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Omicron: New coronavirus variant

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By Dr. B.J.C. Perera

MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)

There does not seem to be an end to the woes caused by this potentially noxious nasty bug of a coronavirus that is the causative organism of the disease COVID-19. The latest is the emergence of a brand-new variant that has been found to spread at frightening speed. It has already started to wreak havoc in many countries. Many scientists and researchers are of the opinion that this new variant is the one that causes most concern since the arrival of the Delta variant which caused relentless waves of the disease in many countries in the not-too-distant past. The emergence of the new variant has led to grave concerns all over the world although not much is known about it. The sheer lack of adequate information on this variant has left all somewhat confused and has instilled in the general populace fear of impending doom.

The variant under discussion has the scientific designation of B.1.1.529. These technical labels are rather cumbersome and the World Health Organisation (WHO), in May 2021, started naming the variants of the coronavirus that cause COVID-19, using letters of the Greek alphabet rather than the awkward scientific tags. The new variant has been designated the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, ‘Omicron’, with the alphabetical label ‘Oo’, for general use. Omicron is pronounced ‘Oh-my-kron’ or ‘Omi-kron’. The symbol literally means ‘little O’. The WHO declared it as a ‘variant of concern’ or VOC in November 2021.

One of the most disturbing things about the coronavirus is that it constantly mutates. Many new variants of the virus have emerged over the past year and a half, and more new strains could appear in the future. As the virus replicates and spreads more rapidly, the chances of developing mutations that lead to the emergence of new variants increase proportionately. After a brief respite from the considerable problems caused by the Delta variant, Omicron has been declared as the latest VOC by the WHO due to its high number of mutations. The earliest sample of the variant is said to have been detected in Botswana on November 11, 2021.

It has now been linked to a fresh surge in infections in parts of South Africa. So far, Omicron has been reported in travellers to Belgium, Hong Kong, and Israel, apart from South Africa. Other variants of concern, including Beta, were also first detected in South Africa. According to reports as at the time of writing this article, the new variant Omicron has been detected in over 100 countries. It is spreading considerably fast in Africa, some European countries and also in the United States of America. From the time of its first detection, over 150,000 positive cases have been detected in just one month. The real number may be considerably higher as these numbers represent only those who have been tested and sophisticated tests are required to categorise detections and to confirm which ones are infected with the Omicron variant. A few cases have been detected in Sri Lanka and when one states ‘few’ it is only those who have been subjected to special tests such as gene sequencing, that need to be performed before a particular strain could be definitely categorised as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

It is not quite clear as yet whether Omicron will replace Delta, but scientists say that it will be a few weeks before they can clearly define the type of disease this variant causes and understand for sure as to how contagious it is. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms. Early evidence, however, suggests that Omicron has an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants. This means that people who had contracted COVID-19 and recovered from it could be at some risk of catching it again.

Why do new COVID-19 variants keep showing up? Will existing vaccines work against it? The biggest question on everyone’s mind is whether protection from the current COVID-19 vaccines will hold up against the Omicron variant as well. Also, will people previously infected with the coronavirus be immune to reinfection with the new variant? While scientists don’t yet have clear answers to those questions, they have said that the Omicron variant has over 30 mutations in the part of the virus that existing vaccines target; more than double the number carried by Delta. This may reduce vaccine efficiency, they say. However, these are all theoretical predictions, and studies are being conducted to determine how effectively antibodies neutralise the new variant. Medical experts do not expect Omicron to go entirely unrecognised by existing antibodies.

It has been suggested that the actual disease caused by the Omicron variant is perhaps milder than that caused by earlier strains. However, this contention should not be taken at face value as there are several other confounding factors which may play a part as far as the severity of the disease is concerned. The variant emerged at a time when the entire immune profile of the populations in many countries may have changed significantly either due to recovery from earlier strains of the virus or due to significant levels of vaccination against COVID-19. Yet for all that, an important aspect that needs to be considered is how the new variant would behave in susceptible people over the age of 60 and those with other coexisting morbidities such as diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease and lung disorders, particularly if and when these comorbidities are not under control.

