The HINDU Notes – 07th June 2021 - VISION

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Monday, June 07, 2021

The HINDU Notes – 07th June 2021


📰 Punjab, T.N., Kerala perform well in school education

Gujarat loses ground in Education Ministry’s grading index

•Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have all scored higher than 90% in the Education Ministry’s Performance Grading Index for 2019-20 which was released on Sunday. Gujarat dropped from second to eighth rank in the index, while Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are the only States which have seen actual regression in scores over this period.

•The index monitors the progress that States and Union Territories have made in school education with regard to learning outcomes, access and equity, infrastructure and facilities, and governance and management processes.

Huge jump

•Punjab has recorded the highest score of almost 929 out of a possible 1,000, showing a huge jump from 769 last year. The State topped the charts in terms of equity, infrastructure and governance, and shared the top spot in the domain of access with Kerala. In fact, Punjab overtook the Union Territory of Chandigarh, which had topped both previous editions of the index, but has now slid to second place with a score of 912.

•Tamil Nadu also overtook Kerala, with a score of 906, largely driven by improvements in the State’s educational governance and management, as well as in terms of infrastructure and facilities.

•Gujarat, which had the second highest score in the previous edition, dropped to eighth place. It has regressed in the key domain of access, which measures enrolment of students in school and the ability to keep them from dropping out as well as mainstreaming out-of-school students. Its progress in other areas also did not keep pace with other States.

Lowest score

•Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh saw a glaring drop in their governance scores, pushing both States to an overall performance that was worse than in the previous edition. The new Union Territory of Ladakh was included separately for the first time in this edition, and had the lowest score of just 545.

•This is the third edition of the index and uses 70 indicators to measure progress. Of these, the 16 indicators related to learning outcomes remain unchanged through all three editions, as they are based on data from the 2017 National Achievement Survey, which tested students in Classes 3, 5, 8 and 10. The next NAS was scheduled to be held in 2020, but was postponed because of the pandemic. The remaining 54 parameters use Central databases, collating information from the school and district level, and have been updated for 2018-19.

📰 More anti-bodies produced by Covishield than Covaxin, says study

515 doctors across 22 cities tracked through immunisation schedule.

•Two doses of Covishield vaccine produced more antibodies than Covaxin doses, but there were relatively fewer instances of ‘breakthrough infections’ after the latter, reports a study of healthcare workers (HCW) in India.

•The study is being peer-reviewed and has been submitted to a journal but appears as a preprint in MedrXiv, an online repository, and is among the few studies of the real-world effectiveness of vaccination in India.

•The study, by a collective of doctors, shows that none of the participants, who were also all doctors and got both doses of vaccines, were ill and only about 6% tested positive at different points of the vaccination schedule. While both vaccines were protective, there were differences in the protection accorded by a single dose of the vaccines.

•Due to the shortage, it’s easier for people to get a single dose rather than both doses — given that the recommended gap has been extended to as many as 12 weeks for Covishield.

•For the study, 515 healthcare workers from 13 States and covering 22 cities were evaluated from January to May 2021. Their blood samples were also tested for the presence, quantity of antibodies produced and levels of the specific antibodies that are directed to the spike protein of the virus, widely held to be a proxy of protection.

Ten-fold higher

•A single dose of Covishield elicited about 10 times the antibodies than Covaxin whereas a second dose narrowed the gap somewhat, with Covishield-triggered antibodies about six times that of Covaxin-stimulated ones, the study found.

•“Contrarily, Covishield showed a good seropositivity rate and a 4-fold rise in median antibody titre even after a single dose,” the authors note.

•Overall, 97.8% of those who never had COVID and had two complete doses of Covishield had detectable levels of antibodies, or tested seropositive, compared to 79.3% with Covaxin. It is important to note that of the 515, only 90 got Covaxin. Covishield constitutes the overwhelming majority of vaccines administered in the country with nearly nine persons getting it for every one of Covaxin.

