Current Affairs 25th April

Customs duty on vaccines, oxygen waived for 3 months #GS3 #SnT

The government has decided to exempt basics customs duty on import of COVID-19 vaccines and the basic customs duty and health cess on import of medical grade oxygen and other equipment related to providing oxygen to patients for a period of three months.

The decisions were taken at a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister to review steps to boost oxygen availability in the country. “The government has taken measures to improve supply of oxygen and medical supplies.

Will hang anyone obstructing oxygen supplies, warns Delhi HC #GS2 #Governance

With many hospitals in the national capital expressing urgent need amid a dire shortage of oxygen for serious COVID-19 patients, the Delhi High Court on Saturday warned that it will not hesitate to “hang” anyone who is found obstructing oxygen supplies.

“We will not spare anyone,” a Bench of Justice Vipin Sanghi and Justice Rekha Palli said during another special hearing, following urgent petitions filed by Maharaja Agrasen Hospital, Jaipur Golden Hospital and others on shortage of oxygen.

“The problem that Delhi continues to face arises primarily on account of the fact that the supply of oxygen to Delhi even at the allocated rate of 480 MT per day is not taking place,” the High Court noted. “You (Centre) had assured us (on April 21) that 480 MT per day will reach Delhi. Tell us when will it come? We want a definitive date,” the bench said, adding that COVID patients in Delhi cannot be left to die like this.

The Centre said, one of the primary reason is that three of the plants from which oxygen is to be supplied are situated at Rourkela, Durgapur and Kalinganagar.

Cryogenic tanks

While empty cryogenic tanks have been airlifted and are in the process of being filled with liquid oxygen from Durgapur, the High Court was informed that Delhi government had not made arrangements for cryogenic tanks for supplies from Rourkela and Kalinganagar.

The High Court remarked that the efforts the Delhi government has to make here “cannot be trivialised, and they should not leave it entirely to the Central Government to act in this regard”.

Justice N.V. Ramana is CJI #GS2 #Governance

Justice N.V. Ramana was sworn in as the 48th Chief Justice of India (CJI) by President Ram Nath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Justice Ramana will have a tenure of one year and four months as CJI and will demit office on August 26, 2022. After Justice K. Subba Rao, Justice Ramana is the second CJI from Andhra Pradesh.

Activist role

Born to agriculturist parents in 1957, Justice Ramana was known for his activism regarding issues involving farmers and industrial workers. Before turning to legal practice, he was a journalist with a prominent Telugu newspaper.

He practised at the Andhra Pradesh High Court, Central and A.P. Administrative Tribunals and the Supreme Court before being appointed a permanent Judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court on June 27, 2000.

He functioned as acting Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh High Court between March 10 and May 20, 2013, and was elevated as the Chief Justice of Delhi High Court on September 2, 2013. He was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court on February 17, 2014.

China imposes restrictions on nationals returning from India #GS2 #IR

China’s Embassy in India has since Friday put in place curbs that have made it harder for its nationals to return to China, amid the surge in COVID-19 cases.

The Embassy told Chinese travellers it will no longer issue “health codes” they need to return if they transit either through Nepal or Sri Lanka. Indian citizens and foreigners based in India have been barred from travelling to China since November last year.

Nepal has been the most popular route for Chinese nationals to return in the absence of direct flights between India and China, as there are daily flights from New Delhi to Kathmandu and weekly flights from Kathmandu to Guangzhou and Chongqing.

Travellers require a green health code from the Embassy in New Delhi to apply for a health code in Nepal, the country of transit.

While the Embassy’s website says travellers can apply for health codes if they have negative test results for COVID-19, the Embassy had, starting Friday, unofficially begun denying travellers green health codes even if they fulfil the criteria, though there has been no such formal announcement. By closing off the Nepal route, the Embassy is now limiting how even its own nationals may be able to return.

Last month, the Embassy said it will begin ‘facilitating’ travellers provided they have taken “Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines” which are not available in India. The travel ban has been a particular concern for many Indian students enrolled in Chinese universities, many of whom have been unable to return to China. There are at least 23,000 Indians studying in China.

