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Science & Technology - August 2021

The shipment arrived just a few days ahead of the first of three spacewalks

A space station astronaut is celebrating her 50th birthday with the coolest present ever — a supply ship bearing ice cream and other treats. SpaceX's latest cargo delivery showed up on August 30 at the International Space Station after a day in transit. Overseeing the automated docking was NASA astronaut Megan McArthur.

“No one's ever sent me a spaceship for my birthday before. I appreciate it,” she radioed after the capsule arrived. Launched on August 29 from NASA's Kennedy Space Center, the capsule contains lemons, cherry tomatoes, avocados and ice cream for McArthur and her six crewmates, along with a couple tons of research and other gear. The shipment arrived just a few days ahead of the first of three spacewalks.

Starting September 3, the two Russians on board will perform back-to-back spacewalks to outfit a new laboratory that arrived in July.

Then, a Japanese-French spacewalking duo will venture out September 12 to install a bracket for new solar panels due to arrive next year. That NASA-directed spacewalk should have occurred last week, but was postponed after U.S. spacewalker, Mark Vande Hei, suffered a pinched nerve in his neck. Station managers opted to replace him with French astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

The delivery is the company’s 23rd for NASA in just under a decade.

A SpaceX shipment of ants, avocados and a human-sized robotic arm rocketed toward the International Space Station on Sunday.

The delivery — due to arrive Monday — is the company’s 23rd for NASA in just under a decade.

A recycled Falcon rocket blasted into the predawn sky from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. After hoisting the Dragon capsule, the first-stage booster landed upright on SpaceX’s newest ocean platform, named “A Shortfall of Gravitas.” SpaceX founder Elon Musk continued his tradition of naming the booster-recovery vessels in tribute to the late science fiction writer Iain Banks and his Culture series.

The Dragon is carrying more than 4,800 pounds (2,170 kilograms) of supplies and experiments, and fresh food including avocados, lemons and even ice cream for the space station’s seven astronauts.

The Girl Scouts are sending up ants, brine shrimp and plants as test subjects, while University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists are flying up seeds from mouse-ear cress, a small flowering weed used in genetic research. Samples of concrete, solar cells and other materials also will be subjected to weightlessness.

A Japanese start-up company’s experimental robotic arm, meanwhile, will attempt to screw items together in its orbital debut and perform other mundane chores normally done by astronauts. The first tests will be done inside the space station. Future models of Gitai Inc.'s robot will venture out into the vacuum of space to practice satellite and other repair jobs, said chief technology officer Toyotaka Kozuki.

As early as 2025, a squad of these arms could help build lunar bases and mine the moon for precious resources, he added.

SpaceX had to leave some experiments behind because of delays resulting from COVID-19.

It was the second launch attempt; Saturday’s try was foiled by stormy weather.

NASA turned to SpaceX and other U.S. companies to deliver cargo and crews to the space station, once the space shuttle program ended in 2011.

Moscow is also helping with the design of view ports and life support systems

In March this year, four Indian Air Force (IAF) officers who completed a year-long training in the Russian Space Academy as part of India’s Gaganyaan human space flight programme. They will soon return to Russia for getting their space suits made as per individual specifications.

“Having completed their training, they returned home… We also expect our astronauts to return to Russia for very specific tasks. The space suits are being stitched in Russia and they will be coming here to Moscow to undertake tailoring measurements,” Ambassador of India to Russia D.B. Venkatesh Varma told The Hindu. So this will be a happy occasion when we will see our astronauts back in Moscow though for a brief time, he stated.

Roscosmos said last August that as part of the training, at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center, the Indian pilots underwent general space training and systems training of the Soyuz MS crewed spacecraft and also had Russian language lessons.

The pilots were also trained on crew actions in the event of an abnormal descent module landing — in wooded and marshy areas in winter (completed in February 2020), on the water surface (completed in June 2020) and in the steppe in summer (completed in July 2020). They were also trained to prepare for sustaining spaceflight factors, such as G-force, hypoxia and pressure drop, Roscosmos said.

In addition to the training, Russia is also assisting the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in other way. “India-Russia Cooperation in the space field, on Gaganyaan would continue in certain other aspects. Russia is helping us with the design of view ports and life support systems,” Mr. Varma said.

Stating that space and nuclear power continue to be two important pillars of our cooperation between India and Russia, the envoy said that when Indian astronauts, Gagannauts as they are called, travel into space, they will be on board an Indian spacecraft, largely using Indian technology and Indian training. “They will fly on a space voyage uplifted by the good wishes and prayers of millions of our people but also taken forward on the wings of Indo-Russian friendship,” he added.

According to the portal, space suits serve as “self-contained spaceships that protect astronauts from extreme temperatures, micrometeoroids and the nearly pure vacuum of space for hours at a time, so that they can take a stroll outside the confines of their spacecraft or enjoy a brisk walk on the Moon.”

However, space suits shouldn’t be confused with the pressure suits worn by astronauts, test pilots and others during launch and landing, it stated.

ISRO roadmap

Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement in August 2018 that an Indian will go to space by 2022 coinciding with 75 years of Independence, ISRO had outlined a roadmap to put a three-person crew in a low earth orbit by an indigenous GSLV Mk-III launch vehicle.

The space suits are being made by Russian research, development and production enterprise Zvezda under the contract of Glavkosmos, a subsidiary of Russian space corporation Roscosmos, with the Human Spaceflight Centre (HSC) of ISRO. “On September 3, Indian cosmonauts who have been training for a spaceflight in Russia under the contract of Glavkosmos, visited Zvezda, where their anthropometric parameters were measured for the subsequent production of spacesuits. The contract also provides for the production of individual seats and custom-made couch liners,” CEO of Glavkosmos Dmitry Loskutov said last September.

The contract for the production and delivery of individual equipment kits for Indian cosmonauts was signed by HSC and Glavkosmos on March 11, 2020 and the four Indian cosmonauts have been training in Russia since February 10, 2020.

Glavkosmos had also helped ISRO in selecting the four IAF pilots as per an agreement signed on June 27, 2019, for the selection support, medical examination and space training of Indian astronauts. The two sides had also signed an agreement to assess the possibility of using Russian flight equipment in life support systems and providing thermal regime for the manned spacecraft Gaganyaan.

However, the overall programme has been slightly delayed due to COVID-19 pandemic. ISRO Chairman K. Sivan recently confirmed that the launch of the first unmanned mission planned for this December will be delayed due to the COVID-19 lockdown and related disruptions in delivery of hardware. The unmanned missions will shift to next year, he had stated.

ISRO has, in the past, stated that it would conduct two unmanned missions to validate the entire cycle of human space flight before the actual mission. In addition to Russia, France and the U.S. are also assisting India India in the human flight programme.

Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma (Retd.) remains the only Indian to have travelled into space on April 3, 1984 aboard a Soyuz T-11 as part of the Soviet Interkosmos programme.

The Delta variant will spread steadily through the population in some States without cases rising at the speed and intensity of the second wave

NITI Aayog’s penchant for projecting unrealistic trends of daily COVID-19 cases without sharing the basis on which such projections are made continues.

On April 24 last year, at the daily Health Ministry briefing, NITI Aayog member Dr. V.K. Paul presented a chart predicting the trend of COVID-19 cases in India. With over 1,500 daily new infections, it showed the cases peaking on May 3, 2020 and then dropping to 1,000 cases by May 12 and down to zero by May 16, 2020. In reality, on May 16, India saw 4,987 cases, the highest single-day spike. In the fourth week of May last year, Dr. Paul clarified that no one had ever said that the number of cases would go down to zero on a particular date. He called it a “misunderstanding”.

Daily cases in September

The reasons why India may not see 4-5 lakh daily cases in September

  • All States, except Kerala are witnessing a steady decline in daily cases since the second wave peaked in May
  • For four-five lakh cases a day in September, the rise in daily cases should begin very soon and grow exponentially in three-four weeks
  • On an average, over 67% of the population nationally have antibodies against the virus, and vaccination pace is increasing
  • In India, the second wave the began in February-end has been driven primarily by the higly transmissable Delta variant
  • he Delta variant is likely to spread steadily through the population and not furiously as seen in April/May
  • Breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people have been recorded in India too but at a low level
  • The latest INSACOG’s genomic sequences report does not indicate the presence of a new, extremely transmissble variant in India

Now, when the daily fresh cases are under 30,000 since it peaked at over 4.14 lakh cases on May 6 this year, Dr. Paul has come up with a dire warning that India might witness a staggering four to five lakh cases a day next month.

With all States except Kerala witnessing a steady decline in daily cases, it is unrealistic to expect daily fresh cases to reach such high numbers in a day in September.

For it to come true, the daily cases should very soon begin to increase sharply and grow at an exponential rate all in a matter of three-four weeks.

“This strikes me as near-impossible. Delhi, for example, is seeing a record low number of cases in a situation where crowds have certainly increased with respect to a month ago. The situation is the same in all major cities of India,” says Dr. Gautam Menon, Professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University and co-author of COVID-19 modelling studies.

Existing protection

The fourth sero survey of ICMR found that on an average over 67% of the population nationally have antibodies against the virus. Despite the many limitations of the sero survey, it cannot be denied that a sizeable population have some form of protection against the virus unlike the case early this year.

Also, the vaccination coverage has been increasing with every passing day — about 35% have received one dose and less than 10.5% are fully vaccinated as of August 26. Therefore, it appears very unrealistic that the daily cases would not just reach the peak of the second wave but also exceed it to reach five lakhs a day.

Also read | Third wave will depend on vaccine coverage and COVID-19 appropriate behaviour: Experts

Unlike the U.S., the U.K. and other countries where it is the third or fourth wave that is being caused by the Delta variant, in India it is the second wave that is driven primarily by the Delta variant. Despite unrestricted movement of people in almost all parts of the country and almost all businesses being open, the daily new cases have not witnessed any surge in India since the second wave peaked in early May.

Different situation

“Given that the bulk of infections in the second wave came from the Delta variant, India's present situation is substantially different to that in other countries. Serosurveys suggest that more than 67% of Indians have antibodies to SARS-CoV-2. Since the larger fraction of them would have been infected recently with the Delta variant, it seems inescapable that most Indians are already protected, either by infection or by vaccination, against the disease,” Dr. Menon says.

But is there a possibility that the Delta variant might again cause a huge number of cases each day despite daily new cases steadily declining since it peaked in early May? “It is more likely that the Delta variant will spread steadily through the population at least in some States, picking those who have not encountered the virus yet, but without cases rising at the speed and intensity of the second wave. We are already seeing this in Kerala where serosurveys suggest an overall lower seroprevalence,” says Dr. Menon.

Experts seek faster pace of COVID-19 vaccination

But Dr. Giridhara Babu, epidemiologist at the Public Health Foundation of India, Bengaluru, thinks otherwise. “The Delta variant can spread faster and result in a high number of cases, especially in areas that had lower seroprevalence and poor vaccination coverage. We cannot rule out a high number,” he cautions.

No evidence

It is indeed possible for India to witness a large number of daily cases in September if a variant that is even more transmissible than the Delta variant has already emerged. According to Dr. Babu that doesn’t appear to be the case. “According to the latest INSACOG's genomic sequences report of August 16, there is no supporting evidence for the emergence of extremely transmissive variants other than the Delta variant,” he says.

Can some States serve as a bellwether for the third wave?

Another scenario where a huge number of daily cases can arise is when breakthrough infections in the fully vaccinated and reinfections in the unvaccinated become rampant. For instance, about 25% of infections among Los Angeles County, California residents occurred in fully vaccinated residents from May through July 25; over 71% were in unvaccinated persons. “On July 25, infection and hospitalisation rates among unvaccinated persons were 4.9 and 29.2 times, respectively, those in fully vaccinated persons,” the report said. The New York Times reported that breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people accounted for at least one in five new cases in six States in the U.S..

Breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people have been recorded in India too but at a low level. But two doses of the vaccine still confer reasonable protection against symptomatic disease and are highly protective against severe disease and death.

“That a substantial fraction of the population might turn susceptible again in the month of September seems unlikely. That protection against disease should evaporate altogether, even more so,” Dr. Menon says.

Centre prepared to tackle possible third wave of COVID-19, says Anurag Thakur

So is the dire warning a ploy to ensure that people don't lower their guards but follow COVID-appropriate behaviour so India does not once again experience the terrible situation in terms of new cases, hospitals turning away patients due to lack of beds, and oxygen shortage? “Models don't always predict the exact number of cases for the future wave. Assuming the worst-case situation and preparing for it is the best thing a planning agency can do. If anything, NITI Aayog should be complimented for this effort,” says Dr. Babu defending the agency. But Dr. Menon counters the alarmist projection saying: “I fully understand the need for preparation, but preparing for an unrealistic scenario diverts resources that could be better spent elsewhere.”

In all probability, with a large proportion of the population possessing antibodies against the virus either through natural infection and/or vaccination, it is reasonable to expect a milder wave nationally, especially if there is good adherence to COVID-appropriate behaviour and if no new highly contagious variant arises. There is a possibility that places where the earlier infections were few and most people are unvaccinated would record more cases.

System’s stability, performance monitored continuously for over eight months

Over the past year, researchers at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) have been working on solutions to address the oxygen shortage due to COVID-19. Two key efforts in this direction have been the development of oxygen generation systems and oxygen concentrators.

