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Eyebrows raised over inordinate delay in seeking Indian help

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SLPA’s only tug ineffective; ‘Hercules’ in epic evacuation mission

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Controversy surrounds the inordinate delay on Sri Lanka’s part to seek Indian assistance for fighting the fire onboard Singaporean flagged X-Press Pearl anchored 9.5 nautical miles northwest of the Colombo port.

Sri Lanka sought Indian assistance on the afternoon of 25 May, five days after the Captain of the container carrier MV X-Press Pearl requested SLN support to douse the fire.

The SLN has responded to the distress call on the afternoon of 20 May.

The fire erupted on the night of 19 May 19 at a time the vessel operated by the world’s largest feeder operator, X-Press Feeders was in anchorage.

The examination of available information revealed that the SLN requested for Indian backing to fight the major conflagration as well as pollution control after a huge blast on the vessel, which had a raging fire among some of the containers on its deck for more than four days.

Well informed sources said that the blast ripped through the stack of containers at 4.30 am, on May 25th. Sources said that the blast deprived the firefighters whatever chance they had in bringing the situation under control.

Responding to The Island queries, sources explained by the time Indian assistance was sought, the battle was clearly lost.

Sources pointed out that by the time Sri Lanka sought Indian intervention, the brand new vessel had been abandoned with the 25-member crew comprising 25 Philippine, Chinese, Indian and Russian nationals evacuated by the firefighters. The evacuation coincided with the fire overwhelming the firefighters, sources said, acknowledging Sri Lanka obviously lacked the capacity to undertake such a daunting challenge.

Evacuation of all-foreign crew had been carried out by tug ‘Hercules’ chartered by Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). Sources said that in spite of the huge risk, the ‘Hercules’ crew carried out the evacuation, successfully, under extremely difficult conditions and they were brought ashore. By the time, Indian assistance had been sought, the ship was even listing and some of the containers on its deck had fallen overboard, sources said.

Inquiries revealed that the SLPA lacked the strength to engage in such a firefighting exercise. The SLPA tug ‘Megha’ in spite of being dispatched to the scene of the fire on May 20th hadn’t been able to make a difference. The vessel hadn’t been properly equipped therefore the SLPA had no option but to withdraw it and send two tugs ‘Hercules’ and ‘Posh Hardy’ on May 21 and May 22, respectively.

The Island learns that the SLPA had taken those tugs on long lease from Sri Lanka Shipping Company in 2018. However, another tug ‘Posh Husky’ also taken on long lease from the same company hadn’t been in a position for deployment due to what some sources called ‘equipment issues.’

Subsequently, two other tugs, ‘Mahawewa’ and ‘Aries’ owned by Sri Lanka Shipping Company had been deployed as the situation rapidly deteriorated. Two foreign tugs, ‘Posh Teal’ and ‘Shalwar’ that had arrived here on the night of May 22 and May 23 morning, respectively failed to bring the situation under control either. They belonged to world renowned ‘Salvors.’

By the time Indian assets arrived in Sri Lankan waters the firefight had been lost and the operation transformed to a pollution control mission. Sources said that the country hadn’t experienced a similar situation since independence though the SLN with Indian Coast Guard backing managed to control a fire onboard oil tanker ‘New Diamond’s carrying more than a quarter of a million tonnes of crude oil off the East coast in early September 2020.

Sources said that in spite of successive governments vowing to transform Colombo harbour to a maritime hub a genuine attempt hadn’t been made to achieve that privileged status. The fire onboard ‘New Diamond’ and the ongoing inferno off the Negombo coast exposed the failure on the part of the SLPA to build up its own firefighting capacity.

When Indian assets, Coast Guard vessels Vaibhav, Vajra and Samudra Prehari and tug ‘Water Lilly’ dispatched by Director General Shipping there, in addition to Dornier aircraft for aerial reconnaissance had been on their way, the firefight had been lost, sources said. According to a statement dated May 25th issued in the evening by the Indian High Commission in Colombo, having received Sri Lanka’s request in the afternoon, Dornier aircraft reached Colombo at 4 pm on the same day and the first vessel was to reach the scene by 7 pm.

X-Press Pearl carried 1,486 containers with 25 tons of Nitric Acid, several other chemicals and cosmetics from the port of Hazira, India on 15th May 2021.

Speculation is rife that those responsible, including the X-Press Pearl crew hadn’t made a proper assessment of the situation therefore failed to take tangible measures, on time.

The initial SLN deployment on May 20th afternoon comprised Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) SLNS Sagara, Sindurala and a Fast Attack Craft (FAC).

According to an SLN statement, the ill-fated vessel had arrived at the location (9.5 nautical miles northwest) on the 19th of May and was awaiting its entry into the Colombo harbour.

Inclement weather hampered operations, sources said, pointing out that the government had to address the issue as it was battling both fast spreading Covid-19 pandemic and floods.

Regardless of inclement weather the Air force on two days dropped dry chemical powder on the vessel.

Sources said that Sri Lanka should acquire firefighting capability. Perhaps, following the end of the war, 12 years ago some of the SLN vessels could have been properly equipped to meet emergency situation, sources said. The SLPA should apprise the environment and take whatever tangible measures as such expertise and strengths couldn’t be procured overnight, sources said.