•Though the spike protein remains the key target of most vaccines, ICMR and Bharat Biotech, the makers of Covaxin, have previously said that being a vaccine made out of an inactivated virus, it elicited a ‘broader immune’ response, meaning antibodies aimed at different parts of the coronavirus to neutralise it. T-cell immunity, that is reported to elicit a longer lasting protection wasn’t measured in the study.

•While real world efficacy data of Covaxin and India-centric data on Covishield isn’t public yet, recent studies have shown that most vaccines — including Covaxin and Covishield — have reduced response to some coronavirus variants such as B.1.617.2 or the Delta variant.

Less susceptible

•The study authors also evaluated the relationship of immune response to gender, a history of testing positive for COVID prior to vaccination and co-morbidities.

•Of the 30 HCWs who tested positive for the virus, three tested positive after the first dose and 27 after the second. Breakthrough infections — testing positive for the coronavirus two weeks after the second dose — were noted in 5.5% (22/399) cohorts in Covishield and 2.2% (2/93) of Covaxin recipients.

•Dr A.K. Singh, of the GD Hospital and Diabetes Institute, Kolkata and among the authors of the paper, said the greater number of infections after the second wave was probably due to the increased number of cases after April and the high exposure of the study participants — all doctors in COVID hospitals — to patients during the second wave.

•The study will continue in the months ahead to evaluate if antibody levels declined, Dr. Singh told The Hindu.

•There was no significant difference in seropositivity rate when compared by age, sex, Body Mass Index (BMI), blood group and any comorbidities including its duration and treatment. Participants who had Type2 diabetes and hypertension for over five years were less likely to have detectable antibodies than those without either condition or detected fewer than five years ago, the authors report.

📰 Govt. keen on implementing labour codes

It will result in reduction in take-home pay, higher provident fund liability of firms

•The four labour codes are likely to see the light of day in a couple of months as the Centre is now keen on going ahead with the implementation of these laws, which, among others, will result in a reduction in the take-home pay of employees and a higher provident fund liability of companies.

•Once the wages code comes into force, there will be significant changes in the way basic pay and the provident fund of employees are calculated.

•The Labour Ministry had envisaged implementing the four codes on industrial relations, wages, social security and occupational health safety and working conditions from April 1, 2021.

•These four labour codes will rationalise 44 Central labour laws.

•The Ministry had even finalised the rules under the four codes. But these could not be implemented because many States were not in a position to notify rules under these codes in their jurisdiction.

•Labour is on the Concurrent List of the Constitution and, therefore, both the Centre and the States have to notify rules under these four codes to make them the laws of the land in their respective jurisdictions.

•“Many major States have not finalised the rules under the four codes... The Central government cannot wait forever for the States to firm up the rules under these codes. Therefore, it is planning to implement these codes in a couple of months as some time would have to be given to establishments or firms to align with the new laws,” a source said.

•According to the source, some States had already circulated the draft rules.

•Under the new wages code, allowances are capped at 50%. This means half of the gross pay of an employee would be basic wages. Provident fund contribution is calculated as a percentage of the basic wage.

•After the implementation of the new codes, the take-home pay of employees would reduce, while the provident fund liability of employers would increase in many cases.

📰 New IT rules only to tackle misuse of social media, give users redressal mechanism, says Ravi Shankar Prasad

On the issue of tracing the originator of WhatsApp messages, the Minister asserted that ordinary users of WhatsApp have nothing to fear.

•Amid Twitter and WhatsApp pushing back against the government’s new rules for social media platforms, IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the rules only benefit the over 100 crore users of such platforms by giving them a means to address their grievances.

•“...These are basically the rights of the users against misuse[of social media platforms]. Any robust democracy which allows freedom of speech and expression, must also allow a forum for redressal of complaints,” Mr. Prasad said.

•The Minister again stressed that these platforms will have to abide by the laws in India.

