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Daily Current Affairs 21.08.2022 (Improving rice yield with an additional gene, What is India’s policy on the Rohingya?, Corbevax booster should be a vaccine of choice)

Daily Current Affairs 21.08.2022 (Improving rice yield with an additional gene, What is India’s policy on the Rohingya?, Corbevax booster should be a vaccine of choice)

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1. Improving rice yield with an additional gene

Adding a second copy of one of its own genes has boosted the yield of a Chinese rice variety by up to 40%

The Green Revolution of the 1960s brought about a marked improvement in the yield of agricultural crops such as rice and wheat. It was based on the use of newly developed high-yielding crop varieties in conjunction with the intense use of irrigation, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. India saw a three-fold increase in rice yield per hectare. 

Now, fifty years later, some negative effects of this intense methodology are becoming apparent — nitrogen fertilizers and agrochemicals pose environmental hazards; water is often in short supply; and agricultural soil is increasingly fatigued.

To obtain more food for the world’s growing population, forests and grasslands would have to be converted to farms in order to produce food. This, in turn, would enormously strain our ecosystems.

40% yield increase

A possible way out of this conundrum has been suggested in a recent publication by Wei et al., “A transcriptional regulator that boosts grain yields and shortens the growth duration of rice”, which appears in the journal Science, July 22, 2022. Erik Stokstad, a reporter for Science points out in the same issue that “supercharged biotech rice yields 40% more grain”.

This report points out that giving a Chinese rice variety a second copy of one of its own genes has boosted its yield by up to 40%. When a second copy of a single gene (called OsDREB1C) is added to rice, it improves photosynthesis and nitrogen use, speeds up flowering and absorbing nitrogen more efficiently — offering larger and more abundant grains. The change helps the plant absorb more fertilizer, boosts photosynthesis, and accelerates flowering, all of which could contribute to larger harvests.

Rice exports

India is the world’s largest exporter of rice. It exported 18.75 million metric tons to over 150 countries during the year 2021-22, thereby earning $6.11 billion. This is a vast improvement from what it did a few years ago. As Adhikari et al. point out in 2016 (Export of rice from India; performance and determinants. Agri. Econ. Res. Review), it is clear that with growing demand in the coming years, strategies should be found to increase the production and export of rice.

Vietnam turns out to be the second most producer of rice, and it produced 6.5 million tonnes in 2021-2022. It has to be much more than the 18.75 million tons for India to continue and expand its role as the world’s largest producer and exporter of rice.  It is here that the above-mentioned paper from China by Wei et al. in Science is of value.

Gene modulation

A key point is that the researchers have added the same gene again, and not any foreign one. This is best described as genetic modulation. It is not a genetic modification (GM) and neither is the result a transgenic plant, carrying elements from another donor. 

This is particularly relevant to India, which must aim to continue its world position in the production of rice and marketing. An article published on June 16 in The Wire (‘India’s GM crops regulation should be based on a gene’s effects, not its source’) points out that “India has exempted crops with certain kinds of genetic modifications from the regulations previously imposed on the commercialisation of all genetically modified crops”.

For example, BT cotton involves the transfer of the gene from the bacterium called Bacillus thurigiensis (BT) to be transferred to normal cotton. India’s Agriculture Ministry has pointed out in 2019 that they have allowed transfer of this foreign gene to normal cotton, produce the BT cotton, which is then manufactured and sold both in India and abroad.

Likewise, an article in Business Standard points out that India will import 1.2 million tons of genetically modified (GM) soyabeans for livestock feed. Now, if the ministry allows the import of GM soyabean from abroad, why should it not allow the manufacture of this in India itself?

On the other hand, what the Science authors had done above is to add an extra copy of an already existing ‘native’ gene (OsDREB1C) in rice, and not a foreign one, as in the case of BT cotton or BT soyabean. India has some excellent rice researchers located in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab and Haryana, and genetic engineers in several laboratories across the country.

The Ministry of Agriculture can come together with the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and nutritionists from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) can support these researchers to augment India’s role as the major rice exporter in the world.

2. What is India’s policy on the Rohingya?

Can refugees who feel threatened in their home nation be deported? What are the government’s obligations?

