To publish or not to publish? The media’s free-speech dilemmas in a world of division, violence and extremism



AAP/AP/ John Nacion/STAR MAX/IPx

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

Terrorism, political extremism, Donald Trump, social media and the phenomenon of “cancel culture” are confronting journalists with a range of agonising free-speech dilemmas to which there are no easy answers.

Do they allow a president of the United States to use their platforms to falsely and provocatively claim the election he has just lost was stolen from him?

How do they cover the activities and rhetoric of political extremists without giving oxygen to race hate and civil insurrection?

How do they integrate news-making social media material into their own content, when it is also hateful or a threat to the civil peace?

Should journalists engage in, or take a stand against, “cancel culture”?

How should editors respond to the “assassin’s veto”, when extremists threaten to kill those who publish content that offends their culture or religion?

The West has experienced concrete examples of all these in recent years. In the US, many of them became pressing during the Trump presidency.

When five of the big US television networks cut away from Trump’s White House press conference on November 6 after he claimed the election had been stolen, they did so on the grounds that he was lying and endangering civil peace.




Read more:
To stay or cut away? As Trump makes baseless claims, TV networks are faced with a serious dilemma


Silencing the president was an extraordinary step, since it is the job of the media to tell people what is going on, hold public officials to account, and uphold the right to free speech. It looked like an abandonment of their role in democratic life.

Against that, television’s acknowledged reach and power imposes a heavy duty not to provide a platform for dangerous speech.

Then on January 6 – two months later to the day – after yet more incitement from Trump, a violent mob laid siege to the Capitol and five people lost their lives. The networks’ decision looked prescient.

They had acted on the principle that a clear and present danger to civil peace, based on credible evidence, should be prioritised over commitments to informing the public, holding public officials to account and freedom of speech.

This case also raised a further dilemma. Even if the danger to peace did not exist, should journalists just go on reporting – or broadcasting – known lies, even when they come from the president of the United States?




Read more:
No, Twitter is not censoring Donald Trump. Free speech is not guaranteed if it harms others


Newspaper editors and producers of pre-recorded radio and television content have the time to report lies while simultaneously calling them out as lies. Live radio and television do not. The words are out and the damage is done.

So the medium, the nature and size of the risk, how the informational and accountability functions of journalism are prioritised against the risk, and the free-speech imperative all play into these decisions.

Should the media report known lies, even if uttered by the president of the United States?
AAP/EPA/White House handout

Similar considerations arise in respect of reporting political extremism.

The ABC’s Four Corners program is about to embark on a story about the alt-right in the US. Having advertised this in a promotional tweet, the ABC received some social media blow-back raising the question of why it would give oxygen to these groups.

The influence of the alt-right on Western politics is a matter of real public interest because of the way it shapes political rhetoric and policy responses, particular on race and immigration.

To not report on this phenomenon because it pursues a morally reprehensible ideology would be to fail the ethical obligation of journalism to tell the community about the important things that are going on in the world.

It is not a question of whether to report, but how.

The Four Corners program will not be live to air. There will be opportunity for judicious editing. Journalists are under no obligation to report everything they are told. In fact they almost never do.

Motive matters

Whether the decision to omit is censorship comes down to motive: is it censorship to omit hate speech or incitement to violence? No. Because the reporter doesn’t agree with it? Yes.

Integrating social media content into professional mass media news presents all these complexities and one more: what is called the news value of “virality”.

Does the fact something has gone viral on social media make it news? For the more responsible professional mass media, something more will usually be needed. Does the subject matter affect large numbers of people? Is it inherently significant in some way? Does it involve some person who is in a position of authority or public trust?

Trump’s use of Twitter was an exploitation of these decision-rules, but did not invalidate them.

Social media is also the means by which “cancel culture” works. It enables large numbers of people to join a chorus of condemnation against someone for something they have said or done. It also puts pressure on institutions such as universities or media outlets to shun them.

It has become a means by which the otherwise powerless or voiceless can exert influence over people or organisations that would otherwise be beyond their reach.

There are those who are worried about the effects on free speech. In July 2020, Harper’s magazine published a letter of protest signed by 152 authors, academics, journalists, artists, poets, playwrights and critics.

While applauding the intentions behind “cancel culture” in advancing racial and social justice, they raised their voices against what they saw as a new set of moral attitudes that tended to favour ideological conformity.

In the aftermath of the police killings of black people in 2020 and the law-and-order response of the Trump administration, “cancel culture” began to affect journalism ethics. Some journalists on papers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times began taking public positions against the way their papers were reporting race issues.

In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests, some journalists began to question how their papers covered race issues.
AAP/AP/Evan Vucci

It led to a lively debate in the profession about the extent to which moral preferences should shape news decisions. The riposte to those who argued that they should, was: whose moral preferences should prevail?

This was yet another illustration of the complexities surrounding free speech issues arising from the social media phenomenon, the Trump presidency and the combination of the two.

Terrorism has also added its contribution. Over the decade 2005-2015, what became known as the Danish cartoons confronted journalists and editors with life-and-death decisions.

