1. Scientists freeze Great Barrier Reef coral in world-first trial
Scientists working on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have successfully trialled a new method for freezing and storing coral larvae they say could eventually help rewild reefs threatened by climate change.
Scientists are scrambling to protect coral reefs as rising ocean temperatures destabilise delicate ecosystems. The Great Barrier Reef has suffered four bleaching events in the last seven years, including the first ever bleach during a La Nina phenomenon, which typically brings cooler temperatures.
Cryogenically, frozen coral can be stored and later reintroduced to the wild but the current process requires sophisticated equipment including lasers. Scientists say a new lightweight “cryomesh” can be manufactured cheaply and better preserves coral.
In a December lab trial, the world’s first with Great Barrier Reef coral, scientists used the cryomesh to freeze coral larvae at the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences (AIMS). The coral had been collected from the reef for the trial, which coincided with the brief annual spawning window.
“If we can secure the biodiversity of coral… then we will have tools for the future to really help restore the reefs and this technology for coral reefs in the future is a real game-changer,” said Mary Hagedorn, Senior Research Scientist at the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.
The cryomesh was previously trialled on smaller and larger varieties of the Hawaiian corals. A trial on the larger variety failed.
Trials are continuing with larger varieties of Great Barrier Reef coral.
The trials involved scientists from the AIMS, the Smithsonian National Zoo and the Conservation Biology Institute, the Great Barrier Reef foundation and the Taronga Conservation Society Australia as part of the Reef restoration and adaptation programme.
The mesh technology, which will help store coral larvae at -196°C (-320.8°F), was devised by a team from the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering, including Dr. Zongqi Guo, a postdoctoral associate, and Professor John C. Bischof.
It was first tested on corals by PhD student Nikolas Zuchowicz.
“This new technology that we’ve got will allow us to do that at a scale that can actually help to support some of the aquaculture and restoration interventions,” said Jonathan Daly from the Taronga Conservation Society Australia.
2. Diabetes remission through intermittent, calorie-restricted diet
At 12 months follow-up, remission after discontinuing anti-diabetic drugs for at least three months was seen in 44% of participants in a small, randomised, controlled trial of 72 people
A small randomised, control trial with intermittent calorie-restricted diet carried out in people with type-2 diabetes was able to achieve remission in nearly 50% of the participants in the intervention group at the end of three months of follow-up after the trial. The trial lasted for three months. Even at 12 months of follow-up, remission was seen in 44% of the participants. All participants who achieved remission had completely stopped taking any drug to control blood sugar, and the remission lasted at least one year.
Even with the more stringent criteria for complete remission, which describes a return to normal measures of glucose metabolism (HbA1c in the normal range, and fasting blood glucose of 100 mg/dL) of at least one year duration in the absence of any anti-diabetic drugs, 33.3% (12/36) of participants in the intervention group achieved complete remission.
While many studies have validated the effectiveness and benefits of intermittent fasting in people with type-2 diabetes, no clinical trials have so far investigated the effectiveness of intermittent fasting in achieving remission.
For the trial, remission was defined as stable HbA1c levels less than 6.5% (48 mmol/mol) after discontinuing anti-diabetic medications for at least three months. During the trial, dosage of anti-diabetic medications was adjusted depending on blood glucose levels.
The results of the trial have been published inThe Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.
The trial was carried out on 72 participants, with 36 assigned to the intervention group and the remaining 36 participants being the control arm. The age of the participants was between 38 and 72 years with a duration of type-2 diabetes of one to 11 years. They had a body mass index (BMI) of 19.1 to 30.4, and were on anti-diabetic drugs and/or insulin.
Participants in the intervention arm received the Chinese Medical Nutrition Therapy (CMNT) diet andunderwent intermittent fasting for five days, followed by 10 days of ad libitum eating of everyday food items. The participants went through six cycles of intermittent fasting, followed by ad libitum eating during the three months of trial. The CMNTdiet contains daily foods such as wheat, barley, rice, rye, and oat, and features low glycaemic loads, calories, and carbohydrates.
