Japan ambassador visits historical site in Pakistan dating back to Alexander’s time
Pakistan|: Islamabad: The Japanese Ambassador to Pakistan Matsuda Kuninori visited the Buddhist historical site in the suburbs of the federal capital, Shah Allah Ditta Caves, in a boost to tourism. 2,400-year old Buddhist era relic The caves of Shah Allah Ditta in the Margalla Hills are internationally known Buddhist caves, preserving around 2,400-year old Buddhist era murals. The ambassador, who was accompanied by his wife and staff of the embassy, admired the grandeur of the ancient caves which date back to the times when the young Buddhists travelled long distances to reach this region which spanned from the Margalla Hills to Taxila, Swat and beyond. The Buddhist monks spent time here in meditation and taught their disciples the message of Buddha. Former Deputy Mayor of Islamabad and a representative of the Shah Allah Ditta community, Syed Zeshan Naqvi, received the ambassador and briefed him about the caves that date back to the times of Alexander the Great. He said the ancient caves had various engravings of Buddha on its walls that are a treasure of information and have great historical significance. Huge potential for tourism While appreciating the site as a potential tourist point, the Japanese ambassador said the site had a huge tourism potential and showcased to the outer world the footprints of the Buddhist civilisation. The ambassador also spent a few moments in meditation under the old Banyan tree at the site. Naqvi, while briefing the Japanese envoy and his wife, highlighted the issues the local government of Islamabad (that completed its term earlier in February this year) faced in preserving the place. Construction work threatening these caves This historic relic of the past is threatened by construction work in the adjacent areas and because of the lack of infrastructure and support by the international community, he said. Ambassador Matsuda Kuninori said Pakistan was a safe country and the way Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government had combatted coronavirus by imposing smart lockdown was commendable. Japan, he said, had already eased travel restrictions on Pakistan. Preservation of Taxila Museum An official of the Japan embassy while talking to the media said that upon request from the Government of Punjab, Tourism Department, the Government of Japan is considering providing cultural grant assistance for preservation and upkeep of the Taxila museum. The grant would also be spent on the improvement of equipment for exhibition and conservation in the Taxila Museum which stores the rich cultural heritage of ancient Gandhara civilisation, he said.
COVID-19: Bodies pile up at Bihar crematoriums
India|: Patna: The rising number of deaths from India’s surging COVID-19 outbreak has meant that grieving families have to wait longer to have their loved ones cremated. The situation is bad in both Bihar and neighbouring Jharkhand state where there is a virtual scramble among the grieving families to perform the last rites of the dead. As many as 43 bodies have been cremated in the past 48 hours in Bihar while in Jharkhand more than 70 bodies were cremated and buried since Sunday. The overall situation is so critical that people have had to resort to mass cremation of bodies at an open space. “I have to wait for 10 hours to get my turn to cremate the body of my father who died from COVID-19,” said Brajraj, a resident of Patna. He also alleged the crematorium staff charged him Rs16,000 instead of Rs300 as fixed by the government to cremate the body. The problem for the victims’ families is that only two electric crematoriums out of total three are operational now. “The situation has become critical as most people are rushing to only one crematorium having better facilities,” a Patna municipal corporation official Pratibha Sinha said. The situation is more critical in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state, where the people have to wait for 24 hours to get their turn at the crematorium. Harried villagers are now cremating the bodies in the open space to complete the mandatory formalities soon. Many are rushing to the river banks and even the places they never visited in the past to perform the last rites. “I never saw such kind of horror in my whole life. The people are cremating bodies at the place where they used to park their vehicles earlier. They are also refusing to complete the basic rituals before consigning the bodies to the flames,” said Raju Ram, a cremation staff who has been in the job for long. The burial grounds are also working overtime to cope with the situation. “We are unable to find workers to dig out graves. So we have hired an earth-cutting machine to meet the requirement,” an official at Kantatoli burial ground in Ranchi told a news channel on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the recovery rate of COVID-19 patients in Bihar has dropped sharply even as the infection rate has gone up. A health department report said the recovery rate has slumped by more than seven per cent while the infection rate has grown by two per cent in the past five days. Health officials said till last month, the recovery rate in the state was recorded at 99 percent which has now slumped to 92.50 per cent - a fall of over seven per cent. Health authorities are alarmed at the way the infection is spreading fast among the children who had remained unaffected last year. They said some 10 per cent children have now come in the grip of the virus and blame sheer carelessness on the part of parents for this situation. “The children are going out to play despite the surging infection and the parents are not serious about this. During the first wave, the parents were more alert,” Patna civil surgeon Dr Vibha Kumari Singh said. However, the people in the age-group of 25 to 49 are more susceptible to the virus, said a study conducted by the Patna district administration. The study found that of the total COVID-19 positive cases, some 50 per cent alone come from this particular age-group. As per the study, a maximum of 50 per cent people getting infected fall in the age-group of 25-49 while 29 per cent patients come from 0-24 age-group. Similarly, 28 per cent of the infected people are from 50-74 age-group whereas only 2.3 per cent infection has been reported from 75-99 age-group.
