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What India needs to get through its covid crisis

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In a cruel irony, India, the world’s vaccine manufacturing powerhouse, is now crippled by a virus for which multiple safe and effective vaccines have been developed in record time. Official reports of more than 380,000 new cases and 3,400 deaths daily, while staggering, likely underestimate the actual toll. As health systems across India buckle under the pressure of a second wave of covid-19 infections, severe shortages of oxygen, medical equipment, medications, and hospital beds threaten to make the situation even worse.

Despite a strong domestic vaccine development and production program that has historically been the backbone of supply for low- and middle-income countries, India is struggling to scale up mass covid-19 vaccination. And one year into the pandemic, multiple efforts to coordinate a global pandemic response have failed to address the growing inequities highlighted by the crisis unfolding in India.

How did this happen, and what should we do now to stop things from getting even worse?

Too little, too late

Leadership matters, especially in a crisis. After the first wave of infections peaked in September, political leaders across India became complacent, prematurely declaring victory and loosening public health measures. Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced at the World Economic Forum in January 2021 that India “saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.” But in recent weeks public election rallies and large religious gatherings have become superspreader events.

As infections have increased, the pace of vaccinations has not been fast enough to mitigate this second wave. India has administered 150 million doses, the third-greatest total in the world. However, the sheer size of India’s population means only 9.1% of Indians have received at least one dose, and fewer than 2% are fully vaccinated.

Unlike many high-income countries, including the US, India has also exported significant volumes of covid-19 vaccine—it has sent more than 66 million doses to 95 countries since the pandemic began. India’s current domestic vaccine production capacity of 70 to 80 million doses per month will not be enough to meet its goal of fully vaccinating 300 million people by July, never mind its contractual commitments to COVAX, the international effort intended to provide equitable vaccine access to the world’s poorest countries.

people waiting in line for vaccine Mumbai

FARIHA FAROOQUI/GETTY IMAGES

Though starting from an enviable position, the ramp-up of vaccine R&D and manufacturing across Indian private-sector pharmaceutical firms did not receive the swift, aggressive government support that some other countries’ domestic suppliers enjoyed. While the US, through Operation Warp Speed, invested $18 billion in vaccine R&D and placed advance orders for vaccines beginning in May 2020, the Indian government didn’t make its first official purchase of Indian-manufactured vaccines until January 2021, instead counting on companies’ statements that domestically manufactured vaccines would be made available for domestic needs.

This situation left Indian vaccine manufacturers such as the Serum Institute of India in the difficult position of trying to access funding from other sources, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, while balancing growing domestic needs with sales to other low- and middle-income countries and to the global vaccine distribution initiative COVAX. In early April, Adar Poonawalla, the CEO of the Serum Institute, publicly requested government investment of over $400 million to further boost production capacity. (The central government did later approve vaccine advance purchase payments of over $600 million for the Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech.)

Further complicating matters is the complexity of global vaccine supply chains, which are both fragile and susceptible to export restrictions. Indian vaccine manufacturers have been unable to obtain raw materials and vaccine-making supplies such as specialized filters and bioreactor bags. The US government’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act to boost US-based vaccine manufacturing has reportedly restricted export of these critical supplies to India (the White House has denied that use of the DPA results in export bans). Poonawalla again took to Twitter to highlight this challenge and requested President Joe Biden’s support to lift US export restrictions.

Damage control

With the humanitarian crisis in India worsening, immediate and aggressive measures are needed to stabilize the situation and buy time for vaccine production to ramp up. The crisis is already spreading beyond India’s borders and will require coordinated global action.

Speed is critical. As Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization noted in March 2020, “The greatest error is not to move … speed trumps perfection.” Over the past week, governments in countries including the UK, EU, Russia, and the US have pledged help, but they risk providing too little, too late.

Medical oxygen is in critically short supply in India, with an estimated daily need of 2 million oxygen cylinders far exceeding domestic production capacity. India also needs medications, hospital beds, ventilators, personal protective equipment, covid testing supplies, and other basic medical goods. More health workers may soon be needed to augment India’s own, who are currently working under immense pressure.

The US has pledged oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators and generation units, antiviral drugs, testing kits, and access to vaccine manufacturing supplies, and the first aid flights arrived in India on Friday, April 30. The EU has activated its Civil Protection Mechanism to ship oxygen and medications. The first aid shipments from the UK arrived on Tuesday, April 27, and included oxygen concentrators and ventilators.

Even this global aid response will not avert a historic tragedy. Projections show that we are likely to see over 12,000 daily deaths in India by mid-May, and close to 1 million total deaths by August.

refilling oxygen cylinders

REUTERS/AMIT DAVE

That’s why Indian central and state governments must immediately enact aggressive public health measures to keep the virus at bay. These could include travel restrictions, workplace and school closures, and requirements for social distancing and mask wearing, along with social and economic support for the most vulnerable populations.

