Daily Current Affairs 16.05.2021 (Mars landing gives China’s space programme a leg-up, Violence rocks Gaza, Israel and West Bank, New skink species from Western Ghats, Mucormycosis in COVID-19 patients)

Daily Current Affairs 16.05.2021 (Mars landing gives China’s space programme a leg-up, Violence rocks Gaza, Israel and West Bank, New skink species from Western Ghats, Mucormycosis in COVID-19 patients)


1. Elephant carcasses found in 2 groups

The ‘freak’ lightning theory being corroborated based on weather reports: govt.

The carcasses of the 18 elephants reportedly killed in lightning strikes in Nagaon district of central Assam on May 13 were found in two groups 1 km apart, an official statement said Saturday.

The State government also said the “freak natural incident” was being corroborated based on meteorological reports while the samples collected by a team of experts after a post-mortem were being “further examined for microbiological and toxicological aspects” in the laboratory.

According to the statement, the assistant manager of Topajuri Tea Estate had at 1.45 p.m. on May 13 informed the officials at the Kathiatoli Range of Nagaon Forest Division about four carcasses.

The local forest officials later found 14 more strewn in the foothills of the Bamuni Hill within the Konduli Proposed Reserve Forest about 1 km away.

“After thorough investigation of the carcasses and based on circumstantial evidence, the team of experts and officials suggested that the cause of death of these elephants, which appeared to be part of a herd, could be due to the strike of lightning,” the statement said.

The statement added the microbiological and toxicological report received from the forensic laboratory would be made public at an appropriate time.

Experts from the College of Veterinary Science in Guwahati, veterinarians from the Assam State Zoo and the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation in Kaziranga were among the team that collected samples and conducted the autopsy.

2. Two killed in Kerala as cyclone intensifies

Tauktae expected to cross the Gujarat coast on Tuesday

Cyclonic storm Tauktae (pronounced Tau’te) in the Arabian Sea is expected to intensify into a very severe cyclonic storm by Sunday, with wind speeds expected to touch 160 kmph by Monday.

Heavy rain accompanying the storm claimed two lives in Ernakulam and Kozhikode districts of Kerala and forced more than 2,000 to move to 71 camps. The State recorded an average rainfall of 145.5 mm on Saturday, Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan said, citing data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD), with the power and agriculture sectors reporting heavy damage.

The storm moved northwards and lay about 250 km southwest of Panjim-Goa and 620 km south-southwest of Mumbai. The Lakshwadeep Islands and the Ghat districts of Tamil Nadu also received significant rain.

Rain is expected to intensify in coastal Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat over the next 48 hours, causing damage to plantations, thatched houses and roads. Fishermen have been warned to stay off the sea. The IMD expects Tauktae to touch the Gujarat coast between Porbandar and Naliya around May 18 afternoon or evening, with wind speeds increasing to 175 kmph.

Current forecasts show heavy rain in the coastal districts of Gujarat, including extremely heavy rainfall in Junagadh and Gir Somnath and heavy to very heavy rain in Saurashtra, Kutch and Diu, Junagadh, Porbandar, Devbhoomi Dwarka, Amreli, Rajkot and Jamnagar.

The IMD also warned of storm surges that could inundate coastal areas of Morbi, Kutch, Devbhoomi Dwarka and Jamnagar districts.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday reviewed the preparedness of States, central ministries and agencies concerned and asked them to ensure all were safely evacuated.

At a meeting that included Home Minister Amit Shah, Mr. Modi directed officials to ensure special preparedness on COVID-19 management in hospitals, vaccine cold chain and other medical facilities on power back up and storage of essential medicines and to plan for unhindered movement of oxygen tankers, said a statement from the PMO.

Storms are common in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea in May, ahead of the monsoon onset though climatologists have said there is an increase in the number of such storms in the Arabian Sea in recent years. Tauktae is the fourth cyclone in as many years over the Arabian Sea in the pre-monsoon months. This is being attributed to a rise in average sea surface temperatures driven by global warming.

(with inputs from Tiki Rajwi and PTI)

India Meteorological Department (IMD)

Formed in 1875, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) is the national meteorological service of the country and it is the chief government agency dealing in everything related to meteorology, seismology, and associated subjects. 

The administrative responsibilities of the Department are under the supervision of the Ministry of Earth Sciences of the Indian Government. The IMD is headquartered in New Delhi.

IMD Mandate

The mandate and functions of the IMD are discussed below.

