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As coronavirus curtails travel, backyard pilgrimages become the way to a spiritual journey

As coronavirus curtails travel, backyard pilgrimages become the way to a spiritual journey

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COVID-19 is changing how people go on pilgrimages. conceptual,fashion,advertising/Moment via Getty Images

Many major religious pilgrimages have been canceled or curtailed in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. These have included the Hajj, a religious milestone for Muslims the world over; the Hindu pilgrimage, known as the Amarnath Yatra high in the mountains of Kashmir; and pilgrimages to Lourdes in France.

Pilgrims have faced travel delays and cancellations for centuries. Reasons ranged from financial hardship and agricultural responsibilities to what is now all too familiar to modern-day pilgrims – plague or ill health.

Then, as now, one strategy has been to bring the pilgrimage home or into the religious community.

Journey of a thousand miles

Pilgrimage can be an interior or outward journey and while individual motivations may vary, it can be an act of religious devotion or a way to seek closeness with the divine.

Through the centuries and across cultures, those who longed to go on a sacred journey would find alternative ways to do so.

A map of Jerusalem. Tracing a map could be a way to a pilgrimage. Maps of Jerusalem

Reading travel narratives, tracing a map with the finger or eye, or holding a souvenir brought back from a sacred site helped facilitate a real sense of travel for the homebound pilgrim. Through these visual or material aids, people felt as though they, too, were having a pilgrimage experience, and even connecting with others.

One such example is the story of the Dominican friar Felix Fabri, who was known for recording his own pilgrimages in various formats, some geared toward the laity and some for his brothers.

Fabri was approached in the 1490s by a group of cloistered nuns, meaning that they had professed vows to lead a contemplative life in the quietude of their community. They desired a devotional exercise so they could receive the spiritual benefits of pilgrimage without having to break their promise of a life that was sheltered from the outside world.

He produced “Die Sionpilger,” a virtual pilgrimage in the form of a day-to-day guidebook to Santiago de Compostela, Jerusalem and Rome. In these cities, pilgrims would encounter sites and scenes associated with many facets of their religion: shrines to honor Jesus and the saints, relics, great cathedrals and sacred landscapes associated with miraculous events and stories.

Fabri’s guidebook sent the pilgrim on an imaginative journey of a thousand miles, without having to take a single step.

DIY pilgrimages

My current book project shows that from Lourdes to South Africa, from Jerusalem to England, from Ecuador to California, DIY pilgrimages are not just a medieval phenomenon. One such example is Phil Volker’s backyard Camino.

Phil’s Camino. Kathryn Barush, CC BY

Volker is a 72-year-old father and now grandfather, woodworker and veteran who mapped the Camino de Santiago onto his backyard in Vashon Island in the Pacific Northwest. Volker prays the rosary as he walks: for those who have been impacted by the pandemic, his family, his neighbors, the world.

After a cancer diagnosis in 2013, a few things came together to inspire Volker to build a backyard Camino, including the film “The Way,” a pocket-sized book of meditations, “Everyday Camino With Annie” by Annie O'Neil and the story of Eratosthenes, the Greek polymath from the second century B.C. who figured out a way to measure the circumference of the Earth using the Sun, a stick and a well.

“For me, this guy was the grand godfather of do-it-yourselfers. How can someone pull off this kind of a caper with things at hand in his own backyard? It got me thinking, what else can come out of one’s backyard?,” he told me.

Volker began walking a circuitous route around his 10-acre property on Vashon Island in the Pacific Northwest. It was a chance to exercise, which his doctors had encouraged, but also created a space to think and pray.

Each lap around the property is just over a half-mile. Realizing that he was covering quite a distance, he found a map of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route to track his progress, calculating that 909 laps would get him from St. Jean Pied-de-Port to the Cathedral of St. James.

To date, Volker has completed three 500-mile Caminos without leaving his backyard.

Thanks to a documentary film, Volker’s daily blog and an article in the magazine “Northwest Catholic,” the backyard Camino has attracted many visitors, some simply curious but many who are seeking healing and solace.

Pilgrimage and remembrance

The story of Volker’s backyard Camino inspired Sara Postlethwaite, a sister of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity, to map St. Kevin’s Way, a 19-mile pilgrimage route in County Wicklow, Ireland onto a series of daily 1.5-mile circuits in Daly City, California.

