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Not time to relax despite cost, says Modi; Centre will announce details today

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday announced the extension of the current nationwide lockdown till May 3, with intensive containment measures at hotspots till April 20 in order for areas to qualify for any relief measures and freedom of mobility, especially for hawkers and daily-wage workers.

He added that detailed guidelines on the contours of this extended lockdown would be issued by the government on Wednesday.

Addressing the nation via a televised broadcast, Mr. Modi said while the efforts to fight the novel coronavirus were keeping the situation under control, it was not time to relax one’s guard, adding that the economic cost “may appear big, but is not so when compared to the lives of our citizens”.

Inputs from States

“After speaking to all States and even based on suggestions from our citizens, the lockdown has been extended to May 3. Till April 20, identified hotspots will see even more strict checks and only when there is some success in dealing with the outbreak in designated hotspots will some freedom of mobility be granted, that, too, under strict conditions,” Mr. Modi said.

“I keep in my mind our poor brothers and daily-wage workers when I speak of opening spaces, but even if one case emerges from these hotpots, the lockdown will be back in place again,” he stressed.

He said Indians had displayed exceptional discipline and resolve during the lockdown and managed to keep the number of cases at a level that was favourable compared to several rich countries.

“Even before our first case, we had put in place screening at airports for international travellers and quarantine measures; when we hit 550 cases, we went in for a strong lockdown, and if you compare where we are at with the number of our cases, our situation — with our limited resources — is still better than other, richer countries,” he said.

Help for farmers

He mentioned that the government was making all efforts to help farmers with the ongoing rabi harvest and procurement and said the country had adequate stocks of both food and medicines.

He said he wanted the country to follow seven steps or a new set of saptapadi (traditionally associated with a Hindu wedding ceremony).

1,211 new cases in 24 hours put nationwide total at 10,363

India on Tuesday registered an increase of 1,211 COVID-19 cases and 31 deaths in the past 24 hours, making it the largest spike in cases since January.

The total number of cases stands at 10,363, with 339 deaths. As many as 1,036 persons have been discharged after treatment, the Union Health Ministry said.

Following the Prime Minister’s announcement of extension of the lockdown till May 3, the Ministry said the move was essential to break the chain of transmission. “As per the World Health Organization data, 76,498 confirmed cases and 5,702 deaths were reported across the world on Monday and it is due to our collective effort that in a large country like India, we have been able to restrict the numbers,” Joint Secretary in the Health Ministry Lav Agarwal said.

According to reports from the State Health Departments, the death toll rose to 390, with 11,350 cases overall of which 9,791 are active ones.

Mumbai alone reported 204 cases, taking the total number of affected people in the city to 1,753, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation said. The death toll in the city stood at 111 with 11 more fatalities.

More beds

“Health Ministry is continuously working with States/UTs to strengthen the health infrastructure in the country,” Mr. Agarwal said.

“As of now, a total of 602 dedicated COVID-19 hospitals with 1,06,719 isolation beds and 12,024 ICU beds have been developed,’’ he added.

‘No known offset agreements yet’

Repelling danger: A Harpoon Block II missile.Boeing Boeing

The U.S. State Department has approved two potential missile deals with India, for an estimated $92 million and $63 million.

The first deal, for which Boeing is the contractor, is for 10 AGM-84L Harpoon Block II air-launched missiles and related equipment. These missiles can be fitted onto Boeing’s P-8I (Poseidon-Eight India) maritime patrol aircraft, and are intended to enhance India’s capability in anti-surface warfare while defending its sea lanes.

The second deal, for $63 million and principally contracted with Raytheon Integrated Defense System, is for 16 MK 54 All Up Round Lightweight Torpedoes (LWT); three MK 54 Exercise Torpedoes (MK 54 LWT Kit procurement required); and related equipment. Also included are MK 54 spare parts, torpedo containers, two Recoverable Exercise Torpedoes (REXTORP) with containers and related equipment and support from the U.S. government and contractors.

The torpedoes are expected to enhance India’s anti-submarine warfare capability and can be used with the P-8I.

