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MHA terms situation in Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Surat ‘serious’

Over nine lakh persons are under active COVID-19 surveillance in India, the Union Health Ministry said on Friday, as the total number of cases reached 23,452. The death toll stood at 723.

The country registered another biggest single-day spike with over 1,752 positive COVID cases since Thursday. India currently has 17,915 active cases, while 4,813 people have recovered, which puts the recovery rate at 20.57%, Joint Secretary in the Health Ministry Lav Agarwal said.

Separately, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), in a statement, said the situation in emerging and major hotspots, including Ahmedabad, Surat, Hyderabad and Chennai, is serious. The statement added that violations of lockdown measures reported in some parts of the country pose a serious health hazard to the public and may lead to the spread of COVID-19.

Speaking at the daily press briefing, Joint Secretary in the MHA Punya Salila Srivastva noted that the Centre has sent five new Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCTs) to Gujarat, Telangana and Tamil Nadu to assess the situation.

IMCTs are already in Mumbai and Pune in Maharashtra, Indore in Madhya Pradesh, Jaipur in Rajasthan and Kolkata and Jalpaiguri in West Bengal.

According to reports from the State Health Departments, the total number of cases in the country stood at 24, 485, with 18,257 active cases. The nationwide death toll was 781, an increase of 62 fatalities since Thursday.

The Health Ministry said there were 15 districts that have not reported any fresh case since the past 28 days. These include three new districts — Durg and Rajnandgaon in Chattisgarh and Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh. “Further, 80 districts from 23 States/UTs have not reported any new cases since the last 14 days,” Mr. Agarwal said.

Reiterating that the lockdown had helped India keep its COVID-19 numbers low, Chairman of the Empowered Group-1, V.K. Paul, noted that this “big decision has proved to be very timely and beneficial.”

Around 100 families in Odisha contributed money, labour for the project

Villagers of Tantaguda and Panaspunji collecting water in the first week of March.Special arrangement

Through their collective effort, tribal people of two remote, adjacent villages in Chitrakonda block in Odisha’s Malkangiri district have built a water supply project that has saved them from the rigours of water collection in the lockdown during this summer.

Motivated by the grassroot-level activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), around 100 tribal families of Tantaguda and Panaspunji under Gajalmamudi panchayat of Chitrakonda block decided to alleviate the water crisis on their own.

The tribal people did not wait for any financial support from the government in the project.

“We never knew it will be a saviour during the lockdown,” said Balaram Golari and Raghunath Hantal, the CPI(M) activists of the area. These two played a key role in uniting the local tribals for the project. Construction of the water supply project started on January 2 and got completed in first week of March.

Now, the tribal women of these two villages are saved from walking over two kms to collect water from a mountain stream. An amount of around ₹3 lakh was spent on the project. The money was contributed by around 100 tribal families of the two villages. Every family contributed as per its financial condition. But all of them provided free labour for its construction.

The project includes a top covered concrete tank at a hill top in which water of the perennial stream gets collected. An over 2 km-long pipeline transports water from this tank to the two villages. The project uses no pumps and gravity makes the water flow downstream. The localites designed the whole project without taking any technical support.

According to Mr. Golari, they are planning to extend the water supply to three more nearby villages through similar community effort.

Odisha secretary of CPI(M) Ali Kishor Patnaik lauded the party workers and tribals. “This project is an eye-opener for the administration that several remote villages in Malkangiri district are yet to get proper water supply.”

States should trigger their own escape clauses, says Chairman of 15th Finance Commission N.K. Singh

Despite the strain on government finances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is no credible proposal to amend the legislation meant to control the fiscal deficit, Chairman of the 15th Finance Commission N.K. Singh said.

Speaking to presspersons after a two-day meeting of the Commission’s Economic Advisory Council, Mr. Singh said the government was currently looking to see how to ameliorate economic hardship while staying within the broad framework of the existing law.

While presenting the Union Budget in February, the Finance Minister had invoked the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act’s escape clause to relax the fiscal deficit target for 2020-21 by 0.5% percentage points to 3.5% of the GDP. If the government wishes to increase spending further in light of the current crisis, as many economists have recommended, it may need to amend the Act.

The State governments have been demanding that their own 3% fiscal deficit targets be relaxed to 4% or even 5%, to give them elbow room in dealing with the impact of the lockdown.

Need for new law

Dr. Singh said that change would not be possible without fresh legislation being enacted by the States. A more expeditious method would be for the States to first trigger their own escape clauses, he said. He also cautioned that the States need to weigh the cost of borrowing from the market, and whether there would be appetite for their bonds.

According to an official statement, Economic Advisory Council members felt that options need to be considered for financing the additional deficit. It is important to ensure that the State governments get access to adequate funds to undertake their fight against the pandemic, they said, adding that different States may come out of the pandemic’s impact in different stages.

Council members all felt that earlier projections of real GDP growth will need to be revised downwards considerably, though Dr. Singh declined to quantify the drop until fourth quarter macroeconomic data becomes available. Noting that the lockdown’s impact on public finances will be significant, with a large shortfall in tax and other revenues, the Council recommended a nuanced fiscal response, with a focus not just on the size but the design of any stimulus package.

A support mechanism for cash-starved small enterprises needs to be a top priority, along with partial loan guarantees and other measures to protect non-banking financial companies, the Council said.

Pune-based company has partnered with Oxford University in the battle against novel coronavirus

Adar Poonawalla

The city-based Serum Institute of India has said that it expects the vaccine for COVID-19 developed by the University of Oxford in the market by October or November provided the safety and efficacy of the product is established during trials.

