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The great vaccine rollout and the global pecking order

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by Rajan Philips

Last Tuesday Britain became the first country to administer the first multi-nationally developed Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. Eight hundred thousand doses of the vaccine are being distributed among the Isle’s four nations in the first stage of the British rollout. Canada is starting its Covid-19 vaccination this week with 250,000 doses of the same vaccine; another 20 million doses are arriving next year along with over 350 million other vaccines. While welcoming the arrival of the Pfizer vaccine as “the beginning of the end of the epidemic in the UK,” Prof. Stephen Powis, medical director of the National Health Services England, has also cautioned that getting to the end itself is going to be a “marathon [and] not a sprint.” Britain has ordered 40 million doses so far and it will cover 20 million people with two shots each, 21 days apart. There are still 47 million to account for. It is a long haul.

In the US, Donald Trump is not happy that Britain got the vaccine before the US and he is even madder that he will not be able to claim credit for vaccination in America as much of it will happen after he leaves office. In any event, many of his supporters may refuse to take the vaccine because it is not mentioned in the US Constitution! Under its military “Operation Warp Speed” vaccination program, the US has issued purchase orders for 800 million doses from the world’s six leading vaccine contenders, although there is some controversy about the timing of vaccine deliveries. Last Tuesday, Trump issued a meaningless executive order that all vaccines procured by the US must be delivered to the US first before vaccines are supplied to other countries.

Russia meanwhile got ahead of both the UK and the US, launching three days before UK its nostalgically named Sputnik V vaccine in Moscow which accounts for about a quarter of Russia’s infections. For several months, China has been conducting mass trials involving millions of recipients for two of its five vaccines in development, Sinovac and Sinopharm. Beijing is yet to announce its internal vaccination program proper, but has already shipped 1.2 million doses of Sinovac to Indonesia, a nation of 274 million people. India has the world’s single largest vaccine manufacturer in the Serum Institute established in 1966, in Pune. The Institute has an annual production capacity of 500 million doses, and has production contracts with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as well as the Novavax vaccine. The first 100 million doses of Serum’s production are earmarked for use in India, while the rest will be open for distribution among developing countries.

The vaccine rollout I have described here is hardly global in that it is tilted entirely in favour of wealthy countries, and excludes much of the rest of the world, with the exception of the two giant outliers – China and India. This global vaccine anomaly is being exposed and criticized by the People’s Vaccine Alliance that includes well known civil society organizations such as Amnesty International, Frontline AIDS, and Global Justice Now. The Alliance has pointed out that wealthy countries representing only 14 per cent of the world’s population have so far reserved 53 per cent of the most promising vaccines, and thereby limited the ability of the world’s nearly 70 poor countries to vaccinate only 10% of their populations for all of 2021.

A majority of the developing countries are consigned to getting their supply from the pool of vaccines provided by the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) facility, the global organization set up by the WHO to ensure “rapid, fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.” It is partnership of high-income countries and lower-income countries involving 60% of the world’s population, with the former providing for the supply of vaccines to the latter. The expectations are that the WHO will supply 20% of a developing country’s population at no cost. But the reserved quantities for COVAX, according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, now amount to a single dose for about three people in developing countries, or 16% of the population. Even that may not be fully available in 2021. The root of the problem is too much reliance on donor charity and too little desire to tackle the structural aspects of anomaly.

 

The Pecking Order

The world’s ten leading Covid-19 vaccine contenders, including the Chinese (Sinovac) and Russian (Gamaleya) manufacturers, have a total capacity to produce eight to nine billion doses a year. The chart below illustrates the current capacity and pre-order of each vaccine candidate. Of the ten contenders, excluding the Chinese and Russian contenders, only three vaccines – Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford/AstraZeneca, are at the point of getting public health authorization in multiple countries. The three have a combined annual capacity under four billion doses. Novavax and Johnson & Johnson are expected to join them in 2021, and raise the capacity to six billion doses. In other words, even in any best-case scenario, it will easily take at least three to four years before a majority of the world’s peoples can receive their two shots of the Covid-19 vaccine.

