1. Where are the programmers?

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Science & Technology

Inadequate teaching has given rise to an aversion of programming across campuses

Every year, lakhs of youngsters graduate with computer science, computer application and engineering degrees from Indian universities. A few years ago, Aspiring Minds created a stir when it published a report that stated that 95% of engineers were not fit for software development jobs. The report said only 1.4% of them could write functionally correct code. Computer programs are the foundation of applied computer science, and writing them is an important skill for students to have. Every IT company in India looks for fresh graduates with programming skills. Since the companies are convinced that new computer science graduates don’t have these skills, they screen them for logical reasoning/aptitude tests and train them in programming languages.

Missing programming culture

The problem is that new graduates are often afraid of programming or lack the right understanding of basic concepts. The aversion to programming is so prevalent in campuses that even graduates with high marks prefer to move to non-programming careers with lower salaries. Thousands of talented students drift away from highly rewarding programming careers because of poor teaching of programming. Except some elite institutions, the faculty in computer science departments of a majority of the colleges do not put their knowledge to use, to solve real-life problems. They may have graduated with excellent academic credentials, but they lack expertise in programming. The faculty memorise programs and then go on to teach their students the same method. As a result, over the last two decades, selling graduate-level computer science projects has become a parallel industry. Students buy ready-made projects for a fee from marquee institutes to submit to the university as bonafide projects.

We need computer science faculty with good programming skills. They need to be comfortable explaining or teaching computer science concepts using any computer language in the classroom. For example, data structure and algorithms (ds-algo) must be taught along with a programming language, not just as a separate theory. A minimum of three years of software development experience for faculty should be made mandatory. The college management or even the government could step in and incentivise or bear the cost of this experience. If the faculty are well-versed with programming language and coding, the students will pick up these skills easily in the classroom. And then programming will become the default culture and language in computer science classrooms and we will have excellent programmers.

Before the first year of graduation class begins, students can be asked to complete assignments on platforms like ‘Scratch’ from MIT. A week’s crash course in a simple scripting language like Python can be taught before the first semester starts, so that programming can be used while teaching computer science concepts in the classroom.

Nowadays, everyone has a laptop. For programming languages and related subjects, the program needs to be written and executed in the classroom on every student’s laptop while theory is being taught, not in a separate laboratory. Programming assignments must be given frequently. These should be checked into some cloud repositories like GitHub.

Benefiting both parties

If students are guided this way, companies would be more than happy to take these students as interns. These students can assist their development team. This industry-academic partnership will benefit both parties, as industry funds academic research to solve the latest real-life problems and academia provides employable and productive graduates to industry. Once the right programming culture is inculcated in campuses, it will unleash the huge human technological potential of India and help the country become the technological superpower of the coming decade.

Source: The Hindu

2. 20 years on, an inconclusive war on terror

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; International Issues

Instead of one centralised outfit like in 2001, the world now has many al-Qaedas

“Our war on terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there,” former U.S. President George W. Bush said days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated,” he told the U.S. Congress.

Afghanistan was the first outpost in what the Bush administration called a “global war on terror”. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban regime, which refused to hand over 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, and defeat al-Qaeda. Twenty years later, the U.S. exited a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan with al-Qaeda networks spread across many countries.

War on al-Qaeda

When the 9/11 attack was planned and executed, al-Qaeda had a permanent base in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Bin Laden was based in the country and they had thousands of militants who were protected by the Taliban. The U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban regime and killed many al-Qaeda terrorists and disrupted their network in Afghanistan. It was the heaviest blow to al-Qaeda, which had carried out multiple bombings in the past targeting the U.S., including the Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the attack on USS Cole off Aden, Yemen, in 2000.

But al-Qaeda would find an opportunity to regroup and rebuild its organisation in Iraq after the 2003 American invasion. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordan-born al-Qaeda leader, established al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), capitalising on the chaos Iraq fell into after the invasion.

Zarqawi also exploited the resentment among Iraq’s Sunni community towards the political changes in Baghdad (Shias, the country’s oppressed majority under Saddam Hussein’s rule, rose to power after the invasion) and launched a sectarian civil war.

So within a few years of the U.S.’s Afghan invasion, al-Qaeda found a new haven in post-Saddam Iraq.