In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten (Jutland Post) published cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. It was a conscious act of defiance against “the assassin’s veto”, violent threats to free speech by Islamist-jihadis.

In 2009, a Danish-born professor of politics wrote a book, The Cartoons that Shook the World. Yale University Press, which published it, refused to re-publish the cartoons after having taken advice from counter-terrorism experts about the risks.

In November 2011, the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo published an issue called Charia Hebdo, satirically featuring the Prophet as editor. The real editor was placed on an Al-Qaeda hit list and in January 2015, two masked gunmen opened fire on the newspaper office, killing 12 people, including the editor.




Read more:
Charlie Hebdo: the pen must defy the sword, Islamic or not


The world’s media were confronted with the decision whether to re-publish the cartoons again in defiance of “the assassin’s veto”. Some did, but most – including Jyllands Posten – did not.

The necessary limits of free speech

Free speech is an indispensable civil right under assault from all these forces. But none of the philosophers whose names we immediately associate with free speech have claimed it to be absolute.

The social media platforms, having for years proclaimed themselves extreme libertarians, have in recent times begun to recognise this is indefensible, and strengthened their moderating procedures.

Some of Australia’s senior politicians seem baffled by the issue.

When Twitter shut down Trump’s account, acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack didn’t seem to know where he stood, saying in one breath it was a violation of free speech to shut down Trump while in the next that Twitter should also take down the false image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child.

And he is a former country newspaper editor.

This was followed by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s remark that he was “uncomfortable” with the Twitter decision. He quoted Voltaire as saying something Voltaire never said: the famous line that while he disagreed with what someone said, he would defend to the death his right to say it. It was a fabrication put into Voltaire’s mouth by a biographer more than 100 years after his death.

Voltaire, Milton, Spinoza, Locke and Mill, to say nothing of the US Supreme Court, have not regarded free speech as an absolute right.

So while the media face some extremely difficult decisions in today’s operating environment, they do not need to burden themselves with the belief that every decision not to publish is the violation of an inviolable right.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Web’s inventor says news media bargaining code could break the internet. He’s right — but there’s a fix


Tama Leaver, Curtin University

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has raised concerns that Australia’s proposed News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code could fundamentally break the internet as we know it.

His concerns are valid. However, they could be addressed through minor changes to the proposed code.

How could the code break the web?

The news media bargaining code aims to level the playing field between media companies and online giants. It would do this by forcing Facebook and Google to pay Australian news businesses for content linked to, or featured, on their platforms.

In a submission to the Senate inquiry about the code, Berners-Lee wrote:

Specifically, I am concerned that the Code risks breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online. […] The ability to link freely — meaning without limitations regarding the content of the linked site and without monetary fees — is fundamental to how the web operates.

Currently, one of the most basic underlying principles of the web is there is no cost involved in creating a hypertext link (or simply a “link”) to any other page or object online.

When Berners-Lee first devised the World Wide Web in 1989, he effectively gave away the idea and associated software for free, to ensure nobody would or could charge for using its protocols.

He argues the news media bargaining code could set a legal precedent allowing someone to charge for linking, which would let the genie out of the bottle — and plenty more attempts to charge for linking to content would appear.

If the precedent were set that people could be charged for simply linking to content online, it’s possible the underlying principle of linking would be disrupted.

As a result, there would likely be many attempts by both legitimate companies and scammers to charge users for what is currently free.

While supporting the “right of publishers and content creators to be properly rewarded for their work”, Berners-Lee asks the code be amended to maintain the principle of allowing free linking between content.




Read more:
Google News favours mainstream media. Even if it pays for Australian content, will local outlets fall further behind?


Google and Facebook don’t just link to content

Part of the issue here is Google and Facebook don’t just collect a list of interesting links to news content. Rather the way they find, sort, curate and present news content adds value for their users.

They don’t just link to news content, they reframe it. It is often in that reframing that advertisements appear, and this is where these platforms make money.

For example, this link will take you to the original 1989 proposal for the World Wide Web. Right now, anyone can create such a link to any other page or object on the web, without having to pay anyone else.

But what Facebook and Google do in curating news content is fundamentally different. They create compelling previews, usually by offering the headline of a news article, sometimes the first few lines, and often the first image extracted.

For instance, here is a preview Google generates when someone searches for Tim Berners-Lee’s Web proposal:

Results page for the Google Search 'tim berners lee www proposal'.
This is a screen capture of the results page for the Google Search: ‘tim berners lee www proposal’.
Google

Evidently, what Google returns is more of a media-rich, detailed preview than a simple link. For Google’s users, this is a much more meaningful preview of the content and better enables them to decide whether they’ll click through to see more.

Another huge challenge for media businesses is that increasing numbers of users are taking headlines and previews at face value, without necessarily reading the article.

This can obviously decrease revenue for news providers, as well as perpetuate misinformation. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons Twitter began asking users to actually read content before retweeting it.