Global response to India’s call for help #GS2 #IR

Four cryogenic oxygen tanks were airlifted by the Indian Air Force from Singapore, in the first such import a day after External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar put out an appeal for international assistance for India’s ongoing coronavirus crisis.

The tanks, used for the transportation of oxygen, were brought from Singapore’s Changi Airport on an Indian Air Force (IAF) C-17 which landed on Saturday at Panagarh air base in West Bengal. “We stand with India in its fight against Covid-19,” Singapore’s Embassy in New Delhi said in a statement, calling it a “bilateral and multi-agency effort.”

About 80MT of liquid oxygen are also expected to be flown to India from a company in Saudi Arabia, the Indian Embassy in Riyadh announced.

The effort comes more than two weeks after oxygen shortages were reported across the country, and led to criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis. The government is now coordinating a multi-pronged approach to ramp up oxygen availability from abroad, including tapping embassies in countries where they can be sourced, speaking to governments to waive regulatory delays, and ensuring no disruptions in supply chains. However, the government is only seeking foreign government facilitation, not foreign aid for India’s needs, they said.

While shipping in liquid oxygen is not seen as feasible at present, embassy officials are coordinating with suppliers for oxygen generators, industrial and individual concentrators as well as cryogenic tankers. Apart from Singapore, the United Arab Emirates government is also coordinating with Indian Embassy officials for the transfer of oxygen tankers, and the European Union and Russia are expected to send both oxygen-related and pharmaceutical supplies.

Among those offering support, Pakistan’s Abdul Sattar Edhi Foundation, a charity group, also wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi offering 50 ambulances and emergency staff. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed “solidarity with the people of India as they battle a dangerous wave of COVID-19.”

“We must fight this global challenge confronting humanity together,” Mr. Khan added. Mr. Jaishankar held a virtual meeting along with Shipping Minister Mansukh Mandaviya, Indian Ambassadors to Germany, European Union and United States and several executives from multinational pharmaceutical and vaccine companies to discuss bottlenecks with supply chains for India.

U.S. trade body presses Biden govt. to assist India #GS2 #IR

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a powerful trade body, added its name to the growing list of voices asking the U.S. to help countries — such as India — address their vaccine shortages.

“As the pandemic inflicts a heavy toll on countries around the globe, the U.S. Chamber strongly encourages the administration to release the millions of AstraZeneca vaccine doses in storage — as well as other life-saving support — for shipment to India, Brazil, and other nations hard-hit by the pandemic.

“These vaccine doses will not be needed in the U.S., where it’s estimated that vaccine manufacturers will be able produce enough doses by early June to vaccinate every American. This move would affirm U.S. leadership, including in initiatives such as COVAX, and as we work with partners around the globe because no one is safe from the pandemic until we are all safe from it.

Lawmakers, health specialists and experts from several Washington think-tanks have called on the Biden administration to send spare vaccines and oxygen to India — which is being ravaged by a second wave.

A group of 10 Senators had written to President Joe Biden asking him to support an India-South Africa initiative for a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights at the WTO that would facilitate the production of COVID-19 therapeutics and vaccines around the world.

Biological E gets nod for Phase 3 vaccine trial #GS3 #SnT

Pharmaceuticals and biologics firm Biological E has received approval to start Phase 3 clinical trial of its COVID-19 subunit vaccine candidate from a Subject Expert Committee of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organization (CDSCO).

The Phase III clinical study to be conducted in 15 sites across the country will evaluate the immunogenicity and safety of Biological E’s SARS-CoV-2 vaccine for protection against COVID-19 in about 1,268 healthy subjects aged 18-80 years. It is intended to be part of a larger global Phase III study.

The SEC approval follows successful completion of the Phase I/II clinical trial that began in November second week.

Two doses

According to Biological E, the Phase I/II clinical trial evaluated safety and immunogenicity of the vaccine candidate in about 360 healthy subjects aged 18-65 years. The schedule consisted of two doses for each participant, administered via intramuscular injection, 28 days apart. BE’s novel COVID-19 vaccine was found to be safe, well tolerated and immunogenic, a release from the company said.

