Current Affairs 2nd July

Covishield gets nod from nine European countries for travel #GS3 #SnT #GS2 #IR

Nine European countries have given recognition to the Covishield vaccine produced by the Serum Institute of India, informed sources said.

The confirmation came when the European Union (EU) started the “Green Pass” facility, which will allow people vaccinated with an authorised set of vaccines to travel within its zone, covering 27 countries. The nine countries’ move is a “national” move by them and not by the EU, headquartered in Brussels.

The EU member-states that have recognised Covishield include Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Greece, Iceland, Ireland and Spain. Estonia has confirmed that it would recognise all the vaccines authorised by the Government of India for travel of Indians, said an informed source. And Switzerland, not a EU member, allows Covishield as Schengen state.

Germany’s stand

German Ambassador Walter J. Lindner said, “Confirming that a double shot of Covishield is fully recognised by Germany as valid proof of anti-COVID vaccination.” Germany, however, has a travel ban in place for Indians as India has been recognised as a “virus variant country.”

“This [confirmation] does nevertheless not modify existing travel or visa restrictions for travellers from areas of concern/virus variant areas. The nine European countries’ clearance, however, is unlikely to translate into an automatic clearance of Covishield as an equivalent to the “Green Pass” that recognises Pfizer/BioNTech’s Comirnaty, Moderna’s Spikevax, Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Vaxzevria and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA), which created the authorised list, is yet to include Covishield, which is based on AstraZeneca’s formula, as an acceptable vaccine.

In last academic year, only 22% schools had Internet #GS3 #SnT #GS2 #SocialIssues

In the academic year that ended with school closures due to COVID-19, only 22% of schools in India had Internet facilities. Among government schools, less than 12% had Internet in 2019-20, while less than 30% had functional computer facilities. This affected the kind of digital education options available to schools during the pandemic, as well as plans for hybrid learning in the days ahead. The Unified District Information System for Education Plus (UDISE+) report collates data from more than 15 lakh schools across the country.

As the first wave of COVID-19 entered India in early 2020, schools were closed in mid-March, just weeks before the end of the 2019-20 academic year. The vast majority of the country’s 26 crore schoolchildren have not set foot in a school since then, depending instead on various forms of distance education.

Infrastructure access

The availability of digital education — whether via live, synchronous teaching on apps like Zoom, or through recorded lectures, emails, WhatsApp or educational apps — was largely dependent on whether schools, teachers and parents had access to the necessary infrastructure. In many States, teachers came to school and taught in their own empty classrooms, using their blackboards and lab facilities, while facing a computer screen that communicated the lessons to their students at home.

However, the UDISE+ data makes clear the digital divide, which made this a viable option only in some States. In many Union Territories, as well as in the State of Kerala, more than 90% of schools, both government and private, had access to working computers.

In States such as Chhattisgarh (83%) and Jharkhand (73%), installation of computer facilities in most government schools paid off, while in others such as Tamil Nadu (77%), Gujarat (74%) and Maharashtra (71%), private schools had higher levels of computer availability than government schools.

Normal rainfall likely in July #GS1 #Geography

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has said the monsoon is unlikely to recover significantly until the second week of July. Currently, it is stalled and has not progressed into much of northwest India in spite of a very strong start in June. This hiatus could affect sowing in northwest India.

In a monthly update, the IMD forecast rainfall for July over the country as a whole to “most likely be normal” (defined as being 96 to 104% of the historical average). July and August are the rainiest monsoon months, contributing over two-thirds of the rainfall and, therefore, critical to kharif crop sowing in most of the country.

Until June 19, monsoon rainfall was exceptionally high, with the average rainfall exceeding 40% of what is normal, and since then, rainfall has been declining.

6% more than normal

In June, India normally gets 17.5 cm of rainfall, but this year, it has been 18.7 cm, or 6% more than normal.

The IMD said the monsoon had covered most of the country except parts of Rajasthan, Delhi, Punjab and Haryana, and this was unlikely to happen until July second week. The key reasons for that were neutral El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) conditions that were likely to continue over the equatorial Pacific Ocean and that there was a enhanced possibility of development of negative Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) conditions over the Indian Ocean during July-September. Both of these related to sea surface temperatures and currently seemed unfavourable to abetting the monsoon progress.

Last year, too, the monsoon had a strong start but faltered in July, leading to one of the driest in the last five years. However, this was followed by excessive rains in August and September. In June, the IMD said monsoon rains would be 101% of the Long Period Average (LPA) of 88 cm.

