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‘Coconut Development Authority the future pioneer of economic growth’ – CDA Chairman, Keerthi Sri Weerasinghe

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2021 records largest income from coconut exports in history

Public unaware it is an immune booster and an ideal source of high nutrition

Next goal: Coconut re-export zone, Hambantota

Coconut Development Authority Chairman, Keerthi Sri Weerasinghe claims that the largest income from coconut exports on record was achieved in 2021. A programme with an economic goal of USD 2.5 billion is already in the works.

Commenting on plans to reap economic benefits from coconut development, Weerasinghe admitted that Sri Lanka is faced with an economic crisis. “The Treasury is left with only USD 1.04 billion. We are forced to pay huge debt service payments. Consequently, we can’t retain dollars.” He reiterated that the Sri Lankan economy is currently experiencing negative growth. “We have no money for imports. Therefore we must strive for higher export revenue.” Weerasinghe pointed out that Sri Lanka can no longer depend solely on traditional methods for income generation. “This is exactly where we failed. Using only traditional methods has curtailed our revenue. We must increase our income tactically.”

He revealed that the estate sector has already amassed a considerable sum to this effect. According to him, the coconut industry alone brought in approximately USD 661 million last year. “It has hauled in approximately USD 850 million by November this year. It’s a 30 percent increase in export income.” In fact, 2021 records the largest income from coconut exports in history. Weerasinghe divulged that a plan to double it is in the works. He informed that the need has arisen to rouse the industrialist out of stagnation. “Industrialists are the ones who introduced the coconut industry and coconut-based products to the world. Such products became popular globally. The reason for this popularity is the numerous attributes of coconut.”

Weerasinghe pointed out that the reason for comparatively few COVID-19 casualties is due to the many attributes of coconut. “Locals, who are used to consuming a lot of coconut, are naturally disease tolerant due to the immunity-boosting nature of coconut.” He said that, although the locals are oblivious of such advantages, the rest of the world is not. Consequently, there is a huge demand for coconut. “Coconut contains lauric acid, Omega-3 and Omega-6. The only other substance that contains these constituents is breast milk, a known immunity booster.” He explained that coconut oil contains approximately 60 to 70 percent Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), popular as ‘brain cell fuel’. As the term suggests, MCTs supports the brain’s nervous system. Its fast-absorbing nature allows it to be used as a quick energy source. “The body produces energy through processing glucose. But the energy produced by processing lipids is important for brain cells. There is a fundamental difference between the two types of energy produced by processing glucose and lipids.” In many countries, MCT dietary supplements are introduced to children to combat autism and Parkinson’s as MCTs are vital for the proper functioning of the nervous system. “Glucose

requires insulin to facilitate the absorption of energy produced through its processing. But MCTs are readily absorbed into the bloodstream.”

Weerasinghe explained that the deteriorating of food habits have resulted in many health complications. “It’s ideal for weight loss. For instance, it’s clinically proven that if 30 millilitres of MCT is consumed per day, you can lose an inch off your waist over a month. Consequently, there is a huge demand for MCTs.” Moreover, it’s the ideal treatment for heart disease and skin disorders. It also has immunity-boosting properties and has a high energy content. “MCTs are sold to countries such as the US in capsule form. But to take up similar ventures, we must improve our technology. Today MCT can be used as supplements along with tea, coffee and children’s food. In fact, MCTs are revolutionary.”

According to Weerasinghe, the future will offer Sri Lanka the opportunity to supply this demand, which so far Sri Lanka has failed to deliver. He confided that although Sri Lanka was able to increase coconut production from 2800 million coconuts last year to 3100 in 2021, it’s not sufficient to supply the demand. “We are losing the industry. In fact, since we can’t supply the demand our industrialists have been forced to open factories in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. Not only is our technology transferred, but our industry is also forced to compete with those countries.” He pointed out that local industrialists are operating at half their capacity. “They get only 50 percent of their coconut requirement since we don’t produce enough. We could earn extra revenue while supplying this demand.”