At this point in time, no robust information is available on the severity of infections the new variant causes or whether it leads to a change in COVID-19 symptoms. It will take several weeks before clear data is available to determine this. Though the Omicron variant is thought to be more transmissible and somewhat resistant to vaccines than other variants, we are not absolutely sure of anything right now. However, if required, existing vaccines could be updated to deal with the Omicron variant. That would require several trials, and it might take four to six months for the updated vaccines to be widely available. Will it spread everywhere in the world? Given that this new variant has proven to be highly transmissible, it is quite likely to have spread to many countries undetected. Health experts warn that there is no reason to overreact or panic over this new variant, as its main characteristics and potential threats are still under investigation. All experts continue to stress that vaccination remains critically important, as all real-time data suggests that it protects against hospitalisation and death. Moreover, it also considerably reduces the strain on health systems. If anything, the emergence of the new variant indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic will perhaps not end until we reach high rates of global vaccination.

Scientists are now trying to model Omicron’s global trajectory, which depends on two factors. One is its innate contagiousness, or transmissibility. The second is its capacity to evade the human immune system. Determining how much transmissibility and immune evasion contribute to the variant’s spread is what will allow us to predict how many people Omicron might infect and how fast at that.

Transmissibility reflects the virus’s ability to replicate in human cells and move from person to person. It depends on all sorts of biological processes. Does it bind more easily to receptors in people’s lungs? Do you shed it more efficiently and spew more of it out so you can infect more people? Immune system evasion, on the other hand, is the capacity of the virus to avoid antibodies that would otherwise mark it for destruction by the body, as well as an ability to dodge various immune system cells.

A key step in gauging a virus’s spread is to start with one infected person and estimate how many other people will contract the virus from that individual. In an ongoing pandemic, scientists try to capture that estimate with a value called the effective reproduction number, or Rt. The variable ‘t’ represents the number of secondary infections and depends on the effects of other people’s immunity, seasonal weather patterns, public health interventions and other limits on viral transmission. Rt can change from minute to minute depending on real-world conditions. We use it to determine how fast an outbreak is growing, or shrinking. A value of R2, for instance, means that one person will infect two others while a value of R5 means the person will spread the virus to five individuals, increasing the number of infected people much faster.

Rt estimates for Omicron are now beginning to emerge. On December 9, South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) reported that by early November, Rt in that country had stabilised at values below one, signifying cases were actually falling during a period when Delta was the dominant variant and it was up against widespread immunity in the population. But then Rt shot up suddenly in mid-November. It is now greater than 2 throughout most of the country and exceeds 2.5 in some of the more densely populated provinces. Scientists in the United Kingdom’s Health Security Agency have since reported an Rt of 3.7 for Omicron itself. That disturbingly high number, presented in a technical briefing released on December 10, is based in part on data showing that Omicron infections in the UK are doubling every three days. At that pace, Omicron presents a much larger threat in terms of case counts than Delta.

Lastly, it is important to remember that experts are still learning on the go, and that what we know today may not represent the full picture, or may not even be valid tomorrow. Omicron, the new COVID-19 variant, may prove ultimately to have the potential to set us back to square one in the fight against the pandemic. Mutations thrive in populations where the virus is able to spread unhindered. By hoarding vaccines and leaving much of the world unprotected, rich countries have created the perfect recipe for variants. Despite world leaders’ promises to share doses and vaccinate the world, only a fraction of what is needed has been delivered. While rich countries are focused on booster shots and closing borders again, less than three percent of people living in poorer countries are fully vaccinated.

