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COVID19 and a need for a paradigm shift in the field of academia

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Almost four months of 2020 have just been passed till now but all these months went like a  ride on a roller-coaster. From Bush fire in Australia to global pandemic, consecutively, the world is undergoing unprecedented events. On January 2nd, bushfire in New South Wales, Australia came to limelight due to its exceptional effects on the environment and livelihood in Australia. Due to this bushfire, at least 33 people died including 4 firefighters, more than 11 million hectares (110,000 sq. km or 27.2 million acres) of the bush, forest and parks across Australia has burned, more than 2,000 homes destroyed, and almost 1 billion animals died including rare species (Source: BBC and NYT). The second most prominent event was the upsurge of Iran-USA contention that had brought a perilous turn in the global politics and made people predict about the onset of third world war.  The conflict escalated after the killing of Iranian major General Qaseem Soleimani in a drone strike by the US on January 2nd. As a retaliation act, Iran launched ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq. Additionally, a Ukraine International Airlines flight 752 crashed in Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard as collateral damage due to the human error instigated by this panicking situation.

Primarily, the most dramatic and preeminent chapter of 2020 is the outbreak of global pandemic the spread of novel Coronavirus (nCoV-19) commonly known as  Corona Virus or COVID-19.  A respiratory disease whose common symptoms are cold with fever, cough and difficulty in breathing. Believed to be originated from the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of 2019 but soon it became a nightmare for the whole world. On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. On February 11, the new coronavirus disease was given a name COVID-19 and on March 11, WHO declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Until now(Data on April 24, 2020, source: WHO official website), there are 2,631,839 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 182,100 deaths, reported to WHO. Owing to the contagious character of the virus the world came under lockdown, businesses closed, events cancelled, tourism terminated, flights suspended making life paralyzed all over the globe. It has affected the whole world without any discrimination of race, colour, religion or nationality leaving all states in the same boat of helplessness and frustration Even the strongest nations having nuclear capabilities and veto powers seem feeble. De-facto, statistics illustrate that most developed nations are the most affected ones. At the moment,  the US, the superpower of the world has the most coronavirus cases. Until now US has more than 830,053 confirmed Covid19 cases and more than 42,000 deaths have been reported (resource: WHO).

Whilst the spread of Coronavirus, multiple controversies have also begun to circulate among masses especially on social media stating this virus manmade, bioterrorism, and a bioweapon. A fresh wave of blame-game among the global powers commenced by accusing each other for generating this virus. Russia and China believe that this is a bioweapon created by the US to halt the Chinese economy as there is already a trade war going on between China and the US. On the contrary, the US and Israel believe that it’s been created by China in a suspected lab of Wuhan. Further, some of the media reports had linked it with the battle between superpowers and 5G internet. As a response to these controversies, scientists condemned rumours and warned people to stay away from misinformation and accusations.

Moreover, there is a debate in all circles about the post-Covid19 world. Several scholars are predicting a new world order and economic recession such as  the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in his article in Washington Post that “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order”. However, some experts are foreseeing progress in the field of Artificial intelligence and information technology.     