A special export zone was established at Hambantota for this purpose. “It will provide a platform for industrialists to develop the industry and supply global demand by importing coconut to supply their demand.” He declared that after the industrial zone and the re-export zone commences operations it could bring in 2.5 billion by 2025. “Lands have already been earmarked for the purpose, with the collaborations of the Board of Investment. Twenty-five local industrialists have already expressed their interest. We are currently awaiting phytosanitary certification. Everything is a go. We just need the recommendation of the National Plant Quarantine Service and the Coconut Research Institute.” He further revealed that the project is independent of state finances, except to construct the office complex and laboratory. “Instead funds provided by private sector industrialists will be utilised. It’s an obvious source of income. And after the laboratory commences operations, it can cater to laboratory requirements of not only the coconut industry but could also provide laboratory facilities to the whole Southern Province. It will be capable of issuing quality assurance certificates for other cultivations as well.”

Weerasinghe revealed that the cost of the first phase of this two-phase project will be to the tune of SLR 10 billion. “Which will be born by industrialists, because this is a huge profit-generating industry. The only thing left for the state sector is to leave the industry to its own devices.” He reiterated that it is a strategic project. “It will be housed in the Hambantota Port and Sri Lanka Customs, Police, Coconut Research Institute (CRI) and the National Plant Quarantine Service will operate from within this zone. Not a single coconut imported for this purpose will enter the local market.” Weerasinghe claimed that he can guarantee that, although tea is currently the major export crop hauling in the biggest chunk of foreign exchange in Sri Lanka, coconut can generate USD 2.5 billion worth of foreign income by 2025. “If we can achieve this Sri Lanka will never have to face another economic recession.”

Weerasinghe opined that, when the world transcends traditional industry, it can branch off to other industries and produce finished goods instead of raw material. He is already in discussion with the world’s leading industrialists to this effect and is confident that the foreign exchange can be increased to five billion US dollars. “The market share of coconut-based products is USD 40 billion. With just five billion of that, we can bail out our economy.” Weerasinghe believes that the general population lacks an understanding of the Sri Lankan economic situation. “Particularly the state sector employees. Seventy-five percent of them are pessimistic. A majority of the Sri Lankan public would rather languish without work. This has to change. Our Authority worked five days a week without break, even during the lockdown period, to bring it to this level.”

Weerasinghe was able to encourage the Coconut Cultivation Board (CCB), CRI and industrialists. “Vested powers must be used not for one’s benefit, to fulfil personal vendettas, but to achieve economic advancement. The President clearly wants to do the right thing. The Finance Minister and Ministers Ramesh Pathirana and Arundika Fernando are proactively working towards the same goal.” Weerasinghe elaborated that the tourism industry has collapsed and the only way to resolve it is to generate income to supplement the loss. Weerasinghe, with the collaboration of all chairpersons, hope to develop a proactive methodology in this regard. “We must endeavour to strengthen the rupee.”

Commenting on the issue of coconut mites that plagued coconut cultivation in the recent past, Weerasinghe admitted that the industry has failed to bring the mite problem under control. As a result of the Authority’s discussions with the Brazilian Agriculture Department, they have expressed their willingness to assist the local coconut industry in the matter. “The problem is that coconut trees grow quite tall. As such, application of chemicals can prove very tricky, because of the farms and residential areas surrounding the plantations.” The CDA, in collaboration with the CRI and CCB, hopes to resolve the issue using drone technology.

But the mites are the least of the problems faced by the coconut industry. “Monkeys, macaques, giant squirrels, porcupines, elephants and free-ranging cattle contribute to one-third of crop destruction, jeopardising food security.” He pointed out that countries like the US have warranted culling to keep deer populations at bay. “If we are to develop the estate sector, crop destruction must be prevented at any cost.”

Weerasinghe revealed that the CDA assists small scale industries. “Capital is vital in entrepreneurship. The advantage of coconut-based businesses is that it requires little capital. Coconut husks alone fetch USD 300 million, coconut shells USD 200 million.” He revealed that entrepreneurs are issued dryer machines and other technologies and are eligible for interest-free loans. “They are given the opportunity to break into not only the local market but the global market as well. At the moment such businesses are doing considerably well.” On behalf of the CDA, he expressed willingness to assist anyone who is dedicated and is interested in breaking into the industry. The CDA has been providing coconut oil producers with dryers. “Copra develops mould during the drying process, which produces Aflatoxins. This is why the CDA issues dryers that can dehydrate coconuts in a matter of hours, instead of days.”