The oxygen concentrator is an indigenous design developed by IISc researchers led by Praveen Ramamurthy, Professor in the Department of Materials Engineering. The group had already been working on oxygen concentrators since March 2020. A prototype capable of producing oxygen at more than 93% purity at five litres per minute (LPM) and 82% at 10 LPM was developed by August 2020 itself. The researchers then modified this prototype which now delivers more than 93% purity oxygen at 10 LPM within three minutes. The stability and performance of the system was monitored continuously for more than eight months. Clinical trials have been completed, and the system was found to perform on par with compressed oxygen cylinders.

Till date, the technology has been transferred to 24 companies, and about 35 units have been supplied to various hospitals. Recently, the Government of Karnataka issued a circular for the supply of two units each to 2,508 public health centres from the licensees, says a press release.

Another solution catering to needs of the hospitals is an oxygen generation system based on technology developed by an IISc team including researchers Arashdeep Singh and Anand M Shivapuji, and led by S Dasappa, Professor at the Centre for Sustainable Technologies. The process is based on a twin-bed swing adsorption system integrated with storage and discharge vessels, and various safety systems. In one of the variants, a cylinder-filing mechanism has also been incorporated using a boost pump. The oxygen produced fulfills the quality requirements prescribed by Indian Pharmacopeia and can be used in ICUs/CCUs/OTs and other clinical wards. Last month, the first unit based on this system was installed at the Pobbathi Medical Centre in Bengaluru.

On 15 August 2021, Prof Rangarajan, the Director of IISc, inaugurated an open-source design for a medical oxygen generation system with 50 LPM capacity. The system will be installed at St Mary’s Polyclinic in Lucknow. A unique feature of this system is the capability to fill about ten 47-litre cylinders at 200 bar pressure within 24 hours, apart from supplying oxygen to patient beds. Preparations are underway to ship the system to the Lucknow hospital.

IISc has also signed technology transfer agreements with four agencies from across the country for installing oxygen generation systems at various capacities (50 LPM-1000 LPM) to meet the requirements of hospitals.

BCG works well in some geographic locations and not so well in others

The centenary celebrations of the discovery of insulin have eclipsed another seminal event in the history of medicine that has had significant impact on human health - the first use of BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guerin), the vaccine against tuberculosis (TB) in humans.

TB is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium tuberculosis, belonging to the Mycobacteriaceae family consisting of about 200 members. Some of these cause diseases like TB and leprosy in humans and others infect a wide range of animals. Mycobacteria are also widely dispersed in the environment. In humans, TB most commonly affects the lungs (pulmonary TB), but it can also affect other organs (extra-pulmonary TB).

TB is a very ancient disease and has been documented to have existed in Egypt as early as 3000 BC. Sadly, unlike other historically dreaded diseases like smallpox, leprosy, plague and cholera that have been either eradicated or controlled to a large extent due to advances in science and technology, TB continues to be a major public health problem in the world. According to the WHO’s Global TB Report, 10 million people developed TB in 2019 with 1.4 million deaths. India accounts for 27% of these cases.

BCG was developed by two Frenchmen, Albert Calmette and Camille Guerin, by modifying a strain of Mycobacterium bovis (that causes TB in cattle) till it lost its capacity to cause disease while retaining its property to stimulate the immune system. It was first used in humans in 1921.

Sole vaccine

Currently, BCG is the only licensed vaccine available for the prevention of TB. It is the world’s most widely used vaccine with about 120 million doses every year and has an excellent safety record. In India, BCG was first introduced in a limited scale in 1948 and became a part of the National TB Control Programme in 1962.

One intriguing fact about BCG is that it works well in some geographic locations and not so well in others. Generally, the farther a country is from the equator, the higher is the efficacy. It has a high efficacy in the UK, Norway, Sweden and Denmark; and little or no efficacy in countries on or near the equator like India, Kenya and Malawi, where the burden of TB is higher. These regions also have a higher prevalence of environmental mycobacteria. It is believed that these may interfere with the protective effect against TB. However, in children, BCG provides strong protection against severe forms of TB. This protective effect appears to wane with age and is far more variable in adolescents and adults, ranging from 0–80%. A large clinical trial between 1968-1983, by the ICMR’s National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis (then called the Tuberculosis Research Centre) in Chengalpattu district of Tamil Nadu, indicated that BCG offered no protection against pulmonary TB in adults, and a low level of protection (27%) in children.

India is committed to eliminate TB as a public health problem by 2025. To achieve this goal, we would not only need better diagnostics and drugs but also more effective vaccines. Over the last ten years 14 new vaccines have been developed for TB and are in clinical trials. Of particular interest is a Phase 3 clinical trial by the ICMR, of two vaccines; a recombinant BCG called VPM 1002 and Mycobacterium indicus pranii (MIP). MIP was identified and developed into a vaccine in India. Results of this trial are eagerly awaited.

In addition to its primary use as a vaccine against TB, BCG also protects against respiratory and bacterial infections of the newborns, and other mycobacterial diseases like leprosy and Buruli’s ulcer. It is also used as an immunotherapy agent in cancer of the urinary bladder and malignant melanoma.

In progress

Interestingly, it has been observed that in some countries that have had BCG vaccination as a national policy, the burden of SARS CoV-2 morbidity and mortality was significantly less compared to countries which did not. Clinical trials to know if this is indeed true, are underway, including in India.

In these distressing times of Covid-19, it is interesting to compare development of vaccines for Covid-19 and TB. For Covid-19 in about 18 months,17 vaccines have received emergency use authorization in various countries, and 97 are in clinical trials. For TB, a single vaccine has been in use for the last 100 years and 14 new vaccines are in clinical trials. For R&D of Covid-19 vaccines, US$ 8.5 billion have been earmarked (Global Contributions to ACT- Accelerator, Vaccines category); for TB the amount is US$ 0.117 billion (Global Funding for TB Vaccine Research, 2019). If viewed in the backdrop of the deaths caused by these two diseases (Covid-19 - 1.7 million in 2020; TB - 1.4 million in 2019), one can see the stark inequity in investment in vaccine development.

While we commemorate the centenary of BCG vaccine use in humans, we need to acknowledge that more effective vaccines are needed to reach the targets of TB elimination. The experience and success of development of new vaccines for Covid-19 have shown that this is possible if TB gets similar political, financial and pharmaceutical support.

(Dr. M S Jawahar is Former Deputy Director, ICMR-NIRT, Chennai and Dr. Lalit Kant is a former Head, Division of Epidemiology & Communicable Diseases, ICMR)

What makes fish fins so strong yet flexible?

Peer into any fishbowl, and you'll see that pet goldfish and guppies have nimble fins. With a few flicks of these appendages, aquarium swimmers can turn in circles, dive deep down or even bob to the surface.

Researcher from the University of Colorado Boulder have uncovered (Science Robotics) the engineering secrets behind what makes fish fins so strong yet flexible. The insights could one day lead to new designs for robotic surgical tools or even airplane wings that change their shape with the push of a button. The fins are remarkable as they achieve feats of dexterity even though they don't contain a single muscle.

The fins are made of many stiff 'rays’ and each of the rays can be manipulated individually just like the fingers, but there are 20 or 30 of them in each fin.

They report that the key to fish fins may lie in their unique design. Each ray in a fin is made up of multiple segments of a hard material that stack on top of much softer collagen, making them the perfect balance between bouncy and stiff.

Each of the rays in a fin in Goldfish has a layered structure, a bit like a bakery éclair: The spikes include two layers of stiff and mineralized materials called hemitrichs that surround an inner layer of spongy collagen. But those layers of hemitrichs aren't solid. The engineer and his team decided to use computer simulations to examine the mechanical properties of fins. They discovered that those segments can make all the difference.

Scientists have discovered what is believed to be the world's northernmost landmass – a yet-to-be-named island north of Greenland that could soon be swallowed up by seawaters.

Researchers came upon the landmass on an expedition in July, and initially thought they had reached Oodaaq, up until now the northernmost island on the planet.

"We were informed that there had been an error on my GPS which had led us to believe that we were standing on Oodaaq Island," said the head of the mission, Morten Rasch from Copenhagen University's department of geosciences and natural resource management.

"In reality, we had discovered a new island further north, a discovery that just slightly expands the kingdom" of Denmark, he added.

Oodaaq is some 700 kilometres (435 miles) south of the North Pole, while the new island is 780 metres (2,560 feet) north of Oodaaq.

Copenhagen University said in a statement late Friday the "yet-to-be-named island is... the northernmost point of Greenland and one of the most northerly points of land on Earth."

But it is only 30 to 60 metres above sea level, and Rasch said it could be a "short-lived islet".

"No one knows how long it will remain. In principle, it could disappear as soon as a powerful new storm hits."

The autonomous Danish territory of Greenland has grabbed headlines in recent years, most notably in 2019 when former U.S. president Donald Trump said he wanted to buy the Arctic territory.

The proposal, described as "absurd" by the Danish government, caused a diplomatic kerfuffle, but also signalled renewed American interest in the region.

It has also been hard hit by climate change as warmer temperatures have melted its glaciers, causing alarming sea level rise.

The system performance met the test objectives and there was a close match with the pre-test predictions.

Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said it successfully conducted the first hot test of the System Demonstration Model (SDM) of the Gaganyaan Service Module Propulsion System for a duration of 450 seconds at the test facility of Propulsion Complex (IPRC), Mahendragiri, Tamil Nadu, on Saturday.

The system performance met the test objectives and there was a close match with the pre-test predictions, the Bengaluru-headquartered space agency said in a statement.

“Further, a series of hot tests are planned to simulate various mission conditions as well as off-nominal conditions,” it said.

The Service Module (SM) is part of the Gaganyaan Orbital module and is located below the crew module and remains connected to it until re-entry, ISRO explained.

The SM Propulsion System consists of a unified bipropellant system consisting of five numbers of 440 Newtons (N) thrust engines and 16 numbers of 100 N Reaction Control system (RCS) thrusters with MON-3 and MMH as Oxidizer and Fuel respectively.

"The SDM, consisting of five numbers of 440 N engines and eight numbers of 100 N thrusters, was realised to qualify the propulsion system performance in ground. A new test facility is established at IPRC, Mahendragiri for testing the SDM", the statement added.

A rare merging of three supermassive black holes has been spotted by a team of astrophysicists in India. They were observing the merging of two galaxies named NGC7733 and NGC 7734 in our celestial neighbourhood when they detected unusual emissions from the centre of the latter and a curious movement of a large bright clump within it, having a different velocity than that of NGC7733. Inferring that this was a separate galaxy, the scientists named it NGC7733N. There are supermassive blackholes, which are several million solar masses in size, at the centres of galaxies, and these are known as Active Galactic Nuclei. Since they “accrete“ matter, they often have a glow around them which can be observed using light spectroscopy.

All three merging black holes were part of galaxies in the Toucan constellation. They are quite far away when you think that our nearest galactic neighbour – the Andromeda galaxy is 2.5 million light years away. Yet the paper describes these as nearby galaxies. “In Astronomy everything is relative. When we study solar system we say Mercury is closer and Jupiter is far… Compared to our nearest neighbour Andromeda galaxy, the galaxies NGC7733, 7734 and 7733 N are quite far away, but compared to the size of universe they are nearby galaxies,” says Jyoti Yadav, a PhD student at Indian Institute of Astrophysics and the first author of the paper published as a letter in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The study used data from the Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (UVIT) onboard the first Indian space observatory ASTROSAT, the European integral field optical telescope called MUSE mounted on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile and infrared images from the optical telescope (IRSF) in South Africa.

In an email to The Hindu, Mousumi Das from Indian Institute of Astrophysics, an author of the paper says that they were studying the active galactic nuclei in the two massive barred spiral galaxies NGC7733 and NGC7734 and that the detection of the third was surprising. “It was a bit like buy two and get one free,” says Dr Das. “The PI of the project confirmed our suspicions using spectroscopic data from a European telescope called MUSE in Chile.”

The group observed these galaxies with a near infrared telescope in South Africa. “Then, later on, because they appeared interesting, we also observed them with the UVIT [onboard ASTROSAT]” says Dr Das. “We also found optical data in the MUSE archive. So, we did not have to do the optical spectroscopy.”

Final parsec

In a Press Information Bureau release, the team explains that if two galaxies collide, their black hole will also come closer by transferring the kinetic energy to the surrounding gas. The distance between the blackholes decreases with time until the separation is around a parsec (3.26 light-years). The two black holes are then unable to lose any further kinetic energy to get even closer and merge. This is known as the final parsec problem. The presence of a third black hole can solve this problem. “The two can come closer when another black hole or a star passes by and takes away some of their combined angular momentum,” explains Dr Das. Thus, the dual merging blackholes merge with each other in the presence of a third.

Many Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN, supermassive black hole at the centre of a galaxy) pairs have been detected in the past, but triple AGN are extremely rare, and only a handful has been detected before using X-ray observations. “Multiple accreting black holes [AGN] maybe more common in our universe and especially common in galaxy groups. So the growth of black holes may be driven by such mergers in groups,” she says. This is only the third detection of such a system.

“What is striking about this work is the use of several telescopes around the world (and one in space) to determine the presence of 3 AGN. In fact, this use of multiple telescopes and observing bands is essential to carry out good astronomical research. This also demonstrates how astrophysics is a truly collaborative science,” says Preeti Kharb  who is with National Centre for Radio Astrophysics - Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (NCRA-TIFR), Pune, who was not involved in this work.