The rise of IS

Zarqawi was killed in 2006 and AQI suffered setbacks as Iraqi Sunnis, backed by U.S. forces and the central government, formed local militias to take on the terrorists. This calmed Iraq, but it did not last long. When Arab regimes were rocked by protests in 2011, jihadists found a new opportunity amidst the chaos that followed. In Syria, regional rivals of President Bashar al-Assad and their allies, including the U.S., offered support to different rebel groups, pulling the country into a deadly civil war. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, the new avatar of AQI, sent a group of his militants under the command of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani across the border to Syria. Joulani would set up a new al-Qaeda branch in Syria — Jabhat al-Nusra — which declared war on President Assad’s government.

Nusra’s brutal tactics and Islamist vigour helped the group capture territories in the chaotic, multi-directional Syrian civil war. An ambitious Baghdadi announced the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), involving his group in Iraq and al-Nusra in Syria. Joulani, who was backed by the al-Qaeda core led by Ayman al- Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor, fell out with Baghdadi. But the faction of the Nusra that backed Baghdadi’s call for an Islamic State joined his new outfit, which would emerge as the most ferocious jihadist group from the Syrian civil war, capturing territories from Syria’s Raqqa to Iraq’s Mosul and Falluja, practically erasing the border between the two countries.

For a few years, the IS would reign as the world’s most dangerous terrorist outfit, but it would be defeated by concerted attempts by several players, including Kurdish and Shia militias and the U.S., Syria. Iraq, Iran and Russia.

Metastasised threat

If al-Qaeda was concentrated in Afghanistan before September 11, they decentralised themselves and spread to different parts of the world during the course of the war on terror. The IS did the same when its ‘Caliphate’ came under attack in Iraq and Syria. It opened new provinces in other war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, where the civil war was going on, and Libya, which fell into chaos after the NATO invasion of 2011. Boko Haram, a jihadist group that came up in Nigeria, declared its loyalty to the IS, allowing the group to expand its operations in Africa. Now, terrorism is not a concentrated threat, but it has spread across countries in Asia and Africa. The IS wing in Afghanistan was strong enough to carry out the August 26 bombing of Kabul airport in which about 200 people, including 13 Americans were killed.

Baghdadi is dead, but the man he sent to Syria to open a local branch of al-Qaeda, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, is now the de facto ruler of Idlib, the province that stays outside the control of Mr. Assad’s government. Al-Qaeda has different operational branches now such as al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In Africa, both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS Greater Sahara and IS West Africa Province) have set up units, which have carried out brutal attacks in recent years, especially in the Sahel region. In Somalia, al-Shabab still remains strong.

When the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan, its first outpost in the war on terror, after 20 years of fighting, the terror threat, as President Joe Biden said, has “metastasized across the world”. Instead of one centralised outfit with a base, the world now has many al-Qaedas.

Source: The Hindu

3. What Chandrayaan-2 has sent

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Science & Technology

The failure of Chandrayaan-2, India’s second mission to the Moon, to make a soft-landing on the lunar surface had led to much disappointment. The lander and rover malfunctioned in the final moments and crash-landed, getting destroyed in the process.

But that did not mean the entire mission had been wasted. The Orbiter part of the mission has been functioning normally, and in the two years since that setback, the various instruments on board have gathered a wealth of new information that has added to our knowledge about the Moon and its environment.

Earlier this week, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) released the information gathered by the scientific payloads till now, some of which were still to be analysed and assessed.

What is the information gathered?

The Orbiter is carrying eight instruments. Through different methods, these instruments are meant to carry out a few broad tasks — study in more detail the elemental composition of the lunar surface and environment, assess the presence of different minerals, and do a more detailed mapping of the lunar terrain.

ISRO has said each of these instruments has produced handsome amount of data that sheds new light on the moon, and offers insights that could be used in further exploration.

Some of the most significant results so far:

WATER MOLECULE: The presence of water on the Moon had already been confirmed by Chandrayaan-1, India’s first mission to the Moon that flew in 2008. Before that, NASA missions Clementine and Lunar Prospector too had picked up signals of water presence.

But the instrument used on Chandrayaan-1 was not sensitive enough to detect whether the signals came from the hydroxyl radical (OH) or the water molecule (H2O, which too has OH).

Using far more sensitive instruments, the Imaging Infra-Red Spectrometer (IIRS) on board Chandrayaan-2 has been able to distinguish between hydroxyl and water molecules, and found unique signatures of both. This is the most precise information about the presence of H2O molecules on the Moon till date.

Previously, water was known to be present mainly in the polar regions of the Moon. Chandrayaan-2 has now found signatures of water at all latitudes, although its abundance varies from place to place. The IIRS characterised hydration features in the north polar region on the far side of the Moon and has also quantified the hydration within a crater.

