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Stopping COVID-19 in Its Tracks: Science Gets the Upper Hand

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Science has knocked religion and traditional healing methods out of the ring in the battle between rival approaches towards getting the coronavirus pandemic under control.

Men like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, and Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman have finally joined much of the world in imposing science-driven degrees of lockdowns, social distancing, and the search for medical cures and protections after initially opting for political expediency or advocacy of traditional healing methods and/or religious precepts.

Remarkably, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of a kingdom that was founded and shaped by an ultra-conservative strand of Islam, was one leader who was not held back by religion when he suspended the Umrah (the smaller pilgrimage to Mecca), announced that this year’s Hajj could be cancelled, and locked down the holy city as well as its counterpart, Medina.

“What if this year’s Hajj was under Imran Khan rather than Mohammed bin Salman? Would he have waffled there as indeed he has in Pakistan?” asked Pakistani nuclear scientist, political analyst, and human rights activist Pervez Hoodbhoy.

Mr. Hoodbhoy noted that Pakistan has yet to import Saudi dates touted as cure for all diseases by Maulana Tariq Jameel, Pakistan’s most popular preacher and a staunch ally of Mr. Khan.

Mr. Hoodbhoy also took note of the fact Mr. Modi had not fallen back on Hindutava or Hindu nationalism’s advocacy of the therapeutic powers of cow urine, Ayurveda, a medical system rooted in Indian history, and yoga.

Mr. Khamenei has similarly dropped his resistance to the closure of shrines in the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad. His government has closed schools and universities and urged the public to stay at home while announcing that “low-risk” economic activity would be allowed to resume next week.

The consequences of science-based approaches for civilizationalists who advocate policies inspired by religion or the supremacy of one religious group over another could go far beyond what should shape public health policies.

They could threaten the foundations of their religious support base as well as their discriminatory policies towards religious or ethnic minorities. Israel is a case in point in terms of both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious support base as well as his policies towards Israeli nationals of Palestinian descent.

With ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhoods and cities emerging as the communities most affected by the coronavirus, some Israeli commentators argue that the pandemic could undermine rabbinical authority on a scale not seen since the Holocaust when large numbers left ultra-orthodoxy after rabbinical advice to remain in Europe proved devastating.

Ultra-orthodox rabbis, including Mr. Litzman, the health minister, who together with his wife and an ultra-orthodox adviser to Mr. Netanyahu, has tested positive, have had to reverse themselves in recent days as the virus ate its way through their communities in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities.

“Torah no longer saves from death. The coronavirus has dealt an unimaginable blow to the rabbinical authority – and worldview – that ultra-Orthodox Jews previously regarded as infallible and eternal,” said prominent Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer, who authored an acclaimed biography of Mr. Netanyahu.

The non-discriminatory nature of the coronavirus forced the Israeli government last week to ramp up testing in communities of Israeli Palestinians which had been described by public health experts as a ticking time bomb.

The experts warned that Israeli Palestinians were an at-risk group, many of whom suffer from chronic diseases, live in crowded conditions, and are socially and economically disadvantaged.

“In terms of public health, due to the present situation, the Arab communities are likely to become epicenters of the coronavirus outbreak, which will threaten the health of the entire population,” said Dr. Nihaya Daoud, a public health lecturer at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

Increased testing of Israel Palestinians tackles Israel’s immediate problem of attempting to stymie the spread of the virus. It doesn’t, however, address the longer-term structural threat to public health posed by imbalances in health infrastructure in Israeli Jewish and Israeli Palestinian communities, a lesson many Israelis could draw from the coronavirus crisis.

Drawing that lesson would challenge a pillar of Israeli policy with far-reaching consequences.

By the same token, the return home of some 45,000 Palestinian workers to the West Bank for this week’s Passover holiday is likely to create bottlenecks in both Israel and the Palestinian territory after the Israeli government decided that they would not be allowed to return because of health concerns.

The decision threatens to create a labor shortage in Israel, increase economic pressure on an already weakened Palestine Authority, and facilitate the spread of the virus on the West Bank given the administration’s inability to test all returnees.

“Because the two populations are so intertwined, curbing the virus only in one society is impossible,” said Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group.

It’s a lesson that applies universally, not just to Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel. That is no truer than in Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps that dot the eastern Mediterranean.

The global pandemic also casts a glaring spotlight on the risks of looking the other way when hospitals and health infrastructure are deliberately destroyed in war-torn countries like in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces deliberately targeted hospitals, and in Yemen, where the Saudi-UAE-led coalition did the same.

No doubt, it is a lesson that anti-globalists and civilizationalists prefer not to hear.

Yet, whether anti-globalists and civilizationalists like it or not, the coronavirus is global and universal. So is the science that will ultimately help get control of the pandemic and eventually stop it in its tracks.

