The World Today for January 22, 2024

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A Spoonful of Salt

THE GAMBIA

Gambian Ebrima Sagnia, 44, in an emotional interview with Al Jazeera, recalled how in 2022, he gave the cough syrup to his four-year-old son to combat his high temperature. The boy became drowsy and couldn’t urinate for days. He suffered kidney failure, swollen limbs, nausea, confusion and other painful symptoms for around a week before dying.

He was just one of 70 victims in the West African country, most of the others also being younger than five, who died after taking Indian-made cough medicine. Some families lost more than one child. Many drank syrup from bottles emblazoned with false World Health Organization (WHO) certifications.

The development highlighted the lax oversight in the medical trade between India and developing countries that rely on foreign, especially Indian, drug suppliers.

Even so, the parents of these young victims have been fighting back, launching lawsuits to hold the company accountable for its alleged mistakes and threatening one of India’s key industries.

Already, Indian officials are due to announce whether they intend to take action after investigating allegations that Indian regulators took bribes in exchange for approving toxic cough syrup that killed all those children in the country.

India-based Maiden Pharmaceuticals was likely involved in the production of the medicine, reported Reuters, citing the WHO. Indian government scientists said they didn’t find toxins in the medicine, however. The company has denied wrongdoing.

“There is no evidence and no proof against us,” said Maiden founder Naresh Kumar Goyal, according to Indian news outlet NDTV, a claim echoed by Indian lawmakers. “I have not given a bribe.”

Even so, India has since made drug testing mandatory for cough syrups before they are exported.

That’s surprising, say experts, given how important the industry is for the Indian economy: India is the world’s largest producer of generic drugs and exported medicines worth $25.4 billion in 2023.

Public health advocate Dinesh Thakur and attorney Prashant Reddy T, authors of “The Truth Pill: The Myth of Drug Regulation in India,” told National Public Radio that India produced 20 percent of the world’s drugs, including 60 percent of vaccines used globally. Rising demand for cheaper generic medicines, or knock-offs of well-known branded drugs, is growing the industry further, especially as many countries can’t pay Western prices for medicine.

Still, the cough syrup scandal in the Gambia is not the first to rock the Indian pharmaceutical industry. In December 2022, for example, Indian pharmaceutical company Marion Biotech allegedly sold cough syrup in Uzbekistan that killed 18 children suffering with acute respiratory diseases, reported Frontline, a news magazine affiliated with the Hindu newspaper.

Also that month, Nepal blacklisted 16 Indian pharmaceutical companies because authorities said that they failed to comply with the WHO’s quality manufacturing standards. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration said in April 2023 that an Indian firm linked to US eye drop deaths broke safety norms.

Still, prosecuting Indian drugmakers in India is difficult, Thakur and Reddy T noted. Politicians friendly to these companies, which are vital to the country’s economy, have written loopholes into liability laws and reduced punishments when they might apply.

Maiden’s facilities have been cited for health violations and shut down over the years, for example, yet the company was allowed to resume operating, wrote researchers in the International Journal of Surgery.

Meanwhile, countries such as Gambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, import most of their medicines from India. It also lacks the legal resources and know-how to fight big multinationals through the courts. Case in point – the parents of the victims hired a US law firm to file suit against the Indian company.

Still, even though the outcome of such a case is likely far in the future, Gambia has already made strides to avert such an occurrence again. Ordinary Gambians feel more empowered to fight for justice, something once unthinkable in the country where more than half of the country lives in poverty. Legislators have taken action to help citizens. And the government is now planning to build a testing facility for imported drugs with support from the World Bank, said Reuters.

The latter is critical: Parents don’t trust Indian-made medicine anymore but have little choice when they or their children are ill and need care. “When I read that a medicine is from India, I barely touch it,” Lamin Danso, whose nine-month-old son died from the cough medicine, told the BBC, which noted that “the reliance on Indian drugs is unlikely to change anytime soon.”

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

No Going Back

GERMANY

Hundreds of thousands of people marched in cities across Germany over the weekend to protest against the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, after members of the far-right group met with an ethno-nationalist figure to discuss the mass deportations of people of foreign origin including German citizens, the Financial Times reported.

Demonstrations took place in major cities, including Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt, with many protesters calling for the banning of the AfD. In some cities, demonstrators carried signs comparing the current political debate in Germany to the years before the Nazi Party came to power in 1933.

The uproar began last week when reports emerged that AfD politicians had attended a meeting with the Austrian far-right radical Martin Sellner in November. During the meeting, Sellner proposed a plan for “remigration” of foreigners and German citizens of foreign origin, according to the New York Times.

The AfD, a Eurosceptic and anti-migration party, has accused left-wing organizations and the media of a smear campaign. It has sought to distance itself from the scandal and has since dismissed some of its members who attended the meeting.

Even so, the party has gained popularity in recent months with national polls putting it ahead of all three parties that make up Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition.

The AfD has sought to portray itself as a party for people disappointed with Germany’s current political establishment. Analysts note that its rising popularity is connected with a period of economic difficulties in the country, fueled by the loss of cheap Russian gas and falling demand for German cars and chemicals.

Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has labeled three regional branches of the AfD party as extremist, cautioning about infiltration by far-right individuals with intentions to undermine democratic institutions.

The weekend demonstrations came a day after Germany’s parliament passed a naturalization law that would fast-track foreigners’ paths to citizenship and permit dual nationality, Reuters added.

Scholz’s coalition deems the law essential to recognize society’s enduring ethnic diversity and attract migrant workers. Interior Minister Nancy Faeser emphasized the law’s necessity for the country to remain globally competitive for skilled labor against countries like Canada and the United States.

However, the AfD and the other opposition conservatives opposed the law, warning against “devaluing” the German passport and importing division.

The Masquerade

COMOROS

At least one person died and six others were injured over the past few days in Comoros in unrest that began after electoral authorities declared incumbent President Azali Assoumani as the winner of the Jan. 14 presidential elections, the BBC reported.

Earlier last week, Comoros’ electoral commission said Assoumani won 63 percent of the vote, securing a fourth term in office. But soon after the announcement, opposition parties denounced the results as fraudulent and called for the cancelation.

They alleged the election was marred by ballot rigging and a low turnout in a number of localities after voting got off to a delayed start, Le Monde noted.

The controversy sparked two days of riots in the country’s capital, Moroni, that saw young people clashing with police. Officials said buildings were vandalized, looted and burned, including the home of a minister.

Authorities also shut down Internet services to prevent demonstrators from communicating with each other and sharing compromising images.

Opposition parties said they did not organize the demonstrations but they were “in solidarity” with the protesting youths. On Friday, they urged people across the African archipelago to demonstrate against Assoumani’s “electoral masquerade”, but the protest call went unheeded, Agence France-Presse wrote.

Meanwhile, opposition candidate Daoudou Abdallah Mohamed filed a suit over the weekend seeking the annulment of the polls. He accused the election commission of publishing “fabricated results.”

Assoumani is a 65-year-old former military ruler turned civilian president, who critics accuse of jailing opponents to extend his grip on power.

His victory is expected to be confirmed by the Comoros’ supreme court shortly.

A Spot of Dirt

SINGAPORE

Singapore’s transport minister resigned last week after being charged with corruption, an occurrence so unusual in the city-state that it hasn’t happened in decades, but now may damage its image of clean governance, the Financial Times reported.

Iswaran is the first minister in Singapore to be charged while in office. The country’s anti-corruption agency claimed he received bribes from a Malaysian real estate magnate, Ong Beng Seng.

While denying the allegations, Iswaran said last Tuesday he was stepping down because “it was the right thing to do,” citing the impact of the case on his family and name.

The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau looked at gifts the minister received from 2015 to 2022. They include tickets to soccer matches and musicals, as well as a hotel stay and business class flight to and from Doha. Iswaran was also invited to the Formula One Grand Prix in Singapore, for which he and Ong had worked together to make the island a fixture.

The kickbacks, the Bureau said, were to guarantee Ong the upper hand in contracts between his company Singapore GP Pte and the Singapore Tourism Board, and amounted to $285,770.

The scandals sent shockwaves throughout the city-state. The country entertains a culture of transparency and is currently ranked fifth in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, CNN explained. Singaporean ministers are among the best-paid in the world, with a yearly salary of around $834,000 aimed at preventing corruption.

The last time a minister was accused of graft was in 1986. Teh Cheang Wan, infamous for his chewing gum ban, faced allegations of accepting bribes, but died before charges could be pressed.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) has made clean governance a key tenet of its rule, uninterrupted since the island’s independence from Malaysia in 1965. For Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to question the PAP’s reputation is to question Singapore’s reputation.

Iswaran resignation comes as the PAP already faces a series of scandals and an election next year described as the most significant in a generation. Lee Hsien Loong, son of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, will hand over to deputy Lawrence Wong before the 2025 election, ending the Lee dynasty’s four-decade rule.

DISCOVERIES

The Genetics of Beer

As a beer, Guinness stands out for its flavor and color, but a new study is showing that it’s also genetically distinct: Scientists have discovered that the yeast strains used to produce the world’s most famous stout are different from those used to make other Irish beers, New Scientist reported.

Brewer’s yeast – scientifically known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae – is an important element in beer-making: The microorganisms help convert sugars from malt into alcohol and carbon dioxide during the fermentation process.

Different yeast strains can produce different types of brews, such as stouts or lagers, as well as influence flavor.

Researcher Daniel Kerruish and his team looked into Guinness’ historical records, including the types of yeasts used to brew the stout over the years since 1903.

They took the genomes of 13 strains of S. cerevisiae that are currently used and have been used in the past to brew Guinness and compared them with 160 other strains.

The findings showed that while the yeasts used by Guinness and other Irish brewers belonged to the same lineage, the stout’s strain belonged to a previously unidentified subpopulation.

These unique strains produced a peculiar balance of flavor compounds, such as 4-vinyl guaiacol and diacetyl – which respectively give a clove-like aroma and a buttery taste.

And two of these strains currently used by the Irish brewer are descendants of one used more than a century ago.

“The more we learn about the Guinness yeast the more we realize how unique and special it is,” said Kerruish. “Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised since Guinness is an amazing beer.”

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