“The results of these [Phase I/II] clinical trials are very positive and promising. We believe our vaccine candidate will become another effective global COVID-19 vaccine as we move forward into Phase III clinical trials.

The vaccine candidate includes an antigen developed by Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and in-licensed from BCM Ventures, Baylor College of Medicine’s integrated commercialisation team, along with Dynavax Technologies Corporation advanced adjuvant CpG 1018TM.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) have provided support for the Phase I/II clinical trials and also for the upcoming Phase III trial of the vaccine candidate, the release said.

U.K. variant more prevalent in north India #GS3 #SnT

The U.K. variant of the coronavirus, marked by increased infectivity, is distinctly more prevalent in several northern and central Indian States when compared with the southern ones, a perusal of genome sequencing data from the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) shows. Two scientists from Central government labs that analyse national genome sample data told The Hindu that large gatherings in Punjab have significantly amplified transmission of the variant in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana.

“Punjab has a very unique trajectory in the rise of the B.1.1.7. There were at least four major clusters (super spreader events) marriages, farmer protests from February 1 to February 28 , that are responsible for large spikes. By March, Delhi was warned about a possible 15,000 critical cases,” Dr. Sujeet Singh, Director, NCDC said.

Though only a fraction — about 15,000 samples — of India’s caseload has been sequenced, data from 1,757 samples showed that in the northern States the proportion of the U.K. variant in the community was significantly higher than those isolated from international travellers and their contacts. The U.K. variant.

In Punjab, for instance, there were eight instances of the U.K. strain among international travellers and their contacts but 543 in the wider community; in Delhi this ratio was 91: 324. In Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, there were no reported variants in those with an international travel history but 26 and 23 cases respectively in wider community.

In Haryana the ratio is 6:13. In Madhya Pradesh, the ratio was 4:51 and in Chhattisgarh 1:14. However, such a pattern doesn’t hold, in fact is directly reversed, in Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu — other States with large case loads.

There were more instances of the U.K. variant in the travellers and their contacts than in the wider community. In Maharashtra the ratio was 35: 29; in Kerala its 15:1 and in Tamil Nadu 14:1, in many instances diametrically opposite to the northern situation.

Centre contradicts SII on vaccine pricing #GS3 #SnT

Adar Poonawalla, CEO of Serum Institute, issued a statement on Saturday to address the “ongoing public scepticism and confusion towards the pricing of Covishield”. The statement tried to address the controversy over whether the price of the vaccine at Rs. 600 (nearly $8) per dose for private hospitals was more than its cost when it was exported. But it did not refer to the issue of whether the vaccine would be priced differently for procurement by the Centre and the State governments.

Only a few hours before the statement, Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan tweeted saying that the Central government’s procurement price for both COVID-19 vaccines — Covishield and Covaxin — remains at Rs. 150 per dose.

These tweets contradicted what Mr. Poonawalla had claimed in an interview to CNBC-TV18 on April 21, that the price of Rs. 150 per dose was not applicable for any future procurement by the Central government, and that the vaccine would be sold at Rs. 400 both to the Central and State governments.

These remarks had come in after the SII’s statement of April 21 announcing the price of the vaccine for State governments (at Rs. 400 per dose) and private hospitals (Rs. 600 per dose) but which did not mention the price at which the vaccine would be sold to the Centre.

As regards the higher pricing for private hospitals, the statement said, “The initial prices were kept very low globally as it was based on advance funding given by those countries for at-risk vaccine manufacturing.”

However, while SII charged South Africa $5.25 per dose, AstraZeneca was supplying to European countries at $2.18 per dose.

Volumes matter

In the April 24 statement, Mr. Poonawalla also made the point that vaccines used in the universal immunisation programme were sold at a far lower price as the volumes were large. He cited the example of pneumococcal vaccines that are sold at a higher price in the private market, while the government is charged only one-third the cost.

