Current Affairs 23rd March

Increase interval between two doses of Covishield, says Centre #GS3 #SnT

The Centre on Monday wrote to the States and the Union Territories to increase the interval between two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, Covishield, from four to eight weeks instead of the earlier four to six weeks.

Keeping the existing scientific evidence in view, it appears that protection is enhanced if the second dose of Covishield is administered between 6-8 weeks, but not later than the stipulated period of eight weeks.

The Ministry said the interval between the two doses of Covishield had been revisited by the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) and subsequently by the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 (NEGVAC) at its 20th meeting.

No change for Covaxin

During this meeting, the recommendation has been revised to provide second dose of Covishieldat 4-8weeks’ interval after the first dose, instead of earlier practised interval of 4-6 weeks. This decision of revised time interval between two doses is applicable only to Covishield and not to Covaxin.

In a letter to the Chief Secretaries of the States and the Union Territories, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said the Ministry had accepted the recommendations of NTAGI and NEGVAC. He advised them to ensure the administration of the second dose of the vaccine to beneficiaries within the stipulated time interval of four to eight weeks after the first dose.

Fourth firm ties up to make Sputnik V #GS3 #SnT

Russia’s sovereign wealth fund RDIF (Russian Direct Investment Fund) on Monday said it had entered into an agreement with Virchow Biotech of Hyderabad to produce up to 200 million doses per year of COVID-19 vaccine Sputnik V in the country.

The technology transfer is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2021, followed by a full-scale commercial production. Virchow Biotech’s capacities will help facilitate global supply of Sputnik V to international partners of RDIF.

It is the the fourth such agreement RDIF has entered into for producing Sputnik V in India, beginning with the Hetero Group to make 100 million doses. The other two are with Gland Pharma (252 million doses) and Stelis Biopharma (200 million doses).

In total, production capacity for more than 700 million people has been secured in 10 countries. India is a true Sputnik V production partner and vaccine manufacturing hub of many vaccine for the world, it said.

On the tie-up with Virchow, the release said technology transfer is expected to be completed in the second quarter of 2021, followed by full-scale commercial production of Sputnik V. Virchow Biotech capacities will help facilitate global supply of Sputnik V to international partners of RDIF.V

Virchow Biotech managing director Tummuru Murali said, “Virchow’s proven capabilities in large scale drug substance manufacturing should help meet the global demand for this vaccine. We are also happy to learn of the positive feedback that this vaccine has been receiving from all ountries.”

Sputnik V has been registered in 54 countries with total population of over 1.4 billion people. Efficacy of Sputnik V is 91.6%.

LS nod for Bill to increase FDI in insurance #GS2 #Governance

The Lok Sabha passed the Insurance (Amendment) Bill, 2021 which seeks to raise the limit for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in insurance companies from 49% to 74%. The Bill had earlier been cleared by the Rajya Sabha and now requires presidential assent to become law.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who piloted the Bill in both Houses, said the move was aimed at solving some of the long-term capital availability issues in the insurance sector which was a capital-intensive industry. She added that stakeholders had been consulted by the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (IRDAI) before going ahead with the move.

In her response to the debate on the Bill in the House, Ms. Sitharaman said that apprehensions over the gradual taking over of public sector insurance companies was ill-founded, as the banking and insurance industry had been designated as strategic sectors and that the 74% cap is just a limit posed on the FDI.

She pointed out that the high solvency fund ratio in the sector has led to liquidity stress in the sector and that the Bill will address that stress. Government can help public sector firms but private companies will have to find ways of raising money.

“Nobody is taking the money outside India. The Bill has safeguards that some of the profit has to be invested within the country,” she said responding to the debate. She said the Bill was about right sizing the public sector and unlocking assets.

Ms. Sitharaman asserted that public sector employees will be protected and the measure will also give a fillip to private employees.

“There are 2.67 lakh employees in the private sector in insurance as against 1.54 lakhs in the public sector. Around 15 lakh insurance agents in the public sector as against 21 lakh in the private sector, there are seven public sector companies, while 61 exist in the private sector and money should be available to them to do business,” she said.

