Nearly a dozen countries in Europe and elsewhere temporarily banned travel from the U.K.
A new variant of the novel coronavirus — VUI-202012/01 (the first ‘variant under investigation’ in December 2020) — has 23 mutations in all.
Though a few of these are seen in the region of the virus that binds to the human receptor, a single mutation — N501Y — has been found to increase the binding affinity, making the variant more transmissible.
On December 20, the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, which identified the variant on September 20, said the variant has been “growing in frequency” since November 2020 and is “responsible for an increasing proportion of SARS-CoV-2 cases in the UK”.
Based on modelling, it has been found to be 70% more transmissible but this is yet to be confirmed in lab experiments.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control says that in a preliminary study, the variant has the potential to increase by over 0.4 the number of people a person can infect.
There is no evidence as yet that it can cause any change in disease severity or increase the risk of reinfection.
Though the N501Y and other mutations are found in the spike protein region of the virus, it is unlikely that the mutations would make the two COVID vaccines that have secured emergency use approval and the ones in final stages of testing less effective.
This is because vaccines produce antibodies against many regions of the spike protein, and there is also the T-cell immunity that would come into play to clear the virus.
Since far fewer SARS-CoV-2 genomes are sequenced at regular intervals in India, it is unclear if the variant is already present here.
The emergence of the new variant with increased transmissibility is one more reason why non-pharmaceutical interventions should be strictly adhered to.
Covid retreat? | ToI
A significant fall in India’s Covid cases and death toll this past week must not lull authorities or citizens into a sense of complacency.
New cases in the December 13-20 week registered a steep 17% decline over the previous week and fresh cases have now declined for the sixth straight week after India’s first wave peaked around mid-September.
Last week’s death toll was also the lowest since mid-June.
Preserving these hard earned gains is critical lest infections flare up again – as is happening now in the UK, Russia, South Africa, Spain and Thailand.
Sane voices are calling for caution.
Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray voiced this sentiment during a social media outreach, where he mandated masks for the next six months even if vaccination begins.
Philanthropist Bill Gates has also cited a similar timeline of four to six months for maintaining extreme caution, highlighting the tragic irony of being among the last dying from Covid just when mass vaccination is around the corner.
States like Kerala, Maharashtra and Bengal with the highest number of active cases may not be testing enough.
Special focus on safeguarding the elderly is needed too: 64% of Covid fatalities in Mumbai are in the 60-plus age group, which comprises just 10% of India’s population.
Just weeks away from vaccine approval, the lower tiers of government at the municipal, district and block levels are forming task forces to coordinate the inoculation efforts.
The private healthcare sector must also be roped in so that both the free and paid models can complement each other.
Crisis in Kathmandu | Ind Exp
Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli’s move to opt for fresh elections rather than bow to the demands from within the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) to accommodate his rivals in the power structure has pushed Nepal into political uncertainty.
Oli’s recommendation on Sunday to dismiss the House of Representatives and have fresh elections, nearly two years ahead of schedule, was immediately accepted by President Bidya Devi Bhandari.
Legal experts and politicians described the decision as a “constitutional coup” and have challenged it in the Supreme Court.
All these moves will test the fragile consensus on the country’s constitution and, possibly, force a vertical split in the NCP.
The origins of the current crisis can be traced back to the formation of the NCP in 2018, after the merger of the CPN-United Marxist Leninist and CPN-Maoist Centre.
Oli, the face of CPN-UML, had led the combine to nearly a two-thirds majority in the elections the previous year.
Though it was decided that power will be shared between leaders of the two parties that merged, Oli was reluctant.
For years, Oli had demanded that the Maoists under Pushpa Kamal Dahal be held accountable for war crimes, including the killings of CPN-UML cadres.
Oli had the mandate to iron out the rough edges of the constitution, address the concerns of Madhesi groups, and strengthen Nepal’s institutions.
But he preferred to consolidate power and sought to rally support by adopting anti India postures and cosying up to China.
Declare a cyber security emergency | ET
Around 50 organisations, including important departments of the US government, such as Treasury, State and Homeland Security, have been hacked, and for nearly nine months, without these departments or their cyber guardians being aware of the transgress.
What does this mean for India and its defences against foreign attackers?
Cybersecurity must go right up to the top of national security, and shoring it up taken up on an emergency basis.
The sophisticated attack that has allowed large-scale data transfer from American government agencies, including the one that manages its nuclear arsenal, possibly to a foreign government, was managed through third-party software.
Orion is a network management tool, developed and supplied by the software company SolarWinds, and the hackers embedded their piece of malware in an upgrade to Orion, which its users accepted and ran on their systems, with nary a suspicion of foul play.
What this means is that software from well-trusted sources can be the medium for implanting Trojans in the target system.
Our cybersecurity managers can take no piece of software from any company for granted.
Everything is suspect, until tested and verified to be kosher.
As India increasingly goes digital, our financial systems, the tax database, the dematerialised accounts in which shares are held, just about everything becomes vulnerable to cyberattacks.
India must shore up its defences by buying the best protection on offer, in the short term, and by developing indigenous capacity on a war footing.
Covid vaccine development shows the way forward for emergency action.
Lessons from Monash
One of the recommendations of the National Education Policy 2020 was to allow universities in the top 100 category of the World University Rankings to operate in India.
Although this recommendation has generated a lot of discussion, one major gap is the inadequate focus on the potential role and suitability of international branch campuses (IBC) in the Indian environment.
According to the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT), hosted at the State University of New York at Albany and Pennsylvania State University, an IBC is an “entity that is owned, at least in part, by a foreign higher education provider; operated in the name of the foreign education provider; and provides an entire academic program, substantially on site, leading to a degree awarded by the foreign education provider.”
There have been many success stories as well as failures of these models across different national contexts.
More than 300 IBCs are functioning in around 80 countries. According to data compiled by C-BERT’s Kevin Kinser and Jason E. Lane, a large number of these are operated by universities from the U.S., the U.K., Australia, France and Russia.
Countries such as China, Malaysia, Qatar and Singapore host most of them.
Interestingly, a few Indian private institutions also operate IBCs in countries such as Australia, Mauritius, Uzbekistan, Singapore, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
The lessons from the impact of Australia’s Monash University’s branch campus in South Africa from 2001 to 2019 is one such example which may prove useful.
The South African regulatory framework permits foreign universities to operate as private entities, legally registered as a company.
Under this partnership agreement, Monash University sold 75% of its shares to Laureate.
The public nature of a foreign university may not be reflected in its branch campus.
Even a university that is among the top 100 could become a local private institution through mergers and acquisitions.
Ensuring parity with the quality of programmes offered at the home campus would be a challenge.
Domestic market demand influences course offerings, and there is dependence on contract academic staff.
There are limitations in substituting existing institutions.
The above experience illustrates the big gap between the state’s desired objectives and the actual impact on the ground.
Therefore, reviewing the various delivery models existing in different national contexts may be helpful in the policy formulation process.
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