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Issue 13

Issue XIII: Editor’s Note

India’s 67th National Wildlife Week from 2– 8 October, 2021 is focusing on Forest & Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet, thematically. Through the 1950s, this commemoration went from a single day Wildlife Diwas to a whole week. Since then annually, Indians shine a torch on understanding what we have, what we are losing and what is shifting, in the life and times of our flora and fauna. What is shifting? This question, a classic axis which simply and directly makes news and animates the world of journalism.

Openaxis, as a student driven publication spearheaded by Ashoka University’s Media Studies Department, puts students in the editor’s hot seat, as well as experiencing what it takes to train as a journalist. Students often bring the academic lens of their Major-ing subject interest from the Social and Life Sciences and ask a timely question. The process of exploring the contours of the question is then answered through journalistic means. By thinking through practice, students get to reflect real-time on, elements of writing an analyses to commissioning stories on a deadline, from understanding copyright law through attribution and seeking permission for images and albums, to grasping balance and objectivity, from slicing through top-down view on issues to grappling with ground realities and trying to write like real people talk. Journalistic writing, meant to be easy to read for a general reader, makes students get to work on their vocabulary, grammar, interview questions, written or audio/video and get the difference between feature writing in print and online. Each class runs on this mix of thinking and doing, discussion and argument and produces issue after issue over a 13-14 week semester. Academic lens and journalistic values, that’s Open Axis in one line.

This is Issue 13. From this one to Issue 17, readers can expect a series of environmental features which grapple with the same question – what is shifting. Issue 13 focuses on ideas of the wild and captive and what it means for several different but uniquely Indian environmental contexts.

In the Openaxis focus on India’s National Wildlife Week, Derrida bumps into NDA’s National Education Policy, as Ishita Ahuja speaks to university students, teachers and employers in India’s wildlife sector, on whether the NEP is looking at the value of field experience in wildlife education

Aritro Sarkar takes us through a short history of zoos. His line of inquiry – in the middle of a generational pandemic, can India rethink its zoological park?

Devanshi Daga brings the findings of two recent global studies done on human attitude to bats and field-insights from an Indian bat-researcher. Can the combo of lab and field research communicate scientifically in a pandemic with the public?

Isha Pareek navigates the journey of two urban Indian eco-activists, as they champion causes and communities, contours and blind spots of environmental justice.

To avoid the trap of the National Wildlife Week being reduced to forced anniversary speeches or school quiz trivia around dates, Issue 13 slices through the perfunctory in the debates and celebrates the theme for 2021, as it is being lived. Each of the stories speaks up for the wild in relation to the people who sustain it. As an idea, as government policy, academic research, activist’s cause and as green humour!

A pandemic’s pause is a bit like the yellow traffic light, do stop by and think with us. Look forward to your feedback.

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Issue 13

The End Of The Zoo: Has The Pandemic Changed The Way We See Zoos?

Yadunandan’s last moments, in all likelihood, were spent in panic. Having accidentally wrung his neck around the rods of the treatment centre at the Bannerghatta Biological Park in Bengaluru, his desperate attempt to extricate himself, saw him twist his neck twice. The male giraffe died within minutes of asphyxiation. According to The Hindu, the staff at the park have launched an inquiry into the lapses that led to the demise of Yadunandan on 19 September. He had arrived in April 2020, as a gift from the Sri Chamarajendra Zoological Garden, Mysore. 

Yadunandan’s unfortunate death may just have been an accident, but it points to a larger issue around animals and captivity, increasingly being highlighted by animal welfarists. The primary site of animals in human captivity – the zoo, they say, needs to be rethought. 

Can we – should we – do away with them altogether?

Absolutely! We need to do away with zoos outright!”, insists a source (who prefers to remain anonymous) who works closely with animal welfare in Bengaluru. “In any case, going to the zoo during and after the pandemic feels like visiting a Covid patient’s home. But it’s not just the loneliness and sense of isolation that the animals feel, there are far deeper problems that exist in zoos in India and the world over.

THE ZOO’S COLORED LEGACY

The practice of keeping animals in captivity started out as a menagerie – which comes from the French word ‘menage’, meaning ‘to keep house’. A menagerie was a private collection of animals, generally owned by the elite, who would put them up on display. Many of these sites were open to the public, but humans and human pride would very much be at the centre of this exercise: as Gary Bruce writes in Through The Lion Gate: A History of the Berlin Zoo, humans captured animals and “put them on display to satisfy our own curiosity.” The first ‘modern’ zoo, with scientific classifications of animals, was set up in Paris in 1794, at the Jardin des Plantes, following which. a zoo was also set up in London’s Regent Park. 

While royalty from Egypt to India were known from ancient times, for taming wild animals and keeping them in captivity, the empires of these European nations used their violent prowess to ship ‘exotic’ animals from Asia and Africa all the way home. By displaying these animals in the zoo to a broader public, these countries would underline their might as imperial forces. Often these exhibitions would display ‘exotic’ human beings to bewildered European audiences as well. 

The shift from menagerie to zoo was an exhibitionist turn that animal captivity as a concept took: zoos were to be more accessible to the general public. They became, “important public places mostly for the lower middle class, labourers, poor people and women,” according to Dr. Mahesh Rangarajan, professor of environmental studies and history and Vice Chancellor, Krea University. This enabled a zoo to be turned into an arena of wildlife education. Common people could now learn about plants and animals, while staying in their own urbanizing areas. 

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) in 2015 offered a new World Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare Strategy, while also clarifying the contours of two centuries of human-animal interaction in the West. “First, in the 1700s and 1800s, at a time when blood sports and blatant acts of cruelty remained common and perfectly legal, reformers sought to stamp out cruelty as part of a broader programme of social progress. This led to the criminalising of deliberate cruelty and the banning of recreations such as bull-baiting and dog-fighting in many countries.”