•“Social media users can criticise Narendra Modi, they can criticise government policy, and ask questions. I must put it on record straight away... I have been in this post for nearly seven years now… the way social media has empowered ordinary Indians is a matter of great assurance... But a private company sitting in America should refrain from lecturing us on democracy when you are denying your users the right to effective redressal forum,” he said.

•The new rules for intermediaries such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Google. Twitter and Telegram, come into effect on May 26, and the Minister added that most platforms have submitted their compliance to ‘The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021’.

Rules give redressal mechanism to users, says Prasad

•With Twitter and WhatsApp up in arms against the government’s new guidelines for social media platforms, IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told The Hindu these guidelines are to deal with the issue of misuse of such platforms. He stressed that these rules only give a redressal mechanism to the users, with complaints to be handled between the users and the social media intermediary.

•The government, he said, is not involved. On the issue of tracing the originator of WhatsApp messages, the Minister said ordinary users of WhatsApp have nothing to fear. “I am giving my word,” he said. 

📰 Media and sedition: On Supreme Court relief to journalists

The Supreme Court’s rulings on cases of sedition give hope the law will be re-examined

•It has long been recognised that strident criticism of government will not amount to an attempt to excite disaffection and disloyalty towards government. Yet, the archaic and colonial view that an intemperate attack on an incumbent ruler should be met with fierce prosecution for sedition prevails among many in power even today. In a significant judgment, the Supreme Court has quashed a criminal case registered in Himachal Pradesh against journalist Vinod Dua by invoking the narrowed-down meaning of what constitutes an offence under Section 124A of the IPC, the provision for sedition, set out in Kedar Nath Singh (1962). Every journalist, the Court has ruled, is entitled to the protection of that judgment, which said “comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the Government, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence, would not be penal”. The law on sedition has come a long way from the formulation of British-era judges Comer Petheram and Arthur Strachey that “feelings of disaffection” towards the government connote “absence of affection... hatred, enmity, dislike, hostility... and every form of ill-will towards the government” to the more rational reading that only a pernicious tendency to create public disorder would be an offence. Yet, it appears that every generation needs a judicial iteration of this principle, and that is because of two reasons: that Section 124A remains on the statute book and that powerful political figures and their minions are unable to take criticism in their stride.

•Enacted to put down journalistic criticism of the colonial administration from an increasingly vocal press, Section 124A is essentially a provision which seeks to protect the government’s institutional vanity from disapprobation using the interests of public order and security of the state as a fig leaf. It has often been criticised for being vague and “overbroad”. Its use of terms such as “bringing (government) into hatred or contempt” and “disloyalty and all feelings of enmity” continues to help the police to invoke it whenever there is either strong criticism or critical depiction of unresponsive or insensitive rulers. The explanation that disapproval of government actions or measures with a view to altering them by lawful means will not amount to an offence is not enough to restrain the authorities from prosecution. The mischief lies in the latitude given to the police by an insecure political leadership to come down on the government’s adversaries. It is unfortunate that the Bench did not go into the aspect of political motivation behind the police registering FIRs without checking if the required ingredient of incitement to violence is present. The Court’s verdict brightens the hope that the section’s validity will be re-examined. For now, it is a blow for free speech and media freedom.

📰 Diminishing options: On RBI’s June 2021 policy statement

The RBI has little room to use interest rates for achieving policy outcomes

•The RBI’s latest policy statement underscores the diminishing options available to it to address the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. The bank’s Monetary Policy Committee left benchmark interest rates unchanged for a sixth straight meeting and reiterated that it would keep its policy stance accommodative ‘as long as necessary to revive and sustain growth on a durable basis’. Since its May 2020 decision to cut interest rates by 40 basis points, taking the cumulative reduction in borrowing costs in the wake of the pandemic’s onset to 115 basis points, the MPC has found itself in a bind. While the first lockdown constricted supply and demand for much of Q1 of the last fiscal, pushing the economy into a record 24.4% contraction during April-June and causing full-year GDP to shrink 7.3%, the second wave has crushed all-round demand and consumer confidence. The RBI’s May round of the consumer confidence survey shows the Current Situation Index at a new all-time low, with 75% of households perceiving the economic and employment situations as having worsened further, and the future expectations index reflecting overall pessimism. It is hard to see the mere availability of low-cost credit helping revive the all-important consumption demand.