U.P., M.P. sign deal on Ken-Betwa link work #GS2 #Governance

The governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have signed an agreement that nudges forward a long-stalled multi-crore, controversial project to link the Ken and the Betwa rivers and irrigate the water-deficient Bundelkhand region, spread over both States, and provide electricity.

Several obstacles have dogged the project. For one, the project will partly submerge the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh and affect the habitat of vultures and jackals. After years of protests, however, it was finally cleared by the apex wildlife regulator, the National Board for Wildlife, in 2016.

Monsoon blues

Then, the States were unable to come to an agreement on how water would be shared, particularly in the non-monsoon months.

The project involves transferring surplus water from the Ken river in Madhya Pradesh to the Betwa river in Uttar Pradesh and irrigating 3.64 lakh hectares in the Bundelkhand region of both States. The project involves building a 77-metre-tall and a 2-km-wide Dhaudhan dam and a 230-km canal. Originally, this phase envisaged irrigating 6,35,661 hectares annually (3,69,881 ha in M.P. and 2,65,780 ha in U.P.). In addition, the project was to provide 49 million cubic metres (MCM) for drinking water supply en route .

The original project was conceived in two distinct phases but now they are learnt to be combined. This influences how the entire scheme is funded. The Centre was originally to fund 90% of the cost (Rs. 37,611 crore in 2018) but a final decision on this is still outstanding.

However Uttar Pradesh, it is learnt, wanted a greater share of the water which Madhya Pradesh was unwilling. This prevented the signing of an agreement on water sharing that was ready in 2018.

A statement from the Union Water Resources Ministry said the Daudhan dam would now irrigate nearly 6,00,000 hectares in four districts of Madhya Pradesh alone and 2,51,000 hectares in four districts of Uttar Pradesh. It will provide drinking water supply to 41 lakh people in Madhya Pradesh and 21 lakh in Uttar Pradesh.

Sharing formula

In a “normal” year, Madhya Pradesh would use 2,350 MCM of water and Uttar Pradesh, 1,700 MCM. From November-May, the non-monsoon period, Madhya Pradesh would get 1,834 MCM and Uttar Pradesh 750. A sticking point was that Uttar Pradesh had demanded nearly 900 MCM and Madhya Pradesh was prepared to release only 700 MCM.

In steps ahead, the project needs approval on the share of Centre and State in funding, forming a new organisation — the Ken Betwa Link Project Authority — to execute the project and obtaining stage 2 forest clearance for the Daudhan dam. The project is expected to be ready in eight years.

Plea against challenge to Places of Worship Act #GS2 #Governance

The trustee of a 350-year-old mosque in Lucknow has questioned a “mischievous” petition filed by a Supreme Court advocate which claims that “fundamentalist barbarians” invaded India and destroyed places of worship.

The petition filed by advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay had also challenged a special law — Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991 — which freezes the status of places of worship as it was on August 15, 1947.

A Bench led by Chief Justice Sharad A. Bobde had decided to examine his petition and asked the government to respond. Mr. Hasan said he is already fighting a suit in Lucknow against parties who claim that a temple once stood where the Teele Wali Masjid was built.

This mischievous petition [of Mr. Upadhyay] intends to isolate the Muslim community from other religious communities in the country… The petition tries to create an allegedly factual case of fundamentalist barbarians coming to India and destroying places of worship.

The mosque trustee urged the apex court to allow him to intervene and prove that Mr. Upadhyay’s petition “creates a false narrative that Muslims and Christians are invaders and less a part of India than other communities.”

Why stop at quota, asks SC judge #GS2 #Governance

Justice Ravindra Bhat, one of the judges on the Constitution Bench hearing the question of 50% ceiling limit on reservation, asked why welfare should be dependent on caste quota benefits alone.

“Why stop at reservation? Why can’t other things also be done? Why not promote education, establish more institutes? Somewhere this matrix has to move beyond reservation. Affirmative action is not just reservation. There has to be something more. The court was hearing submissions by senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for Jharkhand, on the circumstances which led to the 50% limit in the Indira Sawhney judgment of 1992.

