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216 districts record no cases till date; ICMR initiates multi-centre clinical trial

With a recovery rate now standing at 29.36 %, India on Friday registered 3,390 new COVID positive cases with 103 deaths taking the total number to 56,342 cases and 1,886 deaths.

The country currently has 37,916 active cases and so far a total of 16,540 people have been cured.

Data from State Health Departments put the nationwide death toll at 1,963 with a total number of 58,895 cases of which 38,354 are active cases. Maharashtra reported 1,089 new patients, taking the total tally to 19,063. The State also reported 37 more deaths, taking the death toll to 731.

Gujarat reported 390 new cases, taking its tally to 7,403, while the death toll rose to 449 with 24 more deaths in the last 24 hours.

“The recovery rate is continuously increasing which currently means that almost 1 out of every 3 patients who were hospitalised has been recovered/cured. It is noted that on an average, 3.2% patients are on oxygen support, 4.7% of patients are in ICU, and 1.1% patients are on ventilator support,” Joint secretary in the Health Ministry Lav Aggarwal said at the daily press briefing. He added that Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has initiated a multi-centre clinical trial called PLACID trial — “Phase-II Open-Label, Randomised Controlled Trial — to assess the safety and efficacy of Convalescent Plasma to Limit COVID-19 associated complications in moderate disease.”

“The study has received approval from the COVID-19 National Ethics Committee (CONEC) on April 29. ICMR has shortlisted 21 institutes for PLACID trial. These include five hospitals in Maharashtra; four in Gujarat; two each in Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh; and one each in Punjab, Karnataka, Telangana and Chandigarh,” he said.

The Health Ministry noted that currently there are 216 districts which have not reported any cases till date.

It forms a five-member committee to probe the gas leak in Visakhapatnam

Fear factor: Residents waiting on a road in Visakhapatnam in the early hours of Friday following rumours of another gas leak from LG Polymers. They finally left for their homes after officials convinced them.K.R. DEEPAK

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on Friday directed LG Polymers India to deposit an initial amount of ₹50 crore for the damage caused by the gas leak at its plant in Vishakhapatnam, which left at least 11 people dead and affected several others.

A Bench, headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel, issued notice to the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board, the Central Pollution Control Board and the Union Ministry of Environment, seeking their response by May 18.

Site inspection ordered

It also constituted a five-member fact-finding committee, to be headed by a former judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, to probe the incident, which happened early on Thursday, and submit a report. The committee was directed to inspect the site “at the earliest”.

“The Committee may specifically report on the sequence of events, causes of failure and the persons and authorities responsible, the extent of damage to life, human and non-human, public health and the environment, including water, steps to be taken for compensation of victims and restitution of the damaged property and environment and the cost involved,” the Bench said.

Noting that the styrene gas was defined as a hazardous chemical under relevant rules, it said, “The rules require on-site and off-site emergency plans to ensure prevention of damage. There appears to be failure to comply with rules and other statutory provisions.”

‘Delhi has a key role in peace process’

India should discuss its concerns on terrorism directly with the Taliban, said U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, adding that he had discussed how India could play a “more active role” in the Afghan reconciliation process, during his talks in Delhi on Thursday.

“India is an important force in Afghanistan and it would be appropriate for that [India-Taliban] engagement to take place,” Mr. Khalilzad told The Hindu in an exclusive interview. The envoy said India had a “significant role” in Afghanistan’s development, but paradoxically, doesn’t play a role in the international peace efforts.

‘Historic ties’

“India and Afghanistan have historic ties, and I believe that dialogue between India and the Taliban is important,” he added. This is the first time the U.S. has publicly suggested an engagement between India and the Taliban. New Delhi, that still considers the Taliban a terror group allied to Pakistan, has thus far distanced itself from any talks.

Majority of cases are Asian expatriates

Even as thousands of Non-Resident Indians are eagerly waiting to return home, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations are attempting to limit the outbreak of COVID-19 in different ways.

An early lockdown appears to have curbed the spread, but success in battling the virus is still far away. The count in the six GCC nations (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait) is inching towards one lakh, with nearly 500 deaths.

What is worrying is that the majority of cases are Asian expatriates, including Indians, and in that category Non-Resident Keralites account for the highest number of cases and deaths. Besides, deaths go unreported due to the overlap between comorbidity and COVID-19 mortality.

UAE-based Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust chairman K.V. Shamsudeen said only serious cases had been admitted to hospitals. “Others have been quarantined in their apartments. Many without proper living conditions for domestic quarantine have been transferred to makeshift institutional facilities,” he said.

Already, expatriates are bearing the brunt of job losses and salary cuts. “The worst-affected are blue-collar workers,” he said, adding that oil prices had hit a historic low.

