The News Editorial Analysis 16th Jan 2022

The News Editorial Analysis 16th Jan 2022

The News Editorial Analysis 16th Jan 2022

Daily COVID-19 cases remain high; 305 deaths recorded

Kerala records the highest number of casualtiesIndia recorded 2,62,938 COVID-19 cases and 305 deaths on Saturday.The country has so far reported 3,68,52,416 cases and 4,85,807 deaths. The active cases stand at 14.19 lakh.The figures are based on the State bulletins released until 9.30 p.m. on Saturday. Ladakh, Jharkhand, Tripura and Lakshadweep had, however, not yet released data for the day.Maharashtra reported 42,462 infections followed by Karnataka (32,793), Tamil Nadu (23,989) and Delhi (20,718). Kerala recorded the highest number of casualties (106) on Saturday followed by West Bengal (39) and Delhi (30).The results of 16,13,740 samples tested on Friday were made available on Saturday.

Positivity rate

The positivity rate on Saturday was around 16.4%.Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka reported 4,955 and 32,793 cases, respectively, whileTelangana had witnessed a dip in cases.As of Saturday, India has fully vaccinated 64.2% of its eligible population (15+) and partially vaccinated 89.2%. Around 45.6% of the 15-17 age group population has received at least one dose.

SilverLine details in public domain

Elevated stations at Kochuveli, Ernakulam and Thrissur, and underground facility at KozhikodeEven as K-Rail officials have been maintaining that the complete detailed project report (DPR) of the 530-km SilverLine will be published only after the ₹63,941-crore project got all sanctions (citing industry norm), its executive summary and other pertinent details have made it to the public domain.The DPR in its present form has been officially published, it is learnt.

Not final

“It is not yet the final DPR, since the Railway Board, Union Finance Ministry, NITI Aayog, and even the Union Cabinet might suggest changes, following which it will be revisited,” official sources said. The DPR being available in the public domain comes against the backdrop of Anwar Sadath, MLA, recently moving a privilege motion seeking publishing of the full DPR.The DPR spread over 3,773 pages in six volumes and compiled by Systra, the general consultant for the semi-high-speed rail project mooted to link Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod, contains comprehensive details of the project, including the potential for having aggregator stations at 27 potential towns en route.

It speaks of geotechnical investigation done by drilling 127 boreholes, approximately every five km and at other important locations. The per train capacity from 2026 to 2053 has been mentioned as 675 passengers per nine-coach train, which can go up to 1,125 passengers for 15-coach trains envisaged from 2042.It speaks of elevated stations at Kochuveli, Ernakulam, and Thrissur, an underground one at Kozhikode and at-ground stations at all the other seven places, including at the Kochi airport. It speaks of garnering the following revenue from ticket sale – ₹2,276 crore in 2025-26, ₹4,504 crore in 2032-33, ₹10,361 crore in 2042-43, ₹21,827 crore in 2052-53, ₹42,476 crore in 2062-63, and ₹81,139 crore in 2072-73.

The DPR speaks of constructing embankments of the rail with geo-mesh and geo-grid reinforcements to reduce the width of land and increase stability.

Renewable sources

Banking substantially on green energy, it says 100% power will be sourced from renewable sources such as solar, inhouse production, purchase of renewable power from third party, and from the Kerala State Electricity Board to make a green and sustainable transport system.It cites the need for an operation and maintenance organisation to ensure optimal upkeep of all SilverLine assets.The maintenance of major systems may be in-house, and that of minor systems may be outsourced. Maintenance will be done on a preventive and proactive maintenance principle.

Cloud over foreign leaders’ R-Day visi

Contingency plans to hold a summit with PM Modi virtually in Delhi this month being consideredWith COVID-19 cases still on the rise 10 days ahead of Republic Day, the government is considering putting off plans to invite the leaders of five Central Asian nations as the chief guests to the parade, and holding a summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually in Delhi this month.The contingency plans and a number of options to reduce the size of the Republic Day parade and audience were discussed at a meeting chaired by Mr. Modi on Saturday.According to officials involved in the planning of the January 26 events, a proposal has been sent to the five leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to attend a video-conference summit, in case there is no let-up in the pandemic situation.At present, say officials, the cases in the current wave are likely to peak at the end of January which prompted the review as the foreign dignitaries had confirmed their attendance last month.