Putting all the controversies aside as there is yet not sufficient evidence available to prove about the origin of the virus that either it is natural or manmade, plus it’s too early to forecast post-Covid19 scenarios but it’s somewhat clear that it is going to fetch drastic changes in the years to come in terms of social, political, health and even governance system. Furthermore, it emanates questions for the field of academia that what has to be done in future research and is it time for researchers for a paradigm shift in their area of research? Academia is certainly an integral part of the society that can help in reshaping future. The recent episode of Covid19 has revealed the significance of research on non-traditional security(NTS) issues. It has unlocked new horizons for scholars in the field of academia to explore underlying non-traditional security threats and their consequences. Nontraditional security threats can be defined as “ the challenges to the survival and well-being of peoples and states that arise primarily out of non-military sources, such as climate change, resources scarcity, infectious diseases, natural disasters, irregular migration, food shortages, people smuggling, drug trafficking and transnational crime. These dangers are often transnational in scope, defying unilateral remedies and requiring comprehensive – political, economic, social – responses, as well as humanitarian use of military force”.(Source: Caballero-Anthony, M. (ed.). 2016. An Introduction to Non-Traditional Security Studies–A Transnational Approach. Sage Publications, London.). Given the present scenario, It is a high time for researchers to invest their time and energies more towards the non-traditional Security threats as from the existing pandemic, it became evident that non-traditional security threats are real and can be more precarious than traditional security threats. Scholars can play their inevitable role by conducting in-depth research specifically designed for NTS concerns, should determine the possible future threats and devise a plan of action to deal with any such situation in the future so that precious lives can be saved and repercussions could be lessened. It is a prerequisite to find gaps in the existing literature about NTS and fill it by experimenting it under diverse theoretical frameworks and methodologies to discover apt solutions. Exploring NTS doesn’t mean that traditional security threats would be overlooked entirely rather, the purpose is to recognize the justified acceptance of NTS in the international arena to avoid any potential prospect hazards.

Nontraditional threats entail nontraditional methods and solutions to deal with it. Global leaders need to understand that it’s not the right time to play blame-games rather, differences aside, a global joint concerted effort is necessitated to handle such a strenuous challenge. Billions of dollars have been spent every year on military and weapons to safeguard states nevertheless,  the recent pandemic has exposed that all these billion dollars are in vain against such trial. It’s high time to make concessions in the military budget and invest more on public health and research facilities specifically concerning NTS.

The recent pandemic has shunned the world and has brought extraordinary changes notwithstanding, global powers having nuclear weapons and satellites in the space couldn’t be able to save themselves from this global pandemic. Governments need to learn from each other about how to manage and deal with such circumstances to curtail the aftermaths of such pandemics. They also need to devise a collective plan of action with the help of researchers, to deal with any such situation in the future. It has been witnessed that surprisingly nondemocratic governments like China and Russia performed better than democratic ones in tackling the situation.  It needs to be discovered that what were the key factors or procedures that made them more efficient. The global public health policy is indispensable to be formulated to improve the health care system of every country. Regulations concerning public health, bioweapons and governance in times of pandemics and other calamities should inevitably be framed with the help of academics and ought to be implemented through international and regional organizations. Covid19 is truly global and know no borders hence, to fight against it, we need to be united as well. In this war against coronavirus, we are all together and can win only with unity and cooperation. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said “What the world needs now is solidarity. With solidarity, we can defeat the virus and build a better world”.

Aamna Khan is a Pakistani National currently residing in China for pursuing a Ph.D. degree at SIPA, Jilin University. She is an independent researcher, social activists and cultural ambassador who aims to build a bridge between different communities in order to achieve global peace and cooperation. Her research interests include Terrorism, Foreign Policy, and Peace and Conflict Studies.

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Elon Musk’s “City-State” on Mars: An International Problem

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The private space industry is booming with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic all designing spacecraft to transport people into the cosmos. Elon Musk is the closest to launching a space faring program, with near-term plans to send humans to the Moon and Mars. In October 2020, Musk, a genius billionaire, quietly declared the independence of a new country on Mars. Musk claimed he will have humans on Mars to start building the new “free” “city-state” by 2026. He also declared the new “country” will not “recognize the laws of Earth.” 

All three tech billionaires currently face few obstacles to implement their plans. However, one obstacle for all of them will be navigating international law. Musk already appears to be exploiting many soft spots in international politics, which are no competitor to a ruthless tech titan. Musk’s plans are an urgent international problem that requires a new multi-national solution.

Musk’s Declarations About Mars

For decades, Musk has spoken about his desire for humans to become “interplanetary.”  Musk founded SpaceX in 2001 with his PayPal fortune and the goal to put humans on Mars.  After Russia rejected his offer of $20 million to buy several intercontinental ballistic missiles, Musk began manufacturing and launching his own rockets. Musk plans to start sending humans to Mars by 2026 and then shuttling thousands of people between Earth and Mars before 2030. Muskplans to create a city on Mars by 2050 and then a completely self-sufficient city of a million people on Mars by the end of the century.