Mr. Poonawalla brought in the issue of the investment needed to scale-up manufacturing capacity to fight the pandemic to justify the higher costs. But what he left unsaid was that based on his demand for Rs. 3,000 crore to meet the cost of ramping up production capacity, the government had already agreed to advance that amount to SII, and Rs. 1,500 crore to Bharat Biotech.

While Mr. Poonawalla says that “only a limited portion of Serum’s volume will be sold to private hospitals at Rs. 600 per dose”, India is the only country that is selling the vaccine to private players.

With the Central government procuring 50% of the vaccines and supplying it to State governments for free administration to people above 45 years and when vaccinated in government facilities, States will be competing with private hospitals and with one another to procure the remaining 50% vaccines.

People without ration cards left out of COVID-19 food safety net #GS2 #Governance

People without ration cards have again been left out of the safety net provided by the second round of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), announced by the Centre on Friday to provide free food grains for 81 crore ration card holders in May and June.

Last year, the Aatmanirbhar scheme was announced to bridge that gap, and provided free food grain to more than 2.7 crore people without ration cards, out of an initial target of 8 crore people. Asked whether a similar scheme would be implemented this year, Food Secretary Sudhanshu Pandey said that the ration card portability scheme and new enrolments under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) would help to mitigate the situation instead.

However, Right to Food activists warn that a humanitarian crisis will erupt unless free food grain is also provided for the most vulnerable population who still do not have ration cards.

“Lots of State governments, ever since the One Nation One Ration Card scheme came, they included a lot of people who were not having ration card, using the Aadhaar enablement and biometric authentication.

“What it led to, for example in Rajasthan alone, [is that] more than 50 lakh people from December 2020 onwards were removed and equal number of persons have been added. Same thing has happened in U.P. and a similar thing in Bihar.” The Food Department said a total of Rs. 60.7 lakh additional people had got covered under the NFSA since last year.

Population growth

“If there are 60 lakh new beneficiaries, that means less than 20 lakh additional ration cards, which is nothing in comparison to the large numbers still without ration cards. She pointed out that simple population growth since the last census means that nine to ten crore additional people ought to be added, to meet NFSA norms.

In Delhi, for example, 71 lakh ration cards have been issued. However, during last year’s lockdown, an additional 60 lakh e-coupons had to be issued for those without ration cards to access free food grain given by the Delhi government

Groundwater depletion may reduce winter cropping intensity by 20% in India #GS3 #Environment

India is the second-largest producer of wheat in the world, with over 30 million hectares in the country dedicated to producing this crop. But with severe groundwater depletion, the cropping intensity or the amount of land planted in the winter season may decrease by up to 20% by 2025, notes a new paper. Some of the important winter crops are wheat, barley, mustard and peas.

The international team studied India’s three main irrigation types on winter cropped areas: dug wells, tube wells, canals, and also analysed the groundwater data from the Central Ground Water Board. They found that 13% of the villages in which farmers plant a winter crop are located in critically water-depleted regions.

The team writes that these villages may lose 68% of their cropped area in future if access to all groundwater irrigation is lost. The results suggest that these losses will largely occur in northwest and central India.

Alternative sources

The team then looked at canals to understand if they can be promoted as an alternative irrigation source and as an adaptation strategy to falling groundwater tables. But the results showed that “switching to canal irrigation has limited adaptation potential at the national scale.

We find that even if all regions that are currently using depleted groundwater for irrigation will switch to using canal irrigation, cropping intensity may decline by 7% nationally.

We can conjecture based on other literature and say that adoption of water-saving technologies like a sprinkler, drip irrigation and maybe switching to less water-intensive crops may help use the limited groundwater resources more effectively

Her team is now trying to understand how groundwater depletion has already reduced yields and cropped areas in India over the last 20 years, and also how climate change may affect the future availability of groundwater resources.

Unsuited soils

There are several first-generation (productivity) and second-generation (sustainability) problems. In the green revolution era, policy-supported environment led to a large increase in rice cultivation in north-western India mainly in Punjab and Haryana which are ecologically less suitable for rice cultivation due to predominantly light soils.

