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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

Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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