Musk is an eccentric guy and not everything he says should be taken seriously. However, it is clear Musk is serious about bringing humans to Mars. In 2017 and 2018, he published detailed plans for settling Mars.  In October 2020, Musk published a terms of service agreement for beta customers of his new Starlink wireless internet service. The agreement included a very specific note about the governance of Mars. In Starlink’s “Pre-Order Agreement,” under “Governing Law,” the contract states,

“For Services provided on Mars, or in transit to Mars via Starship or other spacecraft, the parties recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities. Accordingly, Disputes will be settled through self-governing principles, established in good faith, at the time of Martian settlement.”

Further, in December 2020Musk began selling off all of his possessions to help fund the city on Mars. A SpaceX attorney even stated he is actively drafting a Martian constitution. There is every reason to think Musk will follow through.

Common Heritage of Mankind

Ultimately, a city on Mars would simply be an extension of Earth, though separated by a different kind of sea. National jurisdiction and sovereignty are always limited in several areas: outer space, international airspace, international waters, international sea beds. All these areas are considered the “common heritage of mankind” (CHM). These are areas where activities are expected to be carried out in the collective interests of all states and benefits are expected to be shared equitably. Space exploration is a priority for many nations, as well as for the scientific community. There is zealous global interest in space travel, studying celestial objects, and even operating scientific laboratories in space and on planets.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) explained in Article II that outer space is not “subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” This provision is referred to as the non-appropriation principle. The policy rationale is to dis-incentivize states from “reenacting terrestrial land rushes” and taking boundary disputes into space. Scholars argue that the outer space non-appropriation principle has passed into customary international law.

In this sense, Mars is equivalent to the high seas. According to the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, “international waters” belong to everyone and no one. There is a history of rogue actors declaring “new nations” in domestic and international waters; a phenomenon often referred to as “seasteading.” None of these “nations” have ever been recognized as legitimate. The U.K. rejected a British man’s declaration that a WWII platform was now the “Principality of Sealand.” Italy rejected the “Republic of Rose Island” off its coast and eventually destroyed the “nation” with dynamite. U.S. courts have rejected seasteading as well, deciding that artificial islands on the coast of Florida were under U.S. jurisdiction. 

Private Property Rights in Space

International law is clear about private property rights in space – there are none. Private property rights can only be created by a state on the property over which the state has sovereignty. The 110 countries that have ratified the OST are not allowed to create private property rights. The OST is ratified by all states with space programs and reflects the consensus of resolutions of the U.N. General Assembly on the topic.

Under the OST, states are also liable for the activities of non-state actors, whether they are private corporations or international organizations. States must ensure private activities conform to the obligations of the OST. It is up to each party state to create their own domestic legislation to effectuate this. The U.S. created the ability of private citizens to go into space with proper government authorization and supervision through several pieces of domestic legislation. However, while the OST requires “continuing supervision” by nations of private actors while in space, U.S. laws omit regulating activities in space, instead focusing on launches and reentry.

In the early 2000s, the U.S. adjudicated one case of private property rights.  In 2003, Gregory Nemitz registered a claim of real property rights for the entirety of an asteroid. After NASA landed a spacecraft on the asteroid, Nemitz submitted an invoice to NASA for parking and storage fees. NASA’s general counsel denied Nemitz’ claim and Nemitz appealed in court. The court found there are no private property rights in space; thus, there was no basis for compensation.

However, the U.S. pivoted its non-appropriation policy in 2015 with the SPACE Act, where U.S. Congress “created” private property rights for resources in space. Backers of the SPACE Act compared it to the Homestead Act of 1862 (which the idea of “seasteading” is based on).  In 2017, the U.S. National Space Council proclaimed that outer space is not the common heritage of mankind. Then in 2020, NASA announced the Artemis Accords: new principles for the use of outer space including further solidifying private property rights in space. Nine other countries have signed on. Finally, in 2020 President Trump discussed space settlements during the State of the Union, saying, “now we must embrace the next frontier: America’s Manifest Destiny in the stars.”Following this trajectory (homesteading, Manifest Destiny, etc.), it seems possible the U.S. might actually support some of Musk’s plans for Mars if his actions bring more imperialistic value to the U.S. government than logistical headache. However, it seems unlikely the U.S. would support Musk creating a separate nation.

