Prabir Purkayastha

How Facebook’s algorithms promote hate and drive toxic content

Facebook has been in the limelight for two issues of late—both damaging from the company's perspective, but in terms of public interest, each has its own level of usefulness. The news item with less long-term significance but more sensational media appeal is that what was supposed to be a small configuration change took Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp down for a few hours on October 4. It affected billions of users, showing the world how important Facebook and other tech giants have become to many people's daily lives and even to the operation of small businesses. Of course, the much more significant news is the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former employee of the company, who made tens of thousands of pages of Facebook's internal documents public. These documents showed that Facebook's leadership repeatedly prioritized profits over social good. Facebook's algorithms polarized society and promoted hate and fake news because they drove up "engagement" on its platforms. That the platform is tearing apart communities, and even endangering teens, especially girls, for not having "perfect" bodies, apparently mattered not a jot to Facebook.

The Wall Street Journal has published detailed exposés quoting Facebook's internal documents and Frances Haugen, who has also appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" and in congressional hearings. "The thing I saw at Facebook over and over again was there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook," Haugen told CBS correspondent Scott Pelley on "60 Minutes." "And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimize for its own interests, like making more money."

The 37-year-old data scientist has filed eight whistleblower complaints against Facebook with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with the help of a nonprofit organization, Whistleblower Aid. These complaints are backed by hard evidence: tens of thousands of internal Facebook documents Haugen had secretly copied before leaving Facebook.

Why is this big news when these issues relating to Facebook have been raised time and again, and were more prominently highlighted after revelations regarding the data firm Cambridge Analytica and Facebook became public in 2018? Did we not already know how Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms have become powerful instruments today that help promote hatred and divisive politics? Have the UN investigators not held Facebook responsible for the genocidal violence against Rohingyas in Myanmar? Were similar patterns not visible during the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 2013 and 2017?

The big news is that we now have evidence that Facebook was fully aware of what its platform was doing. We have it from the horse's mouth: internal Facebook documents that Haugen has made public.

By prioritizing posts that promote "engagement"—meaning people reading, liking or replying to posts on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram—Facebook ensured that people stayed on its platform for much longer. Facebook users could then be "sold" to the advertisers more effectively, by showing them more ads. Facebook's business model is not promoting news, friendly chitchat among users, or entertaining people. It is selling its users to those who can sell them merchandise. And like Google, it has a far better understanding of who its users are and what they may buy. This is what provided Facebook with 98 percent of its revenue in 2020 and has made it one of the six trillion-dollar companies (as of September 2021) in terms of market capitalization.

Testifying before Congress on October 5, Haugen said that "Facebook uses artificial intelligence to find dangerous content," Ars Technica reported. "The problem is that 'Facebook's own research says they cannot adequately identify dangerous content. And as a result, those dangerous algorithms that they admit are picking up the extreme sentiments, the division[s].'"

That this was happening is widely known and has been discussed, including in my own columns. Facebook's response to this criticism was that they were setting an independent supervisory board for oversight and employing a large number of fact-checkers. This and other processes would help filter out hate posts and fake news. What they hid was that all these actions were simply cosmetic. The driver of traffic, or what a person sees in their feed—or, in Facebook's terms, what they engage with—is determined by algorithms. And these algorithms were geared to promote the most toxic and divisive posts, as this is what attracts engagement. Increasing engagement is the key driver of Facebook's algorithms and defeats any measure to detoxify its content.

Haugen's congressional testimony also highlights what the real problems with Facebook are and what governments around the world must do in order to protect their citizens: to make Facebook accountable, not by censoring hate speech and fact-checking misinformation posted by individual users, but rather by targeting their algorithms' tendency to enable the dangerous high-engagement content. "This is not simply a matter of certain social media users being angry or unstable, or about one side being radicalized against the other," she said. "These problems are solvable… Facebook can change, but is clearly not going to do so on its own." While addressing the U.S. Congress about what can be done to regulate Facebook nationally, Haugen also acknowledged the problems Facebook's algorithms have caused worldwide. The solution, therefore, must also be global. In her testimony, she said that Facebook's meager proposed self-reforms would be insufficient to making the company accountable for its actions until they are made fully transparent. Facebook is hiding behind "safe harbor" laws that protect tech companies like Facebook, who do not generate content themselves, but provide their platform for what is called user-generated content. In the U.S., it is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that allows these tech companies to "moderate content on their services"; in India, it is Section 79 of the Information Technology Act. Both countries are considering reforms.