When asked how the CDA hopes to intervene to produce coconut oil devoid of Aflatoxins, Weerasinghe reproached media for disseminating false information regarding the subject. He added that the public’s awareness of the subject is also miserably inadequate. “Coconut oil is imported as crude oil, which is then refined into ‘refined, bleached and deodorised’ oil, known as RBD. These have zero Aflatoxins. However, locally produced oil may contain Aflatoxins.” He claimed that the objective of the CDA is to produce oil with zero Aflatoxins after refining. “RBD oil can be consumed without fear.” According to him, legislation that makes mandatory the indication of Aflatoxin levels on the packaging is in the works.

When asked whether the CDA has taken action to bring coconut prices under control, he declared that the CDA is vested with the authority to regulate the coconut supply. “Coconut is used for consumption, oil production and coconut-based business. Sri Lanka is unable to produce enough coconut to supply the combined demand of the three categories.” He elaborated that depending on the supply the CDA reduces or increases the import tax and quantity of oil imported to compensate for the demand. “Coconut prices go up only when this process is not streamlined. Consequently, it is very easy to control coconut prices. In fact, we will ensure that prices remain stable in the near future.”

When asked about the CDA’s plan to produce coconut milk, Weerasinghe expressed interest in tripling coconut milk production. “Coconut milk use has exceeded dairy use. Coconut milk has the ability to eliminate fungus, bacteria and parasites. Consequently, the demand for coconut milk has increased.” He said that the CDA is bent on popularising coconut milk production in order to prevent bacterial contamination when making coconut milk at home. “And also to develop the product as a business venture. When coconut milk is produced at the factory level, the coconut shell is not discarded. Shells are in high demand and this brings in a huge profit. Even waste coconut scrapings are in high demand.” As such, it would come as huge relief to Sri Lankan housewives that the CDA does not condone coconut scraping on a regular basis.



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Features

A Good Guide to the Omicron Variant

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By M.C.M. Iqbal, PhD

Despite the WHO adopting a neutral system to name the variants of the coronavirus that keep emerging (using letters of the Greek alphabet), the Omicron variant is associated with South Africa. The last variant of the virus to emerge was the Delta variant, which surfaced in December 2020, in India. There are two more letters between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet that the WHO decided not to use. These are ‘Nu’ and ‘Xie’, which the WHO thought could be confused with ‘new’ while Xie is a common surname in China.

The Omicron variant is spreading in many countries. With the number of infected persons rising and another wave expected, many countries in Europe have imposed the usual methods to arrest the spread, with immediate lockdowns. However, scientists are still collecting data to find out how bad Omicron is, since the data seems to indicate that in South Africa, the disease is not as bad as the Delta variant. At the same time, in Europe, there is no significant change in the number of persons hospitalized. Of immediate concern to health authorities are, is the Omicron variant spreading faster than the earlier variants, does it cause more or less severe disease, and can it bypass the vaccines available?

Discovery

Scientists in South Africa announced on 25 November the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. On 26 November, the WHO named it Omicron. Although South Africa has been labeled as the country of origin, the virus was identified in neighbouring Botswana. In addition, there are reports of an earlier detection of this variant in the Netherlands.

PCR tests look for four markers on the virus genome to identify it as the coronavirus. The tests in Botswana showed a reduced sensitivity because one of the four targets was not being detected. These samples were sent to South Africa, where scientists have state-of-the-art facilities to look for changes in the genome of the virus. Changes are found by reading the ‘letters’ of the virus genome (called sequencing) and comparing it to the already available genome of the virus. The new Omicron variant had many more changes than the Delta variant.