  1. Taking meteorological observations and providing current information and forecasting information for the most favorable operation of weather-dependent activities such as irrigation, agriculture, aviation, shipping, offshore oil exploration, and so on.
  2. Giving warnings against severe weather phenomena such as tropical cyclones, dust storms, heat waves, cold waves, heavy rains, heavy snow, etc.
  3. Providing met-related statistics needed for agriculture, industries, water resources management, oil exploration, and any other strategically important activities for the country.
  4. Engaging in research in meteorology and allied subjects.
  5. Detection and location of earthquakes and evaluation of seismicity in various parts of the country for developmental projects.

India Meteorological Department (IMD) and Agriculture

India Meteorological Department (IMD) provides direct services to the farming community. 

  • Set up in 1932, the Division of Agricultural Meteorology has its office in Pune.
  • It was established to minimize the impact of adverse weather on crops. 
  • IMD also provides information to take advantage of favorable weather conditions that may result in a boost in agricultural yield.

Services of the Division can be listed as follows:

  • Gramin Krishi Mausam Seva
  • Dissemination of Agromet Advisories
  • Feedback & Awareness of Agromet Service
  • Training Programme to AMFUs (Agro-Meteorological Field Units)

India Meteorological Department (IMD) and Aviation

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the Director-General of Civil Aviation of India (DGCA) call for services and data that are crucial to the national and international civil aviation sector.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) monitors the development of tropical cyclones in its area of responsibility and provides advisory information to ICAO, DGCA, Meteorological Watch offices in the country and neighbouring countries as well. 

India Meteorological Department (IMD) and Water Issues in the Country

IMD renders assistance and advice on the meteorological aspects of hydrology, water management, and multipurpose river valley project management. These services are utilized by the Central Water Commission, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Water Resources, Railways, Damodar Valley Corporation Flood Control Authorities, and the State Governments. The Hydromet Division of IMD offers information on various rainfall projects through its ‘Customised Rainfall Information System (CRIS)’, in the form of reports and maps on the CRIS portal.

3. Mars landing gives China’s space programme a leg-up

Third country to achieve this feat after Soviet Union, the U.S.

China landed a spacecraft on Mars carrying its first Mars rover in a big boost to its space ambitions, the country’s space agency said on Saturday.

China had in July last year launched its first Mars mission, called Tianwen-1, meaning Questions to Heaven, carrying a lander and rover. Tianwen-1 had been in orbit since February, and on Saturday, a lander descended successfully on to the surface of the red planet carrying a rover named Zhurong, named after a god of fire for a planet known in Chinese as the planet of fire. Only the Soviet Union and the U.S. had previously carried out a successful landing on Mars.

China’s official media described “nine minutes of terror” during the descent — the hardest part of the mission. The descent “was extremely complicated with no ground control, and had to be performed by the spacecraft autonomously,” Geng Yan, an official at the China National Space Administration (CNSA) Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center, was quoted as saying by state media. “Each step had only one chance, and the actions were closely linked. If there had been any flaw, the landing would have failed,” he said.

The rover will provide “first-hand materials for research on the planet’s space environment, surface topography, and soil structure”, the CNSA said.

China’s leadership sees the space programme as an important part of China’s ambitions to close the technological gulf with the U.S.

President Xi Jinping on Saturday described the Mars landing as “an important step in China’s interstellar exploration” and said it had “left a Chinese mark on Mars for the first time” and was “another landmark progress in China’s space industry development”.

China had previously tried to launch a Mars orbiter along with Russia in 2011, but that failed to enter orbit. This attempt, on its own, hit the target.

China’s Mars mission, along with lunar mission and space station, is key to its space programme. In 2019, the fourth lunar probe, Chang’e-4, carried out the world’s first landing on the far side of the moon. The Mars mission was launched the following year.

China is also investing heavily in its manned space programme, as plans accelerate for its first space station, set to be functional by the end of next year and only the second space station after the International Space Station. Last month, a Long March-5B Y2 rocket carried out the first of three components for the space station, called the Tianhe or Heavenly Harmony module.

Thomas Zurbuchen, of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, congratulated China. “Together with the global science community,” he said, “I look forward to the important contributions this mission will make to humanity’s understanding of the Red Planet.”

