1. U.S. clears sale of six P-8I patrol aircraft to India
Original proposal was to procure 10 of them, but it was cut down to six due to budgetary constraints
The U.S. State Department on Friday approved the proposed sale of six P-8I patrol aircraft and related equipment, a deal estimated to cost $2.42 billion.
In November 2019, the Defence Acquisition Council, chaired by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, approved the procurement of the long-range maritime surveillance aircraft manufactured by Boeing.
The original proposal was for 10 more aircraft but was cut down to six due to budgetary constraints as well as because the Navy had adopted some fleet rationalisation measures and was considering long-endurance unmanned platforms.
The possible sale comes through the Foreign Military Sale route and requires that the U.S. Congress be notified, a process that was completed on Friday. Lawmakers have a statutory 30 days to raise any objections.
“The Government of India has requested to buy six (6) P-8I Patrol aircraft; eight (8) Multifunctional Information Distribution System-Joint Tactical Radio Systems 5 (MIDS-JTRS 5) (6 installed, 2 spares); forty-two (42) AN/AAR-54 Missile Warning Sensors (36 installed, 6 spares); and fourteen (14) LN-251 with Embedded Global Positioning Systems (GPS)/Inertial Navigations Systems (EGIs) (12 installed, 2 spares). Also included are CFM56-7 commercial engines; Tactical Open Mission Software (ITOMS) variant for P-8I; Electro-Optical (EO) and Infrared (IR) MX-20HD; AN/AAQ-2(V)l Acoustic System; ARES-1000 commercial variant Electronic Support Measures; AN/APR-39D Radar Warning Receiver; AN/ALE-47 Counter Measures Dispensing System; support equipment and spares; publications; repair and return; transportation; aircraft ferry; training; U.S. Government and contractor engineering, software, technical, and logistics support services; and other related elements of logistical and program support,” the State Department said in a statement on Friday.
The Indian Navy is currently in the process of inducting the four P-8Is contracted under the offset clause in 2016.
The Navy had procured eight P-8Is in a $2.2-billion deal in 2009 with the optional clause for four more. The aircraft are part of the 312A Naval Air Squadron based at Arakkonam in Tamil Nadu.
With India having signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) foundational agreement with the U.S., the six aircraft will come fitted with encrypted systems, as reported by The Hindu earlier.
These systems were replaced with commercial off-the-shelf systems in the earlier deals.
The P-8I is based on the Boeing 737 commercial aircraft and India was its first international customer.
Defence Acquisition Council
The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) has approved the procurement of weapons and equipment worth ₹22,800 crore.
- The focus was on ‘Make in India’ initiative i.e. on indigenous design, development and manufacturing of weapons and equipment.
Weapons and Equipment Approved
- Thermal Imaging Night Sights for Assault Rifles: These would enable troops to undertake long range accurate engagements in dark and all weather conditions thereby enhancing the night fighting capabilities.
- Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF).
- These platforms would provide on-board command & control and ‘early warning’ which would assist the Indian Air Force (IAF) in achieving effective air space dominance in the least possible time.
- Induction of these aircraft will greatly enhance both the Air defence and offensive capabilities of the IAF.
- The shortage of such force multipliers was felt during the aerial engagement with the Pakistan Air Force, a day after the Balakot air strike in February, 2019.
- P8I long range patrol aircraft for the Indian Navy: These aircraft would greatly strengthen the Navy’s capabilities for maritime surveillance, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) and Anti-Surface Vessel (ASV) strike. These would be procured from the United States.
- Twin Engine Heavy Helicopters (TEHH) for the Indian Coast Guard: These aircraft would enable the Coast Guard to undertake missions to prevent maritime terrorism, infiltration of terrorists by sea routes as well as search & rescue operations.
|Defence Acquisition Council The Defence Acquisition Council is the highest decision-making body in the Defence Ministry for deciding on new policies and capital acquisitions for the three services (Army, Navy and Air Force) and the Indian Coast Guard.The Minister of Defence is the Chairman of the Council.It was formed, after the Group of Ministers recommendations on ‘Reforming the National Security System’, in 2001, post Kargil War (1999).|
2. First installment of SDRF released
Centre has taken up the annual exercise early in the wake of the second wave
The Centre has released the first installment of the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) to the States, in the wake of the second wave of COVID-19 that has claimed thousands of lives since April.