The industrial hub faces a massive shortfall in revenues amid growing cost of combating the pandemic

Announcing that Maharashtra’s financial condition has deteriorated to the extent that it could not even afford to go ahead with annual transfers of government employees in the ongoing fiscal, the State’s Finance Department on Monday said there will be no new projects nor will new construction work be undertaken in the financial year 2020-21, in an effort to reduce expenses.

The State government also announced that all ongoing works except pre-monsoon necessities, will not be allocated any funds.

The government also said the salary for March for A, B and C class government employees will be paid in two instalments. Directions have also been issued to stop new recruitment as well as cancelling purchase orders or new tenders.

Revenues slump

According to data available with The Hindu, the revenue received by the State through non-GST sources in April in financial year 2018-19 and 2019-20 was ₹7,829.44 crore and ₹8,251.2 crore, respectively. However, this year, the receipts for April are barely ₹3,314.42 crore. Of this, the major contribution comes from Sales Tax on fuel which is around ₹2,299.82 crore. Stamp duty from registrations brought in ₹269.35 crore and excise duties another ₹237.5 crore.

According to officials, the State was expecting the revenue around ₹3,500 crore, ₹2,400 crore and ₹1,200 crore in April from sales tax, stamp duty and excise.

The State has also not received its GST refund worth ₹16,654 crore from the Centre, which was due before March 31. Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister and Finance Minister Ajit Pawar has since sent three reminders to the Union Finance Ministry seeking co-operation from the Centre.

He has also sought a special package of ₹25,000 crore from the Centre for Maharashtra, given the massive losses suffered by the highly industrialised State due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Despite the crippling impact of the lockdown and the mounting healthcare costs. the Centre has so far released just ₹1,611 crore ‘in advance its share of first instalment of State Disaster Relief Management Fund for the year 2020-21.’

The State government has said the amount will not be enough given the extent of the disaster. Sources within the government mentioned that apart from ₹1,611 crore and medical equipment required to treat corona patients, including 1.49 lakh N-95 masks, around 17 lakh triple layer masks and 30,480 PPE kits, the State has received no help from the centre.

Though Maharashtra has not announced any relief package so far, it has become the first State in the country to provide free and cashless insurance protection to its citizens. The Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Jan Aarogya Yojana (MJPJAY) will now cover government, semi-government employees and as well as white ration card holders. The government has made COVID-19 tests and treatment free and capped the disease’s treatment at private hospitals.

The State has also set up a special website for industries to seek clearances to resume work. Till May 5, the government had received 38,363 applications out of which 12,336 have already gone in operation.

In view of the crisis, the State’s Power Department has decided to reduce power tariff on an average by 7% for consumers. For the industrial and commercial consumers, the reduction in tariff would be 10-15%, while for residential consumers, it would be 5%.

Further, for the next three months, industrial and commercial consumers will not have to pay fixed charges. There will be no increase in tariff for agriculture consumers, and those using power derived from solar roof sources will not have to pay any additional charges.

Maharashtra government has formed two committees — one of experts and another of ministers to tackle the financial recovery of the State in post-corona times.

At its first meeting, the bureaucrats’ panel recommended that the State government rethink the budget estimates, especially about borrowing and expenditure. It observed that with March and April gone, the State is already staring at a shortfall of around ₹45,000 crore in revenue receipts. It also observed that receipts through GST collection are also likely to be hit by 30%.

Increased borrowing

The State is also considering to raise its debt limit. In 2020-21, it is expected to cross ₹5.20 lakh crore which will be 16.15% of the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP). The idea to raise the limit by 2% is currently being discussed to tackle the expected shortfall of revenue receipts. It is being justified on the basis that the State spends 55.11% as fixed expenditure on salaries, pension and interests on loans. The State spends approximately ₹12,000 crore per month on salaries.

Former Union minister Sharad Pawar has estimated that Maharashtra is going to face a shortfall of ₹1,00,000 crore to sustain its projected expenditure in FY 2020-21 and sought help from the Centre in the from of additional grants of an untied nature.

As per the budget presented on March 6, 2020, the State was already staring at a revenue deficit of ₹9,510.71 crore. With financial activity closed down for over 40 days now and all source of revenue dried up the deficit is likely to soar.

Indians in Russia, Ukraine to be evacuated in the next phase

The ‘Vande Bharat Mission’ to evacuate Indian citizens is expected to cover Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Spain and east Europe in the third week of May, informed sources said here on Friday. The process of repatriation, which is focused on the Gulf and the South Asian regions, began on Thursday and is expected to involve 64 flights, bringing back 15,000 nationals from different parts of the world through 14 Indian airports.

