Honk Kong’s New Security Law

Honk Kong’s New Security Law

Business & Politics

Honk Kong’s New Security Law

Honk Kong riot police

3rd August 2020

The civil, political and cultural divides between Hong Kong and mainland China is rooted in the fallout from the First Opium war. In 1842 China ceded the island to Britain in the treaty of Nanking. The 150 years of segregation that followed saw sharp contrasts in the lives of Hong Kong and Chinese citizens. When Britain returned the former colony to China in 1997, it marked the beginning of Beijing’s attempts to re-integrate Hong Kong. The introduction of a new national security law signifies a more forceful and legally binding step in the removal of Hong Kong’s independence and autonomy.

The closed-door nature of the Chinese government creates an air of mystery surrounding the new law. It is assumed that Beijing has always sought to dissolve the distinction between Hong Kong and other cities within the country. While free speech and freedom of religion are values long enjoyed by those who live in Hong Kong, they counter the aspirations of the Chinese communist party. It is thought that the sooner the island could be aligned with Beijing’s ideals, the faster such values could be eradicated, thus discouraging other Chinese citizens from seeking such rights. One need look no further than China’s treatment of the Uighur  Muslims to understand the government’s view on religious expression.

So why now? No one is entirely sure, although there are many theories. The Chinese government is much stronger than it was in 1997, making the introduction of the new law easier now but near impossible 23 years ago. Also, the recent outbreak of COVID-19 has made large scale protests unfeasible. 

In July 2014 Hong Kong saw one of the largest pro-democracy rallies in decades, and since then pro-democracy rallies and protests have been commonplace on the island. As large gatherings and rallies have been difficult during the pandemic this meant less pushback from civilians when the new law was introduced. 

In September of this year, Hong Kong will hold legislative Council elections. This new law will help Beijing exert greater control over the political processes and developments. While these are only speculations, the events leading up its announcement meant that the introduction of the law has been rather seamless.

There have been concerns globally regarding the new legislation and for those unfamiliar with Chinese politics, the language used by most media outlets has been less than illuminating. The terms ’pro-democracy protests’ and ’national security law’ hardly seem menacing. But the law threatens the freedoms of those living in Hong Kong and those who have never set foot on the island in a way that has never been seen before. The vague language used makes it very difficult to predict what is now illegal. 

There are four offences identified in the law — secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign or external forces. The term ’endangering national security’ is also used but not expanded upon. The lack of specifications means that the government in Beijing can name anything they choose as endangerment and arrest the culprit with no warning. The new law also threatens press freedom and makes it possible for authorities to remove online material and obtain individuals online data without a warrant or means of speculation.

Suspects who are accused of breaching the incredibly vague law can be extradited to mainland China and tried under mainland law, as the legislation trumps existing laws including current human rights legislation. Possibly the most astonishing thing is that these laws are applicable to everyone in the world. For example, although I have never set foot in Hong Kong or mainland China, the critical nature of this article puts me in breach of the new national security law. 

 

“The lack of specifications means that the government in Beijing can name anything they choose as endangerment and arrest the culprit with no warning”

 

Director Zheng Yanxiong of the newly established Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, is the man tasked with the law enforcement. He is expected to show little leniency and has a reputation for being a tough taskmaster,  a reputation earned through his involvement in the violent suppression of protests in Wukan in 2016. The effects of the new legislation have been felt almost immediately. Over 370 people who protested the introduction of the law were arrested for offences such as holding flags or signs. A further 8 were arrested for holding blank paper, a crime that can now incur a minimum of 3 years in prison or a life sentence. Reports of individuals deactivating social media accounts that they have previously used to share news on are widespread.

Many countries throughout the world are taking steps which will have a drastic impact on their political relationship with both Hong Kong and mainland China. For the past 30 years, the United Kingdom’s government has had an extradition treaty with Hong Kong. Since the announcement of the new Hong Kong security law the UK government has announced that it will suspend the extradition treaty “immediately and indefinitely”. This has come amid fears that any individual extradited to Hong Kong from the United Kingdom would be sent to mainland China and tried under mainland law.