The Union Home Ministry, in a statement, said ₹8,873.6 crore had been released, an annual exercise usually done in June.
“As a special dispensation, the Department of Expenditure, Ministry of Finance, at the recommendation of the Ministry of Home Affairs, has released in advance of the normal schedule the first installment of the Central share of the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) for 2021-22 to all the States,” the statement said. “Normally, the first installment is released in June as per the recommendations of the Finance Commission. However, in relaxation of the normal procedure, not only has the release of the SDRF been advanced, the amount has also been released without waiting for the utilisation certificate of the amount provided to the States in the last financial year. Up to 50% of the amount released, i.e., ₹4,436.8 crore can be used by the States for COVID-19 containment measures,” it said.
The Ministry said the funds might be used for meeting the cost of oxygen generation and storage plants in hospitals, ventilators, air purifiers, strengthening ambulance services, COVID-19 hospitals, COVID care centres, consumables, thermal scanners, personal protective equipment, testing laboratories, testing kits and containment zones, among others.
Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh, one of the first COVID-19 hit States, were allocated ₹1,288 crore, ₹316.4 crore, ₹125.60 crore and ₹773.2 crore, respectively. Since Delhi is a Union Territory, the fund is released by the Ministry and included in the Union Budget. The allocation to each State depends on its population and utilisation of the fund in the previous year.
The SDRF is the primary fund available with the State governments as part of their response to notified disasters to meet expenditure on immediate relief to victims. The Centre contributes 75% of the allocation for general category States and Union Territories and 90% for special category States (northeastern, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and J&K).
National Disaster Response Fund
- National Calamity Contingency Fund (NCCF) was renamed as National Disaster Response Fund (NDRF) with the enactment of the Disaster Management Act in 2005.
- It is defined in Section 46 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 (DM Act).
- It is placed in the “Public Account” of Government of India under “reserve funds not bearing interest“.
- Public Accounts: It was constituted under Article 266 (2) of the Constitution. It accounts for flows for those transactions where the government is merely acting as a banker eg. provident funds, small savings etc. These funds do not belong to the government and have to be paid back at some time.
- Expenditures from it are not required to be approved by the Parliament.
- It is managed by the Central Government for meeting the expenses for emergency response, relief and rehabilitation due to any threatening disaster situation or disaster.
- It supplements the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) in case of a disaster of severe nature, provided adequate funds are not available in the SDRF.
- SDRF is the primary fund available with the State governments for responses to notified disasters to meet expenditure for providing immediate relief.
- The Centre contributes 75% of the SDRF allocation for general category States and Union Territories, and 90% for special category States/UTs (northeast States, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu & Kashmir).
- Financing: Financed through the levy of a cess on certain items, chargeable to excise and customs duty, and approved annually through the Finance Bill.
- Currently, a National Calamity Contingent Duty (NCCD) is levied to finance the NDRF and additional budgetary support is provided as and when necessary.
- NCCD is levied in the case of goods specified in the Seventh Schedule (goods manufactured or produced).
- Monitoring: Department of Agriculture and Cooperation under the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare monitors relief activities for calamities associated with drought, hailstorms, pest attacks and cold wave/frost while rest of the natural calamities are monitored by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
- Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) audits the accounts of NDRF.
State Disaster Response Funds
- SDRF has been constituted under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.
- It is the primary fund available with the State governments for responses to notified disasters to meet expenditure for providing immediate relief.
- The Centre contributes 75% of the SDRF allocation for general category States and Union Territories and 90% for special category States and Union Territories (northeastern States, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir).
