Current Affairs 14th April

Centre fast-tracks approval for more vaccine candidates #GS3 #SnT

In a major shift in vaccine approval policy, the government has decided to fast track approvals for COVID-19 vaccines that have been developed outside India and have been granted the emergency use authorisation (EUA) by other drug regulatory agencies.

The decision was taken based on the recommendation made by the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC) at a meeting held on April 11, to “expand the basket of vaccines for domestic use and hasten the pace and coverage”.

The vaccines that would be eligible for the fast-track approval will include those that have been granted an EUA by the U.S.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA), European Medicines Agency (EMA), the U.K. Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices Agency (PMDA) of Japan, or those that have been prequalified by the WHO for emergency use. This would mean that Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines would be eligible for fast-track approval.

Under the fast-track approval process, bridging studies will take place in parallel to mass vaccination. So far, clinical trials conducted in India were needed before the Indian regulator could approve the vaccine. But before the mass roll-out of the vaccines that are developed and tested abroad can happen, the vaccines will be first given to 100 beneficiaries and these individuals will be assessed for seven days for safety outcomes.

The decision will facilitate quicker access to such foreign vaccines by India and would encourage imports including import of bulk drug material, optimal utilisation of domestic fill and finish capacity etc., which will in turn provide a fillip to vaccine manufacturing capacity and total vaccine availability for domestic [use].

Skymet forecasts a ‘healthy normal’ monsoon #GS1 #Geography

Skymet Weather, a private weather forecast company, said on Tuesday that the monsoon was likely to be 103% of the long period average (LPA) this year. The LPA refers to the average all-India monsoon rainfall of 88 cm, which is a 50-year mean.

The monsoon in 2019 and 2020 was only the third time in a century of back-to-back years of above normal rainfall (rainfall that is 5% above normal, or 105%) during the season in India. This year’s forecast by Skymet falls a little short of the above normal mark.

“The odds of an El Nino, characterised by a heating of the equatorial central Pacific over half a degree, are low this year. Currently, the Pacific is in a [converse] La Nina mode, and while it is expected to weaken a bit in the coming months, during the monsoon months [June-September], it is forecast to increase.

An El Nino is historically associated, in many years, with a weakening of the monsoon over India. The monsoon is also expected to be fairly well-distributed, with even September (the month in which the season starts to recede) expected to post 10% more rainfall than normal.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD), which provides the official forecasts, is expected to announce its forecast later this month. Last year, Skymet did not release its official monsoon forecast. In 2019, it forecast below normal rainfall and the IMD “near normal”. In defiance of these calculations, India posted a record 10% excess rainfall.

In terms of geographical risk, Skymet expects that the plains of North India, along with a few parts of northeast India, to be at risk of being rain deficient through the season. Also, interior parts of Karnataka face scare or scanty rain in the core monsoon months of July and August.

Along with the El Nino, another ocean variable, the Indian Ocean Dipole, characterised by a temperature gradient in the western and eastern Indian Ocean, may be slightly on the negative. A positive dipole usually aids the monsoon.

‘Global cooperation benefits India, world’ #GS2 #IR

International cooperation to counter global challenges such as the current pandemic is advantageous to both India and the rest of the world, highlighting India’s recent initiatives to provide vaccines to a large number of developing countries to help them fight COVID-19.

“Our ability to make vaccines … is itself a result of international cooperation. So international cooperation is not a one-way street where we are giving things to other people and somewhere short-changing ourselves, I think people need to understand that.

He argued that as a result of international partnership and research India was able to increase manufacturing of vaccines “developed elsewhere” while also developing indigenous vaccines in the country.

First responder

Mr. Jaishankar credited the Narendra Modi government on being the first responder on a number of crisis situations in the neighbourhood and beyond and the response to the pandemic, he said, was part of that same chain of initiatives.

“If you look in terms of humanitarian assistance, whether it was an earthquake in Nepal, or a civil war in Yemen, or a cyclone in Mozambique, or a typhoon in Fiji, or a mudslide in Sri Lanka, or whether it is taking the Paris agenda forward through initiatives like the international Solar Alliance, or how to respond collectively towards disaster resilience.

