Super-speed race to kill COVID-19 and stop plague of false news

 

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By Ivan Lim 
Former AJA President, Contributor to AsiaN  

SINGAPORE: It’s do-or-die speed now to find antidotes for the Covid-19 pandemic, and unified moves globally to   get rid of infodemic  — destructively untrue information — as the Corona virus keeps up its killing spree world-wide.  The menace of misinformationis becoming a parallel plague, the Internet grotesquely misused to misguide people.

Efforts tofind a vaccine against the pneumonia superbug is becoming a furious global race as Western nations, chiefly the US, compete with China and India to make an urgent breakthrough.

President Donald Trump, with his America First bombast, has approved the use of the existent anti-Ebola drug remdesivir. He is hell-bent on an early victory against Covid-19 ahead of his re-election campaign for the Nov 3 polls.

“The drug interferes with the genome (of the coronavirus) and disrupts its ability to replicate,” said the Gilead Pharmaceutical Co.  in California, which developed the drug. “But it is not a magic bullet.” Some 1,063 patients treated with remdesivir have shown shorter recovery time but not improved survival, according to the US National Institute of allergy and Infectious Disease.

Meanwhile, Trump has Beijingto beat in the vaccine race. He may not target India, having developed a rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but Indian companies are determined to find a vaccine ahead of others.

China, from where the SARS-like virus broke out in the city of Wuhan on Dec 23, has advanced to testing anti-Covid drug on monkeys with encouraging results.  Eight Rhesus macaques injected with doses of the vaccine later had the SARS Covid2 virus fed into their lungs through the trachea. None of them tested positive for the disease. In contrast, the unvaccinated macaques displayed Covid-19 symptoms. The Beijing-based Sinovac Biotech research team’s findings first appeared in a paper on April 19 and in the Science magazine on May 6.

The CanSino Biologics of Tianjin city and the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products are conducting clinical trials of their anti-viral drugs. So is the Beijing Institute of Biological Products. The progress made has led a Chinese official to offer hope that a vaccine for emergency use could be available as early as September.

Not to be left behind in this nationally and commercially-driven vaccine race is the Serum Institute of India(SII).The world’s biggest producer of vaccines, it is now doing tests on rhesus monkeys for an Oxford University-created drug,ChAOxlnCov-19.Buoyed by the promising results of the trials in February, SII is getting set to market the vaccine at affordable price by 2022.

Another Indian pharmaceutical firm, Bharat Biotech, is working on an immunity boosting vaccine, Coro-Flu, in partnership with the University of Wisconsin in the US.

Making good strides in the vaccine competition is Germany’s BioNTech in a joint venture with US pharma giant Pfizer. They have begun human trials on anti Covid-19 drug.

Competing against them are CureVac and US biotech firm Moderna- both conducting trials on a RNA vaccine designed to enable people to boost their antibodies to counter Coronavirus infection.

Likewise, Israel and Netherlands research teams are making progress with tests on anti-bodies-based treatment for Covid-19 respiratory sickness.  The Israel Institute for Biological Research and University of Utrecht project has been billed as a “game-changer” until a vaccine is found.

“The neutralising antibody has potential to alter the course of the infection, support virus clearance and protect infection of people free of the virus,” said Utrecht.

On the infodemic front, the spread of disinformation  – fake news with malicious intent –  and misinformation, termed falsehoods without bad intentions,  has been described as a ‘second disease” by the WHO and drew the ire of United Nations secretary general who said: “Our enemy is also the growing surge of disinformation”

Like the virus, the Covid-19 infodemia invasion of the Internet has come under intensive probe by the the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), the #CoronaVirusFacts / #DatosCoronaVirus Alliance unites more than 100 fact-checkers around the globe in 40-plus languages.

The Alliance, formed in January, has been tracking wave after wave of mis/disinformation on the pandemic, from the initial concerns over the origin and spread of the virus to the rise of conspiracy theories and blame game degenerating into xenophobic, religious and racist hate discourse.

Its work has shown that falsehoods travel across the planet at the speed of light, so to say; it has underlined the importance for media practitioners to come together in an “international newsroom” to weed out fake news and hoaxes.

“We have demonstrated that transparency, credible source and media literacy are powerful tools against mis-/dis-information,” said the IFCN affiliate of the Florida-based Poynter Institute that specialises in training fact-checking journalists from across the globe.

The Alliance-linked #Datos Corona Database is updated daily in listing falsehoods that have been debunked. For instance, the conspiracy theory that Cov-id-19 is caused by HIV and 5G technology.

Even then, the Alliance points out “the Novel Coronavirus is a developing story that scientists and journalists allover the world is still researching. Hence, users should do well to check the latest reports on the pandemic.

Stunned into action by harsh criticism for is failure to halt infodemic traffic, tech giant Facebook responded with several counter-measures, the latest being a pop-up alert when users come across dubious postings and direct them to the World Health Organisation websites. WhatsApp has introduced  a similar feature.

Facebook’s Instagram is also identifying and tracking hashtags that are linked to posts parlaying falsehood and misinformation.

Joining the fray, message board Reddit alerts users to political bias or even racist posts as well as questionable information marked ‘quarantine’. They are left there to be assessed and checked against authoritative information sites.

Singapore has a similar feature under its Protection Against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma). The authorities can call out any local or foreign online post or video that it deems false or doctored. The offending party will then be served with a “direction” to put up a notice of correction on pain of fine or jail. However, the original false statement will still appear alongside the correction unless authorities order it to be removed. An aggrieved party can appeal to the High Court, but only with leave from the minister concerned.

Of late, the spotlight in the anti- infodemic campaign has shifted from conspiracy theories to unproven antidotes, including herbs, vitamins, test kits for diagnosing, preventing and treating the Coronavirus. Leading the charge, Facebook has banned advertisements of untested and proven dugs and therapies on Instagram and its Marketplace platform.

Playing its part, the Singapore Health Science Authority in February removed 1,700 dubiously advertised items like herbs, health supplements, sanitisers and test-kits from retail store and e-commerce platforms.

Thus, the two-track campaigns against the Covid-19 pandemic and infodemic go on world-wide with no end in sight yet.

 

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