•The MPC acknowledged the bleak outlook when it slashed its projection for Q1 growth by as much as 770 basis points to 18.5%, from the 26.2% it had forecast just on April 7. Banking more on optimism than hard data, the panel bumped up its growth estimates for the second half resulting in an overall cut of only one percentage point to its full-year growth forecast at 9.5%. For this, it has assumed rural demand will remain buoyant on the back of an expected normal monsoon, while noting that widespread infections in rural areas, which likely led to a sequential decline in tractor and two-wheeler sales in April, could undermine future demand. The other factor the RBI is banking on to provide a fillip to economic activity is an accelerated pace of vaccinations, over which it has virtually no control. To be fair, Governor Shaktikanta Das has used the bank’s liquidity spigot as a tool to address some of the economic distress. A series of measures focus on bolstering credit flow to the hardest hit MSME and contact-intensive industrial and services sectors, respectively. Still, the MPC can ill-afford to drop the ball on its primary remit — ensuring inflation remains anchored. With international commodity prices, including crude oil, on an upward trajectory and no signs of domestic policy support to check skyrocketing petrol and diesel pump prices, inflation is sure to accelerate, posing a major conundrum to the RBI. Raising rates could risk hurting recovery, and not doing so could heighten inflation.

📰 Recognising sex work as work

Adults have the right to earn through providing sexual services and live with dignity

•The pandemic has hit millions of people and caused a great deal of suffering across communities. But there is one community that is especially hard hit and that is sex workers. Owing to the non-recognition of sex work as “legitimate work”, sex workers have mostly been kept at arm’s length from the government’s relief programmes. COVID-19 has thus provided more reason to consider a long-pending demand of sex workers in India — decriminalisation of sex work and a guaranteed set of labour rights.

An archaic, regressive view

•The legislation governing sex work in India is the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act. The Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Children Act was enacted in 1956. Subsequent amendments were made to the law and the name of the Act was changed to Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act. The legislation penalises acts such as keeping a brothel, soliciting in a public place, living off the earnings of sex work and living with or habitually being in the company of a sex worker.

•This Act represents the archaic and regressive view that sex work is morally wrong and that the people involved in it, especially women, never consent to it voluntarily. After all, in popular depiction, entry into sex work is involuntary, forced, and through deception. As a consequence, it is believed that these women need to be “rescued” and “rehabilitated”, sometimes even without their consent. While this is a valid argument for minor girls, for many consenting adult sex workers, it has been a problem. This is what has led to the classification of ‘‘respectable women” and “non-respectable women”. This view is based on the belief that sex work is “easy” work and no one will or should choose to practise it. It thus perpetuates the prejudice that women who do practise sex work are morally devious.

•The Act has not only criminalised sex work but also further stigmatised and pushed it underground thus leaving sex workers more prone to violence, discrimination and harassment. The Act denies an individual their right over their bodies. Moreover, it imposes the will of the state over adults articulating their life choices. It gives no agency to the sex workers to fight against the traffickers and in fact, has made them more susceptible to be harassed by the state officials. The Act fails to recognise that many women willingly enter into agreements with traffickers, sometimes just to seek a better life as chosen by them. Evidence shows that many women choose to remain in sex work despite opportunities to leave after ‘rehabilitation’ by the government or non-governmental organisations.

Labour rights

•The Justice Verma Commission had also acknowledged that there is a distinction between women who are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and adult, consenting women who are in sex work of their own volition.