Some commenters have pondered why Musk provided the Starlink/Mars clause so early (well before any of his employees or customers have traveled to Mars). The prohibition of private property ownership in space appears to have already become customary international law – or is at least on the cusp of crystallizing. Musk will want to say that from his country’s original declaration of independence, he has always been a persistent objector to the prohibition of private property rights on Mars. This strategy would make financial sense, as Martian private property rights would reassure Earth-based investors.

Deconstructing Musk’s Plans for Mars

Musk elaborated in 2020 that he plans for his government to be a direct democracy. Commentators have questioned why Musk would choose that form of government, which may be terribly ineffective in response to resource scarcity and constant danger. Further, Musk has become well known as a CEO who will happily violate labor laws, health codes, and pollution regulations back on Earth in furtherance of his company’s financial bottom line. That does not sound like someone who will actually enact or uphold direct democracy.

So, what exactly is Musk up to? It is not occupation because Mars is not populated and Musk is not a state. It is not discovery because Mars is not terra nullius (available land that no one has claimed yet)and again Musk is a private actor. It is not filibustering (a private individual waging private wars against existing countries, i.e., William Walker: another deranged San Francisco Bay Area-based entrepreneur) because even though Musk is a private actor, he is not conquering. Musk’s actions are similar to seasteading (the concept of establishing new countries in international waters); however, as discussed, seasteading has never resulted in a recognized claim to a new country. The closest comparison to what he is doing is probably secession.

It is possible for new states to be created through secession from existing states. Today, the international community disfavors unilateral secession. Under international law, secession is more likely to be accepted if it is in pursuance of self-determination, democratic governance, and has the support of the people of the would-be state.

Musk could argue he is pursuing democratic goals and has the consent of his people (his Starlink customers: over 700,000 of whom already agreed to the contract). Musk can say he should be allowed to secede from the United States because his state will be even more democratic (direct democracy instead of representative democracy). He may even be able to posture himself as escaping human rights violations in the U.S., citing the recent international outcry about systemic racial injustices in the U.S.

However, Musk will have a harder time navigating domestic law as a citizen of the United States. The U.S. is a “perpetual union” that not allow unilateral secession. Musk will not be allowed to secede per domestic laws. When a secession attempt fails, there are other options. Musk, like other actors with the capacity to go into space, will be bound by the laws of the state to which he is a citizen. This means there is a risk that international commercial enterprises like SpaceX will engage in “jurisdiction shopping” for countries with lenient outer space regulations and perhaps even states who never signed the OST. These companies will search for administrations whose licensing and supervisory requirements may be deficient, defective, or intentionally inadequate.

As a final contingency, Musk is saddling up with a U.S. state with its own notorious rebellious streak. Musk is building a rocket production plant and the first fully commercial launch facility capable of launching spacecraft for long-term space travel in Boca Chica, Texas. It is obvious why Musk chose Texas. First, it is close to the equator for launch logistics. Second, it is still in the U.S. for the purposes of trades and permits. Finally, Texas has an adversarial relationship with the federal government and already attempted to secede from the U.S. (and secession is still a popular talking point). If any state would support a U.S.-state based secession attempt to support Musk, it is Texas.

In March 2021, Musk announced he is “creating the city of Starbase, Texas” on currently unincorporated land in Boca Chica, located in southern Texas near the Mexican border. The top county official protested Musk’s declaration, saying, “Sending a Tweet doesn’t make it so… If SpaceX and Elon Musk would like to pursue down this path, they must abide by all state incorporation statutes. The county is also already anticipating litigation against SpaceX for violating agreements with the county around permits and security.