Besides, the Dual Frequency Synthetic Aperture Radar, a microwave imaging instrument, has reported unambiguous detection of potential water ice at the poles as it has been able to distinguish properties of surface roughness from that of water ice, which is a first.

MINOR ELEMENTS: The Large Area Soft X-Ray Spectrometer (CLASS) measures the Moon’s X-ray spectrum to examine the presence of major elements such as magnesium, aluminium, silicon, calcium, titanium, iron, etc. This instrument has detected the minor

elements chromium and manganese for the first time through remote sensing, thanks to a better detector. The finding can lay the path for understanding magmatic evolution on the Moon and deeper insights into the nebular conditions as well as planetary differentiation.

CLASS has mapped nearly 95% of the lunar surface in X-rays for the first time.

Sodium, also a minor element on the Moon surface, was detected without any ambiguity for the first time. Scientists at ISRO believe that based on the CLASS findings with respect to sodium, “a direct link of exospheric sodium to the surface can be established (with global data)”, a correlation that remains elusive till date. The finding also opens up the avenue to explore processes causing the sodium to be present on the surface as well as the exosphere.

STYUDYING THE SUN: One of the payloads, called Solar X-ray Monitor (XSM), besides studying the Moon through the radiation coming in from the Sun, has collected information about solar flares. XSM has observed a large number of microflares outside the active region for the first time, and according to ISRO, this “has great implications on the understanding of the mechanism behind heating of the solar corona”, which has been an open problem for many decades.

How does all this help?

While the Orbiter payloads build upon existing knowledge of the Moon in terms of its surface, sub-surface and exosphere, it also paves the path for future Moon missions. Four aspects — mineralogical and volatile mapping of the lunar surface, surface and subsurface properties and processes involved, quantifying water in its various forms across the Moon surface, and maps of elements present on the moon — will be key for future scope of work.

A key outcome from Chandrayaan-2 has been the exploration of the permanently shadowed regions as well as craters and boulders underneath the regolith, the loose deposit comprising the top surface extending up to 3-4m in depth. This is expected to help scientists to zero in on future landing and drilling sites, including for human missions.

Some key future Moon missions that hope to make use of such data include the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)-ISRO collaboration Lunar Polar Exploration (LUPEX) mission scheduled for launch in 2023/2024. Its aim is to obtain knowledge of lunar water resources and to explore the suitability of the lunar polar region for setting up a lunar base.

NASA’s Artemis missions plan to enable human landing on the Moon beginning 2024 and target sustainable lunar exploration by 2028. The Chinese Lunar Exploration Programme too plans to establish a prototype of the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) at the lunar south pole and build a platform supporting large-scale scientific exploration.

What was missed because of the crash-landing?

The most obvious miss has been the opportunity to demonstrate the technology to make a soft-landing in outer space. ISRO scientists maintain that the accident was caused by a relatively small error that has been identified and corrected. But, to demonstrate this technology all over again, ISRO would have to send a fresh mission, Chandrayaan-3, planned for next year. It is expected to have only a lander and rover, and no Orbiter.

The lander Vikram and rover Pragyaan were carrying instruments to carry out observations on the surface. These were supposed to pick up additional information about the terrain, and composition and mineralogy. While the instruments on board the Orbiter are making “global” observations, those on the lander and rover would have provided much more local information. The two diverse sets of data could have helped prepare a more composite picture of the Moon.

Source: The Indian Express

4. IITs top Education Ministry’s rankings for 2021

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; Polity & Governance

IIT-Madras once again ranked No. 1; JNU, BHU in top 10.

The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Madras was ranked the best higher education institution in the country for the third year in a row by the Education Ministry, which released its India Rankings 2021 under the National Institutional Ranking Framework on Thursday.

In fact, IITs dominated the overall rankings, with seven of the top 10 positions. The Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru ranked second, followed by IIT-Bombay, IIT-Delhi, IIT-Kanpur, IIT-Kharagpur, IIT-Roorkee and IIT-Guwahati. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Banaras Hindu University (BHU) closed out the top 10 at rank nine and 10 respectively.

Among universities, IISc was ranked one, followed by JNU, BHU, Calcutta University, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Coimbatore, Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Jadavpur University, University of Hyderabad and Aligarh Muslim University at rank 10. Delhi University was placed 12 in the university rankings and 19 overall.

Among engineering institutions, IIT-Madras remained number one, followed by IIT-Delhi, IIT-Bombay, IIT-Kanpur, IIT-Kharagpur, IIT-Roorkee, IIT-Guwahati, IIT-Hyderabad, National Institute of Technology (NIT)-Tiruchirappalli and NIT-Karnataka.