•We must recognise sex work as work and stop ourselves from assigning morality to their work. Adult men, women and transgender persons in sex work have the right to earn through providing sexual services; live with dignity; and remain free from violence, exploitation, stigma and discrimination. It is time we rethink sex work from a labour perspective, where we recognise their work and guarantee them basic labour rights.

•The judiciary is moving in the direction of recognising sex workers’ right to livelihood. The Supreme Court, in Budhadev Karmaskar v. State of West Bengal (2011), opined that sex workers have a right to dignity. Parliament must also take a re-look at the existing legislation and do away with the ‘victim-rescue-rehabilitation’ narrative. During these times of crisis especially, this is all the more important.

📰 Behaviorial change can reduce transmission

There are different ways, rooted in behavioural science, that we can employ to improve mask wearing

•Most of us in India will agree that there are two large parts to this pandemic: medical science and human behaviour. Universal vaccination will reduce infections, but with vaccine availability currently challenging, ‘herd immunity’ is still many months, if not years, away.

•Lack of physical distancing and proper hand washing are among the reasons for daily new infections. But the biggest reason for the surge is that people are wearing masks inconsistently, incorrectly, or not at all. Data from a global survey of COVID-19 knowledge, attitudes and practices (KAP) produced by the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs show that from July 2020 to March 2021, India saw a 5% drop in mask wearing. In the two-week period starting on March 15, 84% reportedly wore masks. However, the number varied sub-nationally and it was not measured whether the mask wearing was correct or consistent.

•Nevertheless, this is discouraging. While there will always be a minority who do not believe in the virus, masks or vaccines, a great majority would like to do what it takes to put this pandemic behind us. Relying solely on medical science, especially treatment, takes the agency away from the average people to act.

Channels for communication

•With behavioural data and strategic approaches, resources can be more efficiently used in reaching different audience segments with information through the channels they trust. Here are seven ways, rooted in behavioural science, that we can employ to improve mask wearing and other COVID-19 prevention measures.

•First, we all need basic information on why masks are effective in preventing COVID-19 transmission. We also need to know who should wear them, when and where. We need clarity on what types of masks are most effective, how to wear a mask correctly, and when is it important to double mask. The COVID-19 KAP survey shows that scientists and health experts are the most trusted sources of information on COVID-19, followed by the World Health Organization, television, newspapers, radio, and local health workers. These trusted channels should be used together to share basic information. As new information becomes available that is different from, or that adds to, the baseline information that people have, it should be shared with everyone in a comprehensive and timely way. We should not discount or put down people’s beliefs or misconceptions, but counter them with credible facts (Limaye, Sauer 2021). Addressing those barriers creatively through expert testimonials, infographics and statistics that explain how masks have prevented infection transmission is important.

•Second, not everyone has the same information needs. Some don’t believe that masks prevent COVID-19 infection whereas some know and agree that masks do prevent infection but don’t wear them consistently or correctly for various reasons. Communication to each group of people should be tailored accordingly. Generic messages saying ‘wear your mask’ can only serve as reminders at best; they will not help someone who, say, only wears a mask when she decides that she is in a risky situation. For that person, the message should convince her that any situation outside the home can pose a COVID-19 risk and that masking up any time you leave your house is critical.

•Third, we need to communicate the benefits of mask wearing. We need to highlight stories that show how COVID-19 infections are low among communities where mask wearing is high. Sharing testimonials from people who wear masks regularly and explaining how they have managed to avoid getting infected could help. Making masks a symbol of being cool (for the image-conscious), a sign of being considerate and respectful (for people who have elders and vulnerable people at home), and a badge of being smart (for those who want to protect themselves) could all be ways of reaching out to different kinds of people.

