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To Protect Democracies, Digital Resiliency Efforts Are Needed Now

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Russia and India: Natural Partners in Building a Digital World
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Over a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic in March 2020, the disease is far from under control. Although global case rates on the whole have declined, 15 countries remain near or at the peak of their infection curve. Even countries well below their peak daily infection rates – such as the United Kingdom and Morocco – recently have witnessed an uptick in cases. Just this summer, the virus’ global death toll surpassed 4 million. Fortunately, scientists’ efforts to develop vaccines against COVID-19 have been fruitful: 16 vaccines have been either authorized for emergency use or fully approved. Russia’s Sputnik V is one of the most effective of them, yet one of the most controversial as well.

An important tool in humankind’s fight against the pandemic, Sputnik V is being overlooked by western powers on political grounds.

Sputnik V: controversy and advantages

Much of the controversy surrounding the Gamaleya Institute’s vaccine in western media and political discourse stems from the details surrounding Sputnik V’s approval. Russia’s Ministry of Health issued a registration certificate for the vaccine on August 11, 2020, thus making Sputnik V the world’s first vaccine to be granted regulatory approval for use against COVID-19. Instead of igniting international celebration, this development was met largely with skepticism as many considered the move premature. Typically, vaccines undergo extensive Phase 3 trials before government authorization for use. Sputnik V’s Phase 3 trials, however, did not begin until September 2020, after the vaccine had been registered. Since then, the Russian Ministry of Health’s unorthodox approach to approving the vaccine has been weaponized against Sputnik V.

Western media has also repeatedly called into question Sputnik V’s efficacy and safety. A study in the respected, peer-reviewed medical journal the Lancet, however, found that Sputnik V has an efficacy rate of 91.6% and is low-risk. Although a group of scientists raised concerns about the study’s integrity citing lack of transparency, no major scientific studies demonstrating that Sputnik V’s efficacy is significantly lower than reported have been published to date. Respected western media sources, such as the New York Times and the BBC, cite the Lancet’s figure when reporting on Sputnik V’s efficacy. Meanwhile, a report by the Argentinian Ministry of Health found that Sputnik V is one of the safest vaccines widely used in Argentina. As summarized in the Lancet: “the development of the Sputnik V vaccine has been criticised for unseemly haste, corner cutting, and an absence of transparency. But the outcome reported here is clear and the scientific principle of vaccination is demonstrated, which means another vaccine can now join the fight to reduce the incidence of COVID-19.”

Regardless of such controversy, the vaccine has several key advantages – namely its efficacy, affordability, and transportability. Sputnik V is one of only three vaccines globally with an efficacy of over 90% – the other two being Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Running at less than $10 per dose on international markets, Sputnik V is the cheapest vaccine in this efficacy range. For comparison, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine runs between $14.50 and $20.00 on international markets, while Moderna’s vaccine sells for between $18.00 and $33.00 a dose. Sputnik V is also much easier to transport than its U.S./German counterparts. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines must be stored at -70.0°C and -20.0°C respectively, whereas Sputnik V must be kept at a temperature range from 2 to 8°C, meaning that it can be stored in conventional refrigerators. This makes delivering the vaccine notably easier, especially to remote areas. Thus, Sputnik V is poised to make an important contribution to the global inoculation campaign.

Hurdles and victories in the international arena

Russia’s frontrunner vaccine has experienced a mix of hurdles and victories in the international arena. The biggest hurdles are regulatory in nature. For example, one major obstacle preventing the vaccine’s distribution is that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) – the EU agency responsible for authorizing and evaluating medicines – has not yet approved Sputnik V. The EMA is still undergoing its rolling revue of the vaccine, and it appears that approval is unlikely to be granted until September at the earliest. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi recently raised the possibility that Sputnik may never get the EMA’s approval, casting further doubt on the vaccine’s future in Europe. The EMA’s regulatory hesitancy towards Sputnik V has prevented major EU players, such as Germany and France, from buying millions of doses of the vaccine.

Sputnik V similarly has not yet been cleared for Emergency Use Listing by the WHO. The UN agency found production violations at the Sputnik V manufacturing site in Ufa during a June examination. Although the WHO’s concerns have since been addressed according to Russian Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, the incident has further put on hold the Russian Direct Investment Fund’s (RDIF) commitment to supply the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund with 220 million doses of Sputnik V. In a similar vein, the RDIF applied for Sputnik V to participate in COVID-19 vaccine access program COVAX earlier this year. Discussions with the Vaccine Alliance Gavi regarding Sputnik V’s inclusion in the COVAX Facility’s Portfolio of COVID-19 vaccines, however, are still ongoing.