Management institutions

For management institutions, Indian Institute of Management (IIT)-Ahmedabad was ranked one, followed by IIM-Bangalore, IIM-Calcutta, IIT-Kozhikode, IIT-Delhi, IIM-Indore, IIM-Lucknow, Xavier Labour Relations Institute in Jamshedpur, IIT-Kharagpur and IIT-Bombay. Jamia Hamdard was ranked one for pharmacy, followed by Panjab University. Manipal College of Dental Sciences was ranked the best in the dental category.

All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi scored the top rank for medical institutions, followed by Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, Christian Medical College in Vellore, National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bengaluru, Sanjay Gandhi Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences in Lucknow, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, BHU, Jawaharlal Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research in Puducherry, King George’s Medical University in Lucknow and Kasturba Medical College in Manipal.

Among institutions teaching law, National Law School of India University in Bengaluru was ranked number one, followed by National Law University in Delhi, NALSAR University of Law in Hyderabad, West Bengal National University of Juridicial Sciences, IIT-Kharagpur, Gujarat National Law University, Jamia Millia Islamia, National Law University in Jodhpur, Symbiosis Law School in Pune and Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology in Bhubaneswar.

IISc was ranked the best research institution, a category included for the first time.

Miranda House in Delhi remained the best college, followed by Lady Shri Ram College for Women and Loyola College.

Regional ranking frameworks

While releasing the rankings, Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said there was need for developing regional ranking frameworks and increasing participation by institutions. The Ministry launched the rankings in 2016 and has added more categories over the years.

The Ministry said in a statement that 4,030 institutions had applied for rankings this year. The institutions are assessed on their teaching, research, graduation outcomes, outreach and inclusivity and perception.

“A noticeable increase in institutional participation in the rankings exercise this year indicates its recognition amongst institutions of higher education in India as a fair and transparent ranking exercise. Number of unique applicants to India Rankings have increased from 2,426 in 2016 to 4,030 in 2021,” it stated.

Source: The Hindu

5. Why Big Tech companies’ foray into financial services is raising concerns

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

E-commerce giant Amazon’s financial services unit Amazon Pay has partnered with investment platform Kuvera to offer wealth management services to the former’s customers, which include investments in mutual funds and fixed deposits. This follows Google Pay’s deal with Equitas Small Finance Bank for fixed deposits.

The involvement of large tech players in the financial services segment is something that has been specifically flagged by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).

What is Amazon Pay’s partnership with Kuvera?

Under the partnership, Kuvera will provide services, products and technology know-how to Amazon Pay that will facilitate investments in mutual funds, fixed deposits, etc for its customers. “Through this arrangement with Amazon Pay India, we seek to add value to the investors’ journey. Our goal is to accelerate the democratisation of investing and wealth management in India,” Kuvera’s founder and CEO Gaurav Rastogi said.

Have there been other partnerships like this?

The most recent partnership involving a big tech company and a financial services firm for wealth management was Google Pay’s deal with Equitas Small Finance Bank for fixed deposits.

Several tech companies, though, have tied up with banking partners for short-term financing instruments. These include Amazon Pay that has tied up with Capital Float and IDFC FIRST Bank for the Amazon Pay Later instrument, and Paytm, which has tied up with Clix Finance India Pvt. Ltd for its postpaid service. Kunal Shah-led platform CRED also has an online lending platform in partnership with IDFC FIRST Bank.

What has the RBI said about involvement of tech companies in the financial services space?

While the RBI hasn’t commented on specific deals, in the Financial Stability Report released in July 2021, the central bank flagged concerns with big tech firms offering digital financial services.

“Big techs offer a wide range of digital financial services and have a substantial footprint in the payment systems, crowdfunding, asset management, banking and insurance of several advanced and emerging market economies. While this holds the promise of supporting financial inclusion and generating lasting efficiency gains, including by encouraging the competitiveness of banks, important policy issues arise,” the RBI noted.

“Specifically, concerns have intensified around a level-playing field with banks, operational risk, too-big-to-fail issues, challenges for antitrust rules, cyber security and data privacy. Big techs present at least three unique challenges. First, they straddle many different (non-financial) lines of business with sometimes opaque overarching governance structures. Second, they have the potential to become dominant players in financial services. Third, big techs are generally able to overcome limits to scale in financial services provision by exploiting network effects,” it added.