“Then during the 1900s, with the large-scale institutionalised use of animals in food production and biomedical research, the key problem of animal ethics was perceived not as acts of cruelty, but as the use of animals for utilitarian purposes in ways that resulted in deprivation and curtailment of their freedom”. 

The report continues: “This gave rise to radical ideas, such as animal rights and animal liberation, which opposed all ownership and use of animals. It also gave rise to concerns about the welfare or ‘quality of life’ of animals in human care, and to a combination of scientific and philosophical attempts to understand what constitutes a good life for animals.”

IS INDIA SAYING BOO TO ZOOS IN 2021?

Prosenjit Dasgupta in his book, 10 Walks in Calcutta, mentions a local zoo set up in 1854. Today, with over 150 zoological parks and nature centres across India, from March 2021 -2022, the Central Zoo Authority of India, is currently celebrating 75 zoos, with specific focus on 75 species across India. Their theme: Conservation to coexistence: the people connect. In October 2021 alone, this includes a week each of public outreach activities at three nature centres in Gujarat (Indian fox at Ambardi Wildlife Interpretation Zone, Greater Flamingo at Sayaji Baug Zoo, Bar headed geese/Lesser florican at Indroda Nature Park and the Peafowl at Haryana’s Pipli Zoo) “The education concept is a lie. People don’t come to the zoo for education. Most visitors at zoos are there to picnic, or there for entertainment”, maintains the source from Bengaluru.

A joint report in 2020 by Wildlife Institute of India and the Central Zoo Authority, on Management Effectiveness, Evaluation of Indian Zoos, makes a counter numbers claim, “In India, rough estimates indicate that zoos are one of the highest visited public spaces with over 80 million visitation numbers annually.” A 2020 TERI led case study of the Delhi Zoological park also confirms that 77 % of all earnings are from recreational activities.

WHAT CAN A RETHINK MEAN?

Are private zoos a solution then, akin to the one Reliance is aiming to build in Gujarat’s Jamnagar? Not according to the source, who insists, “zoos are the problem. At least in government zoos, you can file RTIs and find out things. Plus, how will so many species from all over the world survive in the heat and humidity of Gujarat? We can use this pandemic experience to generate more attention among the public, in order to raise awareness on these issues that zoos have.

Zoos anyway need rethinking. The old cage system is out of modesty. Captive collections may not die but need to be rethought”, says Dr. Rangarajan. “In any case, specialist captive collections are not new. Gerald Durrell’s zoo in Jersey bred rare small creatures, and in India, the Sakkarbaug Zoo helped breed Asian lions.” 

The animal welfarist goes one step further. “Going forward, zoos should make a list of animals who can be released into the wild, and then they should actually be released into the wild”. Zoos can, “house injured animals who can’t make it in the wild, and thus also be a site for veterinary practice, because where else can vets be trained for the wildlife but animals in zoos?” 

Perhaps, the 45 year experience of one of the country’s longest volunteer programmes at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust also points to a middle ground, benefitting both conservation and public connect. Raising several generations of humane volunteers keen to understand animal life, 400, 000 people visited in a year and the fee helped in funding conservation. Not only were they able to bring the croc back from near extinction, but also released 1500 of them in the wild, across India.

The pandemic’s rupture can also mean taking further stock not just for ourselves, but for a new tandem with our fellow species of the planet too.  And that means no more captive Yadunandans dying, by accident or poor design.

Aritro Sarkar is a fourth-year student of history, international relations and media studies at Ashoka University.  

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 12

Armed with Phones and Spreadsheets, How These Teenagers Took on the Second Wave

It’s 5 am and the DMs in Dasnoor Anand’s inbox are overflowing — requests for ICU beds in Pune, an enquiry about Remdesivir in Mumbai, search for oxygen cylinders in Lucknow, and many more such please for help. Anand tries her best to reply to everyone. She has only three hours to sleep before it’s time to wake up for online lectures.

This is what April and May 2021 looked like for several teenagers part of student organisation ‘Silence The Violence (STV)’.

With the second wave of COVID-19 slamming into India with an unexpected ferocity, the members of STV have been saving lives while simultaneously attending lectures and preparing for exams. The group consists of girls from all over India, ranging from those in Class 11 to those in first year of university.

In their bid to help out, STV (@stvorg) amplified the availability of resources like hospital beds, ventilators, oxygen, and even tiffin services on its Instagram account. The team gathered information through Twitter handles, personal contacts and other youth organisations, and grouped resources by city or state. They called each hospital and oxygen supplier personally to verify details before posting it. On a backup account (@stvorg_backup), a colour-coded list of resources was regularly updated – green for hospital beds, grey for ambulance services, yellow for food and blue for oxygen.

The motivation behind this venture? Nandini Nimodiya, 17, a member of the Crisis Team answered, “We are all students stuck at home. Social media is the only power we have.”

The team started with two-hour shifts but had to dial it up to five-eight hours due to the number of requests. Each day, STV got approximately 100 leads for different resources from all over the country. Out of these, half got exhausted by the time they called to verify. But of the remaining 50, STV was passing on 15-20 resources to people messaging for help.

“Even if we’re able to save one life at the end of the day, it makes everything worth it,” said Anand, 19, founder of STV, adding that they managed to help roughly 15 people daily.

The group made use of the latest ‘guide’ feature on Instagram, creating city-wise guides for all essential services. A guide is a collection of posts from various accounts that have information about a particular city’s resources. Followers of STV found this specific and timely. Shreya Joshi, 22, a resident of Pune says, “I wanted to find an oxygen concentrator for my father.  All the contacts I had were busy or switched off. That’s when I found  STV’s ‘Pune Guide’ on Instagram. It directed me to verified suppliers, and I got what I needed.”

STV started making city-wise guides when they realised that residents of small towns did not know whom to contact for resources. They started with major cities like Pune and Delhi but have compiled 12-city guides so far. They have even expanded to state level guides, with over 15 state guides in place, including Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand.