Ramadan begins with new COVID-19 restrictions in Pakistan
Pakistan|: Islamabad: Pakistan has announced new restrictions to be followed in Ramadan amid the surge in infections across the country. This will be the second Ramadan with restricted celebrations in the Muslim world as the third wave of the pandemic continues to rage. The organisation spearheading the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC), has issued new guidelines for Ramadan according to which the businesses will remain shut on Saturday and Sunday whereas on the weekdays market timings will be Sehr to 6pm. All kind of indoor and outdoor gatherings will be banned including all social, cultural, political, sports and other events. No restaurant will be open for indoor dining, however, outdoor dining and takeaways will be allowed from Iftar till midnight with strict implementation of health guidelines. Taraweeh prayers will be organised in open spaces and worshippers must maintain safe distance as they attend prayers. All amusement parks will remain closed but walking/jogging tracks will be open with strict adherence to rules. The work from home policy for 50 per cent of the employees will continue in Ramadan. There will be a ban on inter-provincial public transport on weekends till April 25 while intercity public transport is allowed to operate at 50 per cent capacity. Meanwhile, the railways will operate at 70 per cent passenger capacity, whereas additional train services to be launched to double the capacity. The authorities would review the guidelines after the first 10 days of Ramadan. Pakistanis miss pre-pandemic Ramadan Many in Pakistan, especially the elderly, who were longing to begin Ramadan with the traditional spirit, will have to wait for another year as the country continues to battle the pandemic and is struggling to vaccinate its vulnerable population. “I hoped to go to the mosque for Taraweeh this year after missing the prayers last Ramadan but the virus is still here and so are the restrictions” said Saif Ahmed, a retired government official and father of four. For people like Saif, going to the mosque for prayers is the most cherished ritual in Ramadan. “It is a difficult and distressing time as I will be praying at home. But this is the only way to stay safe and protect each other,” the 73-year-old said while talking to Gulf News.” Pakistan has not altogether banned prayers in mosques during Ramadan but has restricted the number of people and asked the residents above 50 years and young children to not attend group prayers. People have been advised to avoid gathering before and after prayers. It is mandatory to wear a mask at the mosque and prayers are encouraged in the open with a distance of six feet between two worshippers. The coronavirus guidelines are clear but often not completely enforced as many people report violations almost every day in the country of 220 million. “If only everyone would wear a mask and keep their distance, perhaps we can defeat the virus sooner and go back to normal life but people hardly seem to care even after a year” Saif said.
What do we know about Johnson & Johnson's COVID-19 vaccine and rare clots?
Dubai: The US has recommended that states pause giving the J&J vaccine while authorities examine six reports of unusual clots, including a death, out of more than 6.8 million Americans given the one-dose vaccination so far. Fewer than 1 in 1 million Johnson & Johnson vaccinations are under investigation. But the small number of cases has sparked concern, and J&J delayed its imminent European rollout. Here’s a look at what we know about the vaccine and the unusual blood clots. Why are these clots different? These are not typical blood clots. They're weird in two ways. First, they're occurring in unusual parts of the body, such as veins that drain blood from the brain. Second, those patients also have abnormally low levels of platelets - cells that help form clots - a condition normally linked to bleeding, not clotting. Image Credit: Graphic News Scientists in Norway and Germany first raised the possibility that some people are experiencing an abnormal immune system response to the AstraZeneca vaccine, forming antibodies that attack their own platelets. That's the theory as the US now investigates clots in J&J vaccine recipients, Dr. Peter Marks, the Food and Drug Administration's vaccine chief, said Tuesday, AP reported. Why suspect immune response? The first clue: A widely used blood thinner named heparin sometimes causes a very similar side effect. Very rarely, heparin recipients form antibodies that both attack and overstimulate platelets, said Dr. Geoffrey Barnes, a clot expert at the University of Michigan, AP reported “It kind of can cause both sides of the bleeding-clotting spectrum,” Barnes said. Because heparin is used so often in hospitals, that reaction is something “that every hospital in America knows how to diagnose and treat.” Vials with a sticker reading, "COVID-19 / Coronavirus vaccine / Injection only" and a medical syringe are seen in front of a displayed Johnson & Johnson logo in this illustration taken October 31, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters There also are incredibly rare reports of this weird clot-low platelet combination in people who never took heparin, such as after an infection. Health officials said one reason for the J&J pause was to make sure doctors know how to treat patients suspected of having these clots, which includes avoiding giving heparin. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention later Tuesday provided advice on how to spot and treat the unusual clots. What does research show? Among possible causes being investigated are that the vaccine triggers an unusual antibody in rare cases. So far, risk factors like age or gender have not been singled out. In this Feb. 17, 2021, file photo, a health care worker receives a Johnson & Johnson vaccine at a hospital in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, South Africa. Image Credit: AP In two studies in the New England Journal of Medicine last week, research teams from Norway and Germany found platelet-attacking antibodies in the blood of some AstraZeneca vaccine recipients who had the strange clots. The antibodies were similar to those found with the heparin side effect even though the patients had never used that blood thinner. It's not yet clear if there's a similar link to the J&J vaccine. Who experienced the rare side effects? In