The story so far: On August 17, Union Housing Minister Hardeep Singh Puri tweeted that Rohingya refugees would be shifted to flats meant for economically weaker sections (EWS), and provided with basic amenities and police protection. The Minister said “India respects & follows the UN Refugee Convention 1951 & provides refuge to all, regardless of their race, religion or creed.” The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) under Amit Shah issued a clarification saying that no such direction had been given to provide EWS flats to “Rohingya illegal foreigners”.

Where do the Rohingya live in Delhi?

The Rohingya live in hutments in the densely populated Kalindi Kunj and Madanpur Khadar areas in Delhi which are contiguous with Uttar Pradesh. Officially, about 1,200 Rohingya have been identified as among the first batch to have arrived in Delhi in 2012. After they protested outside the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) office in Delhi, they were provided with refugee cards.

What happened in June last year?

On June 13, 2021 a fire ravaged one of the Rohingya camps at Kanchan Kunj near Kalindi Kunj metro station in south Delhi. The land belonged to the irrigation department of the Uttar Pradesh government. A day before the fire broke out in the hutment, the Rohingya had been served notice by the U.P. irrigation department to vacate the premises. After the incident, the Sub Divisional Magistrate, Sarita Vihar, and Delhi Police made arrangements to move the displaced Rohingya to an empty plot nearby that belonged to the Zakat Foundation of India, an NGO. The Delhi government pitched tents and provided water and electricity. A mobile toilet was also set up. As the Delhi government was incurring an expenditure of ₹7 lakh per month, it was decided at a meeting held by the Delhi chief secretary on July 29 this year, to shift all Rohingya families to EWS flats which were to be designated as a detention centre and would be put under constant police watch. Residents at the camps said that currently the police do a daily roll call but they are free to move anywhere. A police post has been set up near their camp.

How is the Delhi government involved?

The Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO), responsible for tracking foreigners and their visas, has been requesting space at a new location for the Rohingya from the Delhi government since 2021. The FRRO is under the administrative control of the MHA. On March 19, 2021, FRRO, Delhi, wrote a letter to the Delhi government’s home department seeking another location to house the Rohingya. The home department sent a letter to another civic authority, the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), on June 23 the same year that the FRRO is constrained to restrict the movement of illegal foreigners and immigrants due to acute paucity of space. The department requested the NDMC chairman to allot a Baraat Ghar along with EWS flats at Bakkarwala village to accommodate the foreign inmates with “basic minimum housing facilities.” Earlier, in February 2021, a joint team of the social welfare department and home department of the Delhi government had zeroed in on the EWS flats to designate it as a restriction centre. On July 29, 2022 Delhi chief secretary Naresh Kumar held a meeting to find a “medium to long-term” residential solution for Rohingya refugee families. The minutes say that the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi was apprised of the plan. Since Delhi is a Union Territory, law and order is under the Central government, in this case, the MHA. The AAP has claimed that the elected Ministers of Delhi government were kept out of the loop.

When did the Rohingya come to Delhi?

Rohingya, an ethnic group, mostly Muslim, hail from the Rakhine province of west Myanmar, and speak a Bengali dialect. Myanmar has classified them as “resident foreigners” or “associate citizens,” They were forced to leave Myanmar in large numbers after several waves of violence, which first began in 2012. The Myanmar army revived the attacks in 2017 and lakhs took shelter in Bangladesh. Around five lakh Rohingya fled to Saudi Arabia in 2012. According to the July 29 minutes of the meeting, the Rohingya first came to Delhi in 2012.

What is the process of deportation?

According to the MHA, illegal immigrants are detected, detained and deported under provisions of the Passport Act, 1920 or the Foreigners Act, 1946. The powers to identify and deport them have also been delegated to State governments and Union Territories. Once a ‘foreigner’ has been apprehended by the police for staying illegally, without any document, he or she is produced before the local court. If the accused is found guilty, they can be imprisoned for three months to eight years. After completing their sentence, the court orders deportation. The foreign inmates are moved to detention centres till the country of origin verifies and accepts them.

Though there are no separate rules for deportation of the Rohingya, on August 8, 2017, amid fears of fresh exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar, the MHA wrote to all the States that “infiltration from Rakhine State of Myanmar into Indian territory specially in the recent years, besides being [a] burden on the limited resources of the country also aggravates the security challenges posed to the country.” It also said the rise in terrorism in the last few decades is a cause for concern in most nations and that illegal migrants are more vulnerable to getting recruited by terrorist organisations.

