Weekly Update: Delhi’s Hazardous Air; A New Strain Of COVID

A social media meme drenched in black humour has been doing the rounds in Delhi for the past couple of weeks. It goes: “If you don’t gulp down your peg of Glenfiddich quickly enough on an evening in Delhi, it can turn into a Laphroiag.” The reference here to the lighter coloured Speyside whisky turning into a darker, more peaty Islay whisky is all about pollution in Delhi. On Saturday evening around 7 pm, the Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures the levels of suspended particulate matter in the air, in Delhi was around 745. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. For example, an AQI value of 50 or below represents good air quality, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality. At 745, it is a grievously terrible situation.

While jokes and memes, tapped out on phones from well-endowed and privileged Delhiites, gives one side of the picture in Delhi, the story from the streets of India’s capital city is not one that could make you guffaw. Delhi has an estimated 150,000-200,000 homeless people, the majority of whom live on the streets. CNN had a heart-rending story about an 84-year-old homeless man begging for food on the sidewalk outside Delhi’s South Campus Metro station, breathing the air noxiously full of smog. Millions of Delhiites eke out their living in the sprawling city with a population of more than 20 million by working on the streets, on construction sites, in open-air food and vegetable markets, or simply by plying auto rickshaws and handcarts. Hawkers, policemen, security guards, food delivery couriers–you name it–they are constantly exposed to air quality that is life-threatening.

The situation is a repeat every year, especially as winter sets in and cold air traps emissions from stubble burning on farms around Delhi, poorly regulated factories in and around the city, and the mesh of foul emission spewing traffic. Every year, when this happens, there is media outrage and huge concerns. But everyone, including the government, has become so inured to it that even as it gets warmer and the air clears even a little bit–although even then the AQI levels are dangerous–the outrage dies down. Year in and year out, it is the same story.

It is not that the government–both at the centre and in the Delhi state–have not done anything. A few years ago, they tried an experiment of restricting traffic by allowing only vehicles with licence numbers that were even to be out on the streets on one day and ones with odd numbers the next. The experiment wasn’t given time enough for its efficacy to be assessed before it was shelved.

This year, following a judicial order after an environmental activist had moved court, schools and colleges were shut down; construction projects were stopped and some of the coal-fired power plants around the city were ordered to be closed down. But as the air quality improved marginally, everything was back to business as usual.

Delhi isn’t the only Indian city that is reeling from the adverse effects of air pollution. Nine of the ten most polluted cities in the world are in India, which depends heavily on fossil fuel as a source of energy. At the COP26 summit that recently concluded in Glasgow, India was one of the countries that wanted to phase down coal instead of phasing it out.

It is a classic conundrum. Industrialised countries have reached a level of advanced development, (much of it achieved through decades of burning fossil fuel) where they can now decide to move to a non-fossil fuel environment. Countries such as India, which are still grappling with basic development goals cannot afford to do so. What then is the solution? The answers remain elusive.

Yet Another COVID Variant From S Africa

Even as a new and potentially more dangerous COVID strain was discovered in South Africa and travel restrictions were imposed by many countries on movement of people from there, many Indian states have imposed fresh restrictions on people travelling to those states from international as well as domestic areas. In Maharashtra, all domestic travellers will have to either be fully vaccinated or have a favourable RT-PCR test that is valid for 72 hours.

In Kerala, where the COVID situation has remained alarming, the emergence of the new strain, named Omicron, has given cause for concern. Kerala has been so badly affected by COVID this year that in August there were days when the relatively small state accounted for more than 50% of the total number of cases in the country.

Epidemiologists have had no concrete answers to why Kerala has been so badly affected. Some say it is because the state is able to test people for COVID at a much higher rate than what other states are able to do. Others point to population density in the state. But it is also a fact that Kerala has been able to vaccinate its population more efficiently than other states and that last year it was able to control the spread of the virus better than several other states.

But given India’s huge population, high levels of poverty and low levels of awareness, the emergence of a new strain of COVID, albeit for now in S. Africa, should be a reason for worry. And state as well as central governments have to constantly monitor travel, vaccination programmes and precautionary measures such as mandatory social distancing and the use of masks.

Get Ready For ‘New Normal’ In Post-Corona Times

Wherever you are in this recently-turned-surreal world, you’re either locked down at home; or self-isolated with minimal social contact; or, in the worst case, quarantined somewhere. In India, the entire population has been locked down now since March 24, and people’s movement has been severely restricted. The lucky ones have work that they can do from home; the less fortunate are seeing their incomes dwindle. Elsewhere in the world, such as in Finland where I temporarily reside, the population is so sparse that voluntary self-isolation and social distancing are thought to be enough to curb the spread of the deadly Covid virus that has held the world in suspended animation.