J&J's case, all six recipients were women between the ages of 18 and 48, and the symptoms occurred six to 13 days after vaccination. In the six cases, a type of blood clot called cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST) was seen in combination with low levels of blood platelets, or thrombocytopenia. Read more COVID-19 variants or 'scariants’? Virologist calls for ramped up vaccinations globally Drew Weissman, father of revolutionary COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, sets next target: Cancer, other viral diseases First-person account: Emirates vaccine flight a signal of return to normality Top 5 vaccine myths: Meet the top COVID-19 anti-vax advocates In total, more than 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been given in the United States through April 12. What technology does it use? The J&J vaccine uses a common-cold causing adenovirus, which has been genetically modified so that it can't replicate, to carry the gene for a key part of the coronavirus. The part is known as the "spike protein" and it's what gives the virus its crown-like appearance. The vaccine delivers the instructions to make this protein to human cells, and our immune systems then develop antibodies against it, preventing the virus from invading cells. Apart from antibodies, the vaccine also elicits the production of immune T cells, which kill infected cells and help make more antibodies. J&J's shot is known as an "adenovirus vector vaccine" and the company previously produced a European Union-approved Ebola vaccine using the same technology. Esselen Reza, at right, receives a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Banning Recreation Center Tuesday, April 13, 2021, in Wilmington, Calif. Image Credit: AP Oxford-AstraZeneca and Sputnik's shots are both adenovirus vector vaccines, too. They all use double-stranded DNA molecules to carry genetic instructions, rather than single-stranded RNA used by Pfizer and Moderna. DNA is more rugged, which allows these vaccines to be stored at warmer temperatures. Are pauses like this common? Fewer than 1 in 1 million Johnson & Johnson vaccinations are under investigation, and it still hasn't been determined that the blood clots were related to the vaccine. Pauses like this are common even after vaccines go into wide use to investigate further if an unusually large cluster of a certain type of medical cases turns up among people who've been inoculated. What about the other vaccines? The most widely used COVID-19 vaccines in the US - from Pfizer and Moderna - are made with a completely different technology, and the FDA said there is no sign of a similar clot concern with those vaccines. Should people be worried because they received the J&J vaccination? Marks said it's important not to confuse the rare clot risk with normal flu-like symptoms people often feel a day or two after a COVID-19 vaccination. He said concerning symptoms, such as severe headache or severe abdominal pain, would occur a week to three weeks after the J&J vaccine. How are other countries reacting? Deliveries have already begun in some European countries. Authorities took differing approaches on whether to restrict use of the single-shot vaccine with Belgium and France saying they would go ahead, while Sweden, Greece and Italy put them on hold. France is sticking to its plan to give over-55s the Johnson & Johnson vaccine suspended in the US and South Africa over rare blood clots, a government spokesman said Wednesday. Gabriel Attal also reaffirmed the government's confidence in the AstraZeneca jab as an "essential tool" in the fight against Covid-19, hours after Denmark said it was stopping its use, also over rare incidents of clots in people who received the vaccine. France has already been using the AstraZeneca jab among over-55s and had been planning to boost its campaign with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is similar to the AstraZeneca shot.
Over 1,000 test positive for COVID-19 at India religious festival
India|: New Delhi: Hundreds of people have tested positive for coronavirus in India at the site of the world’s biggest religious festival, officials said Wednesday, as huge crowds of mostly maskless Hindu devotees descended on the River Ganges. The virus was detected in more than 1,000 people in just 48 hours in the city of Haridwar, which lies along the holy river where the Kumbh Mela is being observed, officials said. A new wave of coronavirus infections is sweeping across India, with experts blaming massive religious events, packed political rallies in poll-bound states and crowded public places. The government on Wednesday postponed high school exams for 15 to 18-year-olds, which were to be held in May-June, amid the resurgence of the virus. Despite rising virus cases, pilgrims have gathered in huge numbers to take part in the holy celebration. On Monday and Tuesday, a huge crowd of worshippers were cheek by jowl as they packed the river’s banks to take a dip in the waters as part of a bathing ritual. “Our faith is the biggest thing for us. It is because of that strong belief that so many people have come here to take a dip in Ganga,” Siddharth Chakrapani, a member of one of the Kumbh Mela organising committees, told AFP. “They believe that Maa (mother) Ganga will save them from this pandemic.” Of some 50,000 samples taken from people in Haridwar, 408 tested positive on Monday and 594 on Tuesday, the Uttarakhand state government said. The latest figures came as Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, tweeted on Wednesday that he had tested positive for Covid-19. India overtook Brazil this week to become the country with the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. The vast nation of 1.3 billion people on Wednesday reported more than 184,000 infections in the past 24 hours - the biggest single-day rise since the start of the pandemic - to take the total to almost 13.9 million cases. India’s daily death toll passed 1,000 on Wednesday for the first time since mid-October. Local authorities have imposed night curfews and clamped down on movement and activities. In India’s financial capital Mumbai, where the Maharashtra state government has imposed tougher lockdown measures, migrant workers at a train station said they were leaving for their homes in other states after the tighter restrictions were announced. “Since I don’t have any work, I am not able to pay my rent,” migrant worker Imraan Khan told AFP.
