The Latest: Variant Vaccine, Apolitical Facebook, Botticelli Record

A protester uses a plastic water container as a mask to protect him from tear gas during a demonstration in Tripoli, Lebanon, against the national lockdown and the worsening economic conditions.
A protester uses a plastic water container as a mask to protect him from tear gas during a demonstration in Tripoli, Lebanon, against the national lockdown and the worsening economic conditions.

Welcome to Friday, where lockdown protests spread in Lebanon, UK offers new HK visa and an Italian grandma has COVID-19 quarantine to thank for finding a treasure. We also check in with German psychiatrists on the mental health toll of our leaders' see-sawing pandemic policy choices.

The empty hype of India's "vaccine diplomacy"

In a rush to bolster its image, the Modi government is giving away coronavirus vaccines that will do little for the country's international standing and would be better served at home. Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, writes in The Wire:

New Delhi has launched a virtual global blitz by exporting made-in-India vaccine candidates, some as a grant, and others commercially. Back home it is being tom-tommed as a major diplomatic coup that will enable New Delhi to make key breakthroughs, especially in its neighborhood.

How much of an impact will the Indian gesture really make? And is it really the right thing to do?

Truth be told, it's difficult to make an assessment, and that's because currently, vaccine diplomacy is in a domestic echo chamber where it's celebrated as yet another "masterstroke." Modi government's public relations target is, in reality, domestic opinion. The aim is to garner credit for the government's vaccine and, in doing so, make people forget its early and disastrous missteps.

But surely, our neighbors will be appropriately thankful. Won't they? Don't hold your breath.

In international relations, gratitude tends to be a highly overrated commodity. In the 1950s, the Soviets undertook the largest transfers of capital equipment in history by providing China with the wherewithal to set up entire industries, machinery, aircraft, cars, trucks, precision instruments etc. But by the mid-1960s, the Chinese viewed them as enemies.

Likewise, in the 1960s the United States provided India with massive aid to modernize its education, scientific and technical capacity, along with food aid and biotechnology for the Green Revolution. But by 1971, India and the United States almost came to blows.

Today's generation of Chinese and Indians would be unfamiliar with those events, despite the sheer scale of the assistance.

By that measure, the vaccine thrust is relatively modest — some 5 million free doses to Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Seychelles. There is another category of exports to Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Brazil and Bolivia, those being strictly commercial.

Brazil's message comparing the delivery of the vaccine to Hanuman bringing the Sanjivini plant played well in the Indian media, but one wonders whether it was a product of the BJP media cell or its counterpart in Brazil.

The delay in the arrival of the AstraZeneca vaccine candidate — called Covishield in India — irritated Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who wants to offset the credit being reaped by his centrist rival, the São Paulo governor Joao Doria (who had promoted the vaccine developed by the Chinese lab Sinovac, along with a local partner, and had already begun vaccination).

Note, the vaccine candidates exported are devised by a partnership between Oxford University and the British-Swedish company AstraZeneca, and are manufactured in India on contract by Serum Institute of India Ltd.

Oxford's and AstraZeneca's researchers published data from phase-three clinical trials of Covishield in The Lancet, where they wrote that the data indicated the candidate was safe and efficacious.

It's not clear whether Indians are also exporting the domestically devised Covaxin: This would be unconscionable considering Bharat Biotech, its maker, has yet to report any data from Covaxin's phase-three clinical trials. Incidentally, Bharat Biotech has applied for emergency use approval for Covaxin in the Philippines. In India itself, people have to sign consent forms before getting a shot of this vaccine candidate, since the national drug regulator has approved its rollout in "clinical trial mode."

Data from phase-one clinical trials was available from a preprint paper uploaded online earlier, and which The Lancet published after peer review on Jan. 21, 2021. The researchers write in this paper that their study doesn't say anything about Covaxin's efficacy.

Bharat Biotech and the Indian Council of Medical Research are currently conducting Covaxin's phase-three trials. The data from this, involving about 25,000 volunteers, is expected to be available around March 2021.

It is difficult to blame the prime minister's office for using COVID-19 to promote its diplomacy. In that sense, we are only following the lead of China, which, from the outset, used the pandemic — which its own carelessness may have helped spread — for diplomatic purposes.

To change the COVID-19 narrative and show itself as a benevolent nation, China sent masks, PPE suits, gloves, testing kits and medical aid, as well as sold ventilators and other health equipment to countries like France, Italy and various Central and East European countries. Chinese foundations like the Alibaba Foundation and the Jack Ma Foundation also provided aid to various European countries.

So far, information on Chinese vaccines has been scarce. Researchers have published some data from phase-one and phase-two trials of the Sinovac vaccine. There has been conflicting information about its efficacy, with researchers in Brazil reporting 50.4% versus those in Turkey claiming 91.25%.

In contrast to China, India doesn't have an image issue in pursuing COVID-19 diplomacy. But it has another problem: It has few equities to influence neighborhood opinion, such as loans, grants and military equipment. China is way ahead there. So if New Delhi is riding on the back of a COVID-19 vaccine to gain friends and influence people in the region, we can't begrudge that. You have to work with the instruments you have.