Mars Missions launched in July 2020

Three nations launched their own Mars missions in July. These are as follows:

United Arab Emirates:

  • On 20th July, the UAE launched its Hope Mars Mission aboard a Japanese rocket called Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA from Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre.
  • This launch marked the first of the three missions planned to Mars in July 2020.
  • Hope is the first planetary science mission led by an Arab country. It is the fourth space mission of the UAE. The previous three were all Earth-Observation satellites.
  • This project was announced in July 2014.
  • The orbital probe will perform atmosphere, weather and climate observation with its infrared and ultraviolet spectrometer and high-resolution camera.
  • It will also look into the possibility of Mars’ life-giving past.
  • This mission is scheduled to last for 1 Martian year (687 Earth days).
  • The objective is to create a long-term, planet-wide picture of Martian climate that reveals how the red planet’s weather patterns shift over days and years.
  • This data obtained will also be used to work out the mechanisms that leached oxygen and hydrogen out of the Marian atmosphere, which was previously warmer and wetter with plenty of oxygen.
  • Those processes have now left the planet dry, frigid and barren.
  • This project gives the UAE an opportunity to build a more robust scientific community, to build national prestige and to contribute directly to the global effort to uncover the historical life on Mars.
  • Hope’s arrival at Mars is scheduled to coincide with the UAE’s 50th anniversary in 2021. Formed in 1971 out of 7 smaller nations or emirates, the UAE is a young nation with a population of less than 10 million on the southeastern part of the Arabian peninsula, bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman.
  • The Hope mission is run by Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre.
  • It is a joint project between the UAE and the University of Colorado Boulder, University of California, Berkeley and Arizona State University.


  • On 23rd July, China’s first-ever independent mission to Mars, Tianwen-1 (formerly Huoxing 1), which means “questions to heaven”, was launched aboard a Chinese-developed Long March 5 rocket from Xichang, China.
  • The launch craft consists of an orbiter, a lander and a 240 kg rover.
  • The orbiter carries radar and a camera to measure and map the Mars’ morphology, electromagnetic and gravitational fields and the ionosphere.
  • The rover will operate for 90 Mars days. It will map soil characteristics and water-ice distribution, and also study climate and environment.
  • The Tianwen-1 will reach the red planet’s orbit in February 2021 and the rover will land in May.
  • The orbiter will use a high-resolution camera to search for a suitable landing site somewhere in the Utopia Panitia region.

United States

  • On 30th July, the US’ Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched a six-wheeled self-driving rover, Perseverance, a twin-rotor helicopter, Ingenuity, and an orbiter, NAVEN.
  • It will take around 203 days or seven months for the landing craft to reach the surface of Mars and for the mission to start collecting data.
  • The target of this mission is to study Jezero Crater, a site of an ancient river delta and a likely location for ancient life-forms to have thrived.
  • Perseverance was developed to address the faults of NASA’s current generation rover on Mars, Curiosity, which includes response delay of up to 24 minutes. This makes live operations impossible and obstacle avoidance time-consuming.
  • Perseverance’s self-driving capabilities can overcome these communication challenges.
  • It can travel faster and farther around more obstacles on the Martian surface than Curiosity.
  • It has a drone helicopter, called Ingenuity, aboard. This is the first aircraft to fly on the surface of another planet.
  • It also has an experiment designed for generating oxygen out of the Martian atmosphere, as a proof of concept for future rocket fuel on the Red Planet.
  • Perseverance is going to drill into Mars and collect samples of rocks that may contain evidence of life.
  • The follow-up plan of this mission is to collect these samples from Mars and return them to Earth.

Why so many in July 2020?

  • Earth is the third closest planet to the Sun and Mars is the fourth, which influences the orbits of the planets around the sun as well as the number of days that equal a year on each planet.
  • The Earth is moving around the Sun at a speed of 67,000 miles per hour, which creates the 365-day orbit.
  • As Mars is farther from the Sun, it is slower and takes longer time to revolve.
  • The planets are moving around elliptical orbits and Mars’ orbit is pulled by Jupiter, which can change the orbit’s shape.
  • The orbits of Mars and Earth are also slightly tilted in their orbits.
  • Mars reaches its closest point to Earth every 26 months.
  • Launches are targeted at this time, as the spacecraft leaving Earth will experience a shorter trip to Mars, limiting the resources used for the Mars Missions.
  • Other factors like the lift capability of the launch vehicle, the mass of the spacecraft and landing time, also help in determining the launch window.
  • According to NASA, Mars will be at its closest to Earth in October, at only 6 million miles distance.

How did Mars missions come to be?