We are all fed up with COVID-19 and want to get on with our lives without this blight. We want to read about it in history books, not on our news feeds. However, the longer world leaders continue to drag their feet, the longer we will be stuck in this never-ending cycle of variants, boosters, lockdowns and travel bans. This needs to be the wakeup call that pushes world leaders to finally act. Right now, rich nations are discussing a coordinated response to the Omicron variant. We need to remind them that viruses do not care about borders and continents. The only way out is to make vaccines available everywhere and to everyone. We want 2022 to be the year we can feel confident about waving goodbye to COVID-19 for good. Together, we can make that happen. We need to ask leaders to do what it takes to end the pandemic once and for all. To escape an endless cycle of variants, boosters, and restrictions, everyone must have equal access to vaccines, no matter where they live. Such a response also needs to be rapid. Unfortunately, time is not on our side.

(The writer is a Specialist Consultant Paediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo)



Features

The ubiquitous Tuk Tuk elevated to ambassadorial level

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The Sri Lankan three wheeler or tuk tuk and the Indian auto rickshaw are equally loved and despised, but used very much in both countries. Over here they have spread to every city, hamlet and even village. Needless to fear there will be no transport to hire when one descends from bus or train. There will always be the little bug waiting for a fare. And once in a while such a vehicle is the only negotiable one on rutty, inclined roads.

Love and hate? Car-less and permanently driverless women love the little three wheeled contraption. They are taken around marketing, shopping, escorting kids home from school. But male car owner-drivers detest them as dangerous clogs in traffic. They see dark pink when a tuk tuk is observed, red being reserved for private bus drivers. Most housewives adopt a three wheeler that makes for convenience, safety and even camaraderie with the guy at the handle bar. It’s good to adopt a known guy. I have two such – the white capped charioteer and the ex-sportsman gone to spread. The former will take me right into a bank or shop if at all possible. Compromises by stopping with no space left between entrance step or door and invariably warns “paressamen, hemin”. The other takes time to enquire after an ex-domestic whom he carefully conducted to visit relatives and my grandson who loved spinning around with his ‘Sampatha.’ These two are definite blessings in life, I count.

The Ambassador’s vehicle

Ambassador from Mexico to India (2015 – 2018), Melba Pria, made a definite statement of her belief in equality and her avowed aim of “promoting inclusion and strengthening public policy in Mexico and abroad” when she commissioned an auto rickshaw as her official vehicle in New Delhi. She had an auto rickshaw custom built for her designed by a visiting Mexican artist, thus earning herself the sobriquet of ‘Auto Rickshaw Diplomat.” A video sent me had her happily riding behind her suitably suited official driver, Jagchal Chana Dugal, flying the Mexican flag and the cab painted carnival bright with flowers, birds, fruit. The driver may have been duly shocked and to an Indian, a lowering of status. He had to learn to drive a lowly vehicle. Pria’s statement was that she considered herself a Delhi-ite and living in the city did what Delhites did – riding auto rickshaws all the time.

Parliament did not allow this type of vehicle in the premises. She promptly sent a letter of protest/request to the Speaker and won her case. In Sri Lanka a three wheeler is considered a lesser vehicle and many places do not allow such to proceed beyond a certain limit. I’ve met this setback when visiting friends in Crescat Apartments. Also, three wheelers are not allowed in the car park of HSBC, Baudhaloka Mawata. They may have their reasons and Nan won’t fight for equality among vehicles, though to her as a woman who uses them constantly, she feels they should be treated on par with other vehicles. Little wonder that such as I retches with disgust when she sees politicos arrive in their massive limousines provided gratis by the government and petrol paid for by people’s taxes.

Ambassador Pria had visited India previously and was an admirer of Tagore. She sat on the lap of Ravi Shankar and played the sitar when her mother was the Mexican Minister of Culture. She even boastfully claims her name is part Indian and means ‘pleasant’. “India is friends, family, home and so many other things, even my doctors are here.” She loves Delhi with its range of cultural activities.”Delhi is many cities within one city but one must be brave to be an outdoors person here.” She cycles too.

