News & Events
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1. Preparing for Omicron: Test more, administer boosters, keep emergency healthcare facilities ready
With more cases of Omicron being detected, a raft of operational protocols are falling into place across the country. The heightened checks at airports have predictably netted many cases but signs of the variant already in domestic circulation is evident in those with no travel history or contact with patients being detected. A number of states have cancelled Christmas and New Year festivities. Night curfews are also back following the central advisory.
But this is also the time to do testing more intelligently. Many of those getting tested now are those who are travelling or visiting hospitals or those who are symptomatic. It is only now that many states are ordering testing kits that can account for the missing S gene, widely used as a proxy to suspect an Omicron case before sending it for genome sequencing.
A booster dose for healthcare workers and senior citizens mustn’t be delayed any further. The Oxford study on a third dose of Covishield and Novavax’s (Covovax) internal trial results show that both vaccines which are manufactured in India have neutralise Omicron. The cost of another disruption if an Omicron surge stalls the economy will be much bigger than the costs incurred on boosters.
The IIT-Kanpur study predicting a potential Omicron peak in February leaves the health system with little time. Triaging war rooms must be reactivated, ambulances must be mapped to underserved localities, oxygen supplies and Covid- ICU beds in hospitals kept ready. If the Omicron variant passes over without causing much damage, we can be relieved. But we mustn’t be caught napping. That lesson from the second wave can’t be forgotten.
2.Few local studies: WHO recommends boosters. India’s stand still not clear. And there’s little domestic research
Following various Western vaccine regulators approving boosters, WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation (SAGE) has recognised a “modest to minimal” reduction of vaccine protection against severe disease six months after second dose, and called for “targeted” administration of boosters. Recall that India had followed WHO recommendations on vaccinating healthcare providers and first responders like frontline workers before moving to senior citizens and others. In the wake of WHO’s nuanced advice on prioritising boosters, GoI mustn’t wait any longer.
A booster dose for high-exposure groups like healthcare workers and high-vulnerability groups like senior citizens and those with comorbidities ahead of a feared third wave would be a rational and science-driven approach. AstraZeneca has said that a new Oxford study, yet to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, suggests that a three-dose course of its vaccine (Covishield) maintains neutralising antibody levels against Omicron. Earlier, there were fears that a viral vector vaccine like Covishield may not fare well as a booster for those already dosed twice with it.
Unfortunately, comparable Indian studies are few in number. CMC Vellore is undertaking mix-and-matching of Covishield and Covaxin to study their performance as a booster. The GoI approach seems to rely on vaccine manufacturers to present their in-house data. SII and Biological E applications for using their respective Covishield and Corbevax jabs as a booster dose have been rejected for lack of robust trial data. Meanwhile, news reports from May indicate NTAGI was toying with approving mix-and-match studies of various vaccines in the Indian pipeline as a collaborative exercise between ICMR bodies and vax manufacturers. What has happened to that plan?
These multi-stakeholder studies would have bolstered domestic expert deliberations on boosters with robust local data on safety, immunogenicity, efficacy and duration of protection accorded by mixing vaccines. In April, India had eased regulatory pathways for clearing Covid vaccines approved for emergency use by the US, UK, EU, Japan and WHO, perhaps recognising their advanced research capabilities and rigorous regulatory processes. Some UK studies are helpful like Oxford’s three Covishield dose trials and its Com-Cov trials that enrolled hundreds of volunteers for mix and match studies, which also included two vaccines produced in India – Covishield and Covovax. But with the West’s growing reliance on mRNA vaccines, which are unavailable in India, GoI must invest in local research on booster and mix-and-match trials. With increasing reports of people, including health workers, securing third doses on the sly, GoI mustn’t delay a clearly defined booster policy.
3.Drawing a line: On J&K delimitation exercise
Any attempt to repurpose the politics of J&K with the delimitation exercise is bound to fail
The proposed remapping of Assembly constituencies in the Union Territory (UT) by the J&K Delimitation Commission has got the entire spectrum of regional parties in the Kashmir Valley up in arms. At the core of their protest is the fear of a shift of political power to the Jammu region. The Commission has suggested six additional Assembly segments in Jammu, from 37 to 43, and one in the Valley, from 46 to 47. The political map is being redrawn not entirely on considerations of the population spread. Additional constituencies are being proposed, based also on factors of “inadequate communication” and “lack of public conveniences due to their excessive remoteness or inhospitable conditions on the international border”. Such considerations may have been applied in earlier instances too, but what makes the present situation unique is the shift of political power from the Muslim region to the Hindu region, and the fact that it comes after the reorganisation of the erstwhile J&K State into two UTs and the controversial elimination of its special constitutional status in 2019. The commission was constituted on March 6, 2020, by virtue of the Parliament Act under the provisions of Part V of the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019. It was mandated to redraw and delineate seven additional Assembly segments to the 83-member Legislative Assembly of the UT.