There is, however, one problem. Hundreds of millions of people have yet to be vaccinated. So has the government done the right thing in exporting 5 million doses? Surely those doses could have been used to inoculate vulnerable Indians at a greater speed?

A small group of rich countries, comprising just 16% of the world's population, have locked up 60% of the global vaccine supply, according to Duke University's Global Health Institute. Canada has enough to vaccinate its population six times over.

Generosity is fine when you have the wherewithal to be generous. But when your own population is deprived, it is nothing but foolhardiness. We must, of course, understand the commercial compulsions of Serum Institute, which must deliver on its contract. But it is difficult to celebrate South Block's vaccine diplomacy if necessary protection to vulnerable Indians is being delayed — because that delay means so much more illness and death.

Manoj Joshi / The Wire

• COVID-19 latest: Brazil's COVID-19 cases have surpassed 9 million, and Vietnam reports its first outbreak in nearly two months. Meanwhile in Lebanon, one person has died and 200 more are injured after anti-lockdown protests turn to violence. And for some good news, a UK study shows that the new Novavax vaccine appears to be 89% effective and even works against the British and South African variants.

• Pakistan appeals acquittal of man who killed U.S. journalist: The Pakistan government appealed to review yesterday's Supreme Court order to release Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh over the 2002 murder of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl.

• Facebook stops political suggestions: During a call with investors, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will no longer show civic and political groups in suggestions, claiming that "people don't want politics' on social media.

• UK visa for Hong Kong residents: Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces new visa program to offer people in Hong Kong a route to British citizenship. Just hours later, China snapped back, announcing that it will no longer recognize the former British colony's British National Overseas passport as a valid form of identification.

• Deadly fire in Romanian hospital: A fire broke out in a COVID-19 hospital in the city of Bucharest, killing at least four people. A recent investigation revealed that less than one-third of Romania's hospitals are fire-safety certified.

• Nigeria repatriates Saudi immigrants: The Nigerian government has flown 802 of its citizens home from Saudi Arabia, citing overstayed visas resulting from coronavirus travel restrictions.

• Farmer finds 500-year-old sculpture: While preparing the ground for planting watermelon seeds, a farmer in Mexico uncovered a 500-year-old life-sized sculpture, which experts believe is that of a woman belonging to Mexico's Huastec culture.

Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza devotes its front page to the protests against the near-total ban on abortion which came into effect this week in Poland.

Pandemic politics is bad for your mental health

German psychologist Stephan Grünewald has some insights on how nearly a year's worth of coronavirus restrictions are impacting people's mental health, writes Hannelore Crolly in German daily Die Welt.

It feels like life is slipping through our fingers. Every day is the same. There's no variety, nothing to look forward to, no highlights. We hardly have contact with other people, or much chance for exercise. Yes, daily life in the coronavirus pandemic is wearing people down. A year after the first reports emerged about this unknown virus that shut down a city of over a million people in China, the German public has become strangely hardened and desensitized to it. They're also bored.

Cologne-based psychologist Stephan Grünewald calls this state "corona-corrosion." And he fears that in this psychological climate, the approaches taken by our politicians are no longer reaching people and convincing them. "Politicians are stuck in a short-term perspective. They jump from one crisis meeting to the next, but always trying to offer people hope," he says.

The problem, Grünewald explains, is that people need to know what to expect from the future, and so what they really need from their leaders is a clear long-term strategy that addresses the difficult reality: that the coronavirus will remain part of our lives for a long time to come. "The political narrative that tries to delude people into thinking everything will be OK as long as we stick it out is useless. It tires people out," says Grünewald.

➡️

Italian Nonna, 98, finds treasure at home thanks to confinement

The story began grimly, with an all too familiar ring: Another Italian grandmother had tested positive for COVID-19. At the age of 98, Nonna Maria was at particularly high risk in one of countries hit hardest by the pandemic — and though she had only developed light symptoms, doctors told her to remain at home in "maximum isolation."

But it was while in quarantine last November, that this COVID story would take a very different twist: the Nonna ("grandmother") found a fortune hidden in her apartment in eastern Rome, Italian daily Corriere della Sera reports.

Without much else to do in lockdown, Maria had set out to organize her memorabilia and tidy up her apartment. It was in the hidden compartment of an old sewing machine that she found a 1986 government bond that she had completely forgotten about. Her late husband, a former army official, had decided to put his savings into an Italian Post bond originally worth 50 million Italian lira (26,000 euros), before hiding it there to protect it from burglars.

An ongoing legal investigation will confirm the bond's present value. The Italian Post has already offered 200,000 euros, although some have questioned the math and say she could be due as much as half a million, or about 19 times the amount of the initial investment.

And the best bit of good fortune: Nonna Maria had fully recovered from COVID-19.


Sandro Botticelli's Young Man Holding a Roundel has sold for $92.2 million at auction in New York, breaking a new record for the Italian Renaissance painter.

They are not the masters of our country, and never will be.

— Alexei Navalny during a defiant speech yesterday against the government, as his demand for release from jail was denied.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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