Her affinity to the country was shared by her brother, who, when ill, was brought by her to Delhi to consult a doctor. He died but had said he wanted to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga in Benares. His ashes were given her with the pot draped in an Indian cloth. She went home with a Mexican cloth over the Indian, symbolically. When she was posted to Japan after her stint in India, she took her auto-rickshaw along. However, what I read did not say it was driving her around the streets of Tokyo – very improbable with the Japanese almost maniacal about cleanliness and atmospheric non-pollution.

Antecedents

The tuk tuk that is now ubiquitous in Sri Lanka having invaded the Hill Country too is, with its relatives overseas, a vehicle descended from the two-wheeled Italian scooter – Vespa. Italian aircraft designer Corradino D’Ascania evolved the three wheeled vehicle in 1948 and called it Trivespa. In 1956 a cab or hood was added and it was knows as the Piaggio Ape; ‘ape’ being Italian for bee, the vehicle making a buzzing sound.

In Sri Lanka

Recently the tuk tuk came into prominence. Asked to leave his post, OK, sacked, State Minister for Education Reform, Susil Premajayantha, left his office for good in a hired three wheeler which took him home. Or out of camera sight. Did he transfer to his own vehicle (luxury or not) when safe from media scrutiny? No doubt it was a PR stunt. Was it to show he is just one of us? He has no vehicle of his own? He was quoted in a tv clip saying he’ll get himself a car. Whether a dismissed Minister or not, he is a politician with all its attendant characteristics. No pity felt for this SLFPer who was the first to sign membership of the SLPP.

The lowly but much appreciated three wheeler gained customers since Covid 19 when people were advised to travel in open vehicles and taxi drivers hardly ever lower their windows in their air conditioned vehicles. We heard rumours the tuk tuks were to be taken off streets and imports banned by this government when it was new in office. A trick up its collective sleeve? We need this poor man’s vehicle in this country driven to poverty by persons in power who lived grand and built white elephants beyond their and the country’s means.

Of course you get the odd bod in the driving seat – the inexperienced, even unlicensed driver; the aspiring Formula One speedster; and the Lothario who looks back more than watches the road. The advantage is you can tell him off, exhibiting the umbrella you have in hand. That’s a plus point –being able to hop off a tuk tuk with no doors to delay or keep you in.

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Features

Lady in red: Mysterious painting hidden behind a prominent Lankan’s portrait

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ECONOMYNEXT – At 9 a.m. on December 11, 2021, at the National Art Gallery of Sri Lanka, a portrait of Ananda Samarakoon, who famously composed the national anthem, was lifted off its frame to reveal a perfectly preserved painting of an enigmatic woman dressed in a red saree. Who she was, why she was painted and why she was eventually covered up, remains a mystery.

The painting, unearthed during a conservation project of 239 art pieces, is attributed to Mudaliyar Amarasekara, a towering and pioneering figure in Sri Lanka’s art scene.

The project was headed by Tharani Gamage, Director at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Hiranthi Fernando, Curator at the National Art Gallery, and an Art Restoration and Exhibition Committee comprised of eminent artists and scholars in the country.

Jennifer Myers, an easel painting conservation expert from the US, was brought in to assist with the project.

“So I’m just looking at this painting and I notice that the fabric of the canvas that was on the front was different from the canvas at the back… I was kind of pushing between front and back and I could feel there was an air space,” she says.

The conservationist noticed something unusual about the dust collected at the back of the painting.

“Because it’s a painting that’s done in landscape orientation, the dust should be at the bottom of the frame, but here the dust was collected on the side and that was really odd, so we slowly started taking off tacks from the corner and when we looked underneath, it looked like layers of paint on top of a canvas. That’s when we realised there could be another painting at the bottom.”

According to committee member Professor Jagath Weerasinghe, a mural painting conservation expert, Myers used archaeological principles to determine the existence of the second painting underneath.

“It’s very impressive, and precisely why we wanted to get an expert to help us with this project,” he says.

The newly discovered painting was found as a result of an initiative taken by the gallery to preserve some of its most exceptional pieces. From charcoal and watercolour to acrylics and oil paintings, the collection at the gallery spans two centuries and a diverse mix of mediums.