In the U.S., "a Section 230 overhaul… would hold the social media giant responsible for its algorithms," Ars Technica reports. In Haugen's words, "If we had appropriate oversight, or if we reformed [Section] 230 to make Facebook responsible for the consequences of their intentional ranking decisions, I think they would get rid of engagement-based ranking.… Because it is causing teenagers to be exposed to more anorexia content, it is pulling families apart, and in places like Ethiopia, it's literally fanning ethnic violence." The key problem is not the hateful content users generate on Facebook; it is Facebook's algorithms that drive this poisonous content to a person's Facebook feed continuously to maximize the company's advertising revenue.

Haugen added:

"Facebook wants to trick you into thinking that privacy protections or changes to Section 230 alone will be sufficient. While important, these will not get to the core of the issue, which is that no one truly understands the destructive choices made by Facebook except Facebook. We can afford nothing less than full transparency. As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable. Until the incentives change Facebook will not change. Left alone, Facebook will continue to make choices that go against the common good, our common good."

Of course, the widespread prevalence of toxic content on Facebook's platforms is helped by its willful neglect of not having language classifiers—the algorithms used to detect hate speech—for content that is not in English and is created in other languages. Even though Hindi is the third most spoken language in the world and Bengali is the sixth, according to Haugen, Facebook does not have enough "hate speech classifiers" in these two languages.

I have previously written why divisive content and fake news have more virality than any other content. Haugen's documents confirm what analysts including myself have been saying all along. The algorithms that Facebook and other digital tech companies use today do not directly code rules to drive up engagement. These companies instead use machine learning, or what is loosely called artificial intelligence, to create these rules. It is the objective—increasing engagement—that creates the rules that lead to the display of toxic content on the users' feeds that is tearing societies apart and damaging democracy. We now have hard evidence in the form of the leaked documents that this is indeed what has been happening. Even worse, the Facebook leadership and Mark Zuckerberg have been fully aware of the problem all along.

Not all the harm on Facebook's platform, however, was caused by algorithms. From Haugen's documents, we find that Facebook had "whitelisted" high-profile users whose content would be promoted even if they violated Facebook guidelines. Millions of these special users could violate Facebook's rules with impunity. I had earlier written on evidence provided by the Wall Street Journal about how Facebook India protected BJP leaders in spite of repeated red flags relating to their posts being raised within Facebook itself.

This is not all that Haugen's treasure trove of Facebook's internal documents reveal. Reminiscent of cigarette companies research on how to hook children to smoking, Facebook had researched "tweens," who are children in the age group of 10 to 12. Their research was on how to hook the "pre-teens" to Facebook's platforms so that they could create new consumers for its platforms. This is despite their internal research showing that Facebook's platforms promoted anorexia and other eating disorders, depression, and suicidal tendencies among teens.

All these facts should damage Facebook's image. But it is a trillion-dollar company and one of the biggest in the world. Its fat cash balance, coupled with the power it wields in politics and its ability to "hack" elections, provides the protection that big capital receives under capitalism. The cardinal sin that big capital may not tolerate is lying to other capitalists. The internal documents that Haugen has submitted to the SEC could finally result in pushback against social media giants and lead to their regulation—if not strong regulation, at least some weak constraints on the algorithms that promote hate on these social media platforms.

A decade-old quote is at least as relevant now in light of these recent Facebook developments as it was when then 28-year-old Silicon Valley tech whiz Jeff Hammerbacher first said it: "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads." This has long been the beating drum driving the march of social media giants to their trillions.

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.

Are Bezos and Musk launching a new space age — or just a U.S. space grab?

The space race was once between two countries—the Soviet Union and the United States. It is now (at least on the surface) between three billionaires—Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Two of them—Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, and Bezos, founder of Blue Origin—recently rode their respective companies' suborbital flights (meaning that they cannot be considered proper spaceflights, as they did not reach a stable orbit around the Earth). Branson's space ambitions seem to be limited to developing a market for the exotica of space tourism. Elon Musk and his company SpaceX have been playing for the long haul, with a series of rockets and launches already to the company's credit, including to the International Space Station. Bezos and Blue Origin also fall into the latter camp.

Behind this apparent show of rich kids playing with their expensive space toys, there are bigger forces at play—namely, that big capital is entering spaceflight, hitherto the exclusive domain of nation-states. While it appears that three men with deep pockets are funding their respective space ventures, the reality is that it is the U.S. taxpayers who are funding these space efforts. In this new space age, the U.S. is also proposing to ride roughshod over the space agreements that space is a "global commons." The U.S. would like to convert space into its "final frontier," under the premise that space belongs to any country that can mine its riches.