 

Add to this what might be called the tragedy of the aggregate – in that while the combined global Covid-19 vaccine production capacity might exceed the world’s total demand, not every country, or not individuals within countries, would be equally positioned to receive the new vaccine without too much delay. Within the so-called high-income countries (HICs), the priority for vaccination is being given to the elderly, frontline healthcare workers, people with medical conditions, and those who are in essential services. But there is no reason-based system for distributing vaccines between different countries. The global pecking order privileges those in HICs far above the people in lesser income countries. The two charts below provide a snapshot of the per capita procurement levels (Calling the Shots); and the bulk vaccine orders placed by individual and groups of countries with different vaccine manufacturers.

 

As shown in the chart, Canada leads the pack with confirmed orders for just under 10 doses for each of its 37.7 million people. Australia and Britain are procuring just over five doses per head, while every other country or region is under three doses per head. At the bottom of the chart is COVAX, with a single dose for about three people. The bulk order chart shows 2.4 billion doses reserved for developing countries, whose estimated population, excluding China, is 3.6 billion people. Almost all of the reserved developing country supply will come from India’s Serum Institute and the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccines, which are considerably cheaper than Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.

On the supply side, “all of Moderna’s doses and 96 percent of Pfizer/BioNTech’s doses are contracted to HICs. In contrast, 64 % of Oxford/AstraZeneca’s doses are pledged to people in developing countries. But their supply can “only reach 18 per cent of the world’s population next year at most.” As well, Oxford/AstraZeneca’s deals are mostly with big developing countries like China and India, while the majority of developing countries are left to depend entirely on the COVAX facility.

 

Vaccines as global Public Good

This global pecking order and the disparity between countries are inevitable to some extent, but the question is what efforts are being made by national and international leaders to mitigate this seemingly natural gap. The signs of mitigation are not as encouraging as the rhetoric of global reset and assertions of global solidarity. The same wealthy countries that have ratcheted up vaccine procurement, are also opposing the waiver of the World Trade Organization’s rules for protecting intellectual-property rights, that is required to facilitate the production of Covid-19 vaccines in developing countries.

Led by South Africa and India, ninety-nine WTO members have called for a temporary waiver of WTO rules. The People’s Vaccine Alliance supports the waiver request, but it is being flatly rejected by the HICs, including the UK, the USA, Canada, Norway, and the EU. The HICs, which are under pressure by the pharmaceutical industry, are not supportive of structural changes, and would rather prefer a charitable avenue like COVAX. The UK is the largest funder of COVAX, and is keener about urging for more donations than supporting any rules waiver. WTO decisions are normally reached through consensus, and so a majority vote will be meaningless if the HICs are not willing to compromise.

To address, these disparities, the People’s Vaccine Alliance “is calling on all pharmaceutical corporations working on COVID-19 vaccines to openly share their technology and  intellectual property through the World Health Organization COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, so that billions more doses can be manufactured and safe and effective vaccines can be available to all who need them.” In addition, the Alliance is calling for Covid-19 vaccines to be made as “a global public good—free of charge to the public, fairly distributed and based on need.” A first step would be “to support South Africa and India’s proposal to the World Trade Organization Council to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments until everyone is protected.”

It is indeed a pity that there should be so much global disparity in the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, when all the scientific work and breakthroughs that created them have involved unprecedented international collaboration at every level. In 1955, when Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh developed his successful vaccine against polio, the then generational scourge in the US and elsewhere, he was hailed as a “miracle worker,” but he declined to patent the polio vaccine, or to profit from it. He would rather let it be free for maximum global distribution. When asked, “Who owns this patent?”, Dr. Salk famously replied, “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Dr. Jonas Salk chose to walk away from a $7 billion worth patent and let his vaccine be a global public good. Why cannot Covid-19 vaccines be similarly another global public good?



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Port City Bill Requires Referendum

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by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne,PC

The Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill was presented in Parliament on 08 April 2021, while the country was getting ready to celebrate the traditional New Year. With the intervening weekend and public holidays, citizens had just two working days to retain lawyers, many of whom were on vacation, and file applications challenging the constitutionality of the Bill in the Supreme Court within the one-week period stipulated in the Constitution. One wonders whether the timing was deliberate.

Special economic zones are common. They are created mainly to attract foreign investments. In return, investors are offered various concessions so that their products are competitive in the global market. Several negative effects of such zones have also been highlighted. The sole purpose of this article, however, is a discussion on the constitutionality of the Bill.