STV’s expansive list of resources has helped make it a fast-growing account on Instagram. Over the course of five days, the number of followers shot up from 1,200 to 10,000. Currently, they’re reaching 11,100 people via social media.

Since the number of SOS calls has decreased, STV is now devoting time to spreading awareness about COVID-19. This is a major part of its threefold mission statement ‘Action-Advocacy-Awareness’. The volunteers are making informative posts on topics like ‘Covid and pregnancy’ or ‘mental health in Covid’. STV held its first online mental health event ‘Horizon’, where it partnered with certified psychologists to provide three days of free counselling sessions, seminars and workshops. This was followed by an online concert where young artists came together to unwind.

The team consists of 45 members between the ages of 16 and 20. Of the 45, 20 members have been completely devoted to the Covid crisis. Fifty additional volunteers were also roped in to help. Most of the members are from Mumbai and Pune, followed by a few in Andhra Pradesh and the Northeast. Over the past few weeks, STV has also managed to recruit volunteers from Karnataka and Kerala too.

Around 85% of the team is made up of women, with an all-girls core team. A point of grievance for these young girls is that they are often misgendered by people who contact them. They are addressed as ‘sir’ or ‘bhaiyya’. “We tell them we are women led, and that they can call us ‘ma’am’ or ‘didi‘,” says Nimodiya.

Project S.A.F.E (@project_s.a.f.e) is another all-girls organisation that has been amplifying Covid resources, specifically in Pune. This team consists of five girls from the Pimpri-Chinchwad College of Engineering. The girls spent all day finding resources – except from 3 pm-5 pm, as that’s when they were writing their exams! These engineering students collaborated with their friends interning at medical colleges to provide people with accurate information about availability of beds and medicine.

With 20 requests daily, at least 15 patients were guided to the required resources. Devika Chopdar, 20, founder of Project S.A.F.E says, “I didn’t know social media could have such a huge impact. So far, my profile has only been about myself. Seeing people receive life-saving facilities through it is a new experience.”

These local Covid helpers received a request for a ventilator bed at 1 am one night. None of the hospitals were answering their phones. Project S.A.F.E then circulated the request on social media. Within the next one hour, the Pune online community procured a ventilator and passed this information on to the critical patient.

Student communities across the country stepped up to fight the second wave. Delhi University’s Miranda House created a Covid helpline to assist residents of Delhi with quick updates on resources. A group of 22 student artists and poets from all over India came together for a night of music and poetry titled, ‘In The Dark Times There Will be Singing’, and raised Rs 1,47,000. All funds were donated to communities hardest hit by the second wave of COVID-19. Generating finances, even from outside the country. US-based Princeton alumnus Shreyas Lakhtakia and Julu Beth Katticaran, offered career counselling sessions to raise money for Covid charities in India.

The Indian student community that aided the country in its hour of need is here to stay and is only growing stronger. Even the girls of STV are planning more posts, events, and community building in the months to come. All while preparing for the upcoming Class 12 board exams, of course!

Featured image credit: antiopabg/Pixabay; Editing: LiveWire

This article has been republished from LiveWire with permission of the author.

Aditi Dindorkar is a second-year student at Ashoka University. She is pursuing a major in English and Creative Writing, and a minor in Media Studies. This report is written as part of her course, Introduction to Newswriting and Reporting.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 11

Issue XI: Editors’ Note

The past year saw COVID-19 and lockdowns as the only issues one extensively engaged with, both in their personal and professional lives. The question, “how has the pandemic been treating you?” slipped into every catch-up conversation with peers, friends, family and colleagues. With the current surge of cases in India once again, it is safe to say that even with the vaccine, the pandemic still continues to dominate a major part of our lives. We are constantly reminded of it every time we have to step outside our homes or log in to an online meeting or a Zoom birthday call. 

With this issue, we aim to provide our readers with a ‘pandemic-break’ and delve into stories that are equally important but may have been sidelined with constant COVID updates from newsrooms. 

To begin with, Madhulika Agarwal addresses an essential question revolving around what makes an event ‘newsworthy’ in the first place? And who has the authority on prioritising which news is worth the consumers’ attention? With Amazon’s Twitter antics having grabbed the attention of the media, Samyukta Prabhu and Rohan Pai use this opportunity to highlight the gig workers’ rights that have been sidelined by tech giants such as Amazon, specifically during the course of the pandemic. 

Akanksha Mishra covers the consequences of the Afghanistan peace deal on the country’s population, revealing a critical understanding of the negotiations between three stakeholders – the Taliban, the Afghan government and the United States. Speaking of the United States, Karantaj Singh analyses 100 days of Biden administration by critiquing as well as applauding his contribution towards restoring America’s identity in the global community. With New Zealand’s recently passed miscarriages bereavement leave law, Advaita Singh captures the reader’s attention by examining the relationship between workplaces, the economy and personal grief.

Closer to home, Saaransh Mishra confronts the structure of quasi-federalism in India and its exploitation by the ruling central government in implementing controversial laws such as the recent GNCTD Bill. Furthermore, Muskaan Kanodia explores the vote-bank anxieties behind the intense dedication of political parties towards temple beautification, which appears to complement the rise of religious politics in the country. Ridhima Manocha analyses the ruling government’s contradictory campaign attitudes towards CAA-NRC when contesting the current Assam Assembly elections. Meanwhile, Vaibhav Parik questions India’s Election Commission’s decision to hold the ongoing Assembly elections in multiple phases in the state of West Bengal.

Aarohi Sharma brings back the essential climate change debate and delves into why individuals continue to deny its existence and widespread impact. For our sports enthusiasts, Kavya Satish explores the possible reasons for the increasing loss of viewership and sponsorship in F1 and what it means for the future of the sport. 

To emphasise the immense strain that Coivd-19 has placed on our global healthcare systems, Saman Fatima explores how this has resulted in the marginalisation of treatments of other prevalent diseases among several populations. 