In the beginning of the pandemic, when vaccines were still undergoing clinical trials, the goal was to quickly reach herd immunity through vaccination and natural infection. Herd immunity — where a large percentage of the population is infected or vaccinated so that virus spread in the population is significantly slowed or stopped — was seen as an endgame of the pandemic.

There have been instances in some countries where the virus spread has largely been under some kind of control at least for some duration. However, the emergence of highly contagious new variants, breakthrough infections even among the fully vaccinated and such people spreading the virus to others, and reinfections in the unvaccinated have made the race to reach the magical herd immunity threshold to successfully break the transmission chain and return to normal times look like chasing a mirage.

No magic number

“If herd immunity is viewed as a magic number where, if we achieve X percent infection or vaccination, life will get back to normal then that is not going to happen in near term. In other words, attaining high levels of population protection to slow virus spread is an end goal, but is not the endgame,” Dr. Gagandeep Kang, Professor of Microbiology at CMC Vellore says in an email to The Hindu.

Immunologist Dr. Satjajit Rath, formerly with the National Institute of Immunology, is even more blunt in dismissing the notion of achieving herd immunity to control the SARS- CoV-2 virus spread. “Herd immunity is not, in fact, it cannot be, a prospective end goal for a public health policy, especially one aimed at a globally spreading new infection. We have no idea what percentage of population coverage will end up being effective [for] herd immunity,” he says in an email. “It is quite likely that any state of such ‘herd immunity’ in a given community will not be stable — people move, thereby changing the demography of the ‘herd’; variants emerge, thus making the ‘immunity’ less effective, and all of these changes can well lead to loss of herd immunity.”

Dr. Rath adds: “The idea that we can aim for a stable situation of herd immunity and then just stop worrying about the pandemic has always been more wishful than real.”

Role of variants

If the Alpha (B.1.1.7) variant was 60% more transmissive than the original strain, the Delta variant is even more contagious thus requiring an even higher herd immunity threshold to break the transmission chain. It is estimated that the Delta variant may have a basic reproductive number of between 6.5 and 8, which means that herd immunity will be 85% or higher.

The next layer of complexity is seen when even fully vaccinated people get infected by the Delta variant, and such people shed virus at levels that resemble previously uninfected individuals and thus infect others. “But the duration of shedding may be shorter, which means that the overall ability of the virus to spread in previously infected or vaccinated individuals will be lower,” Dr. Kang says.

Even if the duration of virus shedding in the vaccinated is short, it makes it harder to break the transmission chain even in a population that is highly vaccinated. Thus, even the theoretical possibility of protecting through herd immunity those individuals who cannot take a vaccine gets diminished. “There is no question of ending transmission until we end infections,” she adds.

According to her, the data from Israel seems to indicate that there is strong protection from transmission with the mRNA vaccines shortly after vaccination, and this then declines with time. But she says that these are early data, and there is a lot to learn about the performance of other vaccines and over time.

Help from vaccines

“There are many more vaccines to come, and it is feasible that the next wave of vaccines or combinations of vaccines could help drive down transmission through lower levels of replication and better protection from infection,” says Dr. Kang.

“Vaccines are needed for almost everyone. Expecting the benefit to pass on to the unvaccinated does not seem to be possible with this virus,” explains epidemiologist Dr. Giridhara Babu from the Public Health Foundation of India, Bengaluru. Dr Rath adds that except for very rare cases of someone who already has, for example, a major life-threatening allergy-related illness, there are really no individuals who cannot take a vaccine; there are only those who do not want to take a vaccine.

Small surveys

The over 63% average seroprevalence in the country combined with increased vaccination coverage can help reduce the speed of virus spread. But more importantly, natural infection and vaccination can decrease the risk of severe disease and death even when reinfected. But the over 63% seroprevalence is only an average and has been arrived at based on a survey of less than 30,000 people in less than 10% of India's districts. “It does not mean that two-thirds of every neighbourhood is seropositive; the reality is much more of a patchwork quilt, making any easy predictions misleading,” Dr. Rath clarifies.

This makes quickly vaccinating a large percentage of people very important. Unfortunately, the pace of vaccination is slow in India — less than 33% are vaccinated with one dose and less than 9.5% fully vaccinated — and vaccine shortages in many States have become a norm. This makes reaching the imaginary herd immunity threshold anytime soon a big challenge.

Even among the vaccinated, inequity in terms of geography and socio-economic strata is rampant. “This inequity means that the reality will be well-vaccinated and poorly-vaccinated communities living cheek-by-jowl, making any idea of stable herd immunity even less likely,” Dr. Rath notes.

Lasting immunity

Finally, by the time the entire country reaches very high seropositivity either through vaccination or natural infection to achieve herd immunity, it remains unclear if protection would last in those who have been infected/vaccinated early on. It is likely that protection from severe disease and mortality might last for several years. However, there is no data at the moment.

While Dr. Babu feels that the endgame might be a situation where we would have to live with the virus with some level of endemicity but with reduced hospitalisation and lower mortality, Dr. Kang says it is too early to give up on herd immunity.

“There are viruses that are much more infectious than SARS-CoV-2, such as measles. We have achieved reasonable control of measles and are striving to do better. We have not hit the herd immunity threshold in many parts of the world, and yet measles is no longer the major global killer it once was,” she says.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has come out with an ‘Announcement of Opportunity’ (AO), seeking proposals towards scientific analysis and utilisation of data from all experiments of the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter.

According to ISRO, the data from Chandrayaan-1 had been extensively used by Indian researchers to understand lunar morphology, surface age determination and composition of the lunar surface, studies on the possible presence of magmatic as well as exogenic water.

“These studies have provided enhanced thoughtful views regarding lunar evolutionary processes”, the Bengaluru-headquartered space agency said. “Such studies from Chandrayaan-1 have considerably expanded Indian lunar science community”, it added. To further strengthen the Indian research community for lunar science studies, Chandrayaan-2 orbiter payloads data are made available to public and scientific proposals are solicited for scientific analysis, it said.

Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is currently in a 100 km x 100 km circular polar orbit around the Moon and carries eight experiments for studies ranging from surface geology and composition to exospheric measurements that would continue to build upon the understanding from previous lunar missions.

On December 24, 2020, Chandrayaan-2 orbiter payloads data was released to public for scientific analysis. Subsequently in July, 2021 next sets of data were released from payloads. A few science results by payload science teams have already been published in international peer reviewed journals.

The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter payloads are generating high quality data, which is being made available in public domain for scientific analysis. More data sets will be added to this as acquired by various payloads, the space agency said. “To enhance the science outcome from the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter payloads, ISRO seeks scientific proposals from the national scientific community through this AO, towards scientific analysis and utilisation of data from all experiments of Chandrayaan-2 orbiter”, ISRO said.

The AO is open to all researchers from recognised academic institutions, universities, colleges, planetaria and government organisations of India, it was stated.

It has been almost a year and a half that children have been at home, and the idea of education or entertainment is centered around digital screens. This means they are spending more time staring into mobile phones. Citing this unprecedented situation, ophthalmologists say they are seeing an increase in cases of Myopia (near sightedness) among children under 15 years since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

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The specialist doctors from Dr Agarwals Eye Hospital say more cases of ‘squint-eye’ is also being observed in children. “Our figures show that there is a 100% increase in annual myopia progression and a five-fold increase in annual squint-eye cases among children of 5-15 years during the pandemic year,” says Palak Macwana, consultant ophthalmologist at the private hospital.

Dr. Macwana adds that during the lockdown period, getting work done involved computers, laptops, and mobile phones or tablets, which was taken up without frequent breaks. Screen time for academic or other purposes increased substantially. This visual stress could be a cause for squinting and has an accelerating effect on myopia progression.

Also Read | Are you in digital overdrive?

Consultant opthalmologist T. Srinivas opines the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in accelerating the problem. Since keeping oneself and family members was the ultimate priority, people held themselves back from going for general consultation with doctors, including opthalmologists.

“Since children had to skip consultations with opthalmologists , some of them continued to use spectacles with inadequate power which put strain on eyes. This further increased refractive error (eye sight power). Increased usage of digital screens without taking breaks compounded the problem. Dimensions of eye ball changes until one reaches the age of 21 except in a few cases. Usually, eyesight power changes in the growing age. Usage of spectacles with inadequate power and spending excess time staring into digital screens could lead to further changes in eyesight power,” explains Dr Srinivas.

Attending online classes cannot be avoided currently. So Dr Macwana suggests that children use laptops or desktops instead of mobile phones as the distance between eyes and bigger screens is more. Exposure to sunlight for one to two hours a day including outdoor games, along with a healthy and well-balanced diet, is recommended.

Rain fell at the highest point on the Greenland ice sheet last week for the first time on record, another worrying sign of warming for the ice sheet already melting at an increasing rate, scientists said on Friday, August 20.

“That's not a healthy sign for an ice sheet,” said Indrani Das, a glaciologist with Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Water on ice is bad... It makes the ice sheet more prone to surface melt.”

Not only is water warmer than the usual snow, it is also darker – so it absorbs more sunlight.

Unprecedented rise

This meltwater is streaming into the ocean, causing sea levels to rise. Already, melting from Greenland's ice sheet – the world's second-largest after Antarctica's – has caused around 25% of global sea level rise seen over the last few decades, scientists estimate. That share is expected to grow, as global temperatures increase.

The rain fell for several hours at the ice sheet’s 3,216-metre summit on August 14, where temperatures remained above freezing for around nine hours, scientists at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center said. Temperatures at the ice cap almost never lift above freezing, but have now done so three times in less than a decade.

In total, 7 billion tonnes of rain fell across Greenland over three days, from August 14 through August 16 – the largest amount since records began in 1950. The rain and high temperatures triggered extensive melting across the island, which suffered a surface ice mass loss on August 15 that was seven times above the average for mid-August.

The record-breaking rain is the latest in a string of warning signs.

Greenland experienced a massive melting event in late July. ,when enough ice melted in a single day to cover the U.S. State of Florida in 2 inches (5 cm) of water.

That melting event and last week’s rain were both caused by air circulation patterns which meant warm, moist air temporarily covered the island.

“This alarming rain at the summit of Greenland is not an isolated event,” said Twila Moon, deputy lead scientist with the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Along with rising floods, fires, and other extremes, it is one of many “alarm bells” signalling the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, she said.

“We really have to stay laser-focused on adapting, as wella s reducing the potential for those to become truly devastating.”

Atomic energy can be released in two ways – either by breaking up heavy nuclei, like uranium, into smaller fragments, releasing a whole lot of energy in the process, or by fusing together light nuclei like hydrogen to form heavier stable nuclei and high-energy neutrons which carry a lot of energy that can be harnessed. The former process is nuclear fission, and it is what happens in established nuclear reactors around the world. The second route is nuclear fusion, and this is the way stars generate energy. In our Sun, for example, hydrogen is being converted into helium, releasing huge amounts of energy.

Nuclear fusion is a clean and green route to producing energy, as it does not involve any remnant radioactive waste products. Fusion reactions power hydrogen bombs. However, so far, fusion devices that show a net energy gain have not been demonstrated in labs.

An experiment at the U.S. National Ignition Facility (NIF), within the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California, comes close to demonstrating this. In this lab, using laser beams, tiny pellets of deuterium and tritium (heavier isotopes of hydrogen) have been fused to form helium and release energy that very nearly matches the amount of energy input using the lasers.

The NIF has been trying to achieve this for nearly a decade. Now, the experiment has produced a yield that almost equals the laser energy input. To be functional, a reactor has to produce an output that is at least tens of times the input energy.

A tiny pellet of the fuel (deuterium and tritium) is placed in a cylidrical thumbnail-sized vessel, known as a hohlraum that has holes on both faces. A total of 192 laser beams are directed through the holes to strike the walls of the hohlraum. This causes the hohlraum to emit x-rays which, in turn, impinge on the pellet and compress it. The heated core of the pellet reaches 100 million degrees temperature which starts the fusion reactions. Further, the pellet has to “ignite” and only then can it reach the stage of becoming a microbomb – a deuterium-tritium fusion reactor – and release energy that can be tapped.

The present success is the result of many careful and painstaking efforts in fine tuning the laser pulses, playing with the shapes of the hohlraum and the design of the pellet — through a series of experiments and computer simulations.

Laser facility

The laser facility itself occupies a large area, equal to nearly three cricket fields, and the lasers can deliver up to 500 terawatts of power using its 192 individual laser beams. This is focused into the openings in the hohlraum which contains the pellet measuring some 2-3 mm.

“The amount of laser energy used in these experiments is quite modest, 1.9 megajoule (MJ). This is approximately equal to the energy it takes to heat a large pot (8 litres) of water by 100 degrees Celsius. The amount of fusion energy produced in these experiments was approximately 1.3 MJ which is now for the first time comparable to amount of laser energy input,” says Arthur Kazdan Pak, Stagnation Science Team lead, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in an email to The Hindu. This is the first time, in a controlled laboratory setting, that an inertial fusion system ( another name for a laser driven fusion system) has produced nearly as much energy was supplied to initiate the reaction. Dr Kazdan Pak further explains that only a fraction of the total laser energy is actually coupled to the fusion capsule target: “If we do the energy accounting we estimate that the fusion energy production is approximately 5 times the amount of energy coupled from the laser to target.”