The Bill seeks to establish a high-powered Commission entrusted with the administration, regulation and control of all matters connected with businesses and other operations in and from the Colombo Port City. It may lease land situated in the Colombo Port City area and even transfer freehold ownership of condominium parcels. It operates as a Single Window Investment Facilitator for proposed investments into the Port City. It would exercise the powers and functions of any applicable regulatory authority under any written law and obtain the concurrence of the relevant regulatory authority, which shall, as a matter of priority, provide such concurrence to the Commission. The discretion and powers of such other authorities under the various laws shall thus stand removed.

The Commission consists of five members who need not be Sri Lankan citizens, quite unlike the Urban Development Authority, the Board of Management of which must comprise Sri Lankan citizens only. One issue that arises is that the vesting of such powers upon persons with loyalties to other countries, especially superpowers, would undermine the free, sovereign, and independent status of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 1 of our Constitution. It would also impinge on the sovereignty of the People of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 3 read with Article 4.

The removal of the discretionary powers of the various regulatory authorities is arbitrary and violative of the right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12 (1).

Under Clause 25, only persons authorized by the Commission can engage in business in the Port City. Clause 27 requires that all investments be in foreign currency only. What is worse is that even foreign currency deposited in an account in a Sri Lankan bank cannot be used for investment. Thus, Sri Lankans cannot invest in the Port City using Sri Lankan rupees; neither can they use foreign currency that they legally have in Sri Lanka. The above provisions are clearly arbitrary and discriminatory of Sri Lankans and violate equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by Article 12. They also violate the fundamental right to engage in business guaranteed by Article 14 (1) (g).

Under clause 35, any person, whether a resident or a non-resident, may be employed within the Port City and such employee shall be remunerated in a designated foreign currency, other than in Sri Lanka rupees. Such employment income shall be exempt from income tax. Clause 36 provides that Sri Lankan rupees accepted within the Port City can be converted to foreign currency. Under clause 40, Sri Lankans may pay for goods, services, and facilities in Sri Lankan rupees but would be required to pay a levy for goods taken out of the Port City, as if s/he were returning from another country! The mere repetition of phrases such as ‘in the interests of the national economy’ throughout the Bill like a ‘mantra’ does not bring such restrictions within permissible restrictions set out in Article 15.

Clause 62 requires that all disputes involving the Commission be resolved through arbitration. The jurisdiction of Sri Lankan courts is thus ousted.

In any legal proceedings instituted on civil and commercial matters, where the cause of action has arisen within the Port City or in relation to any business carried on in or from the Port City, Clause 63 requires Sri Lankan courts to give such cases priority and hear them speedily on a day-to-day basis to ensure their expeditious disposal.

The inability of an Attorney-at-Law to appear before the court even for personal reasons, such as sickness, shall not be a ground for postponement. These provisions are arbitrary and violate Article 12.

Clause 73 provides that several Sri Lankan laws listed in Schedule III would have no application within the Port City. Such laws include the Urban Development Authority Act, Municipal Councils Ordinance, and the Town and Country Planning Ordinance. Under Clauses 52 and 53, exemptions may be granted by the Commission from several laws of Sri Lanka, including the Inland Revenue Act, Betting and Gaming Levy Act, Foreign Exchange Act, and the Customs Ordinance.

The Commission being empowered to grant exemptions from Sri Lankan laws undermines the legislative power of the People and of Parliament and violates Articles 3 and Article 4 (c) of the Constitution.

Several matters dealt with by the Bill come under the Provincial Councils List. They include local government, physical planning, and betting and gaming. Article 154G (3) requires that such a Bill be referred to Provincial Councils for their views. As Provincial Councils are not currently constituted, passage by a two-thirds majority will be necessary in the absence of the consent of the Provincial Councils.

The exclusion of the Municipal Councils Ordinance from the Port City area is not possible under the Constitution. When the Greater Colombo Economic Commission was sought to be established in 1978 under the 1972 Constitution, a similar exclusion was held by the Constitutional Court not to be arbitrary. Since then, under the Thirteenth Amendment under the 1978 Constitution, local government has been given constitutional recognition and included under the Provincial Council List. Under the present constitutional provisions, therefore, the Port City cannot be excluded from laws on local government.

The writer submits that in the above circumstances, the Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the People at a Referendum. Quite apart from the constitutional issues that arise, such an important piece of proposed legislation needs to be widely discussed. It is best that the Bill is referred to a Parliamentary Committee before which the public, as well as citizens’ organizations and experts in the related fields, could make their submissions.

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Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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