The commission has also suggested reserving seven seats for Scheduled Castes (Hindus) that mainly populate the Samba-Kathua-Jammu-Udhampur belt and, for the first time ever, earmarking nine seats for Scheduled Tribes, which is likely to benefit the Rajouri-Poonch belt with the highest concentration of STs, mainly non-Kashmiri speaking Muslims. The commission is yet to reveal the names of the districts where these seats have been carved out, and the ST/SC reservations earmarked and methodology. If population is the sole criterion, then the seat share for the Valley, with a population of 68.8 lakh (2011 Census) would stand at 51 and the Jammu region with 53.5 lakh population at 39. The allocation seems to enhance the electoral prospects of the Jammu-based parties at the cost of the Kashmir-based ones. Valley parties have opposed the draft as “unacceptable” and “divisive” and question its legality. There is a national freeze on delimitation, and the constitutional challenge to the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019, is still pending before the Supreme Court. The situation in Ladakh, which was carved out in 2019 as a UT without a legislature, is also comparable. Political groups are demanding statehood and special constitutional guarantees on land, jobs, demography and culture. Continuing arbitrariness and heavy-handed measures to repurpose the politics of J&K may appear successful momentarily, but that may not be the sustainable route. A democratic path will necessarily involve more conversations and accommodative measures.
4.Change in Chile: On left-wing leader Gabriel Boric’s win
Left-wing leader Gabriel Boric now faces the daunting challenge of walking the talk
The sweeping victory of Gabriel Boric, the 35-year-old left-wing leader, in Sunday’s presidential run-off election, is a testimony to how Chile has changed. One of the bastions of free market orthodoxy in Latin America, Chile has been rocked by anti-inequality protests for more than two years. Mr. Boric, one of the protest leaders who promised to “bury neoliberalism” during his campaign, built an alliance of social democrats and communists that took on the Republican Party’s José Antonio Kast. While Mr. Boric promised to build a more equitable society in one of the most unequal countries, Mr. Kast, a defender of the military regime, positioned himself as a candidate of the economic status quo and blamed migrants, terrorists and narco-traffickers for Chile’s agonies. The pollsters had predicted a narrow lead for Mr. Boric, but his 12-point triumph over Mr. Kast by securing about 56% of the votes marks the strongest political comeback of the Chilean left, which had undergone systemic persecution during the U.S.-backed military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Gen. Pinochet, who toppled the socialist President, Salvador Allende, in 1973, laid the foundations of Chile’s neoliberal state. His regime fell in 1990, but the state apparatus he built survived, including the Constitution. Now, when an elected Constituent Assembly is writing a new Constitution for Chile, bringing an end to Pinochet’s influence, the country will have the most left-wing President since Allende.
Mr. Boric has promised to fight the “privilege of the few” and tackle poverty and inequality. He has opposed big-ticket mining projects as part of his climate protection plan. He wants to raise taxes by 8% of GDP, abolish the unpopular private pension funds, shorten the working week to 40 hours, raise the minimum wage and create a universal health-care system. These promises were the crux of the progressive electoral platform he built. Mr. Boric, who would be sworn in on March 11, 2022, faces the daunting challenge of walking the talk. His legislation agenda would be met with strong opposition in Parliament: the Senate is evenly split between the right and the left, and in the 155-member Chamber of Deputies, his coalition has only 37 MPs. Sagging growth and high inflation would limit the new government’s spending agenda. If he goes ahead with the plan to raise taxes on the corporations, abolish private pensions and waive off student debt, the private capital and the old political establishment would revolt, like what happened in the other left-ruled states in Latin America. Mr. Boric’s victory has put wind in the sails of Chile’s left-wing politics, but he should be ready for a storm as he seeks to take on the Pinochet consensus.