1. COVID-19 CASES IN INDIA START TO INCH UP AS OMICRON TAKES OVER
News: The number of COVID-19 infections in India is on an increasing trend. After consistently declining since mid-May, the average number of cases showed a bump again in the last week of December.
On December 29, 13,187 cases were recorded, a 76.6% increase from the number of infections a week ago. Data for some States — Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Tripura and smaller Union Territories — were not included on Wednesday.
While Kerala continued to contribute the most number of cases, infections in all districts of the State are decreasing. On the other hand, infections are surging in other States’ urban centres such as Mumbai, Pune, Thane, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai, Ahmedabad and Delhi.
Mumbai recorded 2,510 cases on Wednesday, an 80% increase from the figure of the previous day, and a 400% rise from a week ago. Delhi recorded 923 cases, a 600% rise from a week ago. Bengaluru recorded 400 infections, a 90% increase from last week’s figure. Chennai recorded 294 cases, a 100% increase.
Mumbai contributed more than 15% of the country’s cases on Wednesday — the highest among all cities — followed by Delhi, which formed about 5% of the infections.
The recent rise in infections is due to the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. According to data from GISAID, an open-access portal for genomic data on viruses, Omicron has become the dominating variant in India. In the last few days of December, the Omicron variant was found in about 60% of the samples sequenced in India.
Initial reports from other countries showed that the Omicron wave is more infectious than the Delta wave and infects more people in a shorter span. However, hospitalisations and ICU admissions are relatively lower compared with the previous waves, especially among the vaccinated.
Omicron is a variant of SARS-CoV-2 that has been identified initially in COVID-19 patients in Botswana and South Africa. The WHO Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) felt that this virus had too many mutations and may be easily spread globally causing a spike in COVID cases worldwide. Hence, TAG-VE labelled it a Variant of Concern(VOC). Delta is the other variants that has been previously labelled as VOC.
According to the WHO, 77 countries across the world have now reported cases of Omicron, in fact it probably is present in most countries even if it has not been detected yet. In India, 101 cases of omicron have been reported. It is spreading at a rate not seen with any other variant and people may be dismissing it thinking it causes a less severe disease but the sheer number of cases can overburden the health system. WHO advises that vaccine alone will not help countries out of this crisis. We must stop the spread! It’s not vaccines against masks, social distancing, ventilation or hand hygiene. We need to Do It All and Do It Consistently!
2. CENTRE MAY EXTEND DEC. 31 DEADLINE FOR FCRA RENEWAL
News: The Union Home Ministry is likely to extend the December 31 deadline for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and associations registered under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) to apply for renewal.
The registrations of thousands of NGOs and associations that were up for renewal in October 2020 are stuck. The registrations are renewed every five years.
A senior government official said only around 5,000 renewal applications have been processed so far. There are 22,762 NGOs registered under the FCRA in the country. It is mandatory to register under the Act to receive foreign funds or donations.
Due to the pandemic and the amendments to the Act in 2020 that introduced stringent compliance measures, many NGOs could not complete the process.
Among the changes that were brought in, operationalising a designated FCRA bank account with the State Bank of India’s main branch in Delhi was made compulsory.
The bank account could be made operational only after receiving an authorisation certificate from the Ministry. Several NGOs had moved court, stating that despite fulfilling all requirements to open bank accounts by March 31, the process was not completed at the Ministry’s end, which hampered their work as they could not receive foreign funds.
The Ministry had provided a relief up to September 30 to the NGOs whose registration was expiring between September 29, 2020 and September 30, 2021 to apply for renewal.
The Foreign Contribution (regulation) Act, 2010 is an act of the Parliament of India, by the 42nd Act of 2010. It is a consolidating act whose scope is to regulate the acceptance and utilisation of foreign contribution or foreign hospitality by certain individuals or associations or companies and to prohibit acceptance and utilisation of foreign contribution or foreign hospitality for any activities detrimental to the national interest and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.
It is designed to correct shortfalls in the predecessor act of 1976. The bill received presidential assent on 26 September 2010.
The Minister of Home Affairs, Amit Shah introduced the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2020, which made several changes to the existing Act, including making it mandatory for office bearers of any non-governmental organisation (NGO) to provide their Aadhaar numbers.
It also gives the government the power to hold a “summary enquiry” to prevent an organization from using foreign funds. These changes were intended to increase transparency regarding the use of foreign money for non-governmental organisations.
3. OMICRON HAS HIGH IMMUNE ESCAPE POTENTIAL: INSACOG
News: There is now clear experimental and clinical data supporting very high immune escape potential of Omicron, but initial estimates show the severity of illness being lower than what was seen in previous outbreaks, the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Sequencing Consortium (INSACOG) said in its latest bulletin.
In India, appropriate public health measures and investigations are being conducted for surveillance of the Omicron variant, INSACOG said, noting that globally there appeared to be significantly reduced ability of vaccines or prior infection to protect against symptomatic infection by the Omicron variant.
Race with Delta
“While Delta continues to be the most prevalent VOC [variant of concern] globally, the Omicron variant has completely displaced it in southern Africa and is on track to become the dominant variant in the U.K. and elsewhere,” INSACOG said in its bulletin on Wednesday.
The genomic consortium, citing global data, said there was now clear experimental and clinical data supporting very high immune escape potential of Omicron, which appeared to be the major component of its growth advantage over Delta.
“Initial estimates of severity of illness have, however, been lower than seen in previous outbreaks. Whether these initial observations are generalisable to older non-immune subjects is not clear and the threat level is still considered high,” the consortium said.
INSACOG reports genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 across the country through sequencing of samples from sentinel sites and also detailed State-wise, district analysis for some States.