He argued that the success of India’s domestic battle with COVID-19 had not received sufficient global attention. He highlighted that during the lockdown and the aftermath, the Government of India transferred cash to 400 million citizens and at the same time 800 million people received food from the government.

Now, if you go anywhere in the world and say, listen guys, I just paid out 400 million people, and I’ve fed 800 million people, you should make waves, asking for global attention on the work of the Indian government to counter the pandemic and its economic effects.

S-400 delivery to begin by November #GS2 #IR

The delivery schedule for the S-400 long range air defence systems was on track for the end of 2021 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. “The deal is on track and deliveries are expected to begin by November this year. Two officials independently stated that efforts were made to speed up the deal but the Russian side had conveyed this was not possible.

Two official sources, also speaking independently, dismissed concerns over possible U.S. sanctions on the deal under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), stating this deal met national security considerations. In October 2018, India had signed a $5.43 billion deal with Russia for five S-400 regiments despite objections from the U.S., with deliveries scheduled to begin end 2021.

U.S. officials on several occasions raised concerns over the deal as India deepened its defence cooperation with the U.S. and acquired several frontline military platforms like transport aircraft, helicopters, artillery and drones. Indian officials had reiterated that all payment-related issues had been resolved and the deal was well under way.

Responding to questions on the issue at a press conference during his visit to India in February, U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin had said that there had been no delivery of an S-400 system, and “the issues of sanctions is not one that’s been discussed”.

WhatsApp policy: CCI defends nod for probe #GS3 #Security

The Competition Commission of India (CCI) defended before the Delhi High Court its decision calling for an investigation into the new privacy policy of WhatsApp. The competition watchdog, represented by Additional Solicitor-General Aman Lekhi, said the probe order was made to gauge whether access to data would lead to the abuse of dominant position.

The commission said it was dealing with the instant messaging app’s new privacy policy that could lead to “excessive data collection” of consumers, the use and sharing of the data in anti-competitive context. Mr. Lekhi said the commission was not concerned with privacy aspect of the issue as the Supreme Court was already seized of it.

The CCI’s submission came while hearing two separate petitions filed by Facebook and WhatsApp challenging its March 24 direction ordering for a probe into WhatsApp’s new privacy policy. The CCI had ordered that the investigation be completed within 60 days.

Mr. Lekhi said it was too early for the High Court to hear the petitions as the CCI had only ordered for an investigation, the report for which was yet to come.

WhatsApp, represented by senior advocate Harish Salve, said the CCI had jumped the gun and started the probe when this was not a competition issue. WhatsApp said the issue with respect to personal data of users, and sharing of personalised data was already before the Supreme Court, hence the CCI ought not to have intervened.

Last two rhinos translocated under IRV 2020 #GS3 #Environment

The ambitious Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV 2020) came to a close with the release of two rhinos — an adult male and a female — in Assam’s Manas National Park transported from Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary about 185 km east.

Designed in 2005, the IRV2020 is believed to have achieved its target of attaining a population of 3,000 rhinos in Assam. But the plan to spread the Rhinoceros unicornis across four protected areas beyond Kaziranga National Park, Orang National Park and Pobitora could not materialise.

“The eighth round of rhino translocation under IRV2020 ended at 7 a.m. today [April 13] with the release of the two rhinos in the central part of the Bansbari range of Manas, which has received a total of 22 rhinos from other protected areas under the translocation programme.

“The ears of the translocated rhinos have been notched according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission and Asian Rhino Specialist Group’s guidelines for identification and monitoring. A special team has been tasked with monitoring the rhinos as per the translocation protocols for Assam,” he said.

Saviour of Manas

Assam had at least five rhino-bearing areas till the 1980s. Better conservation efforts helped maintain the population of the one-horned herbivore in Kaziranga, Orang and Pobitora, but encroachment and poaching wiped the animal out of Manas and Laokhowa Wildlife Sanctuary.

The lesser-known Laokhowa slipped under the radar of international watchdogs. Manas, in focus for the near-extinction of the pygmy hog, lost the World Heritage Site tag it received in 1985 along with Kaziranga from the UNESCO.

“The translocated rhinos helped Manas National Park get back its World Heritage Site status in 2011. It can be expected that the translocation programme will set up a healthy, breeding population for the future of the species.