Noise pollution poses long-term risk to trees: Study
Europe|Offbeat|: Paris: Noise pollution poses a long-term risk to tree populations and plant diversity that may persist even after the sources of excess noise are removed, according to research published Wednesday. Manmade noise from construction, industry and the building of infrastructure such as roads and pipelines has increased dramatically since the middle of last century, and biologists are increasingly concerned about their impact on plants and animals. While previous research has documented the short-term impact noise has on tree populations as it scares off pollinators such as insects and animals, few studies have investigated the long-term effects. Researchers in the United States looked at tree populations in New Mexico that had been exposed to a high level of artificial noise for 15 years. They found 75 percent fewer pinyon pine seedlings in noisy sites than quiet ones. They then looked at plots where sources of noise had recently been added or removed and examined how populations recovered. The team hypothesised that populations of the trees - in this case juniper and pinyon seedlings - would recover as the jay birds that help disperse them would return to the plots once the noise had disappeared. Instead, they detected a long-term decline in seedling numbers as the jays refused to revisit the sites. “The effects of human noise pollution are growing into the structure of these woodland communities,” said Clinton Francis, biology professor at California Polytechnic State University and study co-author. “What we’re seeing is that removal of the noise doesn’t necessarily immediately result in a recovery of ecological function.” Jennifer Phillips, co-author of the research published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, said the findings showed how the impact of noise pollution could put pollinating animals off even after the noise is removed. “Animals like the scrub-jay that are sensitive to noise learn to avoid particular areas,” said Phillips. “It may take time for animals to rediscover these previously noisy areas, and we don’t know how long that might take.” As governments continue to be confronted by growing evidence of the damage to nature caused by urbanisation, Phillips told AFP that the impact of noise pollution should also be factored in to planning decisions. “I definitely think noise pollution, and other sensory pollutants like light, are under-accounted for in mitigation measures,” she said. Phillips said the study could help inform governments about noise pollution can indirectly impact biodiversity due to “mutualisms” or inter-linked effects between species.
Thailand reports daily record of over 1,300 new COVID-19 cases
Asia|: Bangkok: Thailand reported on Wednesday 1,335 new COVID-19 cases, the biggest daily rise since the start of the pandemic and the third record rise this week, as the Southeast Asian country struggles with a new wave of infections. The spike in cases comes as Thais celebrate the Songkran new year holidays and authorities have urged people to avoid unnecessary travel and reduce gatherings to help limit the outbreak, which includes the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 variant first identified in Britain. “The period after Songkran is a critical time to control the outbreak, if not we could see 10,000 to 20,000 cases per day,” senior health official, Opas Karnkawinpong, said, urging people to work from home for two weeks after the holidays. Thailand has up to now managed to keep case numbers relatively contained compared to many other countries, though its vaccine rollout has been relatively slow. The country’s total caseload is now at 35,910 and deaths at 97. Of the new infections reported on Wednesday, 351 were in Bangkok, the epicentre of the third wave of cases. No new deaths were reported. The latest outbreak has raised concerns about strains on the healthcare system. All positive cases have to be admitted into hospital under Thai rules, with 7,491 patients currently being treated. Thailand had received another one million doses of China’s Sinovac vaccine, of which 600,000 doses will be used to inoculate all frontline medical workers this month, Opas said. The country so far has received two million Sinovac doses and 117,300 shots from AstraZeneca. Up to now, 579,305 doses have been administered, of those 73,561 were the second dose, Opas said, describing Thailand’s vaccine drive as “on track.” Thailand’s has vaccinated less than 0.4% of its population, trailing neighbours like Malaysia with 1.5% and 14.6% in Singapore, according to a Reuters estimate. Authorities have defended the performance saying it was suitable for the country. Thailand’s main vaccination drive is expected to start in June, using locally-produced AstraZeneca shots with the aim of inoculating half of its adult population by the end of the year.
UK to follow US pullout from Afghanistan: Report
Europe|: London: Britain is preparing to follow the United States in pulling its troops out of Afghanistan by September, according to a report Wednesday that was not denied by the government. “We are working closely with the US, NATO allies and partners to support a secure and stable Afghanistan,” a government spokesman told AFP in response to the report by The Times newspaper. “Any change to our security presence will be made in agreement with allies and after consultation with our partners.” President Joe Biden plans to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan before this year’s 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, finally ending America’s longest war despite mounting fears of a Taliban victory, according to US officials. The Times said that Britain would follow suit in withdrawing its roughly 750 troops, citing sources as saying “they would struggle without American support because of a reliance on US bases and infrastructure”. At its peak, the UK troop deployment in Afghanistan numbered nearly 10,000, but is now largely confined to security duties in the capital Kabul. Britain has also drawn up plans to hand over control to the Afghan government of a military academy in Kabul dubbed “Sandhurst in the Sand”, The Times said.