Such measures have been deployed inconsistently across India, and in some cases they have been undermined by political leaders. Multiple Indian regions, including Delhi, Karnataka, and Maharashtra, have recently imposed stringent travel and movement restrictions, but there’s still no national approach.

Ramping up vaccine manufacturing capacity, too, will be key to subduing the virus in India in the longer term and slowing its spread around the world. Doing that will require a coordinated global effort between companies and governments.

Slowly, the Indian government is starting to wake up to the situation. The recent advance purchase payments will allow Bharat Biotech to double its production capacity, to 20 million doses a month, by June and reach 60 million per month by August. Similarly, the Serum Institute hopes to be producing 100 million doses a month by mid-year. But this is not a near-term solution. Unfortunately, vaccines will not solve the acute crisis, and no major stocks of vaccines are currently available to import into India. Even the US pledge to share 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine globally will take months to fulfill.

A comprehensive approach to addressing this problem would include significant capital investments in private-sector manufacturing firms in India, such as the Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech, and Biological E; attempts to free global supply chains from export restrictions; and focused efforts to increase production of critical materials and ingredients across vaccine supply chains.

Parallel approaches in other regions, such as Latin America and Africa, could strengthen global vaccine manufacturing capacity and resilience, allowing Indian firms to focus on domestic rather than global needs.

Finally, while vaccine supply will be the bottleneck for some time, demand will also be critical to achieving vaccine-mediated herd immunity. The Indian government should fund and implement efforts now to strengthen confidence in the vaccines and fight misinformation about them.

The heartbreaking tragedy in India will unfortunately continue for many weeks. But by mobilizing global resources more quickly, adopting public health measures that will keep the virus in check, and ramping up vaccine manufacturing, India and the global community can at least offer some hope of better days ahead.

Krishna Udayakumar is founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, executive director of Innovations in Healthcare, and associate director for innovation of the Duke Global Health Institute. Andrea Taylor is assistant director of programs at the Duke Global Health Innovation Center. She leads research on covid-19 vaccines, partnerships, and therapeutics through the Launch and Scale Speedometer project. 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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If you don’t want robotic dogs patrolling the streets, consider CCOPS legislation

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Boston Dynamics’ robot “dogs,” or similar versions thereof, are already being employed by police departments in Hawaii, Massachusetts and New York. Partly through the veil of experimentation, few answers are being given by these police forces about the benefits and costs of using these powerful surveillance devices.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in a position paper on CCOPS (community control over police surveillance), proposes an act to promote transparency and protect civil rights and liberties with respect to surveillance technology. To date, 19 U.S. cities in have passed CCOPS laws, which means, in practical terms, that virtually all other communities don’t have a requirement that police are transparent about their use of surveillance technologies.

For many, this ability to use new, unproven technologies in a broad range of ways presents a real danger. Stuart Watt, a world-renowned expert in artificial intelligence and the CTO of Turalt, is not amused.

Even seemingly fun and harmless “toys” have all the necessary functions and features to be weaponized.

“I am appalled both by the principle and the dogbots and of them in practice. It’s a big waste of money and a distraction from actual police work,” he said. “Definitely communities need to be engaged with. I am honestly not even sure what the police forces think the whole point is. Is it to discourage through a physical surveillance system, or is it to actually prepare people for some kind of enforcement down the line?

“Chunks of law enforcement have forgotten the whole ‘protect and serve’ thing, and do neither,” Watts added. “If they could use artificial intelligence to actually protect and actually serve vulnerable people, the homeless, folks addicted to drugs, sex workers, those in poverty and maligned minorities, it’d be tons better. If they have to spend the money on AI, spend it to help people.”

The ACLU is advocating exactly what Watt suggests. In proposed language to city councils across the nation, the ACLU makes it clear that:

The City Council shall only approve a request to fund, acquire, or use a surveillance technology if it determines the benefits of the surveillance technology outweigh its costs, that the proposal will safeguard civil liberties and civil rights, and that the uses and deployment of the surveillance technology will not be based upon discriminatory or viewpoint-based factors or have a disparate impact on any community or group.

From a legal perspective, Anthony Gualano, a lawyer and special counsel at Team Law, believes that CCOPS legislation makes sense on many levels.

“As police increase their use of surveillance technologies in communities around the nation, and the technologies they use become more powerful and effective to protect people, legislation requiring transparency becomes necessary to check what technologies are being used and how they are being used.”

For those not only worried about this Boston Dynamics dog, but all future incarnations of this supertech canine, the current legal climate is problematic because it essentially allows our communities to be testing grounds for Big Tech and Big Government to find new ways to engage.

Just last month, public pressure forced the New York Police Department to suspend use of a robotic dog, quite unassumingly named Digidog. After the tech hound was placed on temporary leave due to public pushback, the NYPD used it at a public housing building in March. This went over about as well as you could expect, leading to discussions as to the immediate fate of this technology in New York.