Note to agriculturists

IMD Director-General Mrutunjay Mohapatra said, “Agriculturists carrying out rice transplanting in northwest India should be careful as no significant monsoon rain is expected this week. There are also no convective systems forming in the Bay of Bengal and this is unlikely until July second week”. Historically, the monsoon covered the entire country by July 8, and within that, there was a week’s buffer.

Army working to deal with drone threat #GS3 #Defence

Army chief Gen. Manoj Naravane said that with the easy availability of drones, they would be increasingly used in all sorts of combat, both by state and non-state actors, and capabilities were being developed to deal with them.

On the Ladakh stand-off, he said the situation on the ground had been normal since February and talks were on with China at different levels that had helped build trust between the two sides.

His comments came after explosions last Sunday at the Jammu Air Force station, which were believed to have been carried out using drones, the first such attack in the country. “We are seized of this problem. We have put in place certain measures. All our troops on the ground have been sensitised for this evolving threat and we are developing capabilities to deal with that, whether by state-sponsored or by states themselves.

We are developing capabilities to deal with the drone threat both in the kinetic and non-kinetic realm,” Gen. Naravane said at a webinar organised by Global Counter-Terrorism Council in association with the Department of Defence Production.

He stated that they were catering to both the offensive use of drones and defensive measures or the counter-drone systems to prevent attacks on any critical installations whether by state or non-state actors.

On the stand-off in Eastern Ladakh, he noted that the situation had been normal since the disengagement in February from the northern and southern banks of Pangong Tso (lake) as well as the Kailash ranges. “Since then, both sides have strictly adhered in letter and spirit to the disengagement that was agreed upon,” he observed.

LoC situation

The two sides were engaged at different levels — political, diplomatic and military. “This has helped build trust between the two sides and going ahead we are sure we will be able to resolve all the remaining issues,” he said.

On the situation along the Line of Control (LoC), he said that since the ceasefire understanding between the Directors-General of Military Operations of India and Pakistan in February, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir had seen improvement. There had been little to no infiltration, he said.

Stressing the need to incorporate Artificial Intelligence (AI)-related technologies, he stated that this would require simplified procedures. “Unfortunately, this has been one of our biggest stumbling blocks. The transition to the digital age is contrarian to Defence Procurement Procedure and Defence Procurement Manual mindsets.” In order to harness technologies like AI, exploit the depth in IT and realise the vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat, we need to shed old mindsets and make our procedures more flexible and adaptive

DCGI nod sought for ZyCoV-D #GS3 #SnT

Zydus Cadila said it has applied to the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) seeking Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) for ZyCoV-D, its plasmid DNA vaccine to counter COVID-19. It will be the world’s first plasmid DNA vaccine for COVID-19, the company said.

The company had conducted clinical trials at over 50 centres in India, it said. Phase III clinical trials had been conducted on over 28,000 volunteers. This was the first time that any COVID-19 vaccine had been tested in adolescent population in the age group of 12-18 years in India.

“Around 1,000 subjects were enrolled in this age group and the vaccine was found to be safe and very well tolerated. The tolerability profile was similar to that seen in the adult population,” said Sharvil Patel, managing director, Cadila Healthcare Ltd, at a briefing.

“Our vaccine has attained primary efficacy of 66.6% for symptomatic RT-PCR positive cases in the interim analysis. No moderate case of COVID-19 disease was observed in the vaccine arm post administration of the third dose, which suggests 100% efficacy for moderate disease.” He said no severe cases or deaths had been reported after administration of the second dose of the vaccine.

“ZyCoV-D had already exhibited a robust immunogenicity, tolerability and safety profile in the adaptive Phase I/II clinical trials carried out earlier. Both the Phase I/II and Phase III clinical trials have been monitored by an independent Data Safety Monitoring Board (DSMB),” Mr. Patel said.

“The plug and play technology on which the plasmid DNA platform is based is ideally suited for dealing with COVID-19, as it can easily be adapted to deal with mutations in the virus, such as those already occurring,” he said.

Delta variant

The vaccine, he said, had the capability to prevent the Delta variant.

“This breakthrough marks a key milestone in scientific innovation and advancement in technology. As the first ever plasmid DNA vaccine for human use, ZyCoV-D has proven its safety and efficacy profile in our fight against COVID-19. The vaccine, when approved, will help not only adults but also adolescents in the 12 to 18 years age group,” he said.

The company said it had also evaluated a two-dose regimen for ZyCoV-D vaccine using a 3 mg dose per visit, and the immunogenicity results had been found to be equivalent to the current three-dose regimen.

Needle-free applicator

The vaccine will come with PharmaJet, a needle-free applicator that will ensure painless intradermal vaccine delivery. This would cost extra. The company has not revealed the price of the vaccine or the applicator.