Pakistan’s paramilitary forces deployed after 4 killed in violent protests
Pakistan|: Islamabad: At least four people, including two police officers, have been killed and over 100 injured in fierce clashes between police and protesting Islamists in major cities of Pakistan as protestors demanded action against France’s what they call “anti-Islamic act”. The government decided to deploy the military troops (rangers) in different cities of Punjab including Lahore, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala and Bahawalpur to maintain law and order situation as the protest entered the third day amid the worsening pandemic situation and beginning of Ramadan. Prime Minister Imran Khan and key ministers have made it clear that the government would not bow to any pressure tactics by the protestors and no one would be allowed to take the law into their own hands. “Everyone has a right to protest and we are ready to hold talks” with the religious party but would not succumb to pressure from any group, federal minister Fawad Chaudhry said. What sparked the protests? Protests erupted across major cities in Pakistan on April 12 after far-right religious party Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) chief Saad Hussain Rizvi was detained by security forces in Lahore for threatening countrywide protests if the government did not expel the French ambassador over depictions of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) in France. Rizvi’s detention sparked violent rallies as protestors blocked roads and highways in several cities, partly paralysing commercial activities in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. Police officers killed Over 300 policemen in Punjab, including 97 in Lahore, have been injured, many of them seriously. Two police constables Mohammed Afzal and Ali Imran were killed in the clashes after the violent protesters attacked with clubs and firearms. The use of firearms by protestors was described as a “dangerous sign of violent agitation” by law enforcement agencies as four policemen were shot and injured in Lahore and at least two in Faisalabad. Expressing serious concerns over the use of arms, Lahore DIG (operations) Sajid Kiani told the media that “TLP armed men opened straight fire on the police and our four constables were injured.” Over 1,400 activists and protestors have been arrested from all over the province, according to the police. What are the protestors demanding? The TLP supporters led an anti-France protest in Islamabad last November, blocking highways and main entry and exit routes. The group called off protests last year after reaching an agreement with the government to expel the French envoy following the discussion in the parliament before April 20. The government’s move to arrest the TLP chief to assuage the anger of the hardline group ahead of planned demonstrations, however, backfired as thousands of protestors took to the streets mostly in Punjab following Rizvi’s arrest and vowed to continue protest “until the French envoy is deported.”
India: CBSE Class 10 board exams cancelled
India|Education|: Dubai: India's Ministry of Education announced on Wednesday that the CBSE exams for Class 10th have been cancelled and 12th have been postponed. Results of Class 10th will be prepared on the basis of an objective criterion to be developed by the Board. Class 12th exams will be held later, the situation will be reviewed on 1st June by the Board. More to follow.
Viral dance turns spotlight on Kerala’s health feats, strikes at hatred
India|: Thiruvananthapuram: During this week when Keralites celebrate Vishu, the first day of the astronomical year with prayers for good health and prosperity, a viral video by two medical students of the Government Medical College, Thrissur has turned the spotlight on two aspects of Kerala: Its remarkable achievements on the health front, and a creeping rise in religious hatred. The two students featured in the dance number, Naveen K Razaq and Janaki M Omkumar, are part of the dance group in their college. The duo may hardly have imagined their video going viral, but it has helped highlight Kerala’s stature in public health as well as the need to nip hatred in the bud. Well above India average On practically every aspect on the health index, Kerala towers over the India average. In maternal mortality, India has a rate of 113 female deaths for every 100,000 live births while it is only 43 in Kerala. And on infant mortality, Kerala’s death of only 7 infants per 1,000 births is far superior to the Indian average of 32 deaths. Kerala also stands apart in India in the matter of professional medical attention at the time of delivery. Across India, 7.8 per cent of births happen without the presence of a qualified medical professional while it is only 0.1 per cent in Kerala. In other words, 99.9 per cent of deliveries in Kerala happen in the presence of qualified medical professionals. Not an overnight feat Historian and social scientist Dr P.K. Michael Tharakan says Kerala’s health stature in modern times is owed to several factors including the early success that the region of Kerala had in countering epidemics, right from the time of its monarchs, particularly in southern Kerala. “There was also a demand from the people for investment in this area,” says Tharakan. He feels another major factor is the role played by socio-religious leaders like Sree Narayana Guru, Chattambi Swamikal, Vakkom Moulavi, Nidheerikkal Mani Kathanar and Ayyankali whose focus on education and social uplift of the people rubbed off on the health sector as well. Stark COVID-19 stats Kerala’s ability to tackle epidemics was proved recently when it managed to contain an outbreak of the dreaded Nipah virus in 2018, and it is currently demonstrating how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 related deaths in Kerala are far fewer than in many other Indian states, even when taken as a proportion of their total populations. Maharashtra, for example, has lost nearly 58,000 lives to the pandemic and Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have lost nearly 13,000 lives each. Kerala, in contrast has lost only about 4,800 lives as of this week. Kerala’s COVID-19 deaths compare even more favourably with the numbers of the United States. The US has a population roughly ten times that of Kerala, but it has lost a whopping 570,000 lives in the pandemic. Focus on hatred Like in the rest of India in recent years, Kerala too has been witnessing a rise in religious hatred, visible mostly in social media posts. In that context, it was no surprise that the medical students’ video attracted some adverse comments, pointing out that the male dancer was Muslim. But those comments only prompted Keralites in large numbers to pledge their support to the medical students, taking the video’s views to a whopping 9 million. “Something to be proud about. Nine million views to reject and defeat the disease of the times,” one of Kerala’s tourism pioneers Jose Dominic told Gulf News about the hate attack on the video and the refreshing response of Keralites to it. Global presence Kerala’s strengths in the health sector have long been acknowledged globally, primarily through the thousands of medical professionals from the state employed around the world, from Germany and the US to the UK and Australia. Last week, Italy honoured a Kerala nun, Sr Teresa Vettath, for her outstanding service during the nation’s COVID-19 pandemic last year, by naming a road in Rome after her.