Have any Rohingya been deported?

In 2018, seven Rohingya were deported to Myanmar. It was the first time that Myanmar issued a certificate of identity to the seven Rohingya. They had been picked up in Assam in 2012. After they were moved to a detention centre from prison, they wrote to the Myanmar Embassy in 2016, expressing their desire to return to their country and gave an undertaking that they were returning out of their free will. According to advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW), since October 2018, India has deported 12 Rohingya to Myanmar, “claiming that they left voluntarily.” “However, the government denied repeated requests by UNHCR to gain access to them to independently assess whether the decision was voluntary,” HRW said.

In December 2017, the then Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju informed Parliament that there are around 40,000 Rohingya in India, of which around 5,700 are in Jammu and also in Telangana, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan. Of these, only 16,000 are said to be registered with the UN refugee agency. The MHA claimed that the exact number is not known as many of them enter the country clandestinely. In 2017, the Border Security Force apprehended 87 Rohingya along the Bangladesh border and 76 were pushed back to Bangladesh.

What is India’s stand on refugees?

India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. All foreign undocumented nationals are governed as per the provisions of The Foreigners Act, 1946, The Registration of Foreigners Act, 1939, The Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and The Citizenship Act, 1955.

The MHA informed Parliament on April 5 that “foreign nationals who enter into the country without valid travel documents are treated as illegal immigrants.” In 2016, Mr. Rijiju told the Lok Sabha that “there is no national law on refugees at present. Only Standard Operating Procedures are issued by the MHA to deal with foreign nationals in India, who claim to be refugees.”

In some instances, such as in the case of Pakistani Hindus who live in camps in Delhi, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, and Tibetans and Tamils from Sri Lanka, relief assistance is provided by the Centre that includes monthly cash dole, subsidised ration, clothing materials, utensils, cremation and shradh (last rites) grants and infrastructure facilities in camps. As on December 31, 2014, the number of stateless persons in India was 2,89,394 which included over 10,000 Bangladeshis and 10,000 Sri Lankans.

3. Corbevax booster should be a vaccine of choice

Due to faulty clinical trial design, the superiority of Corbevax heterologous booster over homologous boosters is not known

On January 10, 2022, booster doses were rolled out for health-care and frontline workers and those above 60 years with comorbidities. It was then expanded to all adults above 18 years from April 10. The greenlighting of booster doses on December 25, 2021 was done even without the approval of the vaccine approval body of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI). At the time of greenlighting booster doses and even now, only Covaxin and Corbevax booster trial data are available. No clinical trial data of Covishield as a booster dose are available even now, seven months after the rollout of booster doses.

In December last year, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the rollout of booster doses for the three high-risk, vulnerable categories, only the same vaccine as used for primary vaccination — homologous boosting — was allowed.

The phase-3 clinical trial data of Bio E’s Corbevax vaccine given as a booster dose to people who had received either Covaxin or Covishield during primary vaccination — heterologous boosting — showed the vaccine to be safe and effective in producing elevated antibodies levels.

Based on this data, on June 3, the Indian drug regulator approved Corbevax as a heterologous booster for all adults; NTAGI’s approval came at the end of July. And on August 10, the government approved the use of Corbevax as a heterologous booster shot to all adults who have received two doses of either Covaxin or Covishield.

The clinical trials of heterologous boosting carried out in other countries have found greater elevation of antibody levels (which is the criterion used for regulatory approvals) than homologous boosting.

Heterologous boosting

While Bio E’s phase-3 trial did indeed show Corbevax used as a heterologous booster shot was both safe and enhanced the immune responses, the clinical trial failed to show if heterologous boosting with Corbevax was superior to homologous boosting with either Covaxin or Covishield. This was because the trial used a placebo for the control arm, and hence, no comparison could be made with homologous boosting.

Just like the second dose, a booster dose — homologous or heterologous — too will produce elevated immune responses when administered a few months after primary vaccination. So, the elevated immune responses seen when Corbevax was used as a heterologous booster was not unexpected. 

