1. Rules of engagement on the LAC
What are the agreements that govern India and China’s actions? Why is the troops build-up significant?
- The story so far: On Tuesday, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament that China had mobilised a large number of troops and armaments along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with several friction areas in Eastern Ladakh including the north and south banks of Pangong Tso (lake). He said the amassing of troops went against the bilateral agreements of 1993 and 1996.
Why are there different perceptions?
- Mr. Singh said there had been situations of prolonged stand-offs in the border areas with China in the past which had been resolved peacefully. He said the situation this year “is very different both in terms of scale of troops involved and the number of friction points…” This underscores the magnitude of the current situation along the disputed boundary in Eastern Ladakh. There is no commonly delineated LAC and Mr. Singh said India and China have different perceptions about the LAC. This has led to periodic tensions and the number of transgressions and face-offs went up as India’s border infrastructure improved and Indian Army patrols to the claim areas increased over the years. A series of boundary agreements have been signed and confidence-building measures (CBMs) carried out to maintain peace and tranquillity while the two sides attempted to delineate the boundary through Special Representatives.
What happens when agreements are flouted?
- While the agreements remain in place, the recent massive mobilisation of troops, tanks, armoured carriers and air defences very close to the LAC is in violation of the terms. Since the Galwan Valley clash on June 15, the Army has empowered its local commanders to take appropriate action as situations unfold and recently shots have been fired in the air, the first on the LAC since 1975. Thousands of troops and armaments continue to be deployed in close proximity, in some places within a few hundred metres of each other, so the chances of an accidental or inadvertent escalation which can spiral into a major confrontation remain high. Mr. Singh said that in response to “China’s actions, our armed forces have also made appropriate counter-deployments in these areas to ensure that India’s borders are fully protected”.
What do the border agreements say?
- A key element of both the 1993 and 1996 agreements is that the two sides would keep their forces in the areas along the LAC to a minimum level, Mr. Singh stated. However, the agreements do not define what comprises the minimum level. The 1996 agreement limits the deployment of major categories of armaments close to the LAC, including tanks, infantry combat vehicles, guns with 75-mm or bigger calibre, mortars with 120-mm or above and various missiles. It also limits combat aircraft from flying within 10 km of the LAC. It stipulates that neither side “shall open fire, cause bio-degradation, use hazardous chemicals, conduct blast operations or hunt with guns or explosives within two km” from the LAC.
- Use of firearms on the LAC is strictly regulated as per the agreements of 1993, 1996 and 2005. The 1993 and 1996 agreements also mandate that pending a final solution to the boundary question, the two sides shall strictly respect the LAC. Further in these agreements, India and China committed themselves to clarification and confirmation of the LAC to reach a common understanding of the alignment. However, this process has made little progress since 2003. Both sides have so far exchanged maps only in the central sector, leading to overlapping claims at several points due to “differences in perception”.
How should troops deal with face-offs?
- In 2012, India and China agreed to establish a Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination to “study ways and means to conduct and strengthen exchanges and cooperation between military personnel and establishments…in the border areas.” The 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement lists several mechanisms to reduce misunderstandings and improve communication. Article VI of the agreement prohibits either side from tailing the patrols of the other “in areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control”.
What is the way forward?
- Since the Galwan clash there have been calls for a review of the agreements from various quarters. Following the recent flare-up in tensions on the north and south banks of Pangong Tso, at recent meetings between the Defence and Foreign Ministers of the two countries in Moscow, both sides agreed that they shall abide by all the existing boundary agreements, maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas and “avoid any action that could escalate matters”. The five-point plan agreed between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Moscow on September 10 states that “as the situation eases, the two sides should expedite work to conclude new CBMs to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas”.
2. Life markers on Venus
What does the detected presence of phosphine mean? Why are astronomers excited?
- The story so far: An international team of astronomers led by Jane S. Greaves of Cardiff University and University of Cambridge, U.K., has announced the discovery of traces of a molecule known as phosphine on Venus. This has caused great excitement because, given the chemical and geological composition of Venus, this can imply the existence of life forms that release this substance through bio-chemical pathways.
- The researchers say in the paper, “[Phosphine] could originate from unknown photochemistry or geochemistry, or, by analogy with biological production of [phosphine] on Earth, from the presence of life.” The paper, published on September 14 in Nature Astronomy, is a careful exposition of the work done over many years. Professor Greaves first observed phosphine on Venus using the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii in 2017. Pursuing the search further with the 45-telescope array ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) in Chile led to a confirmation of their observations by this extremely sensitive instrument in 2019.
Have astronomers found definite signs of life?
- The detected presence of phosphine on Venus does convey the possibility of life there. After detecting the phosphine and estimating the amount in Venus’s atmosphere — 20 parts per billion — researchers have calculated whether this amount of phosphine can be produced by natural chemical processes, such as sunlight, volcanoes erupting and lightning. The other mechanisms could at most produce only ten-thousandth of the amount of phosphine they have detected. However, they do not rule out the possibility that there could be unknown natural processes (photochemistry or geochemistry) that can produce this amount of the biomarker. Therefore, more work is needed to prove that it is indeed because of bacteria, or some sort of life, that there is so much phosphine on Venus.
Why is phosphine gas considered a biomarker of life?