Ivan Ko, a Hong Kong property developer and founder of the Victoria Harbour group has been looking at “Ireland and two other countries” in which to build ‘Nextpolis’. The autonomous city which would spend approximately 500 sq km would become home to tens of thousands of individuals looking to relocate from Hong Kong. The city which could be located in East Cork, East Galway, Drogheda or Dundalk among other suggested locations would consist of an estimated 50% Hong Kongers and 15-30% Irish and European citizens. With an initial population of 50,000, the city will have a “free reforming economic system” within Ireland along with a low taxation system, and independent relationship with the European Union as well as its own border control.

As were previous attributes in Hong Kong, democracy and freedom of religion and expression would be key pillars in the city. While the city remains in the discussion stage, Mr Ko has been in contact with Tim Mawe, The regional director in the Asia-Pacific unit of the Department of Foreign Affairs as well as David Costello, the Consul general of Ireland to Hong Kong. In a statement released on July 26 the Department of Foreign Affairs said “following an initial approach in December 2019, the department had limited contact with the individuals involved to provide helpful realistic guidance about Ireland. Since providing this guidance there has been no further action taken by the department in this matter”. Whether the city plans will go ahead remains unseen.

While the world is still struggling to comprehend this new legislation, we await further fallout from this new law and hope that it does not severely negatively impact the residents of Hong Kong.

 

 

 

Featured photo by Jonathan van Smit

 

 

The Forgotten Generation: The Children of Yemen

The Forgotten Generation: The Children of Yemen

Opinion

The Forgotten Generation: The Children of Yemen

Yemen refugee camp

1st August 2020

 

The largest humanitarian crisis in the world is occurring in Yemen right now, and the world is still glossing over it. Five years of war, pitting the internationally-recognised government backed by a Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels – and civilians are the ones who continue to bear the brunt of the conflict. What is already the poorest nation in the Middle East has seen its economy decimated, leaving millions unemployed. Yemen’s health infrastructure has been devastated, leaving its people open to repeated disease outbreaks, malnutrition, and increasing vulnerabilities. And Yemen is an arid country, access to water depends on bore holes and pumping stations which require expensive fuel to operate; even clean water is in short supply. 

Of course, as if the conflict, economic shocks, extensive  floods and desert locusts are not enough, Covid-19 has served to only exacerbate the situation. It has created an emergency within an emergency. Only half of the country’s already insufficient health facilities were functioning before the pandemic; now many of the remaining facilities have been devoted entirely to the care of those suffering from Covid-19, all the while lacking in basic equipment, such as PPE, oxygen and other essential services needed to treat the virus.

The testing and reporting of the virus remains limited, and people with severe symptoms, such as high fevers and laboured breathing, must be turned away from health facilities that are overflowing or simply unable to provide safe treatment. Many health workers are receiving no salaries or incentives.

Overall, more than 24 million people (a staggering 80 per cent of the population) are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. According to the Statement on Yemen by the Principals of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee of UNICEF, the conflict in Yemen has a disproportionate impact on women and children. Yemen is already acknowledged as one of the worst places on earth to be a woman or a child. After five years of war, over 12 million children and 6 million women of childbearing age need some kind of humanitarian assistance. Safety, health, nutrition and education are already constantly at risk as infrastructure collapses from the violence. For these 12 million children, Yemen has become a living hell.

Children continue to be killed and injured in the violence; twelve children have been recently lost to airstrikes. Damage done to schools and hospitals has led to their closure, disrupting access to both education and health services. Even before the pandemic began, around 2 million children were out of school. Now, that number is closer to 7.8 million – and they  don’t even have the ability to access distanced or online learning as our children do. They can’t even go out to play. 

This is leaving them  even more vulnerable and is robbing children of their futures.The widespread absence from classes and education, combined with a worsening economy, may put older children specifically at an even greater risk of child labour, recruitment into armed groups and child marriage. Of the 3.6 million displaced Yemenis who have been forced to flee their homes, around 972,000 of these, or 27 per cent, are under the age of eighteen. They are now facing much more than the traditional barriers encountered when trying to access healthcare in such harsh conditions. Most of them live in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions.