While other stories may continue to struggle to win the fight for our attention with the intensity of the pandemic, we hope our readers are able to take a step back and keep themselves updated with events beyond rising Covid-19 cases and vaccinations. 

-Ariba, Ashana Mathur, Harshita Bedi, Rujuta Singh

Picture Credits: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

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Issue 11

The New Abnormal by The Strokes

The latest album by New York-based rock band The Strokes generated a lot of buzz and excitement, both among fans and critics. After a gap of almost seven years, The New Abnormal was released on April 10, 2020, through Cult and RCA Records. Critical appreciation for the album peaked when it won the 2021 Grammy Award for the Best Rock Album of the Year. Like most of The Strokes’ discography, the album falls in an indie rock or alternative rock genre. Singer-songwriter Julius Casablancas received a lot of critical appreciation for the development of his lyrics, as well as his singing style, with a special improvement in his falsetto as we see in a number of songs in the album. The reason The New Abnormal should be on your list is because it is both a classic form of The Strokes’ music as well as packed with new elements that make it stand out amongst other indie rock albums. The singles “The Adults Are Talking” and “Eternal Summer” received praise for the mature lyrics addressing issues such as the generation gap in American society, and forest fires in light of global warming. The music is quintessential to the band, with duelling guitar riffs and an 80s-rock vibe throughout the album. Through the seven-year hiatus, fans witnessed Casablancas and other band members pursue individual projects that they seemed more invested in. However, the band finally got together for The New Abnormal and were even credited for sounding “more in cohesion”. With last year’s unprecedented turn of events due to the global pandemic, The New Abnormal is apt for listening not just because of the relevance of its name but also because of its ability to capture the uncertainty of our times. 

Picture Credits: Twitter

Akanksha Mishra is a student of political science and international relations at Ashoka University. 

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Issue 11

Exploring Crevices in Global Healthcare Systems: An Analysis of Health Beyond COVID-19

An article published in the New England Medicine Journal in April 2020 describes the plight of a nurse whose husband died of cardiac arrest when New York hospitals were met with one of the worst public health emergencies in recent times. While the nurse, a medical professional would have ideally rushed her husband to the hospital, she struggled to take a decision for fear of exposing her spouse to the Covid virus. This incident makes one consider the story of the ‘untold toll,’ which the pandemic is forcing on non-covid patients and medical resources across the world. 

When the pandemic hit, the first response of national governments was to impose lockdowns, fund research for the study of the virus and increase hospital intakes for rising coronavirus cases. But most institutions, both governmental and medical, within this rush to curb the coronavirus spread, overlooked other illnesses that had already been affecting people. As a result, all public health funds, research, hospitals and professionals only focused on the potentially deadly virus, while special hospital wards for other diseases were either completely shut down, converted to Covid-19 isolation centres or restricted patients from entering their premises. 

news report published by Al Jazeera in April 2020 covered the impact that Covid-19 had on non-covid cancer patients in the past year, describing how a breast cancer patient was unable to continue treatment and struggled to get her check-ups for fear of getting the virus. Another report from India highlights how cancer patients within the national capital struggled because of postponement of surgery dates owing to pandemic lockdowns. And as one tries to study the scope of this ‘untold toll’ in covid times, one is introduced to articles not just of cancer patients but patients wanting to get a dialysis treatment, women struggling to get abortions and a myriad other such cases.    

 In April 2020, a  report by the Wire analysed how Covid-19 had affected the already struggling public health system in India. As a projective report, the article analysed how patients suffering from cardiac issues, kidney diseases, mental health concerns and other non-covid medical health concerns would be affected by the lockdown. The article further explored how already existing high tuberculosis cases within the country were going to be left untreated in a pandemic world, owing to bad medical health infrastructures within the subcontinent. While there is not enough data available to prove the validity of these reports and the extent to which these predictions were proven correct last year, news reports quoted above give us a glimpse of the situation being close to what this report had predicted. With shutting down of  emergency wards, closure of special wards and the conversion of medical centres into quarantine facilities, it is no surprise that the overall health and well-being of non-covid patients underwent a significant blow. 

While it is no surprise that these ‘temporary pauses’ in healthcare impacted non-covid patients significantly and put the larger health of the public at risk, this situation also brought to the fore the crevices in public health systems the world over. It was not just Indian cancer patients who struggled to get treated, the situation in the UK and the US were similar. The question that this situation raises is that if the healthcare system could not absorb non-covid patients along with new covid patients in the past, will it be able to do it this time? A year after the previous covid scare, the cases have significantly spiked again, with a much stronger, mutated strain of the virus resurfacing in the world. 

The response to this second wave of the virus is yet again lockdown impositions, curfews, shutting down of hospitals, conversion of these spaces into temporary covid wards, thereby imposing a halt on other medical services. while the question remains – can we sustain our healthcare systems in periods of crisis? And can we afford to interrupt other ‘essential’ medical services in times of a pandemic like Coronavirus?

Places like Pune’s Yashwantrao Chavan Memorial Hospital has already become a dedicated covid hospital. The emergency wards in several Uttar Pradesh hospitals have already started shutting down, owing to a spike in Covid-19 cases. Similar reports are expected to be coming from different parts of the country. 

Given the data and policy analysis from last year, one is forced to ask whether the response to the current rise in covid-19 cases will result in the same medical conundrum the country and world witnessed in 2020? Or will our past experiences fill the fissures that were made visible by a global health emergency?

Saman Fatima is a third-year History Major at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 10

Covid-19 Vaccines: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The number of times a day that you encounter the word ‘vaccine’ has probably gone up a lot in the last five months. There is a barrage of news articles, viral videos and unverifiable claims from our family Whatsapp groups coming our way each day. In this moment, understanding how vaccines work and getting rid of misconceptions has a huge impact on our personal lives but can be frustratingly difficult. What are the differences between all the Covid-19 vaccines out there? Why does the Pfizer vaccine have to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius? Is it true that Covaxin can give you Covid? What are vaccines, anyway? This article explains how the immune system actually works, how vaccines confer immunity and why the new mRNA vaccine technology is important. 