  • Since the 1960s, humans have sent many spacecraft to study Mars.
  • The early missions were flybys, with spacecraft taking pictures of the planet as they flew by.
  • Later, space probes were put on the orbit around Mars. More recently, landers and rovers have touched down on the surface of the red planet.
  • However, sending a spacecraft to Mars is hard and landing is even harder.
  • The planet’s thin atmosphere makes descent challenging and more than 60% of the landing attempts have failed.
  • So far, four space agencies, NASA, Russia’s Roscosmos, the European Space Agency (ESA) and ISRO, have put spacecraft in the Martian orbit.
  • With the 8 successful landings, the US is the only country that has operated a craft on the planet’s surface.
  • The UAE and China might join this club if their recently launched Hope and Tianwen-1 mission reach the Martian surface safely in February 2021.
  • Early highlights of Mars missions include NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft, which swung by Mars in July 1965 and captured the first close-up images of the planet.
  • In 1971, the Soviet space program sent the first spacecraft called Mars 3 into the Martian orbit. It returned 8 months of observations about the planet’s topography, atmosphere, weather and geology. This mission, though it sent a lander to the surface, provided only around 20 seconds of data before going quiet.
  • During the subsequent decades, orbiters returned far more detailed data on the planet’s atmosphere and surface.
  • These helped reveal some remarkable features – the planet consists of the largest volcanoes in the solar system and has one of the largest canyons yet to be discovered.
  • In 1976, NASA’s Viking 1 and 2 became the first spacecraft to successfully operate on the planet’s surface, returning photos until 1982.
  • These conducted biological experiments on Martian soil in order to uncover signs of life in space. The results of these experiments are inconclusive and scientists do not agree on how to interpret the data.
  • In 1996, NASA launched the Mars Pathfinder mission, which put the first free-moving rover called Sojourner on the planet. Its successors are the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which explored the planet for a longer duration of time than expected and returned more than 100,000 images before the dust storms obliterated their solar panels in the 2010s.
  • Currently, two NASA spacecraft are active on the surface of the red planet. These are InSight and Curiosity.
  • The InSight is probing the planet’s interior and it had already revealed that “marsquake” routinely shakes the Martian surface.
  • The Curiosity rover, which was launched in 2012, is also still exploring the Gale Carter, taking pictures and studying rocks and sediments deposited in the carter’s ancient lakebed.
  • Several spacecraft are currently sending data from orbit:
  • NASA: MAVEN orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Odyssey
  • ESA: Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter
  • ISRO: Mars Orbiter Mission
  • Together, these missions have shown that Mars is an active planet with rich elements needed to support life with water, organic carbon and an energy source.

What is the Mangalyaan mission?

  • Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), also called Mangalyaan Mission (Hindi term for ‘Mars Craft’) is India’s first interplanetary spacecraft.
  • ISRO launched this mission on 5th November 2013, using Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on Sriharikota Island, Andhra Pradesh.
  • This was done just 15 months after the government approval.
  • ISRO was able to keep the mission costs down by basing MOM’s design on that of Chandrayaan-1, India’s first Moon probe.
  • The MOM arrived at Mars on 24th September 2014 and the spacecraft has taken pictures of one entire Martian hemisphere at a time.
  • The spacecraft has a colour camera, a thermal infrared sensor, an ultraviolet spectrometer to study deuterium and hydrogen in Mars’ upper atmosphere, a mass spectrometer to study neutral particles in the Martian exosphere and a sensor for methane (indicates the possibility of life).
  • The mission, which was initially meant to last six months, has completed 5 years of orbiting in 2019.
  • It helped ISRO prepare a Martian Atlas based on the images provided by the orbiter.
  • The Mars Colour Camera took close distance images of Phobos and Deimos, the two moons of Mars.
  • MOM is the only Martian artificial satellite that could capture the full disc of Mars in one view frame and also takes images of the far side of Deimos.
  • A significant conclusion of this mission is the finding that dust storms on Mars can rise up to hundreds of kilometres.

What is interplanetary contamination?

  • With the increasing number of space missions, along with the advances in commercial space flight, astrobiologists are concerned about the possibility of ‘interplanetary contamination’.
  • Such contaminations are of two types:
  • Forward contamination
  • Back contamination

Forward contamination:

  • Forward contamination is the transport of Earth-based microbes to other celestial bodies.
  • Previous space missions have established physical contact with astronomical bodies like the moon, comets and asteroids.
  • However, these bodies are known to be hostile to life, creating a lesser possibility of their forward contamination.
  • However, Mars missions have revealed the possibility of the presence of liquid water on the planet’s surface today or at some point in its past.
  • Currently, scientists are looking for signs of life on the neighbouring planet.
  • Astrobiologists believe that if there is a chance that Mars has life, even in its most primitive form, there is an ethical obligation on humanity to ensure that microbes from Earth do not disturb a possible Martian biosphere, allowing it to evolve in its own way.
  • Experts also worry that the Earth-based organisms could spoil the integrity of the Red Planet’s samples that rovers want to study, disrupting the signs of native Martian life.

Back contamination:

  • Back contamination is the transfer of extra-terrestrial organisms (if they exist) into the Earth’s biosphere.
  • NASA is planning for a mission to return the samples collected from Mars back to Earth by 2031.
  • There are concerns about back contamination from this mission.
  • Scientists, however, rule out the possibility of back contamination as it is highly unlikely that Martian microbes (if they exist) would infect human beings. This is because Martian microbes’ biochemistry would be more different from that on Earth.