Author’s note: This story was first published in Inside Arabia

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Cybersecurity depends on the user

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Businesses and pharmaceutical companies have become prime targets for cyber criminals. For many employees switching to work from home has made them more vulnerable to cyber attacks. Amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic the focus is shifting on digital hygiene and training. These are top issues outlined by the participants of a round table which  took place at TASS Press Center under the title “Cybersecurity: new threats and protection against them”.

At present, a large number of high-tech medical equipment is connected to the Internet. Given that medical institutions are not used to new threats, they often fall prey to cyber criminals. At times, hospitals have to pay ransom in order to restart the equipment vital for patients’ lives.  The participants in the round table cited yet more tragic cases when the ambulance equipment glitch forced the driver to head for other hospitals, which means that patients in critical condition may not make it there.

Cyber threats have been haunting not only the  medical industry. President of Check Point Software Technologies in Russia and CIS Vasily Diaghilev has singled out 3 key challenges in the new reality. Firstly, the decision-taking time limit has shortened considerably, — the market proved unprepared for this (unlike in the past, when months were given to elaborate decisions on cyber security, now a mere days are given to do so). Secondly, the criminal groups which had to go online as well, were provided with new financing to “work” in the cyber sphere. Thirdly, user vulnerability went up due to a wide variety of hacking methods.

Alexei Novikov, Director of Security at Positive Technologies, disagrees with such a view. The transition to online work has increased the number of vulnerabilities making it possible for the criminals to find new loops. Hence cyber security has come to depend on the competence of particular individuals. Earlier, information security was guaranteed “along the perimeter of corporate network”. Now, when practically everyone is working from home, family members have got access to the data too. In  addition, employees often connect  their  personal “smart devices” of the  Internet of  things to their corporate networks.

Experts who took part in the round table provided specific recommendations as to how to boost digital security. Founder and General Director of Zecurion Alexei Raevsky warned companies which are not supposed to store loads of data against doing so. Alexei Raevsky described all the data (for example, for electronic passes), which they collect on a regular basis in the conditions of a quarantine, as a “time bomb”. Vasily Diaghilev has urged individuals to refrain from using (and called on companies to impose restrictions on this practice on a mandatory basis) corporate passwords on external servers, in addition, he recommended coding corporate data, and in order to secure protection against destructive files, he advises to switch to the safe pdf-format in paperwork. “Info security should enter mass market as a taxi – a kind of digital security outsourcing”, — Lev Matveev, Chairman of the Board of “SearchInfoorm”, member of the Association of Software Manufacturers “Russoft”, says. Besides, he recommended including VPN-apps and services into public (free) WiFi-networks.

From our partner International Affairs

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Top 10 Emerging Technologies to Watch in 2020

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From virtual patients to pain-free needles, synthesizing whole-genomes, and digital medicine, these top 10 emerging technologies are transforming our post-COVID-19 lives. An international steering group of experts singled out these and other emerging technologies as the ones most likely to impact the world in the next three to five years.

For example, a Swiss group was able to synthesize the entire COVID-19 genome by reproducing the genetic sequence uploaded by Chinese scientists. They were essentially teleporting the virus into their laboratory for study without waiting for physical samples. The ability to write our genome will inevitably help doctors to cure genetic diseases.

As we now move to clinical trials of a COVID-19 vaccine, virtual patients, instead of living humans, could help identify successful vaccine candidates, reduce costs, and speed up research. It would also prevent the testing of imperfect vaccine candidates on living volunteers.

While the outbreak unfolded, dozens of medical apps and bots were developed, expanding the digital medicine landscape. These apps could detect depression and provided counselling. Bots answered over 200 million inquiries about COVID symptoms and treatments. COVID-19 will continue to shape our lives, and these emerging technologies could fill the gaps created by the pandemic.

The list also includes new technologies that can help combat climate change by tackling major polluting industries. These new green technologies include innovative planes, new concrete formulations and using sunlight to power refineries.

Top 10 technologies to make the list are:

Virtual Patients

Virtual patients, instead of living humans, could make vaccine trials quicker and inexpensive. This technology would significantly reduce the number of human subjects needed for experimentation.

Microneedles for Painless Injections and Tests

These tiny needles promise pain-free injections and blood testing. Microneedles do not touch nerve endings. Since the process does not need costly equipment or a lot of training, they can be used in areas that do not normally receive cutting-edge medical technologies.

Whole-Genome Synthesis

Whole-genome synthesizing will transform cell engineering. The ability to write our genome will inevitably help doctors to cure genetic diseases.

Digital Medicine

Digital medicine is a collection of apps that detect and monitor the mental and physical health of patients. These apps and bots can enhance traditional medicine and provide support to patients with limited access to healthcare.

Electric Aviation

Electric propulsion motors would eliminate direct carbon emissions. This technology could also reduce fuel costs by up to 90%, maintenance by up to 50% and noise by nearly 70%. Currently, about 170 electric airplane projects are underway.

