Learning by Proxy | Me, Myself and Vaccine

The vaccine has finally arrived. When is it going to reach everyone? Who is making it? Why does it matter?

The first batches of vaccines have arrived and all those who have not got it are getting ready to party. Why? Because the doctors who treat them are safe now!

It is ironic that the news of human success against incredible odds is going to put on display stellar stupidity. It will be second or third quarter of next year before we can get anywhere close to the kind of scale at which COVID would no longer be a concern.

In the meantime, on the vaccine.


The first mention of the practice of inoculation comes from an ancient Indian text called the ‘Sancteya Grantham’ written by Dhanwantari believed to have lived in 3000 B.C. At the time, it was used to cure CowPox. The practice resurfaced in China in the 10th Century as a cure for smallpox. The Europeans did not begin discovering inoculation till the end of the 17th century. It was an African slave that taught the Americans how to inoculate against smallpox in the 18th century.

Inoculation involves the introduction of antigen or pathogen into a healthy body to stimulate the production of antibodies. Vaccines are slightly different in that, the micro-organism is weaker and allows the body to kill it to produce the necessary toxins. A vaccine that is introduced before a person has been infected as prevention is called prophylactic; whereas one that is introduced as a cure is called therapeutic. 

While there are several types of vaccines, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are the first western vaccines to be approved use a novel mRNA technology. I had written about this three weeks ago.

While WHO has done everything it could to obliterate any trust in the organisation, they have a simple article on the development process.

Source: WHO

Vaccine development is a long process it goes through many filters to ensure that people are not adversely affected by the vaccine. This requires several phases of testing on candidates with different backgrounds. Also, It is important to ensure that the vaccine is tested against a placebo to prove that it really works.

Source: Wellcome Trust

The first-ever vaccine for Small Pox took 150 years to develop. The most recent Hepatitis B vaccine was developed for over 12 years. It is wonderous that the COVID vaccines have been developed in such record time. 

But one must consider that the governments have poured in billions of dollars to speed up the development, given the disruption that the pandemic has been causing. Also, unprecedented collaboration and information sharing (only in the west). And I am also certain many steps have been skipped.

“[The timeline] won’t go back to 10 or 20 years, but it will take at least four or five,” says Stanley Plotkin, a professor emeritus of paediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and the inventor of the rubella vaccine. The emergency caused by the pandemic forced researchers to compress certain phases of vaccine development, but in different circumstances, building in more time means the immunization campaign can start when there is a more complete picture of the vaccine’s longterm effects.

Source: Quartz


The development of the Covid-19 vaccine will still change the field of vaccines, however.

The vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna—the first two announced to have an efficacy of more than 90%—both use messenger RNA (mRNA). This is a breakthrough—mRNA vaccines had been in the works for close to a decade, but this is the first time this vaccine platform has been used successfully.

Only a year ago, those working on mRNA vaccines didn’t even know whether they would work on humans, or if they could be produced at scale; now the whole world does. “What we have now is a whole new set of tools,” says Lynda Stuart, deputy director for vaccines at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “It gives us hope in areas where we have been trying, but we haven’t found solutions with conventional vaccines.” The Gates Foundation, for instance, is looking at potentially using the mRNA technology to speed up the development of vaccines for diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Source: Quartz

Launching the Cure

The first vaccine was released by the Russians called Sputnik V, which was released back in October and then China announced their own vaccine produced by Sinopharm. The western world did not adopt either, choosing to watch thousands of their own people die till a locally developed vaccine could be used. This is western supremacy, which is a close cousin of white supremacy. Reading the news would make you believe that the first vaccine was approved on a couple of weeks ago; whereas China and Russia have been vaccinating for months.

If the question is about the efficacy and genuineness of the claims, what do we really know about the Pfizer, Moderna or the AstraZeneca vaccines? The point is those two candidates were not even allowed to prove themselves.

The UK was the first to make the Pfizer vaccine available last week. This was followed by Canada and Mexico. Within 24 hours of Trump threatening to fire the director of CDC, America also approved the vaccine; because doing things like that inspires a lot of trust. As a result, the Vice-President was required to take the vaccine on TV!