Yogi Adityanath tests positive for COVID-19
India|: Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh: Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Delhi Transport Minister Kailash Gahlot tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday. "I got tested for COVID-19 after showing some symptoms. The report is positive and I am in self-isolation and following all medical instructions. I am doing my work virtually. All the functions of the state government are running normally. Whoever came in my contact, please get their COVID test done," Adityanath tweeted in Hindi. The Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister on Tuesday went into self-isolation after coming into contact with some officials who tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, Gahlot tweeted: "I have tested positive for COVID-19 today. I have home isolated myself. All those who came in contact with me recently please take necessary precautions." Uttar Pradesh reported 18,021 new COVID-19 cases and 85 deaths on Tuesday.
12 missing off US Gulf Coast after ship capsizes
Americas|: Washington: A dozen people were missing at sea off the US state of Louisiana on Wednesday after a commercial ship capsized in the Gulf of Mexico, sparking a rescue operation that saved six others. The United States Coastguard and a fleet of volunteers were deployed to search for the 18 crew on board after the vessel capsized in a storm near Port Fourchon, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of New Orleans. The ship was a 129-foot (39.3 meters) lift vessel, the coastguard said, adding that the search for the remaining crew was ongoing. "We're still looking for others right now," Petty Officer Jonathan Lally, a spokesman for the coastguard, told The Washington Post early on Wednesday. The operation came as an unexpectedly strong storm hit the area, creating dangerous conditions for boats in the Gulf. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported gusts up to 75 miles per hour (120 kilometers per hour) on Louisiana's southern coast, according to local media.
India’s new COVID-19 infections hit record as Hindu devotees immerse in Ganges
India|: Haridwar / Ahmedabad: India’s new coronavirus infections hit a record on Wednesday, as crowds of pilgrims gathered for a religious festival despite oxygen shortages and strict curbs in other areas. The country reported 184,372 cases in the last 24 hours, health ministry data showed, taking total infections to 13.9 million. Deaths rose by 1,027, to a toll of 172,085. Still, hundreds of thousands of devout Hindus gathered to bathe in the Ganges river on Wednesday, the third key day of the weeks-long Kumbh Mela - or pitcher festival. Sanjay Gunjyal, the inspector general of police at the festival, said around 650,000 people had bathed on Wednesday morning. “People are being fined for not following social distancing in non crowded ghats (bathing areas), but it is very hard to fine people in the main ghats, which are very crowded,” he said. There was little evidence of social distancing or mask-wearing, according to a Reuters witness. More than a thousand cases have been reported in Haridwar district in the last two days, according to government data. From reporting less than 10,000 cases per day earlier this year, India has been the world’s worst-hit country since April 2 by new daily cases, with the government blaming a widespread failure to heed curbs on movement and social interaction. India’s richest state Maharashtra, the epicentre of the national second wave and which accounts for about a quarter of the country’s cases, is due to impose stringent restrictions from Wednesday to try to contain the spread. Elsewhere, overstretched private hospitals are turning patients away, placing an increasing burden on government facilities. In the western state of Gujarat, local media showed a long queue of ambulances waiting outside Ahmedabad Civil Hospital, with some patients being treated there while they waited. A hospital source, who declined to be named as he is not authorised to speak publicly, said this was because a lot of private hospitals were short of oxygen and were sending their patients to the public hospital.