 

“Of the 3.6 million displaced Yemenis who have been forced to flee their homes, around 972,000 of these, or 27 per cent, are under the age of eighteen”

The coronavirus will impact children potentially more drastically than in any other country. UNICEF has published some startling numbers. 10.2 million children do not have proper access to basic healthcare. Almost 10 million children do not have proper access to water and sanitation. More than 8 million people, nearly half of them children, are depending directly on the agency WASH for water, sanitation and hygiene services. Almost half a million Yemeni children are already malnourished. 

However, as Covid-19 spreads, it has been calculated that 30,000 children could develop life-threatening, severe acute malnutrition over the next six months. The overall number of malnourished children under the age of five could increase to 2.4 million. This malnutrition, combined with the lack of clean water, has left their immune systems already dangerously compromised, meaning that the children have become at immediate risk of life-threatening diseases like malaria and cholera, in addition to Covid-19. It is estimated that a further 6,600 children under five could die from preventable causes by the end of 2020.

Humanitarian agencies are doing everything they can to help: rapidly upscaling proven publish health measures against Covid-19, such as early detection and frequent testing, isolation, treatment and contact-tracing actively promoting personal hygiene as well as social distancing, mobilising supplies and equipment needed for healthcare, and maintaining essential health and humanitarian services. Authorities across Yemen have been called upon to report cases transparently, as well as to adapt measures to further suppress and control the spread of the disease. But help from large governments is required too. 

On 2nd June at a virtual donor conference, mainly Arab as well as some Western countries pledged $1.35bn for aid operations in Yemen. This, however, is far less than the $2.4bn the UN originally asked for, as well as the $3.6bn the UN received last year. Millions of people will not get essential nutritional and vitamin supplements, or immunisation against deadly diseases. Many children will be pushed to the brink of starvation, many succumb to Covid-19, many will suffer from cholera, and many will die. Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian chief, told Security Council members that the choice was between “supporting the humanitarian response in Yemen and helping to create the space for a sustainable political situation, or watch Yemen fall off the cliff.” 

According to Sara Beysolow Nyanti, UNICEF Representative to Yemen the scale of this emergency can simply not be overstated. “As the world’s attention focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic I fear the children of Yemen will be all but forgotten. Despite our own preoccupations right now, we all have a responsibility to act and help the children of Yemen. They have the same rights of any child, anywhere.” Nyanti says that by just standing by, the international community will send a clear message that the lives of innocent children devastated by conflict, economic collapse, and no disease, simply do not matter. She describes her worry during a recent Zoom call with children from across Yemen: “They talked about the fact that they feel there is no one listening to them,” she said. “These children feel forgotten.”

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and that of its children have never been more severe, or funding more constrained. However, although the entire world is undoubtedly suffering as we all fight our own pandemic-induced demons, we and our governments must do our best and do more to remember and to help those children straddling the slim fence between life and death. 

 

 

 

Featured photo by  EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid

 

 

 

The West Bank Annexation

The West Bank Annexation

Business & Politics

The West Bank Annexation

Micheal Martin, Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan walking at a distance together

Sinead Scales

29th July 2020

 

On May 5 2020, Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in for his fifth term as Prime Minister of Israel. Among his campaign pledges was the proposed annexation of the West Bank. Annexation is when a state unilaterally proclaims its sovereignty over another territory, and is strictly prohibited under international law. This annexation poses a serious threat to the long-sought two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The West Bank, and more specifically the Jordan Valley, is considered pivotal to the survival of a future Palestinian state among Palestinians. Often referred to as their ‘breadbasket’, it holds importance not only as a strategic location along the Jordan River but annexation of this territory would allow Israeli territory to fully encircle Palestinian enclaves. The planned annexation was set for July 1st and sparked renewed fear of an outbreak of violence in the West Bank and the wider region. Neighbouring Jordan, who currently has a peace treaty with Israel, could be forced to adopt a more hard-line stance towards Israel as a result of the annexation of the West Bank.