Tremendous progress

“A megajoule sounds like a lot, but it is just enough energy to boil a pot of water.To make a fusion reactor, hundreds of pellet implosions have to happen per second and means have to be found to extract the neutron energy as heat and produce electricity. This [experiment] is far from that stage, but the researchers have made tremendous progress in the last decade,” says P. I John, Former Meghnad Saha Chair Professor, Institute for Plasma Research, Gandhinagar, and an expert in thermonuclear fusion.

Several steps remain before a viable nuclear fusion reactor can be realised. Ignition, or energy break-even must be achieved. Many laser pulses must be made to act per second to increase the net yield to a sufficiently high value. Then the technology to convert the neutron energy into electricity has to be developed.

Meanwhile, Dr Kazdan Pak makes a mind-blowing comparison: “The fusion energy produced is released in an incredibly short amount of time, approximately, 90 picoseconds producing close to 15 petawatts of power. This is approximately equivalent to some recent estimates of the total world power consumption, however the experiment only produces this power for an incredibly short period of time, whereas power is consumed continuously across the world.”

Every kitchen in India makes use of turmeric in its meal, in one form or another. The actual turmeric slices or turmeric powder that we use every day in preparing our meals (as Haldi, Manjal, Pasupu, Arishina, Halud) has about 3% of the active component molecule called curcumin, a polyphenol diketone (and not a steroid). Researchers point out that there is another molecule in turmeric called piperine, which is an alkaloid, responsible for the pungency of pepper that we use every day in our cooking, along with turmeric. Piperine enhances curcumin absorption in the body. It gives turmeric its multivariate healing and protective power.

Curry powder

Turmeric has been known for over 4,000 years in the Indian subcontinent, West Asia, Burma, Indonesia and China, and used as an essential part of our daily food – what the colonials called curry powder. It has also been known as a medicine for ages, and to have anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Herbal medicine experts have used turmeric to treat painful symptoms of arthritis, joint stiffness and joint pain. They have also claimed that turmeric helps cure acute kidney injuries. Some of these claims need to checked using controlled trials.

The site: lists the following evidence-based benefits that turmeric and its products offer the body. Besides what has been mentioned, Curcumin, which is the active molecule in turmeric, is a substance with powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties; it is a natural anti- inflammatory compound; chronic low-level inflammation affects your health, including heart diseases and metabolic syndromes. Thanks to its ability to cross the blood–brain barrier, Curcumin reduces or stops the build-up of insoluble protein tangles called amyloid plaques, which are responsible for Alzheimer’s disease. (However, we need further placebo-based studies, suitable animal models and humans). Curcumin boosts Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a gene which promotes neurons (nerve cells), thus helping in memory and learning. It may help prevent cancer, as some herbal medicine experts have held. As cancer cells die, the spread of cancer is reduced, and new tumour cells are stopped. In arthritis and joint inflammation, Curcumin has been shown to be very effective. Herbal medicine practitioners have also suggested this. It is useful for treating depression in people. Controlled trials on 60 people for 6 weeks show that conventional drugs (for example, Prozac) act even better when supplemented with Curcumin.

It is here that a paper from Gary Small and colleagues from the University of California, the U.S., titled: ‘Memory and Brain Amyloid and Tau effects of a bioavailable form of curcumin in non-demented adults: A double-blind, placebo-controlled 18-month trial’, in the journal American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry (doi: 10.1016/j.jagp.2017.10.010). Here they studied 40 adults between the age of 50 and 90 years, who had mild memory complaints, and gave one group placebo and the other group 90 mg of Curcumin, twice daily for 18 months. All 40 received standardised assessment tests and the curcumin levels in their blood at start and at 18 months. All 40 were also tested with PET Scans to determine the levels of insoluble amyloid plaques, at start and after 18 months. They could conclude that daily Curcumin intake could lead to improved memory and attention in non-demented adults.

Against COVID-19

Most recently, an exciting study has recently been published from a group in Mumbai which shows that turmeric aids in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. The researchers did a trial of about 40 COVID-19 patients and found that turmeric could substantially reduce the morbidity and mortality. The paper by K. S. Pawar et al appears in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology, titled: ‘Oral curcumin with piperine as adjuvant therapy for COVID- 19: A randomized clinical trial’. The paper is freely accessible (doi.10.3389/fphar.2021.669362.eCollection 2021). What K. S. Pawar and colleagues had done was to conduct a double-blind, randomised, control trial in a 30-bed dedicated COVID-19 Heath Centre in Maharashtra. Administration of oral curcumin with piperine as an adjuvant symptomatic therapy in COVID-19 treatment could substantially reduce morbidity and mortality, and ease the logistical and supply-related burdens on the heath system. (Incidentally, that curcumin is an excellent immunoadjuvant has been known, thanks to the detailed studies of G. Padmanaban of IISc, Bengaluru).

This is a truly remarkable advance, and is well worth trying out in several other centres across India, where the pandemic is still prevalent, not only to confirm the findings, but also where no clear signs of herd immunity have come about.

Japanese space agency scientists said Thursday they plan to bring soil samples back from the Mars region ahead of the United States and China, which started Mars missions last year, in hopes of finding clues to the planet's origin and traces of possible life.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, plans to launch an explorer in 2024 to land on Phobos, a Martian moon, to collect 10 grams (0.35 ounce) of soil and bring it back to Earth in 2029.

The rapid return trip is expected to put Japan ahead of the United States and China in bringing back samples from the Martian region despite starting later, project manager Yasuhiro Kawakatsu said in an online news conference.

NASA's Perseverance rover has landed in a Mars crater where it is to collect 31 samples that are to be returned to Earth with help from the European Space Agency as early as 2031. China in May became the second country to land and operate a spacecraft on Mars and plans to bring back samples around 2030.

JAXA scientists believe about 0.1 % of the surface soil on Phobos came from Mars, and 10 grams could contain about 30 granules, depending on the consistency of the soil, Kawakatsu said.

Tomohiro Usui, professor at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, said soil on Phobos is likely to be a mixture of material from the moon itself and material from Mars that was spread by sandstorms.

Collecting samples from multiple locations on Phobos could provide a greater chance of obtaining possible traces of life from Mars than obtaining soil from a single location on Mars, he said.

Any life forms that might have come from Mars will have died because of harsh solar and cosmic radiation on Phobos, JAXA scientists said. The NASA and the European Space Agency missions focus on potential life forms and evolution of the area of the Jezero crater, believed to be an ancient lake.

By studying Phobos soil samples including material from Mars, scientists hope to learn about the evolution of the Martian biosphere, Usui said.

He said Japanese research on Phobos and NASA's samples from specific locations in the Martian crater can complement each other and could lead to answers to questions such as how Martian life, if present, emerged and evolved in time and place.

Last December, a JAXA probe, Hayabusa2, brought back more than 5 grams (0.19 ounce) of soil from the asteroid Ryugu, more than 300 million kilometers (190 million miles) from Earth, in the world's first successful return of an asteroid sample.

Researchers have discovered a new species of cascade frog from Arunachal Pradesh and named it after the Adi hills, the abode of Adi tribes. Amolops adicola, the new species discovered by a team of Indian and American biologists from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), University of Delhi, India, and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science, the U.S., is a predominantly brown colour frog, with a size ranging roughly between 4 cm to 7 cm. Cascade frogs are named so because of their preference for small waterfalls or cascades in flowing hill streams, for which they have developed certain morphological features such as expanded digit tips and extensive foot webbing that makes them adapt to strong water currents.

The discovery was made when biologists were investigating a group of medium- to large-sized Cascade frogs (scientifically belonging to genus Amolops) from northeast India over the last five years.

“This study is once again testament to how little is known about the most threatened animal groups, frogs, in northeastern India. Many frogs in this region are reported to occur widely but, in fact, have relatively small geographical ranges and require special attention for conservation before they go extinct forever,” said S. D. Biju, University of Delhi, corresponding author of the study. “Northeast India is a treasure house of species still unknown to science.”

The species draws its nomenclature from Adi tribes, an indigenous group of people from the Himalayan regions of Arunachal Pradesh. The region from where the discovery was made is also referred as Adi hills — adi literally means “hill” or “mountain top”. Historically, this region was also known as Abor hills.

“The new species was discovered while revisiting a century-old Adi expedition in 2018, and named after the land of the Adi tribe in Arunachal Pradesh, where this species dwells particularly during the post-monsoon season,” said Dr. Abhijit Das, WII.

The details of the discovery can be accessed in the publication titled ‘Phylogenetic position of the poorly known montane cascade frog Amolops monticola (Ranidae) and description of a new closely related species from Northeast India’ published in the Journal of Natural History.

“The new species, formally described as Amolops adicolasp.nov., is morphologically distinguished from its congeners by a suite of characters that include adult size, body colouration and markings, skin texture, snout shape, foot webbing and digit tip morphology,” the publication reads. Apart from the external morphology, Amolops adicola was identified based on DNA and a distinct calling pattern.

The study also resolved century-old taxonomic confusions surrounding the identity of another Cascade frog species, Amolops monticola, which was described from the Sikkim Himalayas 150 years ago. The genus Amolops is one of the largest groups of ranid frogs (family Ranidae), with currently 73 known species that are widely distributed across northeast and north India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, through Indochina to the Malaya peninsula.

A new plant of the Brachystelma R.Br. species has been found in Tumakuru, and has been named after the district from where its type material was collected. ‘B. tumakurense’ comes from a tuber and belongs to the Apocynaceae family (a family of flowering plants).

The findings were published recently in ‘RHEEDEA Journal of the Indian Association for Angiosperm Taxonomy’ by Gundappa B.V. from the Wildlife Aware Nature Club, Tumakuru; Sringeswara A.N. and Vishwanath S. from the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS), GKVK Campus – Bengaluru; and P. Venu from the Environment Protection Training and Research Institute – Hyderabad.

According to the paper, Brachystelma R.Br. is the second largest genus in the tribe Ceropegieae with over 116 species distributed in the old-world tropics. They are slender stemmed with a brilliant display of colours in their flowers, especially in their corolla and coronal structures.

“They are mainly distributed in Peninsular India in dry hill ranges. There are seven species from Karnataka. All of them exhibit erect stems and are non-climbing in nature. During explorations in Devarayanadurga (Tumakuru district, Karnataka) material of Brachystelma was collected. It was found in flowering while bearing leaves and primarily comparable with B. bourneae Gamble, B. maculatum Hook.f. and B. rangacharii Gamble, but is distinctive in certain features and hence described here as a new species,” the paper said.

Flowering, fruiting

The flowering season is from June to July and fruiting from August to September, and about 16 to 18 individuals in one population were found growing among grasses in a southern moist mixed forest, the scientists said, adding that the plants were distinctly visible as the grasses had not attained their usual height owing to low rainfall in 2017.

“In fact, a few plants were found lacking the upper portions most likely due to browsing by wild animals. Usually, the browsed plants branch out from the node below and flower,” the paper added.

Dr. Sringeswara from the Mahatma Gandhi Botanical Garden, UAS, told The Hindu the species is a lesser known plant and has pollens similar to orchids. “We found the plant in 2017 and studied it and found that it is not similar to any known plant. It is a tuber from which a plant comes out around May-end. After one or two and a half months, by August-end, it dries up, but the tuber remains for a year. The tubers may be eaten by animals and men, as it has an edible property,” he explained.

Having found insects feeding on the flowers, the experts plan to study the floral biology next year.

The chief scientist of the World Health Organization is warning of “even more dire situations” worldwide in the coronavirus pandemic if high-income countries start administering vaccine boosters ahead of poorer countries without vaccines.

With the U.S. health officials recommending booster shots for all Americans who have already been vaccinated, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan expressed concern that leaving billions of people in the developing world unvaccinated could foster emergence of new variants, like the delta variant, that is driving new cases in the United States and beyond.

“We believe clearly that the data does not indicate that boosters are needed,” Dr Swaminathan said at a news conference in Geneva. She expressed more understanding for a recent U.S. decision to administer boosters to people with weaker immune systems.

WHO officials have repeatedly expressed concerns that variants will continue to crop up in areas where the virus goes unchecked and called for vaccine equity and “solidarity” among countries.

Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief, said: “If we think about this in terms of an analogy, we’re planning to hand out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets, while we’re leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, says 10 countries have administered 75% of all vaccine supply, while low-income countries have vaccinated “barely 2 percent of their people.” He says, "vaccine injustice is a shame on all humanity."

It might sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but leveraging fruit dye extracts for use in solar cells is possible in the real world. For the past few years, natural extracts from produce such as jamun, pomegranate, spinach, beetroot, hibiscus, green algae and black carrot have been utilised as solar cell dye and found favour for both scalable and sustainable benefits.

Popularly known as senduri, rohini or rori among Jharkhand tribal communities, the red kamala tree is a semi-evergreen woody spurge plant that bears fruit only in spring. When Prof. Basudev Pradhan, Assistant Professor at Central University of Jharkhand’s (CUJ) Department of Energy Engineering, looked at the dozens of kamala (Mallotus phillipensis) trees across the campus, he decided to investigate the efficacy of this fruit’s extract in creating a non-toxic sensitiser for Dye-Sensitised Solar Cells (DSSCs). And he was proven right.