A fairly compelling argument, then, is that Google and Facebook add value for consumers via the reframing, curating and previewing of content — not just by linking to it.

Can the code be fixed?

Currently in the code, the section concerning how platforms are “Making content available” lists three ways content is shared:

  1. content is reproduced on the service
  2. content is linked to
  3. an extract or preview is made available.

Similar terms are used to detail how users might interact with content.

Extract showing the way 'Making content available' is defined in the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020
The News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code 2020 outlines three main ways by which platforms make news content available.
Australian Government

If we accept most of the additional value platforms provide to their users is in curating and providing previews of content, then deleting the second element (which just specifies linking to content) would fix Berners-Lee’s concerns.

It would ensure the use of links alone can’t be monetised, as has always been true on the web. Platforms would still need to pay when they present users with extracts or previews of articles, but not when they only link to it.

Since basic links are not the bread and butter of big platforms, this change wouldn’t fundamentally alter the purpose or principle of creating a more level playing field for news businesses and platforms.




Read more:
It’s not ‘fair’ and it won’t work: an argument against the ACCC forcing Google and Facebook to pay for news


In its current form, the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code could put the underlying principles of the world wide web in jeopardy. Tim Berners-Lee is right to raise this point.

But a relatively small tweak to the code would prevent this, It would allow us to focus more on where big platforms actually provide value for users, and where the clearest justification lies in asking them to pay for news content.


For transparency, it should be noted The Conversation has also made a submission to the Senate inquiry regarding the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.The Conversation

Tama Leaver, Professor of Internet Studies, Curtin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I’ve heard COVID is leading to medicine shortages. What can I do if my medicine is out of stock?



from www.shutterstock.com

Nial Wheate, University of Sydney and Elise Schubert, University of Sydney

You’ve just come from your monthly GP appointment with a new script for your ongoing medical condition. But your local pharmacy is out of stock of your usual medicine. Your condition is serious, and without it, your health is likely to suffer. What can you do?

While medicine shortages happen from time to time, researchers and the media report COVID-19 is causing more shortages than normal for many life-saving medicines. In Australia, media reports indicate this includes some medications used to treat hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure, or allergies.

Unfortunately, you’ll only likely find out if this applies to you when you reach the pharmacy. If that happens, there are a few ways you may be able to obtain your prescription.

But if the stock shortage will last for an extended period of time, and you cannot find a supply, your doctor may need to consider prescribing a different medication.

Why are there shortages?

Unfortunately, medicine shortages are an all too common problem of the modern health-care system. When our medicines come from a global supply chain — where raw ingredients are made in one country, processed into medicines in another, then freighted by sea or air to Australia — a single break in the supply chain can result in medicines going out of stock.

So there have been calls for Australia to set up its own medicines manufacturing base. But even if we do, that doesn’t help now during COVID.

Medicines shortages is a growing issue globally. That’s because of increasing demand, higher quality standards and fewer manufacturing sites.

Shortages have also been exacerbated in 2020 due to COVID-19. When workers are locked out of the factory because of a local outbreak, medicines don’t get made. And when we restrict the number of flights into Australia, that prevents medicines from arriving.




Read more:
New law won’t safeguard medicine supply – it’ll only ensure we know there’s a shortage


When a manufacturer knows there is likely to be a medicine shortage, for any reason, they are required to inform the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) so pharmacies can make other arrangements, such as stocking up on alternatives or sourcing supply from other companies.

When the medicine shortage is considered to have a critical patient impact, or if it is in the interest of the public to know about the shortage, then the information is added to the TGA’s shortages website, which the public can search.

But this information is only useful at the government and wholesaler level; local GPs and community pharmacists don’t have the time to check the site every day.

Dealing with shortages efficiently is important because their impacts are wide ranging. Shortages result in higher costs to patients when they have to buy branded rather than generic formulations; more drug errors due to the different strengths and brands dispensed; more side-effects and higher death rates because of changes to less appropriate medicines; and more complaints from patients.

Pharmacist taking medicine off shelf
There’s not always enough medicine to go round. And shortages can affect a patient’s health.
www.shutterstock.com

What if your local pharmacy is out of stock?

It is best to speak to your pharmacist about your options when your medication is out of stock. There may be other brands still available and appropriate to swap. Alternatively, your pharmacist could dispense a different strength of the same medication. Regulations brought in during the pandemic have allowed pharmacists to do this to help with medicine supply.

If there are no appropriate substitutes, in rare instances a local compounding pharmacy can manufacture certain products in store.




Read more:
How to manage your essential medicines in a bushfire or other emergency


If none of your local pharmacies stock your medicine, your next option is for an Australian online pharmacy to fill your script. It may be able to ship your medicine from another city or state.

It is not legal or safe for you personally to order prescription medications from online overseas suppliers. This is because they may not have been manufactured to Australian standards, and may be unsafe. But your pharmacist may do so on your behalf, under a special provision called section 19A.

If all else fails, you may need to contact your doctor about changing to a different medication. There are often many alternatives in the same drug class that work in the same, or very similar, way.