The Kazakhstan President’s visit was already under some question given the unrest in the capital Nur Sultan earlier this month that was brought under control with the help of Russian troops, after which President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appointed a new government. However, when asked, diplomats from the countries said preparations for the visits were still very much in place.Mr. Modi chaired a meeting on the Republic Day arrangements on Saturday where discussions on truncating the parade route and reducing the number of invitees further down from the arrangements last year were included.

Strictly official

According to reports earlier this week, which officials confirmed, the parade will be restricted mainly to officials, diplomats and journalists and the government has decided to disallow invitations to those below 15 years given vaccinations do not yet cover them.Among the decisions taken was an announcement that the official celebrations wouldbegin from this year onwards from January 23 instead of January 24 to include the birth anniversary of Subhash Chandra Bose which has been named “Parakram Divas”. Government sources said in a message the decision was in line with the “Modi government’s focus on celebrating/commemorating important aspects of history and culture”.Besides Mr. Tokayev, Presidents Sadyr Japarov (Kyrgyzstan), Emomali Rahmon (Tajikistan), Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov (Turkmenistan) and Shavkat Mirziyoyev (Uzbekistan) are due to attend the India-Central Asia Summit with Mr. Modi on January 25 in Delhi.At the India-Central Asia Foreign Ministers convened by Minister of External Affairs(MEA) S. Jaishankar in December, several initiatives for increasing connectivity, trade and regional cooperation had been finalised.

Speculation has been growing on the plans for the Republic Day as the (MEA) has not yet formally announced the visit by the five leaders, though Turkmenistan Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov had referred to the “upcoming Central Asia-India Summit in January” during his Delhi visit last month.Officials said if the contingency proposal goes into effect, the summit would be held as scheduled but via video-conference instead, as several others have been since the global pandemic first broke out in early 2020.

In 2021, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to cancel his attendance as the Republic Day chief guest and the India-U.K. summit was held subsequently via video-conference in May.Officials have also had to take into account progress on the Central Vista project while deciding on the route and the number of stands that can be accommodated around the areas down Rajpath still under construction and renovation.

A source associated with the project said while there was some delay in the Republic Day parade arrangements and in the work at the traffic junctions, it was not a “major” delay.

Covaxin booster increases neutralising antibodies

The News Editorial Analysis 16th Jan 2022

 The control arm of the study had 93 participants and the intervention arm had 91 participants, but most of these people were under 55 years A joint study by Bharat Biotech and ICMR has provided the first evidence of the immune response of a homologous booster six months after the second dose. The randomised control trial was carried out on 184 participants belonging to the phase-2 trial arm that received 6 microgram of the vaccine for both first and second dose.

The booster dose was found to be safe. The most frequent adverse events reported were mild and transient pain and itching at the injection site.The booster dose was given seven months (215 days) after the second dose. The primary outcome was to measure neutralising antibody titres four weeks after the booster shot.The results have been posted on a preprint server, medRxiv. Preprints are yet to be peer-reviewed.The control arm had 93 participants and the intervention arm had 91 participants. However, majority of the 184 participants were younger than 55 years. In the case of the intervention arm, 85 of 91 participants were in the age group 18-55 years, while 82 of 93 participants belonged to the same age group in the control arm. The median age of participants in the intervention arm was 35 years; it was 36 years for the control arm.

Small number

“The study recruited only a very small number of people above 55 years of age — 6.6% in the vaccine arm and 7.5% in the placebo arm. Since the data are not broken up by age, we can’t tell how well the booster worked in the most vulnerable age group,” Dr. Shahid Jameel, Director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University, says in an email. “More detailed studies and a longer term follow up are needed.”From January 10, booters are being administered to those older than 60 years with comorbidities and to health-care and frontline workers. The reason for prioritising people above 60 years for a booster shot is because elderly people are relatively less likely to have developed sufficient antibodies after two doses.