Although Sputnik V’s lack of EMA and WHO approval has hampered its international rollout, the ongoing authorization process has not eliminated the vaccine’s global relevance. In fact, the Russian vaccine is currently authorized for emergency use in nearly 70 countries and being used in 45. Two EU member states, Hungary and Slovakia, even have begun inoculating their citizens with Sputnik V without a greenlight from the EMA. Meanwhile, India and Turkey have ordered 250 million and 50 million doses of the vaccine, respectively. One thing is clear: Sputnik V is in high demand internationally despite the regulatory hurdles and controversies it faces. Trust in the Russian vaccine also remains markedly high notwithstanding these challenges. A poll conducted by British market research firm YouGov during February and March of this year found that, of participants who had a preference, 54.0% trusted Russia to produce a vaccine and 33.2% preferred to be vaccinated with Sputnik V. According to the survey, Russia and the United States are tied for the most trusted vaccine producing country, and Sputnik V is the second most preferred vaccine after Pfizer-BioNTech, which 36.6% of respondents favored. The survey featured respondents from the following 9 countries, collectively accounting for 25% of the global population: India; Brazil; Mexico; the Philippines; Vietnam; Argentina; Algeria; the UAE; and Serbia.

Sputnik V has been particularly successful in Latin America, a core region of the United States’ sphere of influence. Repeated polling has shown that Sputnik V enjoys high levels of confidence in Latin American countries, especially Argentina and Peru. The Russian vaccine got an early start in the region when on December 29, 2020, Argentina became the first Latin American country to administer the Sputnik V vaccine to its citizens. Mexico followed suit on February 24 and Nicaragua on March 2, 2021. To the surprise of many observers, on June 4 Brazil joined the list of countries that have approved Sputnik V.

Unfortunately, alongside the success Sputnik V has experienced in Latin America, the vaccine has also encountered a substantial challenge: supply shortages. Both Mexico and Argentina are currently facing shortages of Sputnik V’s second dose – and the problem is not confined to the region. Luckily, Russia’s strategy for eliminating supply shortages not only promises to see more people vaccinated, but also provides an opportunity for Russia to collaborate with its international partners: the country will manufacture vaccines abroad. Starting in July, 5 to 6 million doses of Sputnik V are set to be produced outside of Russia per month. Manufacturing countries include India, South Korea, and Brazil. The Argentine laboratory Richmond produced its first half million doses on June 18. The data sharing and collaboration necessary to manufacture Sputnik V abroad have the potential to increase Russia’s soft power in partner countries.

The other major players

It is crucial to note that Russia’s Sputnik V is only one piece in the puzzle of fighting COVID-19. Although an in-depth review of every country’s current approach to vaccine policy is beyond the scope of this article, a brief overview of the major vaccine providers’ – the United States, the United Kingdom, and China – global vaccine distribution is in store.

Unlike Russia, whose approach to vaccine distribution has been global facing since Sputnik V’s development, the United States initially favored domestic distribution and stockpiling of American vaccines. The Biden Administration has since turned course. The U.S. recently pledged to share 80 million U.S. vaccine doses by the end of June and to purchase 500 million additional doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for lower-income countries over the next year. Pfizer-BioNTech is currently being distributed in 105 countries, Moderna in 55, and Johnson&Johnson in 27.

The United Kingdom’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is currently being used in 178 countries, making it the most widely-used COVID-19 vaccine to date. Although evidence that the vaccine is linked to blood clots put a rut in its distribution, the vaccine is performing well internationally. Meanwhile, China’s Sinopharm-Beijing and Sinovac vaccines are being used in 40 and 32 countries, respectively. China has favored international distribution of its vaccines since the beginning of the pandemic and has shipped more vaccines abroad than any other country. The vaccines referenced in this article – among others – have collectively led to 22.2% of the world’s population having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Conclusion

Western, especially American, media has portrayed Sputnik V in an overwhelmingly negative light. The Russian vaccine is represented more as a political tool than a health solution. Hiccups in the road to Sputnik V distribution are cited as evidence that the vaccine is not to be trusted. This approach to Sputnik V is fundamentally flawed. Regulation and safety inspections are crucial to safe vaccination efforts; finger-pointing and name-calling are not. Ultimately, vaccination should take precedence over politics. Alongside other vaccines, Sputnik V will propel us into a post-pandemic world.