Read more:
Health Check: what should you do with your unused medicine?


Finally, and especially during COVID-19, for a large number of medicines pharmacists are only allowed to provide a maximum of one month’s supply to each patient.

So if your medicine is actually in stock and you want extra, just in case, then by law they may not be able to dispense it to you. This is to prevent panic buying and to ensure the wider community has steady access to medicine; that is, to prevent further shortages.




Read more:
Why are people stockpiling toilet paper? We asked four experts


The Conversation


Nial Wheate, Associate Professor of the Sydney Pharmacy School, University of Sydney and Elise Schubert, Pharmacist and PhD Candidate, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is news worth a lot or a little? Google and Facebook want to have it both ways


Tim Dwyer, University of Sydney

Executives from Google and Facebook have told a Senate committee they are prepared to take drastic action if Australia’s news media bargaining code, which would force the internet giants to pay news publishers for linking to their sites, comes into force.

Google would have “no real choice” but to cut Australian users off entirely from its flagship search engine, the company’s Australian managing director Mel Silva told the committee. Facebook representatives in turn said they would remove links to news articles from the newsfeed of Australian users if the code came into effect as it currently stands.




Read more:
Expect delays and power plays: Google and Facebook brace as news media bargaining code is set to become law


In response, the Australian government shows no sign of backing down, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg both saying they won’t respond to threats.

So what’s going on here? Are Google and Facebook really prepared to pull services from their Australian users rather than hand over some money to publishers under the bargaining code?

Is news valuable to Facebook and Google?

Facebook claims news is of little real value to its business. It doesn’t make money from news directly, and claims that for an average Australian user less than 5% of their newsfeed is made up of links to Australian news.

But this is hard to square with other information. In 2020, the University of Canberra’s Digital News Report found some 52% of Australians get news via social media, and the number is growing. Facebook also boasts of its investments in news via deals with publishers and new products such as Facebook News.

Google likewise says it makes little money from news, while at the same time investing heavily in news products like News Showcase.

So while links to news may not be direct advertising money-spinners for Facebook or Google, both see the presence of news as an important aspect of audience engagement with their products.

On their own terms

While both companies are prepared to give some money to news publishers, they want to make deals on their own terms. But Google and Facebook are two of the largest and most profitable companies in history – and each holds far more bargaining power than any news publisher. The news media bargaining code sets out to undo this imbalance.

What’s more, Google and Facebook don’t appear to want to accept the unique social role of news, and public interest journalism in particular. Nor do they recognise they might be involved somehow in the decline of the news business over the past decade or two, instead pointing the finger at impersonal shifts in advertising technology.

The media bargaining code being introduced is far too systematic for them to want to accept it. They would rather pick and choose commercial agreements with “genuine commercial consideration”, and not be bound by a one-size-fits-all set of arbitration rules.




Read more:
Changing the rules to control monopolies could see the end of Facebook domination


A history of US monopolies

Google and Facebook dominate web search and social media, respectively, in ways that echo the great US monopolies of the past: rail in the 19th century, then oil and later telecommunications in the 20th. All these industries became fundamental forms of capitalist infrastructure for economic and social development. And all these monopolies required legislation to break them up in the public interest.

It’s unsurprising that the giant ad-tech media platforms don’t want to follow the rules, but they must acknowledge that their great wealth and power come with a moral responsibility to society. Making them face up to that responsibility will require government intervention.

Online pioneers Vint Cerf (now VP and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google) and Tim Berners-Lee (“inventor of the World Wide Web”) have also made submissions to the Senate committee advocating on behalf of the corporations. They made high-minded claims that the code will break the “free and open” internet.




Read more:
Web’s inventor says news media bargaining code could break the internet. He’s right — but there’s a fix


But today’s internet is hardly free and open: for most users “the internet” is huge corporate platforms like Google and Facebook. And those corporations don’t want Australian senators interfering with their business model.

Independent senator Rex Patrick hit the nail on the head when he asked why Google wouldn’t admit the fundamental issue was about revenue, rather than technical detail or questions of principle.

How seriously should we take threats to leave the Australian market?

Google and Facebook are prepared to go along with the Senate committee’s processes, so long as they can modify the arrangement. The don’t want to be seen as uncooperative.

The threat to leave (or as Facebook’s Simon Milner put it, the “explanation” of why they would be forced to do so) is their worst-case scenario. It seems likely they would risk losing significant numbers of users if they did so, or at least having them much less engaged – and hence producing less advertising revenue.

Google has already run small-scale experiments to test removing Australian news from search. This may be a demonstration that the threat to withdraw from Australia is serious, or at least, serious brinkmanship.

People know news is important, that it shapes their interactions with the world – and provides meaning and helps them navigate their lives. So who would Australians blame if Google and Facebook really do follow through? The government or the friendly tech giants they see every day? That’s harder to know.