Global status

By 14th January, the Omicron variant had spread to 116 countries in all six continents since its discovery on 26 November 2021. The figure below shows the gradual replacement of the presently dominant Delta variant by the Omicron variant; at present global data on the coronavirus, maintained by Nextstrain (https:// nextstrain.org/ncov/open/global) shows a decline of the Delta variant from 88% on 30th October 2021 to 42% on 8th January 2022, while correspondingly the Omicron variant has increased from less than 1% to 56%. Nextstrain is a global database presenting a real-time view of the evolution of the genomes of the coronavirus and other globally important pathogens. The interactive platform provides information to professionals and the public to understand the spread and evolution of pathogens, including information on individual countries.

Distribution of Delta and Omicron variants on 1st January 2022 from Nextstrain. (Please see graph)

What’s unique about Omicron?

Unlike the previous variants of the coronavirus, this variant has over 30 changes (mutations) to its spike (a protein), the characteristic flower-like protrusion on its surface. It was these changes to the spike, one of the four targets of the PCR test that raised alarm bells in Botswana. This spike makes the coronavirus special – it is the key it uses to gain entry into the cells in our throat and lungs. The previous variants, Alpha and Delta also had changes in their spike protein, enabling them to enter cells more efficiently and thus making them more infectious. The vaccines against the virus are based on this spike, and the antibodies produced by our immune system are specific to the spike protein. Thus, any significant changes to the spike means the previous vaccines may not be effective against the newly changed spikes on the Omicron variant.

While the Omicron variant can spread rapidly, it appears to cause milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta variants. Scientists believe this is because Omicron infects the upper airways or the throat, and not the lungs further down. Based on experiments done on hamsters and mice, scientists found the concentration of the virus was much lower in the lungs than in their throat. The earlier variants of the coronavirus caused severe damage to the lungs of the infected people, with extreme cases needing oxygen. This does not seem to be the case with Omicron. Scientists believe the changes to the spike enables the virus to enter cells in the throat more easily than in the lungs.

It can spread rapidly

The virus is quickly expelled into the air if it infects and multiplies in the throat. Since it causes a milder form of the disease, infected persons may be unaware that they carry the virus. They would be moving about socially and at work, spreading the virus. Thus, the obvious means of slowing or preventing the spread of the virus is to strictly wear the mask at all times, and avoid social gatherings.

Studies have suggested that the period between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms has also reduced to three days for Omicron. At the pandemic’s beginning, this was more than five days, and for the Delta variant it was four days.

What is of immediate concern?

Of concern to scientists is the better ability of the Omicron to spread rapidly in the population and its suspected ability to bypass our immune system. Our immune system is our internal defense system, using antibodies and an arsenal of chemicals and cells. The available vaccines are designed on the coronavirus variants circulating in the population. Thus, major changes to the coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the available vaccines. Both these concerns have been observed in the past month: Omicron can spread more rapidly than the presently dominant Delta variant, and observations on vaccinated people show a reduced ability by the vaccines to prevent infections, compared to the Delta variant. This has called for booster doses for people who have already received the two mandatory doses. In Israel, even a fourth vaccination is being administered.

How could the variant have evolved?

Variants of the coronavirus result from changes to the virus’s genome, called mutations. What is troubling about the Omicron variant is that it has many mutations in its spike. Mutations happen spontaneously as the virus multiplies in our bodies and spreads to others. Thus, the virus gradually accumulates small changes to its advantage. These advantages are infecting us more efficiently, spreading to others more easily, and multiplying more rapidly. Scientists believe that one possibility is that the virus circulated in a small isolated group of people (say a village), piling up the mutations over time, and then escaping into a broader population, and then eventually crossing borders.

Another possibility is that it developed in a single individual and spread to others. This happens when a person has low immunity, resulting in a prolonged infection because the immune system cannot eliminate the virus. This leads to the virus developing changes (mutating) to overcome the mild immune response. Answering this question needs scientists to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the virus, using tools from molecular biology. Unfortunately, locating patient zero is difficult since it is impossible to analyze the virus (or sequence its genome) of all the persons infected with the Omicron variant. What is usually possible is to determine a general area or community and the time of origin.

What can we do about it?