Above all else, Sputnik V is a highly efficacious vaccine against COVID-19. When Sputnik V successfully performs its function – safely preventing vaccinated people from contracting and dying from the virus – a growth in vaccinated individuals’ trust of Russia will organically follow. This happy side effect undoubtedly has the potential to promote Russia’s image abroad and increase the country’s soft power. But even if Russia’s political gains from Sputnik V turn out to be small, humankind’s gains in lives saved will be immeasurable.

From our partner RIAC

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7 Trends Reshaping a USD 3.9 Trillion Global Halal Industry

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The Global Halal Market (GHM) is not just growing, it’s exploding. Driven by a surging Muslim population, rising disposable incomes, and shifting consumer preferences, this behemoth is projected to reach a staggering USD 3.9 trillion by 2027. But what’s driving this explosive growth? Buckle up, because 2024 promises a thrilling ride fueled by cutting-edge technology, ethical consumerism, and personalized convenience. Here’s your deep dive into the 7 hottest trends reshaping the global halal landscape:

Halal Tech Revolution: Where Silicon Valley Meets Mecca

Forget clunky processes and opaque sourcing. The halal industry is getting a tech makeover, and it’s about time. Blockchain is ensuring ethical sourcing and transparent supply chains, from farm to fork. Imagine halal meat traced back to its free-range roots, with every step documented on a tamper-proof digital ledger. Artificial intelligence is optimizing slaughterhouses, automating processes, and ensuring humane treatment of animals. Halal e-commerce platforms are booming, bringing convenience and halal-certified products to Muslim consumers worldwide. Think Amazon, but with prayer apps, virtual tours of halal farms, and even halal-compliant fintech solutions – the future of halal is digital and delicious!

Ethical Halal: Beyond Compliance, Embracing Values

Muslim consumers are no longer satisfied with just a halal label. They crave sustainability, animal welfare, and organic goodness. Expect a surge in plant-based halal options, from juicy burgers to creamy milkshakes made with innovative pea protein and lentil blends. Ethically sourced meat, raised on antibiotic-free feed and roaming in spacious pastures, will be the new gold standard. And get ready for a beauty revolution: cruelty-free cosmetics and hygiene products that adhere to Islamic principles will pamper consumers with peace of mind.

Convenience is King: Busy Lives, Halal Solutions

In today’s fast-paced world, convenience reigns supreme. The halal industry is taking note, with solutions tailor-made for busy Muslim lives. Subscription meal kits will deliver pre-portioned, halal-certified ingredients straight to doorsteps, complete with recipe cards for stress-free meal prep. Halal food delivery apps will take the guesswork out of dining out, connecting users with a curated selection of restaurants and cafes offering delicious and compliant meals. And for those special occasions, on-demand halal catering will ensure stress-free gatherings, leaving hosts free to enjoy the festivities.

Beyond Food: The Halal Universe Expands

The halal industry is shedding its “food-only” label and branching out into exciting new frontiers. Halal travel is booming, with destinations vying for Muslim tourists by offering halal amenities, prayer spaces, and culturally sensitive experiences. Imagine exploring Marrakech’s vibrant souks or unwinding on a pristine Maldives beach, all while knowing your needs are catered to. Halal cosmetics are gaining traction, with innovative brands formulating products free of alcohol, animal derivatives, and harsh chemicals. And even the pharmaceutical industry is taking notice, developing halal-compliant medications and healthcare products that align with Islamic principles.

Science & Innovation: Reimagining Halal with Cutting-Edge Tech

Research labs are not just churning out papers; they’re cooking up a futuristic halal feast. Lab-grown halal meat is no longer science fiction, with companies like Eat Just and Aleph Farms creating meat indistinguishable from its conventional counterpart, but without the ethical and environmental concerns. Plant-based alternatives are evolving beyond bland tofu, with innovative textures and flavors mimicking everything from juicy steaks to succulent lamb shanks. Get ready for halal food reimagined with cutting-edge technology, offering delicious and sustainable options for the future.

Health & Wellness: Halal Goes Holistic

Muslim consumers are prioritizing their well-being like never before. Enter functional halal foods infused with ingredients like probiotics, antioxidants, and adaptogens, designed to nourish the body and mind. Sports nutrition is another burgeoning market, with protein powders and energy bars formulated specifically for Muslim athletes seeking halal-compliant performance boosters. And for those managing chronic conditions, dietary supplements tailored to diabetes management, weight loss, or heart health will offer halal solutions for holistic well-being.