The route rambles along roads and countryside from Hollywood to the ruins of the monastery that St. Kevin, a sixth-century abbot, had founded in Glendalough. Postlethwaite had intended to travel back to her native Ireland in the spring of 2020 to walk the route in person, but due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, she brought the pilgrimage to her home in Daly City.

Every so often, Postlethwaite would check in on Google Maps to see where she was along the Irish route, pivoting the camera to see surrounding trees or, at one point, finding herself in the center of an old stone circle.

Several joined Postlethwaite’s walk in solidarity, both in the U.S. and overseas.

After each day’s walk, she paused at the shed at her community house, where she had drawn a to-scale version of the Market Cross at Glendalough.

As Postlethwaite traced the intersecting knots, circles and image of the crucified Christ with her chalk, she reflected not just on the suffering caused by the pandemic but also about issues of racism, justice and privilege. In particular, she remembered Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger shot by two white men in a fatal confrontation in February 2020. She inscribed his name on the chalk cross.

Maggie Preston’s chalk labyrinth. Maggie Preston, CC BY

For Berkeley-based artist Maggie Preston, a DIY chalk labyrinth on the street outside her house became a way to connect with her neighbors and her three-year-old son. There is a link here with the medieval strategies for bringing longer pilgrimages into the church or community. Scholars have suggested that labyrinths may have been based on maps of Jerusalem, providing a scaled-down version of a much longer pilgrimage route.

They started out by chalking in the places they could no longer go – the aquarium, the zoo, a train journey – and then created a simple labyrinth formed by a continuous path in seven half-circles.

“A labyrinth gave us a greater destination, not just somewhere to imagine going, but a circuitous path to literally travel with our feet,” she told me.

As neighbors discovered the labyrinth, it began to create a genuine sense of community akin to that which many seek to find when they embark on a much longer pilgrimage.

‘Relearn to pretend’

Volker’s cancer has progressed to stage IV and he celebrated his 100th chemo treatment back in 2017, but he is still walking and praying on a regular basis. He offers the following advice:

An aerial view of Volker’s backyard and map by Volker, from the film ‘Phil’s Camino,’ directed by Annie O'Neil. Annie O'Neil's documentary, CC BY

“For folks starting their own backyard Camino I think that creating the myth is the most important consideration. Study maps, learn to pronounce the names of the towns, walk in the dust and the mud, be out there in the rain, drink their wine and eat their food, relearn to pretend.”

Kathryn Barush is affiliated with British Pilgrimage Trust.

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Four burning questions about the future of the $16.5B Novo-Catalent deal

To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.
Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand…

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To build or to buy? That’s a classic question for pharma boardrooms, and Novo Nordisk is going with both.

Beyond spending billions of dollars to expand its own production capacity for its weight loss drugs, the Danish drugmaker said Monday it will pay $11 billion to acquire three manufacturing plants from Catalent. It’s part of a broader $16.5 billion deal with Novo Holdings, the investment arm of the pharma’s parent group, which agreed to acquire the contract manufacturer and take it private.

It’s a big deal for all parties, with potential ripple effects across the biotech ecosystem. Here’s a look at some of the most pressing questions to watch after Monday’s announcement.

Why did Novo do this?

Novo Holdings isn’t the most obvious buyer for Catalent, particularly after last year’s on-and-off M&A interest from the serial acquirer Danaher. But the deal could benefit both Novo Holdings and Novo Nordisk.

Novo Nordisk’s biggest challenge has been simply making enough of the weight loss drug Wegovy and diabetes therapy Ozempic. On last week’s earnings call, Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen said the company isn’t constrained by capital in its efforts to boost manufacturing. Rather, the main challenge is the limited amount of capabilities out there, he said.

“Most pharmaceutical companies in the world would be shopping among the same manufacturers,” he said. “There’s not an unlimited amount of machinery and people to build it.”

While Novo was already one of Catalent’s major customers, the manufacturer has been hamstrung by its own balance sheet. With roughly $5 billion in debt on its books, it’s had to juggle paying down debt with sufficiently investing in its facilities. That’s been particularly challenging in keeping pace with soaring demand for GLP-1 drugs.

Novo, on the other hand, has the balance sheet to funnel as much money as needed into the plants in Italy, Belgium, and Indiana. It’s also struggled to make enough of its popular GLP-1 drugs to meet their soaring demand, with documented shortages of both Ozempic and Wegovy.

The impact won’t be immediate. The parties expect the deal to close near the end of 2024. Novo Nordisk said it expects the three new sites to “gradually increase Novo Nordisk’s filling capacity from 2026 and onwards.”