WHO urges halt on sale of live wild mammals in markets #GS3 #Environment

The World Health Organization called on Tuesday for a halt to the sale of live wild mammals in food markets to prevent the emergence of new diseases such as COVID-19.

The WHO said because traditional markets play a central role in providing food and livelihoods for large populations, banning the sale of live wild mammals could protect the health of market workers and customers alike.

“COVID-19 has brought new attention to this threat, given the magnitude of its consequences,” WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told reporters.

The call came in fresh guidance drawn up by the WHO in conjunction with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

WHO, OIE and UNEP call on all national competent authorities to suspend the trade in live caught wild animals of mammalian species for food or breeding and close sections of food markets selling live caught wild animals of mammalian species as an emergency measure unless demonstrable effective regulations and adequate risk assessment are in place.

“Animals, particularly wild animals, are the source of more than 70% of all emerging infectious diseases in humans, many of which are caused by novel viruses. Wild mammals, in particular, pose a risk for the emergence of new diseases.

The agencies recalled that some of the earliest known cases of COVID-19 had links to a wholesale traditional food market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, with many of the initial patients stall owners, market employees or regular visitors to the market.

They added that samples from the Wuhan market suggested that it might be the source of the pandemic’s outbreak and/or that it played a role in the initial amplification of the outbreak.

Customs, excise fuel indirect tax surge in COVID-hit year #GS3 #Economy

A jump in excise revenue helped lift net indirect tax collections by 12.3% in FY21 to Rs. 10.71 lakh crore, surpassing the Centre’s recently revised estimates. Goods and Services tax (GST) collections for the full year fell 8% from Rs. 5.99 lakh crore in FY20 to Rs. 5.48 lakh crore, but the overall kitty was bolstered by a sharp spike in excise collections.

“Net tax collections on account of Central Excise and Service Tax (Arrears) during financial year 2020-21 stood at Rs. 3.91 lakh crore as compared to Rs. 2.45 lakh crore in the previous financial year, thereby registering a growth of more than 59%. Customs duty collections also grew 21% to Rs. 1.32 lakh crore, helping swell the exchequer’s coffers.

“The 59% growth in net central excise and service tax (arrears) collections is largely on account of the Sabka Vishwas scheme for resolving legacy disputes. “In addition, there has been a rise in customs duty collection. Net direct tax collections for the pandemic-hit FY21 grew almost 5% to Rs. 9.45 lakh crore, provisional data showed last week.

Subject to reconciliation

Both the direct and indirect tax numbers are subject to reconciliation. GST collections were severely affected in the first half of the financial year on account of COVID. “However, in the second half, GST collections registered a good growth and collections exceeded Rs. 1 lakh crore in each of the last six months

Virus surge, vaccination pace threaten recovery #GS3 #Economy

The resurgence of COVID-19 infections in India, combined with partial lockdowns and the slow pace of vaccinations poses a big risk to a strong economic rebound, although the country may still register double-digit growth in 2021.

In a note on India’s sovereign rating, the global agency said the second wave of infections presented a risk to its 2021-22 GDP forecast of 13.7% growth, ‘as the reimposition of virus management measures will curb economic activity and could dampen market and consumer sentiment’.

‘Retail activity drops’

“Retail and recreation activity across India had dropped by 25% as of 7 April compared with 24 February, according to Google mobility data. “This was mirrored in the Reserve Bank of India’s March consumer confidence survey which showed a deterioration in perceptions of the economic situation and expectations of decreased spending on non-essential items.

India had recorded its highest daily surge in new COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic on April 11, pushing its active case load further past 1 million, the agency pointed out, stressing that the vaccination roll-out will be critical in managing the second wave in a manner that balances ‘virus management against maintaining economic activity’.

Despite the fresh risks, the rating agency said India’s GDP is still likely to grow in the double digits in 2021 given the low level of activity in 2020. “Given the focus on ‘micro-containment zones’ to deal with the current wave of infections, as opposed to a nationwide lockdown, we expect that the impact on economic activity will be less severe than that seen in 2020.

“India’s very low coronavirus death count (about 1,70,179 deaths have been recorded as of 12 April) and relatively very young population also help mitigate risks,” it said.

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