Huge crowds gather at rallies, raising coronavirus fears

People look on as RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav leaves in a helicopter during an election campaign rally at Masaurhi on October 21, 2020 in Patna
Large crowds have been seen in political rallies in BIhar

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday asked people not to be complacent during the festive season, urging them to continue wearing masks and follow social distancing.

But the message doesn’t seem to have reached the northern state of Bihar where large crowds have massed at political rallies ahead of state elections, scheduled to begin on 28 October.

All parties, including Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have ramped up campaigning ahead of the elections.

Footage from some of the rallies shows people jostling to get a glimpse of politicians, and hardly anybody appears to be wearing masks.

Virologists and doctors called the large gatherings “callous” and said that such complacency could have devastating consequences, enabling the virus to spread much faster.

India has recorded more than seven million cases so far, but its daily case count has been steadily dropping in recent weeks even as testing has remained consistent. Although some have said this suggests that the worst of the pandemic is over, others have cautioned against celebrating too soon.

The Election Commission has also warned politicians against flouting Covid-19 safety rules. But it seems to have had little impact as crowds continue to gather at rallies.

Virologist Dr Shahid Jameel says political parties need to be more responsible and they need to educate their cadre.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addresses an election campaign rally ahead of Bihar Assembly election on October 22, 2020 in Hasanpur, India.
Social distancing has not been enforced in Bihar’s election rallies

“We see thousands of people in these rallies and hardly anyone with a mask. It is the responsibility of every political party to ask its followers to follow safety rules.

“That is the only way we know to prevent infection [from spreading],” he told the BBC.

The first phase of polling will be held on 28 October, and the other two phases will follow on 3 and 7 November. Results will be announced on 10 November.

The BJP-led coalition is seeking to be voted back into power – it’s facing opposition from an alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress party, and also from other regional parties.

The stakes are high for all political parties. Their initial campaigns were virtual but now they have moved offline.

Mr Modi is addressing three rallies on Friday and Congress party’s Rahul Gandhi is also holding campaign events.

A senior journalist in the state told the BBC that nobody “was really talking about coronavirus as a campaign issue”.

“It seems like the virus has disappeared from the state. People have become complacent and politicians are not doing enough to warn people,” he said.

The state government

Read more

Experts Tell F.D.A. It Should Gather More Safety Data on Covid-19 Vaccines

Vaccine experts peppered officials at the Food and Drug Administration with a range of questions on Thursday about its guidelines for approving a coronavirus vaccine, pushing the agency on whether it should wait longer to collect more safety data and whether an emergency approval could jeopardize the outcome of the broader clinical trials.

The stakes, the experts said, could not be higher. Even as a vaccine is seen as crucial to ending the pandemic, opinion polls have shown that Americans are increasingly skeptical about the products and worry that the vetting process is being rushed.

“In this particular case, public trust equals success,” said Sheldon Toubman, the consumer representative on the advisory group. “Lack of trust means no success.”

The meeting, which lasted all day and was broadcast on YouTube, also included a presentation by a nonprofit group that interviewed people about their views about a coronavirus vaccine. Several people of color expressed concern about whether the vaccine had been studied in people who are Black, Latino or Native American.

Others said their skepticism had historical roots dating to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which government scientists lied to Black men and allowed them to go untreated for syphilis. “I firmly believe that this is another Tuskegee experiment,” one participant said.

The expert panel was not asked to evaluate a specific vaccine — none of the companies developing one so far have results from large clinical trials — but rather to weigh in on how the F.D.A. should vet the candidates. The agency has said that it will ask the panel for its opinion before approving any coronavirus vaccine for emergency use. The agency typically, but not always, follows the advice of its outside experts.

Four companies are conducting late-stage clinical trials in the United States, and some have estimated they will have preliminary data that may allow them to apply for emergency authorization in certain high-risk groups by the end of November. One of the companies, Moderna, said on Thursday that it had fully enrolled its trial of 30,000 participants, the first company to do so.

Several of the experts said that they believed the agency should ask the companies to wait for more safety data. They said the agency’s current guidelines, which require two months of safety data after a volunteer has received the last dose of a vaccine, were not good enough. Collecting longer-term data would allow them to evaluate potential risks, such as whether immunity to the virus wanes after a few months, or whether rare side effects emerge.

The experts were also asked to give their opinions about what should happen to the clinical trials if the F.D.A. were to approve a vaccine for emergency use based on promising early data. Pfizer has said that if a vaccine is approved for emergency use, the company will be ethically obligated to offer the vaccine to people in the trial who received a placebo instead of the actual vaccine. But this would “unblind” the trial by revealing

Read more