But no matter where you are, the weeks of isolation have probably begun to take their toll and affect your life in more ways than you could have imagined. For those eking out a living at the margins of the economy such as daily wage earners, casual workers, or those employed in the informal sectors (in India that means more than 80% of the workforce), the lockdown is like a devastating blow to their lives, a blow from which they could take months, if not years, to recover. For others, it has changed their lives in lesser but still significant ways.

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Some symptoms of those changes are palpable. When liquor sales were allowed in several Indian locked-down states, queues, some of them albeit socially-distanced, snaked outside liquor shops, and, in some places, stretched for several kilometres. Alcohol-deprived, locked-down denizens just wanted to stock up on booze, which to many is a convenient aid to escape the monotony and depression that sets in when movement is restricted, economic fortunes seem uncertain, and fear and anxiety looms large. The queues outside alcohol shops were probably longer than those outside stores that sold essentials such as food during the lockdown.

Several state governments, which get to set their own excise duties on liquor, raised the rate of taxation, some by as much as 70%, trying to maximise the revenues that can earn in an economy that has sputtered to a halt. These high prices for booze are unlikely to decline even after the Corona virus scare has ended (and no one still knows when that could happen).  

Alcohol consumption could be on the rise during the lockdown but there are less visible changes that are already affecting people’s lives. Staying indoors, often with children and other members of the family, 24X7 for weeks on end can take its toll psychologically. Even in a developed country such as Finland, police admit to getting increased number of complaints of domestic abuse and violence towards women and children. In India, data is as yet unavailable for that sort of behavioural changes but with entire families cooped up in (often) cramped homes; strapped for cash; or for even food and other daily necessities, it could be like ticking time-bombs.

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With much of the privileged world shifting to school education online during this period, many parents feel the pressure to cope with enforcing discipline on their children to adhere to the new norms of lessons via the internet—not an easy task, particularly when their children are very young and unaccustomed to the process. According to a few family therapists, in many cases, this could lead to abnormal tensions within families and affect family members adversely. Coupled with their own predicament—job cuts; reduced earnings; and the uncertainties about the future—such pressures, not inconceivably, this could lead to serious long-term psychological effects on people and even lead to familial fragmentation.

No one knows yet when the threat of the pandemic will ebb but psychologists and trend forecasters are already talking about a new way of living that may emerge. In many countries, notably in Europe, restrictions are being slowly relaxed. In Finland, restaurants will be allowed to operate in a limited manner (no more than 50 diners at a time) from June1. Schools are being opened for 11 working days from May 14, ostensibly to gauge whether the virus spreads further or not. In India, in some cities, people are being allowed to move around between 7 am and 7 pm in a sort of curfew relaxation. And standalone stores in many cities are now operating normally. Yet, as the threat of the virus refuses to die down, people have grown cautious about social mingling or being out and about in places where there are others.

These are trends that could come to stay. Many business models that are pinned on attracting volumes or numbers of people to make them viable—such as big restaurants; sports events; shopping malls; and so on—could be hit for a long time as customers and consumers decide to err on the side of caution even after the restrictions are gone. In some Chinese cities, after movie theatres were opened partially, they had to be shut down again not because of the renewed spread of the virus but because people just didn’t want to go and watch movies with others as they normally would have.

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The flipside of the pandemic-led paralysis of society could be in the form of innovations. Artists and musicians have already begun online virtual concerts on platforms such as YouTube with a pay as you please business model. Restaurants are cutting their overheads and focussing more on home deliveries of their fare as customer feel more comfortable and secure eating at home rather than visiting public places. Air travel is likely to change forever as business and leisure travel shrinks and people and businesses use the Internet to get work done. For many businesses that could lead to substantial reductions in cost.

Many may believe that these will only be a short-term impact of the pandemic. But perhaps not. The after-effects of the pandemic could be longer lasting. The ongoing crisis that the world is experiencing could upend many of the ways in which we live, communicate, and consume. The new normal after the Corona scare is over (whenever that is) would be very different from what we have been used to till now. It could be a not-so-brave new world.

Test Swab For Covid-19

Coronavirus, Nemesis Of Age Of Reason

It’s only a Virus. But it’s the Pandemic Virus! Who was responsible? Superstition, blind faith, witches brew and conspiracies are back in the ‘Age of Reason’ and science. Anthropocentric (human centric) confidence is meeting its nemesis. People forget, nature can’t be ruled.