- The annual Central contribution is released in two equal installments as per the recommendation of the Finance Commission.
- Disaster (s) covered under SDRF: Cyclone, drought, earthquake, fire, flood, tsunami, hailstorm, landslide, avalanche, cloudburst, pest attack, frost and cold waves.
- A State Government may use up to 10% of the funds available under the SDRF for providing immediate relief to the victims of natural disasters that they consider to be ‘disasters’ within the local context in the State and which are not included in the notified list of disasters of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
3. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan agree to a ceasefire after deadly clashes
Working groups to ensure truce is observed; toll reaches 34
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on Saturday claimed another breakthrough in their bid to end the worst clashes at their shared border in memory as several thousand Kyrgyz demonstrators rallied against what they called an invasion attempt by their Central Asian neighbour.
Clashes between communities over land and water along the long-contested border are regular occurrences, with border guards often getting involved. However, this week’s violence was by far the most serious during the Central Asian pair’s 30 years of independence.
Kyrgyzstan’s Health Ministry said that its death toll from the shooting that began between the two militaries on Thursday had reached 34, with a hundred injured.
The two Presidents spoke by telephone Monday in a bid to preserve the ceasefire that was agreed on Thursday but which broke down on both Friday and Saturday.
That prefaced a meeting of delegations headed by the countries’ respective national security committee chiefs, in which the pair agreed to create working groups to help enforce the ceasefire, Kyrgyzstan’s national security committee said.
Russia said it hoped the countries would “strictly follow the commitments made” during bilateral talks.
Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Border Tension
- Both nations have claimed the area around the water supply facility in Kok-Tash, a dispute dating back decades to when they were both part of the Soviet Union.
- The current configuration of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border is the product of Soviet mapmakers drawing the dividing lines for Soviet republics, after the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) collapsed in late 1991.
- The meandering boundary between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is particularly tense as over a third of its 1,000-km length is disputed. Restrictions on access to land and water that communities regard as theirs have often led to deadly clashes in the past.
- International Response:
- Russia and European Union (EU) welcomed the ceasefire deal and emphasised the need for a lasting and peaceful solution.
- Importance of Central Asia for India:
- India has a very wide array of interests in Central Asia covering security, energy, economic opportunities etc.
- Security, stability and prosperity of Central Asia is imperative for peace and economic development of India.
- Central Asia serves as a land bridge between Asia and Europe, making it geopolitically axial for India.
- Both India and Central Asian Republics (CARs) share many commonalities and perceptions on various regional and world issues and can play a crucial role in providing regional stability.
- The region is rich in natural resources such as petroleum, natural gas, antimony, aluminum, gold, silver, coal and uranium which can be best utilized by Indian energy requirements.
- Central Asia has huge cultivable areas lying barren and without being put to any productive use, offering enormous opportunity for cultivation of pulses.
- CARs are fast getting linked to the global market for production, supplies of raw materials and services. They are also increasingly getting integrated into the East-West Trans-Eurasian transit economic corridors.
- Indian Initiatives:
- India intends expansion of International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
- It will act as a vital gateway to access Eurasian markets and optimally operationalize its use, requiring a Central Asian state joining the project as a direct stakeholder.
- India-Central Asia Dialogue:
- India has proposed setting up of ‘India-Central Asia Development Group’ to take forward development partnership between India & Central Asian countries.
- This group will help India to expand its footprints in the resource-rich region amid China’s massive inroads and to fight terror effectively, including in Afghanistan.
- India intends expansion of International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
- India has enjoyed strong bilateral ties with Kyrgyzstan since 1991.
- India was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with Kyrgyzstan in 1992.
- Culture & Economic:
- Since 1992, the two countries have many agreements, including on Culture, Trade and Economic Cooperation, Civil Aviation, Investment Promotion and Protection, Avoidance of Double Taxation, Consular Convention etc.
- In 2011, the joint ‘Khanjar’ series of exercises was started.