Low representation

With the booster dose study including just half-a-dozen participants over 55 years in each arm, the immune responses following a booster shot in the elderly is still not clearly known. But it was on March 23, 2021, that Bharat Biotech was permitted to conduct a booster dose trial using Covaxin by the Subject Expert Committee. At that time, only those in the phase-2 trial to test vaccine safety and immunogenicity had received the second dose more than six months ago, and hence the permission was granted to conduct the trial on these participants. The phase-2 trial that tested 6 mcg of the vaccine on 190 participants included only 10 individuals who were in the 55-65 years age group.

Increase in antibodies

About three-fourths of the 184 participants still had neutralising antibody titres above baseline value at the end of six months after the second dose. “As expected, the booster dose shows an increase in neutralising antibody titres against the virus. What is even more pleasing is that the boosting effect is observed against all circulating variants (except Omicron, which was not studied),” Dr. Jameel says.

Both the placebo and the intervention arms witnessed an increase in neutralising antibody levels. The increase in antibody levels in the control arm is most likely to be due to natural infection as the booster trial was conducted during the second wave.

The increase in neutralising antibodies in both arms provides proof that repeated exposure to the virus antigen either through infection or vaccination leads to an increase in neutralising antibodies.Though studies carried outside India have found that infection leads to higher neutralising antibody levels and longer duration of protection against infection compared with vaccination, achieving protection through vaccination is safe and advisable.

Elevated antibodies

Though neutralising antibody levels were found elevated in both control and intervention arms, the level of increase was higher in the intervention arm. For instance, four weeks after the booster shot, the control arm witnessed a fourfold increase in neutralising antibodies while the intervention arm witnessed a 31-fold increase.

“Since even the placebo arm showed about 4-fold rise in titres (attributed to infection) and the same is expected in the vaccine arm, the actual boost by the vaccine is not about 30-fold but 30/4, which is 7.5-fold,” Dr. Jameel says.The sevenfold increase in neutralising antibodies in the vaccine arm compared to the placebo group following a booster dose becomes clear when the values of the plaque reduction neutralisation test of the two groups are compared. However, the microneutralisation test revealed that the antibody increase in the intervention arm was less than twofold than the control arm.

“In the case of binding antibodies, the difference between the two arms is not statistically significant at the end of four weeks following the booster shot,” says Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, physician-epidemiologist and public policy and health systems specialist.As part of another study, the sera samples from individuals who received a booster were tested to assess neutralising capacity against Delta and Omicron variants. While the preprint does not provide any details about neutralising studies against Omicron, a press release sent out by Bharat Biotech on January 12 says the sera samples from individuals who received a booster were found to be “effective in neutralizing Omicron variants on a live virus neutralization assay”.“More than 90% of all individuals boosted with Covaxin showed neutralizing antibodies,” the release says.“As the dominant COVID-19 variant throughout the world, Omicron poses a serious public health concern,” Dr. Mehul Suthar from Emory Vaccine Center and who led the laboratory analysis says in the release. “Data from this preliminary analysis show individuals receiving a booster dose of Covaxin have a significant immune response to both the Omicron and Delta variants. These findings suggest that a booster dose has the potential to reduce disease severity and hospitalisations.”

Muscles starve in the absence of vitamin D, study of mice finds

The study examined the molecular nature of muscle dysfunction in mice, in the absence of vitamin DSkeletal muscles normally brim with energy, yet they starve in the absence of Vitamin D, says recent research led by Aneeshkumar A. G. of National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi. This research demonstrates that glycogen stored in the skeletal muscles is not converted into a usable form of energy without Vitamin D.Usually, the glucose absorbed from the food is converted into glycogen and stored in the skeletal muscle. This stored energy reserve is used by muscles to produce energy after the food consumed is digested. However, in the absence of vitamin D, the skeletal muscle is starved of energy, decreasing muscle mass.

