobel Prize for the space-time singularity is perhaps a shamefaced bow to Hawking for the Nobel Prize that he never received.

Theories in physics open up possibilities to understand our universe. But without experimental verification, there is still a nagging doubt in the minds of the Nobel Committee that some new phenomena could contradict the theory. So the search for experimental verification is viewed as the supposed gold standard of physics. And when it comes to astrophysics, it is a daunting task to prove theories with experiments on stars that would have to be observed from light-years away. This is why Chandrasekhar's Nobel Prize took more than 50 years, Penrose's 55, to be awarded. And as Nobel Prizes are not given posthumously, physicists like Hawking are never awarded for their remarkable contributions.

An observation that confirms the existence of a superheavy object that does not emit any energy would provide verification of Penrose's prediction of a black hole. This is what Genzel and Ghez achieved, finding that the Milky Way galaxy, like most galaxies, hosts a massive black hole at its center. Dr. Andrea Ghez is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Dr. Genzel the director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany. Ghez's team used the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, while "Genzel's group used telescopes in Chile operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO)." Both the teams have been in "competition" for some time and have jointly received many honors. In this case, it was over tracking stars close to the galactic center of the Milky Way. Both teams tracked the same star, called S02 by Ghez's team and S2 by Genzel, which had a very short orbiting period around the center of the Milky Way of only about 16 years compared to the sun's orbit of 200 million years. Both teams' results, using different telescopes and data sets over decades, have shown that they are in close agreement that a superheavy object, with a mass of about 4 million suns, lies at the center of our galaxy. In the staid language of the Nobel Committee, "A robust interpretation of these observations is that the compact object at the Galactic center is compatible with being a supermassive black hole."

We have come a long way from Einstein's theory of relativity and Chandrasekhar's stellar collapse. Let me end with Chandrasekhar's Nobel speech, where he quoted the only Nobel laureate in literature from India, Rabindranath Tagore:

"Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Into that heaven of freedom, let me awake."

Often quoted, perhaps overused, but nevertheless appropriate for our dark times.

Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

We’re a long way away from COVID-19 immunity — even with vaccines

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter.

As the pandemic continues to spread throughout the world, many countries seem to have given up the fight against COVID-19 and are now waiting for a vaccine to protect against the virus. With cases exceeding 32 million, and more than a million dead, the world economy has taken a bigger hit than at any other time since the end of the Great Depression of 1929-39.

The U.S. and India are now showing the highest numbers of total and new cases of COVID-19. Both have stopped talking about how to stop the pandemic, and are only focusing on reopening—or as India calls it, "unlockdown."

Giving up on containing the COVID-19 pandemic is an admission that public health systems have failed. India, with a poor public health infrastructure, has one of the most privatized health care systems in the world. The U.S. has the most privatized health care system among wealthy countries, with poor outcomes. It is not surprising then that both these countries have failed in facing what is essentially a public health challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic shows the contradictions between the needs of capitalism and the health of the people. Capitalism requires ill-health for making profits: selling patented medicines, costly stays in hospitals, and expensive procedures. The objective of the public health system is to ensure that people stay healthy, robbing capitalists of the opportunity to make profits.

The good news for the world is that 41 vaccines—more accurately candidate vaccines—are currently under different phases of clinical trials, and another 151 are in the pipeline. Two of the vaccines currently in Phase 1/2 trials are being developed by Indian companies—one from Cadila Healthcare Limited and the other from Bharat Biotech—and are set to start their Phase 3 trials soon. Bharat Biotech is also working with Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis on a nasal route for delivering a vaccine.

Normally, vaccine development and testing take from five to ten years, so it would be a significant achievement if we succeed in making effective vaccines available by the end of 2020 or early 2021. The progress so far also shows that we have the scientific capacity to develop a large number of vaccines for infectious diseases. The reason we have not done so for diseases other than COVID-19 is that such infectious diseases were thought to be the diseases of poor countries, and do not provide enough profits for global big pharma to invest in vaccines against infectious diseases. It required a public health emergency in the rich countries for vaccine development to take a front seat in medical science again.

As immunity may not be permanent, unless we have herd immunity at the global level, we will continue to see outbreaks in different countries. The virus will not respect national boundaries. And while large parts of the global population have no guarantee of a vaccine, the rich countries with 13 percent of the world's population have reserved more than half the vaccines from the leading vaccine manufacturers.