- Indian Diaspora:
- In Kyrgyzstan, about 9,000 Indian students are studying medicine in various medical institutions in the country. Also, there are many businessmen living in Kyrgyzstan who are involved in trade and several other services there.
- The Kyrgyz leaderships have been largely supportive of India’s stand on Kashmir.
- They also support India’s bid for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
- India and Tajikistan elevated bilateral relations to the level of a Strategic Partnership in 2012.
- Tajikistan supported India’s membership to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and also permanent membership of an expanded UNSC.
- India supported Tajikistan’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2013.
- Culture & Economic:
- Trade between two sides is not to expectations despite efforts from both countries, due to more transit time and lack of readily accessible trade routes.
- Despite limitations, trade in food processing, mining, pharmaceuticals, textiles, skill development, science & technology, Information Technology, culture and tourism are continued between two countries.
- India’s Assistance:
- India delivered major food assistance in 2001-02. To overcome a crisis caused by an unprecedented harsh winter in January-February 2008, India gave a grant of USD 2 million (USD 1 million as cash assistance and USD 1 million in kind, such as power cables, generators and pump sets).
- India provided 2 million doses of oral polio vaccine through the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in November 2010.
- In March 2018, India gifted 10 Russian-made ambulances to various regions of Tajikistan drawing substantial media coverage and appreciation from high offices.
- Indian Diaspora:
- The total number of Indians is estimated at about 1550, out of which more than 1250 are students.
4. Progress noted at envoys meet on Iran nuclear deal
‘Discussions have reached a maturity’
High-ranking diplomats from China, Germany, France, Russia and Britain made progress at talks on Saturday focused on bringing the U.S. back into their landmark nuclear deal with Iran, but said they need more work and time to bring about a future agreement.
After the meeting, Russia’s top representative, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted that members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, “noted today the indisputable progress made at the Vienna talks on restoration of the nuclear deal.”
Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, participated in the Vienna talks. “I can say that now our discussions have reached a maturity, both in the disputed topics and in the sections that we are agreed on,” he said. “Although we cannot yet fully predict when and how we will be able to reach an agreement, it is moving forward, although slowly.”
JCPOA: Timeline & Background
- The JCPOA was the result of prolonged negotiations from 2013 and 2015 between Iran and P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union, or the EU).
- It happened, thanks to the backchannel talks between the U.S.(U.S. President Barack Obama) and Iran, quietly brokered by Oman, in an attempt to repair the accumulated mistrust since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
- The JCPOA obliged Iran to accept constraints on its enrichment program verified by an intrusive inspection regime in return for a partial lifting of economic sanctions.
- However, faced with a hostile Republican Senate, President Obama was unable to get the nuclear deal ratified but implemented it on the basis of periodic Executive Orders to keep sanction waivers going.
- When Donald Trump became president, he withdrew from the deal and called it a “horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever been made”.
- The U.S. decision was criticized by all other parties to the JCPOA (including the European allies) because Iran was in compliance with its obligations, as certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
- Tensions rose as the U.S. pushed ahead with its unilateral sanctions, widening its scope to cover nearly all Iranian banks connected to the global financial system, industries related to metallurgy, energy, and shipping, individuals related to the defense, intelligence, and nuclear establishments.
- For the first year after the U.S. withdrawal, Iran’s response was muted as the E-3 (France, Germany, the U.K.) and the EU promised to find ways to mitigate the U.S. decision.
- The E-3’s promised relief Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), created in 2019 to facilitate limited trade with Iran.
- However, by May 2019, Iran’s strategic patience ran out as the anticipated economic relief from the E-3/EU failed to materialize. As the sanctions began to hurt, Tehran shifted to a strategy of ‘maximum resistance’.
Iran’s Policy of ‘Maximum Resistance’
- Beginning in May 2019, Iran began to move away from JCPOA’s constraints incrementally: exceeding the ceilings of 300kg on low-enriched uranium and 130 MT on heavy-water; raising enrichment levels from 3.67% to 4.5%; stepping up research and development on advanced centrifuges; resuming enrichment at Fordow, and violating limits on the number of centrifuges in use.