Many commentors are asking why Musk so desperately wants this specific village. Musk’s new “city” is not simply “near the Mexican Border,” it is on it. Boca Chica borders the Gulf of Mexico to the east, Brownsville Ship Channel to the north, and the Rio Grande River and Mexico to the south. If Musk felt he needed a “free city-state” on Earth, to support his “free city-state” on Mars, it seems within the realm of possibilities he could attempt to secede “Starbase” from the U.S. and create his own country (which barely shares a land boundary with the U.S.). He already unilaterally and illegally declared a new city there.

Musk is already in violation of federal laws. SpaceX was denied a safety waiver by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in December 2020 due to Boca Chica-based launch plans that exceeded maximum public safety risk, but following the permit denial, Musk proceeded anyway and the launch ended in a “fireball” explosion. The FAA delayed the next test planned for January 2021 until an investigation could be completed. A former FAA official noted the lack of FAA enforcement against Musk was “puzzling.” Even after mysteriously avoiding any penalties, Musk, upset about the delay, claimed the FAA was “a fundamentally broken regulatory structure.

Musk already bought out most Boca Chica residents and has allegedly been bullying the remaining few with property damage, trespassing, offers of over triple the value of their property, and threats of vague “other measures” if they do not accept. Once the last residents are forced out, a secession attempt then would only involve resistance by the local and federal governments. Is Musk capable of violent measures? Apparently, Musk and SpaceX employees have been spending time at a nearby shooting range. Further, neighbors have grown accustom to sirens warning them when Musk and company are about to do something that could (and sometimes does) cause imminent physical harm, and then evacuating or taking cover. Not to mention the “fireball” incident. Violence seems within the realm of possibilities.

Musk will likely offer financial incentives for Texas to tolerate his activities. He has already promised$30 million to local governments. Musk has also entwined himself with the federal government to the point of mutually assured destruction. SpaceX secured a $2.9 billion contract with NASA for the upcoming Moon missions (though currently contested by Jeff Bezos) and is already heavily involved with other NASA projects.  NASA has become very dependent on SpaceX and Musk.

With all of this in play and no intervention, the compromise will likely be Texas and the U.S. tolerating Musk’s “Starbase” as a semi-autonomous region. Then, Musk’s Starbase “succeeds” as a semi-autonomous region and extends its territory to Mars as a non-member of the OST. This results in the politics of Musk’s presence on Mars having no precedent, no established legal standards, and no established political principles for analysis.

Conclusion

Soon, the largest obstacle to reign in Musk will be the distance to Mars. Will it really be worth launching a billion-dollar interplanetary mission to make an arrest? Mars is several months away at its closest. It will be prohibitively expensive to reign Musk in after the fact. In 2019, a space law conference discussed governance of commercial activities in outer space and found the world is at an “inflection point” and needs to establish global standards of accountability for private actors. The keynote speaker stressed the importance of governance, not simply governments. She looked to the success of the International Space Station as inspiration.

Considering this, a multi-national consortium should be created to regulate all activities on Mars. The consortium should be established in such a way that even the resources required for long-term interstellar travel are regulated in order to prevent rogue actors from working outside the system to control space access and resources, which are instead intended to be shared with all of humanity. At this point, a security council resolution on the topic may also be prudent.

Musk’s plans are just the beginning. There are two other ultra-wealthy titans of industry behind him and plenty more to come. Musk is just the first and most reckless. The international community must act now. The future of space may be speculative, but the issues are urgent. Space is for everyone. We all must partner together to ensure it remains that way.

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The Coming Satellite Revolution: New Business Opportunities, Scenarios, and Threats

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With tens of thousands of satellites to be put into orbit in the next few years, a playfield that has seen just a handful of actors and a few hundred assets since the 1950s is dramatically changing. The new actors are expected to open their satellites to third-party applications. On the one hand, this would unleash new business opportunities, enabling the provision of brand-new services, as well as the optimization of existing ones. On the other hand, these very same applications, as well as state actors that undoubtedly will have an upper hand, could present a novel threat to the privacy and security of individuals, companies, and states.