Nature is full of viruses. There are some millions of strains and scientists cannot quite agree on a classification. What’s more, viruses are constantly mutating without the help of scientists in white coats. Nature is their driver, scientist and spy in chief.

A virus is essentially a RNA or a DNA with a bit of coating in many. It has confounded the scientific world for classification as it is neither a non-living entity nor quite a living entity. It does not replicate by finding a partner and produce baby viruses to be nurtured by mummy virus.

RNA and DNA are templates from a sort of Unicode. They are gene codes of all of life, be it microbes (bacteria etc), insects, mammals human beings, plants, fungus etc. Each species has its own code and within species there are small variations, such as hair colour, height, facial features, gender, functional ability (some become Ussain Bolts, others are best suited to watch TV) and so on. Of course environment also plays a part but the framework is all due to these guys, called RNA and DNA. And they make adjustments over years, thus giving rise to evolutionary changes.

A virus is essentially a RNA or a DNA with a bit of coating

RNA and DNA are made of small molecules called nucleotides. For those with a bit of chemistry background, both have guanine, adenine and cytosine. But DNA also has thymine while just to be different, RNA has uracil instead. They occur in different combinations thus giving each RNA and DNA a different character for the species. They have one further difference. RNA is usually a single string and DNA is two strings, the famous double helix structure. It gets more complex after that and we are not giving away free PhD courses here.

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One other character difference between the two for interest is that DNA is more stable while RNA is quite unstable. RNA tends to change more frequently, hence some viruses like coronaviruses mutate constantly.

RNA and DNA are the reason life continues to replicate. These guys don’t want nirvana. Over millions of years they have formed complex ways for perpetuity. Some formed bacteria and continue like that, Others have become elephants etc. Many have become plants and others have formed the human race for survival. When we say life goes on, in fact it is the gene, the RNA and DNA that goes on. While we make elaborate theories about soul and afterlife, these guys, RNA, DNA just want to jump into the next generation and survive. They are not interested in God.

Some of these guys didn’t bother to become exotic. They have remained in their most basic form as RNA or DNA and found convenient way to near eternity. They survive with a little protective protein coat and become parasites to replicate. We call them viruses!

Viruses are very, very, very small. They are about 10000 times smaller than a grain of salt.  They are also nimble. The coronavirus has some 29,903 nucleotides. The smallest human chromosome is 50 million nucleotides with a total of 3,200,000,000 nucleotides in a human DNA. With 3.2 billion relatives in tow, no wonder the human DNA has to make us go through those complex rituals of finding a partner, marriage ceremony and home making to get itself to the next generation. Believe it, it is not your parents who push you into a marriage, it is the human gene trying to remain on this earth through another generation.

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The nimble virus on the other hand doesn’t have to go through these rituals. But it has no life until it joins a living thing. It just hangs around or degenerates. It survives by finding something living, sneaks into its cells by crafty methods and then replicates! It is the ultimate real life zombie film.

There are viruses everywhere. Millions and trillions of them. Only around 5000 have been studied. They are in every organism.

So what about coronavirus. This virus has another capsule, as do many virus strains. There is a halo appearance to this capsule with small mushroom type bits on it. Hence it is called corona. Corona is a gaseous halo around a planet. There are quite a few types of coronavirus strains. SARS-CoV-2 is a new mutation causing the disease Covid-19.

This nasty virus usually attacks lower parts of the lungs rather than throat that other influenza viruses do. It attaches to the membrane of host cells. Poor suckers (host cells) get romantic with it and open up. In goes the Viral RNA. It twinkles its eyes (metaphorically) at everyone and finds its way into the host nucleus and DNA. There it becomes deceitful, raids the DNA, uses it and replicates like no tomorrow. Many more Coronavirus formations take form. They push out of the host cell membrane onto others. Some get sneezed out. If the host cells had a vocabulary, deceitful is the mildest word they would use as they are ripped apart.

An effigy of Covid19 at Moghalpura X road in Hyderbad

Then the collateral damage starts. The cells that die form mucous. When cells die, it leads to temperature as the body deals with toxins. The mucous accumulates. The cells that are meant to push the mucous upwards into the mouth for us to spit (bad habit) or swallow, are dying and unable to do so. When there is quite a bit of mucous, the Oxygen from the air cannot get in properly while Carbon-di-Oxide from blood cannot get out. No amount of ginger or haldi can help at this stage. The whole body starts becoming toxic. Ventilators are used to try and push in high concentration Oxygen in the hope that it will give time to the body to build antibodies to destroy the virus.