The Immune System is a Mad Genius

High school biology tells us of this supernatural-sounding, sophisticated defense mechanism residing in the body of each human being –– the immune system. Indeed, your immune system can fight against millions of pathogenic microorganisms that you constantly come in contact with. But how does it accomplish this feat? The immune system has two crucial abilities that protect you from diseases. First, it can recognize substances that are unwelcome in your body: pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. This is more complicated than it sounds, because our bodies are made up of cells that are similar in many respects to bacteria and viruses, and there are no well-defined rules that neatly separate healthy cells from pathogens. Second, the immune system can use biological pathways to destroy the recognized pathogens. The immune system can also recognize toxins such as dust particles –– the reason we sneeze and have a runny nose if it’s dusty or polluted. However, in this article we will focus on the interaction between the immune system and biological pathogens.

The first function of the immune system is like a text editor that recognizes incorrect grammar. We’ve all been caught red-handed while typing grammatically incorrect sentences in MS Word (quite literally –– MS Word informs us of this with a frustrating squiggly red underline). MS Word does this by using pre-defined grammar rules and checking whether sentences satisfy these rules. Now consider this. If the text editor in question operated like the immune system, it would literally construct every possible grammatically incorrect sentence, and then check each new sentence it encountered against this enormous library of incorrect sentences. Well, naturally, this  system is much less efficient than verifying a few grammar rules. But remember, there aren’t any analogous rules that the immune system can use to distinguish pathogens from healthy tissue. So, it does what it can…

Right now, floating around in your body, are approximately one trillion immune cells, each sporting a unique ‘antibody’ (for context, the human body has roughly 30 trillion cells). These antibodies are made of small bits of protein, combined in arbitrary ways (the way our inefficient text editor would make up wrong sentences by combining random words). Each of these antibodies ‘fits’ a particular molecule that your body might encounter on a pathogen. If that pathogen molecule happens to enter your body and encounter the corresponding antibody, the antibody will lock into place and trigger an immune system cascade that will either neutralize (i.e., make unable to function) or destroy the pathogen. If you’re paying attention, you would have guessed by now that everyone in the world is currently walking around with a Covid-19 antibody in their system. 

The natural question that follows is, why does anybody ever get sick? The answer is that it’s a numbers game. The likelihood that a single pathogen molecule will come into contact with its matching antibody in your body is very, very low. This likelihood gets higher as the pathogen replicates and produces copies of itself. Once the antibody-pathogen match occurs, your immune system starts producing many more of that particular antibody and starts destroying the pathogen copies. From there, it’s a race to see which group of cells (the pathogen or the antibody-containing immune cell) can replicate faster and conquer the other. 

Vaccines: Leveraging the Fantastic Memory of the Mad Genius

Once your immune system has recognized a pathogen and raised antibodies against it, it does something amazing –– it memorizes the pathogen by always keeping a bunch of the relevant antibodies handy. So the next time you encounter that pathogen, the likelihood of it matching up with its antibody is much higher, the process of triggering the destructive immune system cascade is much faster and you are much less likely to fall sick. This is where vaccines come in. Vaccines are modified pathogens that don’t cause disease but are still recognized by the immune system as a foreign object. When the vaccine is injected into the body, the immune system generates and maintains an army of the relevant antibody; when the real pathogen shows up, these antibodies fight for you and you are immune to the disease. The commonly held notion that vaccines ‘trick’ the immune system into raising antibodies is subtly incorrect. The immune system is functioning as intended when it produces antibodies against a vaccine, but it’s simply getting a leg up because the vaccine can’t actually cause the disease. 

How does one modify a virus to make a vaccine? The most commonly used and well-established technique is to inactivate it by heating it or exposing it to chemicals that denature the proteins that make up the virus (similar to what happens when you boil an egg). Covaxin, produced by Bharat Biotech, is an example of a whole-virion inactivated virus. Another common method is to take a different virus that is harmless to humans, and genetically modify it to produce a few proteins from the virus you want to vaccinate against. The harmless virus, when injected into the body, replicates and produces many copies of the proteins that were introduced into its genome. The immune system raises antibodies against these proteins that confer immunity against the harmful virus. Examples of such ‘viral vector’ vaccines are the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine and the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine. The advantage of viral-vector vaccines over inactivated virus vaccines is that there is no chance of the vaccinated person contracting the disease due to incorrect inactivation of the virus. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has fueled advances in a new type of vaccine that does not require a virus at all. You may remember from high school biology that proteins are made from mRNA, which is made from DNA (the genetic code in your body’s cells). These non-viral vaccine delivery systems make use of DNA or mRNA fragments that encode proteins from the virus that you want to vaccinate against. The DNA or mRNA fragments are packaged in such a way that makes them appear non-foreign (basically, they are coated with the same oily molecules – lipids – that form the surface of our healthy cells). When the lipid-coated genetic material is injected into the body, it is taken up by immune cells which use it to produce the virus’ proteins. In this case, you actually are tricking the immune system into doing something it ordinarily isn’t supposed to. Once there are enough of the virus’ proteins floating around, the normal function of the immune system kicks in and it starts making antibodies against the virus. 

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA vaccines. Their advantages are that they are more amenable to quality control and can be designed and manufactured in a short time scale. However, mRNA is much more chemically unstable than protein or whole virus, and so it needs to be stored at much lower temperatures. Another disadvantage is that since these mRNA vaccines have not been around for long, there is no data on potential long-term side effects. 

There are currently 12 different Covid-19 vaccines that have been approved, with loads more in the pipeline. As we race to get enough people vaccinated in time to achieve herd immunity, it is vital that we all participate in the effort by getting vaccinated ourselves and encouraging our close friends and family to do the same. I hope this article will help you navigate the debates and discussions with more confidence. 