By modern standards, satellite technology is not new. The first satellite was put into orbit in 1957 without the possibility of it being controlled from Earth, and it was nothing more than a simple radio transmitting from space. Foreseeable applications were limited: simply speeding up telecommunications – underwater cables were already providing trans-continental communications – and maybe TV broadcasting. While it was indeed a sci-fi achievement; humans had never reached orbit before, it came with (supposedly) limited, insubstantial applications for the general public, though its military applications (such as advanced surveillance and missiles launch detection) were already quite clear.

Fast forward less than 65 years, and satellites are a cornerstone of our way of life. Whenever you use assisted navigation technology, you are using a service provided by satellites. When you decide to go to the beach, it is because satellites have provided you assurance about the quality of the weather for the next 48-72 hours. Airplanes and ships rely on satellites for their communications, and the same is true when you are in a desert hundreds of kilometers away from any civilization. In the military, satellites are the cornerstone of modern warfare, providing sensing and communication capabilities in every possible scenario and geography. Though the best is yet to come.

Advancements in technology, in particular computing and miniaturization, but in high tech generally (including radio capabilities, the mathematics behind data transmission, and in materials science) have paved the way for never-before-seen types of satellites, such as CubeSat, a square-shaped satellite with a side of just 10 cm. Moreover, the relatively low cost, ease of management, and increased availability of vectors to place satellites in orbit (especially low earth orbit satellites, orbiting between 160 and 1,000 km from Earth) have opened the gates for a novel space race, motivated by the innumerable possible applications. Striking evidence of this race is SpaceX, an Elon Musk company that is deploying Starlink, a network of thousands of satellites (42,000 satellites are approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA). Or, similarly, think of Kuiper Systems LLC, a subsidiary of Amazon, that is planning to deploy over 3,200 satellites. To these two behemoths, one has to add the hundreds of startups that are planning to deploy their satellites or that already have them in orbit to experiment.

The interest in the field is evident in the Gulf region: The United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently launched the KhalifaSat Earth Observation imaging satellite and it also has a Space Center, established by the Dubai government to advance space science and advanced technology. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is launching its 16th satellite into space (the SGS-1), with the specific mission to “provide secure satellite communication on the Ka-band for the government of Saudi Arabia.”). Qatar relies on Es’hailSat – the Qatar Satellite Company, a communications satellite operator headquartered in Doha. Es’hailSat was established in 2010 with the goal of managing and developing Qatar’s presence in space. 

But what is the rationale behind this new space race? It is by and large the business and operating opportunities offered by satellites, and we can highlight a few.

Satellites for the Internet of Things (IoT): The diffusion of the IoT paradigm envisages 50+ billion newly installed devices, each requiring internet connectivity to generate their full expected value. In many settings (think of offshore platforms, harsh environments, and rural locations), the internet infrastructure is out of reach. That is where satellites come into play: they can act as the gateway to the internet for these low-end devices.

Precision agriculture: It is already possible to check for the healthiness of crops, harvest time, spot the very first cluster of illness, and optimize irrigation, via satellite. That translates into potential cost savings and increased revenue generation while helping to achieve sustainability and other development goals.

Security of the state: Satellites have a long history of successfully supporting intelligence, such as imagery recognition at borders, or providing a means for secure communications independent from ground infrastructure. The new application of satellites would be to support states’ economics, for instance checking for illegal fishing, illegal mining, or to control access to maritime exclusive economic interest zones, the latter being difficult to control with standard patrols, due to the distances and areas under the jurisdiction, but quite feasible if done via satellite.

Consumer business opportunities: The private sector can conceive previously unthinkable applications. For instance, a Japanese startup is placing into orbit satellites that could deliver a shower of small meteorites during big events (the equivalent of fireworks, but on steroids). Many more unforeseen business opportunities could develop when satellite constellations are deployed or made for hire.