Muscle wasting

Vitamin D deficiency is often associated with rickets. In rickets, the bone tissue does not correctly mineralise calcium and phosphorus, leading to softening of bones resulting in skeletal deformities. However, we are becoming aware that vitamin D works more as a hormone than and is involved in a host of biochemical reactions. It is key to maintaining metabolic functions, immune system, bone health and plays a crucial role in depression, mood swings, anxiety and sleep quality.As part of the normal metabolic process, proteins produced in our body degrade, and in due course, new proteins are made to replace them. Usually, when the protein degradation exceeds protein synthesis, skeletal muscle atrophy or simply a decrease in muscle mass occurs.”We wanted to find out the molecular nature of muscle dysfunction in the absence of vitamin D. We started with the hypothesis that the root cause is metabolic dysfunction. We used a mouse model which does not have a vitamin D receptor:[VDR] a protein that binds to vitamin D and switches several genes on or off to test our hypotheses,” says Dr. Aneeshkumar.

Hungry cells

Typically, the protein synthesis is high when the digestion of the food is taking place and is slower during the post-absorptive state when the digestion is completed. “In order to examine if the protein degradation and subsequent muscle wasting occur primarily during the absorptive or post-absorptive phase, we compared the protein synthesis during both the phases. In control mice, the levels were as expected. Nevertheless, in mice lacking VDR after the weaning stage of growth, the protein synthesis was impaired during the post-absorptive stage,” explains Dr. Aneeshkumar, and adds, “without the vitamin D receptor there was a general increase in protein degradation and a decrease in post-absorptive protein synthesis.”Initially, scientists suspected that the absence of VDR is preventing the synthesis of glycogen from the food. “We checked whether the energy deprivation in skeletal muscles is associated with differences in glycogen levels,” says Dr. Aneeshkumar. To their surprise, VDR knockout mice had higher glycogen levels than the control ones. “We found that the glycogen synthase, the key enzyme that converts glucose into glycogen, was having a field day without the inhibitory enzymes active”. More and more glycogen was being produced and stored in the skeletal muscle.Nevertheless, the glycogen phosphorylase, an enzyme that converts glycogen to glucose when energy is needed, was significantly lower. “As a result, while muscle continued to make glycogen, none of it could be converted back to glucose resulting in energy deficiency,” explains Dr. Aneeshkumar. Even with abundant glycogen present, the skeletal muscle could not extract the energy in the absence of vitamin D.”From this research, we think we have found the molecular mechanism by which the vitamin D deficiency leads to muscle wasting. Without vitamin D, glycogen storage cannot be utilised for glucose production. When the glycogen storage does not give energy, particularly in a post-absorb state, the skeletal muscle draws more glucose from the blood. This leads to a systemic energy shortage. When there is systemic lack of energy, like during hunger, the protein degradation in muscle is triggered leading to muscle wasting,” explains Dr. Aneeshkumar. “Although our study is in mice, we think this mechanism is broadly applicable in humans as well,” he said.

Ultrafast sequencing

Stanford School of Medicine researchers set a Guinness world record for the fastest genome sequencing technique when they sequenced in five hours and two minutes the genome of an enrolled patient. Normally, it is considered a rapid technique if the sequenced results are returned within a week.

Slush on the Moon

Research modelling anorthosites – light rocks that formed early in the Moon’s history – yields a new model for the formation of its crust. This theory proposes that crystals remained suspended in liquid magma for hundreds of millions of years as this ‘slushy ocean’ slowly cooled, froze and solidified. The study is published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Sixth warmest year

Year 2021 tied with 2018 as the sixth warmest on record, find studies conducted by NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Global temperatures were 0.85 degrees Celsius warmer in 2021 than the average for the baseline period from 1951 to the present. Earth was about 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial levels.

Mystery of mutations

Mutations can occur when DNA is damaged and left unrepaired. Sequencing hundreds of Arabidopsis thaliana (a flowering weed) plants in the lab, the scientists came across millions of mutations, which when analysed showed a non-random pattern. The study, published in Nature, showed that patches of genome with low mutations had an over-representation of essential genes

When it itches, you scratch

The elderly are prone to chronic conditions that manifest as itchesThere was a young lady from Natchezwhose clothes were always in patches.When asked why this was, she replied it’s becausewherever I itches, I scratches.An unpleasant sensation that elicits the desire or the reflex to scratch is how itch has been classically defined. Scratching does help ward off that insect which is troubling you; but pruritus (as itch is called) that persists for longer than six weeks is a pathological state with profound effects on the health, physical and mental, of one in seven persons. Ongoing research has uncovered a wide range of mechanisms underlying what appears to be a single condition.