For transparency, please note The Conversation has also made a submission to the Senate inquiry regarding the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.The Conversation

Tim Dwyer, Associate Professor, Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Not sure about the Pfizer vaccine, now it’s been approved in Australia? You can scratch these 4 concerns straight off your list


Archa Fox, University of Western Australia

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has today provisionally approved Australia’s first COVID vaccine, the Pfizer vaccine, paving the way for its rollout to begin in mid-to-late February among high-risk groups.

Two doses will be required, at least three weeks apart. The vaccine can be given to people 16 years and older.

The Pfizer vaccine is based on mRNA technology, a way of giving the body the genetic instructions it needs to make the coronavirus spike protein. The idea is to prime your immune system to mount a protective immune response if you encounter the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

As this is the first mRNA vaccine to be approved for humans, some people have taken to social media to voice their concern. But you can strike these four myths about mRNA vaccines straight off your list.

Myth 1: they enter your DNA and change your genome

Our genome is the complete set of instructions for making all the molecules our cells need to function. Our genome is made of DNA, a different type of molecule to the RNA in the mRNA vaccines. It’s generally not possible for RNA to become part of our genome.

The myth of mRNA vaccines modifying genomes may have surfaced as some types of RNA retroviruses, such as HIV, contain genes that make a protein called “reverse transcriptase”.

A retrovirus is a type of virus that inserts a copy of its RNA genome into the DNA of a host cell it invades, therefore altering the genome of that cell. Taking the example of HIV, reverse transcriptase can convert the HIV RNA into DNA, so the HIV genes can enter our genome.

But SARS-CoV-2 is not a retrovirus and the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines don’t make reverse transcriptase. They only contain one gene: the gene for the SARS-CoV-2 viral spike protein.




Read more:
Explainer: what is RNA?


So, the only way the COVID-19 vaccine mRNA might enter your DNA is if you were unlucky enough to be infected at precisely the same time with HIV, or another kind of retrovirus, and this virus was active for the few short hours the vaccine mRNA was present in your cells. The chances of this happening are vanishingly small.

Unlike DNA, mRNA doesn’t last long in our cells. The mRNA lasts just long enough to instruct the cell to make viral spike protein, but will then break down, like all the other thousands of mRNA molecules our cells make all the time.

Myth 2: they connect you to the internet

The Pfizer mRNA vaccine contains a piece of mRNA which is coated in a lipid (fatty) droplet. The lipid helps the vaccine enter our cells, as the membrane holding our cells together is also made mostly of lipid. The vaccine and the membrane can fuse easily, depositing the mRNA inside the cell.

Some other companies, developing different mRNA vaccines, are exploring mixing their vaccines with materials called “hydrogels”. The hydrogels might help disperse the vaccine slowly into our cells.

Bioengineers have used similar hydrogels for many years in different ways. For instance, they’ve used them to help stem cells survive after being put inside our bodies.

The use of hydrogels for these stem cell (and other) implants has created a myth they’re needed for electronic implants, which can be linked to the internet. Conspiracy theorists have jumped from implants to hydrogels to mRNA vaccines based on no evidence.

Since Pfizer’s COVID mRNA vaccines don’t include hydrogels as a component (nor do Moderna’s), this is not a concern. Though this wouldn’t be a valid concern even if these vaccines did use hydrogels.




Read more:
How mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna work, why they’re a breakthrough and why they need to be kept so cold


Myth 3: they cause autoimmune disease

Autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis, are chronic (long-term) illnesses where our immune systems attack our own cells.

It’s not entirely clear where this belief has come from, but we don’t have any evidence to suggest mRNA vaccines can cause autoimmune diseases.

The fact mRNA is very short-lived inside our cells indicates this is highly unlikely, because you would usually need a long-lived foreign agent to trigger a chronic autoimmune response.

Interestingly, mRNA vaccines are now being designed and delivered to treat autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis. However, these are still at the early stage of development.

Myth 4: they make you infertile

Recent discussions on Twitter suggested antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein might “cross-react” and also target a protein in the placenta. If the immune system attacks the placenta, as the argument goes, that could make women infertile.

The basis for this idea is that coronavirus spike proteins, including that of SARS-CoV-2, have a very short region of similarity to a protein called syncitin-1 found in human placenta.

That amounts to a short stretch of five or six amino acids, where three or four amino acids are identical between coronavirus spike proteins and syncitin-1. Proteins as long as the spike protein will always share tiny regions of similarity with other human proteins. Our immune system is trained to ignore this.

The chances of making antibodies that cross-react with syncitin-1 are very small.

There’s no evidence antibodies against any coronavirus cause infertility. If coronavirus spike proteins did lead the immune system to attack the placenta, we’d see widespread infertility after common cold seasons, which are caused by a range of viruses, including coronaviruses.

It’s true pregnant women were not included in the clinical trials for the Pfizer vaccine. Excluding this group from clinical trials is standard practice, but many have argued more COVID vaccine trials should include pregnant women.




Read more:
Australia’s vaccine rollout will now start next month. Here’s what we’ll need


All technologies were new once

Of all the vaccine technologies being explored against COVID-19, mRNA vaccines have proved the most efficient in reducing the incidence of severe COVID disease.