‘Balancing act’

Mr. Sibal said the 1992 judgment was “a balancing act” done during a tumultuous time in the nation. On March 8, the Bench had framed several questions of law, including whether the Indira Sawhney verdict needed to be re-looked by a larger Bench of more than nine judges.

SEBC Act examined

The court is primarily examining whether the Maharashtra State Reservation for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act of 2018, which provides 12% to 13% quota benefits for the Maratha community, and thus, taking the reservation percentage in the State across the 50% mark, was enacted under “extraordinary circumstances”.

Over the years, several States like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have crossed the Rubicon and passed laws which allow reservation to over 60%.

MEA silent on reports of UAE role in India-Pakistan détente #GS2 #IR

The Ministry of External Affairs refused to comment on the latest in a series of reports that the India-Pakistan détente, signalled by the ceasefire announcement by border commanders at the Line of Control (LoC) last month, was prompted by a back-channel dialogue between Indian and Pakistani officials, and facilitated by a third country.

On Monday, the international news agency Bloomberg reported that the two governments had begun to work on a four-step “road map for peace” facilitated by the United Arab Emirates government. The report said the surprise joint statement announced by the Directors-General of Military Operations (DGMOs) on February 25, that agreed to end cross-LoC ceasefire violations (CFVs), was the outcome of talks “brokered by the UAE” months earlier and that the visit of UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed to Delhi on February 26 also discussed progress in the India-Pakistan “peace” process with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

At least two Indian national dailies and an international portal have previously reported on a possible back-channel initiative led by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and interlocutors in Pakistan, including Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Bajwa. In addition, the Bloomberg report said the ceasefire announcement was the first step agreed to and that more would follow.

“The next step in the process, the official said, involves both sides reinstating envoys in New Delhi and Islamabad, who were pulled in 2019 after Pakistan protested against India’s move to revoke seven decades of autonomy for the Muslim-majority State of Jammu and Kashmir. Then comes the hard part: Talks on resuming trade and a lasting resolution on Kashmir,” the Bloomberg report said.

No comments

The Ministry of External Affairs, which has declined to comment on the previous reports, maintained its silence when asked by The Hindu for a response to the Bloomberg story. Both UAE diplomatic sources and Pakistani officials also refused to confirm or deny the reports.

However, several developments in the past month have pointed to a broader peace process in play, not restricted only to the LoC ceasefire, which has held since February 25.

To begin with, statements from officials in the past week, particularly from Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and General Bajwa as well as Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla have been shorn of the customary rhetoric.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also wished PM Khan a speedy recovery from COVID-19 after he was diagnosed last week, sidestepping previous hostility between the two leaders and India has allowed Pakistani sporting teams to visit for the first time in three years.

Next week, Foreign Ministers S. Jaishankar and Shah Mehmood Qureshi will attend the Heart of Asia conference in Dushanbe on March 30, which is being seen as an opportunity for engagement. And the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation-Regional Anti-Terror Structure (SCO-RATS) secretariat has announced that Indian troops would be part of counter-terror joint exercises, due to be held by the eight-nation grouping in Pakistan later this year, which would be a first.

Meanwhile, an eight-member Pakistani delegation headed by Pakistan Commissioner for Indus Waters Meher Ali Shah travelled to Delhi for Indus treaty talks on Tuesday, with the Indian team led by Indian Commissioner Pradeep Saxena, to be held after more than two years.

The UAE FM continues to guide the talks, said the Bloomberg report, which cited a recent telephone conversation Mr. Zayed had with PM Khan. While India has consistently and publicly rejected any chance of third-party mediation between India and Pakistan, there have been several offers, including one by former U.S. President Donald Trump, to facilitate talks.

In February 2019, after the Balakot strikes and Pakistani action at the LoC , Mr. Trump had said he had spoken to both sides to ensure a pilot’s release from Pakistan. At the time, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan had also announced that he had telephoned Mr. Modi and Mr. Khan to de-escalate tensions and promote “peaceful dialogue” between the two.

