Current Affairs 12th March

Covaxin off clinical trial mode #GS3 #SnT

India’s indigenous COVID-19 vaccine Covaxin, from Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech, has been taken off the clinical trial mode and is now authorised for emergency use on a par with Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covishield.

The surge in COVID cases in Maharashtra is a serious matter. This surge has two lessons — don’t take the virus for granted and if we have to remain COVID-free, then we need to follow COVID-appropriate behaviour and avail ourselves of the vaccines.

Delhi-NCR surge

He added that Delhi-NCR was also seeing a rise in COVID cases and that people need to be watchful.

State had shown a worrisome trend and added that the mutant strain had not been found to be responsible for the surge in cases. This is related to reduced testing, tracking, inappropriate COVID behaviour and large congregations.

Eight of the top 10 districts in terms of active COVID-19 cases are in Maharashtra. Health secretary Rajesh Bhushan said Pune with 18,474 cases topped the list, followed by Nagpur (12,724), Thane (10,460), Mumbai (9,973), Bengaluru Urban (5,526), Ernakulam (5,430), Amravati (MH) (5,259), Jalgaon (5,029), Nashik (4,525) and Aurangabad (4,354).

Price lowered

Mr. Bhushan said the government “has also re-negotiated the price of the COVID-19 vaccine being bought from the Serum Institute of India (SII). The price of Covishield, developed by AstraZeneca and the Oxford University and manufactured by SII … has been reduced from Rs. 200 per dose (without tax) to substantially lower. However, he did not give any details about this benefit being passed on to the beneficiaries of the vaccine.

In his presentation, the Health Secretary said India was seeing a rise in the number of active cases after touching its lowest mark in mid-February. Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Maharashtra were registering a rise, while Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal were among those showing a decline.

The Ministry’s data also noted that the daily new COVID deaths, which was 159 on January 22, came down to 90 on February 13, and had been moving upwards in the past 24 hours, registering 126 deaths.

In his presentation, the Health Secretary said that India is now seeing a rise in the number of active cases after touching lowest mark in mid-February. Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Maharashtra are the top States registering a rise in the number of COVID cases and Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal being the top States showing a decline.

PM to attend first Quad Summit today #GS2 #IR

Access to COVID-19 vaccines, cooperation on technology, and climate change are on the top of the agenda as Prime Minister Narendra Modi will join U.S. President Joseph Biden, Australian PM Scott Morrison and Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga for a virtual summit of the Quadrilateral Framework (Quad) on Friday — the first time leaders of the Indo-Pacific grouping are meeting.

The meeting is also one of Mr. Biden’s first multilateral engagements, which the White House said denoted the importance of the U.S.’s cooperation with “allies and partners in the Indo Pacific”.

The Quad meeting, that China has referred to as an “Indo-Pacific NATO”, will be watched most closely for signals on how the grouping will deal with the challenge from Beijing’s recent moves in the Pacific as well as at the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh.

Also of interest is whether the four leaders will issue a joint statement at the end of the meeting, which would be another first, as all Quad engagements thus far have come out with four separate readouts indicating differences in their positions.

In the Quad ministerial summit in February, the four countries had discussed the need for international cooperation to ensure equitable access to vaccines, especially in developing countries.

One year on, virus still has upper hand #GS3 #SnT

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the world was facing its first-ever pandemic from a coronavirus. Its Director-General, Tedros Adhanom, said then: “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death. Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change the WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this virus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”

The pandemic declaration preceded two weeks of the number of cases of COVID-19 outside China increasing 13-fold, and the number of affected countries tripling. Last March 11, there were more than 1,18,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,291 people had lost their lives, according to the WHO.

A year on, the numbers had surged nearly 1,000-fold. There are about 118 million confirmed coronavirus cases as on Thursday and nearly 2.6 million deaths due to the disease.

February surge

In India, the number of cases have so far touched 11.2 million, with 1,58,227 deaths confirmed by the government so far. Notwithstanding a decline in daily cases since September, February has since seen an uptick with fresh daily infections crossing 22,000, according to data on Thursday — the first time it’s done so this year.

When the WHO declared a pandemic, India had evacuated 948 passengers from COVID-19 affected countries, 900 of whom were Indian citizens and 48 belonging to different nationalities, including the Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh, China, the U.S., Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, South Africa and Peru.