However, we still don’t fully understand their long-term safety, as with all new medicines.

The TGA’s approval is valid for two years and it will continue to monitor
the vaccine’s safety both in Australia and overseas.The Conversation

Archa Fox, Associate Professor and ARC Future Fellow, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Self-entitled prima donnas or do they have a point? Why Australian Open tennis players find hard lockdown so tough


Peter Terry, University of Southern Queensland

The challenge of bringing the world’s best tennis players and support staff, about 1,200 people in all, from COVID-ravaged parts of the world to our almost pandemic-free shores was always going to be a big ask.

Soon after this star-studded Australian Open entourage arrived in Melbourne, ten cases of COVID-19 were identified (some later reclassified as being old infections). As a result, 72 players classified as close contacts were confined to hotel rooms with no access to what they thought they had been promised — a daily five-hour session on the practice courts within the quarantine bubble.

Meanwhile, the superstars of the sport (Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal, Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka among them) were apparently enjoying much better conditions in Adelaide.

Social media turned white hot.

Spanish world number 13 Roberto Bautista Agut described conditions as like prison “but with wifi”.

Meanwhile Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva wished she had she been warned about the potential for hard lockdown and sharing her room with a mouse.

The flames were fanned by Novak Djokovic’s list of demands for improved conditions, admittedly on behalf of his fellow players and which he later said were just suggestions, which Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews immediately rejected.

Then, the backlash started

Fellow players waded in, with Nick Kyrgios labelling Djokovic “a tool” on Twitter and savaging Bernard Tomic’s partner as having “no perspective” for complaining about having to wash her own hair.

Condemnation of players who complained about being in quarantine, when the population of Melbourne had recently endured 112 days of lockdown, was swift and universal.

The consensus was that, instead of complaining, the self-entitled prima donnas should be grateful for the opportunity to play in one of the world’s great sporting events, pocketing between A$100,000 and $2.75m in prize money (for the singles) after their all-expenses paid trip down under.

When we put people on a pedestal

This looks like a clear case of pedestal syndrome backfiring, a term popularised in sport psychology by Jeffrey Bond, who worked with tennis legend Pat Cash when he won Wimbledon in 1987.

Inside Sport Psychology book cover featuring Roger Federer
Hotel quarantine can easily upset players’ moods but they could benefit from the isolation to work on the psychological aspects of their game.
Booktopia

It’s not a clinical diagnosis, but refers to the tendency to exalt those we admire to a position where we (and they) perceive they can do no wrong.

After all, when the world treats you like something special, feted and adored wherever you go, is it any wonder you start to believe the normal restrictions of a pandemic, indeed of life, do not apply to you?

Maybe the Australian Open should not have been held at all this year, as some prominent health experts have advised.

However, once the decision to proceed with the tournament next month was confirmed, wasn’t it incumbent upon the organisers to create a level playing field for competitors?

There is little doubt those in hard lockdown may be disadvantaged come tournament time.

Is lockdown treating all players equally?

With several of the world’s top players having greater freedom to train in Adelaide compared with those in Melbourne quarantine, some players are also questioning if they’ll be at an advantage when the tournament starts.

The better deal for those in Adelaide includes having a larger support team available, use of the hotel gym, and the opportunity to play exhibition matches.

As Austrian doubles specialist Philipp Oswald, in Melbourne quarantine, described it:

It’s not apples and apples here, but apples and pears — and I caught the sour lemon.

Players risk losing fitness

Research by university colleague Professor Tim Gabbett would predict the decline in fitness among those in hard lockdown will be significantly greater than among those allowed to train outdoors for up to five hours a day.

More than that, the rapid increase in training once released from lockdown will significantly increase injury risk and diminish capacity to maintain performance over the course of a five-set match. In short, advantage all those who escaped hard lockdown.




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Then there is the issue of players’ psychological state leading into the tournament. My own research has highlighted the significant mood disturbance associated with COVID-19 restrictions, which were less restrictive than the hard lockdown many players are currently enduring.

It is well established that mood states affect performance in sport, and the negative moods likely engendered by lockdown will not encourage tournament success.

There could be benefits

However, there may be an upside for some players, especially those arriving with niggling injuries or excessively fatigued. The enforced rest may help them heal and freshen up before resuming normal training.

Lockdown also provides them with ample time to work on the mental side of their game, especially visualisation and mindfulness training. This may help them reframe their time in quarantine from a frustrating interruption into a productive period of mental preparation.




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What happens when players leave quarantine?

Some players will undoubtedly emerge from hard lockdown anxious about their physical condition and irked they were the ones who got the short straw.

Romanian player Sorona Cirstea said she will need “at least three weeks after [isolation] in order to be in decent form again”.

Unfortunately, she’ll have less than two weeks to regain her fitness and find her form post-lockdown.

