Current Affairs 15th May

Covishield and Covaxin are less effective against B.1.617 strain #GS3 #SnT

Both Covishield and Covaxin, while effective at generating an immune response against the coronavirus, appear to generate only half as many antibodies against the B.1.617 strain, or the Indian strain, according to a series of early reports authored by scientists at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

However, several scientists told that this drop didn’t diminish the fact that the vaccines continued to be a potent tool against COVID-19.

Scientists at the ICMR-National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune, have since January been collecting samples from coronavirus-positive individuals and testing them for prominent variants — mostly the international variants of concern B.1.1.7 (the U.K. variant), the B.1.351 (the South African variant), the P2 (the Brazil variant) and B.1.617 (the Indian variant). Three related variants of the B.1.617 now make up an increasing proportion of cases in India.

Like their global counterparts, the two vaccines authorised in India, Covaxin and Covishield, while made differently, were designed on the blueprint of the virus variant, called B1, that became the dominant strain in India by last April.

With reports emerging from vaccine trials, across the globe, of certain mutations in the virus helping it evade immune systems and antibodies, several labs have been working to check the potency of vaccines against emerging variants.

When the NIV scientists tested the virus, bearing the B.1.617 signature mutations, on antibodies that were extracted from the blood serum of those with two doses of Covaxin, they found roughly 55% fewer antibodies than the antibodies generated against B.1.

Similar study

When a similar study was done with those inoculated with Covishield, the Geometric Mean Titer (a proxy for the number of antibodies) with B.1 was 42.92 whereas with the B.1.617 it was 21.9, again roughly half.

On the other hand, when antibody levels were compared against the B.1.1.7 (U.K. strain), there was only a 6% reduction whereas against Brazilian strain (P2) there was again a 50% reduction. Dr. Samiran Panda, who heads the Epidemiology Division at the ICMR, Delhi, and was a co-author of the papers, said while the reductions were roughly on these lines, they showed that both Covishield and Covaxin were “almost similarly” protective against the B.1.617.

In those vaccinated, protection against a future infection isn’t solely determined by the number of antibodies and the extent to which they wax and wane over time, but also by the mobilisation of a class of defensive bodies called T cells, which it is believed direct a more specific kind of attack against the virus and destroys it unlike antibodies, which only block replicating virus cells.

The antibody tests don’t account for the T-cell response. Moreover these tests were done on a very small number of individuals. The average level of antibodies don’t always capture the true range of antibody production.

U.S. slider turtles pose a threat in Northeast #GS3 #Environment

A ‘cute’ American turtle popular as pet is threatening to invade the natural water bodies across the Northeast, which is home to 21 of the 29 vulnerable native Indian species of freshwater turtles and tortoises.

Between August 2018 and June 2019, a team of herpetologists from the NGO ‘Help Earth’ found red-eared sliders in the Deepor Beel Wildlife Sanctuary and the Ugratara temple pond — both in Guwahati. They published the “grim” finding in Reptiles & Amphibians, journal of the U.S.-based International Reptile Conservation Foundation, in August 2020.

But the alarm was raised after H.T. Lalremsanga and eight others from Mizoram University’s Department of Zoology published another report in the same journal in April this year. Their report said a red-eared slider was collected from an unnamed stream, connected to the Tlawng River, on a farm near Mizoram capital Aizawl.

The red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) derives its name from red stripes around the part where its ears would be and from its ability to slide quickly off any surface into the water.

“Native to the U.S. and northern Mexico, this turtle is an extremely popular pet … But on the flip side they grow fast and virtually leave nothing for the native species to eat.

“Much like the Burmese python that went to the U.S. as a pet to damage the South Florida Everglades ecosystem, the red-eared slider has already affected States such as Karnataka and Gujarat, where it has been found in 33 natural water bodies.

“But more than elsewhere in India, preventing this invasive species from overtaking the Brahmaputra and other river ecosystems in the Northeast is crucial because the Northeast is home to more than 72% of the turtle and tortoise species in the country, all of them very rare.