- In January 2020, following the drone strike on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Gen. Qasem Soleiman, Iran announced that it would no longer observe the JCPOA’s restraints.
- The collapse of the JCPOA drags Iran towards nuclear brinkmanship, like North Korea, which has created major geopolitical instability in the region and beyond.
Roadblocks in Restoration of Deal
- Regional Cold War Between Iran & Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia is the cornerstone of US’ Middle East policy. The US has strengthened its relationship with Saudi-Arabia, to act as a counterweight against Iran.
- However, traditional Shia vs Sunni conflict precipitated into a regional cold war between Iran & Suadi Arabia.
- Thus, a major challenge for the US to restore the nuclear deal is to maintain peace between the two regional rivals.
- Iran Gone too Far: The challenge in resuming the agreement in its present form is that Iran is currently in violation of several of its important commitments, such as the limits on stockpiles of enriched uranium.
- The International Atomic Energy Agency noted that Iran now had more than 2,440 kilograms, which is more than eight times the limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal.
- Further, Iran says it wants the US to pay for the billions of dollars in economic losses it incurred when it pulled the United States out of the Iran deal in 2018 and reinstituted sanctions that it had lifted.
Impacts on India for Restoration of JCPOA
Restoration of JCPOA may ease many restrictions over the Iranian regime, which may directly or indirectly help India. This can be reflected in the following examples:
- Boost to Regional Connectivity: Removing sanctions may revive India’s interest in the Chabahar option, Bandar Abbas port, and other plans for regional connectivity.
- This would further help India to neutralize the Chinese presence in Gwadar port, Pakistan.
- Apart from Chabahar, India’s interest in the International North-South Transit Corridor (INSTC), which runs through Iran, which will improve connectivity with five Central Asian republics, may also get a boost.
- Energy Security: Due to the pressure linked to the US’ Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), India has to bring down oil imports to zero.
- Restoration of ties between the US and Iran will help India to procure cheap Iranian oil and aid in energy security.
5. Our COVID-19 connection with primitive cavemen
Some genes inherited from Neanderthals help defy the virus, others carry a risk of getting critically ill
Viruses can only survive and multiply in host cells. Therefore, studying SARS-CoV-2 virus will require studying the host. As the viral genome takes the help of host machinery, understanding the host genome is paramount to studying both susceptibility and protection against the virus in a given population. This is the main aim of multiple groups and international consortia of researchers like the Severe Covid-19 genome-wide association study Group, the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, and the Genetics of Mortality in Critical Care (GenOMICC).
A series of published studies from these consortia shed light on the host genome’s role in viral infection. These studies, published in NEJM,Nature and MedRxiv provide cues on how certain host genome regions confer an increased risk of developing the severe disease while others protect against the virus. Thus, studying the genomes of individuals in a group (for example, a particular genetic population group in India) can make us predict whether the individuals in that group are more or less likely to develop severe disease.
The recent papers pointed out that a region on host chromosome 3 acts as a significant genetic risk factor towards getting seriously ill and, at the same time, a group of genes on chromosomes 6,12,19, and 21 protect us against the virus. Enzymes coded by the OAS gene family on chromosome 12, a component of the interferon-induced antiviral system, are of particular importance as they can act as a drug target against the virus. An independent study from Canada in Nature Medicine corroborated this by showing that a protein from the same component in blood protects against getting severely ill among European ancestry people.
Interestingly, evolutionary biologists in Sweden and Germany showed that the regions of host genomes that increase the risk of getting severely ill and protect against the virus were inherited from Neanderthals. How can Neanderthal genes both increase the risk of getting the severe disease and at the same time protect against the virus?
Once, Neanderthals and modern humans came in contact with each other, and they interbred. As a result, genetic content between Neanderthals and humans got mixed in their offspring.