No reasonable person would suggest tennis players be allowed to skip quarantine but perhaps spare a thought for those in hard lockdown who feel the playing field is ever so slightly tilted against them.The Conversation

Peter Terry, Professor of Psychology, University of Southern Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why the COVID-19 variants are so dangerous and how to stop them spreading



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Michael Plank, University of Canterbury and Shaun Hendy

With new, more infectious variants of COVID-19 detected around the world, and at New Zealand’s border, the risk of further level 3 or 4 lockdowns is increased if those viruses get into the community.

These include a variant called B.1.1.7 that has spread very quickly within the UK, with other new variants now observed in South Africa and Brazil.

Changes in the genetic code of viruses like COVID-19 occur all the time but most of these mutations don’t have any effect on how the disease spreads or its severity.

These changes can be useful because they leave a signature in the virus’s genetic code that allows us to trace how the virus has spread from one person to another.




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But the new variant detected in the UK is more transmissible than the original virus that was dominant in 2020. That means it spreads more easily from one person to another.

The good news is it does not cause more severe illness or have a higher fatality rate than the original variant. Evidence so far suggests vaccines will still be effective against it.

But the bad news is because it spreads more easily, it has the potential to infect many more people, causing more hospitalisations and deaths as a result.

Why variants that spread more easily are so dangerous

The average number of people an infected person with COVID-19 passes the virus on to — the so-called R number — is 40%-70% higher with B.1.1.7 than the original variant.

As the graph below shows, the mathematics of exponential growth means that even a small increase in the transmission rate gets compounded over time, quickly generating enormous growth in the number of cases.

A variant like B.1.1.7 with a higher transmission rate is actually more dangerous than one with a higher fatality rate.

Sure, a 50% increase in the fatality rate would cause 50% more deaths. But because of exponential growth, shown in the graph, a 50% increase in transmissibility causes 25 times more cases in just a couple of months if left unchecked.

That would lead to 25 times more deaths at the original mortality rate.

How do we know the new variant is more transmissible?

The number of cases of the B.1.1.7 variant has risen rapidly relative to the original variant.

This can happen for a number of reasons. The new variant might simply happen to be present in a part of the country or group of people who are spreading the virus more rapidly for some other reason.

It could have become resistant to immunity, meaning it could more easily re-infect people who have already had COVID-19. Or it might cause people to become infectious more quickly.

Researchers in the UK used mathematical models to test these hypotheses.

They found the explanation that fitted best with the data was that the new variant really is more transmissible. And they estimated a person with the new variant infects 56% more people on average than a person with the original variant.

Contact tracing data from the UK also showed more of the close contacts of someone with the new variant go on to be infected.

A sign at an airport saying flights from UK cancelled after new COVID-19 variant discovered,
Some countries cancelled flights from the UK over fears of the new COVID strain.
Shutterstock/rarrarorro

Patients with the new variant have also been found to carry more of the virus. Together, this provides strong evidence the B.1.1.7 variant is between 40% and 70% more transmissible than the original variant.

The variants found in South Africa and Brazil share some of the same mutations as the B.1.1.7 variant. There is some evidence they may also be more transmissible or better able to evade immunity.

But there is more uncertainty about these variants, partly because the data quality isn’t as high as in the UK, which is very good at doing genome sequencing.

What does this mean for New Zealand’s border controls?

The new variants have been detected in many countries, including in people in New Zealand’s managed isolation facilities.

There have previously been several cases of people working in these facilities picking up infections from recent arrivals.

The more transmissible variants arriving at the New Zealand border increase the risks to these workers, who in turn have a higher chance of passing the virus onto others in the community, amplifying the risk of a community outbreak.

In response, the government says international arrivals will require a negative test in the 72 hours prior to departure. They will also be required to take an arrival day test when they get to New Zealand.

These measures provide an extra layer in our defences against COVID-19.

How can we manage the risk?

The new variants spread in the same way as the original one: through close contacts between people, especially in crowded or poorly ventilated environments.

This means all the tools we have developed to fight the virus will still work. These include testing, contact tracing, masks and physical distancing.

How face masks make a difference.

But any variant that is more transmissible has a higher R number. To control an outbreak, we need to bring the R number under 1 and so we may need to use more of these tools to achieve this.




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For example, in the Auckland outbreak in August 2020, alert level 3 was enough to contain and eventually eliminate the outbreak. Our analysis showed alert level 3 reduced R to about 0.7.

If we had a similar outbreak with the new variant, R could be 50% higher which would mean it is above 1. In other words, we would likely need to use alert level 4 to contain an outbreak, and it might take longer to eliminate the virus than it has previously.

To give our contact tracers the best possible chance of containing a new outbreak without needing alert level 3 or 4, we all need do our bit. This means looking for QR codes when out about and using the app to scan them, as well as turning on Bluetooth. And it means staying at home and getting tested if you feel sick.The Conversation

Michael Plank, Professor in Applied Mathematics, University of Canterbury and Shaun Hendy, Professor of Physics

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The big barriers to global vaccination: patent rights, national self-interest and the wealth gap



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Ilan Noy, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington and Ami Neuberger, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology

We will not be able to put the COVID-19 pandemic behind us until the world’s population is mostly immune through vaccination or previous exposure to the disease.