“Third shot of any vaccine results in antibody production, be it homologous or heterologous. The evidence and broader principle are that heterologous boosting results in far greater quantities of antibodies than homologous boosting,” says Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, Physician-epidemiologist and vaccines specialist. “So, while every combination has not been studied, cumulative scientific evidence and understanding of immunology together, it is fair to believe that Corbevax as heterologous booster is a choice of vaccine for India,” he adds. 

So people who prefer a heterologous booster shot with Corbevax can be quite sure that the immune response might be higher than getting boosted with the same vaccine as used for primary vaccination but will not know how much more effective Corbevax will be compared with homologous boosting. 

In contrast, a heterologous comparator trial was conducted by Dr. Gagandeep Kang, Professor of Microbiology and her team at the Christian Medical College (CMC), Vellore. The trial compared the safety and efficacy of Covaxin and Covishield as a heterologous booster. The trial found that people who had received two doses of Covaxin followed by Covishield booster shot showed higher antibody levels compared with people who had received two doses of Covishield followed by Covaxin as a booster shot. 

The government had recently reduced the gap between the second dose and the booster shot from nine to six months. If the nine months gap between the second dose and the booster shot was decided without any data, there is no scientific evidence of better immune responses when the booster dose — homologous or heterologous — is given six months after the second dose.

“In my opinion, once two primary shots are administered for healthy adults, the approach should be to delay the booster shot as long as possible. For high-risk individuals with no history of COVID-19 infection, it could be a six- or nine-month interval for precaution shots. However, everyone else, including adults aged 18-59 years with co-morbidities but with past infection can delay booster vaccination for nine months or even longer after the second shot,” he says. 

Poor uptake

Besides the issue of efficacy, the larger question is the poor uptake of booster doses even among the three high-risk, vulnerable groups — health-care and frontline workers and those above 60 years. Despite the three categories becoming eligible for a booster shot from January 10 onwards, 65% of health-care workers have taken the booster shot as of August 16; at 72%, it is slightly higher among frontline workers. With 30% and 13%, the lowest uptake of booster shots is among adults older than 60 years and those in the age group 45-59 years, respectively.

The uptake has been low in the 60 years plus age group despite comorbidity conditionality was removed and the vaccine became available for free. The decision to make booster doses free for a limited period defies any public health logic. “I don’t understand the rationale of making COVID-19 precaution dose free for 75 days in government facilities. To me, it is very arbitrary,” says Dr. Lahariya.

Role of Omicron

It is true that a large percentage of people, both fully vaccinated and even boosted and the unvaccinated were infected with one or more of Omicron variant sub-lineages. It is currently not known if fully vaccinated people who have been subsequently infected gain substantially when boosted. “Vaccination does not protect from reinfections and the majority of India’s adult population has received both recommended shots. Therefore, giving a third or fourth or any subsequent shot is not going to prevent infections. The role of boosters in providing other benefits in terms of preventing severe disease or deaths is also marginal or limited,” Dr. Lahariya says.

But considering that the percentage of the population that has been boosted is small and yet hospitalisations and deaths have not increased, do we need to get boosted at all? “As per current scientific evidence and Indian context, a third or precaution shot is needed only for high-risk and vulnerable populations. For others, it should be a voluntary choice and that is the approach in India,” he adds.

And given the greater immune escape capability and less disease severity in the fully vaccinated when infected with any of the Omicron variants, it is again unclear if a booster dose is necessary for all adults. “The booster or precaution dose policy needs to be more granular than the primary vaccination policy. For the high-risk and vulnerable population, a third shot should be administered. Thereafter, in India, there is no need of any further shot for any population subgroup,” he says.

Also, the booster doses of all three vaccines — Covishield, Covaxin and Corbevax — have been developed based on the ancestral strain and not any of the Omicron variants. So, the question is whether homologous or heterologous boosting based on the ancestral strain will have the same effect as a booster shot based on one of the Omicron variants. “The level of antibodies produced by first generation vaccines against Omicron is slightly lower. However, the difference is marginal. That is not a reason, in my opinion, to argue for an additional shot. While research on multivalent or newer generation vaccines should continue, availability of such vaccines would not make an automatic case for another shot,” Dr. Lahariya adds.

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