Chronic itch can be dermatologic – often triggered by the release of histamine, and treated with antihistamine drugs (e.g., Benadryl), neuropathic (related to the nervous system, as in shingles, nerve compression and cerebral hemorrhage), or systemic (as in renal insufficiency) or psychogenic (as in obsessive-compulsive disorders).

Itch in the elderly

The elderly are particularly prone to chronic conditions that manifest as itches. In a South Indian study, (Manickam and colleagues, Journal of The Indian Academy of Geriatrics, 2018; 14:17-25) eczema was seen in 29% of a study group of subjects in the 60+ age group. Another study at the Base hospital of the Delhi Cantonment on the same age group reported that 56% of their subjects complained of pruritus (Indian Dermatology Online Journal, 10(5), 2019). In an analysis of 100 patients complaining of chronic itch. associated causes could be pinpointed in 62, and included diabetes, hypothyroidism, several cancers and Iron deficiency. (Indian Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, 5: 130, 2019).Factors that induce itch are called pruritogens. Tissues that are sensitive to itch include the skin, mucus membranes and the cornea of the eye. Some nerve fibres in these tissues (pruriceptors) are stimulated by pruritogens and the resulting signals are carried, via itch-signaling neurons in the spinal cord, to the brain. There are several different receptors and channels that respond to pruritogens. A great degree of redundancy in their roles ensures that no matter what, the itch sensation gets through to your brain.A common example of chronic itch is atopic dermatitis, an inflammatory condition showing cracked, itchy skin, which is often caused by allergens. As an example, it may be triggered by the house dust mite, barely a third of a millimeter in size, that feeds on the dead scaly skin that you shed all the time. Its faeces contains a protein which is a potent pruritogen. Upon binding to receptors in the skin, it elucidates allergic reactions such as atopic dermatitis, or asthma. These receptors are therapeutic targets, the aim being to block the itch sensation from being transduced to the brain, without hindering other sensations that protect you from harm.

Not the same as painThe scratch response is a key difference between itch and pain. Sudden, sharp pain causes you to hurriedly retract and thus escape damage; scratching actually draws attention to the cause of the itch. Scratching evokes an inhibition of itch-signaling neurons in the spinal cord. This reduces the quantum of itch sensations that reach the brain. What a relief! But the respite is only short-lived – by scratching, you are inflicting mild pain, and in your brain, pain can momentarily overshadow the itch sensation. Scratching may even trigger reward systems in the brain, making it a pleasurable feeling. But for patients with chronic itch, scratching can be a bane, causing damage to the skin and aggravating the itch.

Phantom itches

People who have lost a hand or leg often find that their ‘phantom limb’ itches profusely. Their brain rewires itself over time and signals from another part of the body now map to the region that earlier received somatosensory inputs from the limb. In a series of deceptively simple experiments, the neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, showed that people who have recently lost a limb in accidents and often complain of their ‘phantom hand itching like crazy’, could obtain relief by scratching various parts of their face – scratch the upper lip, and the absent index finger feels comforted, and so on.Novel therapeutic methods try to tackle chronic itch at many different points, from the skin to the central nervous system. UVB light is known to attenuate histamine release from immune cells in the skin, so phototherapy has proved useful. Garments of a silk that is coated with antimicrobial compounds are another strategy to soothe itching skin. Long-term itch leads to functional anomalies in the regions of the brain associated with itch, and non-invasive transcranial direct-current simulation has been shown to offer relief.

Pig-to-human heart

Will this science lead to a new approach to organ transplantation?

The story so far: On January 7, David Bennett, a 57-year-old from Baltimore, Maryland, U.S. became the first person to receive a heart transplant from a genetically-modified pig. Surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center transplanted the porcine heart into Mr. Bennett suffering from terminal heart failure. Since transplantation of a pig heart into a human, called xenotransplantation, is an experimental procedure, doctors had to seek an emergency authorisation from the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Approval was granted as Mr. Bennett was facing near-certain death due to his condition and was too ill to qualify for a routine human heart transplantor, an artificial ventricular assist device.