Earlier this spring, the team comprising researchers Arup Mahapatra, Prashant Kumar, Jyoti Bhansare, Madhavi Surapaneni and Anik Sen, headed by Pradhan, extracted natural dye from the pericarp of the kamala fruit. The extracted dye was used to make an inexpensive, non-toxic sensitiser for DSSCs or Grätzel cells, which directly convert solar energy into electricity. In more molecular context, the presence of carbonyl and hydroxyl groups gets easily anchored to the titanium dioxide nanoparticles (crucial parameters for the power conversion efficiency of dye- sensitised solar cells), which are used to make the photoanode (the component supporting dye molecules and transferring electrons) – an important component of DSSCs.

Dr Basudev Pradhan, assistant professor at Central University of Jharkhand’s (CUJ) Department of Energy Engineering; with two of his researchers 

“We had been conducting solar research for a long time, so we had everything set up in our labs already,” says Pradhan over the phone from Kolkata, “It took us five to six months to complete our work of research, development and testing. We used raw dye which has a lot of impurities, hence we need to purify it to enhance the efficacy.”

This is the first time this dye has been used for solar cell application, he shares. In tandem with the experiment, his team of researchers have also performed theoretical calculations using rottlerin, one of the major constituents of the natural dye, to check the properties and applicability of the proposed dye as a photo-sensitiser and has manifested high electron injection efficiency – an important requirement for efficient solar cells.

‘The best alternative’

How scalable is a solar cell solution like this? “The process itself is low-cost so there is a lot of potential here,” he explains, adding, “The challenge in this process is waiting for the fruit to ripen to reach that pigment of red, which is necessary for a DSSC to work. That said, this kind of non-toxic and biodegradable natural dye can be easily extracted from an inedible source, like the kamala fruit in its untreated form, using a very low-cost technique and therefore it can provide the best alternative to that of toxic and expensive synthetic dye used for solar cells.”

Their work so far has been published as a short communication titled ‘Development of dye-sensitised solar cell using M. philippensis (kamala tree) fruit extract: A combined experimental and theoretical study’ (August 10, 2021) in the International Journal of Energy Research.

The study states the device efficiency is about 0.55% which is quite comparable with other reported devices with natural dye, whereas the efficacy of natural dyes varies from 0.1% to 2%.

Pradhan adds, “As per my knowledge, maximum efficiency so far people reported about 2% from pomegranate fruit juice. Here, we want to emphasise that our dye is extracted from an inedible source. definitely it needs further purification to get better performance. In the case of synthetic dye, the maximum is from the most popular Ruthenium complex (N719) with 11.9% efficiency and 13% using organic dye.”

He points out the dyes are “very stable but when it comes to the device, all the DSSCs with synthetic or natural dye face long term stability challenges because they use liquid electrolyte.” He adds that he and his team are working on that in that aspect as well, and that many research groups are trying to use solid state or gel electrolyte for this purpose.

Naturally, the CUJ team is excited about the potential of food sources as an alternative candidate in developing cost-effective solar cell devices to address the future energy challenge. But the team acknowledges there is still a lot to be done to finalise the true efficacy of the kamala fruit dye extract.

But there is also a design plus to using the kamala fruit dye extract, says Pradhan. “Because of the rich red colour, it looks stunning on the solar cell. We are used to seeing blue, but the red stands out.”

The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras has collaborated with the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) for research in areas of pavement engineering and intelligent transportation systems.

According to officials, their collaborative work will include research on novel pavement materials and technologies, hydrogen cell transportation, automatic vehicle classification, novel toll systems, incident management systems, traveller information systems, FastTAG data analytics and traffic simulations besides transportation safety.

A MoRTH chair is being created at IIT Madras, to focus on research and development (R&D), teaching and training in traffic and highway engineering. The chair professor will act as a strategic advisor to the ministry.

The chair professor will interface with the Standard and Research (S&R) wing of the ministry, facilitating need-based research in the area of 'traffic and highway engineering'.

"IIT Madras should concentrate on developing less polluting pavement engineering technologies as well as intelligent transportation systems. We are already engaged with IIT Madras in a major way in terms of consultancies," said Giridhar Aramane, Secretary, Road Transport and Highways.

"This chair professorship as well as this entire programme can be directed towards important and innovative research and development work," Mr. Aramane said.

The chair professor will also undertake R&D activities in pavement engineering, including emerging materials and technologies such as use of coir and other bio-derived materials, use of alternative aggregates such as recycled concrete and asphalt pavement and use of environmentally sustainable materials for highway pavements.

"This collaboration will also facilitate PhD research programmes on areas selected by MoRTH. IIT Madras will train 8 to 10 students including MoRTH’s nominated officers in the field of highway engineering," said IIT Madras Director Bhaskar Ramamurthi.

"The chair will will provide an impetus for application-oriented research. We are already active in pavement engineering and intelligent transportation systems. A lot of our know-how already reaches the field through industry collaboration. Our efforts have also reduced accidents on highways across the country. We are well-placed to take up interesting projects and seed them with the proceeds of this endowment," he added.

IIT Madras will allow MoRTH officers (subject to required qualification) to act as co-supervisors for M.Tech./M.S. and Ph.D. projects of students on the recommendation of supervisors at IIT Madras according to the institute norms.

The chair professor will also advise the Highway Research Board of Indian Road Congress for identification and monitoring of R&D activities and act as an ambassador of highway development in the country.

"The chair professor will act as a facilitator for promoting collaboration between MoRTH, IIT Madras and other academic and research institutions and industries from India and abroad," Mr. Ramamurthi said.

"The professor will also assist in the evaluation and introduction of new technology, ITS and recycling, equipment and material for improving road safety and operational efficiencies," Mr. Ramamurthi added.

A significant percentage of root canal treatments fail, because the procedure leaves out some bacteria that are located deep within the dentinal tubules. A group of scientists including those from Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, has found a way to tackle this using nanosized robots that will travel through the tubules and target the bacteria. They have also founded a company, Theranautilus, which will eventually market this technology.

Effectively harmless

Measuring no more than 300 nanometres, these spiral silica nanobots with a bit of iron embedded in them are suspended in water or water-like biocompatible medium. “There are about a billion nanorobots in 0.5 ml water. This concentration is almost a trillion times lower than the amount of silica found in a pint of beer and is effectively harmless for the human body,” explains Debayan Dasgupta, a research associate at IISc and co-founder of the company. “We inject (or rather, place them gently) in the central canal of the tooth. Then a rotating magnetic field is applied using a triaxial Helmholtz coil. The magnetic material embedded in the nanorobot has a magnetic moment that follows the applied magnetic field. This causes the nanorobot to move - like screws move into a wall.”

To the minute nanorobots, the dentinal tubules look like large channels. If the nanorobot is 300 nanometres in size, the tubules have diameters of about a few microns width and are 1,500 to 2,000 microns in length.

Once the bacterial colony is reached, the nanorobot can deploy various antibacterial strategies one of which is localised heating. “This is very effective because the bacteria we are targeting are Enterococcus faecalis, extremely hardy bacteria that are resistant to most commercially available antibiotics,” says Dr Dasgupta.

Precise control

The idea is that these nanorobots can be precisely controlled spatio-temporally. “Swarms of nanorobots can be used to target different diseased sites inside teeth to neutralise the harmful biofilms following which they can be retrieved back to the physician,” says Shanmukh Srinivas Peddi, a dental surgeon and co-founder of the company.

Studying active matter

The thought of making spiral nanorobots that can be manipulated using magnetic fields originated from a question of separating left-handed and right-handed molecules using microwave fields, nearly 12 years ago. “We realised it may be possible to do the same with colloids and magnetic fields, and subsequently developed a method of making very small magnetised spirals in large quantities,” says Prof Ambarish Ghosh, from IISc, also a co-founder of the company. “Since then these spirals were shown to be great agents to study physics of active matter, useful for biophysical measurements and microfluidic manipulations, and perhaps the holy grail, is to be able to put it in human body as biomedical nanorobots.”

The Government of India every year confers through the Technology Development Board, national awards for technology development and successful commercialisation of indigenous technology. For this year, Theranautilus has won this award in the Start-up/Deep- Tech industry category. Currently the technology is being taken through the regulatory tests for drug compliance which will be followed by animal trials.

Scientists have said that an astonishingly well-preserved cave lion cub found in Siberia's permafrost lived 28,000 years ago and may even still have traces of its mother's milk in it.

Female cub

The female cub, named Sparta, was found at the Semyuelyakh River in Russia's Yakutia region in 2018 and a second lion cub called Boris was found the year before, according to a study published in Quaternary.

The cubs were found 15 metres apart but are not only from different litters but were also born thousands of years apart. Boris, a male cub, lived around 43,448 years ago, the study said.

Other finds

The two cubs aged 1-2 months were found by mammoth tusk collectors. Two other lion cubs named Uyan and Dina have also been found in the region in recent years.

Cave lions have been extinct for thousands of years.

Valery Plotnikov, one of the study’s authors, told Reuters in the regional capital Yakutsk that Sparta was so well-preserved that it still had its fur, internal organs and skeleton.

“The find itself is unique; there was no any other such find in Yakutia,” he said.

“Maybe, we hope, some disintegrated parts of the mother’s milk [remain intact]. Because if we have that, we can understand what its mother's diet was,” he said.

Faster warming

Similar finds in Russia's vast Siberian region have happened with increasing regularity. Climate change is warming the Arctic at a faster pace than the rest of the world and has thawed the ground in some areas long locked in permafrost.

A sense of rhythm, integral to musicianship, may be as highly developed even in those with minimal or no training in music and may in large part be due to dense neural connections in specific regions of the brain, says a study by scientists at the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC), Manesar, and Symbiosis International, Pune.

How much of musical ability is inherent, the extent to which it is influenced by training and the regions of the brain that are most activated while perceiving musical elements such as rhythm and pitch are vibrant areas of research. Studies have shown, for instance, that at least 15 months of musical training in early childhood led to long-term changes in the brain’s structure that diverged from typical brain development.

Other studies have shown that the brain’s neuroanatomy plays a significant role, and yet others have even linked certain genes. For instance the gene (GATA2) that regulates the development of cochlear hair cells and the structures that mediate sound perception in the auditory pathway have been associated with individual differences in music processing and perception.

Key question

For Nandini Chatterjee Singh, a neuroscientist who leads the Language Literacy and Music Laboratory lab at NBRC, the question was whether the connectivity in the brain and certain brain structures were either minimal or absent in non-musicians and whether progressively higher musical training influenced the density or degree of connectivity among certain brain regions.

Profiling musical skills

To test this, she and collaborators Archith Rajan, Apurva Shah and Madhura Ingalhalikar recruited 27 university graduates — 13 female — with varying degrees of musical training ranging from non-musicians to professionals and assessed them on a test called Profile of Music Perception skills. This standardised computer-based test, since 2012, has been used in research to test the listener's abilities at discerning changes in rhythm, pitch, accent and melody. Their scores were evaluated along with brain imaging data from all of the participants.

“What we found was that non musicians performed as well as trained musicians on rhythm processing tasks because of the way the brain is connected. So there are hidden — or sleeping musicians — among us,” Singh told The Hindu, “But this was only specific to rhythm and we didn't find any strong patterns in the perception of pitch.”

Rather than connections within the right and left hemispheres of the brain it was the strength of connections between the two hemispheres of the brain that significantly influenced rhythmic processing abilities. The density of connection in the right posterior cingulate cortex, a region that acted as hub of connectivity between the two halves of the brain was strongly linked to participants’ overall scores. The study has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed European Journal of Neuroscience.

Significance of rhythm

That the perception of rhythm was so strongly stamped in the brain underlined its significance to language processing as well opened lines of enquiry into several areas of research including into autism, musical aptitude as well the use of music therapy for a variety of physiotherapy and rehabilitation exercises, Singh added.

The 26-hour countdown for the launch of earth observation satellite onboard GSLV-F10 commenced here on Wednesday, Indian Space Research Organisation said.

The launch of the satellite would be the second for ISRO in 2021 after its successful mission in February, which was Brazil's earth observation satellite Amazonia-1 and 18 co-passenger satellites.

Thursday's launch was originally planned in April or May this year but the exercise was postponed due to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Countdown for the launch of GSLV- F10/EOS-03 mission commenced today at 0343 hours from Satish Dhawan Space Centre", Sriharikota, the Bengaluru-headquartered space agency said in a notification.

The earth observation satellite would provide real time images of the country and borders and also able to quick monitor of natural disasters.

"The state-of-the- art agile Earth Observation satellite EOS-03 will be placed in a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit by GSLV-F10. Subsequently, the satellite will reach the final geostationary orbit using its onboard propulsion system", ISRO said in another notification.

The mission was the first flight of GSLV with a four metre dia Ogive Payload fairing that can accommodate larger payloads, ISRO said.

According to ISRO, the filling of propellant for the liquid strap-on motors located on the sides of the rocket has been completed.

The lift-off is scheduled at 05.43 am from the second launch pad at Sriharikota about 100kms from Chennai and the separation of the earth observation satellite 03 was expected to take place after 19 minutes.

The objective of the mission was to provide near real time imaging of large area region at frequent intervals; for quick monitoring of natural disasters, episodic events and obtain spectral signatures for agriculture, forestry, water bodies as well as for disaster warning, cyclone monitoring, cloud burst and thunderstorm monitoring.

The mission life is 10 years, ISRO said. Previous launches of GSLV include the GSLV-MkIII-M1/Chandrayaan-2 mission on July 2019 while GSLV- F11 successfully placed GSAT-7A in December 2018.