‘India should back UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka’ #GS2 #IR

India should unambiguously support the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution against Sri Lanka for war crimes against Tamils in the island nation, CPI General Secretary D. Raja said in a letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Mr. Raja said India should not set any precedence of supporting injustice by favouring Sri Lanka. “I request that India should unambiguously support the draft resolution in order to ensure justice to Tamil people in Sri Lanka and the dignified resettlement and rehabilitation of the victims.”

Appealing to Mr. Modi, Mr. Raja said it was a known fact that in 2009, the civil war in Sri Lanka turned into a full-fledged war by the state against Tamils. “The atrocities and violence unleashed by the government of Sri Lanka on Tamil people resulted in deaths of tens of thousands of people including women and children,” the CPI leader said, adding that those who committed these atrocities were rewarded by the Sri Lankan government.

Centre readies draft plan for district-wise export promotion #GS3 #Economy

The government has readied a draft district-wise export promotion plan for 451 districts in the country after identifying products and services with export potential in 725 districts, Commerce Secretary Anoop Wadhawan said on Monday.

Aiming for double-digit export growth from 500 districts over 3-5 years, the Commerce Ministry has asked States to prepare an annual ‘export ranking index’ of districts on export competitiveness with the assistance of the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT).

While foreign trade constitutes 45% of India’s GDP, most export promotion efforts are driven by the Centre.

The district-specific approach that perforce involves the States in identifying potential export sectors and the logistics bottlenecks to be fixed, was taken up after Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushed for each district to aim to be an export hub during his Independence Day address in 2019.

In the initial phase, products and services with export potential in each district have been identified and an institutional mechanism of State and District Export Promotion Committees (SEPC) are being created, with an action plan to grow exports from each district.

Draft District Export Action Plans have been prepared by regional DGFT authorities in 451 districts. “Products/services with export potential have been identified in 725 districts across the country (including Agricultural & Toy clusters and GI products in these Districts. “District Export Promotion Committees have been notified in the districts of all the States except West Bengal.

Mizoram’s bond with people fleeing Myanmar #GS2 #IR

On Sunday, Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga held a virtual meeting with Myanmar Foreign Minister-in-exile Zin Mar Aung of the National League for Democracy. The meeting took place despite the Centre’s reluctance to accommodate people fleeing Myanmar in light of the recent military coup and the crackdown on protesters — the Home Ministry has written to the governments of border states Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, as well as the Assam Rifles, asking them to identify Myanmar nationals fleeing the coup and deport them.

Mizoram has been reluctant to send back Myanmarese and sought that they be provided political asylum by the Centre. Zoramthanga wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 18, saying India could not turn a blind eye to the “humanitarian crisis unfolding in front of us in our own backyard”.

“It may be mentioned that the Myanmar areas bordering Mizoram are inhabited by Chin communities who are ethnically our Mizo brethren with whom we have been having close contact throughout all these years even before India became independent. “Therefore, Mizoram cannot just remain indifferent to their sufferings today.”

Who are the Chin communities mentioned by the Mizoram CM?

The Chin Hills, or the Indo-Chin hill ranges as they are often called, are a mountainous region in north-western Myanmar. At an elevation of 2100-3000 metres, this heavily- forested mountain region was the home of numerous tribes that fall under the Zo umbrella.

The Zo people include all the tribes that come under the Chin-Kuki-Mizo ethnic group spread across Myanmar, India and Bangladesh including a host of tribes, sub-tribes and clans such as Chin, Kuki, Mizo, Zomi, Paitei, Hmar, Lushei, Ralte, Pawi, Lai, Mara, Gangte, Thadou etc.

Believed to have originated in China, the tribes migrated through Tibet to settle in Myanmar, and speak a group of the Tibeto-Burman languages. But constant feuds among clans of different tribes and their kings (chieftains), drove many of the clans westwards, towards Mizoram and some parts of Manipur, in the 17th century. Here the tribes set up new villages and colonies, but even with their new identities, they remain socially and emotionally tied with the Chin tribes of Myanmar.

When British rule extended towards the Northeast, Mizoram was denoted an “excluded area” and remained outside the administration of the British, governed only by the Scheduled District Act.