Professor Weerasinghe talks to EconomyNext about the difficulty of finding qualified individuals for the project.

“There is a lack of experts on easel painting conservationists in Sri Lanka. We do have academically trained experts on mural conservation, and they are the ones who made up the committee. We have trained in places like India, Pakistan and Japan, and we knew we had the practical capacity to pull it off.

“But working on a national collection is a difficult task, and we wanted someone from an internationally accepted programme, who had had academic training in the subject to work on it, which is how Jennifer was brought in.”

Myers, National Endowment for the Humanities Painting Conservation Fellow at the Chrysler Museum of Art, laughs as she tells us her title. “It’s a bit of a mouthful,” she says.

Myers has a degree in Museology, and a background in Archeology, Painting, Human anatomy and Bone Structure, all of which are useful for conservation work, which she studied at the University of Delaware.

“My professors at the university spoke about this project, and I was intrigued. This was an opportunity for me to learn about artists and a country that I didn’t know much about before, which is a personal interest of mine. I also thought I had the skills that the gallery was specifically looking for, so I could bring that to the project as well.”

The diversity of the collection was something that she did not expect.

“It was an amazing experience. I learnt about so many artists that we don’t get exposed to in America that often. The diversity of the collection was greater than I was expecting which was interesting and fantastic. There were paintings from a range of years, styles and there were more contemporary pieces; European and European inspired pieces, which I was surprised to see. It was a collection of surprises.”

The project, taken up by the Central Cultural fund at a cost 1.8 million rupees allocated by the Department of Cultural Affairs, was started in October 2021 and is set to be wrapped up by February 2022. Of the collection numbering 240 (with the new painting), 76 will go up for permanent display in the main gallery, and 88 will be exhibited temporarily in the eastern hall.

Professor Weerasinghe, who is also a contemporary artist and archaeologist, stresses the importance of official backup on cases such as these. “The ministry listened to the word of the professionals. So many artworks have been destroyed because of badly done conservation efforts. That’s precisely why we called in an expert. The decision to value professionalism is the most important thing that happened here. If they didn’t do that, none of this would have happened.”

Mithrananda Dharmasiri, Chief Mural Conservation Officer at Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka, touches on the misconceptions around conservation. “A lot of people think, can’t an artist just paint over the damage, isn’t that what conservation is? But conservation is a much more scientific, and a completely different thing.”

Professor Weerasinghe agrees, saying, “That is an important point. A conservator is not a scientist. A conservator is not an artist. A conservator is a conservator.”

Gamage gives us some official perspective on the matter.

“This was a joint effort by the ministry and the Committee and it was pulled off beautifully. This is the first time in Sri Lanka that such a large conservation project is being done, with international collaboration as well, and Jennifer was an invaluable part of the team,” he says.

Though Sri Lanka is home to some of the top mural conservation experts in the world, there is a great need for artists who work in other fields as well. With a humid climate that is especially treacherous to paints and fabrics, a greater effort must be put to protect the national artworks of the country, and give systematic education for those who are interested in the field.

The staff at the gallery are hopeful that the opening, as well as the discovery of the new painting, will revive the underappreciated art scene in the country. Finally set to open to the public in March 2022 after its closure in 2013, the new exhibition and the renovated buildings are a tribute to the great artists and artworks that were once hidden away.

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HOW NOT TO RUN AN ELECTION (1950s)

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by Chandra Arulpragasam

I must admit that my experience of elections is limited only to one district (the Batticaloa district), long ago (in the 1950s), and not at the national level. Moreover, as the second Returning Officer, I played second fiddle to the Government Agent, who was actually in charge of the Parliamentary Elections at the district level. However I was given definite responsibilities: first, for staffing the polling booths with government staff officers of executive rank; second, for supervising the actual process of elections in the polling booths; and third, for the counting of ballots once the voting was done.

