1. Assam keelback spotted for the first time in 129 years
The team also recorded 400 plants, 270 butterflies, 25 amphibians and 44 reptiles, 239 birds and at least 20 mammals
Elusive vertebrate: The female snake was spotted in a muddy stream in the Poba reserve forestAbhijit Das Abhijit Das
- The Assam keelback snake has been sighted by a team from the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, for the first time since 1869. This snake was spotted in 2018 by zoologist Abhijit Das when he, along with a team, was retracing the Abor expedition – an iconic expedition that took place from 1911-1912 that had yielded a rich list of flora and fauna of the Assam region. After due identification, the find has been described in a paper published recently in the journal Vertebrate Zoology.
- The Abor expedition had covered a 130 km stretch along the Siang river from the base camp at Kobo Chapori (elevation approximately 121 metres above sea level) to the head quarter at Yembung ( about 3,500 metres above sea level) and beyond. “The staggering zoological result includes description of 244 species and 14 genera new to science,” says Dr Das. In the latest expedition which traced out the route of the earlier one, too, the researchers were not disappointed. As Dr. Das recounts, “We recorded 400 plants, 270 butterflies, 66 odonates, 25 amphibians and 44 reptiles, 239 birds and at least 20 mammals.”
- The survey started from Poba reserved forest located at the interstate border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh on September 30, 2018. “I spotted the snake as I was following a small muddy stream deep inside evergreen forest,” says Dr. Das. “Generally, in a forest you have a forest floor with leaf-litter, but here was a special habitat, consisting of stream and swamp within the forest, which attracted me.” Unlike other snakes, this one took shelter under water, below the fallen leaf-litter, a very special way to avoid attention.
- First known as Hebius pealii this snake was named after Edward Peal, a British tea planter who first collected two specimens of this snake from upper Assam, 129 years ago. Of the two collected specimens, one was preserved in the Zoological Survey of India, Kolkata, and the other was kept in the Natural History Museum in London. Since the former specimen had disintegrated, the team had to compare the present specimen they found with the one kept in the Natural History Museum, London. Had that specimen gone bad, making the identification would have been that much more difficult.
- The Assam keelback is so far known only to inhabit Sivasagar in Upper Assam and Poba in Assam-Arunachal border. So, as far as present knowledge goes, it is an endemic snake of Upper Assam. Through a molecular study, the team has shown that this snake belongs to the genus Herpetoreas, which has only three other known members, and not Hebius. This is also the first description of a live snake and its colouration. This is the first female Assam keelback to have been found. “So, we now know how male and female may differ in morphological characters,” says Dr Das.
2. Is the airborne spread of COVID-19 a risk?
In a letter, what have scientists told the World Health Organization? How does the disease pass from one person to another?
The story so far: On Monday, July 6, 239 scientists from 32 countries put their signatures on an open letter that said COVID-19 is also transmitted via aerosols. Titled “It is Time to Address Airborne Transmission of COVID-19, and addressed to the World Health Organization (WHO), they said there was enough evidence to show that viruses are released during exhalation, talking, and coughing as micro droplets small enough to remain aloft and pose a risk of exposure at distances beyond 1-2 metres from someone who is infected (over the 3 feet–6 feet recommended for physical distancing between people to avoid transmission).
What do the scientists believe?
- The scientists, led by Lidia Morawska of the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health, WHO Collaborating Centre, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia, appealed to “the medical community and the relevant national and international bodies to recognise the potential for airborne spread of COVID-19. There is significant potential for inhalation exposure to viruses in microscopic respiratory droplets (microdroplets) at short to medium distances (up to several metres, or room scale), and we are advocating for the use of preventive measures to mitigate this route of airborne transmission.”
- The letter came at a time when most public health organisations, including WHO, do not “recognise airborne transmission except for aerosol-generating procedures performed in healthcare settings.”
- Responding to the letter, in Oxford Academic — Clinical Infectious Diseases, Dr. Benedetta Allegranzi, WHO’s technical lead for infection prevention and control, was cited in media reports on Tuesday as saying, “there was evidence emerging of airborne transmission of the coronavirus, but that it was not definitive.”