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Even four months after first jab antibodies generated by Covishield vaccine remain active – expert

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

A significant amount of antibodies created by the Covishield COVID-19 vaccine remained even 16 weeks after receiving the first jab, Dr. Chandima Jeewandara of the Allergy, Immunology and Cell Biology Unit, Department of Immunology Molecular and Molecular Medicine of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura said yesterday.

“We studied this because it was a serious issue due to hundreds of thousands of people have not received the booster doses yet. Our research shows that a significant amount of antibodies remains in those who received the first dose. This is good news and I think we can give them the second dose. But we have to conduct tests.”

Dr. Jeewandara said they would soon release a report on antibodies that developed due to the Sputnik-V vaccine, and a similar report on the Moderna vaccine too would be released in a month or two.

Dr. Jeewandara said that 500 Sputnik-V recipients and 600 Moderna recipients were being studied.

Commenting on a recent study by the department on the development of antibodies by those given the Sinopharm vaccine where it was found that vaccine induced antibody responses in over 95% of individuals, similar to levels seen following natural COVID-19 illness, Dr. Jeewandara said that the study had addressed a key concern people had about Sinopharm.

“One of the biggest problems is that we have little data on Sinopharm. This study tries to fill that,” he said.

Dr. Jeewandara said that the university had started measuring efficacy and antibodies from vaccines since Sri Lanka started administering them. The first vaccine they started studying was Covishield, he said.

“Let me explain the process. We take a blood sample before vaccination. We do that to identify antibody levels before vaccination. In Sri Lanka most people who contract COVID19 don’t develop symptoms. So we do this as a baseline blood test. Then we get a second sample before the second jab is given and a third sample at a time the manufacturer recommends as the best time to check antibodies.”

In the case of Sinopharm, the third sample was taken two weeks after the second jab. The researchers look at the level of antibodies and T-cell response because they are the two main tools to fight or prevent the virus or prevent serious illness, he said. A person can either get antibodies from contracting the virus or through vaccination, Dr. Jeewandara said.

“These are not efficacy tests. Efficacy is measured in a controlled clinical trial and is based on how many people who got vaccinated developed the ‘outcome of interest’ (usually the disease) compared with how many people who got the placebo (dummy vaccine) developed the same outcome. What we did was to test antibodies but this hints at vaccine efficacy too. Immunity and protection tend to be similar in both tests.”

Dr. Jeewandara said that Sri Lanka was an interesting case study because most Sri Lankans were genetically similar and that one variant usually dominates the country. However, Sri Lanka used several vaccines, giving the country an excellent opportunity to find out what vaccine was best.

“We also studied Covishield and over 90% of people vaccinated with it had developed antibodies,” he said.

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Natural disasters affected 1,512,344 persons last year

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

During 2020, 1,512,344 persons belonging to 412,520 families were affected by natural disasters and out of them 19,872 families were placed in 202 shelters, the Annual Performance Report of the State Ministry of Internal Security, Home Affairs and Disaster Management for the year 2020 has said.

The State Ministry added that 62 deaths were reported in 2020 due to natural disasters, 393 houses were completely destroyed, 30,317 houses were partially damaged, and 2,911 small and medium scale businesses were damaged.

The government spent Rs. 12.7 million to provide them with cooked meals, Rs. 18.6 million for dry rations, Rs. 5.5 million to compensate the dead, Rs. 130 million to provide them with drinking water. In total Rs. 166.8 million were spent on those affected by natural disasters in 2020.

“Based on estimates of the assessment of damages made by an assessment committee, compensation of up to a maximum of Rs. 2.5 million was paid to home appliances, and to buildings and equipment of small and medium scale business that do not exceed an annual income of Rs. 10.0 million and that are not benefited under any other insurance coverage. Further, an advance of Rs. 10,000 was also given to the victims to quickly repair the damaged houses due to natural disasters until the damage assessment is done. This money was paid through National Insurance Trust Fund and Provisions from the Treasury. Rs. 287.9 million and Rs. 320.7 million were paid from those two sources between April 2019 and December 2020,” the report said.

The report highlighted that a large number of people are being affected by dry weather and that many people suffer being unable to meet their daily drinking water needs. In 2017, 1,113,858 families were affected by dry weather, in 2018, 567,987 families were affected, and in 2019, 312,383 families were affected.

“In 2020, 364 tractor bowsers, 133 lorry bowsers and 11,936 water tanks were provided to all Districts to provide water to 310,742 affected families from drought,” the report said.

The relevant District Secretaries were also provided with Rs. 143 million in 2020 to supply drinking water to affected families.

 

 

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New guidelines for weddings soon – Health Ministry

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

The Health Ministry will soon amend health guidelines on weddings after hundreds of complaints had been received on behaviour that could lead to superspreader events, a ministry spokesman said.

“We have allowed weddings to take place with 25% seating capacity or a maximum of 150 people but drinking and dancing are not permitted. We have received many complaints of drunk people and other guests dancing on fully packed dance floors. Covid-19 guidelines are not followed” he said.

Given this development the Ministry would soon amend the guidelines so certain activities can’t be carried out, he said.

Earlier yesterday General Shavendra Silva, Head of the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID 19 Outbreak (NOCPCO) said wedding guests were behaving irresponsibly and there was a high possibility wedding clusters emerging.

“We have set the maximum number of people who can attend a wedding at 150 but in some areas many more people attend wedding receptions. We have allowed these weddings to take place on humanitarian grounds but if people abuse freedom given to them we will all be in trouble. Over 1,500 Covid-19 cases are still reported daily.”

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