The previous earth observation satellite was launched by ISRO in November 2020 onboard a polar satellite launch vehicle.

"PSLV- C49 successfully placed the EOS-01 on November 7, 2020. The mission objective was a disaster management system, earth observation. It was intended for applications in agriculture, forestry and disaster management support," ISRO said.

Anantha Krishnan Nadamel’s first brush with NFTs (non-fungible tokens) was in March, 2021, thanks to a friend. Since then, the 23-year-old visual designer with an IT company in Kochi has sold 26 NFTs (perhaps one of the highest for an Indian artist) and formed NFT Malayali, a global collective of Malayali artists for the NFT space. With NFT Malayali he wants to create a community of Malayali artists introducing them to the new, largely cryptocurrency-driven digital space.

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While curiosity led Nadamel, who specialises in 3D art, to the platform, selling his works and making more than ₹20 lakh opened his eyes to the medium’s potential.

NFTs, that exist on the blockchain, are a form of digital assets, valued for their uniqueness. The excitement, and earning, from selling 13 got Nadamel thinking about creating a community. “There will be Malayali artists unfamiliar with how NFT works. Not being tech- savvy could lead them to miss this opportunity. We have artists from all genres in the crypto art space. NFT Malayali, aims to bridge the gap between an artist and the crypto marketplace,” he says.

Read More | Keen on the NFT art drops? It’s all about strategy, buyer knowledge and timing

Community of growth

What started as a WhatsApp group of five has grown to a community of about 600 artists across mediums such as photography, art, music and videos on the NFT space. US-based artist, creative director and designer Melvin Thambi, who also an NFT collector, is the co-founder. Others on the team are Adeeb Abdul Salam, for technical support and Mahesh Krishnan, who is the content creative.

The team includes Shaarif Nazir, Clubhouse moderator: For the first two months of its inception, in May-June 2021, daily sessions on NFTs were held on Clubhouse. These served as explainers as well as a platform for artists to showcase their work. “Now we do sessions based on specific topics, ‘Artist Spotlights’, AMA (Ask Me Anything) with collectors, drop parties every weekend and collaboration with NFT collectible projects such as ‘Bulls on the Block’,” says Nadamel.

He clarifies that there is no money involved, “We want to enable a sale and help get the best value. We just want to introduce numerous talents from Kerala in the NFT space,” he says. A sale is not guaranteed every time, however, it does introduce the artist to prospective collectors. Another aspect NFT Malayali encourages artists to re- investing in NFTs. “Since the price of cryptocurrency is volatile, we recommend that artists mint NFTs when the gas fees [transaction fees for encryption] are cheaper,” Nadamel says. Minting of an NFT refers to the process of uploading and creating an NFT in the blockchain.

NFT communities also help artists understand the newer types of buyers in the virtual space so they often have to mould their art in order to sell. “There is no buyer’s demand. That is totally upto the artist’s branding. If he is good with a style, and if he keeps to it sales will happen. However, if one tries random artworks the artist would dilute his brand/identity. This is a loss for both artist and collector, because he cannot sell it as the artist’s brand since there wouldn’t be a brand or style.”

Photographer Hari Menon, who was introduced to NFTs by via the comunity’s Artist Spotlights on Clubhouse, is excited by the outcome. “I heard about it, was curious and eventually got into it seriously in June,” he says. He has, so far, sold six NFTs. “I have been part of several artists’, photographers’ ‘communities’ over the past 16 years as a photographer. But this group engages with members meaningfully,” he adds. Hari is a travel photographer with a huge following, he has photographed some of the most exotic locations in the country and the world, besides various tribes [some elusive] of India.

NFT Malayali has facilitated artistic collaborations. Hari collaborated with Melvin and a musician, Laxmi. Melvin turned a photograph by Hari into an illustration set to a music score by Laxmi, “The medium [NFT] and the community is encouraging artists to think in ways we would not have otherwise,” Hari says. The resultant art work was the process of converting the photograph, with Laxmi’s as the background score.

From one virtual space to another

Initially, the Clubhouse discussions were in Malayalam, however, when the conversation shifted to English it saw more traction with international collectors dropping in to check out the artists. “The participation was great, at times 300-odd members would be part of the conversations, but later on we realised sticking to Malayalam might not work in our favour because collectors are not only Malayalis,” Nadamel says. Besides Clubhouse, NFT Malayali is also active on Twitter Spaces and Discord.

“Collectors are mostly on Twitter. You have to constantly engage with them, as should artists. Sales don’t happen constantly, but interaction is important. You are building your brand, an artist cannot afford to be reticent. You are watched, it doesn’t work if you are ‘unseen’,” he says. A collector is investing as much in an artist’s work and brand, as in their potential; they [collectors] could engage with an artist over an extended period before investing in an NFT.

With Kerala-based sculptor Prajeesh AD, Hari has formed ‘Focus Collective’ to help photographers interested in NFT. They will curate works and help navigate the unfamiliar world of cryptocurrency, blockchain and other aspects of NFT.

Hari explains that the revenue model is that 60% of the amount from a sale goes to the artist and 40% to the Collective for functioning and to re-investing. “All this is new and there are reservations, but we have managed rope in some photographers,” he says, adding ““This medium requires you to be ‘visible’, and engage with the community across the globe. Many of our artists are uncomfortable marketing themselves of their work. For some, it could be the technology, while for others language would be a barrier. We want to help, we don’t want anyone to be left behind when such an opportunity has presented itself.”

The six-yard sheet that covers our body is the skin. There is 1.5 to 2 square metres of it, which offers us protection from a variety of external sources that may be harmful. This protection is done by covering the skin through hair. Scalp is the skin covering the head, excluding the face – thankfully! Hair is produced by the cells at the outermost layer of the skin, using what are called follicles which are mini-organs which produce a variety of proteins.

The entire list of these proteins, or what biologists call as the ‘proteosome’ or ‘proteome’, is a subject of contemporary interest which is being worked out. These mini-organs play key roles in producing hair, protecting the skin from external insults such as infections, offering temperature control and so on.

The proteome offers pigments that colour the hair – and for us humans, these pigments come largely in three lots – black, brown or shades of red. Lack of pigmentation causes hair to turn white (as we age). During evolution, we humans seem to have found these colours best suited for us. Indeed, relating the changes in pigmentation with time as we age offers us a picture of life events of an individual as he or she ages.

Like tree rings

This is somewhat like how tree rings offer information about what all a tree has gone through in time. As we age, our hair turns white. A group of dermatologists have done a quantitative mapping of hair colour and find that there are over 300 proteins that are more or less abundant in white hair than in dark hair. Many of these proteins are involved in energy production in the cell. Several of these are involved in increasing energy metabolism and in synthesising lipids and amino acids. Hair colour agents and hair tonics, with all their nice and refreshing smells do the same.

Colour and stress

Hair colour can also be predicted by looking at a small number of DNA variations that occur in eleven genes in a human sample. This test can predict whether the individual being sampled have black, brown, red or blonde hair colour with 90% accuracy. And this test goes beyond scientific curiosity. It can be very useful in forensics, as hair colour is an externally visible characteristic.

Hair goes grey as we age. Is this due to psychosocial stress, also called life stress events? Indeed, changes in hair colour appear to be associated with changes in stress levels. Researchers have found that greying is related to energy metabolism. As the latter decreases, the former increases. It may be possible to halt, or at least temporarily reverse, greying by triggering energy metabolism. How can this be done? Here is where proteome analysis will be of use.

Drug chemists have suggested the use of compounds called phthalates, which smell good and promote hair health. However, there is a catch in this. Too much usage of these chemicals can lead to lung damage and kidney failure.

But there are far easier ways to do this. Nutritionists point out that healthy appearing hair indicates excellent general health. If you have adequate nutrition, your hair grows well. Malnutrition, alcoholism, advanced age – all of these cause hair colour to change, get weakened or be lost. Deficiency of vitamins (A, C, E and selenium) does this, too.

So, where do we go for these nutritious materials? Not too far. Our everyday meals, wherein we use onion, garlic and ginger, green vegetables, fruits and protein-rich pulses such as dal, soyabeans, will suffice.

Yoga and hair growth

Traditional yoga exercises are seen to stimulate the growth of hair by increasing blood circulation in the scalp. No wonder we see all yoga gurus full of hair! Yoga not only relieves stress and anxiety but also helps in massage. Some of the yoga asanas suggested by them are: aadho mukha savasana (the downward dog pose), sarvangasana (erect shoulder stand) and uttarasana (standing forward bend pose). These are well worth practising. In addition, doing breathing exercises such as pranayamam (deep breathing and holding for several seconds) also help. So, let us go for these as well and stay healthy and let our hair look attractive and plentiful!

What about loss of hair as we age? Epidemiological studies suggest that moderate to extensive hair loss is seen in 16% of men in the 18-29 years age group, and 53% in those aged 40-49. Premature loss of hair can lead to strange psychosocial effects. Here too, proteomic comparison of dermal papilla cells, found in the hair follicle, from balding and non-balding males, indicates 128 up-regulated and 12 down-regulated proteins. Some of these differently expressed proteins may one day be ameliorative targets for baldness.

(This article has been written by D. Balasubramanian in collaboration with Sushil Chandani who is a professional computational biologist,

Researchers from IIT Madras and IISER Kolkata have developed a method to detect minute quantities of chemicals in solution. They use a variation of absorption spectroscopy that surpasses the systemic limits imposed by conventional absorption spectroscopy. With this technique, they can, in principle, illuminate the insides of cells and detect minuscule quantities of substances present there. The work was published in Nanoscale.

Spectroscopy, the tool

Absorption spectroscopy is a tool to detect the presence of elements in a medium. Light is shone on the sample, and after it passes through the sample is examined using a spectroscope. Dark lines are seen in the observed spectrum of the light passed through the substance, which correspond to the wavelengths of light absorbed by the intervening substance and are characteristic of the elements present in it. In usual methods, about a cubic centimetre of the sample is needed to do this experiment.In the method developed here, minute amounts of dissolved substances can be detected easily.

Usually in absorption spectroscopy, the principle used is that light because of its wavelike nature, shows diffraction patterns, that is, dark and light fringes, when it scatters off any object. A related concept called the Abbe criterion sets a natural limit on the size of the object being studied. According to this criterion, the size of the observed object has to be at least of the order of the wavelength of the light being shone on it. “If you want to perform absorption spectroscopy using visible light, namely, blue, green and red, the wavelengths [of these colours] are about 400 nm, 500 nm and 600 nm, respectively. the diffraction limit is typically half of that, about 200 nm for the blue light,” explains Basudev Roy, from the Department of Physics of IIT Madras and one of the corresponding authors of the study along with Ayan Banerjee of IISER Kolkata.

In the method used by the researchers here, tiny, nano-sized particles that can absorb light being shone on them and re-emit red, blue and green light were employed. “We use a nanoparticle of sodium yttrium fluoride (a kind of glass) with some dopants, which has the special property that when you excite this with infra-red light at 975 nm, it emits blue, green and red light from the particle itself,” says Dr Roy. These particles were made by M. Gunaseelan at Department of Physics, University of Madras.

Like a bar magnet

The particles emit electric fields that are analogous to how a tiny magnet would give off magnetic lines of force – this is called a dipole, and the particle is like a tiny mobile phone’s antenna. “Our dipole… generates an electromagnetic field depending upon the quantum properties of the erbium dopants in the glass. Our emission pattern is typically limited to a cone of 45 degrees, starting from a diameter of the size of the particle,” he adds.

The absorption leaves a gap in the reflected light, which is what is observed and used to analyse the nature of the absorbing material. Since this works at the level of photons, this surpasses the limit on the size of the substance or sample being studied.

Inside living cells

There are many potential applications. “We are ourselves going to put these particles inside living cells, and the emission can be used as a tiny flash lamp to look for absorption from individual molecules in the close proximity to the particle,” he says. “This is way in which small molecules almost ten-millionth of a mm in diameter can be detected while these pass the emission region of the glass particle… The future is to use it to measure individual molecules, see an absorption spectroscopy of a single DNA or protein molecule.”

The Pensilungpa Glacier located in Ladakh’s Zanskar Valley is retreating due to increase in temperature and decrease in precipitation during winters, a recent study has found. Since 2015, the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG) at Dehradun, an autonomous body under the Department of Science and Technology, has been working on various aspects on glaciology – glacier health (mass balance) monitoring, dynamics, discharge, past climatic conditions, speculation for future climate change and its impact on glaciers in this region. A team of scientists from the institute ventured to study the less explored region of the Himalayas at Zanskar in Ladakh.

Stake networking

”Based on field observations for glacier mass balance collected via stake networking... over the glacier surface since 2016-2019, they assessed the impact of climate change through the lens of past and present response of the Pensilungpa Glacier, Zanskar Himalaya, Ladakh,” the study said. In stake networking, stake made of bamboo, is installed on the glacier surface using the steam drill for mass balance measurement.

Rate of decline

The study also said that field observations for four years (2015–2019) showed that the glacier is now retreating at an average rate of 6.7 plus/minus 3 metre per annum. In the study published in the journal Regional Environmental Change, the team attributes the observed recessional trends of the Pensilungpa Glacier to an increase in the temperature and decrease in precipitation during winters.