The human immune system is a remarkable defence army. There is no dithering politician to control its timing. Normally the human body has had numerous mild infections since birth. The immune system immediately does what scientists are trying to do except it works faster. It looks at hostile cells, studies it (yes believe it or not) and then builds counter cells, enzymes etc to destroy the hostile invader. This has nothing to do with witches brew.

Once the immune system has dealt with an invasion, it memorises it. Next time it is even quicker off the mark. But sometimes the invasion is overwhelming, especially in older people where the immune system is also in retirement mode, or in people with illnesses such as diabetes where it has other distractions and is also slightly compromised. In these cases the virus gets an advantage and may decapacitate the body’s response. The person dies from lack of Oxygen reaching vital organs.

The Covid-19 virus is called a novel virus, meaning a new mutation. That’s why people do not have pre-existing immunity. The body is building immunity on the go.

Viruses change some of their RNA nucleotide sequences in a number of clever ways when they realise hosts have effective defences. The host has to start building immunity all over again.

They can get together with another virus of near similar strain within a host and create a different RNA nucleotide structure without affecting core one. This is called ‘recombination’. For instance there may be a strain from animal A, i.e. a bat, that gets into animal B, i.e. a pig. The pig may have some similar strains to human viruses.  A new recombinant virus strain appears called novel virus. This newly mutated virus jumps into the human and we get a pandemic if the virus is dangerous.

Though widely believed, there is no evidence that the virus came from bat soup

Bats and viruses like each other and have the ultimate deal. A lot of their viruses spread to humans. ‘Kill all the bats, build a beautiful bat wall! Detain them and deport them to Mars,’ you may be tempted to say if you think like an American president. Its not that simple. Without bats, we may be short of food as they eat insects, pollinate plants and disperse seeds. The ecosystem is very complicated.

There are a few other ways viruses change, one is called antigenic drift when the protein cover of virus changes by mutational ability of virus code over time. There is another called Antigenic shift when two or more viral strains work together to change their protein cover thus fooling the host immune system. Very clever these viruses. Cleverer than most politicians. Virology is complicated.

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One does not need a Chinese scientist stealing information from USA laboratories and accidentally spilling it in Wuhan wild animal market as some Americans want the world to think. Viruses have been doing this for millions of years and are quite deft at it. No wonder pandemics keep on recurring. Besides when laboratories fool around with viruses they also ensure there are antibody serums or vaccines. Nothing seems to have sprung up during the coronavirus pandemic.

It needs to be said that there are good viruses as well. Viruses favourite victims are bacteria. There are trillions of bacteria. There would be many more if viruses were not invading them and killing them. We have viruses in our guts, respiratory system (lungs) and reproductive tracts killing the bad bacteria. These are called bacteriophages. We will be suffering from toxic shocks if these viruses left in disgust.

In Russia and some Eastern European countries, viruses are used as phages to deal with antibiotic resistant bacteria. The science is too young and expensive in the rest of the west yet but not in Russia. Don’t ask me why. Big Pharma etc?

Phage science is now looking at using viruses to kill cancer cells in the body. This is an interesting and exciting development. Since viruses can be specific, they are being developed in laboratories to target cancer cells. The science is in its infancy and still looking at how the body immune system can permit this exception.

Phages clean our sewers of bacteria, sterilise a lot of our plant food supply and help some plants withstand hard weathers.

Sadly there is no cure for the bad viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) when they are on the prowl. We can’t wage a war on viruses or send them packing. There are nearly a billion viruses in a square meter of earth surface! And they also literally fall from the sky as they exist in the outer stratosphere of earth too. We have to hide from a pandemic virus or build immunity.

Basically run away from the virus and wash your hands. Soap destroys the outer membrane of coronavirus thus rendering it impotent immediately.

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The second is to find a vaccine that will help to build immunity against the next wave.  A naturally robust immune system can help many as it has during this crises.

Corona Virus has shown the world how weak the human race is. In the age of science and reason, human beings had started to believe that the human race is in control of everything. It is this false arrogance, a belief in infallibility of human reason, that has made people forget that human society only knows a miniscule amount about nature. That is why people want to believe that only a human conspiracy can create a virus this potent! Quite simply, it is nature working hand in glove with a tiny virus to outwit our immune systems, our vaccine programmes and most importantly our silly boisterous political leaders.

Best strategy now is, be a coward, be smart and hide from the virus until its numbers go down substantially. Don’t stare it in the eye. Wait for a scientist, not a holyman or a politician, find a vaccine. Even then, there is no guarantee as these guys mutate. Forget the conspiracy theories, these viruses have been at this game for millions of years even before the human race came on the scene. 300 millions years apparently.