The West Bank is home to some 2-3 million Palestinians (sources vary) and 400,000-600,000 (sources vary) Israeli settlers in 130 settlements, considered illegal by most of the world. Occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East War, the proposed annexation could result in just under 110,000 Palestinians living within the annexed territory. Israel already exercises extensive control over the region, they control the movement of people and goods, along with the resources and the economy of the West Bank. Evictions of Palestinians, to make way for Israeli settlements, are widespread. More than 90% of Palestinian requests for construction are denied, which forces them to build illegally and results in the Israeli demolition of such construction. If the plans for annexation are successful, Palestinians fear more evictions, displacements, and even fewer rights than they previously had. Palestinian farmers who operate in the West Bank have stated that they hardly get enough water, in contrast, Israeli settlers receive 20 times more water.

Palestinians have turned to the United Nations for help in halting the proposed annexation. A Security Council discussion took place on May 20th and resulted in a plea by the Security Council for Israel to abandon their annexation plans. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cut ties with Israel and the United States in response to the annexation plans. The Prime Minister of Palestine has suggested that they would declare their own state in the West Bank if Israel proceeds with the plans. The International community, along with many EU countries, are slowly but surely lending their support to the Palestinians in opposing the annexation. UN Special Rapporteur, Michael Lynk, stated that the annexation would lead to a ‘21st century apartheid’ and a ‘cascade of human rights consequences’. Interestingly, Netanyahu is facing opposition from both sides. His plans have also been criticised by Israeli Settlement leaders, who argue that his plan opens a door for a future Palestinian state and restricts the expansion of their settlements in the West Bank. Some accuse Netanyahu of using the proposed annexation to win a tight election and to divert attention away from his pending trial on corruption charges.

 

“Occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East War, the proposed annexation could result in just under 110,000 Palestinians living within the annexed territory”

According to a poll by the Israel Democratic Institute, 25% of Israelis oppose annexation, 24.5% support it and 28.5% ‘don’t know’. In contrast, a poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 66% of Palestinians believe that Israel will proceed with the annexation plans. 31% of those surveyed supported an armed struggle should the annexation plans proceed. The survey also shows that Palestinians are doubtful of the international community coming to their aid, 63% said they didn’t think Jordan would break their peace deal with Israel in and 78% said that the EU, Israel’s most prominent trading partner, would not impose sanctions on Israel. The end of June saw protests by thousands of Palestinians in the Jordan Valley and hundreds of Israelis in Tel Aviv in opposition to the annexation of the West Bank.

Netanyahu is capitalising on the extra power afforded to him by the Trump administration. In releasing their Israeli-Palestinian Peace Plan in January 2020, the Trump administration has given Israel the green light to annex thirty percent of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley and all Israeli settlements. Netanyahu has himself stated that the Trump administration has afforded him a “unique, one-off opportunity”. Netanyahu even went so far as to say that he had his “personal relationship with Trump” to thank for his ability to “annex all the settlements in the heart of our homeland”. However, his window of opportunity may be closing, as Trump is up for re-election in November and his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has spoken out in opposition of the annexation. Trump’s Peace Plan does little to benefit the Palestinian cause. It forces them to give up their efforts in establishing a capital in West Jerusalem and to accept Israeli security control, among other conditions. There is chaos and confusion amongst Trump’s administration, with the US Ambassador to Israel stating immediate annexation is appropriate and Jared Kushner, senior advisor to President Trump, calling for the establishment of an Israeli-American mapping committee to agree the borders, with the notable absence of Palestinian involvement. 

Meanwhile, the proposed annexation date of July 1st has come and gone. Israel is grappling with a second wave of COVID-19, which has quickly outpaced the country’s first outbreak. Members of Netanyahu’s government have urged him to shift his focus from annexation towards the outbreak. This, combined with the widespread condemnation by the International Community and some mixed signals from the United States, has led to the stalling of these annexation plans.

Should this disregard for international law go ahead, there is a stark reality that the West Bank could slowly descend into chaos, imitating the Gaza Strip. Especially given the fact that Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah have now joined forces and have encouraged Hezbollah and Iran to join in their fight against the annexation of the West Bank. With Israeli politicians stating that the annexation awaits a ‘declaration by Trump’, it is clear that the United States is firmly in control of the outcome. Despite widespread condemnation, Russia succeeded in annexing Crimea in 2014 which minimises the potential impact opposition and international law could have in the case of the West Bank. 

