Current Affairs 2nd January 2022

COVID-19 cases cross 20,000 mark #GS3 #SnT

India reported 22,775 COVID-19 cases on Saturday when for the first time the number of daily cases had crossed the 20,000 mark since October.

In all, 1,431 cases of the Omicron variant have been reported in the country. Maharashtra topped the list with 460 cases, Delhi 351, Tamil Nadu 121 and Gujarat 136 cases as of Saturday.

Warning that the rise in cases seen globally and India could put “stress on health infrastructure”, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan on Saturday wrote to the States to create additional isolation beds, makeshift hospitals, field hospitals and paediatric care units. The States ought to follow up with those in home isolation and spruce up their control rooms that would coordinate with people requiring a bed and an ambulance.

Delhi reported 2,716 cases on Saturday with 247 patients requiring a hospital bed. This was an increase of 1,000 cases over the previous day and 20 more requiring beds. The number of those requiring oxygen or ventilator support increased to 87 on Saturday, two more than the previous day.

Overall, 2.5% of the 88,883 hospital beds have been occupied so far. On the same date last year, 11% of the available 1,80,000 beds were occupied. This was when cases were on the downward trend and only 585 were confirmed.

Experts estimate that nearly half the emerging cases in Delhi are likely to be of the Omicron variant. As States report data on hospitalisation and bed availability inconsistently, similar estimates aren’t available for all of them.

Mumbai on Saturday accounted for nearly 60% of Maharashtra’s caseload on Saturday. An update from the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai said 2,760 (about 9%) of the available beds were occupied.

Tamil Nadu reported 1,489 new COVID-19 cases taking the active infections to 8,340. It recorded eight deaths. Among the 74,884 beds earmarked for COVID-19 in the State, 3,149 (4.2%) were occupied as on Saturday. The beds included 39,458 oxygen, 26,858 non-oxygen and 8,568 ICU beds. Their respective occupancy rates were 3.5 %, 5.2 % and 4.3 %.

The number of Omicron cases in the State jumped from 46 on Thursday to 121 on Saturday. The majority of them were only “mildly symptomatic”. Officials said patients were being taken to hospitals as a precaution and to avoid spread among close contacts.

FCRA registration of 6,000 NGOs lapses #GS3 #Economy

The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) registration of nearly 6,000 NGOs has ceased to operate from January 1 as the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) refused to renew their application or the NGOs did not apply for one.

The registration is a mandatory requirement to receive foreign funds. An MHA official said on Saturday that it declined to renew the registration of 179 NGOs, while 5,789 associations did not apply for a renewal before the December 31 deadline.

The prominent names whose registration was not renewed include Oxfam India and Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic religious congregation set up by Nobel laureate Mother Teresa, due to “adverse inputs”.

Oxfam India, which works for economic and gender justice among Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims and women, stands to lose access to Rs. 62 crore in its designated bank account. The NGO that claims to have helped 10 lakh people in Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh in the past one year had also transferred over Rs. 4 crore to 140 small NGOs and educational institutions before September 2020.

The latest amendments to the FCRA brought in September 2020 bar NGOs from transferring foreign funds to other domestic NGOs.

PM Modi releases aid for farmers #GS3 #Economy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday released over Rs. 20,900 crore to more than 10.09 crore farmers across India as the 10th instalment of financial aid under the PM-KISAN scheme.

Mr. Modi released the amount to beneficiaries at an event held through video conference. Speaking on the first day of 2022, his 35-minute address was also a report card of the performance of his government over the past one year.

The economic indicators, Mr. Modi claimed, are in a better position than in the pre-COVID era. The foreign direct investment and the GST collections are high. The growth rate he said, is more than 8%. He applauded the 42 unicorn firms that came into existence during the pandemic.

The year 2021, Mr. Modi said, will be remembered for the country’s fight against the pandemic but equally it will also be remembered for the government’s effort to bring in reforms. “In 2022 we have to increase our pace,” he said.

