We are creating people who, in old technologies, will be called cyborgs: Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Indian Express | 1 week ago | 18-01-2023 | 05:50 am

We are creating people who, in old technologies, will be called cyborgs: Siddhartha Mukherjee

FROM the pandemic and the “tumbling” we took right when we had thought we understood our immune system, to why science lacks rock stars, to the “new humans” that science has created, oncologist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee spoke on a range of subjects at the Express Adda in New Delhi on Monday.Author of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (2010), and The Gene: An Intimate History (2016), New York-based Mukherjee is also a noted haematologist and oncologist, whose recently published work of non-fiction, The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human (Allen Lane), takes off from the study of the fundamental unit of life — the cell — and leads readers through the integral role it plays in medical science.Speaking on what he means by “new humans”, Mukherjee said, “I think that in many ways — including the creation of organs, organoids, and the interface between cells and devices… we are creating humans that we haven’t encountered before… In fact, there are people walking amongst us here who may have had a bone marrow transplant and are living chimeras — so their body is their own body, but their blood is being made from someone else’s body.”Giving the example of artificial pancreas in the making, people who undergo neural stimulation to alleviate symptoms of diseases such as depression, and of Louise Brown, the first child conceived in a petri dish, Mukherjee said, “We might as well be creating what in science fiction is a cyborg.”“We are creating people who, in some old technologies, will be called cyborgs. Although they are not really cyborgs, they are cellborgs. They are interfaces between cellular therapies and human beings. And, in so being, really sit at the borderlands of the limits of our current technologies… They are amongst us; they are much more real than the science-fictional new humans. And, they raise many, many questions about who we are, what we do, and what our future looks like,” said Mukherjee.In his new book, Mukherjee, who has demystified and humanised public discourse on medicine and health with his empathetic writing, also explores the pandemic, how it upended our lives and the interaction of the Sars-CoV-2 with our cells that enabled the virus to unleash the global pandemic. Even with his deep knowledge of the immune system – he has been working on immunological cures for cancers – Sars-CoV-2 took him, much like other scientists, by surprise, challenging the understanding of how the immune system tackles a bacterial or viral infection. “The tumbling that happened, I think, is very important. There was a moment of time in which we as a scientific community thought that we understood vaccination, virology, and immunology. And then, all of a sudden, here comes a virus that really challenges very fundamental things that we know and don’t know about how the immune system works.”Talking about why some people tend to get severe Covid-19 while others don’t, he said we have learnt a lot of surprising things through the pandemic. Surprise number one, he said, was that apparently healthy people, men more than women, have a pre-existing auto-immune disease that invisibly affects their capacity to respond to viruses. It’s only when Covid-19 strikes, that previously invisible incapacity to respond to the virus becomes visible. Surprise number two, he said, was that some people carry mutations in genes connected to the immune system – totally invisible for most parts, until Covid-19 hits. Citing the example of long Covid, he wondered whether other viral infections like influenza or Epstein-Barr also lead to such long duration syndromes. “It’s because Covid-19 was such a global pandemic that we have learned to understand the autoimmune consequences of Covid-19 in the long run,” said Mukherjee, who disclosed his voice had changed as a consequence of Covid-19.Replying to a question on whether the pandemic was a result of bio-warfare, Mukherjee said he didn’t think it was but he did not dismiss a lab leak theory completely. The author also spoke on the anti-vax movement in the United States and on the paradox of this being an anti-science moment in an era of medical breakthroughs. The anti-vax movement, he pointed out, was largely driven by three sets of people – the libertarians who say that my body is my body; those who have an anti-science stance; and those who are facing vaccine exhaustion. As for the disdain for medicine, he says, it is driven by medical men not being able to convey their full power and politics that scapegoats it. It is medicine and larger social changes driven by it that has led to child-birth becoming non-fatal and people living up to the ages of 80 and more.Big pharma and pricing of drugs came up for discussion, too. Mukherjee’s recent initiative in Bengaluru, Immuneel Therapeutic Ltd, in collaboration with biotech entrepreneur Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, has been rolling out a crucial clinical trial on the treatment of cancer, called the Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, already in use in several countries, that will significantly bring down the cost of therapy for patients in India. He said pharma companies should not be pricing products based on what failed in the valley of death – the phase between an encouraging find and a final product. Developing medicines costs money, he acknowledged, but most large pharma companies he said were surviving by gobbling up highly successful start-ups.The author was in conversation with the Anant Goenka, Executive Director, Indian Express Group, and Devyani Onial, National Features Editor, The Indian Express.A question-answer session with the audience was followed by rapid-fire round with Goenka in which the author revealed that he did not believe in a predetermined destiny, that he believes in life on other planets and named Albert Einstein as his favourite scientist. When asked whether people should “use, reduce, or stop” the following objects, he said yes to microwaves, 5 G and cellphones, and no to hair dyes and artificial sweeteners.The Express Adda is a series of informal interactions organised by the Indian Express Group and features those at the centre of change. Previous guests at the Adda include Union Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar, Union Minister of Health Mansukh Mandaviya, Union Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs and Petroleum and Natural Gas Hardeep Singh Puri, election strategist Prashant Kishor, Union Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav and Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari.