 

 

 

Featured photo by Stephen Melkisethian

 

 

New Government, Old Tricks: Women In Irish Politics

New Government, Old Tricks: Women In Irish Politics

OPINION

New Government, Old Tricks: Women In Irish Politics

Micheal Martin, Leo Varadkar and Eamon Ryan walking at a distance together

28th July 2020

 

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of PPE, protests and, most recently in Ireland at least, politics. The 33rd Dáil saw Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin elected as Taoiseach in the midst of a coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fianna Gael and the Greens. However, despite the historic nature of the abandonment of Civil War politics, that age-old discrepancy in the representation of women in politics continues: out of a Cabinet of sixteen, only four female Ministers have been appointed.

Women still face systemic barriers in their ability to participate fully in Irish political life. For example, only 22 women have held full Cabinet positions since the foundation of the state. And the argument that there just aren’t enough women in the Dáil to create a balanced cabinet is simply moot – for generations, a distinct lack of female candidates have been “put forward in winnable seats across the State”, according to women’s rights groups.

Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that two women were recently appointed “super juniors” to the Dáil. At the same time, though, it did not go without recognition that these women, along with many others, would have been more than capable of serving in a more senior Cabinet role. Why present people as “juniors” to a job that they are so qualified for?

Naturally, an indisputable step in the right direction has to be that nine of the Taoiseach’s eleven Seanad appointees are women. While this is undoubtedly a positive development, Ciairín de Buis, chief executive of Women for Election, finds that is “also shows up the gaps in Irish politics because if there was no problem finding those nine women to take those roles, it would make you question why the same can’t be done elsewhere”. While all of the women appointed to the Seanad are extremely capable, it cannot be the only area where there is full female representation. Otherwise, it will not spread out across all levels of politics. It cannot end there.

 

“Naturally, an indisputable step in the right direction has to be that nine of the Taoiseach’s eleven Seanad appointees are women”

Indeed, it seems to be “ending there” already. The two main political parties clearly failed to run sufficient numbers of women for electable positions during the last general election – and this narrative appears to be continuing into local government too. The programme for Government contains a merely “vague” commitment to increasing female representation in local politics. We need quotas at a local level. We need Government planning and support. We need affirmative action and change across all levels of politics.

It is almost hard to believe that, here in 2020, there are only four women acting as Cabinet Ministers. This grand total of 25% does not even meet the current quota of 30 per cent, signalling that gender balance can begin to be discussed and addressed, let alone the desired 50/50 split that so many other governments globally have actually achieved. The UK Cabinet, made up of 27% women, while only marginally so, is still better. The Government has missed a powerful opportunity to appoint a balanced cabinet.

As Director of the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Orla O’Connor put it, “It will be crucial now that all Ministers promote women’s equality over the next Dáil term. The decisions they make in both appointments to senior decision-making bodies and the policies they implement must show a renewed commitment to advancing women’s rights.” I couldn’t have put it better myself. But we need to recognise that women’s equality involves intersectionality and diversity too. A balanced cabinet has many facets – and in fighting for female equality in politics, we can fight for representation for everyone.

 

 

 

Featured photo by Merrion Street.ie

 

 

5G – Caveat Emptor? A Look Into The Truth Behind 5G’s Supposed Health Threats

5G – Caveat Emptor? A Look Into The Truth Behind 5G’s Supposed Health Threats

Business & Politics

5G – Caveat Emptor? A Look Into The Truth Behind 5G’s Supposed Health Threats

5G tower mast

25th July 2020

 

5G is the newest addition to the evolution of mobile communication technology and has been made increasingly available to the public since late 2018. Corresponding to global growth in demand for data and new technologies, 5G offers a speedier and better-equipped platform for both industrial and consumer-based telecommunications in the 21st Century. This includes global broadband access, the Internet of Things, faster mobile services, autonomous vehicles, smart homes, and much more.