“As of now, 67,833 requests for repatriation have been registered. The Ministry of External Affairs has developed a dynamic online platform on which requests received by Indian Missions from Indian nationals wishing to return are regularly being uploaded,” said a source with knowledge of the operation scheduled from May 7 to 15. The operation is officially named ‘Vande Bharat Mission’. Following arrival, all Indian citizens will have to spend the mandatory quarantine period in a government facility to avoid spread of COVID-19.

Russia and Ukraine have flown out a substantial number of their citizens from India in the last few weeks, even as several thousand Indians remain stranded in the two countries and east European countries such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. A Ukrainian diplomatic source said at least 15,000 Indians are in Ukraine. “Our assessment is that at least 4,000 Indians would be willing to be airlifted from Ukraine.” A number of flights to Thailand are expected to be part of Phase-II.

In Phase-I, the Indian source said 27 flights are scheduled to take off from the Gulf countries and 7 flights from Bangladesh. On Friday, a special Air India charter flight brought 167 students from Dhaka to Srinagar. Most of the students were enrolled in medical schools in the capital of Bangladesh. During the same time, 14 non-scheduled commercial flights are reserved for stranded Indians from Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. At the same time, seven flights shall take off for New York, Washington, DC, Chicago and San Francisco. Seven other flights will airlift Indians from London.

Official sources also announced a plan for repatriation of Indians aboard INS Jalashwa and INS Magar from the Maldives. The ships will make two voyages to Kochi and Tuticorin. INS Jalashwa, with 698 passengers, is expected to reach Kochi on May 10 in the first round and proceed to Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu.

Testing in Hong Kong hospitals shows the regimen clears coronavirus in 7 days in the mildly ill

A phase-2 trial involving participants with mild to moderate COVID-19 illness found no detectable virus within an average seven days of starting treatment with a three-drug regimen compared with 12 days in people in the control group. Samples tested for the virus comprised nasopharyngeal swab, posterior oropharyngeal saliva, throat swab, and stool samples.

Clinical improvement was also significantly better in those who received the three-drug regimen. Complete alleviation of symptoms was achieved in four days in the intervention group and eight days in the control group.

The average hospital stay was also significantly shorter (nine days) in participants who received the three-drug therapy than in the control group (14.5 days). The three-drug regimen was found to be safe.

Analysis of secondary outcomes revealed that 52 participants in the intervention group who started treatment less than seven days after onset of symptoms showed better clinical and virological outcomes than in the control group consisting of 24 participants.

The trial was carried out in six public hospitals in Hong Kong between February 10 and March 20. The team of researchers was led by Prof. Kwok-Yung Yuen from the University of Hong Kong, and the results were published in The Lancet. The safety and efficacy of the three-drug regimen have to be tested in a phase-3 trial involving more people.

Randomly assigned

The 127 participants were randomly assigned to either the intervention group or a control group. The intervention group had 86 participants and the control group had 41. Participants in the intervention group received oral lopinavir-ritonavir, ribavirin and injectable interferon beta-1b, while the control group received only lopinavir–ritonavir. Treatment in both groups started within seven days of symptoms showing up.

Lopinavir-ritonavir is used for treating HIV, ribavirin for treating chronic hepatitis C virus, and injectable interferon beta-1b is used by multiple sclerosis patients.

U.S. Special Representative says the peace process in Afghanistan could become a platform for regional cooperation and connectivity

India should begin a dialogue with the Taliban, says U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, adding that he had discussed India’s possible future role in Afghanistan’s reconciliation process with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval during a short stop in New Delhi on Thursday. In an interview, Mr. Khalilzad said his mission was building support for the full implementation of the U.S.–Taliban agreement. Edited excerpts:

It is rare for anyone to be travelling during the coronavirus lockdown, let alone high officials. Tell us what brought you to the region, and how your meetings went?

The mission is to encourage movement towards the implementation of the U.S.–Taliban agreement signed at Doha in February. Part of the confidence building measures leading to intra-Afghan negotiations, is that both the Taliban and the Afghan government have to release prisoners on both sides. Secondly that there must be a reduction in violence compared to the period before the agreement was signed, and thirdly, that in order to get lasting peace and bring the long war in Afghanistan to an end, we should open the door to negotiations for a political roadmap and a permanent comprehensive ceasefire.

The territory of Afghanistan must not be used against the United States, our allies and in fact the world. So peace for Afghanistan, and security for the world from Afghanistan, are our two goals, and I was encouraged by my meetings on this trip. International support for peace in Afghanistan is important and Indian support in particular was the focus of my mission [to Delhi].

Is the focus on India’s role just lip service? India is not at present involved in any of the regional formats that are currently discussing Afghanistan’s future…

That’s an excellent question, because this is a paradox, that on the one hand India has such a significant role when you look at the development of Afghanistan and India has such a long history with the people of Afghanistan. But when it comes to international efforts, India does not yet have the role that it could.