Source: The Indian Express

6. How tokens instead of credit card details can make transactions safer

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

Many merchants and e-commerce entities force customers to store debit or credit card details, which increases the risk of card data being stolen. This can be avoided now with the Reserve Bank of India allowing tokenisation of cards while making payments.

What is tokenisation?

It refers to replacement of card details with an alternative code called a ‘token’, which is unique for a combination of card, token requestor (the entity that accepts a request from the customer for tokenisation of a card and passes it on to the card network to issue a token) and the device, the RBI says. It reduces the chances of fraud arising from sharing card details. The token is used to perform contactless card transactions at point-of-sale (PoS) terminals and QR code payments.

The RBI has also extended tokenisation of Card-on-File (CoF) transactions — where card details used to be stored by merchants — and directed the merchants not to store card details in their systems from January 1, 2022. A CoF transaction is one in which a cardholder has authorised a merchant to store his or her Mastercard or Visa payment details, and to bill the stored account. E-commerce companies and airlines and supermarket chains often store card details.

“With effect from January 1, 2022, no entity in the card transaction or payment chain, other than the card issuers and card networks, should store the actual card data. Any such data stored previously will be purged,” the RBI said in a circular. The RBI had earlier barred storage of data in March 2020 but extended the deadline to December 31, 2021.

How does tokenisation work?

The cardholder can get the card tokenised by initiating a request on the app provided by the token requestor. The token requestor will forward the request to the card network which, with the consent of the card issuer, will issue a token corresponding to the combination of the card, the token requestor, and the device. Tokenisation has been allowed through mobile phones or tablets for all use cases and channels like contactless card transactions, payments through QR codes and apps, according to the RBI.

The tokens are generated by companies like Visa and MasterCard, which act like Token Service Providers (TSPs), and they provide the tokens to mobile payment or e-commerce platforms so that they can be used during transactions instead of the customer’s credit card details.

When users enter their card details into a virtual wallet like Google Pay or PhonePe, these platforms ask one of these TSPs for a token. The TSPs will first request verification of the data from the customer’s bank. When the data has been verified, a code is generated and sent to the user’s device. Once the unique token has been generated, it remains irreversibly linked to the customer’s device and cannot be replaced. Thus, each time a customer uses his or her device to make a payment, the platform will be able to authorise the transaction by simply sharing the token, without having to reveal the customer’s true data. Tokens can be generated to safeguard payments in mobile wallets and physical or online stores like Amazon. The list of card networks authorised by RBI to operate in India is available on the following link.

Who can tokenise cards?

The RBI has permitted card issuers to act as TSPs, which will offer tokenisation services only for cards issued by or affiliated to them. “The ability to tokenise and de-tokenise card data will be with the same TSP. Tokenisation of card data will be done with explicit customer consent requiring Additional Factor of Authentication (AFA) validation by the card issuer,” the RBI said.

Normally, in a tokenised card transaction, the stakeholders involved are the merchant, the merchant’s acquirer, card payment network, token requestor, issuer and customer. The registration for a tokenisation request is done only with explicit customer consent through AFA, and not by way of a forced, default or automatic selection of check box, radio button, etc. Customers will also be given the choice of selecting the use case and setting up limits. Customers have the option to set and modify per-transaction and daily transaction limits for tokenised card transactions.

What happens after tokenisation?

According to the RBI, for transaction tracking and reconciliation, entities can store limited data — last four digits of actual card number and card issuer’s name — in compliance with applicable standards. Actual card data, token and other relevant details are stored in a secure mode by authorised card networks. The token requestor cannot store the card number, or any other card detail. Card networks are also mandated to get the token requestor certified for security conforming to international best practices / globally accepted standards.

A customer can choose whether or not to let his or her card tokenised. Besides, the card issuer should also give the cardholder the facility to view the list of merchants for whom he or she has opted for CoF transactions, and to de-register any such token.

Why is the RBI going for tokenisation?

Citing convenience and comfort for users while undertaking card transactions online, many entities involved in the card transactions store actual card details, which is CoF. In fact, some merchants force their customers to store card details. Availability of such details with a large number of merchants substantially increases the risk of card data being stolen, the RBI said.

In the recent past, there have been incidents where card data stored by some merchants have been compromised or leaked. Any leakage of CoF data can have serious repercussions because many jurisdictions do not require an AFA for card transactions. Stolen card data can also be used to perpetrate frauds within India through social engineering techniques, the RBI said.

Source: The Indian Express

7. Mu variant of Covid-19: Reason for interest, but not yet a concern in India

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Science & Technology

On August 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) added a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, to its list of ‘Variants of Interest’ (VOI).