 

Not only this, 5G’s implementation promises to generate new revenue for technology companies, and the countries in which it is located. With over 9000 deployments worldwide, the top countries to currently have 5G include China, South Korea, the United States, the United Kingdom, as well as many in the EU including France, Germany, Italy, and Ireland.

 

Despite the fact it seems to be a natural progression in the saga of wireless technology, 5G has been met with significant public backlash, particularly in terms of the health risks it has been speculated to pose. Some are of the opinion that it can weaken the human immune system due to the height of its frequencies and the radiation it expels. This narrative gained a foothold with the idea that electromagnetic radiation may contribute to one’s likelihood of developing cancer or infertility. Moreover, in light of the current pandemic, this theory has now spun off in the direction of COVID-19.

 

It has been posited that in destabilising the immune system, 5G either heightens one’s likelihood of contracting the virus or on a more extreme note, directly transmits the virus. In retaliation to these conspiracies, an anarchic trend of sorts has begun as people are now targeting 5G towers, as well as those involved in their assemblance and maintenance. Across Europe alone, arson attacks against masts have occurred in countries including the UK, the Netherlands, and here in Ireland; where telecommunication engineers have been on the receiving end of numerous cases of verbal harassment.

 

“Despite the fact it seems to be a natural progression in the saga of wireless technology, 5G has been met with significant public backlash, particularly in terms of the health risks it has been speculated to pose.”

However baseless it may seem, speculation of such instances requires an analysis of their rationale. Hence, in this case, a look into the science behind 5G is imperative. All wireless technologies are on the electromagnetic spectrum, and each is classified uniquely by the frequency it uses to communicate over airwaves. 4G’s wavelengths operate at up to 6GHz, whereas 5G could reach anywhere between 30GHz and 300GHz. Evidently, the latter has a far greater bandwidth than the former, and the greater the bandwidth, the easier it is for telecommunication providers to handle more online traffic. What we must ask is whether, having been set to reach up to 100 times faster than 4G, such an increase would have any ‘strings’ attached so-to-speak, in terms of public health risks. The short answer is no. Electromagnetic radiation refers to the speed of radio waves. Once this speed passes a certain point, the radiation emitted becomes dangerous. However, most of the electromagnetic spectrum is non-ionising, meaning it lacks enough energy to interfere with matter, including the immune system.

 

Take nuclear radiation for example, which may be classified as alpha, beta, or gamma radiation. This has enough energy to interact with particles, so it can be harmful to humans as it can strip electrons from your DNA, therefore affecting your body. 5G’s radiation, on the other hand, is non-ionising, cannot interact with particles, and does not affect your body.

 

A condensed instance of assurance, what this article is highlighting is the danger of hearsay. Conspiracy theories are often inflated and sensationalist contortions of the truth. Their appeal lies in their shock-value and the elating sense of the ‘there’s something they’re not telling us’ phenomenon. However, they can also be dangerous, and should therefore always be taken with both a grain of salt and a heavy dose of investigative intent.

 

 

 

Featured photo Fabian Horst

 

 

Race For A Cure – The Search For A Covid-19 Vaccine And Its Implications For Public Health

Race For A Cure – The Search For A Covid-19 Vaccine And Its Implications For Public Health

Business & Politics

Race For A Cure – The Search For A Covid-19 Vaccine And Its Implications For Public Health

arm being swabbed medical professional in prepartion for an injection

24th July 2020

 

The race is on to find a safe, effective vaccine against Covid-19 which would allow for an exit from lockdown restrictions, quarantines and social distancing. Producing a vaccine is a mammoth task by any standards, but manufacturing a safe, effective inoculation in a matter of months for a virus against which no one has immunity, is unprecedented. While modern technology has allowed for the most extraordinary scientific discoveries, the process is not without its challenges, be they medical, political, ethical or logistical.