A truly global vaccination campaign, however, would look very different from what we are seeing now. For example, as of January 20, many more people have been immunised in Israel (with a population less than 10 million) than in Africa and Latin America combined.

Notwithstanding recent questions about the effectiveness of the initial single dose of the vaccine, there is a clear disparity in vaccine rollouts internationally.

That is a problem. As long as there are still existing reservoirs of a propagating virus it will be able to spread again to populations that either cannot or would not vaccinate. It will also be able to mutate to variants that are either more transmissible or more deadly.

Counterintuitively, an increase in transmissibility, such as has been found with the new UK variant, is worse than the same percentage increase in mortality rate. This is because increased transmissibility increases the number of cases (and hence the number of deaths) exponentially, while an increase in mortality rates increases only deaths, and only linearly.

Evolutionary pressure on the virus will inevitably favour mutations that make the disease more transmissible, or the virus itself more vaccine-resistant. It is clear, therefore, that every nation’s interest is in universal vaccination. But this is not the trajectory we are on.

People waiting to be vaccinated in Israel
Fast roll out: a busy coronavirus vaccination station in Israel in mid-January.
GettyImages

Politics and profits

Fortunately, in the countries already vaccinating, the vaccine is (mostly) not allocated by wealth or power, but by prioritising those facing the highest risk. At a country level, however, national wealth is determining vaccine roll out.

Yet in the past we have managed to eradicate diseases worldwide, including small pox, a viral infection with much higher death rates than COVID-19.

There are two barriers that prevent us from rapidly pursuing a similar goal for the current pandemic:

  • big pharma is profit-driven and therefore keeps a tight lid on the intellectual property it is developing in the new vaccines

  • countries find it difficult to see beyond their national interest; not surprisingly, politicians are committed only to their own voters.

At this point, we don’t have a global system to confront either of these problems. Each vaccine’s patent is owned by its developer, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is too weak to be the world’s Ministry of Health.




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The polio vaccine model

Overcoming big pharma’s profit motive has been achieved before, however.

In 1955, Jonas Salk announced the development of a polio vaccine in the midst of a huge epidemic. The news initially met with scepticism. Even employees of his own laboratory resigned, protesting that he was moving too fast with clinical experimentation.

When a huge placebo–controlled clinical trial involving 1.6 million children proved him right, however, he declared that in order to maximise the global distribution of this lifesaving vaccine his lab would not patent it. Asked who owned the patent, he famously replied:

Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?

In an echo of the current moment, Israel (then a new state) was also experiencing a rapidly spreading polio epidemic. Efforts to purchase vaccines from the US were unsuccessful, as not all American children were yet vaccinated. So a scientist named Natan Goldblum was sent to Salk’s laboratory to learn how to make the new vaccine.

No lawyers were involved and no contracts signed. The young Dr Goldblum spent 1956 setting up manufacturing facilities for Salk’s vaccine in Israel and by early 1957 mass vaccination was underway.

Dr Jonas Salk and a nurse administering a polio vaccine to a girl
Could you patent the sun? Dr Jonas Salk and a nurse administer a polio vaccine in Pennsylvania in the 1950s.
GettyImages

Suspend patent rights

Israel, a small and relatively poor country in the 1950s, became the third country in the world (after the US and Denmark) to produce the vaccine locally and eventually eradicate polio. It took a handful of scientists, a modest budget and, most importantly, no patenting.

Like Salk, Goldblum was aware viruses have complete disregard for political borders. He was also involved in a very successful Palestinian polio vaccination campaign in Gaza.




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More recently, a highly successful international campaign in the early 2000s saw AIDS treatments distributed in poorer countries. Pharmaceutical companies that owned the patented drugs were forced to supply them at cost or for free, not at market prices set in the rich countries. This was achieved through public pressure and the willingness of governments to support the required policies.

A temporary withdrawal of the patenting rights to the successful COVID-19 vaccines, with or without compensation for the developers, seems a small price to pay for an exit strategy from this global and incredibly costly crisis.

Act local, think global

Overcoming national interest is perhaps more complicated. Clearly, countries have an interest in vaccinating their most vulnerable populations first. But at some point, well before everyone is vaccinated, it becomes more efficient for countries to start vaccinating their neighbours (the countries they are most exposed to through movements of people and trade).

Disappointingly, rich countries today behave as though they will reach 100% vaccination rates before they give away a single dose, with many having bought well in excess of what is needed for 100% coverage.




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The COVAX plan to distribute vaccines in poorer countries has so far been an under-funded effort that has not yet delivered a single dose of vaccine. Even if COVAX were to be fully funded, it mostly aims to donate an insufficient number of vaccine doses to the poorest countries, rather than really bring about a universal vaccination programme.

Nevertheless, overcoming the profit-maximising interest of big pharma and the national focus of governments is not a pipe dream. The world has done it before.The Conversation

Ilan Noy, Professor and Chair in the Economics of Disasters and Climate Change, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington and Ami Neuberger, Clinical Assistant Professor, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.