As for the rest of Catalent — nearly 50 other sites employing thousands of workers — Novo Holdings will take control. The group previously acquired Altasciences in 2021 and Ritedose in 2022, so the Catalent deal builds on a core investing interest in biopharma services, Novo Holdings CEO Kasim Kutay told Endpoints News.

Kasim Kutay

When asked about possible site closures or layoffs, Kutay said the team hasn’t thought about that.

“That’s not our track record. Our track record is to invest in quality businesses and help them grow,” he said. “There’s always stuff to do with any asset you own, but we haven’t bought this company to do some of the stuff you’re talking about.”

What does it mean for Catalent’s customers? 

Until the deal closes, Catalent will operate as a standalone business. After it closes, Novo Nordisk said it will honor its customer obligations at the three sites, a spokesperson said. But they didn’t answer a question about what happens when those contracts expire.

The wrinkle is the long-term future of the three plants that Novo Nordisk is paying for. Those sites don’t exclusively pump out Wegovy, but that could be the logical long-term aim for the Danish drugmaker.

The ideal scenario is that pricing and timelines remain the same for customers, said Nicole Paulk, CEO of the gene therapy startup Siren Biotechnology.

Nicole Paulk

“The name of the group that you’re going to send your check to is now going to be Novo Holdings instead of Catalent, but otherwise everything remains the same,” Paulk told Endpoints. “That’s the best-case scenario.”

In a worst case, Paulk said she feared the new owners could wind up closing sites or laying off Catalent groups. That could create some uncertainty for customers looking for a long-term manufacturing partner.

Are shareholders and regulators happy? 

The pandemic was a wild ride for Catalent’s stock, with shares surging from about $40 to $140 and then crashing back to earth. The $63.50 share price for the takeover is a happy ending depending on the investor.

On that point, the investing giant Elliott Investment Management is satisfied. Marc Steinberg, a partner at Elliott, called the agreement “an outstanding outcome” that “clearly maximizes value for Catalent stockholders” in a statement.

Elliott helped kick off a strategic review last August that culminated in the sale agreement. Compared to Catalent’s stock price before that review started, the deal pays a nearly 40% premium.

Alessandro Maselli

But this is hardly a victory lap for CEO Alessandro Maselli, who took over in July 2022 when Catalent’s stock price was north of $100. Novo’s takeover is a tacit acknowledgment that Maselli could never fully right the ship, as operational problems plagued the company throughout 2023 while it was limited by its debt.

Additional regulatory filings in the next few weeks could give insight into just how competitive the sale process was. William Blair analysts said they don’t expect a competing bidder “given the organic investments already being pursued at other leading CDMOs and the breadth and scale of Catalent’s operations.”

The Blair analysts also noted the companies likely “expect to spend some time educating relevant government agencies” about the deal, given the lengthy closing timeline. Given Novo Nordisk’s ascent — it’s now one of Europe’s most valuable companies — paired with the limited number of large contract manufacturers, antitrust regulators could be interested in taking a close look.

Are Catalent’s problems finally a thing of the past?

Catalent ran into a mix of financial and operational problems over the past year that played no small part in attracting the interest of an activist like Elliott.

Now with a deal in place, how quickly can Novo rectify those problems? Some of the challenges were driven by the demands of being a publicly traded company, like failing to meet investors’ revenue expectations or even filing earnings reports on time.

But Catalent also struggled with its business at times, with a range of manufacturing delays, inspection reports and occasionally writing down acquisitions that didn’t pan out. Novo’s deep pockets will go a long way to a turnaround, but only the future will tell if all these issues are fixed.

Kutay said his team is excited by the opportunity and was satisfied with the due diligence it did on the company.

“We believe we’re buying a strong company with a good management team and good prospects,” Kutay said. “If that wasn’t the case, I don’t think we’d be here.”

Amber Tong and Reynald Castañeda contributed reporting.

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Petrina Kamya, Ph.D., Head of AI Platforms at Insilico Medicine, presents at BIO CEO & Investor Conference

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb….

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Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

Credit: Insilico Medicine

Petrina Kamya, PhD, Head of AI Platforms and President of Insilico Medicine Canada, will present at the BIO CEO & Investor Conference happening Feb. 26-27 at the New York Marriott Marquis in New York City. Dr. Kamya will speak as part of the panel “AI within Biopharma: Separating Value from Hype,” on Feb. 27, 1pm ET along with Michael Nally, CEO of Generate: Biomedicines and Liz Schwarzbach, PhD, CBO of BigHat Biosciences.