- She went on to say that the “… possibility of airborne transmission in public settings — especially in very specific conditions, crowded, closed, poorly ventilated settings that have been described, cannot be ruled out.” She added, “However, the evidence needs to be gathered and interpreted, and we continue to support this.”
What are aerosols? How different are they from respiratory droplets?
- In common understanding, aerosols are minute particles that are expelled under pressure, as in the case of fine mist from a jar of perfume, or a can of roach repellent. However, aerosol is a term used to broadly refer to particles suspended in the air; they could include fine dust, mist, or smoke. In the context of transmission of viruses, as in this case, aerosols are read as micro droplets, much smaller (5 microns or lesser) than respiratory droplets, and take a longer time to drop to the floor. They will be expelled by people breathing, laughing or singing, as against respiratory droplets that are expelled with forceful acts such as sneezing or coughing. As per the open letter, “at typical indoor air velocities , a 5 micron droplet will travel tens of metres, much greater than the scale of a typical room, while settling from a height of 1.5 m to the floor.”
- As they remain suspended in the air for longer, an individual who is COVID-19 positive is likely to infect people standing even at a distance of 1-2 m in a small, poorly ventilated room. “This poses the risk that people sharing such environments can potentially inhale these viruses, resulting in infection and disease,” the signatories endorsed.
- That respiratory droplets transmit COVID-19 infection has dominated the discourse from nearly the beginning of the epidemic, and has guided the path that interventions have taken thus far, including wearing masks, keeping distance, and hand washing routines.
Is there evidence to prove that aerosols transmit SARS-CoV-2?
- In its response, WHO did say that there was need to watch the area for possible exposure to aerosols causing the infection, but insisted that the evidence was not yet entirely compelling, except in health-care settings where aerosol emission is common.
- The bar of proof has been set high for aerosol transmission; even the scientific reluctance to accept this theory has been couched in belief that it would trigger widespread panic in the community.
- A Reuters report cited Jose-Luis Jimenez, a chemist at the University of Colorado Boulder who signed the paper, trying to explain the historical reluctance to accept the notion of aerosol transmission.“If people hear airborne, healthcare workers will refuse to go to the hospital,” he said. Or people will buy up all the highly protective N95 respirator masks, “and there will be none left for developing countries”.
Does the open letter to the World Health Organization present enough proof?
- It says: “Airborne transmission appears to be the only plausible explanation for several super spreading events investigated which occurred under such conditions… and others where recommended precautions related to direct droplet transmissions were followed.”
- Further, the letter says, “It is understood that there is not as yet universal acceptance of airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2; but in our collective assessment there is more than enough supporting evidence so that the precautionary principle should apply. In order to control the pandemic, pending the availability of a vaccine, all routes of transmission must be interrupted.”
- The signatories agreed that “the evidence is admittedly incomplete for all the steps in COVID-19 micro droplet transmission,” but pointed out that it is “similarly incomplete for the large droplet and fomite modes of transmission.” Further they advanced the point of view that “airborne transmission mechanism operates in parallel with the large droplet and fomite routes, that are now the basis of guidance”.
- They relied heavily on several retrospective studies conducted after the SARS-CoV-1 epidemic, demonstrating that airborne transmission was the most likely mechanism explaining the spatial pattern of infections. “Retrospective analysis has shown the same for SARS-CoV-2,” the letter said. “In particular, a study in their review of records from a Chinese restaurant, observed no evidence of direct or indirect contact between the three parties. In their review of video records from the restaurant, they observed no evidence of direct or indirect contact between the three parties.”
- Earlier, a letter in The New England Journal of Medicine, titled “Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1”, suggested that SARS-CoV-2 remained viable in aerosols for up to three hours, but the generation was done via a high-powered machine that is unlikely to be replicated in real-life situations.