Positive social norm

•Fourth, we need to create a positive social norm around mask wearing. People are more likely to practise a behaviour if they believe that everyone else is also doing it too. Each audience segment has its own influencers, whether in their community or in the media. Those influencers should be routinely seen wearing a mask or heard talking about it. Advertisements, messages and visuals all positively reinforce mask wearing.

•Fifth, we need to enforce correct and consistent mask wearing. Many people do not follow proper masking behaviour because there is no consequence for their inaction. We rely only on the police to enforce mask wearing. While that is needed, we should all take collective responsibility. We need language that shows us how to politely tell an unmasked or poorly masked community member to wear a mask. If each of us can influence the people around us, the positive multiplier effect of wearing masks will be significant in curbing infections.

•Sixth, we need compassionate leadership. Leaders, at every level, can play a positive or negative role in influencing our behaviour. From the head of a family to the head of a country, leaders have to lead with empathy, and build and hold the trust of the people they lead. Religion, politics and profit have no role when we are in such a dire situation. These leaders should themselves consistently convey and enact positive behaviours like mask wearing and vaccinations.

The role of media

•Seventh, we need responsible media. If fear of the threat (COVID-19 in this case) is stronger than our perception that we can do something about it, we will ignore the threat rather than trying to address it (EPPM, Witte et al. 1992). We look to the media for brave and honest reporting and there have been some great examples of that during the pandemic. However, when many channels sow more panic than positivity, the audience grows numb. People feel that there may be no point in them doing anything if it is all doom and gloom anyway. In their helplessness, people indiscriminately share information, misinformation and disinformation on social media. We need sections of the media to hold themselves to a high standard and report on much more than just burning pyres, struggling hospitals, the oxygen crisis and vaccine and drug shortages. When we see uplifting and inspiring stories of prevention efforts, ideas and innovations to promote masking, distancing and vaccination, we will feel inspired to do our bit for prevention.

•If we want to finish this year being able to celebrate festivals, hug our loved ones and enjoy a real holiday, we need to invest in a comprehensive, behavioural approach to address COVID-19 behaviour. While no expense is being spared in engaging the best scientific experts from around the world to address questions and explain the pandemic, the human behavioural aspect has only been addressed in an ad hoc manner. Understanding, predicting and shaping human behaviour is a science too. Indeed, it is the less expensive way of digging ourselves out of the hole we are currently in.

📰 The red flags on the trail of the virus

China’s actions and the Wuhan lab connection do require closer scrutiny even if the U.S. may not find the smoking gun

•The publication of science writer, editor, and author Nicholas Wade’s well-researched article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?, has set alarm bells ringing about the collusive cover up of the possible leak of the novel coronavirus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). He has laid out a strong case for a fuller investigation into the event.

The U.S. link

•China promoted the narrative that the virus spread from a wet market (seafood and animal market) in Wuhan to avoid any scrutiny of what was being done in the WIV. Senior health officials in the United States seemed to concur. It soon became public that the coronavirus-related research in the WIV was funded by American money. Most experts embraced the natural spread narrative since the alternative was unimaginable. The lab-leak proposition was discredited as a conspiracy theory simply because it was being espoused by then U.S. President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.

•With advances in biotechnology, it is now possible to genetically engineer existing pathogens to make them more lethal and difficult to treat. Higher mortality and ethnic specificity could be the other features of such new, synthesised organisms or viruses. A possible antidote or vaccine would only be accessible to those conducting such research.

•Dr. Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance obtained grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and subcontracted research to a group headed by Dr. Shi Zhengli at the WIV. Dr. Daszak claimed in a 2019 interview that after six or years of research, over 100 new SARS-related coronaviruses, some of which were introduced into human cells in the lab, caused SARS disease in humanised mice and were untreatable. The research carried out involved the creation of novel, life-threatening and pandemic-creating viruses.

•The WIV operates a Biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) facility. Its deficient safety had been flagged by U.S. inspectors, but there is no record of any remedial action. A 2018 inspection report stated that the facility did not have appropriately trained professionals to safely operate the BSL-4 laboratory. A former Israeli intelligence official and visiting fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Dany Shoham, now with the Bar Ilan University, Israel, has linked the WIV to China’s biological weapons programme.