The institute has partnered with the Oxford vaccine project as one of the seven global institutions that will manufacture the vaccine.

“In around two weeks, we can produce five million doses a month and scale that up to 10 million after six months while typically producing a vaccine takes a long time,” SII CEO Adar Poonawalla told CNBC-TV18.

Observing that there were a lot of people who thought that they would have a vaccine in a few months, Mr. Poonawalla said there was, however, a strong caveat.

Trial process

“If the vaccine works in the U.K. trial and we do another trial in India, which we are hoping to start shortly, in safety and efficacy, only then will it be available by October or November and that is only if we start producing at our personal cost in risk by the end of this month,” he said.

Further, he said the institute would be using one of the existing facilities for manufacturing the COVID-19 vaccine, “However, it will take over two years to set up new manufacturing facility for COVID-19 vaccine,” he added.

“Typically vaccines take many years but with the regulatory approvals in India that have been very carefully changed for this product development, we are very pleased to announce that we will be able to do it by the end of this year,” Mr. Poonawalla said.

SII is currently looking at 4-5 million doses monthly and would start manufacturing early to save time in the hope that the trial would be successful.

“So, we hope to build up 20-40 million doses by September-October in the hope that if the trial works, then we will have this product,” he said.

Mr. Poonawalla said SII would be partnering with ICMR for the clinical trials and that he was in touch with the Department of Biotechnology.

Talking about the decision and the risks involved, Mr. Poonawalla said: “We are not a listed company and we are not accountable for our actions to investors in terms of pure profits and returns. So, I was able to make this decision and take this risk on at the cost of our other vaccines that we are putting aside temporarily so that we can build up the scale here.”

Mr. Poonawalla said that the manufacturing plant in Pune would have an investment of ₹500-600 crore.

Team is looking at largescale deployment of the kit

Clean code: The team has identified unique regions (stretches of RNA sequences) in the SARS COV-2 genome. IIT-DELHI

IIT Delhi said it has got the approval from the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) for a probe-free coronavirus detection assay developed by it.

The institute, in a statement on Thursday, said the assay had been validated at ICMR with a sensitivity and specificity of 100%, making IIT-D the first academic institute to have obtained ICMR approval for a real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based diagnostic assay. The assay was developed by researchers at IIT Delhi’s Kusuma School of Biological Sciences (KSBS).

“Using comparative sequence analyses, the IIT Delhi team identified unique regions (short stretches of RNA sequences) in the COVID-19/SARS COV-2 genome. These regions are not present in other human coronaviruses, providing an opportunity to specifically detect COVID-19,” the statement read.

It added that the method used primers targeting unique regions of COVID-19 that were designed and tested using real-time PCR.

“These primers specifically bind to regions conserved in over 400 fully sequenced COVID-19 genomes. This highly sensitive assay was developed by extensive optimisation using synthetic DNA constructs followed by in-vitro generated RNA fragments,” it further read.

The research team said the assay would be useful for specific and affordable high throughput testing. “This assay can be easily scaled up as it does not require fluorescent probes. The team is targeting large-scale deployment of the kit at affordable prices with suitable industrial partners as soon as possible,” the team said.

Environmental activist says the Environment Ministry has overturned its own adverse remark on ‘rampant violation of local forest laws’

Amid the countrywide lockdown, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) has recommended coal mining in a part of an elephant reserve in Assam.

The NBWL’s Standing Committee had on April 7 discussed a proposal for use of 98.59 hectares of land from the Saleki proposed reserve forest land for a coal mining project by North-Easter Coal Field (NECF), a unit of Coal India Limited.

The NBWL is under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).

Saleki is a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve that includes the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary covering 111.19 sq km of rainforest and several reserve forests in Sivasagar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts.

Panel set up

The NBWL had in July 2019 formed a committee comprising its member R. Sukumar, Assam’s Chief Wildlife Warden, and a representative of the local wildlife division for assessing the mining area.

In the April 7 meeting, Mr. Sukumar stated that 57.20 ha of hilly forestland had already been broken up by the user agency (NECF) and the remaining 41.39 ha was unbroken.

He recommended a “cautious approach” for preserving the “basic integrity of this forested hill slope” that is a part of the elephant reserve in Assam adjoining Arunachal Pradesh’s Deomali Elephant Reserve with “a sizeable population of elephants”.

After detailed discussions, the Standing Committee “recommended for approval” the proposal for mining in the broken-up area after the user agency submits a rectified site-specific mine reclamation plan in consultation with the Assam Forest Department.

“For the unbroken area, the matter will be considered after the user agency submits a feasibility report for underground mining, and also submits compliance report regarding fulfilment of all other conditions” as recommended in a meeting on January 21, the NBWL committee said.

Congress MP Pradyut Bordoloi asked, “What can you expect from a government that has de-fanged all environment and wildlife regulatory bodies? The recommendation reflects the disdain this government has for green assets, particularly a biodiversity hotspot to benefit the mining lobby.”

Green activist Rohit Choudhury said the MoEFCC overturned its own adverse remark on “rampant violation of local forest laws” in November 2019 to fast-track coal mining in the Saleki forestland.

The remark followed the local wildlife division’s report pointing to illegal coal mining in the Tikak open cast pit mining in Saleki. The division also said 4,800 tonnes of coal from “unauthorised breaking up” of 16 ha of the area had been seized. “The Assam Forest Department has completely failed in protecting the biodiversity of the State and has allowed all illegal mining of coal, stone, sand, etc., violating all rules and regulations. It is obvious that there is a corrupt nexus in operation and the State Forest Minister has become a mute spectator,” Mr. Choudhury said.

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