Vaccinate! This is the primary tool we have to prevent the spread of the virus and not give it opportunities to multiply. In addition, we should rigorously follow the simple rules we are familiar with – wear the mask when outside, physically distance ourselves, and follow hygienic practices by washing our hands with soap, and avoiding touching our nose and face with possibly contaminated hands.

The good news

The coronavirus has been with us for over two years. Many were infected and have recovered from the virus during this period, providing natural immunity. Others have acquired immunity through vaccinations. When a new variant infects these people, they will manifest a milder form of the disease. This may explain the reduced hospitalisation of Omicron patients.

A booster dose to those already vaccinated or were naturally infected by the coronavirus, appears to provide reasonable protection against the Omicron variant.

And the bad news

The Omicron variant can evade immunity from previous infections. A recent analysis of surveillance data from South Africa, involving over two million persons, indicated suspected reinfections of those previously infected. This is in contrast to Beta and Delta variants, which did not lead to reinfections on such a scale.

The Future

The coronavirus is here for the long haul. Variants will keep emerging, and it seems unlikely it can be eradicated. The media should help counter vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation. As individuals, we need to understand the biology of the virus to avoid spreading the virus and infecting ourselves and others. Science has to be supported in a broad sense to develop strategies by the health authorities and policymakers.

Further reading

S. Wild. How the Omicron variant got so many scary mutations. Scientific American, 3rd December 2021.

Michael Chan Chi-wai.

G. Vogel and K. Kupferschmidt. Early lab studies hint Omicron may be milder. But most scientists reserve judgment. Science, 20th December 2021.

K. Kupferschmidt and G. Vogel. Omicron threats remain fuzzy as cases explode. Science, 7 January 2022.

(The writer is a scientist in Plant and Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hanthane Road, Kandy. He can be reached at iqbal.mo@nifs.ac.lk)

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Rebirth in Buddhism

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By Dr. Justice Chandradasa Nanayakkara

The question of what happens after death naturally arises in the mind of thoughtful people, as we do not know what lies beyond death, because no one has ever returned to the living to recount his experiences life after death. Almost every religion across the world has a defined belief on what happens when a person dies, yet the question is still widely debated and discussed without any finality being reached on the issue. Most of the religious teachers from the earliest times, have been unanimous in affirming that life continues beyond the grave, but they differ widely on the question of what form and in what manner the survival takes place. Nevertheless, mankind continues to believe in some form of survival after death.

Regarding the question of survival after death, thinkers have generally followed one of two philosophical concepts. That is to say annihilationism and eternalism (in Buddhist, ucchedavada and sassatavada). First view is held by nihilists who claim that there is no life after death. They hold the view with the disintegration of the physical body the personality ceases to exist. This view accords with materialistic philosophy, which refuses to accept knowledge of mental conditionality. Those who hold the second view think that there is an abiding entity which exists forever and individual personality persists after death in a recognizable form as an entity called soul, spirit or self. This belief in some form or another is the basis of all theistic religions.

If you stick to the first view and deny that there is no continuity of life after death there would not be no moral law and vipaka (actions and results) operating in the universe enunciated by Lord Buddha and there would be no object in practicing self-restraint or endeavoring to free ourselves of the craving thanha which brings suffering in its wake. The cardinal teachings of the Buddha such as path to nibbana, Four Noble Truths and the eightfold path would be rendered nugatory and meaningless if death is followed by complete extinction. Similarly, those who believe eternalism which presupposes that individual personality persists after death in the form of soul or self as an enduring personality by means of transmigration is also rejected by Buddhism. This view runs counter to the very essence of Buddhism which denies existence of soul. This is the teaching of anatta doctrine, which distinguishes buddhism from other religions and marks it out from all other religious concepts.

In view of the virtual impossibility of establishing the truth of survival after death through empirical methods, question arises what is the attitude of science to this important and abstruse question which has baffled the minds of many people. Although, it is not possible to posit ‘rebirth’ as a scientific fact many men of science are of the opinion that mental, moral and physical inequalities can be accounted for on no other hypothesis than ‘rebirth’ hypothesis.