Catch-22 situation

Mr. Purkayastha said the red-eared slider presents a Catch-22 situation. People who keep it as pets become sensitive about turtle conservation but endanger the local ecosystem, probably unknowingly, by releasing them in natural water bodies after they outgrow an aquarium, tank or pool at home.

Monsoon likely to arrive over Kerala on May 31: IMD #GS1 #Geography

The monsoon is likely to arrive on the Kerala coast on May 31, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) announced. The normal monsoon onset date over Kerala is June 1 with an error window of four days.

The monsoon arrival comes as an emerging cyclone brews over the Arabian Sea. Forecasters say the cyclone is currently a ‘depression’ or a pre-cyclone located about 30 km off Lakshadweep. Current weather models say the depression will become a cyclonic storm by Saturday evening and Tauktae — as the storm will then be formally called — will move along the western coast and reach the Gujarat coast by May 18.

In the interim, it could intensify into a ‘Very Severe Cyclonic Storm’ that is characterised by wind speed of over 120 kmph. This would then make it a grade 3 cyclonic storm and two steps short of what is called a ‘Super Cyclonic storm’ with wind speed of over 200 kmph.

It is common for storms to brew in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea ahead in May or in the month ahead of the monsoon onset.

Already heavy rains have set in over Lakshadweep, Kerala Tamil Nadu , Karnataka and Goa and this is expected to continue for the next few days.

Normal monsoon

The IMD has forecast a normal monsoon during June-September, largely premised on relatively cool temperatures in the Central Pacific and ruling out the possibility of an El Nino. “Normal” rainfall refers to a range: 96%-104% of the Long Period Average (LPA) of 88 cm.

Last year, the IMD announced a monsoon onset date over Kerala of June 1 whereas the monsoon actually arrived on June 5. There is no correlation between the date of onset of the monsoon and the actual quantum of rain that is received during these months.

To herald the monsoon onset, initial monsoon rains first occur over south Andaman Sea and the monsoon winds then advance across the Bay of Bengal. The emerging storm, according to the IMD’s press note on Friday, has strengthened the monsoon winds.

“The cross equatorial south westerlies have temporarily strengthened over the Arabian Sea and is expected to deepen over the Bay of Bengal from May 20 and a sustained rainfall activity is likely over the south Bay of Bengal and Andaman and Nicobar Islands from May 21. Hence the monsoon advance over Andaman and Nicobar Islands is very likely around May 21 2021,” it says.

Margin of error

While various meteorological factors — including a minimum amount of rain over Kerala and certain wind flow speeds — determine the IMD’s decision to officially declare the onset of the monsoon, a rule of thumb says that it takes about 10 days from the monsoon’s arrival over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for it to reach Kerala.

Since 2005, the monsoon has arrived within the error margin of the IMD’s weather models except for 2015.

Uphold dignity of the dead, NHRC tells Centre and States #GS2 #Governance

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued an advisory to the Centre and States on “upholding the dignity and protecting the rights of the dead” in view of the “large number of deaths during this second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges in management of the bodies.”

The advisory comes after several bodies, suspected to be of those who died of COVID-19, have been found floating in the Ganga in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the past few days.

The NHRC wrote to the Secretaries of the Union Home Affairs and Health and Family Welfare Ministries and Chief Secretaries of States to implement the recommendations.

‘Challenging process’

“As of May 9, 2021, globally 32,96,841 people have died on account of COVID-19 pandemic whereas in India 2,42,398 people have lost their lives due to this deadly virus. Due to this record number of deaths, the process of management of dead bodies while adhering to the COVID safety protocol, transportation of bodies and their burial or cremation, etc., has become challenging.

Despite various international and national guidelines, the “mismanagement” of COVID-19 affected bodies, thereby “lowering their dignity,” has been reported, it said.

The NHRC recommended that the government enact legislation to protect the rights of the dead and set up temporary crematoriums to reduce the delay in performing last rites being seen today.