Amrita Singh has a B. Tech in Biological Sciences and Bio-Engineering. She is currently pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at Janelia Research Campus in Virginia, USA.

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Issue 7

The Cost of the Cure: Understanding the Implications of India’s COVID-19 Inoculation Drive

Union Minister Amit Shah’s bold call for a duel to challenge vaccine skeptics came exactly a week after the Indian government’s inoculation program against COVID-19 was launched on 16th January 2021. The ambitious plan aims to vaccinate 300 million healthcare and frontline workers in its first phase using the vaccine derived from the Oxford-AstraZeneca candidate AZD-1222, dubbed Covishield in India, and Covaxin, produced by Hyderabad-based biotechnology company, Bharat Biotech and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

Despite initial optimism, the program has witnessed low turnout rates, due to widespread misinformation and safety concerns. The root cause of doubt about the program stems from the announcement by the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) on 3rd January 2021, when Covaxin and Covishield were given emergency use approvals. While the approval for Covishield was unsurprising, given its established efficacy in all three phases of trials abroad, it was the seemingly hasty rollout of Covaxin that caused a stir. 

Criticism of the vaccine primarily focused on the absence of Phase 3 clinical trial data, since the trials have not yet concluded. The initial backlash against the approval of Covaxin was met with officials responsible for India’s COVID-19 response claiming that it would be used as a “back up”, in case of the need for extra doses given the emergence of the new UK strain of the virus. Moreover, it was also made clear that Covaxin would only be administered in “clinical trial mode”, where its recipients would be asked for their consent and proper monitoring for side-effects would follow

However, this stance towards the vaccine changed a few days later, when it was announced that both vaccine candidates will be treated at par with one another.  According to Dr Samiran Panda, a scientist at the ICMR, the circulation of the vaccine essentially implied a single-arm clinical trial, where a placebo wouldn’t be used and results wouldn’t be published under a peer-reviewed journal. Moreover, vaccine recipients would not have the option to choose between Covaxin and Covishield. It was this sudden change of positions that raised concerns. 

Consent, Choice and the State

The question about individual choice and consent is critical to the discourse around the inoculation mission. The lack of choice between vaccine candidates has affected turnout rates with only around 56% of eligible individuals getting vaccinated due to concerns among healthcare and frontline workers about the controversy surrounding its fast-paced rollout.

Ethical concerns regarding consent plague the program – should recipients, who aren’t willing participants of a research study, not be allowed to choose between two vaccines that differ in terms of proven efficacy and safety? Given the major difference between the vaccine candidates, how can consent retain its true value when it directly robs an individual of their agency to make personal medical decisions? Most crucially, should the state have the authority to directly or indirectly force the hand of citizens in making informed medical choices?

The decision of the rollout of Covaxin under current conditions seems even more dubious at a time when essential workers are invaluable and at the highest risk of contracting the virus. 

Shifting Positions and Unwelcome Surprises

The behaviour of the Indian state and its important bodies in relation to its treatment of Covaxin is also perplexing. The very approval of a vaccine that hasn’t yet completed Phase 3 clinical trials raises alarm. The third phase of trials is critical since it provides for the closest possible model of how a vaccine candidate will behave when administered to a large population.

The vaccine’s intended use has also been disputed. The DCGI had claimed that it would be administered in an open-label clinical trial to ascertain its efficacy against the UK strain of the virus. In direct contradiction, Bharat Biotech managing director Krishna Ella has stated that there was no “confirmatory data” indicating that Covaxin works against it, and has suggested that this form of vaccine circulation was sprung upon him by the government.

The sheer disconnect between the understanding of India’s major regulatory body and the vaccine manufacturer not only is a matter of concern but also sets a worrisome precedent. Moreover, the suggestion that Bharat Biotech was unaware of the government’s expectation of the vaccine’s use can also lead to long-lasting implications for public trust in regulatory bodies and affect state standards for treatment approvals in the future. 

 Vaccine Diplomacy and Anti-Nationals
The past year has been marked by governmental positions that encourage the idea of India as a major player in the global response against COVID-19. The consequence of the same is the attachment of national pride to India’s vaccine response.  Hence, in the face of concerns about the vaccine, critics of the vaccination program have been liberally deemed ‘anti-national’, an all-too-familiar narrative that conveniently sensationalizes every aspect of the matter except its core problems.
Given that Covishield is relatively cheaper than Covaxin, it is important to question the government’s decision to purchase and circulate a vaccine that is yet to produce Phase 3 trial data. Moreover, India has only exported doses of Covishield so far despite having purchased 3.85 million doses of Covaxin, which is peculiar given the government’s otherwise confident domestic narrative around the vaccine. These facts paint a murky picture – one where India seems to be balancing domestic needs and international ambitions, with the former placed in relatively more uncertain territory than the latter.It is necessary to establish that the crux of the concerns surrounding Covaxin pertains to the confusion around its intended usage, authorization prior to completing Phase 3 trials, and the issues of recipient consent and choice. A pandemic is the worst possible time to sow skepticism around medicine. At the same time however, it is important to recognize that the consequences of any missteps in approval or administration of treatments can trigger mass disillusionment from life-saving scientific treatments for years to come. Given as things stand in India, one can only wait and observe what unfolds.

Aarohi Sharma is a Psychology student at Ashoka University. Her academic interests primarily focus on the intersection of politics and psychology in society.

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Issue 7

Road to Recovery: A Conversation on Covaxin with Prof. Gautam Menon

What exactly do clinical trials for a new vaccine involve? 

The first step after a potential vaccine is developed is to try it out on animals to check that it is not toxic and that it leads to an immune response. If this step is successful, the next stage is to move to human trials, where these preliminary trials are called phase 1 trials.