- The signatories of the letter said many studies conducted on the spread of other viruses, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus, and influenza, show that viable airborne viruses can be exhaled and/or detected in the indoor environment of infected patients. “This poses the risk that people sharing such environments can potentially inhale these viruses, resulting in infection and disease. There is every reason to expect that SARS-CoV-2 behaves similarly, and that transmission via airborne micro droplets is an important pathway.”
- Says Prof. T. Jacob John, retired Professor of Clinical Virology, Christian Medical College, Vellore, “The airborne aerosol transmission theory is rather hyped up, in my opinion.” And yet, he says, in closed spaces without ventilation where people tend to crowd around, one must take precautions. Wearing the mask at all times, even indoors, if others are present in the circumstances as described in the open letter, would be recommended, he adds.
What is the future?
- As WHO waits for more robust evidence on the principle of aerosol transmission, the authors are pushing only to address every possible pathway to slow down the transmission of COVID-19. Providing sufficient and effective ventilation as far as possible in public buildings, schools and hospitals, avoiding overcrowding in public buildings and transportation systems are recommended, besides, supplementing general ventilation with airborne infection controls such as local exhaust, high efficiency air filtration, and germicidal ultraviolet lights.
- The authors, recommending a zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19 transmission, add: “The measures we propose offer more benefits than potential downsides, even if they can only be partially implemented.”
3. Should Kuwait’s draft expat bill worry India?
What is the proposal? Will it be difficult to reduce the foreign workforce in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries?
The story so far: The Kuwait National Assembly (NA) is discussing several proposals to reduce the share of foreigners in the country’s population, which is now pegged at 70%. There are many proposals under consideration, and one is to put country caps on the number of emigrants in the country. In this, the plan is that Indians should not exceed 15% of Kuwaiti citizens, while Egyptians, Bangladeshis and Filipinos among others must not each exceed 10% of Kuwaitis. The head of the Parliamentary Human Resources Development Committee, MP Khalil Al-Saleh, is pushing for a drastic reduction in the number of expatriates. Assembly Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim and the government believe that such drastic measures are impossible, though everyone appears to agree in principle that the proportion of foreigners in the population must be reduced. The Speaker has said this week that he and other MPs would submit a new draft law aimed at binding the government to gradually reduce the number of expats, according to Kuwait Times. Kuwait’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister Of Interior and State For Cabinet Affairs Anas Al-Saleh had also promised last week to send a draft law to the NA within two weeks.
Where is the proposal headed?
- Kuwait’s Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah had said, “the ideal population structure is to have 70 per cent Kuwaitis and 30 per cent non-Kuwaitis”.
- Said Reaven D’Souza Managing Editor, The Times, Kuwait, currently, it is the other way around. Such a turnaround will require a drastic and impossible reduction in the country’s total population and the concerns about the proposal are overhyped. “It is difficult to foresee any law on this being made during the current term of the NA. If and when it is made, there could be measures to gradually reduce the proportion of foreigners. The concern that there could be mass deportation has no basis.” The full draft of the proposal has not been published.
Why has this proposal come up in the middle of a pandemic?
- Kuwaitis are a minority in Kuwait. Of the total population of 4.3 million, Kuwaitis are 1.3 million, which is less than one third. There are more Indians than Kuwaitis in Kuwait — 1.45 million, according to one account. However, statistics available on the website of the Indian Embassy in Kuwait puts the number at above a million. If Indians cannot exceed 15% of Kuwaitis, the cap would be around two lakh. Migration studies experts warn that calculations regarding the potential numbers that could be affected by the law are based on estimates which are various. “Gulf countries are not very open about population data because citizens are a minority,” an Indian working with a Gulf Cooperation Council government said. This has been a lingering concern in all GCC countries — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic renewed the debate. Said Ginu Zacharia Oommen, who conducted a post-doctoral field study among Indians in Kuwait, “In the past, high unemployment among the natives, economic crisis and demographic imbalance had triggered movement for nationalisation of the workforce. Arab Spring added a new concern of political stability among the regimes. COVID-19 exposed the huge concentration of certain populations among the expatriates, and the resulting imbalances.”
- “The current debate in the context of COVID-19 must be distinguished from the nationalisation debate. This one is about diversification of the expatriate community,” the official cited above said.