He explains that this policy-supported intensive agriculture led to unsustainable groundwater use for irrigation and in turn groundwater scarcity. There was also post-harvest residue burning to make way for the timely sowing of wheat. He is one of the authors of the paper.

Poor infrastructure

He adds that there are enough groundwater resources supported with higher monsoon rainfall in eastern Indian states like Bihar. But due to lack of enough irrigation infrastructure, farmers are not able to make use of natural resources there.

“So we need better policies in eastern India to expand the irrigation and thus increase agriculture productivity. This will also release some pressure from north-western Indian states.

Chances of infection after COVID-19 vaccination #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has reported that around two to four of 10,000 people given two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have tested positive for the disease. Contracting COVID-19 after vaccination is known as breakthrough infection. It has occurred in “a very small number” of people and does not undermine the effectiveness of vaccination, said Dr. Balram Bhargava, Director-General of the ICMR.

What is a breakthrough infection?

These are infections that occur in people who have been vaccinated. Such cases are not out of the ordinary as the vaccines that have been approved so far the world over are made to protect against disease and not the transmission of the virus. Phase 3 clinical trials conducted before vaccines were approved showed a fairly constant proportion of infections among those vaccinated. In the AstraZeneca trial, for instance, 30 out of 5,807 vaccinated — about 0.5% — were symptomatic and tested positive 14 days after the second shot.

Results from the Pfizer phase 3 trial showed that of the 21,720 who got the second dose of the vaccine, eight tested positive for COVID-19, or about 0.03%. Figures as of April 20, from the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), show that there have been 7,157 breakthrough infections reported to the agency so far. Compared to the 87 million Americans who were fully inoculated, this works out to an infection rate of 0.008%, or 8 in 100,000. Further, in those reported infections, there were 88 deaths and 498 hospitalisations.

How does India compare with others?

According to data presented by Dr. Bhargava, of the 1.7 million people who got a second dose of Covaxin (and thus fully inoculated), 695 tested positive — a rate of 0.04%. Of the 15.7 million who got a second dose of Covishield, 5,014 tested positive, a rate of 0.03%.

Covishield has not been tested in an India-specific efficacy trial, and Bharat Biotech, the maker of Covaxin, has not yet published results from its ongoing efficacy trial. So, we do not know — unlike in the case of Pfizer and AstraZeneca’s international trials — how many vaccinated trial participants went on to get COVID-19 after their second dose. That 5,709 people who got a second dose of either vaccine tested positive of the 17 million inoculated persons suggests that 3 people per 10,000 tested positive, which is higher than the rate the CDC is reporting, of 8 in 100,000.

Is it rare to get infected even after vaccination?

The CDC guidelines on breakthrough infections state that all such reported rates are an undercount. “It is important to note that reported vaccine breakthrough cases will represent an undercount. This surveillance system is passive and relies on voluntary reporting from state health departments which may not be complete. Also, not all real-world breakthrough cases will be identified because of lack of testing. This is particularly true in instances of asymptomatic or mild illness. These surveillance data are a snapshot and help identify patterns and look for signals among vaccine breakthrough cases,” the advisory notes.

For nearly three months after vaccination began in India, the government’s COVID-19 test form, used by state and private laboratories, did not check if those who tested positive had been vaccinated. Dr. Samiran Panda, who heads the Epidemiology Division at the ICMR, toldThe Hinduthat reports on breakthrough infections were collated from the Co-WIN database and were based on self-reporting. “There will no doubt be many more who may have got infected after the second dose but that is expected. It is also likely that only those with significant symptoms might report and those with mild symptoms or who are asymptomatic will not follow up. The message of vaccination is that it protects against disease,” he said.

What are the reasons for such infections?

Dr. Bhargava said healthcare and frontline workers were getting infected because of their constant high exposure to COVID-19 patients. The other reason he said was due to “highly transmissible new variants”.

According to the latest data, over 12.1 million healthcare and frontline workers have got a second dose, as opposed to over 9 million of those above 45 years of age. Laboratory studies for Covaxin on the ‘U.K. variant’ and the Indian variant (B.1.617) suggest that it “effectively neutralises” the virus. However, studies on the AstraZeneca vaccine show that its efficacy is reduced when faced with the U.K. and the South African variant.

