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New mutant strain of coronavirus

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By Dr B. J. C. PERERA
Specialist Consultant Paediatrician

The entire world is in despair following the detection of the new mutant strain of SARS-CoV-2 organism that causes COVID-19. In an inescapable scenario, which has already frightened the daylight out of everybody from the beginning of 2020, this new development is like someone falling from the frying pan right into the fire. As if we did not have enough trouble with the original organism, this added problem is likely to have some further ramifications on the state of play of this blight.

Mutations are known to be a part of the standard behaviour of viruses. In a way, many scientists, especially the virologists, would have expected this. This type of behaviour is expected, but when it really occurs, it is yet another blow to the people all over the world.

This new mutant strain was officially reported in the UK around 14th December 2020. In fact, it was first detected in September 2020. In November, around a quarter of cases in London were caused by the new variant, and it shot up to nearly two-thirds of all cases of COVID-19 in mid-December. The new strain is believed to be the cause of the upsurge of cases in the UK. The rapid spread of the new variant of the coronavirus has now led to the introduction of strict tier-four mixing rules for millions of people in the UK, and harsher restrictions on mixing at Christmas in England, Scotland and Wales. It has led to new lockdowns in many areas of the UK, and prompted many countries to impose a travel ban on people leaving the UK to go to other destinations in the world.

It is thought that the variant either emerged in a patient in the UK or has come from a country with a lower ability to monitor coronavirus mutations. It has already been detected in Denmark, Australia, the Netherlands, Italy and Gibraltar. This was the position a couple of weeks back. It may have already spread to many other countries.

One really worrying aspect of this problem in the UK is that the upsurge of cases came despite several large areas of the country at that time being under lockdown, with many businesses in some areas closed and people being prevented from meeting indoors.

At least three things are coming together to make this mutant to be taken ever so seriously:-

* It is rapidly replacing other versions of the virus

* It has mutations that affect parts of the virus that are likely to be important

* Some of those mutations have already been shown in the lab to increase the ability of the virus to infect cells

It is quickly replacing other strains because it is thought to be eminently more transmissible. The figure mentioned by the Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, was that the variant may be up to 70% more transmissible. He has picked up this figure of 70% from a presentation by Dr Erik Volz from Imperial College London, a foremost authority on the subject. The British PM has also said it is really too early to tell, but from what they have seen so far, it seems to be growing faster than any other variant. However, in some quarters at least, there remain questions about whether it is any more infectious, at all. Professor Jonathan Ball, a reputed virologist from the University of Nottingham has gone on record as saying “The amount of evidence in the public domain is woefully inadequate to draw strong or firm opinions on whether the virus has truly increased transmission“.

Researchers now believe that a mutation to the genes that code for COVID-19’s spike protein, the part of the virus that clings to human cells allowing infection is the most likely cause for its increased transmissibility. However, what scientists know about this mutation in SARS-CoV-2, is still evolving, as they collect more samples of the virus from cases from around the world. The ongoing research has produced some conflicting results about whether specific genetic changes are helping the virus to spread more easily, or cause more disease. In a November 2020 publication in the reputed scientific journal Nature, scientists studied more than 12,000 mutations of SARS-CoV-2 from viruses in 99 countries and concluded that none were more easily spreading from person to person.

There is also some uncertainty about the effectiveness of the currently available vaccines against this mutant strain. Officials say that the vaccines are still likely to work against the new variant, but that more research is being done to confirm that this is indeed the case. The UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Patrick Vallance, has said “The working assumption is that the vaccine response should be adequate for this virus, but we need to keep vigilant about this”. Mr Boris Johnson has gone on record as saying “There is still much we don’t know. While we are fairly certain the variant is transmitted more quickly, there is no evidence to suggest that it is more lethal or causes more severe illness. Equally, there is no evidence to suggest the vaccine will be any less effective against the new variant“.

Still for all that, because the current leading vaccines rely to some extent on targeting the spike protein, this mutation could be the first step in the virus becoming resistant to the current vaccines. Professor Ravindra Gupta, Professor of Clinical Microbiology at the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease, had told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) “This virus is potentially on a pathway for vaccine escape, it has taken the first couple of steps towards that,“. He has also added a caveat to say “If we let it add more mutations, then you start worrying.

All this just adds up to the absolute fact and the proven scientific notion that we cannot really be absolutely certain about the disease COVID-19, and especially this mutant strain. Nothing is so far written in stone. There are conflicting reports and a tremendous amount of uncertainty about this entire saga.

As for us in this resplendent pearl of the Indian Ocean, we really need to worry about a couple of things. One is what will happen if the mutant strain comes here? Or for that matter, has it already arrived here? Our brilliant virologists and public health specialists have to work on this. We cannot rely on everything that emanates from the scientific circles of other countries. There seems to be a surge of cases over the last couple of weeks even in our country. We need to find out whether it is the original strain or a mutant strain. I am quite sure that our most competent scientists are working on these aspects. The second thing is about the vaccine. Will it work against mutant strains? That will be another vital conundrum that we need to keep in mind, IF AND WHEN, we get the vaccine.

We desperately need ‘home-grown’ answers., and not the usual waffling pontifications from other countries, especially those from the Western hemisphere.

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Features

Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Features

Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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Features

LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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