Storytelling & Branding: Building Trust, Shaping Perceptions

In a crowded marketplace, differentiating your brand is key. The halal industry is catching on, embracing compelling narratives and values-driven branding. Showcase your commitment to ethical sourcing, sustainability, and community engagement. Share inspiring stories of the farmers who raise your halal meat, the scientists developing innovative food technologies, or the communities you empower through your business practices. By building trust and aligning with consumer values, halal brands can stand out.

Embrace the Halal Revolution:2024 is not just a year on the calendar; it’s the dawn of a new era for the halal industry. By harnessing the power of technology, embracing ethical values, and catering to evolving consumer needs, halal businesses can tap into a USD 3.9 trillion market brimming with potential. So, whether you’re a food producer, travel blogger, or tech whiz, join the halal revolution. Optimize your offerings, tell your story, and connect with Muslim consumers worldwide. The future of halal is bright, and the time to act is now.


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Beyond Andalusia: Exploring Spain’s Islamic Heritage through Halal Tourism

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Spain’s evolving landscape of Muslim-friendly tourism is a testament to its rich Islamic history and its commitment to embracing diverse cultural needs. As we head into 2023, projections indicate a staggering 85 million international visitors to Spain, a 16.4% increase from the previous year, highlighting the country’s growing appeal as a global tourist destination. A significant portion of these tourists are from Muslim-majority countries, drawn to Spain’s Islamic heritage and the burgeoning availability of Halal services and tailored cultural experiences.

The Rise of Halal Tourism in Spain

Spain’s shift towards accommodating Muslim tourists is evident in the increasing number of Halal-certified establishments and services. The Spanish Halal Institute has reported a surge in businesses seeking Halal certification, a rise from 100 in 2010 to over 500 in recent years. This growth is not only a response to the rising Muslim visitor numbers but also a strategic move by Spanish businesses to tap into the lucrative Muslim market.

Muslim-friendly Services Across Spain

Beyond the traditionally popular Andalucía, other regions in Spain are adapting to the needs of Muslim tourists. Cities like Barcelona, Toledo, and Madrid now offer a range of Halal dining options, prayer facilities, and culturally sensitive services. For instance, the Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona, a Halal-certified hotel, offers amenities tailored to Muslim guests, including prayer mats and Halal food options. Similarly, the Costa del Sol Hotel in Torremolinos has trained its staff in Muslim culture and traditions, enhancing the experience for its Muslim clientele.

Cultural and Historical Tourism

Spain’s Islamic history, particularly the legacy of Al-Andalus, is a major draw for Muslim visitors. Educational initiatives like walking tours in Toledo, led by Aicha Fernández, and Madrid’s Muslim and Arab heritage tours, organized by Rafael Martínez, provide insights into Spain’s rich Islamic past. These tours are not just tourist attractions but educational experiences, offering deep dives into the historical and cultural significance of Spain’s Islamic era.

Economic Impact and Market Potential

The economic potential of Muslim-friendly tourism in Spain is immense. According to a report by the State of the Islamic Economy (2022), the global Muslim population, a significant portion of which belongs to the rising middle class, is increasingly travel-savvy and demands tailored services. This presents a lucrative opportunity for Spanish businesses in the tourism sector.

Government Initiatives and Recognition

The Spanish government’s role in promoting Muslim-friendly tourism is pivotal. Efforts like the creation of Halal tourism guides by municipalities like Málaga, which won recognition at the Halal In Travel Global Summit in Singapore, underscore the national commitment to positioning Spain as a Muslim-friendly destination.

Challenges and Opportunities

Despite the progress, challenges remain. Celia Rodríguez, a Spanish revert, notes the scarcity of Halal options in some regions and the need for better-informed services for Muslim tourists. This gap presents an opportunity for businesses to further tailor their offerings and improve communication with Muslim clients.

Global Context and Future Prospects

Globally, the trend towards Muslim-friendly tourism is gaining momentum, with countries like South Korea and Japan also emerging as popular destinations. Spain’s strategic approach to embracing and catering to the needs of Muslim tourists not only enhances its competitive edge in the global tourism market but also promotes cultural understanding and inclusivity.


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TB Research Shows a Good Diet can cut Infections by Nearly 50%

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Tuberculosis is the single most deadly infectious killer of humankind. It claimed 1.6 million lives in 2021 alone. As the search for effective ways to fight the disease continues, the findings of new research offer hope: a good diet can cut infections by nearly 50%. Yogan Pillay and Madhukar Pai write that nutrition is a vaccine in all but name.