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Gujarat: Indiscriminate use, weak libido due to Covid-19 drive sex stimulant demand
Times of India | 6 days ago | 22-01-2023 | 07:30 am
Times of India
6 days ago | 22-01-2023 | 07:30 am

AHMEDABAD: After popping antivirals, antibiotics and vitamins to survive the Covid pandemic, people in Gujarat appear to have taken their pill boxes to the bedroom. The state recorded the highest 34% growth in sales of sex stimulants last year as against 2021, according to the All India Organisation of Chemists and Druggists (AIOCD)-AWACS.Medical practitioners and chemists attribute this rise to indiscriminate use of these medicines and also rising incidents of weakened libido and erectile dysfunction. On one end are youngsters who are buying PDE-5 inhibitors over the counter and, on the other are those with a reduced sex drive as a fallout of Covid-19 infection, rising stress and duress, and even poor lifestyle choices.'Stress driving sales of sex stimulants' It isn't just the increase in episodes of stress and anxiety among people since the pandemic. In fact, a lot of people who have suffered from Covid-19 have come with complaints of a weak libido and erectile dysfunction. The number of such patients is increasing by the day," said Dr Paras Shah, a sexual health expert based in Ahmedabad.Medical practitioners also underlined the increasing trend of people, especially youngsters, getting addicted to smoking tobacco and even marijuana, which also impacts their sexual health. Another key reason cited for the rising sales is reckless consumption of these medicines."Youngsters, particularly in the age group of 18 to 30 years, tend to buy these medicines over the counter or even order online, plainly out of curiosity and not out of health concerns. Eventually, they become habituated to these drugs. Even though most of these people are well-read and aware of the consequences of indiscriminately consuming PDE5 inhibitors, they continue to consume them recklessly," Shah added. The moving annual turnover (MAT) for drugs used for sexual stimulation and rejuvenation, largely sildenafil citrate and tadalafil along with herbal and ayurvedic medicines in December 2022 increased to Rs 43.4 crore as against the MAT of Rs 32.5 crore in December 2021, according to AIOCD-AWACS. Chemists and druggists attribute this spike in sales to unrelenting stress people continue to experience since the pandemic.Other categories of medicines which showed growth in sales during the year include dermatology (9%), Otologicals (9%), Neuro and Central Nervous System (8%) and gynaecology (6%), among others.

Gujarat: Indiscriminate use, weak libido due to Covid-19 drive sex stimulant demand
In PM Modi’s message to BJP, the subtext: To find another gear, create soft power and goodwillPremium Story
The Indian Express | 1 week ago | 20-01-2023 | 02:50 pm
The Indian Express
1 week ago | 20-01-2023 | 02:50 pm