In such trials, healthy volunteers (typically 20-50 in number) are injected with one of a range of possible doses of the vaccine, to determine the optimal and safe dose, starting from very small doses. Whether the vaccine elicits an immune response is also verified. In phase 2 trials, the immune response is examined further, and questions of side effects and safety are also explored in a larger group of volunteers, typically more than 100.

Finally, phase 3 trials involve administering the vaccine to a much larger group, often tens of thousands of people, selected to be representative of the population. These trials are called “randomized control trials”. In these trials, about half the participants enrolled are given a placebo, something that is harmless to the body, while the other half is given the vaccine. No one knows, not even the doctors administering it, whether the injection contains a placebo or the real thing.

In India, emergency use authorization has been granted to two vaccines: Covishield, made by the Serum Institute of India and Covaxin, made by Bharat Biotech.

Since Covaxin didn’t complete its phase 3 trials and publish them, what can we confidently say about its efficacy? 

At the moment we can say little since there simply is no data yet. In the much smaller phase-1 and phase-2 trials, the vaccine elicited a robust immune response, making antibodies against the virus. The vaccine was also shown to be safe in appropriate doses. It is based on an inactivated whole-virus vaccine platform which is well-understood. However, it is important to understand that efficacy—whether a vaccine works well at preventing you from getting the disease under ideal conditions—is not a simple and immediate consequence of immunogenicity, the ability of a vaccine to provoke an immune response. That is why we need phase 3 trials in the first place.

Is there a broader misunderstanding of immunogenicity and efficacy? What is the difference and why is it important? 

A vaccine should certainly provoke a response from the immune system. That’s central to how vaccines function. But whether it works in preventing people from getting the disease – protective immunity – is a harder question and there are a few things that could go wrong. One extreme case is that getting vaccinated might, paradoxically, increase your chances of severe disease, through what is called ADE or antibody-dependent enhancement. Another possibility is a vaccine-associated enhanced respiratory disease, in which antibodies induced by the vaccine bind with viruses and form immune complexes that clog the lungs. These are possibilities that a phase-3 trial should rule out.

How is Covaxin going to complete phase 3 trials?

What should happen, in principle, is the following: The scientists running the trial will wait till a certain number of people, a number pre-approved in the trial protocol, within the group that received an injection, are diagnosed with COVID-19. They then go back and check whether these people belonged to the group that was administered the placebo or the actual vaccine. If there are many more cases in the placebo group than the vaccine group than can be accounted for by chance, that suggests that the vaccine works in protecting against developing the actual disease.

The problem is that it may take some time to reach this stage of having a predetermined number infected with the disease. Since most people develop no or only mild symptoms of the disease, they may not notice they have been infected.

A second problem is that phase-3 trials are being done in a background where a good number of people have already been infected in the past, so are immune to the disease for at least some time, as far as we know. These people won’t develop the disease even if they encounter an infected person.  

Finally, currently in India, all this is happening in the background of a steadily decreasing number of new cases. This makes it harder to have new infections in the trial group.

Why aren’t people given a choice on which vaccine they would prefer? 

The government, which is, after all, making these vaccines available for free at this point, may have wanted to ensure that they did not appear to be favouring one over the other when granting emergency-use approval. Perhaps there is also an element of national pride in this, in that Covaxin is a fully indigenous vaccine while Covishield is the result of a collaboration with international groups, at Oxford University and the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca.

What, according to you, is the biggest health concern with not having any efficacy data on Covaxin? 

Whenever one is administering a vaccine to a healthy person, one would like to know that it has been worth it. Does the vaccine, for example, provide protection against the disease to more than 50% of the population it is administered to? A phase-3 trial, precisely because it is so large and planned as a randomised control trial, is a good way to ask this question as well as to look out for possible rare but serious side-effects of being vaccinated.

Would it have been a better move to rollout Covaxin after phase 3 clinical trial data was published? Why do you think it was encouraged over other alternatives? 

It would have been better to rollout Covaxin after the efficacy data became available, in my opinion. Data demonstrating good efficacy and safety, which could have taken another month or so to obtain, would have spoken for itself.

Of course, these decisions have to be made based on available information as well as projections for what might happen in the future, such as new variants that are more transmissible. There are certainly cases where granting emergency use authorisation might have been justified. This is why scientists as well as the lay public need to understand the basis on which these decisions were made.

The committee that approved Covaxin distribution may have had data that was shown to it that suggested that it was efficacious. We don’t know because neither the names of the committee members nor the minutes of their deliberations are available to us.

Transparency should always be a central consideration in such matters, especially since you will be vaccinating people who are healthy and you don’t want to compromise on safety.

Considering how the vaccination drive is going right now, do you think vaccine hesitancy is slowly eroding and that target numbers will be met? 

Yes, the numbers of those getting vaccinated each day are steadily increasing. That is a good sign. Unlike in the USA and some other developed countries, there is no strong anti-vaccination movement in this country and people are accustomed to large-scale immunization programs, such as the pulse polio campaign.

Do you think the vaccine rollout should’ve been critiqued more or less than it was by the Indian scientific community? What could have been different?

I think the sections of the scientific community that critiqued the Covaxin rollout did the right thing. Prof. Shahid Jameel of Ashoka University and Prof. Gagandeep Kang of the CMC Vellore, in particular, were sane voices in this, pointing out gently, but firmly, the need to stick to established procedure. One has to ensure that the public does not feel that they would be guinea pigs. Several fellows of the Indian Academy of Science also signed a document expressing their concern.

I was dismayed at the counter signature campaign, supporting the Covaxin rollout, from a group of 49 medical doctors and scientists. Their arguments made little sense to me.

Can anything be said about whether the current vaccine candidates can be effectively used for the new strains of the virus?

There is some encouraging news of the effectiveness of some of the international vaccines against the new strains, although perhaps not at the same level. Bharat Biotech has claimed very recently that its Covaxin was effective against the UK variant of the virus. Our understanding is rapidly evolving.