Fostering the research ecosystem: Satellite technology inherently calls for a sustained rate of technology innovation. In Qatar, the scientific powerhouse for such a domain is Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), where frontier communication and computing technologies are developed, while related security and privacy threats, specifically relevant when dealing with high caliber assets like satellites, are assessed and needed countermeasures invented, tested, and deployed.

The new space race, or better yet, the race to own and operate a satellite constellation, seems a promising venture in many dimensions. From an economic perspective, satellite services promise brand new business opportunities. From a safety perspective, they are a cornerstone for safer transports and assisted navigation. When it comes to defense, satellites are going to play the dominant role aviation has had since World War II. Finally, this high-tech sector is key for the development of further technologies that have the potential to accelerate the rate of innovation and cross-fertilize different domains (think of communications, security, and materials). Overall, the satellite revolution can help a country such as Qatar advance robustly toward a knowledge-based economy, and reinforce the country’s presence in the segment of high value-added services and products, an objective the country is steadily progressing toward achieving.

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At Last A Malaria Vaccine and How It All Began

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A health worker vaccinates a man against the Ebola virus in Beni, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. (file photo) World Bank/Vincent Tremeau

This week marked a signal achievement.  A group from Oxford University announced the first acceptable vaccine ever against malaria.  One might be forgiven for wondering why it has taken so long when the covid-19 vaccines have taken just over a year … even whether it is a kind of economic apartheid given that malaria victims reside in the poorest countries of the world.

It turns out that the difficulties of making a malaria vaccine have been due to the complexity of the pathogen itself.  The malarial parasite has thousands of genes; by way of comparison, the coronavirus has about a dozen.  It means malaria requires a very high immune response to fight it off.  

A trial of the vaccine in Burkina Faso has yielded an efficacy of 77 percent for subjects given a high dose and 71 percent for the low-dose recipients.  The World Health Organization (WHO) had specified a goal of 75 percent for effective deployment in the population.  A previous vaccine demonstrated only 55 percent effectiveness.  The seriousness of the disease can be ascertained from the statistics.  In 2019, 229 million new malaria infections were recorded and 409 thousand people died.  Moreover, many who recover can be severely debilitated by recurring bouts of the disease.

Vaccination has an interesting history.  The story begins with Edward Jenner.  A country doctor with a keen and questioning mind, he had observed smallpox as a deadly and ravaging disease.  He also noticed that milkmaids never seemed to get it.  However, they had all had cowpox, a mild variant which at some time or another they would have caught from the cows they milked.

It was 1796 and Jenner desperate for a smallpox cure followed up his theory, of which he was now quite certain, with an experiment.  On May14, 1796 Jenner inoculated James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of Jenner’s gardener.  He used scraped pus from cowpox blisters on the hands of Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had caught cowpox from a cow named Blossom.  Blossom’s hide now hangs in the library of St. George’s Hospital, Jenner’s alma mater. 

Phipps was inoculated on both arms with the cowpox material.  The result was a mild fever but nothing serious.  Next he inoculated Phipps with variolous material, a weakened form of smallpox bacteria often dried from powdered scabs.  No disease followed, even on repetition.  He followed this experiment with 23 additional subjects (for a round two dozen) with the same result.  They were all immune to smallpox.  Then he wrote about it. 

Not new to science, Edward Jenner had earlier published a careful study of the cuckoo and its habit of laying its eggs in others’ nests.  He observed how the newly hatched cuckoo pushed hatchlings and other eggs out of the nest.  The study was published resulting in his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society.  He was therefore well-suited to spread the word about immunization against smallpox through vaccination with cowpox. 

Truth be told, inoculation was not new.  People who had traveled to Constantinople reported on its use by Ottoman physicians.  And around Jenner’s time, there was a certain Johnny Notions, a self-taught healer, who used it in the Shetland Isles then being devastated by a smallpox epidemic.  Others had even used cowpox earlier.  But Jenner was able to rationally formalize and explain the procedure and to continue his efforts even though The Royal Society did not accept his initial paper.  Persistence pays and finally even Napoleon, with whom Britain was at war, awarded him a medal and had his own troops vaccinated. 

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