BJP leaders have said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address at the concluding session of the party’s national executive meeting had a clear message — focus on creating a “soft power” and “goodwill” to expand the party and increase its tally in the 2024 general elections to take the BJP’s journey of electoral victories to the next level.In the address, which emphasised on reaching out to more of the marginalised, minorities and small communities, Modi urged the BJP cadre to embrace the fact that the BJP is the ruling party at the Centre and many key states, and “think beyond conventional politics and electoral politics”.“To me, Prime Minister Modi was saying that the BJP should adopt a new style of politics to create soft power and goodwill among all sections of the people. He wants the BJP to create a positive atmosphere. The goodwill and soft power should help increase the BJP’s tally in the next Lok Sabha elections,” said a senior BJP leader.Modi’s reference to the age group of 18-25 in his speech also indicated that the party would also focus on that age group — youths in that age group are keen on development and a corruption-free government, according to Modi — to turn it into a strong loyal BJP support base.Party sources said the prime minister’s speech had given a clear signal that both the government and the party would take several initiatives in the coming days to see that the BJP gets more seats in the Lok Sabha elections. “Every step in the coming days, including the Budget, would keep that in mind,” said a party MP.In his speech to the national executive, Modi asked party members to reach out to every section of society, including the marginalised and minority communities, “without electoral considerations”. He wants BJP workers to reach out to Pasmandas, Bohras, Muslim professionals, and educated Muslims as a confidence-building measure and without expecting votes in return.Modi, who had a notebook with points scribbled on it while speaking, reiterated his message of reaching out to marginalised groups among the minorities at the Hyderbad National Executive meeting too. He also spoke about the Sikh community that, according to him, has a positive feeling about the BJP. He pointed out that the Sikh community is present in many districts outside Punjab too and the BJP cadre “should not ignore them” thinking they are too small to make any electoral difference.Recalling what the PM spoke about, a BJP leader said, “He said don’t always think about votes only. He also mentioned the small groups of backward communities and said they always stood by the BJP since the Jana Sangh days. He said there are small communities like Bohras, among whom there are several educated Muslims. They do not vote for the BJP but cooperate with the party in many activities. The Prime Minister specifically said Muslims would not vote for the BJP, but that should not stop us from reaching out to them.”A party leader said, “The target is to increase the BJP’s tally from 303 and return to power with more glory. Because the positive atmosphere will create a favourable situation for us — to talk about development work and to expand our base.”Another significant point the Prime Minister harped on was India’s global positioning. According to Modi, the global situation post Covid has a “lot of prospects and chances” and India should let them pass by. Even the national executive statement on the G-20 presidency mentioned the changed world order in the last nine years. According to BJP vice president Baijayant Panda who briefed the media on the statement, the G-20 and, in general, the world is “full of admiration” as India not only dealt with the Covid crisis but also reached out with help to other countries.Panda said BJP workers, in their individual capacity, would work to connect society as the country hosts over 200 G20-related events in more than 50 places. He added it was an opportunity to connect the society and showcase India’s progress and its rich heritage as delegates from not only the elite bloc of 20 leading economies but also many multilateral bodies such as the International Monetary Fund would visit India.

In PM Modi’s message to BJP, the subtext: To find another gear, create soft power and goodwillPremium Story
How Covid’s bitter divisions tarnished a liberal icon- Jacinda Ardern
The Indian Express | 1 week ago | 20-01-2023 | 02:50 pm
The Indian Express
1 week ago | 20-01-2023 | 02:50 pm