Many people take for granted that the U.S. was the winner of the space race against the Soviet Union, since they beat the Soviets to the moon. But what is overlooked in this narrative is that the space competition is not simply about who sent the first man to the moon, but also about who built the better rockets.

Strangely enough, it was the fall of the Soviet Union that brought forth information that Soviet technology produced rocket engines that had consistently outperformed the American ones. Today, the Russian-produced rocket engines—RD-180 and RD-181—still power U.S. rockets. The Atlas rocket line, which is the mainstay of U.S. heavy-lift launch vehicles, uses RD-180 engines. Atlas is owned by United Launch Alliance (ULA), which is a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. When Orbital Sciences (now a part of Northrop Grumman) was looking for launch vehicles for its Antares program, they used Soviet-era 40-year-old, mothballed NK-33 rocket engines. After one of them blew up due to cracks in the aging engines, Antares switched their rocket engines—to yet another engine designed and produced by Russians, the RD-181.

In 1992, just as Russian rocket engines were becoming the mainstay of the U.S. space program, the U.S. imposed sanctions on the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Russia's Glavkosmos. Glavkosmos was Russia's space marketing arm for selling cryogenic rocket engines and technology. These sanctions were only withdrawn after ISRO developed its own cryogenic engine technology. Russia's contribution to India's rocket program was the seven cryogenic engines that it sold to ISRO, a part of the N1 upper stage of the Soviet Union's moon mission.

Why did the Soviet-era rockets perform better than the U.S. rockets? It is because the Soviets had mastered what is called the closed-cycle rocket engines well before the Americans. For any rocket capable of spaceflight, it needs both fuel—e.g., kerosene, hydrogen, or methane—and a burning medium, such as oxygen. Meanwhile, in an open-cycle engine—Saturn V of the Apollo program was an open-cycle design—a part of the fuel does not reach the main combustion chamber. It is used to power a turbo-compressor pumping fuel and oxygen and exits directly into the atmosphere. This results in a loss of efficiency for the engine, which then has to be compensated by carrying more fuel.

In a closed-cycle engine, or what is called "staged combustion," the products of the first-stage combustion powering the turbo-compressor are fed to the main combustion chamber, avoiding any loss of fuel. The Soviet engineers had solved the problem of materials that had to withstand the extremely harsh conditions of injecting the products of oxygen-rich combustion into the main combustion chamber. The U.S. engineers thought that this was simply not possible and were shocked when, while visiting Russia in the '90s, they were shown the mothballed engines of the ill-fated N1 project, the Soviet attempt at the moon shot. These were the engines that Orbital Sciences tried to use for their Antares program, christening them as AJ-26, before they switched to the more advanced Russian RD-181 engines.

Following the Ukraine crisis of 2014, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on many Russian companies. However, it still uses rocket engines sourced from Russia for its space program, both civilian and military. After the U.S. space shuttle program was shut down in 2011, taking U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station and bringing them back was left to Russian Soyuz rockets. It was only after SpaceX developed its space shuttle that the U.S. again had a spacecraft for carrying its astronauts to the International Space Station.

The U.S. Congress has decreed that U.S. companies will have to phase out the Russian engines from their military launches by the end of 2022. This is where Bezos and Musk come in, as both are vying for the future launches that the U.S. military and NASA are planning. Though it appears as if Musk and Bezos are developing the rockets using their own money, it is still NASA that is footing the bill. NASA pays upfront development costs and, later, price per launch.

If the rocket engines are the key to any serious space program, where does the U.S. stand in this new space age? ULA has had to switch to the U.S.-made engine as per the new NASA requirement. It has chosen the BE-4 rocket engine from Bezos' Blue Origin, though ULA is reportedly unhappy with delays by Blue Origin and the lack of "attention and priority" the company is putting on the engine. The other rocket engines in the fray are from Musk's SpaceX. Orbital Sciences still appears to be tied to Russian engines for its cargo services to the space station. So the U.S. rocket engines seem to be restricted to BE-4 from Blue Origin and SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket/Raptor engines. The American space race is essentially a two-horse race between the two super-rich billionaires.

How do Bezos and Musk fund their space ventures? The public believes it is with money that the 'visionary' billionaires have made as a result of their acumen for entrepreneurship—they represent a version of Ayn Rand's 'heroes' from her novels. The brutal truth is that Bezos as a capitalist has squeezed his workers, increasing their workload so much that they are unable to even take bathroom breaks. Amazon pays its workers wages that are "close to the poverty line for a family of four" and need to be supplemented by social welfare. The company has destroyed the small retail sector, and it competes with its own suppliers with Amazon-branded products and is "crushing them with competitive pricing."