He also spoke at length about all the government policy initiatives in the farm sector. He did not though speak about the controversial farm laws that his government was forced to repeal following sustained agitation by agricultural groups.

Efforts to handle COVID

The Prime Minister also spoke about India’s efforts to deal with the pandemic. “Could any one imagine a country as diverse as India administer 145 crore doses of COVID vaccine? Who would have thought that India could make a record 2.5 crore vaccine in a day.” he said. During these tough pandemic years, he said, 2 crore households have got piped water connection.

Under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN) scheme, a financial benefit of Rs. 6,000 per year is provided to the eligible farmer families, payable in three equal instalments of Rs. 2,000. The money is transferred directly to the bank account of the beneficiaries.

During the virtual event, the Prime Minister also released an equity grant of more than Rs. 14 crore to about 351 Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs), benefiting 1.24 lakh farmers. He stressed the effectiveness of the FPOs which he said, has helped in bringing down the input cost. The FPOs, he said, also give a better bargaining power to the farmers.

The virtual event was attended by as many as nine Chief Ministers, several Ministers from different States, and representatives of agricultural institutions.

On the occasion, Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar said on the first day of the New Year 2022, around Rs. 20,900 crore is being transferred to about 10.09 crore beneficiaries. He also said the PM-KISAN programme was launched as part of the government’s effort to help double the income of farmers.

The 9th instalment of PM-KISAN was released in August 2021. With the released latest tranche, the total amount provided under the scheme has touched about Rs. 1.8 lakh crore. PM-KISAN scheme was announced in the February 2019 Budget. The first instalment was for the period December 2018 to March 2019.

India gifts 5 lakh doses of Covaxin to Afghanistan #GS2 #IR

India began the New Year by handing over half-a-million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Afghanistan on Saturday. The consignment is part of a gift of million doses, the supply of which will be completed within the coming weeks.

India is also sending wheat and medicines, as part of the humanitarian aid programme.

“The Government of India is committed to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghan people consisting of food grains, one million doses of COVID vaccine and essential life-saving drugs,” a press release issued by the Ministry of External Affairs said. Saturday’s delivery is the second time in a month that India has provided aid to the Taliban-ruled country. On December 11, India sent the first consignment of 1.5 tonnes of medicines.

Pakistan, Iran, the UAE, China, Russia and Qatar are among the countries that supply medicines and aid to Afghanistan. India supplied COVID-19 vaccines to Afghanistan in February 2021 but the latest delivery is the first time since the Taliban’s arrival in August.

“In the coming weeks, we would be undertaking the supply of wheat and the remaining medical assistance. In this regard, we are in touch with UN agencies and others for finalising the modalities for transportation,” an official press statement declared. India has been seeking unimpeded access to the Afghan people to ensure equitable supply of humanitarian assistance across the country, which is experiencing a harsh winter that has arrived following a famine.

Following the takeover by the Taliban, Afghanistan’s health infrastructure was crushed by the exodus of educated and trained medical personnel as well as a lack of supplies. One of the key concerns for the administration of vaccines in Afghanistan will be the condition of the facilities that will store the perishable consignment.

But sources expressed confidence that the vaccines will be kept at the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital in Kabul which still has the facilities for storing vaccines in optimum conditions.

India has not formally recognised the Taliban administration of Kabul as the legitimate ruler of Afghanistan and has been demanding that the international community go slow in granting de jure status to the new rulers who unleashed a violent campaign for two decades against successive governments of Afghanistan under former presidents Ashraf Ghani and Hamid Karzai as well as the U.S.-led foreign forces.

However, since last September, New Delhi has been urging the international community to ensure delivery of humanitarian goods to ease the suffering of the common people who are facing the dual crisis of breakdown of governance and economy as well as the exhausted health sector in Afghanistan. The Hindu reported earlier that India and Pakistan have been in conversation over finalising the modalities that would allow trucks from India and Pakistan to carry essential food crops to border posts such as Torkham and Chaman.

