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Monumental blunders and LPG scandal

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By J.A.A.S Ranasinghe

In light of the whistleblowing by Thushan Gunawardena, former Executive Director of Consumer Affairs Authority, it would be quite appropriate and interesting to revisit the LPG scandal and ascertain how intelligently the authorities have handled the above scandal for the overall well being of the consumers and the government. Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), is known as a clean and safe source of energy, wherein safety is of paramount importance from the time of landing up to the point of delivery to the customer. It is in this context that an attempt is being made to ascertain whether this cardinal safety has been observed in practice by the two gas companies.

New LPG cylinders with new seal

Addressing a press conference recently (December 6), State Minister Lasantha Alagiyawanna said the resumption of domestic LPG supply would take place almost immediately, with a shrink bundling film (polythene seal) covering the cylinder valve, which, in my view, is ludicrous if not idiotic, to say the least. The minister, as well as the CAA, would have thought that this measure could allay the fears entertained by consumers, and it would be a solid guarantee against the explosion of gas cylinders.

The minister is sadly mistaken, and it appears that he has been taken for an expensive ride again by the two companies, Litro and Laugfs. As far as consumers are concerned, it is only a sugar coated pill and a cosmetic exercise, which does not inspire confidence in the consumers at large.

It is now a well-established fact that the arbitrary change of the composition of propane and butane from its time-tested ratio of 20 to 80 to 50 to 50, had been made by the two companies, with a view to maximise profits, at the cost of life, limb and property of the consumer. Does the State Minister genuinely think that he could allay consumer fears by introducing this bundling film seal? Certainly not.

The most sensible action would have been the introduction of a sticker on the body of the cylinder more prominently, preferably in a luminous colour, indicating the composition of the gas, propane 20 and butane 80, the percentage of ethyl mercaptan (commonly known as methanethiol) enabling the consumers to identify any leaks by the odorant, the batch number of the product or refilling with the date and a certification that the gas cylinder has been subjected to rigorous quality assurance parameters, before they are dispatched to the market. In the absence of these salient assurances, consumers would not gain confidence and repose any trust in the product.

The advantage of this novel method is that the consumer would be in an authoritative position to lodge a claim against the gas supplier, in the event of a gas explosion. On the other hand, the gas companies would take precautionary measures to ensure that the final product is hundred percent clean and safe.

Testing one per 100 gas cylinders

Any layman would realise that the testing of one gas cylinder per every 100 cylinders is not a foolproof method, and it does not in any way ensure the safety of the consumer. A safety conscious customer is always vigilant as to whether the gas cylinder he or she buys is hundred percent safe. I am unable to fathom as to why the Minister imposed such a ludicrous condition, whereas he should have imposed tacit and absolute compliance to have rigid safety testing at every stage of the production process. I believe that both products are ISO 9000 certified as well as having fulfilled safety standard certifications, and putting in place such a rigid quality assurance mechanism in the production line does not require rocket science.

A simple question would suffice to emphasise the absurdity of the matter: Would passengers risk their lives to travel in planes, if only one plane out of 100 is tested before use? What I gather is that the two gas companies have been cunning enough to work out an escape route using the Minister and the CAA. What is hilarious is that this insistence has come from the Minister and the CAA, and this illogical compliance would be a manna from heaven for the two companies, to abdicate their responsibility in the event of a calamity. This obnoxious requirement would no doubt raise suspicions regarding the quality of the gas cylinder, under the new system. Testing one cylinder out of 100 amounts to an infirm and ad hoc substitute, for what should have been a 100 percent final quality test. Similar explosions are inevitable if the proposed testing criterion is allowed.

Compensating victims

According to a Sinhala newspaper, the total number of domestic gas explosions has exceeded 400, and the consumers would undoubtedly demand compensation for personnel and property damages, such as kitchen utensils and equipment. Not only the Minister in charge of Consumer Affairs, but also some of the key ministers have openly declared that it is the sole responsibility of the two gas companies to compensate the consumers. Civil organisation, National Movement for the Protection of Consumer Rights (NMPCR), has commenced an agitation campaign for the compensation of victims. Consequently, the two gas companies have an inalienable duty to compensate the victims without delay.