The authors had found that participants who were prescribed fewer anti-diabetics drugs were more likely to achieve diabetes remissionthan those taking more drugs to control blood sugar. However, duration of type-2 diabetes did not influence diabetes remission in participants.
In an email toThe Hindu, Dr. Dongbo Liu from the Hunan Agricultural University, Changsha, China and one of the corresponding authors said, “Compared with any other low-calorie, low-carbohydrate diet which is difficult for patients to adhere to, the CMNT can be defined as periods of calorie restriction alternating with periods of ad libitum eating.”
According to Dr. Liu, the potential mechanism of the CMNT in achieving remission is by improving islet cell function, intestinal flora and liver glucose metabolism show. This allows the participants to revert to normal diet after three-month trial period. Explaining why the remaining 56% of the participants in the intervention group did not achieve remission, Dr. Liu said, “As the experimental design, the intervention period was planned for three months, while the time of getting diabetes remission is inconsistent due to differences in individual physical condition. So, the intervention cycle can be flexibly applied in practical applications and extended to make more people to achieve remission.”
“Outside China, people who want to attain remission from type-2 diabetes through an intermittent low-calorie diet can follow a diet with five modified fasting days (about 840 kcal/day, 46% carbohydrate, 46% fat, 8% protein), in the following 10 days of the ad libitum diet period, he or she would consume ad libitum diets with their eating habits,” Dr. Liu said.
Explaining how easy it was for participants and for people outside the trial to follow the CMNT diet, he said, “It was effortless for patients to complete the CMNT intervention cycles — nearly 89% (32/36) of the participants completed the clinical trial.”
While the published paper has data for only one year follow-up, participants are being continuously followed up. According to Dr. Liu, all participants have been followed up for two years by now, and a follow-up of five years or more is ongoing to explore the stability of the CMNT diet and its impact on complications. The scientists are planning further research and trial involving more participants living in a larger geographical area and a CMNT digital medical product for diabetes that combines biotechnology with information technology is under way.
3. Nutrient supplements alone will not make children smarter
There are many holy grails for parents with respect to their children’s development and accomplishments, but the holiest must be their growing into adults with high Intelligent Quotient (IQ) and earning capacity. IQ, in turn, is tied closely to cognitive development, or the increasing ability of the growing child to think and reason.
Growth faltering, as an easily measurable outcome of poor nutrition, was shown in many cross-sectional studies to be associated with poor cognitive development. However, this was not simple and was confounded by poverty. The question was: did poor nutrition result in poor cognitive development and lower adult IQ? Some scholars naively linked stunting, as an indicator of poor nutrition, to poor cognitive development of the child’s eventual adult capital, an intangible human asset linked to their knowledge, talents, skills, and abilities, among other qualities.
However, this single-cause interpretation lacked consideration of important mediators like schooling and its quality, which varies with wealth and home environment. A second interpretation was that if an early, nutritionally induced cognitive decline occurred, it would ‘track’ like a scar into adulthood, leaving its negative stigmata on the individual’s capital, and indeed collectively, on the GDP of a nation. But this problem is far more complex.
In a biological framework, micronutrients such as iron, iodine, and vitamin B12 are essential for normal brain development and functioning, as shown when profound deficiency is created in experimental animals, or clinically, in patients with severe nutrition deficiency diseases. Supplements helped in these cases, resulting in an enthusiastic push for macro- and micronutrient supplements in early childhood, eventually tying solely into stunting prevention. But this is an unbalanced approach, as a recent Lancet Global Health paper shows.
The study evaluated four adult cohorts from birth, from Brazil, Guatemala, Philippines and South Africa. The relative contributions of early-life height and schooling to adult IQ were assessed, and the study found that schooling and early cognitive development were most important for the attained adult IQ. Importantly, child height was not independently associated with adult IQ. Thus, arguments for nutritional interventions to reduce stunting in early childhood, to improve adult IQ, earnings, and human capital, are simplistic — such claims are vastly exaggerated.
The message is clear: policy to improve cognitive development and adult human capital must not solely focus on the provision of nutrition for height. It requires holistic policies on quality of schooling and its social, emotional, and cognitive context.