There are no known offset agreements for both deals, the State Department said, and any offset agreement will be defined in negotiations between India and the contractors.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency delivered the required certification to the U.S. Congress, notifying it of the possible sale. Under the U.S.’ Arms Export Control Act, Congress has 30 days to raise objections to the sale in the case of India.

Delay in delivery

The Indian Navy operates eight P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft procured under a $2.2 billion deal in 2009. In 2016, the Navy exercised an optional clause for four more aircraft in a deal worth over $1 billion. The first of the four aircraft was to be delivered in May and the deal completed by January 2022. However, the initial delivery is expected to be delayed by a couple of months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Boeing was to deliver the first aircraft slightly early in May, but due to the current situation it is expected to be delivered as per the original schedule in July,” a source told The Hindu on Tuesday.

(With inputs from

Dinakar Peri)

Orders placed amid concern over export regulations

Full shield: Relatives in protective gear prepare to bury the body of a man who died of COVID-19 in New Delhi.REUTERS

Indian companies and government entities have placed orders for 15 million personal protective equipment (PPE) kits and 1.5 million rapid testing kits from China, officials said on Tuesday.

The Indian government is calling on China to fulfil those orders, amid concerns over tightened regulations on exporting such equipment by Chinese authorities following criticism from several European countries over the quality of exports.

“We are in the process of, or have already completed, contracting for 15 million PPE kits, consisting of gowns, masks, gloves, goggles, etc. and nearly 1.5 million rapid testing kits of all kinds, some of which have already been delivered,” India’s Ambassador to China Vikram Misri said at an online press briefing from Beijing.

A substantial amount of India’s national PPE supply is coming from China. These orders, both from the government and private sectors, were placed on a commercial basis.

China had separately donated 170,000 PPE coveralls, the Health Ministry said on April 6, which would add to the 387,473 PPEs available in the country as of that date.

Test kits delivered

More than 5,00,000 testing kits from China have already been delivered to various entities, while a further 1 to 1.5 million test kits are at different stages of procurement and production.

India has since tried to ramp up production and imports, including from China, which is a major producer of both PPEs and testing kits.

Mr. Misri called on China to ensure that supply chains remained open and for all placed orders to be fulfilled. While India “appreciate[d] efforts by China to ensure the quality of goods exported”, it also called on Beijing to fulfil previously placed orders with companies that were licensed by Indian authorities to export to the Indian market. China imposed new regulations to tighten checks on April 10, following concerns over the quality of exports expressed in several countries.

“In some cases, some of the orders placed recently were placed before regulations came into effect that limited and restricted the number of companies from China that can export to India,” Mr. Misri said. “ Given that the products are licensed for import to India, it will be a welcome step for Chinese authorities to expedite the registration of these products. Our expectation is that these well-established companies will fulfil their contractual obligations.”

Mr. Misri said there were “more than half a dozen” orders in different stages of processing, and India’s current understanding was delivery schedules remained on course.

“We have a schedule that stretches from deliveries starting tomorrow [April 15] until the end of the month, when half a dozen consignments ordered by different entities in India will be delivered,” he said. “Our understanding is the registration process has been initiated and we have requested the Chinese government to expedite the registration process of companies so that export orders already processed and ready to ship can be sent on their way to India. We hope this request can be facilitated by the Chinese government.”

T.N. order

There have also been concerns over some orders being diverted. The Tamil Nadu government said this week that 50,000 testing kits it had ordered from China were diverted to the U.S. “We have seen media reports but not come across authoritative reports of supplies intended for India having been diverted,” Mr. Misri said.

Council’s advisory is aimed at increasing the numbers of tests conducted by laboratories

New strategy: Pooled testing can be done only in areas with low COVID-19 prevalence.AP

Stating that the number of COVID-19 cases in India is rising, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) is now advising the feasibility of using pooled samples for molecular testing of patient samples.

The council has said that it is critical to increase the numbers of tests conducted by laboratories.