The CDC data show that there were 88 deaths for 87 million people who were fully inoculated with the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines — this means that one in a million will die from COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. If those figures are applied to India, it would mean around 800 deaths given our adult population of 800-900 million. Thus, while vaccines indubitably protect against death and disease, they may not be 100% protective.

Reforms in the National Pension System #GS3 #Economy

The story so far: Started as the New Pension Scheme for government employees in 2004 under a new regulator called the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority (PFRDA), the National Pension System (NPS) has been open for individuals from all walks of life to participate and build a retirement nest-egg. Given the dominance of informal employment in India, the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation, which is contingent on a formal employer-employee relationship, only covers a fraction of the workforce.

The NPS has been gradually growing in size and now manages Rs. 5.78 lakh crore of savings and 4.24 crore accounts in multiple savings schemes. Of these, over 3.02 crore accounts are part of the Atal Pension Yojana (APY), a government-backed scheme for workers in the unorganised sector that assures a fixed pension payout after retirement. The rest constitute voluntary savings from private sector employees and self-employed individuals, for whom some significant changes are on the anvil.

What overhaul is the PFRDA planning?

The law regulating the NPS allows members to withdraw just 60% of their accumulated savings at the time of retirement. With the remaining 40%, it is mandatory to buy an annuity product that provides a fixed monthly income to retirees till their demise. Members who accumulate up to Rs. 2 lakh in their NPS account at the time of retirement are exempted from the mandatory annuitisation, and can withdraw the full amount.

Last week, PFRDA chairman Supratim Bandyopadhyay said this limit will soon be revised to Rs. 5 lakh. Separately, the regulator has decided that the annuity purchase stipulation for 40% of members’ retirement corpus should be dropped altogether. Legislative amendments to this effect are being worked out for Parliament’s approval.

What prompted this rethink?

Falling interest rates and poor returns offered by annuity products had triggered complaints from some members and experts about the compulsory annuitisation clause. “If someone opts for a lifetime annuity at retirement with a return of purchase price to the nominee once the person dies, the rates are varying between 5% and 5.5%. Since annuities are taxable, deducting the tax and factoring in the inflation means annuities are yielding negative returns,” Mr. Bandyopadhyay pointed out.

With retail inflation running at about 5%-6% over the past year, the returns on annuities are, in fact, negative, even if one does not factor in the tax. To avoid forcing people into such an unattractive investment, the regulator has now proposed to give members a choice to retain 40% of their corpus with the NPS fund managers even after retirement.

This, the PFRDA chief believes, will allow them to get better returns, and these savings can be paid out to members over 15 years through something like the systematic withdrawal plan offered by mutual funds. While this change shall need Parliament’s nod, the expansion of the annuity-free withdrawal limit from Rs. 2 lakh to Rs. 5 lakh is being done immediately.

Suppose somebody reached Rs. 2.1 lakh at retirement, he will get an annuity component of Rs. 84,000, which, today, will give an income of Rs. 400 or Rs. 450 a month — a pittance. So, now, we will allow those with savings up to Rs. 5 lakh to take the entire corpus out if they choose,” the PFRDA chief said.

Are there any other tweaks in the works?

While different schemes under the NPS have given reasonable returns at a low fund-management cost so far, there has been a clamour for a guaranteed return product for large sections of potential investors with a high aversion to risk. An actuary is being appointed to suggest the design for such a product and the PFRDA hopes to launch its first guaranteed product soon.

At least three more fund managers are expected to be appointed soon, which will take the total managers to ten. Age restrictions to join the NPS are also being eased to allow people to join the scheme up to the age of 70 years, from 65 years earlier.

The reason is that over 15,000 recent NPS members joined after the age of 60 since the age limit was raised to 65 years from 60 years in 2017. So, as Indians’ overall longevity improves, the population of “retired, but not so tired” will also have access to the NPS.

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