Written by Damien CaveJacinda Ardern explained her decision to step down as New Zealand’s prime minister Thursday with a plea for understanding and rare political directness — the same attributes that helped make her a global emblem of anti-Trump liberalism, then a target of the toxic divisions amplified by the coronavirus pandemic.Ardern, 42, fought back tears as she announced at a news conference that she would resign in early February before New Zealand’s election in October.“I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she said. “It is that simple.”Ardern’s sudden departure before the end of her second term came as a surprise to the country and the world. New Zealand’s youngest prime minister in 150 years, she was a leader of a small nation who reached celebrity status with the speed of a pop star.Her youth, pronounced feminism and emphasis on a “politics of kindness” made her look to many like a welcome alternative to bombastic male leaders, creating a phenomenon known as “Jacindamania.”Her time in office, however, was mostly shaped by crisis management, including the 2019 terrorist attack in Christchurch, the deadly White Island volcanic eruption a few months later and COVID-19 soon after that.The pandemic in particular seemed to play to her strengths as a clear and unifying communicator — until extended lockdowns and vaccine mandates hurt the economy, fueled conspiracy theories and spurred a backlash. In a part of the world where COVID restrictions lingered, Ardern has struggled to get beyond her association with pandemic policy.“People personally invested in her; that has always been a part of her appeal,” said Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand.“She became a totem,” he added. “She became the personification of a particular response to the pandemic, which people in the far-flung margins of the internet and the not so far-flung margins used against her.”The country’s initial goal was audacious: Ardern and a handful of prominent public health researchers who were advising the government held out hope for eliminating the virus and keeping it entirely out of New Zealand. In early 2020, she helped coax the country — “our team of 5 million,” she said — to go along with shuttered international borders and a lockdown so severe that even retrieving a lost cricket ball from a neighbor’s yard was banned.When new, more transmissible variants made that impossible, Ardern’s team pivoted but struggled to get vaccines quickly. Strict vaccination mandates then kept people from activities like work, eating out and getting haircuts.Dr. Simon Thornley, a public health researcher at the University of Auckland and a frequent and controversial critic of the government’s COVID response, said many New Zealanders were surprised by what they saw as her willingness to pit the vaccinated against the unvaccinated.“The disillusionment around the vaccine mandates was important,” Thornley said. “The creation of a two-class society and that predictions didn’t come out as they were meant to be, or as they were forecast to be in terms of elimination — that was a turning point.”Ardern became a target, internally and abroad, for those who saw vaccine mandates as a violation of individual rights. Online, conspiracy theories, misinformation and personal attacks bloomed. Threats against Ardern have increased greatly over the past few years, especially from anti-vaccination groups.The tension escalated in February. Inspired in part by protests in the United States and Canada, a crowd of protesters camped on the Parliament grounds in Wellington for more than three weeks, pitching tents and using parked cars to block traffic.The police eventually forced out the demonstrators, clashing violently with many of them, leading to more than 120 arrests.The scenes shocked a nation unaccustomed to such violence. Some blamed demonstrators, others the police and the government.“It certainly was a dark day in New Zealand history,” Thornley said.Dylan Reeve, a New Zealand author and journalist who wrote a book on the spread of misinformation in the country, said the prime minister’s international profile probably played a role in the conspiracist narratives about her.“The fact that she suddenly had such a large international profile and was widely hailed for her reaction really seemed to provide a boost for local conspiracy theorists,” he said. “They found support for the anti-Ardern ideas from like-minded individuals globally at a level that was probably out of scale with New Zealand’s typical prominence internationally.”The attacks did not cease even as the worst of the pandemic receded. This month, Roger Stone, the former Trump adviser, condemned Ardern for her COVID approach, which he described as “the jackboot of authoritarianism.”In her speech Thursday, Ardern did not mention any particular group of critics, nor did she name a replacement, but she did acknowledge that she could not help but be affected by the strain of her job and the difficult era when she governed.“I know there will be much discussion in the aftermath of this decision as to what the so-called real reason was,” she said, adding: “The only interesting angle you will find is that after going on six years of some big challenges, that I am human. Politicians are human. We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time. And for me, it’s time.”Suze Wilson, a leadership scholar at Massey University in New Zealand, said Ardern should be taken at her word. She said that the abuse could not and should not be separated from her gender.“She’s talking about not really having anything left in the tank, and I think part of what’s probably contributed to that is just the disgusting level of sexist and misogynistic abuse to what she has been subjected,” Wilson said.In the pubs and parks of Christchurch on Thursday, New Zealanders seemed divided. In a city where Ardern was widely praised for her unifying response to the mass murder of 51 people at two mosques by a white supremacist, there were complaints about unfulfilled promises around nuts-and-bolts issues such as the cost of housing.Tony McPherson, 72, who lives near one of the mosques that was attacked nearly four years ago, described the departing prime minister as someone who had “a very good talk, but not enough walk.”He said she fell short on “housing, health care” and had “made an absolute hash on immigration,” arguing that many businesses had large staff shortages because of a delayed reopening of borders after the lockdowns.Economic issues are front and center for many voters. Polls show that Ardern’s Labour Party has been trailing the center-right National Party, led by Christopher Luxon, a former aviation executive.On the deck of Wilson’s Sports Bar, a Christchurch pub, Shelley Smith, 52, a motel manager, said she was “surprised” at the news of Ardern’s resignation. She praised her for suppressing the community spread of the coronavirus in 2020, despite the effects on the New Zealand economy. Asked how she would remember Ardern, she replied: “As a person’s person.”That appeal may have faded, but many New Zealanders do not expect Ardern to disappear for long. Helen Clark, a former prime minister who was a mentor to Ardern, followed up her time in office by focusing on international issues with many global organizations.“I don’t know she’ll be lost to the world,” Shaw said of Ardern. “She may get a bigger platform.”