Musk claims to be the other visionary by developing Tesla, the electric car of the future. While the existing automakers were slow to develop electric cars, Tesla has an edge of being the early mover and cashing in on the environmental regulations in various countries that demanded that automakers earn carbon credits by selling a certain percentage of their output as electric cars. For example, in the first quarter of 2021, almost all of Tesla's profits came from carbon credits it sells to other automakers. Since Tesla makes only electric cars, it has surplus carbon credits that it sells for a profit to other automakers. The crucial component of electric cars is the batteries, which Tesla outsources to others. One of the key battery suppliers to Tesla is Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd. (CATL), which is the largest lithium battery manufacturer in the world. Its owner, Zeng Yuqun, has a net worth more than that of Jack Ma of Alibaba. What Musk has is a huge social media presence, which he has leveraged in hyping up his auto, and now space, ventures.

The other disturbing aspect of the new space age ushered in by the space billionaires is the U.S. policy of grabbing space for its private companies. This violates the Outer Space Treaty. The U.S. position is that whether or not outer space is a global commons, its commercial exploitation is open to all. This is a position the U.S. had on seabed mining in international waters as well. Such a policy privileges the powerful and technologically advanced states and is another way of blocking the essence of the global commons.

Behind this hype of a new space age is the reality of a new space grab. This is what Bezos and Musk represent: a new space age in which the billionaires can leave this world they are destroying in the hope of discovering new lands to conquer and again destroy.

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.

The great scientific crusader who debunked the biological myths about race

On July 4, Richard Lewontin, the dialectical biologist, Marxist and activist, died at the age of 92, just three days after the death of his wife of more than 70 years, Mary Jane. He was one of the founders of modern biology who brought together three different disciplines—statistics, molecular biology and evolutionary biology—that mark the discipline today. In doing so, he not only battled crude racism masquerading as science, but also helped shed light on what science really is. In this sense, he belongs to the rare group of scientists who are equally at home in the laboratory and while talking about science and ideology at a philosophical level. Lewontin is a popular exponent of what science is, and more pertinently, what it is not.

Lewontin always harked back to what being radical means: going back to fundamentals in deriving a viewpoint. This method is important, as it makes radical inquiry a powerful tool in science, compared to lazier ways of relating positions to certain class viewpoints. What is the relation between genes and race, class, or gender? Does social superiority spring from superior genes, or from biological differences between the sexes? As a Marxist and activist, Lewontin believed that we need to fight at both levels: to expose class, race and gender stereotypes as a reflection of power within society, and also at the level of radical science, meaning from the fundamentals of scientific theory and data.

Richard Lewontin and the population geneticist and mathematical ecologist Richard Levins shared a passion for biology, social activism and Marxism. It is not so well known that Lewontin's close friend Stephen Jay Gould—the paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and popular science writer—was also a fellow Marxist. All three of them fought a lifelong battle against the racializing of biology and, later, sociobiology, which sought to 'explain' every social phenomenon as derived from our genes. Evolutionary biologists E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins—and many others—believed that humans are programmed so that society merely expresses what is already embedded in our genes. Through their eyes, white races are superior because of their genetic superiority; as are the rich. In India, there is also a genetic theory of caste to explain the supposed differences between caste groups. And as long as there are significant differences between groups of people—based on class, race, gender or caste—biological 'explanations' for these differences will be offered.

One of Lewontin's pathbreaking works was to find out how much genetic diversity exists within species. This was at a time when we did not know how many genes humans had. Lewontin's inspired guess was 20,000, far smaller than what most biologists thought then and remarkably close to what is known today. Most biologists then also believed that races had significant biological differences, which was one of the reasons why they thought that there was a much larger number of genes carrying different traits. Lewontin and geneticist John Hubby used a technique, protein gel electrophoresis, developed by Hubby, to quantify the genetic diversity in fruit flies. At that time, fruit flies were the favorite target for testing genetic theories in the laboratory. This pathbreaking exercise traced evolution at the species level to changes at the molecular level—a foundation for the field of molecular evolution—using statistical methods. The result was startling. Contrary to what most biologists believed, the exercise showed a surprising amount of genetic diversity within a given population and further revealed that evolution led to stable and diverse populations within a species. Later on, Lewontin used this method on human blood groups, to show that the result of stable genetic diversity held true for humans as well. The other result of the human blood group study was that it showed that 85.4 percent of the genetic diversity in humans was found within a population, and only 6.3 percent between 'races.' Race was not a biological construct but a social one.