Lower-Carbon Cement

Concrete, the most widely used human-made material, shapes much of our built world. If cement production were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter after China and the US. Researchers are working on lower-carbon approaches by changing the recipe, using different materials, and using carbon capture and storage technologies.

Sun-Powered Chemistry

This approach uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide waste into needed chemicals manufactured from fossil fuel. This approach could reduce emissions in two ways – by using unwanted gas as raw material and using sunlight as the source of energy instead of fossil fuels.

Green Hydrogen

Current methods of producing hydrogen are not environmentally efficient. Green hydrogen, produced through electrolysis, has no by-product, unlike current processes. Green hydrogen could transform industries that require high-energy fuel.

Spatial Computing

“Spatial computing” will bring together raise reality apps and sensors to facilitate human-machine and machine-machine interactions to a new level. It combines these capabilities and controls objects’ movements and interactions, allowing a person to navigate the digital and physical world.

Quantum Sensing

Quantum sensors enable autonomous vehicles that can “see” around corners, underwater navigation systems, early-warning systems for volcanic activity and earthquakes, and portable scanners that monitor a person’s brain activity during daily life.

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Can ‘Open Science’ speed up the search for a COVID-19 vaccine? 5 things you need to know

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The UN is calling for authoritative scientific information and research to be made freely available, to accelerate research into an effective vaccine against the COVID-19 virus, help counter misinformation, and “unlock the full potential of science”.

Arguing that no-one is safe until everyone is safe, the World Health Organization (WHO) has, for several months, been urging countries and scientists to collaborate, in a bid to bring the pandemic under control. This has involved the creation, alongside governments, scientists, foundations, the private sector and other partners, of a groundbreaking platform to accelerate the development of tests, treatments and vaccines.

In October, the head of the agency, Tedros Ghebreyesus Adhanom, alongside human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, and Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of science, culture and education agency UNESCO, issued a call for “Open Science”, describing it as a “fundamental matter of human rights”, and arguing for cutting-edge technologies and discoveries to be available for those who need them most.

But what exactly does Open Science mean, and why does the UN insist on making it more widespread?

1) What is ‘Open Science’?

Open Science has been described as a growing movement aimed at making the scientific process more transparent and inclusive by making scientific knowledge, methods, data and evidence freely available and accessible for everyone.

The Open Science movement has emerged from the scientific community and has rapidly spread across nations. Investors, entrepreneurs, policy makers and citizens are joining this call.

However, the agency also warns that, in the fragmented scientific and policy environment, a global understanding of the meaning, opportunities and challenges of Open Science is still missing.

2) Why is Open Science important?

Open Science facilitates scientific collaboration and the sharing of information for the benefit of science and society, creating more and better scientific knowledge, and spreading it to the wider population.

UNESCO has described Open Science as a “true game changer”: by making information widely available, more people can benefit from scientific and technological innovation.

3) Why is it needed now?

Because, in a world that is more inter-connected than ever before, many of today’s challenges do not respect political or geographic borders, and strong international scientific collaboration is essential to overcome the problems. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example.

We also have the tools to make it happen: with digitalization becoming ever more widespread, it is far easier than ever before to share scientific knowledge and data, which are needed to enable decisions that can lead to overcoming global challenges to be based on reliable evidence.

4) What is the impact of Open Science on the pandemic?

In this global health emergency, thanks to international collaboration, scientists have improved their understanding of the coronavirus with unprecedented speed and openness, embracing the principles of Open Science. Journals, universities, private labs, and data repositories have joined the movement, allowing open access to data and information: some 115,000 publications have released information related to the virus and the pandemic, and more than 80 per cent of them can be viewed, for free, by the general public.

Early in the pandemic, for example, Chinese scientists readily shared the genome of the virus, jumpstarting all following research into the virus, and the diagnostic testing, treatments, and vaccines that have since been developed.

Finally, the crisis has underlined the urgent need to bring science closer to decision making and to society as a whole. Fighting misinformation and promoting evidence-based decision-making, supported by well-informed citizens, has proven to be of vital importance in the fight against COVID 19.

5) What is the UN doing to promote Open Science?

To ensure that Open Science truly meets its potential, and benefits both developed and developing countries, UNESCO is taking the lead in building a global consensus on values and principles for Open Science that are relevant for every scientists and every person independently of their place of origin, gender, age or economic and social background.

The future UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science is expected to be the international instrument to set the right and just standards for Open Science globally, which fulfil the human right to science and leave no one behind.  

In a statement released on World Science Day for Peace and Development, celebrated on 10 November, Ms. Azoulay said that widening the scope of Open Science will help science to “unlock its full potential”, making it more effective and diverse by “enabling anyone to contribute, but also to bring its objectives in line with the needs of society, by developing scientific literacy in an informed citizenry who take responsibility and are involved in collective decision-making”.

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