Do you think that the overall vaccine development process has changed in the course of the global effort in formulating a COVID-19 vaccine?

Absolutely. I thought, as many others did, that a period of 18 months to two years would be the minimum time required for a vaccine to be distributed. That we managed to do this in less than a year is a remarkable achievement. Without our ever-improving knowledge of both basic and applied science, this would simply have been impossible. Indeed, it would have been impossible even a decade ago.

I am, in many ways, proud of what India has achieved. The Serum Institute of India, located in Pune, is the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer. Bharat Biotech, the manufacturers of Covaxin, has a manufacturing plant that is the largest of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region. It is a respected company which exports therapeutics and vaccines across the world. India itself produces 60% of global vaccines. The Director-General of the WHO commented recently that “…the production capacity of India is one of the best assets the world has today”.

As an Indian, this does make me very happy.

Gautam Menon is Professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University as well as Professor of Theoretical Physics and Computational Biology at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai. He works in biophysics as well as in, more recently, the modelling of  infectious disease.

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Issue 5

A case for caution: India’s path to economic recovery

India, as with most of the world has been impacted severely by the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown imposed by the government. While we are in the process of reopening the economy, many of us hope for a quick return to normalcy. However, According to the production and inflation data, normalcy might be a far cry for the Indian economy. 

The headline figure of a decline of 23.9% in the GDP for the first quarter of financial year 2020-21 released in July showed the depth of the shock to the economy. Index of Industrial Production (IIP) shows a sharp decline in manufacturing across all sectors. Labour intensive sectors such as textiles (-37.3%), leather (-32.7%) and primary products such as basic metals (-21.6%) have been hit hard by the lockdown(Source- IIP Data and author’s calculations). As more workers get laid off, consumption declines which leads to low demand for manufactured goods, which leads to even more workers getting laid off thus creating a vicious cycle. Many pundits point to the increase in expenditure around the festive season and gradually increasing industrial production as signalling economic recovery. However, as the adage  goes,  one swallow doesn’t make summer, India’s economic recovery may not come easily. It faces more challenges than just production numbers as other core sectors dip significantly. 

Source – IIP Data and author’s calculations

India’s economy is heavily dependent on the services and agricultural sector. The agricultural sector employs more than 50% of the entire workforce while services contributes to 50% of India’s GDP. The services sector has seen a decline of 20.6% in Q1 of FY21 in gross value added (GVA) while the trade, hotels, communication and transport sub sector is facing a decline of 47.0%. 

The only sector that has shown growth is agriculture with an increase of 3.3%. This is expected as the government has imposed the least restrictions on this sector.  A copious monsoon has also led to a good harvest. However since the pandemic has now spread to rural areas it could cause a reduction in the agricultural sector. 

According to SBI research, manufacturing has seen a decline of 38% in gross value added. Net taxes (the difference between GDP and GVA) has declined to 1.36 lakh crore, the lowest in 7 years. The decrease in tax payments also limits the government’s willingness to spend as it increases the fiscal deficit.

The problem facing the Indian economy is threefold- demand has dipped significantly, inflation is rising and the supply chain has been disrupted. In the past year where the economy has seen a slowdown due to disruptions in the credit market, private consumption has been a significant pillar which has stood strong. In 2019, it contributed to about 57% of the total GDP. With private and public investment unlikely to increase due to underutilized capacity, private consumption will be a significant contributor to GDP this year as well. According to an SBI report the private consumption is set to decline by 14% due to the decrease in spending during the pandemic. The expenditure side of the GDP also shows a decline of 22% in demand impulses. Until the government intervenes directly to stimulate demand, we are unlikely to see a quick recovery. 

India is also facing a problem of stagflation (high inflation, low growth, high unemployment) as we take a look at the latest inflation numbers released by the RBI. CPI has gone up by 11.07%, 10.68%, 9.05% in the past three months. In India, inflation is measured using two indices. The Consumer Price Index (CPI), which measures the prices the retail customer gets, and the  Wholesale Price Index (WPI) which measures the wholesale price of goods and services. 

 The WPI came into positive territory only in August. Over the past three months, it has been 0.41%, 1.32% and 1.48%. The numbers show a clear divergence between consumer prices and wholesale prices. While one might point out this divergence may be due to hoarding/overcharging by wholesalers, this is unlikely to be the case. What these numbers point to is a supply chain disruption, wholesalers are unable to supply goods consistently to retailers leading to short term supply drops and increasing prices. This is due to the uncoordinated unlocking between states. As states continue to unlock/impose restrictions on their economies with respect to the number of cases, this trend of disruption seems to continue until next year. 


Source – IIP Data and author’s calculations

Policy Proposals

The Indian establishment faces a unique challenge as the biggest shock of its existence comes to fruition. The RBI has already lowered the repo rates (the rates at which RBI lends money to commercial banks) by 125 basis points this year. By decreasing the repo rates, RBI has made it easier for banks to obtain more money which can be used for loans to the populace.  The finance ministry has announced a slew of measures focusing on emergency credit lines, loan restructuring and providing support to distressed sectors such as housing under the brand name Atmanirbhar Bharat. However, as we see private consumption and investment collapsing, now is the time for even more radical measures to support the rural and urban lower class. 

One way the government can find immediate impact is to increase the outlay towards the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). NREGS guarantees 100 days of unskilled work to all households for a fixed wage rate. This can be increased to 150 days to support many migrant workers who have been laid off. The wage rate can also be increased to provide further support to households. Another way of directly stimulating demand is to implement something like stimulus payments like the USA. This would directly put money in the hands of the people helping shore up demand quickly. In the longer term, a Universal Basic Income (UBI) could help mitigate these shocks. While we expect economic recovery to be quick in the coming months looking at festive demand spending and increase in industrial production. The data shows us that the path to recovery requires a lot more proactive measures from the government.  

Rochak Jain is a fourth year student of economics at Ashoka University.

Image Credit: pexels.com

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