The idea of a cycle of birth and ‘rebirth’ is part of the teachings of the Lord Buddha. For many Buddhists death is not seen as an end, but rather as a continuation. Buddhists believe a person goes from life to life and see it another part of their long journey through samsara.

Buddhists do not regard ‘rebirth’ as a mere theory but as fact verifiable by evidence and it forms a fundamental tenet in Buddhism along with the concept of karma. Therefore, two principles-kamma and ‘rebirth’ are fundamental to understanding the teachings of Buddha. Kamma and ‘rebirth’ go in arm in arm. According to Buddhism there is no life after death or life before birth independent of kamma. Kamma is an immutable law of cause and effect, and we cannot avoid its consequences. Where there is kamma there must be ‘rebirth’. Most experiences in our present life are the results of our previous actions. Our actions of body, speech and mind (volitional activities) rebound back to us either in the present life or in some future life. It is the karma that conditions ‘rebirth’, past kamma conditions the present birth, the present kamma in combination with past kamma conditions the future. The present is the offspring of the past, and becomes in turn the parent of the future. For Buddhist death is not complete annihilation of a being though that particular life span ended, the force which hitherto actuated it is not destroyed. After death the life flux of man continues ad infinitum as long as there is ignorance and craving. Man will be able to put an end his repeated series of births by realizing nibbana, the complete annihilation of all forms of craving (Narada Thera).

The Buddhist doctrine of ‘rebirth’ should be differentiated from the theory of reincarnation, which implies transmigration of a soul and its invariable ‘rebirth’, as it is enunciated in Hinduism.

In his book What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula Thera posed the question “if we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like self or soul, why can’t we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a self or soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body? ‘When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life… physical and mental energies which constitute the so called being have within themselves the power to take a new form, and grow gradually and gather force to the full: King Milinda questioning venerable Nagasena asked: “Venerable Nagasena, does ‘rebirth’ take place without anything transmigrating? Yes, O king, ‘rebirth’ takes place without anything transmigrating? “Give me illustration, venerable Sir. Suppose, O king, a man were to light a light from light pray, would the one light have passed over to the other light?” “Nay, indeed, Venerable Sir. “In exactly the same way, O king, does ‘rebirth’ take place without anything transmigrating.

In this connection, it should be mentioned the word ‘rebirth’ is not a satisfactory one, as it implies that there is something that after death takes on flesh again. It connotes transmigration of soul or other entity consequent to a death of a person. The Pali Word used in buddhism is arising or Phunabba.

As there is no soul or self in Buddhism, question arises if there is no soul or self what is there to be reborn. This has been most vexed question among many religious scholars. This has been a topic of debate for centuries. According to buddhism there is no enduring, substantial or independently existing entity that transmigrates from life to life instead there is simply an apparent continuity of momentary consciousness from one life time to the next that is imbued with impressions or traces (samskaras)of the actions one has committed in the past. For Buddhists everything is changing and nothing is permanent. So, when a person dies not he but his energies that shape him take a new form. New life is connected to previous life through kamma. There is rapid succession of thoughts throughout the life continuum.

The Buddha is our greatest authority on ‘rebirth. Therefore, for Buddhist no other evidence is necessary is prove ‘rebirth’.

On the very night of His enlightenment during the first watch, enlightenment, Buddhas mind travelled back through all of his unaccountable past lives. This was facilitated by the development of retro cognitive knowledge. Though his mind stretched back to countless eons he never saw a beginning to his past existence. He found no beginning and no end. He also saw all the beings in the universe being born, living dying and being reborn over and over again without end, all trapped in a web spun by their past actions. This process is the round of ‘rebirth’ known as samsara, which means wandering from life to life with no particular direction or purpose.

The Buddha before his enlightenment as bodhisattva was born in different forms of existence. As such Buddhist have a firm belief in many realms of existence, both above and below the human realm. Therefore, we can safely assume we all have lived through countless different lifetimes before being born in the world and our birth here as a human being is the result of predominantly good kamma we have committed in the past life. Those good kamma may have been done in many life times before, or more likely done in the previous life. Therefore, the quality of future births depends on the moral quality of our actions now.