What is the nature of the bond between the Chin people in India and Myanmar?

While they are separated by a 510-km India-Myanmar border, they consider themselves “one people’’ despite past conflicts: the Indo-Chin people.

Besides the shared ethnicity, what binds these two peoples together is a shared religion. Mizoram is predominantly Christian, as are the Chin people of Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Mizoram officials refer to the refugees’ status as a Christian minority people in seeking asylum for them, and also the fear of persecution by the junta.

Rih Dil in Chin state, Myanmar, is a cultural and spiritual lake for the Mizos, deeply revered in folklore, shaping pre-Christian belief of traditional Mizo views of life after death.

How well are the two sides connected?

The Mizoram-Myanmar border is porous, with very little fencing, if any. While the latest influx has been driven by the coup, Myanmar residents have been crossing this open border for decades. While the Assam Rifles has now received orders to keep strict vigil amid reports of over 300 refugees having crossed in, it is understood that the actual number of refugees is much higher, with more arriving every day.

In the early 20th century, Mizos from Champhai district and elsewhere migrated to Myanmar, setting up villages in the Kalay-Kabaw valley. Many are believed to have joined the Myanmar army for lucrative employment.

Many Mizo families also migrated to Myanmar in 1966 and 1986, when the Mizo National Front sought secession from India, to escape counter-insurgency operations from the Indian government.

In 1988, a crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Myanmar drove Chin refugees across the Tiau River to Champhai district in India and have since been integrated into Mizo society.

The Mizo social fabric spans across the border, which now separates families. While the two countries have an arrangement called Free Movement Regime (FMR) that allows locals on either side to go up to 16 km on the other side and stay up to 14 days, thousands regularly cross over on either side for work and to meet relatives, often unofficially and for extended periods. Marriages are often arranged across the border.

In border trade, Mizoram depends to a large extent on Myanmar for many essential commodities including beef, pork, good quality rice, fruits, and household utensils. Mizoram sends across items scarce in Myanmar such as medicines or fertilisers.

A road is under construction to connect the two countries through Champhai, and recent discussions have taken place between the Centre and the state to set up a Land Customs Station at Zokhawthar, also the site of an emerging township.

India’s Look East, Act East policy and greater interactions on the border have strengthened an already strong connection between the people on either side of the border.

What is India’s policy on asylum seekers?

India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and it does not currently have a national law on refugees. In 2011, the Centre circulated to all states and Union Territories a Standard Operating Procedure to deal with foreign nationals who claimed to be refugees.

An illegal immigrant can be a foreign national who enters India on valid travel documents and stays beyond their validity, or a foreign national who enters without valid travel documents.

Cases that can be prima facie justified on grounds of well-founded fears of persecution on account of race, religion, sex, nationality, ethnic identity, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, can be recommended by states or Union Territories to the Home Ministry for a long-term visa (LTV) after due security verification. LTV-holders are allowed to take up private-sector employment and enrol in any academic institution.

In the view of the Indian government, illegal migrants “infringe on the rights of Indian citizens” and are “more vulnerable for getting recruited by terrorist organisations”. Section 3(2)(c) of the Foreigners Act, 1946 gives the Centre the right to deport a foreign national. The power to identify and deport foreign nationals who are in India illegally has been delegated to the states, Union Territories and the Home Ministry’s Bureau of Immigration.

Illegal immigrants intercepted at the border can be sent back then and there.

What is happening in Mizoram right now, and what is the way forward?

The Mizo Zirlai Pawl, the apex Mizo students body, on February 3 held a sit-in demonstration in Aizawl in solidarity with the people of Myanmar. The MZP headquarters in Lunglei organised a similar gathering a week later on February 11 in conjunction with the Chin Welfare Organisation based in that town. NGOs such as the Zo-Reunification Organisation and Mizo Students’ Union added their support.

Several Mizo village council authorities have issued letters and statements affirming their willingness to accommodate Chin refugees. On February 24, the CM gave an assurance in the Assembly that the state government would be ready to provide assistance to civilians fleeing the Myanmar regime.