Despite its complexities and unknowns, the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has one major feature that could play to our advantage. Unlike the seasonal flu, Covid-19 has so far seen minimal mutation; it is quite stable over time which makes it an ideal viral candidate for a vaccine. Even if it mutates over the course of several months, it is unlikely to render any vaccine useless – it will continue to offer a reasonable level of protection. In the public imagination, vaccines are often viewed as a cure-all, but this has dangerous implications as it may lead to the abandonment of social distancing and handwashing altogether.

Even the most effective vaccine in circulation today, the MMR (97% effective), does not provide complete protection – therefore, we should not become complacent even if a vaccine is found. It may also be the case that a vaccine will not necessarily prevent infection but will protect against severe disease in the most vulnerable populations. To diminish the effects of the disease from pneumonia to a common cold would relieve the burden on hospitals and allow for the lifting of travel, social and economic restrictions which would, in itself, constitute a major public health victory.

There are currently over 160 vaccine candidates being investigated, many of which are using entirely new techniques. Despite the lightning speed at which these vaccines are reaching the human trial stage, Prof. Sarah Gilbert, a vaccinologist at Oxford University, has reassured the public that the usual safety steps are not being missed out – work previously carried out in stages, is now being done in tandem. The research teams are developing the vaccine “at-risk”; however, this doesn’t mean a safety risk but a business risk – they are paying upfront for its mass production before they are sure of its success.

The desperate need for a vaccine in the shortest possible time has raised some ethical questions surrounding the issue of human challenge trials. This type of trial involves deliberately infecting a small number of vaccinated volunteers with Covid-19 in a controlled setting to see if the vaccine offers protection. If successful, it could help fast-track vaccine production and distribution.

 

“The desperate need for a vaccine in the shortest possible time has raised some ethical questions surrounding the issue of human challenge trials”

​There are, however, many questions surrounding this technique. As the disease caused by the novel coronavirus remains poorly understood, many believe that a challenge trial would be unethical as there is currently still no reliable treatment and volunteers would be unable to give their full informed consent. If researchers don’t have a full picture of how the virus behaves, logically, this would mean they are unable to inform volunteers of the risks involved in participating. 

Stanley Plotkin, a vaccine developer at the University of Pennsylvania, has responded to this argument by highlighting the fact that we are facing a pandemic with a high mortality rate. While the medical community would not want to cause harm to any volunteer, harm is already accumulating around the world. Therefore, if we can take action to reduce the total amount of harm, then it’s worth doing. He also states that challenge trials should only be performed on young, healthy people, but this approach also has its safety limits. If it is restricted to a small, homogenous group, this will limit its applicability to the wider population, not to mention the potential for missing issues that could only be caught in a larger, more diverse study demographic – a robust response in young people could mask harmful effects in older persons. 

Quantifying risk is also a problem as young people are increasingly suffering severe complications from Covid-19, thus raising questions about the ethics of challenging any age group. The severity of the outbreaks in Brazil and the US may provide scientists with a unique opportunity to study the effectiveness of a vaccine quickly without the need for challenge trials at all. Testing a vaccine in an area where the virus is circulating widely (and naturally) is much more ethical. Here, the high infection rate is due to an inadequate governmental response to the pandemic, as well as delayed or ineffective lockdown measures, as opposed to deliberate infection by a research team. 

The anti-vaccination movement poses a serious problem for any nation’s plans for mass immunisation. If there are any safety issues with the new vaccine, this could damage credibility and affect confidence, thus leading to decreased uptake. US infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, says this could make achieving herd immunity impossible. ‘Anti-vaxxers’ are not the only political threat to public health; equitable distribution will also be a key issue in the coming months. 

There is a growing fear of “vaccine nationalism”, an issue which Chloe Taylor compares to an arms race in a recent CNBC article. Governments are already trying to procure priority access via investments, which poses ethical concerns for those poorer countries who may not have the purchasing power to enable mass vaccination of their populations. This could prove problematic for developed nations too: if the virus continues to mutate in parts of the world unable to access the vaccine, it could once again pose a threat to global health, even to those already immunised. Therefore, fair and equal access to the vaccine for developed and developing nations alike is in everyone’s interests and requires collaboration between pharmaceutical companies, governments and patient-centric organisations such as MSF and WHO. 

 

 

Featured photo Obi Onyeador