The session will look at how the latest artificial intelligence (AI) tools – including generative AI and large language models – are currently being used to advance the discovery and design of new drugs, and which technologies are still in development. 

The BIO CEO & Investor Conference brings together over 1,000 attendees and more than 700 companies across industry and institutional investment to discuss the future investment landscape of biotechnology. Sessions focus on topics such as therapeutic advancements, market outlook, and policy priorities.

Insilico Medicine is a leading, clinical stage AI-driven drug discovery company that has raised over $400m in investments since it was founded in 2014. Dr. Kamya leads the development of the Company’s end-to-end generative AI platform, Pharma.AI from Insilico’s AI R&D Center in Montreal. Using modern machine learning techniques in the context of chemistry and biology, the platform has driven the discovery and design of 30+ new therapies, with five in clinical stages – for cancer, fibrosis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and COVID-19. The Company’s lead drug, for the chronic, rare lung condition idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, is the first AI-designed drug for an AI-discovered target to reach Phase II clinical trials with patients. Nine of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies have used Insilico’s AI platform to advance their programs, and the Company has a number of major strategic licensing deals around its AI-designed therapeutic assets, including with Sanofi, Exelixis and Menarini. 

 

About Insilico Medicine

Insilico Medicine, a global clinical stage biotechnology company powered by generative AI, is connecting biology, chemistry, and clinical trials analysis using next-generation AI systems. The company has developed AI platforms that utilize deep generative models, reinforcement learning, transformers, and other modern machine learning techniques for novel target discovery and the generation of novel molecular structures with desired properties. Insilico Medicine is developing breakthrough solutions to discover and develop innovative drugs for cancer, fibrosis, immunity, central nervous system diseases, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases, and aging-related diseases. www.insilico.com 


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Another country is getting ready to launch a visa for digital nomads

Early reports are saying Japan will soon have a digital nomad visa for high-earning foreigners.

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Over the last decade, the explosion of remote work that came as a result of improved technology and the pandemic has allowed an increasing number of people to become digital nomads. 

When looked at more broadly as anyone not required to come into a fixed office but instead moves between different locations such as the home and the coffee shop, the latest estimate shows that there were more than 35 million such workers in the world by the end of 2023 while over half of those come from the United States.

Related: There is a new list of cities that are best for digital nomads

While remote work has also allowed many to move to cheaper places and travel around the world while still bringing in income, working outside of one's home country requires either dual citizenship or work authorization — the global shift toward remote work has pushed many countries to launch specific digital nomad visas to boost their economies and bring in new residents.

Japan is a very popular destination for U.S. tourists. 

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This popular vacation destination will soon have a nomad visa

Spain, Portugal, Indonesia, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Brazil, Latvia and Malta are some of the countries currently offering specific visas for foreigners who want to live there while bringing in income from abroad.

More Travel:

With the exception of a few, Asian countries generally have stricter immigration laws and were much slower to launch these types of visas that some of the countries with weaker economies had as far back as 2015. As first reported by the Japan Times, the country's Immigration Services Agency ended up making the leap toward a visa for those who can earn more than ¥10 million ($68,300 USD) with income from another country.

The Japanese government has not yet worked out the specifics of how long the visa will be valid for or how much it will cost — public comment on the proposal is being accepted throughout next week. 

That said, early reports say the visa will be shorter than the typical digital nomad option that allows foreigners to live in a country for several years. The visa will reportedly be valid for six months or slightly longer but still no more than a year — along with the ability to work, this allows some to stay beyond the 90-day tourist period typically afforded to those from countries with visa-free agreements.

'Not be given a residence card of residence certificate'

While one will be able to reapply for the visa after the time runs out, this can only be done by exiting the country and being away for six months before coming back again — becoming a permanent resident on the pathway to citizenship is an entirely different process with much more strict requirements.

"Those living in Japan with the digital nomad visa will not be given a residence card or a residence certificate, which provide access to certain government benefits," reports the news outlet. "The visa cannot be renewed and must be reapplied for, with this only possible six months after leaving the countr

The visa will reportedly start in March and also allow holders to bring their spouses and families with them. To start using the visa, holders will also need to purchase private health insurance from their home country while taxes on any money one earns will also need to be paid through one's home country.

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