‘Sensitise staff’

The advisory also said staff of crematoriums and burial grounds should be sensitised to ensure dignity while handling bodies.

“Further, they need to be provided necessary safety equipment and facilities so that they may perform their duty efficiently without any fear or risk … In cases where family members or relatives are not there to perform last rites as they themselves may be infected or are not willing being afraid of getting infected, etc., or where the repatriation of the body to the family may not be possible, the State/local administration may perform the last rites of the body, taking into account the religious/ cultural factors.

The NHRC said bodies should not be piled up during transportation or at any other point and mass burials or cremations should not be allowed as it was a violation of the right to dignity of the dead.

‘Regulate services’

The advisory said the State authorities must handle information about the dead and missing persons properly.

It added that the prices of hearse or ambulance services should be regulated.

“Since the staff at crematoriums, burial grounds, mortuaries, etc., are working round the clock during this wave of pandemic, they may be paid fair wages to compensate their hard work. Further, they should be vaccinated on a priority basis keeping in view the risk they are exposed to.

Plea seeks SC probe into bodies floating in Ganga #GS2 #Governance

A Supreme Court lawyer has moved the apex court seeking a probe by a special investigation agency into separate incidents of bodies washing up on the banks of the Ganga river in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Advocate Pradeep Kumar Yadav said the court should intervene and direct the authorities to conduct autopsies to determine the cause of death.

Mr. Yadav said about 100 bodies were found “floating” in the river at Buxar in Bihar and Ghazipur and Unnao in Uttar Pradesh.

“The petitioner, therefore, seeks the intervention of this court to investigate the suspicious death of 100 citizens whose bodies are flushed out into the river Ganga inhumanly. No FIR has been registered by the authorities. Even to the best of knowledge of the petitioner, no post-mortem was conducted.

He alleged that the “administration/police have buried the bodies by preparing verbatim false post-mortem reports, which was eye-wash to show that investigation was conducted”.

“It is therefore, requested that each body be removed and proper post-mortem be conducted in order to verify the cause of death. The plea said the court should appoint either a sitting or retired judge of the Supreme Court to head the special investigation agency.

“The State governments of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have failed to provide the adequate resources to cremate the bodies of COVID-19 patients and also had not taken any action against the authorities responsible for this… No one knows or have checked if the bodies are really that of COVID-19 patients or whether they are murder victims.

21 members of vulnerable tribes infected #GS1 #Society

With the second wave of COVID-19 sweeping across rural heartland of Odisha, infections are being reported among the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs).

As many as 21 tribals across eight different PVTGs in the State have so far tested positive, including two from the Bonda tribe, known for its secluded lifestyle. Bondas live in highlands, 3,500-feet above sea level, in Malkangiri, the southern-most district of Odisha.

“Three days ago, Malakangiri district administration conducted a mass testing drive at Mudulipada — a Bonda village. Two of them tested positive. Since they live in close proximity, we have isolated the two infected persons

To keep tribal communities safer during the pandemic, the State government had earlier stopped weekly markets where tribals come in contact with outside world.

“It is difficult to prevent spread of highly infectious coronavirus. But, we are taking utmost precautions to keep tribal communities safe. We are taking help of community leaders to convey messages on COVID-19 appropriate behaviour in their own dialects

Anthropologists and activists fear that the administration would find it very tough to stop faster spread, if virus makes further inroad into tribal communities. Since many tribals live in tiny huts, it makes transmission of the virus very difficult to contain and isolate.

According to reports, four members of Dongria Kondh, another PVTG, have tested positive in Parasali panchayat of Kalyansinghpur block in Rayagada district.

Odisha has among the largest and most diverse tribal populations in the country. Of the 62 tribal groups residing in Odisha, 13 are recognised as PVTGs.

According to the 2011 Census, Odisha’s share of the country’s total tribal population was 9%. Tribals constitute 22.85% of State’s population. In terms of numbers of its tribal population, Odisha occupies the third position in India.