China intimidated by support for Tibet #GS2 #IR

China is “intimidated” by the increasing support for the independence of Tibet, the “Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile” has said in response to reports that the Embassy of China in India wrote to MPs who had participated in a December 22 meeting of the All-Party Indian Parliamentary Forum for Tibet.

In a statement, the organisation said it “openly welcomes” a negotiation on Tibet’s future with China. “By sending the letters to honourable members of the Indian Parliament, it becomes evident that China is intimidated by the growing support for the Tibet movement around the world,” said the statement issued on Friday.

The All-Party Indian Parliamentary Forum for Tibet (APIPFT) was reconstituted during the regime of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who had been one of the members of the group during the 1970s when it was started by eminent lawyer and former Minister M.C. Chagla.

New leadership

According to Tibetan sources, the APIPFT was not active after 2011 and was revived in December 2014 under the leadership of former Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Shanta Kumar. As many as 33 MPs were part of the core committee of the APIPFT.

The December 22 meeting was convened to frame the path ahead after the retirement of Mr. Kumar, who quit active politics in 2019, and the post of the convener of the forum had become vacant. During the dinner reception, Sujeet Kumar of Biju Janata Dal was unanimously elected as convener of the APIPFT.

Nuclear, gas energy likely to receive ‘green’ tag in EU #GS2 #IR

The EU is planning to label energy from nuclear power and natural gas as “green” sources for investment despite internal disagreement over whether they truly qualify as sustainable options.

The proposal, aims to support the 27-nation bloc’s shift towards a carbon-neutral future and gild its credentials as a global standard-setter for fighting climate change.

But the fact the European Commission quietly distributed the text to member states late on Friday, in the final hours of 2021 after the much-delayed document had been twice promised earlier in the year, highlighted the rocky road to draft it. If a majority of member states back it, it will become EU law, coming into effect from 2023.

Opposing views

France has led the charge for nuclear power — its main energy source — to be included, despite robust opposition from Austria and scepticism from Germany, which is in the process of shutting all its nuclear plants.

Fossil-reliant countries in the EU’s east and south have also defended the use of natural gas, at least as a transitional source, even though it still produces significant greenhouse emissions.

When will the new vaccines be available? #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: India has approved two more vaccines, Corbevax and Covovax, under emergency use authorisation, as well as an antiviral drug, Molnupiravir, to fight against COVID-19. However, India’s expanded vaccination drive from January 3 will not immediately benefit from them.

What do we know about Corbevax?

Corbevax is a protein sub-unit vaccine co-developed by Hyderabad-based Biological E, Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, U.S., and American company Dynavax Technologies. A protein sub-unit vaccine is made by isolating a piece of the actual virus. As fragments are used, there is no danger that these will multiply within the body.

These pieces are expected to trigger an immune response that, hopefully, will stymie future infection. As only a small part of the virus —in the case of Corbevax the spike protein is the piece— is exposed to the immune system, only antibodies specific to the spike protein are expected to be produced and is therefore, less likely to trigger adverse reactions.

Biological E claims it will be able to produce 7.5 crore doses a month and scale up to 10 crore by February. The vaccine can be stored in ordinary refrigerators. The company expects to be a global manufacturing source. India is expected to reserve doses as per requirement.

Who is producing Covovax?

Covovax is produced by the Serum Institute of India under licence from Novavax, a U.S.-based biotechnology company. Covovax has been approved by the World Health Organization under its Emergency Use Listing and therefore will also be available globally as part of the COVAX initiative. It is similar to protein sub-unit vaccines and differs from, say Corbevax, in how the spike protein is produced.

In Corbevax, the spike protein is grown typically in yeast cells whereas in Covovax, spike proteins are grown in moth cells. A nanoparticle formula is used to make it resemble the structure of the coronavirus spike protein to stimulate the immune response. This also needs an adjuvant and booster shots. The vaccine has also been tested in children in India though results aren’t available.