What are the measures taken to prevent possible interplanetary contamination?

  • The United Nations Outer Space Treaty, 1967, which serves as a bulwark against the militarization of space, also requires nations to address contamination risk.
  • To ensure compliance with the Treaty, the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) lays down a ‘planetary protection policy’.
  • This policy aims to limit the number of microbes sent to other planets and also ensuring that alien life does not in any way affect the Earth.
  • These guidelines have had far-reaching implications on human spacecraft design, operational procedures and overall mission structure.
  • NASA and ESA have Planetary Protection Officers specifically for this purpose.
  • To prevent forward contamination, space missions take care to ensure that spacecraft are sterilised. Previous Mars missions were all sterilised before the launch.
  • NASA’s recent Perseverance mission was postponed for the second time to resolve the potential contamination issue.
  • In the case of back contamination, sterilisation is not an option, as it would destroy the extraterrestrial samples.
  • Containment would be the only option to break the chain of contact between potential alien microbes and life on Earth.

What is next for Mars Missions?

  • All of the robotic activities on Mars are laying the groundwork for sending humans to the red planet.
  • NASA is targeting the 2030s as a reasonable timeframe for setting the first manned Mars Mission and is developing space capsule Orion that will be able to ferry humans to the moon and beyond.
  • Private spaceflight companies like SpaceX are becoming a part of Mars exploration.

4. Violence rocks Gaza, Israel and West Bank

Ahead of UNSC meet, U.S. envoy Hady Amr flies in with an aim to ‘work towards a sustainable calm’

Israeli planes renewed air strikes in Gaza early on Saturday and Hamas militants responded by firing rockets into Israel as their battle entered a fifth night and U.S. and Arab diplomats sought an end to the violence.

Palestinian medics said at least four people were killed in one of several air strikes in northern Gaza. Residents said Israeli naval boats fired shells from the Mediterranean though none may have hit the strip.

The Palestinian Religious Affairs Ministry said Israeli planes destroyed a mosque. A military spokesman said the Army was checking the report.

Sirens sounded in two major southern Israeli cities warning of incoming fire from Gaza. Hamas claimed responsibility for launching rockets.

With no sign of an end to the fighting, casualties spread further afield, with Palestinians reporting 11 killed in the occupied West Bank amid clashes between protesters and Israeli security forces.

At least 132 people have been killed in Gaza since Monday, including 32 children and 21 women, and 950 others wounded, Palestinian medical officials said.

Among eight dead in Israel were a soldier patrolling the Gaza border and six civilians, including two children, Israeli authorities said.

Ahead of a session of the UN Security Council on Sunday to discuss the situation, Biden administration envoy Hady Amr, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israel and Palestinian Affairs, flew in on Friday.

The U.S. Embassy in Israel said the aim was “to reinforce the need to work toward a sustainable calm.”

Israel launched attacks on Friday to destroy what it said were several kilometres of tunnels, launch sites and weapons manufacturing warehouses used by the militants in an effort to halt the rocket attacks.

Across central and southern Israel, from small towns bordering Gaza to metropolitan Tel Aviv and southern Beersheba, people have adjusted to sirens wailing, radio and TV broadcast interruptions and the beeps of cellphones bearing red alerts that send them rushing for cover.

Israel Palestine Conflict

  • The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the world’s longest-running and most controversial conflicts. It claims to have its roots in 957 BC when King Solomon built the first temple in the Israelite kingdom. The temple was destroyed by Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylon in 587/586 BC.
  • Though both the Jews and the Arab Muslims date their claims to the land back a couple of thousand years, the current political conflict began in the early 20th century.
  • Tensions are always high between Israel and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Gaza is ruled by a Palestinian militant group called Hamas, which has fought Israel many times. Israel and Egypt tightly control Gaza’s borders.
  • Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank say they’re suffering because of Israeli actions and restrictions. Israel says it is only acting to protect itself from Palestinian violence.
  • British rulers failed to establish peace between Muslims and Jews and thus, declared the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
  • Palestinians objected and a war followed. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced out of their homes in what they call Al-Nakba, or the “Catastrophe”.
  • By the time the fighting ended in a ceasefire the following year, Israel controlled most of the territory. The war led to over 700,000 Palestinians becoming refugees.
  • Jordan occupied land, which became known as the West Bank, and Egypt occupied Gaza.
  • Jerusalem was divided between Israeli forces in the West and Jordanian forces in the East.
  • Since there was never a peace agreement, each side blamed the other, and wars and conflicts continued.
  • The most significant one among them was fought in 1967 when Israel occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as most of the Syrian Golan Heights, and Gaza, and the Egyptian Sinai peninsula.
  • Today’s lines largely reflect the outcomes of two of these wars, one waged in 1948 and another in 1967.