Debris cover

The study also points at the significant influence of debris cover on the mass balance and retreat of the glacier's endpoint, especially in summer.

Furthermore, the mass balance data for the three years (2016–2019) showed a negative trend with a small accumulation area ratio.

The study also suggests that due to continuous rise in the air temperature in line with the global trend, the melting would increase, and it is possible that the precipitation of summer periods at higher altitudes will change from snow to rain, and that may influence the summer and winter pattern.

When the Indian government, under ‘Liberalised Pricing and Accelerated National Covid-19 Vaccination Strategy’, earmarked for the private sector 25% of total monthly covid-19 vaccines produced in the country, it did not seem to have considered the evidence. In India – a mixed healthcare system – though the private sector provides a majority of curative and diagnostic services, when it comes to preventive and promotive services, the private sector’s contribution is relatively small. In the almost four-decade-old universal immunisation programme of India, private facilities deliver 10% to 15% of total vaccines. The share of the private sector in mass vaccination campaigns such as Japanese encephalitis, polio, measles, etc has been even smaller.

Differential rates

Then, as part of the liberalised strategy, manufacturers were also allowed to charge differential rates in which the cost of vaccines to the private sector was fixed at four-to-nine-fold higher than the rate for the government. The stated rationales for differential rates and earmarked allocations were to allow manufacturers to earn profit and to push the private sector to support the vaccination drive in India.

Ever since the liberalised vaccination strategy was implemented in early May, while Private Sector COVID-19 Vaccination Centres (PSCVC) received sustained and uninterrupted vaccine supply; the COVID-19 Vaccination Centres (CVC) in the government facilities struggled and had regular vaccine ‘dry days’ and were often shut down intermittently. The outcome was that those who could afford to pay had easier availability and early access to vaccination than the rest; further widening the vaccine inequity. Many public health experts flagged that PSCVC was just 3% to 5% of total CVCs in India; however, these had been assured a quarter of total vaccines produced every month. Yet, the vaccine sharing formula was not revised when the government announced a partial amendment in the liberalised strategy on June 7.

In the last three months, there have been major impacts of differential pricing and vaccine sharing formula. One, the four–nine times higher price of vaccines for the private sector essentially meant that of the total cost of COVID-19 vaccination in India, people would have ended up spending more than the government spending on vaccines. This effectively counters the government’s claim that COVID-19 vaccination is free in India. Second, the differential rate of vaccines in two segments of a market, under government oversight, implicitly legitimised high differential pricing and has weakened the moral right and stand of the government to regulate the prices in future. Third, an easier access to paid vaccination (majority were in urban settings and major cities) skewed the vaccine availability (by income groups and geography) and introduced inequities, contrary to what a government policy should to- to ensure equity, against a stated principle in India’s National Health Policy 2017.

On August 3, Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, responding to a question, informed the parliament that in the last three months the private sector has contributed only 7% of total vaccination in India against the allocated vaccine share of 25%. The minister also informed that the vaccine manufacturer has now been informed not to earmark the entire 25% of the vaccine and should supply as per the demand from the private sector and allocate remaining vaccine to the government.

Tacit acknowledgement

This is a tacit acknowledgement of failure of the private sector vaccine sharing formula. There is a long way to go for India’s vaccination drive. The country has administered 50 crore doses, and at least around 1.38 billion more vaccine doses are yet to be administered to the adult population. However, it is time more is done, and the policy makers need to review the entire vaccination policy and do more corrective actions.

Refining strategy

To start with, policy makers need to consider emerging evidence to refine strategy. First, the fourth national seroprevalence-survey has estimated a variable pool of susceptible populations amongst States. There is sustained transmission in a few States, high test positivity rate in many districts and effective reproduction number rising above in many States. These demand implementation of a better targeted vaccination by geography, population groups and other parameters. However, the availability of vaccines continues to be a constraint. Second, only 7% of total vaccine being administered by private sector, a capped service fee of Rs. 150 in private sector has been termed unviable by them, and a high differential price is arguably a ‘lose–lose situation’ for all stakeholders including vaccine manufacturers, private sector, government and the citizen, where none is gaining much and it is affecting vaccination drive. It is time the government should consider a few steps.

First, revert to 100% procurement by Central Government (in any case, now 93% would be administered by government) as before April 30. This would give the government more flexibility in allocation, facilitate the targeted vaccination and tackle inequities. Second, renegotiate single price with each vaccine manufacturers for both public and private sectors. This could be higher than what the government currently pays but uniform for a vaccine. Third, once the government provides free vaccines to the private sector, an ideal situation would be that the cost of service charge in the private sector is also paid by the government; however, a more pragmatic way is that government revises the service charge in private sector upward to make these viable.

The COVID-19 vaccination in India is a tale of a series of policy and delivery failures never witnessed in the history of health programmes in India. However, the bigger threat is that in failing to implement COVID-19 vaccination drive effectively, the trust of the citizen in government health service delivery has been further eroded. It is call for urgent policy corrections to regain the trust.

(Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, a physician-epidemiologist, is a public policy and health systems expert and co-author of ‘Till We Win: India’s Fight Against The COVID-19 Pandemic’.)

Each leaf of So Many Leaves, a slim, beautifully illustrated book, introduces children to leaves of common plants and their unique features. Conceptualised and written by academics and authors Harini Nagendra and Seema Mundoli, the book is aimed at introducing children to Nature and spark an interest in trees and plants.

After the success of their 2019 book Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities, Seema says both of them were mulling over a series of books for children on leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds when publishers Pratham Books approached them for a children’s book on trees.

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“They wanted us to write in rhyme, to appeal to children, and also add a section on fun activities that readers could do with leaves,” says Seema.

Illustrated by Barkha Lohia, the book —which has been translated into Hindi, Marathi, French and Italian — focusses on various facets of leaves by talking about their size, appearance, colour, taste, aroma, use and so on. Illustrations in hues of green and minimal splashes of colour enhance each page.

Read More | Rohan Chakravarty’s ‘Green Humour for a Greying Planet’ conveys hard truths on conservation in comic strips

“We knew that writing only about the ecological or biological aspects of leaves may not be of interest to children in the age group of six to 12. But the age group was not set in stone. A three-year-old can also enjoy the book if a parent helps her with it. We decided to talk about common leaves that they could easily see around, identify and explore. So we have touched upon the ecological importance of leaves and how they help us in different ways by talking about the interdependence of life,” says Harini.

The authors have explained the significant features of the leaves in an interesting way. “So, for instance, we have pointed out that a single banana leaf can be used as a plate. While a jamun leaf would just about be the size of a child’s palm, and the leaf of a tamarind is smaller than the nail on a finger. That helps children understand size easily,” explains Seema.

Explaining how they have found ways to connect with young readers, Seema explains how children love textures. “So, we have talked about leaves that are hairy, silky, glossy and those with thorns. We have included why leaves have certain features. Cacti, for example, have thorns, thus preventing animals from eating them.”

At the end of the book, activities are suggested to encourage children to learn on their own. In addition to collecting and drying leaves between the pages of a book, the book suggests putting a peepal leaf in a bucket of water to observe the changes; its network of veins is exposed.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will launch an Earth Observation Satellite on August 12 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, SHAR, at Sriharikota. The launch has been scheduled at 5.43 a.m.

The satellite, EOS-03, will be carried on board the 14th flight of the GSLV, the GSLV-F10, and will place the satellite in a Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit. The satellite will reach the final geostationary orbit using its onboard propulsion system, ISRO said.

A 4-metre diameter Ogive-shaped payload fairing is being flown for the first time in this GSLV flight, ISRO said.

The EOS-03 is a state-of-the-art agile satellite that would enable real-time monitoring of natural disasters such as floods and cyclones, monitoring of water bodies, crops, vegetation condition, forest cover changes among others.

Union Minister of State for the Department of Space, Jitendra Singh, recently informed the Rajya Sabha that EOS-03 is capable of imaging the whole country four to five times every day.

This will only be the second launch for ISRO in 2021 as work has been hit by the COVID-19 restrictions. In February this year, the space agency launched Brazil’s earth observation satellite Amazonia-1 along with 18 other co-passenger satellites on board the PSLV C-51.

A recent publication has provided crucial evidence that Ancestral Dravidian languages were possibly spoken by a significant population in the Indus Valley civilisation.

The paper titled “Ancestral Dravidian Languages in Indus Civilization: Ultraconserved Dravidian Tooth-word Reveals Deep Linguistic Ancestry and Supports Genetics”, by Bahata Ansumali Mukhopadhyay was published earlier this month in a Nature Group of journal - Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume 8, Article number: 193 (2021).

This study seeks to resolve a crucial part of this perennial puzzle of South Asian prehistory, through establishing the certain existence of ancestral Dravidian language(s) in the Indus Valley civilisation. In the absence of any deciphered written documents of Indus Valley civilisation, there are no direct ways of identifying Harappan languages. Thus, the only feasible starting point is to find certain proto-words whose likely origin in Indus Valley civilisation gets confirmed through historical and linguistic evidence, whereas archaeological evidence indicates that the objects signified by those proto-words were prevalently produced and used in the Indian Valley civilisation.


Analysing numerous archaeological, linguistic, archaeogenetic and historical evidences the study finds some such proto-words. It claims that the words used for elephant (like, ‘pīri’, ‘pīru’) in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, the elephant-word used in the Hurrian part of an Amarna letter of ca. 1400 BC, and the ivory-word (‘pîruš’) recorded in certain sixth century BC Old Persian documents, were all originally borrowed from ‘pīlu’, a Proto-Dravidian elephant-word, which was prevalent in the Indus Valley civilisation, and was etymologically related to the Proto Dravidian tooth-word ‘*pal’ and its alternate forms ( ‘*pel’/‘*pīl’/‘*piḷ’/).

Extensively analysing Dravidian grammar and phonology, Ms. Bahata, a Bengaluru-based software technologist, argues that the elephant words ‘pīlu’, ‘palla’, ‘pallava’, ‘piḷḷuvam’, etc., which are attested in various Dravidian dictionaries, are related to the Proto-Dravidian tooth-word “pal”.

The paper points out that elephant-ivory was one of the luxury goods coveted in the Near East, and archaeological, and zoological evidence confirms that Indus Valley was the sole supplier of ancient Near East’s ivory in the middle-third to early-second millennium BC. Some of this Indus ivory came directly from Meluhha to Mesopotamia, whereas some of it got imported there through Indus Valley’s thriving trade with Persian Gulf, and even via Bactria. Thus, along with the ivory trade, the Indus word for ivory also got exported to the Near East and remained fossilised in different ancient documents written in Akkadian, Elamite, Hurrian, and Old Persian languages.

Ms. Bahata provides another intriguing evidence regarding the etymological link of the ‘pīlu’ word to the meaning of tooth. She shows that some trees of Salvadoraceae family, which are famous as ‘toothbrush tree’ in the western-world, and as ‘miswak’ tree (‘miswak’ meaning ‘toothcleaning-stick’) in the Arabic-speaking countries, are called by ‘pīlu’ and its phonological derivatives across the Indus valley regions. The branches and roots of this tree have been used since antiquity as a natural toothbrush. In traditional medicine systems such as Indian Ayurveda and Perso-Arabic Tibb Yūnānī this tree is called as ‘pīlu’ and ‘pilun’ respectively. Ms. Bahata claims that, just like its English and Arabic names, its Indic name was also related to the meaning of tooth. Archaeobotany shows that Indus people used this tree’s wood frequently, and it is a key characteristic flora of Pakistan’s tropical dry thorn forest.

Important disclaimer

The researcher, however, puts an important disclaimer, saying that it would be very wrong to assume that only a single language or language-group was spoken across the one-million square kilometre area of Indus Valley civilisation.

“Even today, people across the greater Indus Valley speak several tongues including Indo-Aryan, Dardic, Iranian, along with the isolated Dravidian language Brahui and the language isolate Burushaski. During the Indus Valley civilisation era, this region could have been even more multilingual, with some languages that are now extinct. But we can at least be sure that ancestral Dravidian was one of the most popular tongues spoken by our ancestors,” she added.

Two years ago, on July 9, 2019, the researcher had published a paper titled ‘Interrogating Indus inscription to unravel their mechanism of meaning conveyance’ suggesting that majority of Indus valley inscriptions were written logographically or semasiographically (by using word-signs or meaning- units) and not phonograms (speech sounds units).

The Ministry of Ayush has collaborated with the U.K.'s London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) to conduct a study on ‘Ashwagandha’ for promoting recovery from COVID-19.

A Ministry release said that the All India Institute of Ayurveda (AIIA), an autonomous body under the Ministry of Ayush, and the LSHTM recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding to conduct clinical trials of ‘Ashwagandha’ on 2,000 people in three U.K. cities — Leicester, Birmingham and London (Southall and Wembley).

‘Indian winter cherry’

‘Ashwagandha’ (Withania somnifera), commonly known as ‘Indian winter cherry’, is a traditional Indian herb that boosts energy, reduces stress and makes the immune system stronger. It is an easily accessible, over-the-counter nutritional supplement in the U.K. and has a proven safety profile. The positive effects of ‘Ashwagandha’ have been observed in Long COVID, which is a multi-system disease with no evidence of its effective treatment or management.

It added that the successful completion of the trial could be a major breakthrough and give scientific validity to India’s traditional medicinal system.