The New York Times phrased it perfectly, observing that “the NYPD will return the device earlier than planned after critics seized on it as a dystopian example of overly aggressive policing.”

While these bionic dogs are powerful enough to take a bite out of crime, the police forces seeking to use them have a lot of public relations work to do first. A great place to begin would be for the police to actively and positively participate in CCOPS discussions, explaining what the technology involves, and how it (and these robots) will be used tomorrow, next month and potentially years from now.

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Bird Rides to go public via SPAC, at an implied value of $2.3B

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Bird Rides, the shared electric scooter startup that operates in more than 100 cities across 3 continents, said Wednesday it is going public by merging with special purpose acquisition company Switchback II with an implied valuation of $2.3 billion. The announcement confirms earlier reports, including one this week from dot.la, that Bird intended to go public via a SPAC.

Bird said it was able to raise $106 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, by institutional investor Fidelity Management & Research Company LLC, and others. Apollo Investment Corp. and MidCap Financial Trust provided an additional $40 million asset financing.

The transaction will enable the combined entity to retain net proceeds of up to $428 million of cash, according to Switchback, which brings $316 million cash-in-trust to the table. The announcement also provided new information about a previously undisclosed $208 million, which Bird raised privately as part of an April 2021 Senior Preferred Convertible equity offering led by Bracket Capital, Sequoia Capital and Valor Equity Partners.

When and how Bird would go public has been an item of speculation after Bloomberg reported last November that the company received “inbound interest” from SPACs.

Bird’s ride has been bumpy at times. In 2020, revenue dropped to $95 million, or 37% from the previous year. That year the company also laid off around 30% of its workforce – 406 people – for cost-saving reasons. The company may use this new access to cash to expand its European operations and pay off debt.

Most importantly, the new injection of cash may help the company finally achieve profitability. It’s a rarity amongst scooter startups, who face notoriously high overhead.

Special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, have become a popular route for going public amongst transportation startups. Already this year, scooter company Helbiz, which is based in Europe and the U.S., went public via SPAC in a merger with GreenVision Acquisition Corp. SPAC shell corporations allow companies to list on the NASDAQ without doing a traditional initial public offering.

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Only three days left to buy $99 passes to TC Disrupt 2021

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The countdown clock keeps on ticking, and you have just three days to secure your $99 pass to TechCrunch Disrupt 2021. You read that right — $99 is all that you’ll pay, $99 is all (everybody sing)!

Silly Minions aside, you’ll snag serious savings if you buy your Disrupt 2021 pass before the deadline expires on May 14 at 11:59 pm (PT).

TechCrunch Disrupt is a massive gathering of the tech startup world’s top leaders, innovators, makers, investors, founders and ground breakers. The all-virtual platform means more global participation and exposure. It’s all designed to help early-stage founders — and the people who invest in them — build a thriving business.

The Disrupt stage features in-depth interviews and panel discussions with a who’s-who of tech talent. The Extra Crunch stage is where you’ll find a deep bench of subject-matter experts sharing practical how-to content. You’ll take away actionable insights you can put into practice now — when you need it most. Check out our roster of speakers — we’re adding more every week.

Granted, we might be a tad biased about Disrupt — of course we think it’s awesome. But your contemporaries recognize its value, too. Here’s what a few of them told us about their experience at Disrupt 2020.

There was always something interesting going on in one of the breakout rooms, and I was impressed by the quality of the people participating. Partners in well-known VC firms spoke, they were accessible, and they shared smart, insightful nuggets. You will not find this level of people accessible and in one place anywhere else. — Michael McCarthy, CEO, Repositax.

I loved the variety of topics and learning about recent technology trends as they’re happening. Disrupt gave me a whole new perspective on the ways innovation happens in big companies. — Anirudh Murali, co-founder and CEO, Economize.

Watching the Startup Battlefield was fantastic. You could see the ingenuity and innovation happening in different technology spaces. Just looking at the sheer number of other pitch decks and hearing the judges tear them down and give feedback was very helpful. — Jessica McLean, Director of Marketing and Communications, Infinite-Compute.

If watching Startup Battlefield is thrilling (and it is), imagine what it would feel like to compete — or to win. We’re still accepting applications but not for long. Want to take a shot at winning $100,000? Apply to compete in Startup Battlefield before May 13 at 11:59 pm (PT).

There’s so much more opportunity waiting for you at Disrupt 2021. Explore Startup Alley, our expo area. Better yet, exhibit there yourself and, in addition to a bunch of other perks, you might be one of only 50 exhibiting startups chosen to participate in the Startup Alley+ VIP experience. Read more about Startup Alley+ here. TechCrunch will notify selected startups at the end of June.

Time is running out, and $99 is all that you’ll pay — if you buy your Disrupt 2021 pass before Friday, May 14 at 11:59 pm (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.


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