The PVTGs such as Bonda, Birhor, Chuktia Bhunjia, Didayi, Dongaria Kandha, Hill Kharia, Juang, Kutia Kondh, Lanjia Saora, Lodha, Mankirdia, Paudi Bhuyan and Saora have been identified on the basis of stagnant or diminishing populations, subsistence level of economy associated with pre-agricultural stages of hunting, food gathering and shifting cultivation, and relative physical isolation.

What’s Iron Dome system? #GS3 #SnT

The Iron Dome aerial defence system intercepted a Hamas Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) on Friday that crossed from Gaza into Israel, Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) said on social media. The IDF said on Thursday that in the last three days, Hamas has fired more than 1,500 rockets from Gaza all the way into Israel. The night sky over Israel has been ablaze with interceptor missiles from Iron Dome shooting down the incoming rockets in the sky. So what is the Iron Dome system?


Iron Dome is a multi-mission system capable of intercepting rockets, artillery, mortars and Precision Guided Munitions like very short range air defence (V-SHORAD) systems as well as aircraft, helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) over short ranges of up to 70 km. It is an all-weather system and can engage multiple targets simultaneously and be deployed over land and sea.

Iron Dome is manufactured by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems and has been in service with Israeli Air Force since 2011. The radar system was developed by Elta. Its development was prompted after a series of rocket attacks on Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas in the 2000s. In the 2006 Lebanon war, around 4,000 rockets were fired on the northern parts of Israel resulting in the death of about 44 Israeli civilians and and evacuation of around 250,000 citizens following the development of the system was taken up.

How does it work?

An Iron Dome battery consists of a battle management control unit, a detection and tracking radar and a firing unit of three vertical launchers, with 20 interceptor missiles each. The interceptor missile uses a proximity fuse to detonate the target warhead in the air. The Iron Dome is deployed in a layered defence along with David’s Sling and Arrow missile defence system which are designed for medium- and long-range threats.

According to a 2013 research paper by Yiftah S. Shapur titled ‘Lessons from the Iron Dome’ in Military and Strategic Affairs , one of the system’s important advantages is its ability to identify the anticipated point of impact of the threatening rocket, to calculate whether it will fall in a built-up area or not, and to decide on this basis whether or not to engage it.

This prevents unnecessary interception of rockets that will fall in open areas and thus not cause damage, the paper states.

The system has intercepted thousands of rockets so far and, according to Rafael, its success rate is over 90%. The I-DOME is the mobile variant with all components on a single truck and C-DOME is the naval version for deployment on ships.

The system has performed very well so far. However, the system can see limitations when it is overwhelmed with a barrage of projectiles. “The system has a ‘saturation point’. It is capable of engaging a certain (unpublished) number of targets at the same time, and no more. Additional rockets fired in a crowded salvo could succeed in breaching defences and cause damage,” Mr. Shapur says in the paper.

Mitigating strategies

Several assessments suggest that Hamas is developing mitigating strategies including lowering the trajectories of the projectiles while also continuing to accumulate thousands of rockets with improved precision. According to Mr. Shapur, one of the possible limitations is the system’s inability to cope with very short range threats as estimates put the Iron Dome’s minimum interception range at 5-7 km.

The other factor is the cost of interception is high. The cost of the interceptor missile is about $40,000-50,000, according to Mr. Shapur.

According to a November 2017 commentary on RAND Corporation blog by Elizabeth M. Bartels, the system is built to intercept a certain of projectiles and can be overwhelmed by a more capable adversary.

According to Ms. Bartels, the planning scenario for a war with “Hezbollah involves 1,000-1,500 rockets per day fired at Israeli population centres.” Taking North Korea as a context, the study puts estimates of forward-deployed conventional artillery of North Korea would be “capable of firing 500,000 shells an hour for several hours, or firing tens-of-thousands of shells per day over an extended period.” “This rate of fire would easily overwhelm a variant of Iron Dome, which is currently being proposed as a solution.

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