Lewontin went on to co-author a paper along with Stephen Jay Gould on how evolution is not directed to develop every feature that we see in an organism today, but is also the result of accidental offshoots accompanying a specific genetic change that occurs due to evolutionary pressure. Gould and Lewontin likened it to spandrels in architecture. When an arch is carved out of a rectangular wall (say, a door), the triangular part left between the arch and the wall is called a spandrel. This is also what happens when domes rest on rectangular structures. That these spandrels are then carved and decorated is not the reason for their existence, but once created, they can be used for other purposes. Similarly, in species, nature makes use of accidental offshoots of an evolutionary change, just as those who built arches or domes do with spandrels.

What distinguished Lewontin's popular and scientific writings were his ability to connect the larger issues of science to society and his critique of the crude reductionist understanding of biology. He called it the Cartesian fallacy: that if we can break up the parts of a whole into its constituent parts and find the laws of the parts, we can then assemble the whole and understand it fully. Of course, this Cartesian viewpoint is no longer viable even in physics, let alone to explain chemistry from physics, biology from (organic) chemistry, or society from biology.

Why, then, does this view recur, particularly in understanding inequalities in society? Lewontin traced this repeated attempt to give biological explanations for inequality to the deep structural inequalities within society. This hydra-headed monster will rear new heads again and again as long as structural inequalities exist in society. This was the battle that he and his close colleagues fought against, racism, the fallacy of putting stock in IQ tests, and sociobiology, which sought explanations for all social inequalities in biology, i.e., that inequalities were preprogrammed in our genes.

This was the lifelong battle that he carried out not only in his specific field of biology but also in the larger domain of sciences. His ideological struggle against racism, class and imperialism was not separated from his science. He saw it as an everyday struggle within sciences as well as outside them, to be fought at both levels: at the level of society as well as at the level of science. He did not simply argue that race was a wrong way of looking at societal differences but showed it with hard experimental data and a theoretical framework to explain that evidence. This was his integrity as a scientist and as a social activist.

A large number of progressive scientists in the United States came together in the late '60s and early '70s, forming an organization called Science for the People. It has been revived recently. The organization was a reflection of the anti-racism and anti-war movements in the United States of that time. Their discussions on science and society paralleled what science and social activists were experiencing in India that led to the people's science movement, and resulted in the formation of the All India People's Science Network. In the U.S., Science for the People decided to become more of a movement within the scientific community, while the movement in India decided that it should be a larger people's movement not only on the issues of science and society but also by building scientific temper in society.

The recent Netflix film "The Trial of the Chicago 7" depicted the '60s struggle against the Vietnam War. Bobby Seale, a co-founder of the Black Panthers, was one of the people who was charged in the trial by the U.S. government with "conspiracy charges related to anti-Vietnam War protests in Chicago, Illinois, during the 1968 Democratic National Convention." (A much better film is the older HBO movie "Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8," which is available on YouTube.) During the trial, the Chicago police assassinated Fred Hampton, an important Black Panther leader there who was helping with the defense of Bobby Seale. I will let Lewontin and his close comrade Levins, co-authors of Biology Under the Influence, tell us in their words how they related to these movements:

"We have also been political activists and comrades in Science for the People; Science for Vietnam; the New University Conference; and struggles against biological determinism and 'scientific' racism, against creationism, and in support for the student movement and antiwar movement. On the day that Chicago police murdered Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, we went together to his still bloody bedroom and saw the books on his night table: he was killed because of his thoughtful, inquiring militancy. Our activism is a constant reminder of the need to relate theory to real-world problems as well as the importance of theoretical critique. In political movements we often have to defend the importance of theory as a protection against being overwhelmed by the urgency of need in the momentary and the local, while in academia we still have to argue that for the hungry the right to food is not a philosophical problem."

Biology Under the Influence, a collection of essays by Levins and Lewontin published in 2007, was dedicated to five Cubans—the Cuban Five—who had infiltrated Cuban American terrorist groups in Miami that were actively supported by U.S. agencies. They were then serving long prison sentences in the United States.

Lewontin and Levins were both Marxists and activists and fought a lifelong battle against racism, imperialism, and capitalist oppression. They brought their Marxism to biology and its larger philosophical issues. They dedicated their 1985 book, The Dialectical Biologist, to Frederick Engels, "who got it wrong a lot of the time but who got it right where it counted." This also applies to Lewontin, who also got race, class and genetics right where it counted.

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.

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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