In their first paper, published in Nature, the researchers showed that modern-day humans share a stretch of 50,000 nucleotides (nucleotides are the basic building blocks of DNA) in chromosome 3 with Neanderthals. It is this stretch that increases their risk of getting severe COVID-19. They predicted that having a copy of this region of chromosome 3 nearly doubles the risk of getting severe COVID-19.
The same researchers published a second paper in PNAS showing that a part of host chromosome 12, previously shown to protect against the virus, also was inherited from Neanderthal genomes. While specific genes from Neanderthals are working against the virus and protecting us from getting a severe disease, others are associated with an increased risk of getting critically ill. This push and pull effect may be one of the intriguing facts about how the selection of genes happens during evolution.
These studies have special significance to India. About 50% of South Asians carry the region in chromosome 3 from Neanderthal genomes, the same region that make us more prone to getting severely sick with the virus. On the good Neanderthal gene front, nearly 30% of South Asians bear the chromosome 12 region that protects us from getting severely ill. As Indians are a diverse genetic group, the above risk was determined using samples used previously in an international consortium called the 1,000 genome project. The project is represented by Indian Gujaratis and Telugus, Pakistani Punjabis, and Bangladeshi Bengalis in the South Asian group. These recent studies only validate what the legendary evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in his famous essay, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution,” and makes perfect sense when one thinks about the evolution of host genomes concerning SARS-CoV-2 infection.
6. Coronavirus: What are variants of concern?
Variants of concern, widespread relaxation of COVID-19 appropriate behaviour have kicked off new waves of transmission
If manuscripts are copied by hand repeatedly, spelling errors are common. Similarly, when ‘genetic scripts’ encoded in DNA or RNA are copied repeatedly for virus replication, errors do occur. RNA viruses are more error-prone than DNA viruses. SARS-CoV-2 genome is single-stranded RNA, and errors — in biology, mutations — occur frequently.
SARS-CoV-2 is new in humans and as it spreads, mutations are very frequent. Emerging variants with higher transmission efficiency become dominant, tending to replace others. Such frontrunners emerge in different geographic communities where the virus is epidemic, spreading widely. Variants were detected in the U.K. and South Africa because genetic studies were systematically done. Brazil variant was discovered in Japan, in travellers from Brazil, and its origin traced back.
The ability to detect and track variants hinges on laboratory capacity for whole genome sequencing of viruses. Globally, over 1 million SARS CoV-2 genomes have been sequenced to-date, providing a high resolution, spatio-temporally granular readout of virus evolution. More importantly, this has allowed the identification and documentation of variant viruses with altered properties compared to the virus that started the pandemic. As the importance of ‘variants of concern’ (VOC) was appreciated, the Indian SARS CoV-2 Genomic Consortium (INSACOG), a network of ten competent public-sector laboratories for genomic surveillance, was established, and the genetic variant landscape is being surveyed in India.
There are three different schemes of nomenclature of SARS-CoV-2 variants. The widely used one is the ‘Phylogenetic Assignment of Global Outbreak Lineages’ (PANGOLIN) that uses a hierarchical system based on genetic relatedness – an invaluable tool for genomic surveillance. It uses alphabets (A, B, C, P) and numerals starting with 1. Variant lineages are at the emerging edge of the pandemic in different geographies. Lineage B is the most prolific. The variants in circulation are B.1; B.1.1; B.1.1.7; B.1.167; B.1.177; B.1.351, B.1.427 and B.1.429. Lineage P.1 has deviated from the original B.
For convenience, the three most frequent ones are named by their geography of origin — ‘U.K. variant’ for B.1.1.7; ‘South Africa variant’ for B.1.351; and ‘Brazil variant’ for P.1. They had been detected in 2020 — September (U.K.), October (South Africa) and December (Brazil). Variants in India include the so-called double mutant B.1.617 spreading in Maharashtra and B.1.618 spreading in West Bengal.