But it appears that gas companies are attempting to shirk this responsibility by denying payment. Former BASL President, U.R.L de. Silva, commenting to a popular TV news channel, expressed that the victims of gas explosions could seek justice through district courts, claiming compensation. He is claimed to be a consultant to the Minister of Justice, and we are unsure whether merely expressing the legal opinion is the stance the government should take. In such an event, the poor consumer will have to recourse to litigation to claim compensation, which is a cumbersome process. At a time when the poor consumer is making every effort to dull pangs of hunger due to the skyrocketing cost of living, this will be an additional burden on the hapless victims.

Litro Gas, which has a rich history as a market leader, has so far not expressed their intention to deny compensation. If compensation claims are denied, this unresolved situation would create unrest in the country. Consequently, they have an inviolable duty to honour these claims, without causing any embarrassment to the government, at this juncture. It should be mentioned here that this company has already created a precedent by paying compensation to the value of Rs 185,000, to my neighbour, a respected gentleman and owner of Multi Kitchens (Pvt) Ltd., living in Kandewatta Road, Nawala, for damages to the house caused by a gas explosion a few years ago, which destroyed his roof, pantry cupboards, kitchen utensils and other paraphernalia. It is fervently hoped that Litro Gas would honour the claims of the victims without hesitation, in keeping with the precedents already set.

Irresponsible utterances

On November 30, the President appointed an eight-member expert committee to investigate the spate of gas cylinder explosions and fires, and recommend broader solutions to arrest this unhealthy trend. In the absence of any stipulated terms of reference, the so-called expert committee has the latitude to propose a wide range of remedial measures. As a matter of priority, it should be ascertained why this change in the composition of LPG, that has already led to fatal injuries and damages to property, had been made. Surely, if the expert committee carefully studies the minutes of board meetings and management committee meetings, the exact truth would come to light. It may be possible that the two gas companies obtained the consent of the ministry to switch to the new ratio. If this was an arbitrary decision on the part of the two companies, it should be highlighted.

At the very inception of the proceedings, the eight-member committee acted like CID officers, bullying the victims, which showed a degree of bias towards the two gas companies. A member was seen ridiculing to the maximum, a woman who happened to be a teacher, while questioning her. She retorted arrogantly that she ‘did not come from Thumpane’ and the committee learnt a bitter lesson. The committee should bear in mind that the general public expects a fair and independent perspective of the gas explosions that have now exceeded the 400th mark. TV footage displayed explosions of regulators and corroded gas burners, which was mainly due to the excessive pressure and heat of the new gas mix.

The committee will have to be extremely mindful that their observations and findings are keenly observed by the public. They should exercise care and be vigilant as the slightest irresponsible utterance or behaviour would give the victims the impression of a strong bias towards the two gas companies.

It would do well for the expert committee to make field visits to hardware stores and ascertain whether the recommended hoses, regulators and accessories are available in the market. I casually made inquiries in my neighbourhood whether SLS certified gas appliances are available, and the ridicule I was subjected to cannot be recounted here. It is well known that floodgates are open for imported inferior LPG accessories, without any control by the Customs and the port.

The chairman and senior members of Litro Gas made a valiant effort to conceal the change in the composition of gas, which claimed a life and caused burn injuries in many. Damages to property have been enormous. However, it is sad that the Minister in charge of Consumer Affairs, has not yet lodged a complaint with the CID, requesting an investigation into this high-handed criminal negligence. The whole Board of Directors, and the officers who misled the public at media briefings, should be arrested, prosecuted and criminally punished.

The minister’s revelations that there had been no regulation of domestic gas since it was first introduced in 1960 through CAA and SLSI were vested with this responsibility. Hence the dearth of a regulatory mechanism appeared to be a key issue. According to whistleblower Thushan Gunawardena (TG) the change in LPG composition had taken place during the tenure of former Litro Gas Chairman Anil Koswatta, a nominee of Viyathmaga.

A cursory glance of the Consumer Protection Act reveals that the Act is clothed with enormous powers for the CAA to deal with the gas companies. When consumers took their cylinders to the dealers, they refused to accept them, which is a clear contravention of the regulations. What has CAA done to intervene on behalf of the consumers? Absolutely nothing. Though the CAA has adequate ‘teeth’, it appears that there is a paucity of adroit officers the calibre of the former Executive Director, TG, in its cadre.