Part of that may have been a choice to pursue its role bilaterally, but I think as the peace process gets more serious, and the U.S.–Taliban agreement goes into the next stages, we want India to take a more active role in the peace process, and that was a key focus of our discussion in Delhi.

Did you also discuss the possibility of India opening direct, public talks with the Taliban during your meetings, something India has rejected thus far?

It is for India to decide its role, but I do think engagement between India and all the key players in Afghanistan, not only in terms of the government but also in terms of political forces, society and the Afghan body politic, is appropriate given India’s regional and global position. India is an important force in Afghanistan and it would be appropriate for that [India-Taliban] engagement to take place.

Has India expressed a desire for a role beyond humanitarian assistance, economic and reconstruction, in terms of mediation, or more security assistance?

We did discuss what kind of future role India might want to play. When it comes to the peace process, I can tell you India is considering a more active role, and we in the U.S. are supportive of India’s engagement in the international process.

Specifically, could India help in the current impasse within the Afghan polity, in particular between President Ghani, and former CEO Dr. Abdullah?

India has good relations with several leaders in Afghanistan and like the U.S., India supports the end of the political crisis in Kabul to bring about a more inclusive government. I am encouraged by the decision of the political leaders: President Ghani, Dr. Abdullah, (former) President Karzai, and other leaders to form an inclusive negotiating team. I found that India and the U.S. are on the same wavelength with regard to the resolution of the internal political crisis and the establishment of an inclusive government.

The U.S.-Taliban deal is being seen in India as a deal for withdrawal, not a peace deal. There are concerns that this is not an Afghan owned and led agreement, there is no ceasefire, no Taliban commitment to the constitution. In fact the U.S. seems to be putting the Taliban at par with the democratically elected government in Kabul. Your response?

The U.S.–Taliban agreement is a necessary step to transition to the Afghan owned process. We have a specific commitment from the Taliban not to allow terrorism from territory they control, and should they join a future government that they will not allow Al Qaeda and other terror groups to launch attacks against the U.S. and its allies, and indeed the rest of the world. That’s an important achievement. So while we are not as far along as we or India would have liked, we don’t see a better alternative to this process.

For India, it is the groups in Afghanistan that target India, which are backed by Pakistan that are a worry, and the U.S.–Taliban agreement doesn’t mention those.

Look, our strong position is that there shouldn’t be [terror] sanctuaries on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and I believe that for peace to come to Afghanistan, there is a need for good relations amongst the neighbours and support for peace. I believe that the Pakistani leadership has supported the peace process, and thinks that the time has come for economic strategy, for trade and development and for Afghanistan to become a platform for regional cooperation and connectivity. We encourage and support those objectives. India and Afghanistan have historic ties, and I believe that dialogue between India and the Taliban is important, and it would be important that issues of concern like this [terrorism] are raised directly.

The Forest department had put up a metal net fencing along a section of the coast to protect the eggs

Welcome sight: Olive Ridley turtle hatchlings at the Rushikulya rookery in Ganjam district of Odisha.Lingaraj PandaLingaraj Panda

Mass hatching of Olive Ridley turtles began at Odisha’s Rushikulya rookery, a major nesting site of these marine turtles, on Thursday night.

Thousands of hatchlings came out of the nests buried in sand to crawl towards the sea to start their long journey. On an average 80 to 100 turtles hatch from each nest.

According to Berhampur Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Amlan Nayak, the event marked the beginning of mass hatching at the rookery.

Set to increase

The number of mass hatchings were expected to increase in the coming days. “In the past few days, the eggs collected from sporadic nesting spots to be incubated at artificial hatcheries of the Forest department along this coast have also started to hatch,” he added.

This year, 3,23,063 Olive Ridley turtles had nested at the Rushikulya rookery. The mass nesting process began in the wee hours of March 21 and continued till the night of March 28. Olive Ridley turtle eggs incubate on their own in the heat of the beach sand.

Temperature matters

They hatch in 45 to 60 days, depending on the temperature of the sand and atmosphere during the incubation period. As mass nesting numbers had gradually increased to reach the peak and then decreased, mass hatching was also expected to take the same path, said the DFO. To protect the eggs from predators and humans, the Forest department had put up metal net fencing over 5 km from Gokharkuda to Bateswar, and the area was divided into 50 segments for regular watching.

Rabindranath Sahu, president of the Rushikulya Sea Turtle Protection Committee (RSTPC), an organisation of villagers living near the rookery involved in protection of Olive Ridleys, said this year there was minimal human intervention during the mass nesting, incubation period and continuing hatching process.

The lockdown due to COVID-19 had stopped outsiders from reaching the spot. “But high tides related to new moon on April 23 had washed away a large number of nests,” Mr. Sahu said.

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