“While there have been several studies on ‘Ashwagandha’ to understand its benefits in various ailments, this is the first time the Ministry of Ayush has collaborated with a foreign institution to investigate its efficacy on COVID-19 patients,’’ the Ministry said.

Randomly selected

According to AIIA director Tanuja Manoj Nesari, who is also a co-investigator in the project along with Rajgopalan, coordinator–International Projects, the participants have been randomly selected. Sanjay Kinra of the LSHTM is the principal investigator of the study.

“For three months, one group of 1,000 participants will be administered ‘Ashwagandha’ (AG) tablets while the second group of 1,000 participants will be assigned a placebo, which is indistinguishable from AG in looks and taste. Both patients and the doctors will be unaware of the group’s treatment in a double-blind trial,” Dr. Nesari said.

The participants will have to take the 500mg tablets twice a day. A monthly follow-up of self-reported quality of life, impairment to activities of daily living, mental and physical health symptoms, supplement use and adverse events will be carried out.

It took over 100 meetings spanning about 16 months through both diplomatic as well as regulatory channels for signing of the MoU, Dr. Nesari said. She added that the study had been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and certified by WHO-GMP. It was being conducted and monitored as per the internationally recognised GCP (Good Clinical Practices) guidelines, she added.

Recently, a number of randomised placebo controlled trials of AG in humans in India have demonstrated its efficacy in reducing anxiety and stress, improving muscle strength and reducing symptoms of fatigue in patients treated for chronic conditions. It has also been indicated for treating non-restorative sleep, a hallmark of chronic fatigue, for which the trials are currently ongoing. Combined with substantial literature on its pharmacological and immunomodulatory effects in vitro and in animals, the study suggests ‘Ashwagandha’ as a potential therapeutic candidate for alleviating the long-term symptoms of COVID-19.

“After the trial’s success, ‘Ashwagandha’ will be a proven medicinal treatment to prevent infection and be recognised by the scientific community worldwide,” the Ministry noted.

It added that despite successful vaccine development, COVID-19 continued to pose a substantial threat to health in the U.K. and globally. More than 15% of adults in the U.K., where the clinical trials on ‘Ashwagandha’ was going to take place, and more than 10% globally had been infected with the Sars-Cov-2 virus.

The fourth sero survey conducted across India found that on an average 67.6% of the population has been infected. Also, over 25% of people have been vaccinated with one dose. In an email, Dr. Srinath Reddy, President of the Public Health Foundation of India and member of the National COVID-19 Technical Taskforce dispels the wrong notion that India is close to reaching herd immunity and explains the uncertainty of protection even among those already infected.

Nearly 29,000 people from the general population and over 7,200 healthcare workers were randomly tested from 70 districts across 21 States. How representative is the sampling for the whole country?

Scientists from ICMR have themselves clarified that this survey is not representative of the whole country. They have called for state level, preferably district level, surveys across the country using standardised methodology. If we wish to have a truly nationally representative survey, we must sample from every postal code area in the country. That will be highly resource intensive and not feasible during a pandemic period when health system has many competing demands.

The national surveys of ICMR are valuable, even if they are not fully representative of the whole country. By conducting repetitive surveys in the same districts, these studies provide information on how proportions of infected people in the population have increased over time. That helps us to understand how effective our efforts to contain viral transmission have been during the periods between surveys. Kerala, for example, has a low level of seroprevalence because they have adopted public health strategies which slow down transmission. While the survey results are also interpreted to estimate the numbers of immune and susceptible persons in the population, there are reasons to question those assumptions.

The seroprevalence is 67.6%, which is far higher than the last survey figure of over 24%. But this is only an average and many States, such as Kerala, have far lower seroprevalence. So is it correct to assume that a vast percentage of the population, both in urban and rural areas, is uniformly protected?

There is a great deal of variation across the country, between states. If we do district level surveys, we will find even greater variation. We must bear in mind that, while the sample size may be adequate at the national level, to provide estimates with a narrow uncertainty band (confidence interval), individual state sample numbers would be small and have wider uncertainty bands.

If we accept the figures provided for each state, ignoring such concerns about wider uncertainty bands around the estimates, it is clear that there is no uniformity across the country. That is to be expected, as there are marked variations between states on levels of urbanisation, population density, travel intensity, extent of control measures implemented and super spreader events permitted, speed and level of opening up of various sectors of activity and vaccination rates since January.

It would, however, be erroneous to conclude that all persons who tested positive are immune to infection by the virus. We do not know for sure how long the antibodies last either after infection or vaccination, as there are conflicting reports emerging on both types of induced immunity. More important, the tests employed in the surveys only identify antibodies to two viral proteins (nucleocapsid and the spike) but do not measure the ability of those antibodies to neutralise the virus. Estimating the neutralisation power is important in the context of the variants which are displaying capacity for evading the immune response. Will the antibodies produced against the wild ancestral virus infection in January or the Alpha variant in February be effective against the Delta virus in July? There is a possibility that some of those who tested positive for antibodies, especially children, may have cross-reactive antibodies generated by other corona viruses which produce common cold. Counter-posed against such ‘false positives’, we may also have ‘false negatives’ of persons in whom antibody levels may have fallen some months after infection but still may have immunity from memory T cells and other forms of cellular immunity. So, definitive conclusions about individual or population immunity should not be drawn from antibody surveys.

Are there chances that people who were infected early during the pandemic last year might not have the antibodies and hence might have been missed by the latest survey?

People who were infected early during the pandemic would have a greater chance of testing negative during surveys due to the waning of antibodies over time. The time taken for such disappearance has been variably reported to be between three and six months. There would be a great deal of individual variation, based on the dose of viral exposure, severity of the infection, nature of the variant, age of the infected person, associated health conditions and use of steroids or other immunosuppressive drugs for treatment during the illness. So, there are likely to be several persons who may have been infected some months ago but were missed by the recent survey.

Will infection with the old strain provide sufficient protection particularly against the Delta variant?

The answer has been provided by laboratory studies which have shown a diminished neutralisation efficacy of antibodies produced by previous infections against the Delta variant. The study by the Pasteur Institute in France is particularly informative in this regard. However, some protection is still likely. Even if the variant has spike protein mutations that make it vaccine evasive, natural infection with an earlier form of the virus would have also evoked immune responses against other antigens of the virus. Those non- Spike directed immune defences can still provide some protection. We do not know how strong and long lasting that immunity would be in any individual, as there would be considerable variation among those infected.

Like Manaus, Brazil reporting a huge surge in cases despite 76% seropositivity rate, the metro cities in India with high seropositivity rate reported a large number of fresh cases during the second wave. Will we still see a large number of cases in these cities if and when a third wave begins in India?

There is no guarantee that seropositivity in a survey is a proof of permanent protection against fresh infection, especially when the virus is frequently changing form. Vaccines, with a standardised dose of antigenic challenge, provide a greater assurance of protection than a previous infection with a variable viral dose and a different form of the virus than the one that is currently circulating. The numbers infected in the third wave will depend on the numbers of people still susceptible, the numbers among them who are exposed to the virus and the nature of variants in circulation. By adopting strong containment measures everywhere, we can protect the susceptible persons even against current and new variants. A new and more infectious variant can rapidly spread everywhere if we offer opportunities for easy transmission. That is why we must intensify genomic testing for detection of variants.

Is it at all correct to assume that large parts of the country is quite close to reaching herd immunity due to the high seropositivity rate?

It is erroneous to conclude that we have attained herd immunity as a population, when there are many variations across the country even according to the antibody survey. This is for several reasons. We do not know if all who tested positive for antibodies have neutralising capacity against the currently circulating variants. We do not also know how long those antibodies will last. Even if the antibodies are protective today, that protection could fade in a month or two. The herd immunity threshold (HIT) is high for the more infectious variants. For the Delta, it may be 85% or higher. We are below that level in all states that were surveyed.

Herd immunity is a population attribute, not an assured individual safeguard. It operates on the principle that if a large majority of persons in a population acquire immunity, through infection or vaccination, they will block the transmission of the virus to the smaller group who do not have such acquired immunity. However, if these non-immune persons travel to any other part of the city, country or the world, where the proportion of persons who have acquired immunity is low and below the HIT while the virus is still in active circulation, there is no protective cordon to prevent infection. We live in a world of high mobility. It is best that each individual acquires immunity, preferably through vaccination, rather than risking one’s life by betting on the uncertain charity of someone else’s immunity offering protection everywhere.

Considering that two-third of India is already infected and has some level of protection and over 25% of the adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, will the third wave be as severe as the second wave both in terms of daily fresh cases and deaths?

The third wave should be milder for those reasons, if no new variant sweeps through with higher infectivity and undiminished virulence. That does not appear likely at the moment but we must prepare for such an occurrence. Even if there are many infections, the immunity provided by vaccines and prior viral exposure should reduce the risk of severe illness or death. That is what we have seen recently in the UK and parts of USA, where it is now considered an epidemic mostly of the unvaccinated and any infections among vaccinated persons are associated with very mild symptoms. We should acquire that status as quickly as possible, though I believe we should also create vaccine confidence to keep the numbers of unvaccinated persons extremely low.

The human respiratory tract is a highly efficient oxygenation system with a large surface area and surplus capacity (if all 600 million alveoli are stretched out, they can cover a tennis court). The alveoli, lined by thin flat cells, are exposed to inhaled air on one side and de-oxygenated blood in capillaries on the other.

This delicate system is exposed to inhaled noxious insults also – biological (bacterial, fungal, viral), chemical (smoke and particles) and allergy-inducing material (dust, pollen, animal fur), throughout life. As a consequence, many develop progressive lung damage and chronic lung disease – a very common non-communicable disease (NCD) with high morbidity and mortality ( approximately 30% of all NCD deaths).

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us the vital importance of the face mask in preventing coronavirus infection. The Hindu was a pioneer to promote universal mask use, and, after initial reluctance, many organisations world-wide adopted this measure. We describe the multiple benefits of face mask beyond the pandemic.

Effective intervention

Some inhaled viral respiratory infections such as influenza have high mortality at extremes of age; others, like the ‘common cold’ are an important cause for loss of person-hours and productivity. Universal mask-use is an effective preventive intervention against such diseases – it does not completely prevent viral entry, but drastically reduces the viral dose – low doses serve to stimulate immunity with lowered risk of overt disease.

With 7,00,00,000 tuberculosis (TB) cases annually, India is the TB capital of the world. TB is the commonest chronic respiratory infection, the most important infectious disease in India, with WHO-estimated annual 26,40,000 new cases, 4,36,000 deaths, 2.8% and 14% multi-drug-resistance in new and old cases, respectively ( 2019 data: india/). TB bacilli, expelled by those with pulmonary TB while coughing or spitting are inhaled by others. Unlike viruses with short life-span in atmosphere, TB bacilli in sputum survive even in dried state, for days to weeks and get air-borne. If everyone wears a mask while outside home, spitting in public places and inhalation of TB bacilli will drastically come down.

These two benefits – prevented viral infections and TB – can translate into considerably reduced acute and chronic respiratory diseases, loss of lives and livelihoods.

India is also the diabetes capital of the world, with urban diabetes prevalence of over 10% in adults above age 40. Diabetes and TB are a deadly combination – each making the other worse – a vicious cycle that afflicts hundreds of thousands in India. Universal masking, continued beyond the pandemic, can minimise the risk of TB in diabetics.

Our metros suffer high levels of air pollution with toxic particulate matter, causing progressive irreversible impairment of lung function. In Delhi, air pollution became so bad that Supreme Court had to intervene to improve matters on a war footing. While non-polluting motor vehicles, avoiding crop burning etc. are public health measures to curtail air pollution, face mask offers considerable protection from inhaling toxic particles and to a lesser extent even noxious fumes.

Occupational hazard

Some occupations expose individuals to inhalation of particulate asbestos, carbon, silica etc. which also progressively impair lung function -- appropriate face masks are an important health imperative for them.

Smoking in public, although banned, continues to be a problem in India -- passive smoking puts even non- smokers at risk. Insistence on wearing a mask in public will be a deterrent to smoking and will protect smokers and non-smokers alike.

Respiratory allergies

As every physician knows, respiratory allergy – ‘allergic rhinitis’ and ‘extrinsic allergic asthma’, mostly due to inhaled ‘allergens’, are very common problems in children and adults, accounting for approximately 20% to 30% of all outpatient visits. Many with respiratory allergy, who consistently wore masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, have found considerable relief from chronic upper and lower respiratory symptoms and intend to continue using masks beyond the pandemic.

Hospitals, with their concentration of patients with acute and chronic respiratory infections, pose an important health risk to people working there – a hazard highlighted by loss of lives of many health- care workers during the current COVID-19 pandemic. However, the risk of other hospital-acquired respiratory diseases cannot be under-rated. Routine use of face masks will certainly reduce the risk to health-care professionals, and should be practised beyond the pandemic. Even those who visit hospitals for healthcare – patients and their bystanders, at increased risk of contracting respiratory infections – will be well-advised to routinely use face masks during hospital visits.

Indeed, the simple face mask, which ancient Jain Munis used and promoted, has multiple benefits well beyond the pandemic.

(Dr M .S. Seshadri, Former Professor of Medicine and Clinical Endocrinology, Christian Medical College, Vellore is currently Medical Director, Thirumalai Mission Hospital, Ranipet. Dr T. Jacob John is former Professor of Clinical Virology, Christian Medical College, Vellore, and former President of the Indian Academy of Pediatrics.)