The lineage B.1.621 variant, named ‘Mu’ after the twelfth letter of the Greek alphabet, was first detected in the South American country of Colombia in January 2021.

What is a Variant of Interest (and one of ‘Concern’)?

All viruses mutate or undergo certain changes over time, helping them to spread easily, escape our vaccines, medicines and survive.

There are several SARS-CoV-2 variants circulating globally.

Mu is the fifth ‘VOI’ to be monitored by the WHO. The other four VOIs, named according to the simplified scheme of nomenclature announced by the WHO on May 31 this year, are:

* Eta (lineage B.1.525, documented in multiple countries from December 2020);

* Iota (lineage B.1.526, first documented in the United States in November 2020);

* Kappa (lineage B.1.617.1, first documented in India in October 2020); and

* Lambda (lineage C.37, the so-called Peru variant, which was first documented in that country in December 2020).

WHO places a SARS-CoV-2 variant in the VOI list if it is seen to have certain “genetic changes that are predicted or known to affect virus characteristics such as transmissibility, disease severity, immune escape, diagnostic or therapeutic escape”.

To be added to the VOI list, a variant must also be “identified to cause significant community transmission or multiple Covid-19 clusters in multiple countries”, and suggest “an emerging risk to global public health”.

More dangerous mutants are categorised as ‘Variants of Concern’ (VOC).

According to the WHO, a VOI can become a VOC if it is demonstrated to be associated with an increase in transmissibility or virulence, or with a “decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics”.

Currently, four variants of the coronavirus are designated as variants of concern. They are:

* Alpha (lineage B.1.1.7, the so-called ‘UK variant’), which was first detected in the United Kingdom in September 2020, and is now present in at least 193 countries around the world;

* Beta (lineage B.1.351, the so-called ‘South Africa variant’), the first samples of which were detected in South Africa in May 2020, and which has so far been reported from 141 countries;

* Gamma (lineage P.1, the so-called ‘Brazil variant’), which was first detected in Brazil in November 2020, and which has been reported in 91 countries;

* Delta (lineage B.1.617.2), the variant that was first reported in India in October 2020 and is now present in at least 170 countries. The highly transmissible Delta variant is now the dominant strain of the virus in India, and was responsible for the devastating second wave of Covid-19 in April-May this year.

So, what is the Mu variant of Covid-19?

According to the WHO’s Covid-19 weekly epidemiological update published on August 31, the Mu variant (which includes the descendant Pango lineage B.1.621.1; known as 21H in Nextstrain nomenclature) has “a constellation of mutations that indicate potential properties of immune escape”.

The WHO bulletin said that since being first identified in Colombia, a few cases and some larger outbreaks of the Mu variant have been reported from other countries in South America and in Europe.

As of Thursday (September 9), a total 5,599 sequences, including both B.1.621 and B.1.621.1, had been submitted by 47 countries to GISAID, the global research database on viruses.

The bulk of the submissions were from the United States (2,435) and Colombia (1,041), followed by Spain, Mexico, Chile, Ecuador, and Canada.

The variant has not been detected in India so far. It is also not present in Africa, Australia, and most of Asia. Globally, the cumulative prevalence of Mu is less than 0.5 per cent, according to outbreak.info, using GISAID data.

Mu variant of Covid-19: What we know about its transmissibility

A paper published last month in ‘Infection, Genetics and Evolution’ noted that the Mu variant has several substitutions affecting the spike protein and amino acid changes.

The mutations — E484K, N501Y, P681H, D614G — seen in the Mu variant have been reported in other VOIs and VOCs. These mutations are known to help the virus escape the body’s immune defences and increase transmissibility.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the Mu variant also has other spike mutations of interest (R346K) which need further study.

So can existing vaccines not work against Mu?

There are very few studies on this. In a letter to the editor published in July in the Journal of Medical Virology, a group of researchers from Italy wrote that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was able to neutralise the Mu variant, but its effectiveness was less compared to other variants.

But this was a very small lab study, and more extensive research is needed.

The WHO bulletin last month said “Preliminary data presented to the [WHO’s] Virus Evolution Working Group show a reduction in neutralization capacity of convalescent and vaccinee sera similar to that seen for the Beta variant”, but cautioned that “this needs to be confirmed by further studies”.

That said, the possibility of the virus mutating into new and potentially more dangerous variants is constant. Experts and public health agencies around the world have urged universal vaccination against the coronavirus as quickly as possible.

Source: The Indian Express