What is the profile of the Indian community in Kuwait?
- According to the Indian Embassy in Kuwait, besides the million-plus who are in the country as legal workforce, there are about 10,000 Indian nationals who have overstayed their visas. The Indian community in Kuwait has been growing at 5-6% per annum until the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic put an abrupt stop to immigration to the country. Indians are the largest expatriate community and Egyptians are the second largest. Three fourths, or about 7.5 lakh Indians are males as against only 2.5 lakh females. It is estimated that 5.23 lakh Indians are deployed in the private sector, as construction workers, technicians, engineers, doctors, chartered accountants, IT experts, etc. About 1.16 lakh are dependents and there are about 60,000 Indian students studying in 23 Indian schools in the country; about 3.27 lakh are domestic workers (i.e. drivers, gardeners, cleaners, nannies, cooks and housemaids) who are not allowed to bring their spouses/children into the country. About 28,000 Indians work for the Kuwaiti government in various jobs such as nurses, engineers in national oil companies, and a few as scientists. In 2018, India received nearly $4.8 billion from Kuwait as remittances.
What has India’s response been?
- India’s Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Anurag Srivastava said the Foreign Ministers of India and Kuwait discussed the issue over the phone. “We share excellent bilateral ties which are deeply rooted in people-to-people linkages. The Indian community in Kuwait is well-regarded in Kuwait and elsewhere in the Gulf region and their contributions are well recognised. We have shared our expectations that Kuwait’s decision will take into account,” Mr. Srivastava said.
What happens now?
- Around eight million Indians work in the GCC countries. Around 2.1 million of them are from one State — Kerala. Other major contributors to the Indian expatriate communities in GCC countries are Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, West Bengal, Punjab and Rajasthan. A renewed push for nationalisation of jobs and diversification of expatriates is possible. However, the structure of the GCC economies makes any dramatic change unlikely. Nationalisation of government jobs can be achieved to a significant extent, but the private sector will continue to draw the majority of its workforce from abroad.
- “The costs associated with hiring a citizen are too prohibitive for the private sector, which will leave the country if it is forced to,” an official admitted. There is a social stratification in GCC countries that has natives at the top, followed by white professionals from the U.S. and Europe, immigrants from other Arab countries and then others including workers from India. “There is a division of labour among these classes and that cannot be changed in a hurry. Replacement of Indian or Asian workers on a large scale is not possible, and native Arabs will not do certain categories of work,” said the official.
4. India’s tiger census of 2018 sets a Guinness world record
Camera traps were placed in 26,838 locations at 141 sites
- India’s tiger census of 2018 has set a Guinness record for being the world’s largest camera-trap wildlife survey.
- The fourth cycle of the All India Tiger Estimation 2018 counted 2,967 tigers, which is about 75% of the global tiger population.
- The Guinness World Records website said, “The fourth iteration of the survey — conducted in 2018-19 — was the most comprehensive to date, in terms of both resource and data amassed. Camera traps (outdoor photographic devices fitted with motion sensors that start recording when an animal passes by) were placed in 26,838 locations across 141 different sites and surveyed an effective area of 1,21,337 sq.km.” It added, “In total, the camera traps captured 3,48,58,623 photographs of wildlife (76,651 of which were that of tigers and 51,777 of leopards; the remainder were other native fauna). From these photographs, 2,461 individual tigers (excluding cubs) were identified using stripe-pattern-recognition software.”
- Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar tweeted, “The All India Tiger Estimation is now in the Guinness World Records for being the largest camera trap wildlife survey, a great moment indeed and a shining example of Atmanirbhar Bharat.”
|Guinness Book of World Records is a reference book published annually, listing world records both of human achievements and the extremes of the natural world. The brainchild of Sir Hugh Beaver, the book was co-founded by twin brothers Norris and Ross McWhirter in Fleet Street, London, in August 1954. The book itself holds a world record, as the best-selling copyrighted book of all time. As of the 2019 edition, it is now in its 64th year of publication, published in 100 countries and 23 languages|