The gravity of the recent conflict:

  • Israel has used disproportionate force against Hamas, which is fighting from Gaza.
  • The action of Hamas also reflects the growing dissatisfaction with Muhammad Abbas, the moderate Palestinian leader based in Ramallah in the West Bank.
  • Abbas has failed to conduct elections in the past 15 years. This has alienated a part of the Palestinian people and hardliners. This has also weakened the cause for a unified Palestine.
  • 20% of Israel’s population consists of Arab Muslims. The attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest shrine of Muslims has also alienated them and they are sympathizing with the Palestinian cause. Together with political instability in Israel, this may lead to a civil war in Israel.
  • The attack on the mosque has also given Islamic militants an opportunity to call for attacks across other parts of the world.

Role of the USA:

  • The President of the US, Joe Biden, has stated that Israel has the right to defend itself and has called for ending the conflict as soon as possible.
  • In the United Nations Security Council, the US has blocked any discussion on the issue by using its veto power even though 14 out of 15 members called for an urgent meeting on the issue.
  • A certain section of the Democratic lawmakers in the US believes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is responsible for such escalation and has called to put pressure on him to end the conflict.
  • However, the US has less leverage because of Donald Trump’s action of unilaterally siding with Israel over Jerusalem, which the Palestinians consider as their capital, and the vacillation of Biden over putting pressure on Israel.
  • The US is also trying to shift its focus from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific to tackle China.

Role of Regional Powers:

  • The Arab nations are also divided. On the one hand, Iran and Turkey are champions of the Palestine cause and on the other hand, Saudi Arabia and UAE have improved their relations with Israel.
  • Qatar, Egypt, and Turkey are trying their best to calm the situation.
  • Russia is also playing its role, with Hamas and Israel being in constant talks with Russian authorities.
  • China is also actively engaged in the situation.

Role of India:

  • India has termed the conflict as an internal matter of Israel and Palestine and has called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
  • India now follows dehyphenation policy when it comes to Israel and Palestine. It means India’s relationship with Israel would stand on its own merits, independent and separate from India’s relationship with the Palestinians. It would no longer be India’s relationship with Israel-Palestine, but India’s relationship with Israel, and India’s relationship with the Palestinians.
  • With the West shying away from its responsibilities to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict and the trust deficit with China, Palestinian leader Muhammad Abbas in 2014 had called for India to play the role of interlocutor in resolving the conflict.
  • India can be part of the peace process to end this conflict under the overall leadership of the United Nations.

5. New approach combines biologics, antibody-drug conjugates

This could have impact on incurable diseases, so-called undruggable ones like pancreatic cancer

A nanoparticle designed by researchers from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in the U.S., offers a new, potentialy revolutionary approach to treating diseases. This combines concepts of biologics and antibody–drug conjugates to produce protein–antibody conjugates that can be used for targeted drug delivery, in pancreatic cancer, for example. The team has tested the mechanism in cell lines in the lab. Their research is published recently in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

The new concept, Protein–Antibody Conjugates or PACs, combines two different approaches to drug delivery. One is biologics, where the idea is to target a defective protein in the system by delivering proteins to it. An example of this is the case of insulin treatment. If a person is short of insulin, which is a protein, they are given a shot of this to balance the system.

The reason this works is because we need a circulation of insulin outside the cells. “Now, we have 20,000 proteins and when one of these is malfunctioning, we have no way of taking that protein specifically inside the cell. That is a big problem in biologics,” explains Sankaran Thayumanavan, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Department of Chemistry, University of Massachusetts, who led the research.

“It will be a gamechanger if we can take the protein inside the cell. So, people have been looking at protein delivery for a while.”

Antibody conjugates

The other approach is to use antibodies for drug delivery. Antibodies are something the body produces to detect a foreign substance inside the body. “We can develop antibodies to recognise anything that does not belong in our bodies. That includes cancer cells as well. If there is something different on the surface of a cancer cell compared to a healthy cell, you can design the antibody that [recognises it and] selectively goes to the cancer cell,” he explains. Drug molecules can be attached to the antibody, forming drug–antibody conjugates.

Protein–antibody conjugates or PACs, developed by the group, which have a protein attached to the antibody, can zero in on, say, pancreatic cancer cells.