- A molecule of phosphine gas consists of a phosphorus atom surrounded by three hydrogen atoms, just like ammonia consists of a nitrogen atom surrounded by three hydrogen atoms. On Earth, this molecule is produced by industrial processes. It is also produced by some anaerobic bacteria, which live in oxygen-sparse environments such as sewers, landfills, or even animal guts. If you can rule out the production of the gas through chemistry, it is the biochemical processes that form a source of the gas — the anaerobic bacteria — hence it is considered a biomarker in astronomy.
Has phosphine been found on other planets?
- Yes, it has been seen on Jupiter and Saturn. As early as the 1970s, when the first exoplanets were not even discovered experimentally, phosphine was seen on Jupiter. But there it is said to form deep in the interiors of the gas giant and rise to the top, in a purely chemical process. But now, on Venus there is a doubt.
Venus is considered to be a hostile planet. How can life survive there?
- The surface temperature of Venus, at about 470 degrees Celsius, is too hot to harbour life as we know it. It is hot enough to melt lead. It is hotter than Mercury which is closest to the sun. According to a senior astronomer who is a member of the Astronomical Society of India, this is because Venus has experienced a runaway greenhouse effect which traps all heat that falls on it. But high up in its atmosphere, there are clouds which can provide a cooler home for microbial life. Even there, the atmosphere is teeming with sulphuric acid vapour which makes it extremely hostile, thereby reducing the chance of finding life forms. According to the expert, the phosphine signature could be the sign of some extraordinary chemistry, as it could be of life forms. The next logical step is to actually do in situ measurements from Venus’s atmosphere by sending space probes there.
Have space missions been sent to Venus?
- There have been several space missions to study Venus, and some of the recent dedicated missions are the European Space Agency’s Venus Express and JAXA’s Akatsuki. Many space missions have flown by Venus: for example, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe used the gravity of Venus to achieve gravity-assisted boosts to its velocity on its journey to the Sun. NASA is planning a mission to Venus to be launched next year. The Indian Venus mission is being developed. Though formally unnamed, it is referred to as Shukrayaan-1.
3. Sputnik V and the long road to a vaccine
What do the Russian trials tell us? How will the tie-up with Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories help India?
The story so far: On September 16, Hyderabad-based Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories announced that it had signed an agreement with the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) to conduct large human trials (Phase-3) of Sputnik V. A candidate vaccine for COVID-19, it has been developed by Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute and piloted by the RDIF, the country’s sovereign wealth fund. If these trials are successful and the vaccine is proved to be safe, Russia has committed itself to supplying 100 million doses to India through Dr. Reddy’s.
What do we know about Sputnik V?
- Much like the launch of the Sputnik-1 satellite in 1957 heralded the Space Age, Russia claims the vaccine candidate will “reinvigorate” vaccine development and a potential solution to the coronavirus pandemic. Sputnik V is being developed as a two-dose vaccine using two human recombinant adenovirus vectors — rAd5 and rAd26 — known to cause respiratory infections. These vectors have been modified to not replicate in the body. These inactivated vectors are also tweaked to carry the ‘S gene’ that encodes the ‘spike protein’ of the coronavirus. The hope is that these vectors will inveigle themselves into a small number of the body’s cells, trick the body into registering the coronavirus’ spike protein and thus activate the immune system into producing specialised ‘T’ cells that can neutralise the affected cells. Once this happens the immune system is expected to produce antibodies as well as ‘memory B cells’, which can produce the right offensive cells when needed to neutralise future SARS-CoV-2 infections the body may encounter.
Is this a proven approach?
- There have been several experimental vaccines and drugs that use human adenovirus vectors but none has been commercially approved for use in people. Sputnik V is also a two-dose regimen, meaning that individual shots are dispensed three weeks apart. The argument is that the second dose acts as a booster shot and Gamaleya has said the use of two vectors is what differentiates the Russian vaccine from the other adenovirus-based approaches. CanSino Biologics of China and the vaccine being developed by Oxford University (ChAdOx1) are also based on adenovirus platforms, except that the Oxford candidate uses an adenovirus vector that is known to infect chimpanzees.
What are the key challenges?
- The challenge with using human adenoviruses is that because they commonly infect people, many have pre-existing immunity to the virus and so antibodies may block the vector even before it infiltrates cells and synthesises proteins that can specifically induce immune cells specific to the coronavirus. The rAd5 has been previously used to produce vaccines as well as drugs against other diseases including HIV, but that didn’t work. CanSino Biologics used the same vector to make a vaccine against the Ebola virus during an outbreak in West Africa. The vaccine was tested in people but wasn’t licensed, though it reportedly induced a short-term antibody response in those who were inoculated. Researchers suggested that the pre-existing rAd5 immunity in people may have blunted the response. An adenovirus-based vaccine has been commercially licensed for rabies. The second vector being used by Sputnik V, rAd26, is a rarer adenovirus and is devised to work as a backup or a booster to stimulate a stronger response. The risks are that too strong a response may cause severe adverse reactions.
Has Russia started large trials of Sputnik V?
- Earlier this month, Russia said it had begun testing the vaccine in the country among 40,000 volunteers as part of its large Phase-3 trials. Experience from Phase-1 and Phase-2 in a smaller group of volunteers and designed to test for safety and efficacy suggested that it was promising enough to progress onto the larger trials. The most controversial aspect of Sputnik V is that it has already been preapproved by the country’s health agency even before Phase-1 and 2 trial results were published. According to health experts, this indicated that speed, and not safety, was being prioritised. Pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. and Europe have pledged not to approach regulators before Phase-3 trials concluded. As of Saturday, there were no details of how Dr. Reddy’s planned to go about conducting the trials in India.