Air India operated two special flights for the evacuation efforts that brought back 654 passengers, including 647 Indian citizens from Wuhan, China.

They were quarantined at the Indo-Tibetan Border Police’s Chhawla camp and at an Army facility in Manesar, Haryana. On March 10, the Centre issued an advisory in which passengers with travel history to China, Hong Kong, Republic of Korea, Japan, Italy, Thailand, Singapore, Iran, Malaysia, France, Spain and Germany were expected to undergo self-imposed quarantine for 14 days from the date of their arrival, and their employers should facilitate work-from-home for such employees during this period.

By that date, the government had had six Group of Ministers’ meetings and it was decided to cancel all visas except diplomatic, official, UN/International Organizations, employment, project visas, until April 15, 2020.

Travel norms

Incoming travellers, including Indian nationals, arriving from or having visited China, Italy, Iran, Republic of Korea, France, Spain and Germany after February 15, 2020 were required to be quarantined for a minimum period of 14 days.

As of that day, India reported 60 positive cases, with no deaths confirmed, though a 76-year old from Kalaburgi, Karnataka, was suspected to have died of the infection.

India had only the National Institute of Virology as a testing centre. The testings subsequently expanded and the country has been able to do nearly 224 million tests. These include the RT PCR test, the rapid antigen test and the antibody tests.

More than 25.6 million vaccine doses have been administered through 4,78,168 sessions, as of Thursday in the country.

India, Japan space agencies review ties #GS2 #IR

Indian and Japanese space agencies on Thursday reviewed cooperation in earth observation, lunar cooperation and satellite navigation, and also agreed to explore opportunities for cooperation in “space situational awareness and professional exchange programme”.

This was agreed during a bilateral meeting between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) held virtually.

“Both agencies signed an Implementing Arrangement for collaborative activities on rice crop area and air quality monitoring using satellite data,” an ISRO statement said. India and Japan are already working on a joint lunar polar exploration (LUPEX) mission and the two space agencies have been working on the mission that aims to send a lander and rover to the Moon’s south pole around 2024.

Early this month, India and Italy decided to explore opportunities in earth observation, space science and robotic and human exploration.

Last month, India and Australia signed an amendment to the MoU which will build on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Both countries are also in discussions for Australia to host vital tracking infrastructure to support the Gaganyaan manned space flight mission.

PM to flag off march to Dandi today #GS1 #History

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will flag off a march from the Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi to kick off celebrations of the 75th year of Independence. The Prime Minister would inaugurate cultural and digital initiatives as part of the celebrations and address the gathering at the Sabarmati Ashram as well.

The Culture Ministry had announced last week that the celebrations would begin from Friday, March 12, marking the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha. It also marks 75 weeks till Independence Day 2022.

25 days

The march from the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi in Navsari, a distance of 241 miles, would take the 81 marchers a period of 25 days. The march would be joined by different groups of people along the way. Mr. Patel would lead the first stretch of 75 km of the march.

China Parliament approves 5-year plan #GS2 #IR

China formally approved the outline of its 14th five-year plan (2021-25), which highlights a number of key strategic projects to be pursued as a priority, including the first dam in Tibet on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo or Brahmaputra, a Sichuan-Tibet railway line near the India border, and a push for self-sufficiency in emerging industries such as Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The draft outline of the five-year plan (FYP) and objectives through the year 2035 were passed by the National People’s Congress, the ceremonial legislature, as it closed its six-day annual session. Among the key projects is the building of a hydropower base on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo, which refers to the sections of the river in Tibet just before it enters India in Arunachal Pradesh. 

While four dams have been approved on the upper and middle reaches, this is the first project in the lower reaches of the river. Che Dalha, deputy Communist Party chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), said at the NPC that authorities should “strive to begin construction this year” of the dam and for “environmental impact assessments for the project to be approved as soon as possible”.

India has expressed concerns over the four previously announced dams on the upper and middle reaches, the first of which, in Zangmu, was operationalised in 2015. The impact of the dams on downstream flows is not clear, and Indian officials have said they are monitoring flows of the river closely, both through independent assessments and using the hydrological data that China provides under a bilateral arrangement. The Brahmaputra is not entirely dependent on upstream flows with an estimated 35% of its basin in India, according to officials.