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan approved the drug and Portugal was the first European country to do so. Bahrain and UAE have decided to go with the Chinese vaccine and India has also approved a vaccine. 

But before that…

Mr Poonawala used to breed horses and had a huge stud farm in Pune. Drug manufacturers would often pay him to test their medicines on his horses. He wondered why he could not get into the drug business himself. He set up the Serum Institute of India. Today SII is the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world with a monopoly on DTP Vaccine and also being one of the largest makers of MMR, Polio and other vaccines. SII has a contract to produce the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine. Although this vaccine has shown only 60% efficacy, in the spirit of 'Make in India', the government has chosen to go with it.

But that is not all, various other candidates are under development including India’s very own mRNA based vaccine.

The country's first indigenous mRNA Covid-19 vaccine candidate has received approval from Indian drug regulators to initiate Phase I/II human clinical trials.

The mRNA vaccine candidate - HGCO19 - has been developed by Pune-based company Gennova, and is supported with a seed grant under the Ind-CEPI mission of the Department of Biotechnology under the Ministry of Science and Technology.

The mRNA vaccines do not use the conventional model to produce an immune response. Instead, the mRNA vaccine carries the molecular instructions to make the protein in the body through a synthetic RNA of the deadly virus.

Source: Livemint

Unlike traditional vaccines, mRNA does not plant the viral load in the body but synthesises the protein using the RNA and this makes it far more efficient. Also, the Indian candidate can survive at 2 - 8 degrees Celsius, unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that require -70 degrees Celsius for storage. 

So you say, we need to be Aatmanirbhar, what is the issue with that? Well, while India has ordered half a million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine (which has not been approved yet), we have ordered 1 Billion doses of Novavax, which is American, which is not even finished.

In the next 6-12 months, Indian itself should have 3 - 5 locally developed vaccines. When will Indians start to have access to the vaccine, nobody really knows.

Source: The Economist

The approval of the vaccine especially by the US and UK has put into motion a vaccine arms race. Canada has ordered 10 doses per person in the country and has decided to make it available for free. The US in the meantime has reserved a Billion doses. Many of the European countries have also bought up Millions of doses enough to cover their populations 2 -3 times over.

Suddenly, the question has moved from who is going to deliver to how are they going to deliver. Scaling drug production is a time consuming and painful challenge. Not to mention transporting drugs that need temperatures, that make the artic seem hot, is a daunting challenge. 

The chief executive of Germany’s BioNTech SE said the biggest challenge facing it and partner Pfizer Inc now that their COVID-19 vaccine is authorized for use in the United States will be to scale up manufacturing to meet the huge demand.

“We need to solve the manufacturing challenge,” Ugur Sahin told Reuters in an interview. “It is very clear that more doses are needed. And we are dealing with that question - how to produce more doses.”

The companies have said they will produce up to 1.3 billion doses of the vaccine next year.

Source: Reuters

In the meantime, if you know any manufacturers of dry-ice, buy up shares. That rocket is about to leave. All of these vaccines are stored in containers with dry ice (solid Carbon dioxide) to maintain -70 degree Celsius. Also, companies that make glass vials such as Borosil in India and syringe manufacturers have seen their shares jump.

Google search queries over the past week around share prices of Indian biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies have been rising on the back of the possibility of a Covid-19 vaccine rollout. Vaccine makers such as Serum Institute of India (SII), which has tied up to manufacture the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and Bharat Biotech, which is developing India’s Covaxin against coronavirus, are both unlisted companies. And yet, Indians want to know their share prices.

Source: Quartz

Shares of Borosil have gone from Rs 130 a month ago to Rs 190. Hindustan Syringes the makers of Dispovan syringes and many others are unfortunately not listed!

While all this is on, Thanksgiving is making America feel less thankful. The country has been reporting record caseloads and if things continue the way they are, will cross 400,000 deaths by January.

A virus that you cannot even see, rendered the entire human race impotent for most of this year. Climate change is going to unleash many such viruses. How much would we be willing to invest to never have to see another one?