In Dhammachackka Sutta too in his first discourse referring to second noble truth, Buddha declared this very craving is that leads to ‘rebirth’.

In ancient Greece philosophers like Empedocles and Pythagoras too taught the doctrine of ‘rebirth’ and Plato made it an important assumption in his philosophy, as pointed out by Ven Piyadassi Thera.

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A Good Guide to the Omicron Variant

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By M.C.M. Iqbal, PhD

Despite the WHO adopting a neutral system to name the variants of the coronavirus that keep emerging (using letters of the Greek alphabet), the Omicron variant is associated with South Africa. The last variant of the virus to emerge was the Delta variant, which surfaced in December 2020, in India. There are two more letters between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet that the WHO decided not to use. These are ‘Nu’ and ‘Xie’, which the WHO thought could be confused with ‘new’ while Xie is a common surname in China.

The Omicron variant is spreading in many countries. With the number of infected persons rising and another wave expected, many countries in Europe have imposed the usual methods to arrest the spread, with immediate lockdowns. However, scientists are still collecting data to find out how bad Omicron is, since the data seems to indicate that in South Africa, the disease is not as bad as the Delta variant. At the same time, in Europe, there is no significant change in the number of persons hospitalized. Of immediate concern to health authorities are, is the Omicron variant spreading faster than the earlier variants, does it cause more or less severe disease, and can it bypass the vaccines available?

Discovery

Scientists in South Africa announced on 25 November the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. On 26 November, the WHO named it Omicron. Although South Africa has been labeled as the country of origin, the virus was identified in neighbouring Botswana. In addition, there are reports of an earlier detection of this variant in the Netherlands.

PCR tests look for four markers on the virus genome to identify it as the coronavirus. The tests in Botswana showed a reduced sensitivity because one of the four targets was not being detected. These samples were sent to South Africa, where scientists have state-of-the-art facilities to look for changes in the genome of the virus. Changes are found by reading the ‘letters’ of the virus genome (called sequencing) and comparing it to the already available genome of the virus. The new Omicron variant had many more changes than the Delta variant.

Global status

By 14th January, the Omicron variant had spread to 116 countries in all six continents since its discovery on 26 November 2021. The figure below shows the gradual replacement of the presently dominant Delta variant by the Omicron variant; at present global data on the coronavirus, maintained by Nextstrain (https:// nextstrain.org/ncov/open/global) shows a decline of the Delta variant from 88% on 30th October 2021 to 42% on 8th January 2022, while correspondingly the Omicron variant has increased from less than 1% to 56%. Nextstrain is a global database presenting a real-time view of the evolution of the genomes of the coronavirus and other globally important pathogens. The interactive platform provides information to professionals and the public to understand the spread and evolution of pathogens, including information on individual countries.

Distribution of Delta and Omicron variants on 1st January 2022 from Nextstrain. (Please see graph)

What’s unique about Omicron?

Unlike the previous variants of the coronavirus, this variant has over 30 changes (mutations) to its spike (a protein), the characteristic flower-like protrusion on its surface. It was these changes to the spike, one of the four targets of the PCR test that raised alarm bells in Botswana. This spike makes the coronavirus special – it is the key it uses to gain entry into the cells in our throat and lungs. The previous variants, Alpha and Delta also had changes in their spike protein, enabling them to enter cells more efficiently and thus making them more infectious. The vaccines against the virus are based on this spike, and the antibodies produced by our immune system are specific to the spike protein. Thus, any significant changes to the spike means the previous vaccines may not be effective against the newly changed spikes on the Omicron variant.

While the Omicron variant can spread rapidly, it appears to cause milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta variants. Scientists believe this is because Omicron infects the upper airways or the throat, and not the lungs further down. Based on experiments done on hamsters and mice, scientists found the concentration of the virus was much lower in the lungs than in their throat. The earlier variants of the coronavirus caused severe damage to the lungs of the infected people, with extreme cases needing oxygen. This does not seem to be the case with Omicron. Scientists believe the changes to the spike enables the virus to enter cells in the throat more easily than in the lungs.