Why Indian jumping ants shrink their brains
India|Offbeat|: The Indian jumping ant, Harpegnathos saltator, has many talents. This inch-long arthropod, found in flood plains across India, has a 4-inch vertical leap and the ability to take down prey nearly twice its size. If that wasn't enough, these amazing ants can also adjust the size of their own brains. In a study, published Wednesday in the journal 'Proceedings of the Royal Society B', scientists found that Indian jumping ants can shrink their brains by nearly 20 per cent and unshrink them in a matter of weeks. Although other insects, including honeybees, have been known to possess the ability to increase their brain size, the Indian jumping ant is the first insect known to be capable of both increases and decreases in brain size. The researchers behind the study say that females of the ant species use this ability to prepare their bodies for reproduction. Like most ant colonies, those of Indian jumping ants consist of a queen, males for reproduction and an all-female worker class. The queen holds the most coveted position in the colony. Not only do queens get waited on hand and foot by worker ants, but they also live more than five times longer. And in a typical colony, the queen is the only female that is allowed to have offspring. For most species of ant, queens are born, not made. However, Indian jumping ants are a species that allow worker ants to compete for a chance to become royalty. The gamergates When a queen Indian jumping ant dies, about 70 per cent of the females in her colony enter a battle royale-style tournament that lasts up to 40 days where competitors beat one another with their antennae until a group of five to 10 victors emerges. These victors get to spend the rest of their days doing nothing but pumping out babies. As soon as the tournament begins, hormones drive the competitors to undergo an intense physiological transformation that turns them into reproductive queenlike ants, called gamergates. Although worker ants and gamergates are similar in size, their internal anatomy is vastly different. "If you look inside their bodies, you can see the huge transformations that they undergo," said Clint Penick, assistant professor of biology at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and lead author of the new study. Penick and his colleagues compared the internal anatomy of workers and gamergates and found that becoming a gamergate not only caused worker ants' ovaries to balloon to five times their normal size, but it also caused their brains to shrink by roughly 20 per cent. The researchers then used laser-assisted imaging technology to study the brains of gamergates and found that, during their transformations, their optical lobes experienced the greatest degree of shrinkage. Penick attributes this to the fact that gamergates don't need good eyesight in their underground nests. "They live in complete darkness, so there's no reason for them to maintain the ability to process visual signals," Penick said. Workers that transformed into gamergates also experienced significant shrinkage of their central brain. Penick believes this is because the gamergates don't have to perform cognitively difficult tasks, such as finding food and defending the nest from predators. 'Egg-laying machines' "Worker ants need a large brain to deal with these cognitive tasks, but gamergates don't need to think that much," he said. "Once they win the tournament, they become little more than egg-laying machines." The researchers believe that these ants shrink their brains to conserve energy, a behavior also observed in Etruscan shrews, a tiny mammal that sheds brain size in winter to keep other parts of its body warm. It then regrows its noodle in the spring. "The brain is a costly organ to operate," said James Traniello, a professor of biology at Boston University who was not involved with the study. "It demands a lot of energy." Traniello, who studies brain evolution in other ant species, believes that when female Indian jumping ants transform into gamergates, most of the energy that was once spent on the brain gets diverted to parts of the body that are responsible for reproduction. To see if this reallocation of resources was reversible, Penick and his colleagues collected several newly transformed gamergates and isolated them from their colonies. "I thought they would probably just die, but within a couple of days they completely switched back," Penick said. "It was pretty amazing to see that they were able to completely re-expand their brains to the exact same size that they were before." The researchers suspect that the ability to switch between worker and gamergate likely evolved as a means of ensuring that those that fail in their bids to be queen can go back to their previous role of maintaining the colony. "This species shows an incredible amount of plasticity, both at the larval stage and the adult stage," Penick said. "And for that reason, they can be a model for understanding things like epigenetics and the control of plasticity in organisms, even scaling up to humans."
US: FBI says will remove backdoors from hacked Microsoft servers
Americas|: San Francisco: The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has launched a mega operation to copy and remove malicious web shells from hundreds of vulnerable computers in the US that were running on-premises versions of Microsoft Exchange Server software used to provide enterprise-level email service. A court in Houston has authorised an FBI operation to "copy and remove" backdoors from hundreds of Microsoft Exchange email servers that have been compromised by nation-state hackers, including from China. "Today's court-authorised removal of the malicious web shells demonstrates the Department's commitment to disrupt hacking activity using all of our legal tools, not just prosecutions," Assistant Attorney General John C. Demers for the Justice Department's National Security Division said in a statement on Tuesday. Earlier reports have claimed that five different hacking groups (including China-backed hacking group called 'Hafnium') are exploiting vulnerabilities in the business email servers of Microsoft. Through January and February this year, certain hacking groups exploited zero-day vulnerabilities in Microsoft Exchange Server software to access email accounts and place web shells for continued access. Web shells are pieces of code or scripts that enable remote administration. Other hacking groups followed suit starting in early March after the vulnerability and patch were publicised. Many infected system owners successfully removed the web shells from thousands of computers. Others appeared unable to do so, and hundreds of such web shells persisted unmitigated. "This operation removed one early hacking group's remaining web shells which could have been used to maintain and escalate persistent, unauthorised access to US networks," the FBI informed. The FBI conducted the removal by issuing a command through the web shell to the server, which was designed to cause the server to delete only the web shell (identified by its unique file path). Throughout March, Microsoft and other industry partners released detection tools, patches and other information to assist victim entities in identifying and mitigating the cyber incident. Despite these efforts, by the end of March, hundreds of web shells remained on certain US-based computers running Microsoft Exchange Server software.