Mutations can be pinpointed using the nucleotide position on the genome and the switched amino acids consequent to mutation. The original pandemic virus (founder variant) was Wu.Hu.1 (Wuhan virus). In a few months, variant D614G emerged and became globally dominant.
Matters of concern
The ‘concern’ in VOC comprises three sinister properties – transmission efficiency, disease severity and escape from immunity cover of vaccination.
In many countries, including India, the VOC, by virtue of increased transmissibility, have kicked off new wave(s) of epidemic transmission. Unfortunately, at that precise time, as case counts were low, there was widespread relaxation of COVID-appropriate behaviour. Together, this has contributed to a rapidly ascending second wave — daily numbers far exceeding those during the earlier wave.
Regarding virulence (propensity to cause severe/life-threatening disease), the U.K. variant is worse. The South Africa and Brazil variants do not seem to have higher virulence.
The third concern is regarding the immunity cover offered by vaccination using antigens made from D614G variant — which applies to most vaccines in current use. Lowered efficacy of vaccines was found more with the South African and less with the Brazil variant. Hence, reinfection can occur in spite of immunity by earlier D614G infection or vaccination. Vaccine efficacy may be lower now than what was determined in phase-3 trials as VOC were not then widely prevalent. Fortunately, mRNA (Pfizer and Moderna) vaccines have broader immunity for different reasons, and they protect better against these two variants.
Karolinska Institute in Sweden created an antigen using new variant RBD peptide with adjuvant, and inoculated monkeys already primed with an older vaccine. The resultant booster response was not only high but also broad, covering new variants. This approach, called ‘hetero boosting’ by a different vaccine, offers a way to manage the ‘vaccine-escape’ variants until newer vaccines become available.
An important lesson the pandemic has taught us in India is the critical importance of biomedical research and capacity building – for saving lives and economic growth. We need a foundation of broad-based research, in universities, medical colleges and biotechnology companies, all of which must be funded, encouraged, appreciated, and talent rewarded. While some endeavours have been initiated, they must take off in a big way, and India must invest heavily in biosciences. After a decade, its products and profit will make us healthier and wealthier.
7. Weathering India’s coronavirus storm
The govt.-funded body that has been at the centre of the fight against the virus is under the spotlight as a second wave is sweeping through the country
The Pune-based National Institute of Virology, an ICMR lab, sequenced the virus in February 2020, almost as soon as the genome sequence of the virus was made globally available by China
The ICMR has 26 national institutes and six regional research centres to investigate and suggest policy measures for communicable and non-communicable diseases
These institutes have expertise in TB, leprosy, cholera and diarrhoeal diseases, and viral diseases including AIDS
India is in the middle of a second wave of COVID-19 infections that is seeing nearly 4,00,000 new cases being added every day. Unlike the first wave that peaked in September, the ongoing one is characterised by high infectivity — a result that is attributed to the possibility of newer variants firmly establishing roots in India and a carte blanche for massive public gatherings, including the Kumbh Mela, election rallies and farmer protests — that has brought the health infrastructure in several metropolises to its knees.
As India is in the middle of a crisis with attention almost entirely focused on putting out the fire, it will be a while before some serious soul searching begins on how those at the helm of the country’s COVID-19 management strategy failed to gauge the size and impact of the second wave. While analysts, in the future, may attribute faults to various actors such as the political leadership and state administrators, an organisation that is certain to come for reckoning is the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
As an apex council of government-funded medical research institutions that has expertise in a range of infectious-disease analyses and with experience that stretches back well over a century, it was natural that the ICMR has been playing a pivotal role in India’s defence against the coronavirus. One of its labs, the Pune-based National Institute of Virology (NIV) that traces its origin to 1952, sequenced the virus in February 2020, almost as soon as the genome sequence of the virus was made globally available by China.