Mr. Patel said the company had made an investment of Rs. 500 crore for this project, including the manufacturing unit, and it planned to make 10-12 crore doses annually. By December, it targeted to produce 5 lakh doses, with a run rate of 1 crore doses per month from August. The gap between first and second dose is 28 days.

Defence service workers barred from strike #GS3 #Defence

The Union Law Ministry notified an Ordinance that prohibited employees engaged in essential defence services from taking part in any agitation or strike.

The Essential Defence Services Ordinance, 2021, comes in the backdrop of major federations affiliated with the 76,000 employees of the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) making an announcement that they would go on indefinite strike from July 26 in protest against the government’s decision to corporatise the OFB.

The notification stated that President Ram Nath Kovind “is satisfied that circumstance exists for the Ordinance as Parliament is not in session”.

“Any person, who commences a strike which is illegal under this Ordinance or goes or remains on, or otherwise takes part in, any such strike, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term, which may extend to one year, or with fine, which may extend to Rs. 10,000, or both,

The notification added that anyone instigating or inciting others to take part in a strike declared illegal under the Ordinance shall also be punished with imprisonment for a term that may extend up to two years, apart from having to pay fines.

The gazette notification said employees involved in the production of defence equipment, services and operation, or maintenance of any industrial establishment connected with the military, as well as those employed in the repair and maintenance of defence products, would come under the purview of the Ordinance. Following the Cabinet decision, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said there would be no change in the service conditions of employees of the OFB, and the decision was aimed at boosting India’s defence manufacturing sector.

On June 16, the Union Cabinet approved a long-pending proposal to restructure the nearly 200-year-old Ordnance Factory Board — operating 41 ammunition and military equipment production facilities — into seven State-owned corporations to improve its accountability, efficiency and competitiveness.

All WHO-approved jabs must be recognised for travel: UN #GS3 #SnT

The World Health Organization said Thursday that any COVID-19 vaccines it has authorised for emergency use should be recognised by countries as they open up their borders to inoculated travellers.

The move could challenge Western countries to broaden their acceptance of two apparently less effective Chinese vaccines, which the UN health agency has licensed but most European and North American countries have not. In addition to vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna Inc., AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, the WHO has also given the green light to the two Chinese jabs, made by Sinovac and Sinopharm.

In its aim to restore travel across Europe, the European Union said in May that it would only recognise people as vaccinated if they had received shots licensed by the European Medicines Agency — although it is up to individual countries if they wish to let in travellers who have received other vaccines, including Russia’s Sputnik V. The EU drug regulator is currently considering licensing China’s Sinovac vaccine, but there is no timeline on a decision.

“Any measure that only allows people protected by a subset of WHO-approved vaccines to benefit from the reopening of travel would effectively create a two-tier system, further widening the global vaccine divide and exacerbating the inequities we have already seen in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. “It would negatively impact the growth of economies that are already suffering the most.”

Reduces risk

The WHO said such moves are “undermining confidence in life-saving vaccines that have already been shown to be safe and effective.” In its reviews of the two Chinese vaccines, the UN health agency said both were found to significantly reduce the risk of hospitalisations and deaths.

The two Chinese shots are “inactivated” vaccines, made with killed coronavirus, whereas the Western-made shots are made with newer technologies that instead target the “spike” protein that coats the surface of the coronavirus. Though Western countries have largely relied on vaccines made in the U.S. and Europe, such as Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca, many developing countries have used the Chinese-made shots.

Delta variant to become dominant strain: WHO #GS3 #SnT

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the Delta variant of COVID-19 is now present in nearly 100 countries as per conservative estimates, and warned that in the coming months, it will become the dominant variant globally.

In its COVID-19 weekly epidemiological update, the WHO said as of June 29, 2021, “96 countries have reported cases of the Delta variant, though this is likely an underestimate as sequencing capacities needed to identify variants are limited. A number of these countries are attributing surges in infections and hospitalisations to this variant.”

Given the increase in transmissibility, the WHO warned that the Delta variant is “expected to rapidly outcompete other variants and become the dominant variant over the coming months.”

For the first time in several weeks, the highest numbers of new COVID-19 cases were not reported from India. The update noted that at 5,21,298, the highest numbers of new cases were reported from Brazil during the June 21-27 week, followed by India (3,51,218 new cases, a 12% increase over the previous week), Colombia (2,04,132 new cases, 5% increase) and Russia (1,34,465 new cases, 24% increase).

India seeks Maldivian govt. action on ‘repeated attacks’ in media #GS2 #IR

India has sought Maldivian government action on persons behind media reports and social media posts “attacking the dignity” of its resident diplomats, while seeking greater security for the officials.