“Positivity rate in cases is still low. Hence, it may help to use the pooled samples for screening. A pooled testing algorithm involves the PCR screening of a specimen pool comprising multiple individual patient specimens, followed by individual testing (pool de-convolution) only if a pool screens positive. As all individual samples in a negative pool are regarded as negative, it results in substantial cost savings when a large proportion of pools tests negative,” it noted in a one-page advisory.

The advisory is aimed at increasing capacity of the laboratories to screen increased numbers of samples using molecular testing for COVID-19 for the purpose of surveillance.

“But pooling of sample is not recommended in areas or population with positivity rates of >5% for COVID-19. Preferable number of samples to be pooled is five, though more than two samples can be pooled, but considering higher possibility of missing positive samples with low viral load, it is strongly discouraged to pool more than five samples, except in research mode,” the advisory says.

The ICMR has noted that a feasibility study was conducted at DHR/ICMR Virus Research and Diagnostic Laboratory (VRDL) at King George’s Medical University (KGMU), Lucknow.

Feasibility scenario

“It has been demonstrated that performing real-time PCR for COVID-19 by pooling five samples of TS/NS (200 ul/sample) is feasible when the prevalence rates of infection are low. All individual samples in a negative pool to be regarded as negative. De-convoluted testing is recommended if any of the pool is positive. Pooling of more than five samples is not recommended to avoid the effect of dilution leading to false negatives,” the advisory said.

It has now recommended sample pooling for real-time RT-PCR screening for COVID-19 (based on the KGMU study).

The study has recommended that it should be used only in areas with low prevalence of COVID-19 (initially using proxy of low positivity of less than 2% from the existing data).

Still, a watch should be kept on increasing positivity in such areas. In areas with positivity of 2-5%, sample pooling for PCR screening may be considered only in community survey or surveillance among asymptomatic individuals, strictly excluding pooling samples of individuals with known contact with confirmed cases and health care workers (in direct contact with care of COVID-19 patients). Sample from such individuals should be directly tested without pooling.

This could improve geospatial data and help develop maps customised to COVID-related applications

Boost to data: The application is meant to collect COVID-19-specific geospatial datasets through community engagement.

To “complement” the Arogya Setu App, a government endorsed application that helps trace the contacts of those who may have been infected by COVID-19, the Survey of India (SoI), the country’s apex map maker, has made public a trove of maps.

This could improve geospatial data as well as help develop maps that could be customised to a variety of ‘COVID-related applications’ such as healthcare facilities, infection clusters and disaster management, according to officials associated with the project.

Geospatial information

“The platform is initially expected to strengthen the public health delivery system of the State and Central governments and subsequently provide the necessary geospatial information support to citizens and agencies dealing with the challenges related to health, socio-economic distress, and livelihood challenges,” the Department of Science and Technology, which oversees the SoI, said in a press release. “The mobile application has been customised to collect COVID-19 specific geospatial datasets through community engagement to augment the response activities by government to the pandemic.”

Officials said that the maps wouldn’t be directly useful to the general public and was aimed at government agencies which require geospatial information. “If a response team needs location specific data on a hotspot that information can be given by Sahyog (the SoI’s mobile application),” Pankaj Mishra, Deputy Surveyor General (Technical) told The Hindu.

In his address announcing the extension of the lockdown on Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged Indians to use the Arogya Setu application and “inspire others to download the app as well”.

To be effective, it requires users to keep their device’s Bluetooth and location history ‘on’ as much as possible. Users will be alerted, without disclosing identity, if they are in the vicinity of someone who’s tested positive. It also helps the government trace contacts of those infected to execute quarantining.

Critics say that Arogya Setu and applications like Sahyog that link to it, could infringe privacy as there wasn’t clarity on how data would be shared between the two applications.

“If location data from Arogya Setu is transferred to the other application, then it is a problem. But if it is a one way transfer from Sahyog to Arogya Setu, then it is more about privacy protection within the latter application,” said Prasanth Sugathan, Legal Director, Software Freedom Law Centre, India.

Arogya Setu’s terms of use were unclear on several aspects including how long data would be stored, what would happen to it once the pandemic ceased, who else the data was being transferred to, he added.

The government has said that data would be collected only for managing the pandemic.

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