The first COVID-19 patient in India, a medical student who returned from Wuhan, was laboratory-confirmed by the NIV on January 30. Two more adults from Kerala were also confirmed positive within a few days. The lab developed the assays needed to detect the presence of the virus by targeting specific regions of its genome. Soon enough, the organisation was able to grow the virus in the lab, a necessary step to being able to develop a vaccine. This strain was eventually transferred to the Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech from which Covaxin eventually came to be.
Infectious diseases lie at the heart of the conception of an organisation such as the ICMR. It has, over the years, nurtured several laboratories and research organisations with niche expertise in several other aspects of disease spread. Given its history, it was expected that the NIV would play a prominent role in tackling the virus. The ICMR’s institutes have expertise in tuberculosis, leprosy, cholera and diarrhoeal diseases, viral diseases including AIDS, malaria, kala-azar, vector control, nutrition, food and drug toxicology, reproduction, immuno-haematology, oncology and medical statistics.
One of these is epidemiology or the study of how infectious diseases spread in a society. Enter the National Institute of Epidemiology (NIE), an ICMR research body based in Chennai.
Again in February 2020, epidemiologists of the NIE, along with other scientists of the ICMR and experts from the Imperial College in London, wrote in the Indian Journal of Medical Research, published by the ICMR itself, that a coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic in India “was inevitable” and the most aggressive airport screening would have delayed India’s first 1,000 cases by at most 45 days. India’s health system should have focused early on finding transmission in the community and quarantining, instead of border control. This report became public a day after India had closed its airports to international passengers and a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a national lockdown.
Though that report lacked detail on what the projected number of affected could be or what the probable mortality rate from being infected was likely to be, it said, in as measured a tone, that the virus was unlikely to treat India any different from other countries in the world. This was around the time that Europe’s health systems had buckled under the weight of the coronavirus, and China — after being assailed — had imposed a stringent lockdown.
In May last year, the organisation undertook another important endeavour. The NIE epidemiologists conducted what was perhaps among the largest such serology surveys in the world. These involve choosing groups of adults across a representative number of districts and testing blood samples for the presence of antibodies that generally form within two-three weeks of an infection.
The serosurvey found that from its analysis of 69 districts across 21 States suggested that an estimated 7,00,000 may have been infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus in these districts even in early May. This was when the official count was around 35,000.
However, for all its expertise, resources, institutional memory and geographical spread — it has 26 national institutes and six regional research centres to investigate and recommend policy measures for a range of communicable and non-communicable diseases — its critics say the ICMR is an extremely bureaucratic organisation. Being almost entirely dependent on government funds, its scientists do not have the independence to share their knowledge and expertise without being overtly controlled by the government in power and this was on display through the pandemic.
In the early days of the pandemic, the ICMR leadership, in spite of the evidence being proffered by its own scientists of the cataclysm that was emerging, sought to play down — and actively encouraged the impression — that India would not see the kind of devastation the pandemic had wreaked on many other countries of comparable size. While it exhorted the public to mask up and follow COVID-19 appropriate behaviour, it was rarely forthcoming or extremely tardy with results and analysis of investigations into the course of the pandemic.
Independent scientists recently petitioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi to get the ICMR to be more forthright with sharing data. As a government organisation, the ICMR has access to a trove of medical data, patient history, test results from surveys and much of these, if made available more widely, would have aided a better understanding in the trajectory of the coronavirus, these scientists say. Currently, the NIV, along with some other labs, is in the process of checking if Covaxin provides protection against newer strains of the virus.
India has expertise in making vaccines but limited expertise in conducting large Phase 3 trials that can assess vaccine or drug efficacy. The ICMR was a partner of Bharat Biotech but so far, the organisation has not released a proper peer-reviewed journal describing the Phase 3 trials. This, after the company was given emergency use authorisation without such efficacy trials being complete and ICMR Director-General Balram Bhargava was found to have been goading clinical trial investigators, last year, into readying a vaccine before Independence Day in August. Currently, India is in a pandemic nightmare without enough vaccines and the ICMR is largely silent on the evolution of the second wave. What portion of the blame it must shoulder will be known only in the years ahead.