India may be luckier than most other developing countries as it has a large capacity for manufacturing vaccines. If a vaccine from AstraZeneca-Oxford comes through, Serum Institute of India, Pune, which is partnering with AstraZeneca, has earmarked a significant part of its output for India. Cadila's and Bharat Biotech's vaccines are currently in clinical trials. They also have a significant capacity for vaccine manufacture. Dr. Reddy's Laboratories, an Indian company, has partnered with Russia's Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology for distribution of the Sputnik V vaccine. Contrary to some news reports, Russia's Sputnik V was never authorized for the general population and is currently undergoing Phase 3 trials since August in various countries—Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Mexico and possibly India.

After the disaster of U.S. President Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic, he is desperate to claim success in some way or another before the November elections. He has been pressuring the Food and Drug Administration to give emergency authorization to some of the vaccines that the U.S. has invested in through its $11 billion Operation Warp Speed program. These vaccines have to provide evidence that they are safe and provide sufficient immunity by either preventing the disease or limiting it to a mild form. As some of these vaccines are two-shot vaccines and need at least two months after the final shot to be effective, there is no way that such an exercise can be done by the U.S. presidential election on November 3.

After public criticism of the FDA's earlier emergency use authorization for hydroxychloroquine and convalescent plasma therapy, both of which turned out to be of little value, the FDA is cautious about making a third mistake, especially as vaccine skepticism is strong in the United States. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S., has termed the anti-vaxxers as a part of the anti-science movement that has gained significant influence in the United States. Anti-science, racism and a deep distrust of the government are driving the rightward shift in U.S. politics. A misstep on vaccines can cause significant damage in protecting people in the long run.

We have also seen similar missteps in India, where the Indian Council of Medical Research's (ICMR) director general issued a stern directive in his letter in July to 12 hospitals participating in trials for Bharat Biotech's vaccine Covaxin, demanding that all trials—Phase 1, 2 and 3—should be completed within six weeks so a success could be announced on August 15, which is India's Independence Day. After an outcry, the ICMR claimed that it was not a directive but a suggestion, with no explanation about why such a harebrained suggestion should have been made in the first place.

Once a vaccine is found to be successful in the Phase 3 trials, it might appear that our problems would be over quickly. Not so fast—we then have the formidable challenge of making it available to at least 4 to 5 billion people for creating herd immunity. This means producing about 8 to 9 billion doses, as a number of these vaccines are two-shot vaccines. We then have the even more challenging task of setting up supply chains to provide vaccines to centers all over each country before people can be vaccinated. The CEO of Serum Institute, the largest generic vaccine manufacturer in the world, has already flagged that India will need about $10.7 billion to procure and deliver the vaccine, a further challenge to the government's finances.

Several manufacturers in India have ramped up vaccine production capacity, so they may be able to produce the vaccines, even though they may not meet the requirements quickly. But an even more daunting task is to create the entire cold chain (temperature-controlled supply chain for all the elements of storage and distribution) for supplying the vaccines to the vaccination centers.

In case of the old-fashioned inactivated viruses, or the more recent use of adenovirus as vector, the cold chain required is between 36 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the cold chain requirement for most commonly used vaccines including those for the flu and polio. For Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, both of whom have developed mRNA vaccines, however, the temperatures required are between -94 and -112 degrees Fahrenheit, a far more difficult task even for countries like the United States. If the mRNA vaccines are the ones that prove to be the successful ones and the others are not, building up a supply chain for the vaccines that can provide the colder range of storage for most of the world will take far more than a year.

The other challenge is that we have never vaccinated such large numbers in such a short time ever. In India, the pulse polio program uses oral drops and immunizes about 170 million children per year. This is still well below the required 1.5 to 2 billion vaccine shots for India, whether the AstraZeneca or the Gamaleya vaccine, both of which are two-shot vaccines. And for a two-shot vaccine, we have the added difficulty of tracking the people who have received the first shot so that they do not miss their second.

Even if the major economies can solve their problems of procuring the vaccines by jumping the queue with money or captive production capacities, what about the rest of the world? For them, the only major alternative is the WHO-Gavi-CEPI's Covax platform, which requires at least $2 billion by December 2020. It has raised $700 million, and has commitments from 64 major countries for funds, but is still short by $700-800 million.

The U.S., having pulled out of WHO, is not a part of any global effort for vaccines and says that it might help others only after it has helped itself. Russia and China are not a part of the Covax and are working out bilateral programs along with clinical trials for sharing their vaccines.

If vaccine development was simply a scientific exercise, we should have been able to address the questions of when we should consider the clinical trial results satisfactory to start mass vaccination and which section of the people should get the vaccine and when, and at what cost. We would also have been able to discuss how to create the global and national infrastructure for all countries and all people to be safe. Instead, we see the ugly face of "vaccine nationalism," with each country for itself, which will protect neither the nations nor their people. We've seen tech and trade wars; here come the vaccine wars.

Prabir Purkayastha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.

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