The Vaccine Sprint Accelerates

Working on a vaccine in Saraburi, Thailand
Working on a vaccine in Saraburi, Thailand
Bertrand Hauger

The global death toll in the COVID-19 pandemic has passed 475,000, and the confirmed cases are now more than nine million worldwide. But there's another number that looms: fear of the pandemic's second wave striking countries in the coming weeks and months. Already, clusters of new outbreaks of cases have appeared in countries such as China, South Korea and Germany that thought they had put the pandemic to rest.

Indeed, there is only one way to truly vanquish that spectre: a vaccine. The race for the successful development, testing and distribution of a vaccine has been on for months, bringing in private pharmaceutical giants, national health agencies and global bodies including the World Health Organization.

• "End of the year" hopes: For Dr. Anthony Fauci, U.S."s top medical expert, a vaccine is a matter of "when and not if." Fauci told Congress yesterday that though its development might take some time, he remained "cautiously optimistic," predicting that a vaccine could be available as soon as the end of this year, or the beginning of 2021. In his written testimony, Fauci listed key vaccines in development, including a potential candidate developed in partnership with biotech Moderna, expected to begin late-stage testing in July.

• How to go faster: In a article published in the scientific journal Vaccine, ominously titled "Extraordinary diseases require extraordinary solutions', two U.S. researchers insist on the need to accelerate the vaccine development process, which they argue "normally takes months to years," during which the virus will have time to infect and possibly kill millions. They therefore suggest "moving quickly through animal studies and doing human challenge studies in volunteers' by inoculating the virus to volunteers. "The ethics of such trials," the two researchers add, "as well as their acceptability to regulators as a step towards emergency use of a candidate vaccine are foremost and require immediate discussion."

Volunteer getting vaccinated in Wuhan on April 20 — Photo: TPG/ZUMA

• Calculated risk: These so-called "infectious human challenges', which involve the deliberate exposure of human volunteers to infectious agents, are not something new per se. As Le Monde notes, they were implemented before in the fight against the flu, cholera, malaria, dengue — but as the French daily notes, they still pose the ethical question: Is it OK to intentionally harm a patient? It is, according to Nir Eyal, Marc Lipsitch and Peter Smith. In The Journal of Infectious Diseases, the three U.S. doctors favor such controlled infection trials, as long as the volunteers express their full consent, and that the selection of participants (healthy young adults) helps limit the risks.

• UK rolls out innovative human trials: About 300 volunteers will be immunized over the coming weeks, as part of a trial led the Imperial College London. The BBC notes that while traditional vaccines are usually based on a modified form of the virus they seek to combat, here the vaccine uses synthetic strands of genetic code (called RNA) that mimic the virus.

• China giving its all: Beijing-based China National Biotec Group was just given the greenlight for the final stage (Phase III) of human trials for its COVID-19 vaccines in the United Arab Emirates. The company will partner with G42, an Abu Dhabi company specialized in AI and cloud computing, to conduct the trial and start local production of the vaccine. This is but one of the five different vaccine development projects China is leading right now.

• Dissenting voice: Not all are running the vaccine race. French microbiologist and hydroxychloroquine guru Didier Raoult recently told Le Parisien he thought it was "unlikely" that a vaccine would soon be available. "There isn't any against emerging diseases, despite the billions spent," he observed, before adding: "But I'm not saying it won't happen."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!