In a letter that has raised eyebrows within the Maldives, the High Commission of India said the “repeated attacks” were “motivated, malicious and increasingly personal”. Urging the Foreign Ministry to take steps to “ensure enhanced protection” of the Mission and its officials, the letter from the Indian High Commission, dated June 24, urged authorities to “ensure action, in accordance with International Law and Maldivian Law” against the perpetrators for “these gross violations” of the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations.

Official sources in Male confirmed the authenticity of the letter, which was leaked and has since been shared on social media. However, neither the Foreign Ministry nor the High Commission of India responded on the development.

While India-Maldives ties came under considerable strain during former President Abdulla Yameen’s term, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih’s government is seen to be a close ally of India, with enhanced development and defence cooperation since 2018. However, some government critics are wary of greater military ties with India that they see as paving way for “boots on the ground”.

In May, an apparently premature announcement made in New Delhi, on the Cabinet clearing a proposal to set up a second mission in the Maldives, sparked concern among sections, prompting a renewed “#Indiaout” campaign on Maldivian social media.

In its recent letter, the High Commission of India said the “repeated attacks” were undertaken to “create enmity and hatred between the people and Government of Maldives, and the people and Government of India”. While Male is yet to comment, sources said the Parliament has asked the country’s Media Council, a self-regulatory body, to look into the matter.

GNPA ratio may rise up to 11.2% in FY22 #GS3 #Economy

The gross non-performing asset ratio (GNPA) of India’s scheduled commercial banks (SCBs) may climb by the end of the current fiscal year to as much as 11.2% under a severe stress scenario, from 7.48% in March 2021, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) said in its Financial Stability Report on Thursday.

“Macro stress tests indicate that the GNPA ratio of SCBs may increase… to 9.8% by March 2022 under the baseline scenario; and to 11.22% under a severe stress scenario, although SCBs have sufficient capital, both at the aggregate and individual level, even under stress. “The capital to risk-weighted assets ratio of SCBs increased to 16.03% and the provisioning coverage ratio stood at 68.86% in March 2021.

Going forward, as banks respond to credit demand in a recovering economy, “they will need to reinforce their capital and liquidity positions to fortify themselves against potential balance sheet stress,” it added.

Sustained policy support, benign financial conditions and the gathering momentum of vaccinations were nurturing an uneven global recovery. “Policy support has helped in shoring up financial positions of banks, containing non-performing loans and maintaining solvency and liquidity globally,” the central bank said.

“On the domestic front, the ferocity of the second wave of COVID-19 has dented economic activity, but monetary, regulatory and fiscal policy measures have helped curtail the solvency risk of financial entities, stabilise markets, and maintain financial stability,” it added.

Less-than-expected dent

“The dent on balance sheets and performance of financial institutions in India has been much less than what was projected earlier, although a clearer picture will emerge as the effects of regulatory reliefs fully work their way through. “Yet, capital and liquidity buffers are reasonably resilient to withstand future shocks, as the stress tests presented in this report demonstrate

Mr. Das observed that even as the recovery was underway, new risks had emerged including “the still nascent and mending state of the upturn, vulnerable as it is to shocks and future waves of the pandemic; international commodity prices and inflationary pressures; global spillovers amid high uncertainty; and rising incidence of data breaches and cyberattacks”.

Sustained policy support and simultaneous increased fortification of capital and liquidity buffers by financial entities was therefore vital.

Need to formalise ‘large underbelly’ of economy: FM #GS3 #Economy

India needs to formalise ‘a large underbelly’ of businesses operating outside the system to widen the tax base and make its finances more resilient. Stating that she was not concerned about India’s debt burden at this point, the Minister said a turnaround in the economy driven by public infrastructure investments will be able to bolster revenue collections.

In India, we have to be a lot smarter in the way in which (tax) evasion can be contained. Tax avoidance will also have to be carefully studied and action needs to be taken on that without obviously making it difficult for honest taxpayers,” she said, adding that technology would be a critical tool to plug loopholes as was being done under the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime.

“There is still a large underbelly which is yet to be formalised into the mainstream of the economy. We have to get them on board and make compliance, tax assessments all easy, otherwise small businesses will never be encouraged to join the system. She exuded confidence about completing the privatisation of Air India and BPCL this year, indicating that earlier attempts were marred by poor timing.

Citing the eight consecutive months of GST collections of more than Rs. 1 lakh crore each, Ms. Sitharaman said she hoped it would be sustained as there was no national lockdown this year and economic activity was picking up pace. “Revenue generation will give us a bit more leeway… for taking up any challenge that arises,” she said, to a query about India’s preparedness for a possible third wave of COVID-19.

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