Square pegs of Viyathmaga in round holes

When analysing the poor performances of statutory boards and corporations, it is obvious that appointment of Viyathmaga members, as chairmen and directors, have been the bane of operational, administrative and financial growth in most of the institutions. His successor, after Koswatta was ousted, was another Viyathmaga nominee. From the day he assumed duties, he was critical of the performance of his predecessor, neglecting his fiduciary duties. He did not have the audacity to attend media briefings to provide authoritative answers at the initial stage, and junior offices of the management hierarchy gave misleading answers when questioned. The Chairman appeared to be immature, lacking extensive industrial exposure, with poor leadership traits to lead a team of technocrats in this specialised field. No wonder the efficiency of operations suffered a setback causing extensive damages to consumers.

Government fertiliser companies

This is the case with other institutions as well. TV audiences would recall how two Chairmen of fertiliser companies pathetically failed to provide simple information to the President, at a meeting held at the Presidential Secretariat, where the critical issue of fertiliser ban was discussed a few moons ago. They were given marching orders, in the presence of a large audience, to collate required information.

The vital rubber industry has been sliding down a slippery road over the last few years and its key post of Rubber Research Institute Director has remained vacant for the last several years. The Rubber Research Board (RRB) called for applications for the recruitment of research officers almost a year ago, and it has failed to even hold interviews. As a result, Rubber Research Institute (RRI) lost the opportunity of recruiting the cream, young talented graduates, to be groomed as scientists, at a time when experienced scientists are leaving in batches to take up academic positions in universities.

In the filling of Deputy Director (Technology) post, eleven interviews were held and the job aspirant had to seek judicial intervention, as last resort. It was shocking to hear that the RRI had 42 vacancies in the scientist cadre, and as a result a majority of the research projects have come to a standstill. The rubber sector has been plummeting, with no one taking responsibility for the declining trend. Here again, the RRB Chairman is a nominee of the so-called Viyathmaga.

Marine Environment Protection Authority

The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) which came into limelight following the two major maritime disasters, is also badly handicapped by the dearth of marine scientists. It had only one Ph.D holder, specialised in marine ecology, in the capacity of General Manager, and he was compelled to rejoin the Ruhunu University, after working almost ten years at MEPA. It was followed by the resignation of another experienced female employee with two master’s degrees, one in maritime affairs in the UK, and another in environmental science, a few moons ago. Undoubtedly, the leaving of the above two marine scientists would have had a crippling effect on MEPA, as it struggled to cope with marine pollution resulting from the two major disasters. The sinking of MV X-Press Pearl had an adverse impact on the environment of the port of Colombo, the livelihood of the fishing community as well as the environmental health of the coastal belt was badly affected while denting our image in shipping circles. The most important convention, International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), has not yet been ratified and the Auditor General had faulted the lapses of MEPA in this regard.

Its Chairman, another key member of Viyathmaga, was given a deadline to assess the environmental damage caused by the inferno of the X-press Pearl, by the end of November. So far she has not been able to quantify the environmental damages, without which no claim can be made for compensation. In the meantime, the Auditor General has undertaken a comprehensive audit on the progress of the ratification of the MARPOL Convention, to prevent marine pollution by ships, in which damning observations have been made. Though I have first-hand information of the Viyathmaga nominees who have messed up their organisations, the limited time and space does not permit me to highlight them.

President’s intervention necessary

Out of the five year term, two years have elapsed, leaving only three years for the President to revive the economy, by steering the institutions presently headed by the Viyathmaga members. This earnest request is made from the President to replace those square pegs in round holes, by appointing subject matter specialists with proven track records to manage those institutions more efficiently and productively. It is reported that ministers are reluctant to deal with the square pegs of Viyathmaga, as they do not wish to earn the wrath of the President, and this may be one of the reasons these square pegs in round holes have taken an upper hand.

(Ranasinghe is a Productivity Specialist and Management Consultant. This article has been written with malice or prejudice to none, and concern for the well-being of our country.)



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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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