During the sit-in demonstration held at the front lawn of Vanapa Hall in Aizawl barely two days after the coup, and last Saturday, music concerts were held across Aizawl to raise funds for the Myanmar nationals in Mizoram.

The Zo Reunification Organisation plans to burn the Home Ministry order directing the state to send back the Myanmar nationals.

With the swell of sympathy among Mizos for the fleeing Chin people, and increasing pressure on the state government, it is unlikely that Mizoram will back down any time soon — unless the Centre devises a way out.

One year on, many unknowns in the role of weather in Covid-19 spread #GS3 #SnT

One full year into the Covid-19 pandemic, when the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has gone through all the seasons, it is not yet fully understood how the virus behaves in and responds to the changing weather.

Although this remains an area of research globally, a 16-member Covid-19 Task Team constituted by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has found no concrete answers on the influence of several meteorological parameters on coronavirus cases and related mortality, the world over.

When the pandemic broke, what role was weather expected to play?

Right from the beginning after the first cases were reported from Wuhan in China in December 2019, the popular scientific speculation was that the respiratory viral infection could show some seasonality.

Based on past experience with influenza, many medical and public health experts expected that cases of respiratory viral infections would spike during the autumn and winter months. And, fewer such infections would emerge in temperate climates and during summer months. Besides, variations were predicted based on geographical location, altitude and inter-annual variabilities.

However, in early efforts to document Covid-19 trends viz-a-viz weather conditions and air quality, the results were not always as predicted. A number of studies threw up uncertain and contradictory results.

So, did the weather not have any influence on Covid-19 cases?

What can be said with a certain degree of surety, as of now, is that the immunology of various populations outweighed environmental factors to a large extent, with seasonality playing a relatively smaller, but inevitable, role.

The extent to which seasonality drove Covid-19 cases and led to mortality globally is yet to be ascertained, according to the first report of the WMO Covid-19 Task Team, ‘Review on Meteorological and Air Quality Factors Affecting the Covid-19 Pandemic’, released last week.

What do studies suggest?

The WMO Task Team focused on three meteorological parameters — ultraviolet radiation, air temperature and humidity. Based on several studies, what is now known —

UV RADIATION: Under controlled laboratory settings, the impact of UV on virus survival is clear, but its importance for the transmission of SARS-Cov-2 is yet to be proven. Many studies drew negative correlations or non-linear associations between UV radiations and indicators of SARS-Cov-2 transmission, which included the case growth rate. But the possibility of the influence of UV radiation and its implications on seasons, latitude and altitude remain unestablished.

TEMPERATURE & HUMIDITY: Environments with cool temperatures (5°C) and relatively low humidity (20-35%) positively influence virus transmission through aerosols, especially in mid-latitude winter settings. In warm and humid settings, small respiratory droplets are capable of absorbing water; when a larger droplet settles on a surface it leads to transmission via contact rather than airborne, especially in tropical climates.

Under large temperature variations, respiratory mortality increases. Exposure to high ambient temperatures, particularly for the elderly, children, those who have pre-existing conditions and are vulnerable to heat, puts them at a higher risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

AIR POLLUTION: Covid-19 infection can deteriorate upon prolonged exposure to polluted air, especially high levels of PM2.5, ozone and nitrogen oxide, all of which can trigger immune system dysregulation. This in turn increases the chances of developing co-morbidities and of requiring hospitalisation. But, the evidence on impact of air quality on virus transmission remains limited.

HUMAN BEHAVIOUR: This is being seen as the most consistent factor with a role in SARS-Cov-2 transmission. It is now established that the transmission commonly occurs when people congregate within closed spaces with poor ventilation. Extreme heat could force people to avoid masks, thereby aiding greater transmission. Warm conditions would also mean an increase in use of air-conditioners, adding to the risk of indoor transmission.

What are the key conclusions of the WMO Task Team, then?

SARS-Cov2 survives longer in cold, dry and low UV radiation conditions, it said. But Covid-19 transmission dynamics in 2020 and 2021 (until January first week) appear to have been influenced primarily by government interventions like lockdowns, travel restrictions and use of masks. Other transmission drivers include human behaviour, demographics, immunity of the population and virus mutations.