This could have an impact on so-called incurable diseases. Most drugs work this way: If the protein has a particular shape – bent concave like a cup, for example, the drug is designed to fit into the bent portion, like a key into a lock, so that the protein’s function is inhibited, and it cannot function. But some of the proteins have an open structure, it is difficult to design a drug that can bind to it, because it is so wide. However, using a protein molecule, which is typically large, can solve this problem.

Undruggable cases

Pancreatic cancer is an example. “There are [types] that are considered undruggable… We know what we should target but we do not know how to design drugs that will bind. But with proteins we know we can design molecules that will bind to the target,” says Prof. Thayumanavan.

He compares the PAC to an addressed envelope containing the drug. The antibody plays the role of the address and indicates the cell where the drug should precisely be delivered.

Biology involves complexity and this method may well fail if it is not tuneable. “In our lab we are already developing three different polymer platforms, each of which has its own tuneability… the concept is real, and it is important at the molecular level we understand how to tune it,” he says.

6. New skink species from Western Ghats

The inconspicuous limbs of skinks make them resemble snakes

In September 2019, a group of herpetologists gathered at Anaikatti hills in Coimbatore for the South Asian Reptile Red List Assessment organised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). When Achyuthan Srikanthan from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, suggested an impromptu night visit to a nearby private farm, little did they know they would stumble upon a new species: an Asian gracile skink.

Slender and slight

Named Subdoluseps nilgiriensis, the reptile has a slender body of just about 7 cm and is sandy brown in colour. Based on genetic studies, the team writes the new species is closely related to Subdoluseps pruthi found in parts of the Eastern Ghats.

“The new species was found in a dry deciduous area, showing that even the dry zones of our country are home to unrealised skink diversity. There is an urgent need to change the notion that high biodiversity can be found only in the wet and evergreen forests,” says Aniruddha Datta Roy, corresponding author of the paper recently published in Zootaxa.

He adds that most of the studies in Tamil Nadu are carried out only in the protected areas and focus only on megafauna such as tigers, elephants and other such. “We also need to study the little-known animal groups inside our forests. They are fundamental and indispensable components of our biodiversity,” adds Prof. Roy from the National Institute of Science Education and Research, Bhubaneswar.

Secretive habits

Most skinks are diurnal and are usually secretive. Being elusive, not much is known about their natural and evolutionary history. “This species is only the third skink species discovered from mainland India in the last millennium. Such discoveries give us an understanding of how underestimated our reptile species diversity truly is,” adds Prof. Roy.

Skinks are non-venomous. They resemble snakes because of the often-inconspicuous limbs and the way they move on land. Such resemblance has led to confusion often resulting in humans killing this harmless creature.

“We are yet to study the breeding and feeding habits of this new species. Other skinks are known to feed on insects such as termites, crickets and small spiders, and we assume our new species has a similar diet,” adds Avrajjal Ghosh, one of the authors of the paper.

Subdoluseps nilgiriensis is currently considered a vulnerable species as there are potential threats from seasonal forest fires, housing constructions and brick kiln industries in the area. Rapid urbanisation, which has increased the road networks in the area, has also threatened its small geographical range.

7. For elephant seals, it is hard work to stay fat

They feed 1,000 to 2,000 times daily

For elephant seals – one of the most distinctive of the 33 species that comprise the world’s seal family – it is hard work to stay fat.

Scientists have conducted the most thorough study to date of the unique feeding behaviour of northern elephant seals, focusing on the females of the species during arduous two-month post-breeding migrations in the northeastern Pacific Ocean.

The seals were found to spend upwards of 20 hours every day – and sometimes a full 24 hours – in continuous deep-diving to feed on multitudes of small fish, rather than the larger prey favoured by other deep-diving marine mammals, to gain the body fat essential for successful reproduction and insulation in the frigid depths. They fed 1,000 to 2,000 times daily.

“It is not easy to get fat,” said marine biologist Taiki Adachi of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, who led the study published this week in the journal Science Advances.

The researchers tracked 48 female elephant seals from Año Nuevo State Park in California, site of an important breeding colony. .

They based their findings on data obtained from 2011 and 2018 using three small removable devices: one attached under the jaw that counted the number of times they fed and measured their depth; a satellite tracker attached atop the head that provided location information; and a “smart” video camera with an infra-red LED light flash, motion tracker and another depth sensor, also atop the head.

Male northern elephant seals may reach 4 metres length and weigh up to 2,000 kg. Females are substantially smaller, getting up to about 3 metres in length and 590 kg. The males feed only in coastal waters.

Different solution

The female elephant seals, also large but not on the scale of a sperm whale, have devised a different solution – eating huge amounts of small fish. But it is laborious to catch enough small fish to meet the energy needs of such a large animal.