Akhilesh Yadav tests positive for COVID-19
India|: Former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav has tested positive for COVID-19. Taking it to Twitter on Wednesday, Yadav said he is currently under home isolation and urged those who came in contact with him in the last few days to get themselves checked for COVID-19. "My reports for COVID-19 have come positive today. I have isolated myself and treatment has started at home. All the people who have come in contact with me in the last few days please get tested. They are also requested to remain in isolation for a few days," Yadav tweeted. Earlier on Tuesday, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath went into self-isolation after coming into contact with a few officials who tested positive for COVID-19. The Uttar Pradesh government has already announced restrictions on gatherings of five or more people in religious places for effective control of the Covid-19 pandemic during Navratri and Ramzan.
US:Report on Capitol Hill riot criticises police preparation, response
Americas|: Washington: Capitol Police had more intelligence than was previously known ahead of the January 6 riot at Congress but were instructed not to use their most aggressive tactics to repel the mob, a report cited late Tuesday by US media said. The scathing 104-page report by the Capitol Police's internal inspector general, Michael Bolton, concluded that officers did not prepare for or respond adequately to the assault, The New Times and CNN reported. A congressional hearing on the report is scheduled for Thursday. Capitol Police failed to prepare properly even though they had intelligence warnings that Trump supporters who believed his claims that the November election was stolen from him posed a threat, the report states. Police were told to refrain from using their most aggressive crowd control tools such as stun grenades, it said. Three days before the assault the Capitol Police received an intelligence assessment warning of violence by Trump supporters. "Unlike previous postelection protests, the targets of the pro-Trump supporters are not necessarily the counter protesters as they were previously, but rather Congress itself is the target on the 6th," this threat assessment said, according to the Times. "Stop the Steal's propensity to attract white supremacists, militia members, and others who actively promote violence may lead to a significantly dangerous situation for law enforcement and the general public alike," it added. But a day before the riot the agency wrote in a plan for the protest that there were "no specific known threats related to the joint session of Congress" at which lawmakers were to formally certify Joe Biden's victory over Trump. On orders from supervisors, the police unit that specializes in handling large groups of protesters was not allowed to use some of its most powerful tools and techniques against the crowd, the report is quoted as saying. "Heavier, less-lethal weapons," including stun grenades, "were not used that day because of orders from leadership," Bolton wrote. Some of the shields that officers used shattered upon impact because they had not been stored under the right temperature. And some shields could not be used because there were locked on a bus, the report says.
US: Biden invited to address Congress on April 28
Americas|: Washington: US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday invited President Joe Biden to address a joint session of Congress on April 28. “I am writing to invite you to address a Joint Session of Congress on Wednesday, April 28, to share your vision for addressing the challenges and opportunities of this historic moment,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to Biden that was released by her office. The speech will give Biden an opportunity to give a sales pitch to millions of viewers for his $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal, which is the subject of a partisan debate in Congress. It comes as he faces several daunting challenges, both domestic and international, such as his battle to persuade more Americans to take the coronavirus vaccine, a growing number of migrants crossing the border with Mexico and confrontations with Russia over Ukraine, China over Taiwan and Iran over its nuclear program. In February, Pelosi said she would invite Biden to deliver the speech after Congress passed his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. Biden signed the legislation on March 11.
Moderna says protection from COVID-19 vaccine still strong after 6 months
Americas|: New York: Moderna Inc said on Tuesday that its COVID-19 vaccine still showed strong protection against the illness six months after people received their second shot, with efficacy of more than 90 per cent against all cases and 95 per cent against severe cases. The vaccine maker, which will be updating investors on the progress of its vaccines at an event on Wednesday, said the six-month follow-up of its original late-stage study of the vaccine showed that vaccine efficacy remained consistent with its previous updates. The company has also started testing new versions of the vaccine that target a concerning new variant of the coronavirus, which was first identified in South Africa and is known as B.1.351. It said both versions of the vaccine that it is testing, including a multivalent vaccine that combines the newly designed vaccine with the previous one, increased neutralizing antibody titers against variants of concerns in mice, with the multivalent providing the broadest level of immunity. The company in March began testing three approaches to boosting the vaccine in order to protect against new variants. Moderna’s vaccine is authorized or approved for use in more than 40 countries. It uses messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which contains instructions for human cells to make proteins that mimic part of the coronavirus. The instructions spur the immune system into action, turning the body into a virus-zapping vaccine factory. No actual virus is contained in the vaccines. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company said that as of Monday it has delivered about 132 million doses globally, including 117 million doses for the United States. The company said it is on track to supply the nation with 300 million doses of the vaccine by the end of July. Moderna said its supply chain outside the United States was established about a quarter behind the US supply chain and continues to ramp up. The company said its average US selling price in the first quarter was around $15.40 per dose excluding a roughly $1 billion payment from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. Outside the United States, prices ranged from $22 to $37 per dose, it said.