Meteorological factors and air quality must not be the basis on which governments relax intervention measures to curb the virus transmission, the task team has recommended.

Why interval between Covishield doses has been raised to 8 weeks #GS3 #SnT

The government has decided to increase the interval between the first and second doses of Covishield to up to eight weeks in its ongoing vaccination drive against Covid-19. Covishield is Serum Institute of India’s version of AZD1222, the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca in collaboration with the University of Oxford.

Some data from global trials of AZD122 suggests that extending the duration between doses to 12 weeks increased its efficacy much more. On the other hand, interim findings reported on Monday from trials in the US, Peru and Chile showed that the vaccine had an efficacy of around 79% even when the second dose was given four weeks after the first dose.

Why did the government decide to increase the dosing interval of Covishield?

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare took the decision on the recommendation of two expert groups – the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) and National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 (NEGVAC). The groups, after looking into available scientific evidence from clinical trials of the vaccine, concluded that the protection that it provides against Covid-19 is “enhanced” if the second dose is administered between 6-8 weeks.

What do other studies say about this vaccine’s dosing interval?

According to data from trials of AZD1222 in other countries, the efficacy of the vaccine increased when the second dose was given more than six weeks after the first. Efficacy in this case is the vaccine’s ability to bring down cases of symptomatic Covid-19 in those inoculated, compared with those who are not.

AZD1222’s efficacy was around 54.9% when the second dose was given less than six weeks after the first dose, as per a February study analysing Covid-19 cases in phase 3 clinical trial participants across the UK, Brazil and South Africa.

The efficacy increased to 59.9% when the second dose was given 6-8 weeks after the first dose, 63.7% when the second dose was at 9-11 weeks, and 82.4% when the dosing interval stretched to 12 weeks or more. This study, which was submitted to The Lancet in February, has not yet been peer-reviewed.

What about the latest findings?

According to Oxford University and AstraZeneca, interim results from phase 3 clinical trials conducted on 32,000 participants across the US, Chile and Peru show that the vaccine had an efficacy of 79% against symptomatic Covid-19 when the interval between doses was four weeks. More importantly, the efficacy in the cases of severe or critical symptomatic Covid-19 was 100%.

The efficacy found in these trials is much higher than its efficacy in trials conducted in countries like the UK and Brazil.

Why did India increase the interval to eight weeks, and not longer?

UNCONVINCING DATA: One reason is that the expert groups looking into the evidence concluded that the vaccine would not be able to provide enhanced protection if its dosage interval was increased beyond eight weeks, according to a letter written by Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan to all states and Union Territories.

According to Dr N K Arora of NTAGI, one of the groups that looked at this issue, there was “no good scientific evidence” to support a recommendation to increase the interval beyond eight weeks, especially given that India does not have a shortage of the vaccine. “We have looked at every bit of data, whatever is available…we are not convinced,” he said.

“This recommendation (to increase the interval beyond eight weeks) is more for countries and societies where there is a deficiency of (the) vaccine. India is in a very unique position. We are vaccine sufficient,” he added.

POTENTIAL RISKS: There are also potential risks of “breakthrough infections” without any “significant benefit” in terms of efficacy that the groups identified with extending the dosing interval, especially at a time when cases are rising in the country.

“Increasing the dosage interval (too much) is fraught with the potential of dreadful infection between the two doses. So, if I give the first dose and wait until 12 weeks, there is a possibility that some people might get Covid infection in between. (We) don’t want that,” said Dr Arora.

Even if extending the dosing interval would lead to an increase in antibodies, Dr Arora said that this does not necessarily mean that it would provide more protection. “There is no direct relationship between increased antibodies and better protection,” he said.

What does this mean for India’s ongoing vaccination campaign against Covid-19?

Delaying the second dose could potentially mean that more doses are freed up for a larger number of people to get their first dose of the vaccine sooner. However, the government also feels that allowing this increase in interval would make it easier for the priority group population, which mostly consists of the elderly, to be vaccinated.