In June, results from a Phase 3 clinical trial of Novavax enrolling 29,960 adult volunteers in the U.S. and Mexico showed that the vaccine demonstrated 90.4% efficacy in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 disease. It also showed 100% protection against moderate and severe disease.

How do these vaccines influence India’s inoculation programme?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced last Saturday that from January 3 those 15-17 years of age will be eligible for Covaxin. Healthcare workers, frontline workers and those above 60 with comorbidities who have already got two shots will be eligible for a third, “precaution” dose from January 10. For India’s 15-17 year olds, the only option is Covaxin.

So far around 14 crore Covaxin doses have been administered. The Health Ministry is yet to decide whether the “precaution” dose will be the same as the previous two doses. Given that Covishield accounts for about 90% of India’s vaccination programme, most third doses are expected be Covishield.

Covovax and Covishield are the only vaccines tested for booster doses as part of the COV-BOOST study in the U.K. that tested combinations of seven vaccines. However, trials in India, testing Covaxin, are underway. India’s National Technical Advisory Group of Immunisation continues to weigh evidence on the optimal combination of vaccines.

What is the vaccine pipeline looking like?

India has so far administered 151 crore doses of the vaccine and as of January 1, the Health Ministry says close to 19.5 crore doses of vaccine were lying “unutilised with States.” It isn’t clear how many of them are Covishield and how many are Covaxin. From January 3 there is likely to be an increased demand for Covaxin. Estimates of India’s current population structure suggest that around 3 crore is between 14-17 years of age. Bharat Biotech says it made 5-6 crore doses in November and expects to make a billion annually by this year.

These suggest that availability should not be a problem. However, it will not be as simple for the other groups eligible for a third dose especially if the recommendation were to emerge that a vaccine different from the previous two would be better (and the bulk of global evidence suggests that such a ‘heterologous’ boost, as it’s called, raises antibody levels more than a homologous, repeat boost.)

The production capacities of Corbevax and Covovax is untested and – as India’s experience over the past few months shows—it can take several weeks for the process to stabilise. If the Omicron surge fuels a panic demand for boosters as the Delta surge completely upended the Health Ministry’s calculations of vaccine supply and demand last summer, new challenges are likely to emerge.

When will Molnupiravir be used?

Molnupiravir is said to be a promising drug for those with mild and moderate disease and can also be easily administered as a pill. Thirteen companies in India are set to manufacture this drug. It has been approved for use under emergency use authorisation for treating adults with COVID-19 “who have high risk of progression to disease.”

Punishing hate speech #GS2 #Governance

The story so far : A recent religious conclave held in Haridwar witnessed inflammatory and provocative speeches by proponents of Hindutva, many of them leaders of religious organisations. Reports say many of the speakers called for organised violence against Muslims and hinted at a Myanmar-type ‘cleansing campaign’. There was a threat that if the government resisted the formation of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, there will be an ‘1857-like’ revolt against the state. Political parties and concerned citizens have termed these as ‘hate speech’ and demanded legal action against those involved in the propagation of hate and violence.

What is ‘hate speech’?

There is no specific legal definition of ‘hate speech’. Provisions in law criminalise speeches, writings, actions, signs and representations that foment violence and spread disharmony between communities and groups and these are understood to refer to ‘hate speech’.

The Law Commission of India, in its 267th Report, says: “Hate speech generally is an incitement to hatred primarily against a group of persons defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief and the like … Thus, hate speech is any word written or spoken, signs, visible representations within the hearing or sight of a person with the intention to cause fear or alarm, or incitement to violence.”

In general, hate speech is considered a limitation on free speech that seeks to prevent or bar speech that exposes a person or a group or section of society to hate, violence, ridicule or indignity.

How is it treated in Indian law?

Sections 153A and 505 of the Indian Penal Code are generally taken to be the main penal provisions that deal with inflammatory speeches and expressions that seek to punish ‘hate speech’.