High-priority project

Dams on the lower reaches and at the Great Bend of the river near the border, which has been cited as a possible location for the new project, would raise worries because of the location across the border from Arunachal Pradesh in an ecologically sensitive canyon. 

Past projects to tap the enormous hydropower potential of the Great Bend were not given approval, but the inclusion of the project in the FYP suggests it has been sanctioned at the highest level and is now a high-priority official policy, viewed as a key element of a broader push to diversify China’s energy mix and meet a target of peaking carbon emissions by 2030.

The hydropower base was listed in the outline of the FYP among projects that serve major national strategies, along with the Sichuan-Tibet railway. The FYP highlighted the railway from Ya’an in Sichuan to Nyingchi in Tibet as a key infrastructure project. 

It also called to “advance the preparatory work” for building a railway line from Xigaze in Tibet to Gyirong along the Tibet-Nepal border, which is part of an already agreed plan to build a cross-border railway link connecting China and Nepal. 

The FYP also emphasised opening up access to key border highways, including the strategically important G219 national highway that runs along the entire length of the India-China border in Xinjiang and Tibet.

The rail from Ya’an to Nyingchi in Tibet, which lies just across from Arunachal Pradesh, is the first segment of a line that will eventually run to Lhasa and is the second major rail link from China’s hinterland to Tibet. 

President Xi Jinping in November officially “gave the instruction” to begin work on the project, calling it “a major step in safeguarding national unity and a significant move in promoting economic and social development of the western region.” Zhu Weiqun, a senior Party official formerly in charge of Tibet policy, said last year the railway will help “transport advanced equipment and technologies from the rest of China to Tibet and bring local products out” and “if a scenario of a crisis happens at the border, the railway can act as a ‘fast track’ for the delivery of strategic materials.”

Beyond the strategic infrastructure projects, the broader goal of the FYP and the 2035 outline emphasised establishing China’s self-sufficiency in key high-tech industries. 

While the FYP for the first time did not outline a growth target, it listed an annual target to increase R&D spending “by more than 7% per year”. It said China “will take self-reliance in science and technology as strategic underpinning for national development” and “will focus on the development of strategic emerging industries including information technology, biotech and new energy”.

U.S. curbs on raw material exports could dent new Quad alliance’s vaccine push #GS3 #Economy

The U.S.-backed Quad alliance aims to invest in India’s pharmaceutical capacity as it looks to ramp up COVID vaccine output, but U.S. curbs on exports of key materials could hamper that effort, sources say.

The alliance, grouping the United States, Japan, Australia and India, wants to expand global vaccinations and in turn counter China’s growing vaccine diplomacy in Southeast Asia and worldwide. India is the world’s biggest vaccine maker.

India to seek assurance

As the alliance’s first virtual summit kicks off on Friday, one key assurance that India will be seeking is for an easing of export curbs, said two sources briefed on the issue.

The White House said last week it had used the U.S. Defence Production Act — which prevents export of materials to prioritise local production — to help drugmaker Merck make Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine.

“India’s seeking both raw materials and investments from Quad partners and once this aspect is resolved, then the Quad alliance can start large-scale distribution starting in Southeast Asian countries.

Earlier this week Reuters reported that the U.S. and Japan would help fund Indian firms manufacturing vaccines for U.S. drugmakers Novavax Inc. and J&J. Some of the additional supplies from India will go to Southeast Asia as China pushes its vaccines to supply Indonesia, Philippines and others in the region.

Filters and bags

But the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine maker, has said it is worried the U.S. ban on exports of materials like filters and bags, keeping them for U.S. companies, could limit production, especially of the Novavax shot that it was set to start making next month.

“The ramp-up and scaling of Novavax production could take a sharp hit, and if restrictions persist this could down the road also slow the ramp-up of Covishield,” said a source close to the matter, referring to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine that SII is also licensed to produce.

U.S. officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. India’s foreign ministry had no immediate comment. Limitations to production of the Novavax and Covishield shots risk hurting the GAVI/WHO COVAX initiative that is heavily reliant on those two vaccines as it shares inoculations with poorer countries.