In clinical perspective, serious nutritional deprivation will impact brain development and nutrition. Undernourished children should be given nutritional attention. But in the current life setting, observed nutrient deficits in public health are of the milder variety, which can easily be met by simple dietary education. Prescribing mixtures or single (micro)nutrients as supplements to make “smarter” babies and adults is unwarranted and unwise.
Much more needs to be done: just like food and exercise build muscles, food with creative, nurturing schooling is an exercise for the mind, related to the development of human capital. Aspirations for making smarter children and adults necessitate overall development instead of a narrow focus on nutrients.
4. Is the economy driving with the brakes on?
How have global factors like the war in Ukraine impacted India? Why has inflation remained high for most of the year? What measures have the Reserve Bank adopted to cool prices?
At this time last December, India’s economy was on the cusp of a fledgling recovery from COVID-19, though the Omicron variant posed fresh speed bumps for the rebound. With oil prices escalating, commodity prices volatile and shipping disruptions hitting supply chains, the U.S. had recorded a 40-year high inflation rate in November 2021 and ripple effects were expected to flare up around the world. That Russia’s brewing tensions with Ukraine could come to a head, was a worry too. Broadly, however, economists and the government were hopeful that Indian households’ consumption spending would return to pre-pandemic normalcy in 2022 and help fuel a virtuous private investment revival spurring job creation.
Why did 2022 turn out to be a rougher storm than most anticipated?
While the Omicron wave was less fatal than the pandemic’s preceding waves, it also didn’t take as much of a toll on the economy in 2022 as the previous two years. However, some of the other fear factors at the turn of the year did materialise and ended up manifesting themselves into more shocks across the globe. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman summed up the biggest dampener when she explained to the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday why the government had sought over ₹3.25 lakh crore more for this year than it had budgeted for. “As we were preparing for the 2022-23 Budget (presented on February 1), there was a clear understanding across the globe that the pandemic is waning and recovery measures by different countries were all probably taking us to a good road to recovery. The IMF projected that the Indian economy will grow at a high rate of 9%… But then came in late February, the Russia-Ukraine war and the complete disruption in supply chains, particularly for food and energy,” she said. Amounting to 8% over the Budget expenditure estimates, the supplementary funds were sought largely for food subsidies for the poor that were initiated in the pandemic and recently extended till December 31, and an escalation in the fertilizer subsidy bill due to higher global prices.
As JP Morgan managing director and India chief economist Sajjid Chinoy explained at a CII economic policy summit last week, 2022 was expected to see a pick-up in growth as well as inflation, but by the middle of the year, there was a real concern that the global economy would slip and slide into recession thanks to supply shocks. “I would venture to say that we are ending the year with another R word, which is resilience for the global economy. Just think of what’s happened in the last 12 months — we’ve had the strongest global inflation in 50 years around the world, we’ve had the most aggressive and synchronised monetary tightening cycle in 40 years, we’ve had the strongest U.S. dollar in 20 years for much of this year. And we’ve had what’s less appreciated — the weakest Chinese growth in about 46 years barring the pandemic. Now, in a normal year, two of these shocks would have been enough to tip the global economy into recession, we’ve had four such shocks, and we are still standing.” One key reason for this resilience that helped ride out an almost perfect storm is that large corporate balance sheets have become stronger on the back of record profits in the last couple of years and were able to absorb these multiple shocks better, Mr. Chinoy said.
What hogged Indian policy makers’ attention?
While a slowdown in manufacturing and exports in recent months is a cause of worry, inflation was undoubtedly India’s bugbear of the year. With Russia being a key energy supplier and Ukraine a dominant player in the world market for food items like wheat and sunflower oil, fuel and food inflation translated into consumer price rise levels not seen in decades across several countries. India’s retail inflation which flared up to the 6% upper tolerance threshold set for the central bank in January 2022, stayed over that mark through 10 of the 11 months for which data is now available. This included some months of 7%-plus inflation, with April recording a near eight-year peak of 7.8%. The surge in inflation compelled central banks, including the U.S. Federal Reserve, to hasten unwinding of easy money policies deployed to prop up economic activity through the pandemic.