Under Section 153A, ‘promotion of enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony’, is an offence punishable with three years’ imprisonment. It attracts a five-year term if committed in a place of worship, or an assembly engaged in religious worship or religious ceremonies.

Section 505 of IPC makes it an offence to making “statements conducing to public mischief”. The statement, publication, report or rumour that is penalised under Section 505(1) should be one that promotes mutiny by the armed forces, or causes such fear or alarm that people are induced to commit an offence against the state or public tranquillity; or is intended to incite or incites any class or community to commit an offence against another class or community. This attracts a jail term of up to three years. Under 505(2), it is an offence to make statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes. Under subsection (3), the same offence will attract up to a five-year jail term if it takes place in a place of worship, or in any assembly engaged in religious worship or religious ceremonies.

What has the Law Commission proposed?

The Law Commission has proposed that separate offences be added to the IPC to criminalise hate speech quite specifically instead of being subsumed in the existing sections concerning inflammatory acts and speeches. It has proposed that two new sections, Section 153C and Section 505A, be added.

Its draft says Section 153C should make it an offence if anyone (a) uses gravely threatening words, spoken or written or signs or visible representations, with the intention to cause fear or alarm; or (b) advocates hatred that causes incitement to violence, on grounds of religion, race, caste or community, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, place of birth, residence, language, disability or tribe. It proposes a two-year jail term for this and/or a fine of Rs. 5,000 or both.

Its draft for Section 505A proposes to criminalise words, or display of writing or signs that are gravely threatening or derogatory, within the hearing or sight of a person, causing fear or alarm or, with intent to provoke the use of unlawful violence against that person or another”. It proposes a prison term of up to one year and/or a fine up to Rs. 5,000 or both.

Similar proposals to add sections to the IPC to punish acts and statements that promote racial discrimination or amount to hate speech have been made by the M.P. Bezbaruah Committee and the T.K. Viswanathan Committee. At present, the Committee for Reforms in Criminal Laws, which is considering more comprehensive changes to criminal law, is examining the issue of having specific provisions to tackle hate speech.

Basis for precaution dose approval not clear #GS3 #SnT

On November 22 last year, Director-General of ICMR Dr. Balram Bhargava said there is “no scientific evidence so far to support the need for a booster vaccine dose against COVID-19”. He said the primary focus of the government was on giving a second dose of the vaccine to make people fully vaccinated.

“Administering the second dose of COVID-19 vaccine to all adult population and ensuring that not only India but the entire world gets vaccinated is the priority of the government for now,” he said. A day earlier, Dr. Samiran Panda, Head of ICMR’s Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases Division said scientific evidence does not support booster doses. “Right now, the scientific evidence from within the country does not underline the need for a booster dose. Public health considerations are on the priority now,” he told the news agency ANI.

Precaution dose

In mid-December 2021, Dr Jayaprakash Muliyil, member of NTAGI told The Outlook: “There is no need for a booster dose as the memory cells will produce the specific antibody once the virus comes in contact with a vaccinated or a naturally recovered person.”

Yet, a “precaution dose” was approved by the government on December 25, 2021. No new studies have come in the public domain to support an additional dose since Dr. Bhargava said on November 22 that no scientific evidence was available to support a booster shot.

Early data from South Africa and the U.K. indicate that the Omicron variant does not cause severe disease or death in fully vaccinated people. But there is a time lag between infection and hospitalisation. The protection offered by vaccines available here against the variant in older people and other vulnerable populations is not known.

Omicron threat?

Whether the decision to approve the precaution dose was based on the emergence of the Omicron variant but in the absence of vaccine effectiveness data is not clear. There was no explanation on why the government revised its earlier stand and decided to provide an additional dose before increasing second dose coverage either.

“In fact, the Omicron variant makes a strong case to increase primary vaccination coverage considering the preliminary data from South Africa and the U.K.,” says immunologist Dr. Satyajit Rath formerly with the National Institute of Immunology, Delhi. Across age groups, nearly 90% have received the first dose but only 64% are fully vaccinated. And 21.5% of those older than 60 years are yet to be fully vaccinated as on December 31, 2021.