For centuries, we have known that tuberculosis is a social disease. It thrives on poverty and social factors such as malnutrition, poor housing, overcrowding, unsafe work environments and stigma. Globally in 2021 an estimated 2.2 million cases of TB were attributable to undernourishment, 0.86 million to HIV infection, 0.74 million to alcohol use disorders, 0.69 million to smoking and 0.37 million to diabetes.

But knowledge about social determinants alone does not always translate into tangible action and progress. A new trial in India, called RATIONS, aimed to determine the effect of nutritional supplementation on new cases of tuberculosis in households of adults with pulmonary TB. The research found that providing food baskets to people with TB and their households could go a long way to prevent and mitigate the disease.

No easy silver bullets

The TB community has typically looked for biomedical solutions, or “silver bullets”, for a social pathology, and we are struggling to make progress. Since the COVID pandemic, TB mortality and incidence have increased globally, putting TB back on top as the single most deadly infectious killer of humankind.  In 2021, 1.6 million people died of TB. In Africa, TB incidence is high (212 per 100,000 population) with a high case fatality rate because of the HIV epidemic.

Undernutrition is the most important cause of TB. This has been shown in studies in many countries, including South Africa, where researchers found poor levels of nutrition in patients admitted to a specialized TB hospital. Malnutrition refers to all forms of deficiencies in nutrition, including over-nutrition and obesity. Undernutrition refers more specifically to a deficiency of nutrients. While we know that many patients with TB have poor nutrition, the latest evidence is that undernutrition also plays a key role in TB within households.

The results of the Reducing Activation of Tuberculosis by Improvement of Nutritional Status (RATIONS) trial show that improved nutrition in family members of patients with lung TB reduced all forms of TB by nearly 40%, and infectious TB by nearly 50%.

This trial recruited 10,345 household members of 2,800 patients with lung TB.

  • All TB patients received a monthly 10kg food basket (rice, pulses, milk powder, oil) and multivitamins for six months.
  • In one group family members received 5kg rice and 1.5kg pulses per person per month, while the other group of family members did not get food baskets.

Food worked like a vaccine in this trial, cutting the risk of household members developing TB.  Nutrition could also protect against other conditions such as anaemia, diarrhoea and respiratory infections, but these were not not the main focus of the trial. An accompanying paper, based on the results of the RATIONS trial, showed that severe undernutrition was present in nearly half of all patients.

An early weight gain in the first two months was associated with 60% lower risk of TB mortality. The other benefits were higher treatment success and better weight gain. During the six-month follow-up period, a remarkable treatment success rate of 94% was achieved.

Getting food to patients

How expensive was the intervention? The cost of a food basket was US$13 per TB patient per month and US$4 per household member per month and could be delivered, even in rural areas, using field staff. Even before the RATIONS trial, the Indian government had recognised the need for nutrition support for people with TB, and in 2018 launched “Nikshay Poshan Yojana”, a direct benefit transfer scheme. Under this scheme, each TB patient receives a financial incentive of US$6 per month for the duration of the anti-TB treatment (typically, six months for people with drug-sensitive TB).

Emerging data suggests that while the scheme improves the treatment completion rates among patients with TB in India, they often receive their payments late. There is a need to improve the efficiency and provide timely payments.

The new RATIONS trial suggests that directly providing food baskets may be another effective strategy.

Many countries, including India, have other social security programmes, including public distribution systems  to provide food grains at subsidised prices. Using existing channels to provide extra food rations to people with TB, and expanding the menu to include proteins such as pulses and millets, is a strategy worth exploring. This could also have positive effects on other diseases such as diabetes.

Implications for South Africa

South Africa is one of the countries labelled by the World Health Organization as a “high TB burden country”.

What does this latest research mean for South Africa? Statistics South Africa reported that in 2021 2.6 million people had inadequate access to food and a further 1.1 million stated they had “severe” inadequate access to food. More than 683,000 children five years and younger experienced hunger.

This toxic mix requires prevention of TB by nutritional support, drugs to prevent TB infections and early diagnosis with molecular tests and treatment.

With high levels of food insecurity and undernutrition in South Africa, fuelled by the highest levels of inequality, it is critical that South Africa includes social benefits for people with TB and those in their households to reduce the prevalence of TB in the country and to meet the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

Regardless of how social benefits are distributed, action must be based on evidence. We need better tests, cures and vaccines for TB, but they alone cannot end the epidemic.  TB patients must be provided with the social benefits that they need and deserve, as a basic human right.

Courtesy: The Conversation


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