It can spread rapidly

The virus is quickly expelled into the air if it infects and multiplies in the throat. Since it causes a milder form of the disease, infected persons may be unaware that they carry the virus. They would be moving about socially and at work, spreading the virus. Thus, the obvious means of slowing or preventing the spread of the virus is to strictly wear the mask at all times, and avoid social gatherings.

Studies have suggested that the period between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms has also reduced to three days for Omicron. At the pandemic’s beginning, this was more than five days, and for the Delta variant it was four days.

What is of immediate concern?

Of concern to scientists is the better ability of the Omicron to spread rapidly in the population and its suspected ability to bypass our immune system. Our immune system is our internal defense system, using antibodies and an arsenal of chemicals and cells. The available vaccines are designed on the coronavirus variants circulating in the population. Thus, major changes to the coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the available vaccines. Both these concerns have been observed in the past month: Omicron can spread more rapidly than the presently dominant Delta variant, and observations on vaccinated people show a reduced ability by the vaccines to prevent infections, compared to the Delta variant. This has called for booster doses for people who have already received the two mandatory doses. In Israel, even a fourth vaccination is being administered.

How could the variant have evolved?

Variants of the coronavirus result from changes to the virus’s genome, called mutations. What is troubling about the Omicron variant is that it has many mutations in its spike. Mutations happen spontaneously as the virus multiplies in our bodies and spreads to others. Thus, the virus gradually accumulates small changes to its advantage. These advantages are infecting us more efficiently, spreading to others more easily, and multiplying more rapidly. Scientists believe that one possibility is that the virus circulated in a small isolated group of people (say a village), piling up the mutations over time, and then escaping into a broader population, and then eventually crossing borders.

Another possibility is that it developed in a single individual and spread to others. This happens when a person has low immunity, resulting in a prolonged infection because the immune system cannot eliminate the virus. This leads to the virus developing changes (mutating) to overcome the mild immune response. Answering this question needs scientists to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the virus, using tools from molecular biology. Unfortunately, locating patient zero is difficult since it is impossible to analyze the virus (or sequence its genome) of all the persons infected with the Omicron variant. What is usually possible is to determine a general area or community and the time of origin.

What can we do about it?

Vaccinate! This is the primary tool we have to prevent the spread of the virus and not give it opportunities to multiply. In addition, we should rigorously follow the simple rules we are familiar with – wear the mask when outside, physically distance ourselves, and follow hygienic practices by washing our hands with soap, and avoiding touching our nose and face with possibly contaminated hands.

The good news

The coronavirus has been with us for over two years. Many were infected and have recovered from the virus during this period, providing natural immunity. Others have acquired immunity through vaccinations. When a new variant infects these people, they will manifest a milder form of the disease. This may explain the reduced hospitalisation of Omicron patients.

A booster dose to those already vaccinated or were naturally infected by the coronavirus, appears to provide reasonable protection against the Omicron variant.

And the bad news

The Omicron variant can evade immunity from previous infections. A recent analysis of surveillance data from South Africa, involving over two million persons, indicated suspected reinfections of those previously infected. This is in contrast to Beta and Delta variants, which did not lead to reinfections on such a scale.

The Future

The coronavirus is here for the long haul. Variants will keep emerging, and it seems unlikely it can be eradicated. The media should help counter vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation. As individuals, we need to understand the biology of the virus to avoid spreading the virus and infecting ourselves and others. Science has to be supported in a broad sense to develop strategies by the health authorities and policymakers.

Further reading

S. Wild. How the Omicron variant got so many scary mutations. Scientific American, 3rd December 2021.

Michael Chan Chi-wai.

G. Vogel and K. Kupferschmidt. Early lab studies hint Omicron may be milder. But most scientists reserve judgment. Science, 20th December 2021.

K. Kupferschmidt and G. Vogel. Omicron threats remain fuzzy as cases explode. Science, 7 January 2022.

(The writer is a scientist in Plant and Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hanthane Road, Kandy. He can be reached at iqbal.mo@nifs.ac.lk)

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