In a bid to rein in inflation pressures, India’s central bank has also hiked rates through the year to take the key policy rate from 4.9% in April to 6.25% by December. While the latest hike announced earlier this month was a less aggressive 35 basis points compared to 50 basis points in the previous monetary policy iterations, there is still no sign we are at the end of this tether yet. On its part, the central government unveiled a slew of measures to cool prices, including a ban on wheat exports and curbs on a few other food items’ exports, with a few measures to rein in high raw material costs for industry owing to runaway commodity prices. Petrol and diesel prices have been frozen through most of this year, but that has also meant consumers have not gained from price resets when global crude prices fall, as they have in recent weeks. Vegetable prices fell dramatically in November to bring inflation below 6% for the first time this year, but cereals and pulses’ price rise continue to accelerate. The government expects steps to check cereals and pulses prices to be ‘felt more significantly’ in coming months, while the Reserve Bank of India, which had to recently explain to the Centre its failure to meet the inflation target range for three quarters in a row, expects inflation to average 5.9% in the January to March quarter. National Council for Applied Economic Research director-general Poonam Gupta believes inflation will be lower in the coming year, partly due to base effects and partly due to the rate hikes.
Are we out of the woods yet and what’s the outlook for 2023?
Growth expectations have fluctuated through the year as have growth rates skewed by pandemic base effects (real GDP grew 4.1% in the January to March quarter, followed by 13.5% in April to June, before halving to 6.3% between July and September). However, the Indian economy has displayed a broad resilience amid strong external headwinds thanks to a consistently growing farm sector and consumers catching up on pent-up demand for contact-intensive services that have now recovered to pre-COVID levels. The World Bank recently scaled up its 2022-23 growth estimate to 6.9%. By all accounts, however, growth is expected to be slower in the coming year (2023-24) at around 6% or slightly under.
Most developed nations are expected to enter a recession, which will dent demand for India’s exports. With the Ukraine conflict far from over, fresh fears of a new COVID-19 variant spreading its wings, little hope of an immediate pause in global monetary tightening and the RBI’s warning of the next financial crisis emerging from private cryptocurrencies, the risks ahead remain as heady as they were last year.
5. What is the threat from global COVID rise?
Why has China lifting its zero-COVID policy led to a spurt in cases? How will it impact other countries like India? Is it possible to suppress an epidemic? Are vaccines not working?
The Union Ministry of Health has issued a communique to States to resume genome sequencing of new cases of COVID-19, in view of the sudden spurt of cases in some parts of the world. In a letter, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said sequencing of positive case samples will allow the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium network to track the variants, enabling timely detection of newer variants, in order to undertake requisite public health measures in time. The Health Ministry has also advised people to mask up, though it is not yet mandatory. Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya said: “COVID is not over yet… We are prepared to handle any situation.”
What was the situation in India in 2022?
After ravaging the world for nearly two years, COVID-19 gave India a respite from the mid first quarter of 2022. While a total of 4.47 crore cases of COVID-19 were detected cumulatively in India, and the number of deaths stood at 5.31 lakh, the number of cases began going down from March 2022, with only 201 new cases reported on December 23.
Consequently, restrictions that were imposed on public movement in the country were eased out. With the Indian government removing the Air Suvidha notification for international travel, end November, the last vestige of the pandemic protocol, was shed.
What is the global situation?
In the U.S., a trifecta of viruses — Respiratory Syncytial Virus, Influenza and COVID-19 — led to a rising number of respiratory infection cases since September, accelerating post November.
In China, the number of cases began to soar as it dropped its zero-COVID policy and lifted all restrictions, in response to unprecedented protests. Because of the sheer size of the population and the fact that the nation had not been exposed properly to the natural march of the virus, there has been a massive surge end of the year. It has reached a stage where the doubling time was just a few hours, according to some reports. This has apparently rendered it impossible to calculate the R Number (an indication of how fast the infection is spreading) anymore.