Is David Bennett the first person to be transplanted with a porcine organ?

In late September last year, surgeons at the New York University Langone Health medical centre transplanted a kidney of a genetically modified pig into a brain-dead person. The second such pig kidney experiment at the same university was carried out on November 22, 2021 on a person maintained on a ventilator. The genetic modification was to deceive the human immune system from recognising the kidney as foreign and reject it. Since the recipients were already brain-dead, the purpose of the transplantation was not to save the patient; it was purely an experiment to find out if an organ from a genetically modified pig would be compatible, function normally and not be rejected.

What vital genetic modifications were done to make the pig heart transplantation possible?

Since the human immune system rejects anything that is foreign, whether from another person who is immunologically matched to the recipient or from a different species such as a pig, scientists had to tweak the pig genome to make the organ less likely to be rejected. According to the New Scientist, Revivicor, a U.S.-based company, is raising a small herd of genetically engineered pigs. These pigs have 10 of their genes genetically modified to reduce the possibility of rejection. Of the 10 genes, four were inactivated, including one that causes an aggressive immune response and another that causes the heart to grow after transplantation. In addition, six human genes were inserted into the pig genome to further reduce the risk of rejection. The recipient is also on an experimental drug to suppress the immune system so that the transplanted pig heart is not rejected.In the early 1990s, it became clear that all human immune reaction were directed at one pig antigen — a sugar molecule present on cell surfaces. Knocking out the gene that produces an enzyme, which in turn, produces the sugar molecule, helps in reducing the risk of an immune reaction leading to rejection. The DNA of pigs also contains many retroviruses that can infect human cells. The presence of such a virus in the transplanted organ raises the risk of infection in human recipients. Dozens of retroviruses have been removed from the organ to make it safer when transplanted.

Unlike the traditional breeding techniques to know both copies of a gene, the advent of genome-editing tools such as CRISPR/Cas9, which allows precise removal of specific genes has made gene modification simpler, fast and accurate. A genetically modified pig cell is fused with a pig ovum that has its DNA removed. The ova that contain only the genetically engineered genome start dividing to become pig foetuses. This is the same technique that was used to clone Dolly, the sheep. The embryos are then implanted into surrogate mothers. The gestation period is just 114 days, unlike in the case of humans. Pigs have been preferred as ideal candidates for xenotransplantation despite their immune system being different from humans for the simple reason that the porcine organs are anatomically similar to those of humans.

What are the reasons for xenotransplantation becoming more acceptable?

Last year, nearly 4,000 people in the U.S. received human donor hearts, but the need is far more. The highest demand is for kidneys. According to the health ministry, around 0.18 million people in India are estimated to suffer from renal failure every year, but only about 6,000 renal transplants are carried out in the country. About 25,000-30,000 liver transplants are needed annually in India but only about 1,500 are being performed. In the case of the heart, 50,000 people suffer from heart failure and are in need of a heart transplant. Yet, only 10-15 heart transplants are carried out in India each year. Harvesting organs from genetically engineered pigs is seen as a viable alternative to meet organs shortage. Besides scientific challenges, there are several ethical challenges to overcome before xenotransplantation of porcine organs become a reality.

Why is India challenging WTO verdict on sugar?

When did Australia, Brazil and Guatemala file a complaint and what are the rules?

The story so far: India this week filed an appeal with the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization (WTO) disputing a verdict by the WTO’s dispute settlement panel last month on sugar subsidies. The WTO’s dispute settlement panel had ruled that India, by subsidising sugar producers, was breaking rules framed under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which govern international trade.

What is it?