My first job was difficult because many Sinhalese officers in those days were reluctant to come so far to a Tamil-speaking district. (This was long before the Tigers became the major political or military force in those districts). I was able to overcome this difficulty because some of my Sinhalese friends shared my interest in jungles and lagoons, and they were eager to come as polling officers to the Eastern Province. I had to officially get them to staff the polling booths; but unofficially, I had also to look after them and provide social activities for them.

On Election Day, I went to monitor the polling places. On one of these monitoring missions, I visited Kattankudi, a Muslim town just south of Batticaloa, where I was actually able to see an act of impersonation for the first time. This case was so outrageous that I will remember it till I die. A pregnant Muslim woman with a sari pulled over her face with only the eyes showing, was challenged. To my utter surprise, ‘she’ was unveiled to reveal a man with a beard and a pillow around his waist, pretending to be pregnant!

Many years later, I used this practical experience (of Kattankudi) to convince SWAPO, the independence movement in Namibia to withhold their agreement to the Turnhalle Agreement. The leader of SWAPO, who became the Prime Minister of Namibia was eager to get my views. I stood by my opinion that they would surely lose that decisive election – for independence – unless they were able to control or at least monitor the whole implementation process of that election. This delayed their independence by about 10 years – until they were able to train the requisite number of workers to monitor the implementation of the whole election process. The experience of Kattankudi went a long way!

To return to my story about the Batticaloa election, I still had to cast my own vote for the Batticaloa town seat. Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew all the candidates for that seat. When I came to the polling station, each of the candidates bowed and smiled, wanting to shake my hand, each of them expecting me to vote for them. I was an LSSP supporter at that time and since there was no LSSP horse in that race, I did not know whom to vote for. I went into the polling booth and impulsively drew a caricature/cartoon of each of the three candidates against their names. I remember drawing a fez cap on the Muslim candidate’s head, and drawing hair on the ears for another candidate (which was his outstanding characteristic) and a moustache on the other candidate. Smiling uneasily and guiltily, I emerged from the ballot booth to engage in small talk with the three candidates.

On Election night, there was a grand counting of votes in the Kachcheri. This was presided over by the Government Agent, but with me in actual charge of the counting. If there was a challenge to any ballot, I would give a ruling on the spot. If it was still contested, it would go to the Government Agent for his ruling. I was dreading that my ballot (with the cartoon of the candidates) would come up for my ruling. It did. And I was the first to shout “Spoilt Ballot”. I heard one of the candidates muttering loudly “bloody fool” – aimed at the person who had cast that ballot! I hastened to agree! The case was reported to the Government Agent, who did not know that his own AGA was responsible for that ballot! I had acted irresponsibly as a presiding officer. On the other hand, it was my own ballot – and if I chose to spoil it, that was my own right!

The night after the election, I invited my friends from the various government departments in Colombo to gather for a social get-together at the Vakaneri Circuit Bungalow. This was about 22 miles north of Batticaloa and situated on a massive rock overlooking the Vakaneri reservoir, which gave water to the Paper Factory. This had been one of my favourite haunts – to enjoy the silence and views of jungle and water.

I had got my friend Carl de Vos, from the private sector, to go up to the bungalow on Election Day and decorate the place, inflate the balloons, etc. – so that it had a festive look even before we arrived. I played a piano accordion at that time – and thus provided the music for singing, dancing and baila sessions. There was much singing of old songs and much drinking of beer. So much so, that the bungalow-keeper when measuring the rain-gauge the next morning (his daily duties in this Irrigation Circuit Bungalow) found to his consternation that there had been so much rain on the previous night (beer converted to urine) that there was danger of flooding – though there had been no rain at all! He grumbled loudly for me to hear: “It is impossible with this AGA dorai”.

Then the “impossible” happened. One of our guests, who had had too much to drink, had slipped and fallen into the reservoir! Knowing that it was deep at this point, that he could not swim and that there were crocodiles in the reservoir, I jumped in and hauled him out quickly – before the crocs could get me!

I heaved a sigh of relief when my election duties had been successfully completed and my social obligations – of playing herdsman to the officers from Colombo – had finally ended.

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