Simultaneously in Brazil, Korea and Japan, rising numbers have been a source of concern.
What happened in China?
Chennai-based infectious diseases specialist Subramanian Swaminathan says with its polar approaches, China made mistakes in handling the epidemic. “From stringent restrictions that were imposed thanks to a zero-COVID policy, they opened up, (because the public was getting restive), without any step down or gradual easing of restrictions. This can be very dangerous in health care.”
It is also impossible to suppress an epidemic, he explains. Every pandemic will ‘equilibrate’, and over a period of time, level out infection levels across the world. It is not possible for some areas in the world to have a large number of cases, and others stop with low numbers.
He concurs with epidemiologists who say “China’s vaccine is probably not great in neutralising the current variant, and vaccination coverage in the 60-plus group is poor.” China also has low hybrid immunity, which is immunity granted by the twin factors of natural infection and vaccination, since it artificially suppressed the waves of COVID-19 with harsh restrictions, he says.
Eric Feigl-Ding is an epidemiologist and health economist whose health forecasts since early 2020 have been unfathomably close to reality, though they were initially termed alarmist. He has predicted a rising tsunami of cases. He believes that China will have about 80 crore infections in a matter of three months, i.e. 60% of its population will be impacted. He goes on to quote emerging reports from China of hospitalisations soaring, and long queues outside crematoria.
What are the future implications for India?
N.K. Arora, chief, National Immunisation Technical Advisory Group, said that the situation in India is under control, but vigil is necessary. The bulk of the adult population has been vaccinated, he said. About 70% of the country has been fully vaccinated, though booster vaccination is flagging.
He added that almost all the sub-variants of Omicron found across the world were circulating in India as well, and no alarming situation has emerged so far.
Dr. Subramanian says the BF.7 variant, the latest one, was said to have an R Number of 10, which is pretty high. “However, this has not led to a high number of cases as evidenced by very little or no hospitalisations for COVID-19 over the past months. Nevertheless, the way ahead for India is to take up aggressive booster vaccination, and also look at rolling out the nasal vaccine that curbs transmission.” The government has just sanctioned the use of nasal vaccine for the 18-plus group as a booster. In a scenario where the number of tests has dropped (the total number of daily tests in India is at 1,15,734, against high prevalence States conducting a lakh or more tests daily during the peaks), he recommends conducting waste water surveillance for monitoring community infections.
Chandrakant Lahariya, vaccines and public health expert, says there is no reason to panic, but points out that initiating genomic surveillance is a good idea. “In the current situation no two countries are comparable, particularly in terms of natural infection load and vaccination coverage. India has good hybrid immunity.” He, however, cautions that one needs to remain alert, particularly in terms of surveillance, considering that the true position hardly emerges from China.
6. A 225-km yatra to save the endangered sacred groves of Rajasthan
A unique 225-km yatra taken out through remote villages and hamlets in western Rajasthan, which culminated at the Jaisalmer district headquarters earlier this week, has put forth the demand of protection of orans or sacred groves, which face the threat of destruction with their land being allotted for renewable energy infrastructure and high-tension power lines.
Orans also form the natural habitat for India’s most critically endangered bird, the Great Indian Bustard (GIB). Many birds have died during the last few years because of collision with power lines, making this the most significant threat to the majestic birds.
The participants in the march on foot, who were mostly environmental activists and wildlife enthusiasts, highlighted the significance of orans, which are groves of trees with a rich diversity of traditional flora and fauna and waterbodies, considered sacred and preserved by the locals.
Environmental activist Sumer Singh Bhati, who led the yatra, told The Hindu that the allotment of their land to solar and wind energy, mining and other industries was affecting the ecology of the region.
Tradition dictates that no tree or plant in the groves is cut and only seasonal grazing of livestock is allowed. However, solar power companies have resorted to arbitrary action and felledtrees to install their big projects. About 60 activists, who traversed through about 50 villages and hamlets in Jaisalmer district for nine days with a camel cart, apprised the villagers of the issues involved in their agitation and raised awareness among the local communities