“They continuously dive, for long periods of time – 20 minutes on average and about 100 minutes at maximum – and deep, 500 metres on average and about 1,500 metres at maximum – with only a few minutes breathing at the surface,” Adachi said.

“During the two-month migration, they never come back to the land. The sleeping hours in at-sea animals is not fully understood,” Adachi added.

8. Mucormycosis in COVID-19 patients

What causes the invasive infection in some people after recovery and can it be prevented?

The story so far: Hospitals across the country have started to report a number of cases of mucormycosis, an invasive fungal infection affecting patients who have recently recovered from COVID-19. In common parlance, it also goes by the name ‘black fungus’, a direct reference to the blackening that is characteristic of the disease.

What is mucormycosis?

Mucormycosis is an aggressive and invasive fungal infection caused by a group of molds called mucormycetes. It can affect various organs but is currently manifesting as an invasive rhino-orbito-cerebral disease, crawling through the sinus and working its way to the brain, affecting the ear, nose, throat, and mouth. While it is not contagious, it can cause a lot of damage internally and can be fatal if not detected early.

While mucormycosis is an old disease, what is perhaps new and concerning is the sudden increase in the invasive form of the sinus variant, which involves the orbit, and at times the brain, leading to blindness, stroke or death, according to Dr. Mohan Kameswaran, Chief Surgeon and Director at the Madras ENT Research Foundation, Chennai.

How prevalent is the disease?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S., calls it a serious but rare disease. Without population-based estimates, it is difficult to determine the exact incidence and prevalence of mucormycosis in the Indian population, but a computational model-based method by Arunaloke Chakrabarti et al., in a journal, estimated a prevalence of 0.14 cases per 1000 individuals in India.

While the infection is being reported from many States, Maharashtra Health Minister, Rajesh Tope, told mediapersons recently that there could be over 2,000 such cases in the State as of now, and predicted that the figure may go up as the number of COVID-19 cases escalates. Dr. Ram Gopalakrishnan, senior consultant, Infectious Diseases, Apollo Hospitals, added that while no studies exist on the current prevalence, the infection remained a possibility for one in 10,000 persons who recovered from COVID-19.

What causes the disease?

Diabetes mellitus is the most common underlying cause, followed by haematological malignancies and solid-organ transplants, according to a comparative study of several papers on the incidence of mucormycosis in India, published in a recent issue of Microorganisms. Diabetes mellitus was reported in 54% to 76% of cases, according to a report.

What seems to be triggering mucormycosis in patients post COVID-19 is, Dr. Kameswaran said, “an indiscriminate use of a high dose of steroids in COVID-19 patients, sometimes even in minimally symptomatic patients”. This leads to spikes in the sugar level among diabetics, which, in turn, renders them vulnerable. Dr. V. Mohan, senior diabetologist, Dr. Mohan’s Diabetes Specialities Centre, said steroids in some COVID-19 patients might be a life-saver, and therefore, they become a double-edged sword. Rational use of steroids is necessary, and constant monitoring of sugar levels and resorting to insulin use to control these levels if required, is essential, he added.

Dr. Kameswaran said the use of monoclonal agents like Tocilizumab may be a factor, too. He added that while the fungi are present in the environment, the use of nasal prongs and other devices for oxygen delivery and possible breach of sterile conditions can possibly lead to cross-infection and hospital-acquired infection. “The question of COVID- 19 infection itself predisposing to invasive fungal disease would need further studies but cannot be ruled out at this stage,” he added.

Does the disease cause any distinct symptoms?

Dr. Nisar Sonam Poonam, associate consultant at the Department of Orbit and Occuloplasty at Sankara Nethralaya, Chennai, said the signs to watch out for are a stuffy nose, bloody, blackish, or brown discharge from the nose, blackish discolouration of the skin, swelling or numbness around the cheek, one-sided facial pain, toothache or jaw pain, drooping of the eyelids or eyelid swelling, double vision, redness of eyes, and sudden decrease in vision. The main line of treatment is an anti-fungal drug called amphotericin B, which is given over an extended period of time under the strict observation of a physician. Surgery to remove the fungus growth might also be warranted.

How can mucormycosis be prevented?

Following appropriate treatment protocols as recommended by the World Health Organization for COVID-19, including rational use of steroids and monoclonal antibodies only when they can help a patient, is important, said Dr. Kameswaran.

It is important to keep blood sugar levels under control and ensure that appropriate calibration of oral drugs or insulin is done from time to time, stressed

Dr. Mohan. Further, recognising the symptoms and seeking treatment early if there are two or three symptoms at a time is key. Like most illnesses, if detected early, mucormycosis can be cured.

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