In 2019, Australia, Brazil, and Guatemala complained against India at the WTO arguing that subsidies offered by the Indian government to sugar producers were against the rules governing international trade. They argued that these subsidies, which include both domestic subsidies as well as export subsidies, exceed the limits imposed by WTO trade rules. According to WTO rules, subsidies cannot exceed 10% of the total value of sugar production. These countries believe that subsidies offered by India have led to increased production of sugar and caused the price of sugar to drop significantly in the global market. After two years, the WTO ruled in December that India’s sugar policy was favouring domestic producers through subsidies to the detriment of foreign producers. The panel recommended that India withdraws its alleged prohibited subsidies under the Production Assistance, the Buffer Stock, and the Marketing and Transportation Schemes within 120 days from the adoption of this report. India has stated that the WTO’s dispute panel ruling has made certain “erroneous” findings about domestic schemes to support sugarcane producers and exports and the findings of the panel are completely “unacceptable” to it.India is the second-largest sugar producer in the world after Brazil and it is estimated that more than 5 crore people depend on the cultivation of sugarcane alone for their livelihood.

What is India’s stand?

India has argued at the WTO that it does not offer direct subsidies to sugarcane farmers and thus doesn’t break any international trade rule. This argument, however, has not convinced other countries who point out that, among other things, the Centre and the State governments in India mandate the minimum price (the Fair and Remunerative Price, or FRP) at which sugar mills can buy sugarcane from farmers. In fact, in August last year, the Centre set the FRP at ₹290 per quintal and called it the “highest ever” FRP for sugarcane procurement. Individual States also set minimum procurement prices that may be higher than the Centre’s price to adjust for conditions at the local level.

The high procurement price for sugarcane set by the Government is believed to have led to a supply glut that in turn has caused sugar prices to drop. In fact, several sugar mills are caught in a debt trap as consumer demand for sugar has remained stagnant. The low price of sugar has affected the revenues of mills, their ability to pay farmers and also forced many mills to shut down. To help the sugar sector, the Centre has even mandated the compulsory blending of ethanol derived from sugarcane with fuels such as petrol and diesel. According to the Food Ministry, the country’s sugar production is likely to remain flat at 30.5 million tonnes in the next 2021-22 season as more sugarcane will be diverted for ethanol making.State governments and the Centre have also regularly intervened to reduce the debt burden on sugar mills. Earlier this month, the Centre decided to restructure loans worth over ₹3,000 crore offered to sugar mills by the Sugar Development Fund. Without such assistance, it may not be possible for sugar mills to procure sugarcane from farmers at the minimum prices dictated by the government. Further, the Centre also regularly sanctions funds to encourage sugar mills to export sugar depending on sugar prices in the global market. In the budget last year, the Centre allocated a total of ₹3,500 crore to fund the export of 6 million tonnes of sugar.

What lies ahead?

The WTO Appellate Body’s decision will be considered final on the dispute. In case India refuses to comply with the decision, it might have to face retaliatory action from other countries. This could be in the form of additional tariffs on Indian exports and other stringent measures. Incidentally, the appellate body of the WTO is not functioning because of differences among member countries to appoint members, and disputes are already pending with it. The U.S. had blocked the appointment of members.

Is vaccination limiting Omicron’s virulence?

How is inoculation working against the new variant of concern? What are the challenges ahead?

The story so far: Omicron, the latest SARS-CoV-2 variant of concern, may be pushing up COVID numbers across the world but it is also reporting a lower rate of hospitalisation and deaths compared to the previous Delta waves so far. This, despite the fact, that mutations on Omicron spikes are associated with higher transmissibility and immune evasion. Since its emergence, the SARS-CoV-2 virus has continued to evolve and the World Health Organization (WHO) has designated five of them as variants of concern – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron – due to their impact on transmission, disease severity, or capacity for immune escape. While the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly across the world, the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 is expected to continue and Omicron is unlikely to be the last variant of concern.

What is the impact of the current vaccines on Omicron?

According to WHO, the threat posed by Omicron largely depends on four key questions — how transmissible the variant is, how well vaccines and prior infection protect against infection, transmission, clinical disease and death, how virulent the variant is compared to other variants and how populations understand these dynamics, perceive risk and follow control measures, including public health and social measures.

“Vaccines are not disease-modifying but they have a positive impact in controlling severity of the disease, reducing the rate of hospitalisation and possible adverse outcome,’’ said Balram Bhargava, director general, Indian Council of Medical Research, at the Health Ministry’s weekly press conference. This comes close on the heels of experts also cautioning against trivialising the impact of Omicron. “Deaths are a delayed estimate; the impact of COVID-19 impacting care is not usually quantified,” tweeted Vinod Scaria, scientist at CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology.