•Why were American funds made available to a Chinese laboratory to conduct sensitive research? No doubt because it was less expensive and dangerous to carry out the experiments in China. Besides, U.S. funding ensured it would have access to the experiments conducted at the WIV. In a recently released email, Dr. Daszak thanked the Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, for publicly stating that scientific evidence supported a natural origin for the coronavirus and not a lab release.

China’s reactions

•Admittedly, it is difficult to distinguish between a naturally occurring event, an accidental release of a genetically modified pathogen, or its deliberate use. Because of this and the lingering suspicions, it is the responsibility of the institution and the country where the first outbreak occurred to establish the facts.

•China has done the opposite. It has covered up facts and impeded the investigation. A 34-year-old doctor in Wuhan, Li Wenliang, tried to alert others on a social media platform from his hospital bed in Wuhan about a possible outbreak of a SARS-type virus. Instead of treating the young doctor as a hero, Chinese security officials vilified him and charged him with making false claims, spreading rumours, and disturbing the social order. He died as a result of a coronavirus infection. While he was officially exonerated by an investigation into his death, the report has been criticised for only having recommended the reprimand be withdrawn. There are also other reports of the police making an apology to his family.

•The WIV head of coronavirus research, Shi Zhengli’s database on SARS-like viruses went offline just before the virus outbreak in Wuhan. Countries demanding greater transparency and accountability have been either denounced or ‘punished’ by China. China’s vehement opposition to further investigations, actions to suppress facts from getting out, and reluctance to share data only fuel the suspicion that China has something to hide.

•The release of the findings of the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 30 — and revised on April 6 — on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (coronavirus) that dismissed the lab-leak as “extremely unlikely” actually energised the controversy instead of laying it to rest. Subsequently, the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called for further studies on the virus origins and said that all hypotheses remained on the table, dismissing the earlier findings as non-definitive.

•The WHO findings were tainted because Dr. Daszak, a self-declared partisan of the natural occurrence theory and with a personal financial stake in the WIV experimentation, was included in the inquiry team. Together with a group of fellow virologists, Dr. Daszak had already declared in February that they stood together to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories” suggesting that the virus did not have a natural, zoonotic origin. Including him in the WHO investigation team was akin to having a suspect investigate the crime scene.

•It is unlikely that U.S. President Joe Biden’s call to the U.S. intelligence community — “to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days” — will result in a smoking gun being found. Unfortunately, the available evidence that is scant will compromise a credible forensic examination. Any determination of what went wrong will necessarily be circumstantial.

Present and future dangers

•That the coronavirus escaped from the WIV is in fact increasingly plausible. Whether this was a negligent or wilful act can never be proven, but it is evident that the research at the WIV — bioengineering more lethal coronavirus variants — crossed ethical boundaries.

•The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) — formerly known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction — has no systems to verify compliance with its prohibitions, nor any enforcement mechanisms to penalise infringement of its provisions. These shortcomings have been repeatedly highlighted in the five-yearly Review Conferences of the BWC, but the state parties to the BWC have been unable to agree on any measures to address them, thus compromising on biosecurity and wilful breaches of the Convention.

•Smallpox and other viruses have escaped from secure laboratories before. Public knowledge is that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, and the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, Koltsovo, are now the only two “official” repositories of smallpox spores, but there have been persistent fears that these have been disseminated, and certain countries are experimenting with genetically modifying them. Smallpox was deadly enough. Its ‘improved’ version might be devastating.

•The coronavirus research conducted in the WIV for years is an example of science that has run amok, without ethical restraints or any code of conduct for the scientists, who appear to be bereft of any accountability. Such action threatens the very existence of humankind. This is why China’s role requires closer scrutiny.