There has been just one study each for Covishield and Covaxin to understand vaccine effectiveness (before Omicron emerged) despite the vaccines being granted an emergency use approval 12 months ago. The study on Covaxin did not even look at the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing severe disease and death.

Incidentally, the immunocompromised people have not been included. “A third dose or additional dose for immunocompromised is something on which experts have consensus. [Unlike many countries] in India, where third shot is recommended for sub-group of population only, a separate policy on third shot for immunocompromised is urgently needed,” says Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, physician-epidemiologist and public policy and health systems specialist.

On December 30 last year, Dr. Bhargava while not providing any scientific reason or evidence for deciding on approving a booster shot, did point out to studies that had found evidence of protection offered by natural infection lasting up to nine months. This was to tell why the government has decided to provide the precaution dose nine months after the second dose.

Hybrid immunity

The emphasis was on hybrid immunity (immunity produced by natural infection followed by vaccination) being superior to immunity conferred by infection and full vaccination in infection-naïve people, which was known many months ago, to support the decision to administer the precaution dose nine months after the second dose.

Dr. Bhargava cited the 67% seroprevalence in the last sero survey to drive home the point that many people who have been vaccinated would be possessing hybrid immunity. The sero surveys are not truly representative of infection spread in the community, says Dr. Rath. And if hybrid immunity in India is high, why provide an additional dose at all, he asks.

“We know that the longer the gap, the better the boosting effect. Since India has made the decision to administer precaution shots, this is the longest gap which could have been considered,” says Dr. Lahariya.

Limited use

One of the studies cited by Dr. Bhargava and carried out by researchers from CSIR’s Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, Kolkata looked at cellular immunity among vaccinated and naturally infected people. The researchers found that T cell immunity from natural infection lasted as long as 10 months.

But they did not measure the duration of protection offered by T cell immunity in fully vaccinated people who have not been previously infected. “They [T cell immunity studies] are not robustly quantitative. All they can say is yes, there is some T cell response, which is not surprising and is of limited use,” says Dr. Rath.

Choice of vaccine

All the other Indian studies cited by Dr. Bhargava which looked at the duration of protection had measured only the humoral immunity and neutralising antibodies. But with breakthrough infections being far more common with the Omicron variant than the Delta variant, these studies have little relevance in making policy decisions.

The Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya made an assurance on December 3 last year that the government will go by scientific advice to decide on booster doses. But on December 25 when the government approved the additional dose and even now there is no clarity on whether the booster dose will be with the same vaccine that an individual has got for the first two doses or a different one.

“Scientific evidence is that the preferred booster will be a vaccine developed using a different platform,” says Dr. Lahariya. “I am of the opinion that in the case of Covishield, the booster should be protein-based vaccines — Covovax (data of its boosting effect is already available) and then Corbevax. The homologous booster would be the best approach for Covaxin, till we have evidence on heterologous boosting for Covaxin.”

But Covovax and Corbevax were granted emergency use approval only on December 28, three days after the government announced a booster dose for select groups. “If the government was waiting for scientific evidence on booster doses, why did it hurry before deciding on whether the booster should be a homologous [same] or heterologous [different] one,” asks a senior scientist who did not want to be named.

No trials for booster

Incidentally, there is no scientific evidence from clinical trials in India on the efficacy of Covishield or Covaxin as booster shots. Permission to conduct the first clinical study in India to understand the performance of a vaccine as a booster was granted only on December 29; Bio E was given permission to conduct the trial using Corbevax as a booster dose.

While the Subject Expert Committee denied permission on December 10 to Serum Institute to administer Covishield as booster doses till it submits clinical trial data, Covaxin will be used as a booster dose despite no clinical trial for efficacy being conducted. According to News18, Bharat Biotech had sought permission to conduct a clinical trial to test the efficacy of Covaxin as a booster dose only after the Prime Minister’s announcement on December 25.