Streaming Binge

When Disney launched its streaming service in February this year, they had set an ambitious target of reaching 90 million subscribers by 2023. Covid has perhaps been the greatest gift sent their way. The company closed the third quarter with 86.8 million subscribers. They surpassed their three-year target in three quarters! There is a twist though.

With over 86.8 Mn subscribers worldwide, Disney+ Hotstar is estimated to have over 28 Mn subscribers in India.

The company banked on local content as well as the IPL 2020 tournament for the massive spike in users in the past quarter.

Disney will take a two-tiered approach in other countries like India with two different brands, Star and Star+.

Disney+ Hotstar said it would use its India strategy to guide major launches in other countries as it looks to build upon the success of the Indian launch this year. The streaming platform continued its momentum in India after a stellar launch, accounting for 30% of the overall Disney+ subscriber base, the company’s international operations chairman, Rebecca Campbell, revealed during the investor day on Thursday (December 10, 2020).

Source: Inc42

A third of those users are from India. Hotstar has been active in India for the past 5 years, so this does not represent 3 quarters. Even so, 50 million subscribers in 9 months is not a small feat. Netflix has a total of 190 million subscribers and that is where Disney is setting its sights next. They have planned over 100 exclusive shows based on franchises like Marvel and Star Wars. The fight is coming to Netflix’s doorstep. Content creators can start rubbing their hands with glee, there is a war-chest that is about to open up.

Fake News

Last week, news broke on BBC that ANI, a press organisation along with over 750 news media outlets has organised themselves to amplify fake news. 

There is no evidence the network is linked to India's government, but it relies heavily on amplifying content produced on fake media outlets with the help of Asian News International (ANI) - India's largest wire service and a key focus of the investigation.

The EU DisinfoLab researchers, who are based in Brussels, believe the network's purpose is to disseminate propaganda against India's neighbour and rival Pakistan. Both countries have long sought to control the narrative against the other.

Last year, the researchers uncovered 265 pro-Indian sites operating across 65 countries and traced them back to a Delhi-based Indian holding company, the Srivastava Group (SG).

Source: BBC

Pakistan was quick to come forward and condemn this, calling on the UN and others to take action. 

Srivastava Group had come under the spotlight last year for arranging a visit of far-right Members of the European Parliament to the Indian-administered Kashmir after it was stripped of its special status and put under a security and communications lockdown.


The researchers said they had “uncovered an entire network of coordinated UN-accredited NGOs promoting Indian interests and criticising Pakistan repeatedly. We could tie at least 10 of them directly to the Srivastava family, with several other dubious NGOs pushing the same messages.”

Source: Aljazeera

You can be forgiven for having heard nothing of this since none of the Indian media outlets covered this news!

Gender Ratio

Countries and governments have been passing laws to ensure that there is greater representation of women on boards and committees. It is important from the perspective of diversity. In a curious case, the City of Paris has been fined for going too far!

Paris city hall will pay €90,000 ($110,000) for not respecting gender quotas in 2018—but unusually this time, it’s because it put too many women in leadership positions.

Under the 2012 update of a 1983 law (links in French), new appointments of senior civil servants in a variety of fields have to include at least 40% men and 40% women.

But in 2018, according to a recently released report (French)(pdf, p. 51) from the Ministry of Transformation and Civil Service, the city of Paris appointed 16 new directors and deputy directors—11 women and 5 men. This means women made up 69% of the city’s leadership.

Source: Quartz

I am certain nobody would have been punished for having too many men.

Going Driverless

Kobe, Japan was the first city to flag off a completely driverless train in 1981. The second such system went live in Lille, France. Today several rail-lines are driverless, mostly in several airports running very simple loops. There are also several mass-rapid transit systems and light rail systems that are operational across hundreds of cities across the world. There are fewer driverless metro rail services.

In a first for India, Delhi will flag off the country’s first driverless metro. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi may flag off the country’s first driverless metro train later this month in the national capital, official sources said on Thursday.

The train will be flagged off on the Magenta Line (Janakpuri West- Botanical Garden) of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), they said.

“A proposal has been sent to the Prime Minister’s Office to flag off the driverless train around December 25,” a source said.

Source: Hindu Business Line

This is a start; many to come. And also so much for job creation.


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