With available COVID-19 vaccines, the current focus remains on reducing severe disease and death, as well as protecting health systems.The WHO states that for the Omicron variant, the mutational profile and preliminary data indicate that vaccine effectiveness will be reduced against symptomatic disease caused by it, but protection against severe disease is more likely to be preserved. “However, more data on vaccine effectiveness, particularly against hospitalisation, severe disease, and death are needed, including for each vaccine platform and for various vaccine dosing and product regimens,” it added. Earlier in the week, as cases surged across India, vaccine manufacturer Bharat Biotech announced that its booster dose has now shown to neutralise both Omicron and the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2. “100 % of the test serum samples showed neutralisation of the Delta variant and more than 90% of serum samples showed neutralisation of the Omicron variant,” it said in a statement.

Why do vaccine manufacturers need to provide data?

Experts across the globe agree that COVID-19 vaccines impact the spread of infection and transmission, in addition to the prevention of severe disease and death. In the interim, WHO has encouraged COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers to generate and provide data on performance of current and Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccines. “COVID-19 vaccines need to be based on strains that are genetically and antigenically close to the circulating SARS-CoV-2 variant(s) and in addition to protection against severe disease and death, be more effective in protection,’’ noted WHO. “The challenge of continuing to ensure the production of the best possible vaccines in a timely manner requires a continuous exchange of information and collaboration,” it said.

Is the hospitalisation rate during the Omicron led-wave low so far?

Studies from South Africa and the U.K. indicate that people infected with Omicron were 50-70% less likely to be admitted to hospital than those infected with Delta. According to V.K. Paul, NITI Aayog member (health), in India the hospitalisation rate due to Omicron is at 5-10%, compared to 20% during the Delta wave. But a health official cautioned that it is still early days and Omicron cannot be labelled mild, moderate or severe as yet. “We may have less hospitalisation now but the virus is spreading fast and we need to be careful. We are currently seeing less severity of symptoms in the vaccinated so it is extremely important to get the vaccine,” he said. Over the last 24 hours, over 2 lakh new cases of COVID-19 have been reported. According to the Health Ministry, in all, 6,041 Omicron cases have been detected so far.

China, Iran start implementing sweeping strategic agreement

Beijing says it will ‘continue to oppose illegal unilateral sanctions against Tehran’

China said on Saturday it would begin implementing a strategic agreement with Iran, strengthening economic and political cooperation between the two countries as Beijing blasted Washington’s sanctions on Tehran.China and Iran signed the agreement last year after years of talks, with the wide-ranging partnership set to span areas including energy, security, infrastructure and communications.Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced the start of the partnership’s implementation at a meeting in east China’s Wuxi on Friday, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.Few details of the secretive deal have been published, but the New York Times reported in 2020 that it would secure a regular supply of oil for China, citing a draft of the agreement leaked to the paper.China is Iran’s leading trade partner and was one of the biggest buyers of the country’s oil before then-U.S. president Donald Trump reimposed sweeping unilateral sanctions in 2018.China has officially stopped importing oil from Iran, but analysts say Iranian crude is continuing to enter the country disguised as imports from other countries.Mr. Wang told his Iranian counterpart Friday that China would continue to “oppose illegal unilateral sanctions against Iran,” the Foreign Ministry said.

Vienna talks under way

Beijing has long sought to boost ties with Tehran, with Chinese president Xi Jinping describing Iran as “China’s major partner in the Middle East” on a rare visit to the country in 2016.Mr. Wang and Mr. Amir-Abdollahian’s meeting comes as talks continue in Vienna over a potential deal to halt Tehran’s development of nuclear weapons.A 2015 deal — agreed by Iran, the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany — offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.

But the U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018, reimposing biting sanctions and prompting Tehran to begin rolling back on its commitments.Talk to salvage the nuclear deal began in late November, after being suspended when Iran elected a new ultraconservative government in June.Mr. Wang told his Iranian counterpart on Friday that China believes the United States is to blame for the current state of the deal, the foreign ministry said in its statement.


The News Editorial Analysis 14th Jan 2022

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get in touch
close slider