How Covid’s bitter divisions tarnished a liberal icon- Jacinda Ardern
Climate misinformation ‘rocket boosters’ on Musk’s Twitter
The Indian Express | 1 week ago | 20-01-2023 | 02:50 pm
The Indian Express
1 week ago | 20-01-2023 | 02:50 pm

Search for the word “climate” on Twitter and the first automatic recommendation isn’t “climate crisis” or “climate jobs” or even “climate change” but instead “climate scam.” Clicking on the recommendation yields dozens of posts denying the reality of climate change and making misleading claims about efforts to mitigate it.Such misinformation has flourished on Twitter since it was bought by Elon Musk last year, but the site isn’t the only one promoting content that scientists and environmental advocates say undercuts public support for policies intended to respond to a changing climate.“What’s happening in the information ecosystem poses a direct threat to action,” said Jennie King, head of climate research and response at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based nonprofit.“It plants those seeds of doubt and makes people think maybe there isn’t scientific consensus.” The institute is part of a coalition of environmental advocacy groups that on Thursday released a report tracking climate change disinformation in the months before, during and after the U.N. climate summit in November. The report faulted social media platforms for, among other things, failing to enforce their own policies prohibiting climate change misinformation.It is only the latest to highlight the growing problem of climate misinformation on Twitter. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, allowed nearly 4,000 advertisements on its site — most bought by fossil fuel companies — that dismissed the scientific consensus behind climate change and criticized efforts to respond to it, the researchers found.In some cases, the ads and the posts cited inflation and economic fears as reasons to oppose climate policies, while ignoring the costs of inaction. Researchers also found that a significant number of the accounts posting false claims about climate change also spread misinformation about U.S. elections, COVID-19 and vaccines.Twitter did not respond to questions from The Associated Press. A spokesperson for Meta cited the company’s policy prohibiting ads that have been proven false by its fact-checking partners, a group that includes the AP. The ads identified in the report had not been fact-checked.Under Musk, Twitter laid off thousands of employees and made changes to its content moderation that its critics said undercut the effort. In November, the company announced it would no longer enforce its policy against COVID-19 misinformation. Musk also reinstated many formerly banned users, including several who had spread misleading claims about climate change. Instances of hate speech and attacks on LGBTQ people soared.Tweets containing “climate scam” or other terms linked to climate change denial rose 300% in 2022, according to a report released last week by the nonprofit Advance Democracy. While Twitter had labeled some of the content as misinformation, many of the popular posts were not labeled. Musk’s new verification system could be part of the problem, according to a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, another organization that tracks online misinformation.Previously, the blue checkmarks were held by people in the public eye such as journalists, government officials or celebrities. Now, anyone willing to pay $8 a month can seek a checkmark. Posts and replies from verified accounts are given an automatic boost on the platform, making them more visible than content from users who don’t pay.When researchers at the Center for Countering Digital Hate analyzed accounts verified after Musk took over, they found they spread four times the amount of climate change misinformation compared with users verified before Musk’s purchase.Verification systems are typically created to assure users that the accounts they follow are legitimate. Twitter’s new system, however, makes no distinction between authoritative sources on climate change and anyone with $8 and an opinion, according to Imran Ahmed, the center’s chief executive.“We found,” Ahmed said, “it has in fact put rocket boosters on the spread of lies and disinformation.”

Climate misinformation ‘rocket boosters’ on Musk’s Twitter