1. Where did Covid-19 virus come from?

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

On May 26, US President Joe Biden announced that he had tasked the country’s “intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyse information that would bring us closest to a definitive conclusion” on whether the virus that causes Covid-19 originated from human contact with an infected animal, or from a “laboratory accident”. A report will be submitted to him in 90 days.

The lab leak theory

Biden’s announcement that US intelligence agencies were divided on the question of the virus’s origin has given wings and new respectability to the “Wuhan lab leak” theory, earlier dismissed as a right wing, racist conspiracy theory propagated by President Donald Trump and his fellow travellers.

That the theory had been under serious consideration since at least September 2020 emerged on January 15 this year, a fortnight before the Trump Administration stepped down, when the US State Department made public a “fact sheet” that included “previously undisclosed information”, combined with open source information.

It made three main points:

* that researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) had fallen ill with symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and seasonal illnesses, well before the first reported case on December 8, 2019;

* that 2016 researchers at WIV had been conducting experiments with RaTG13, a bat coronavirus that has a 96.2 % match Covid 19; RaTG13 was isolated as far back as 2013 from samples taken from bat faeces in a mine in Yunan, where six miners had died in 2012;

* that WIV carried out classified military research including animal experiments on behalf of the People’s Liberation Army.

However, according to a report in CNN, the Biden Administration shut down the State Department investigation as a waste of time and resources after officials questioned its legitimacy. But pressure was building on Biden to reconsider his position that Covid-19 had originate in nature, especially after a WHO report failed to come up with conclusive answers on the origin of the virus.

Then on May 14, a group of 18 scientists wrote in the journal Science that an inquiry to establish “greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic is necessary and feasible to achieve”, and demanded that both possibilities, “natural and laboratory spillovers”, be considered seriously.

On May 23 and 24, the Wall Street Journal published two reports that appear to have pushed Biden into action. One report quoted a US intelligence report as going “beyond the State Department fact sheet” and saying three researchers at WIV had fallen sick in November 2019. The second report was about the Yunan copper mine where six miners had fallen ill.

The mine & the virus

The WSJ report said the miners, diagnosed with severe pneumonia, had the same lung patches seen in Covid patients. Over the next year, WIV scientists studied samples from 276 bats in the mine, among which they identified a coronavirus strain they called RaBTCoV/4991. The research was published in 2016. In February 2020, the same researchers published a paper in Nature, describing RaTG13, which had a 96.2% genome sequence match with SARS-CoV-2.

After scientists around the world noticed similarities in the sample dates and partial genetic sequences of RaBTCOV/4991 and RaTG13, WIV researchers said the two viruses were the same. But they said it was not this virus that had caused the death of the miners back in 2012.

At the very least, the late admission by WIV that the two viruses were the same, and some contradictions in their explanations for this, have raised questions about the transparency of data from WIV. At the other extreme are those who do not rule out that WIV was conducting experiments to construct new viruses by combining elements of different bat viruses, perhaps for finding vaccines, and that this could have accidentally led to the leakage of a harmful virus from the lab.

All this has led to heightened concerns that the WHO report on the origins of the virus did not present a complete picture.

The WHO report

The 120-page report, released on March 30, 2021, was inconclusive about the origins of the virus. But of four scenarios, it said it is “likely to very likely” the virus spread from an animal to an intermediate host to humans. The report said a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” although it did not study this possibility enough. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghenreyesus said “as far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table”. Although the team concluded that a lab leak is the least likely hypothesis, he said “this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am prepared to deploy”.

The report caused concerns among most countries. The US and 13 other countries issued a statement at the World Health Assembly “expressing shared concerns regarding the recent WHO-convened study in China, while at the same time reinforcing the importance of working together toward the development and use of a swift, effective, transparent ,science-based, and independent process for in evaluations of such outbreaks of unknown origins in the future”. EU member states said there was a “need to further work to study the origins of the virus and its route of introduction to the human population”.

The 18 scientists who wrote to Science also criticised the WHO report for weighing on the side of a zoonotic spillover from an intermediate host without having studied the lab leak possibility adequately.

Biden announced his inquiry as the World Health Assembly met. No country except China has as yet opposed it.

China’s dismissal

Beijing has dismissed the traction for this theory as “hype” created by the US, and instead suggested that the virus came from Fort Detrick, a US Army base in Maryland.

Referring to the investigation announced by the US President, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the enquiry showed “[the US] aim is to use the pandemic to pursue stigmatisation, political manipulation and blame shifting. They are being disrespectful to science, irresponsible to people’s lives and counter-productive to the concerted efforts to fight the virus”.

India’s position

New Delhi backs further investigation. Without naming China, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said the WHO-led study was an “important first step” and all must co-operate in further inquiry to fix the origin of Covid-19 conclusively.

“The WHO convened global study on the origin of Covid-19 is an important first step. It stressed the need for next phase studies as also for further data and studies to reach robust conclusions. The follow up of the WHO report and further studies deserve the understanding and co-operation of all.”

How the theory gained ground

2019: First Identification

December 31: WHO is informed of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan City. On January 7, Chinese authorities identify a novel coronavirus as the cause.

2020: Claims & Scepticism

February 3: In a paper in Nature, Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers say SARS-CoV-2 has a 96.2% genome match with a bat coronavirus, RaTG13. Three days later, a researcher from South China University of Technology suggests in a paper, later withdrawn, that the coronavirus “probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan”.

February 19: In a statement published in The Lancet, a group of 27 scientists condemn conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and conclude it originated in wildlife. In a paper in Nature Medicine in March, scientists say it is impossible to prove or disprove the theories but add they do not believe it emerged from a lab.

March 27: The US Defense Intelligence Agency’s updated assessment includes the possibility of “unsafe laboratory practices” leading to the emergence of the coronavirus.

April 30: US President Donald Trump says people are looking at the laboratory-origin theory “very, very strongly”. Three days later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tells ABC News: “These are not the first times that we have had the world exposed to viruses as a result of failures in a Chinese lab.”

July 4: The Times reports that a virus similar to SARS-CoV-2 was found in an abandoned copper mine in China in 2012, and then studied at WIV.

November 17: BioEssays journal publishes a paper headlined: “The genetic structure of SARS-CoV-2 does not rule out a laboratory origin.”

2021: Stronger Claims

January 15: US State Department’s “fact sheet” on WIV, in the last fortnight of Trump Administration, makes a case for the lab-origin theory.

March 30: WHO report, while inconclusive, finds laboratory leak hypothesis “extremely unlikely”. But WHO Secretary General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says “all hypotheses remain on the table”.

May 14: A group of 18 scientists, writing in Science, call for an enquiry to establish “greater clarity about the origins of this pandemic”, and demand that both possibilities, “natural and laboratory spillovers”, be considered seriously

May 23-24: The Wall Street Journal quotes a US intelligence report as saying three WIV researchers had fallen sick in November 2019; in another report it refers to the miners who fell sick in 2012, and says they had the same lung patches seen in Covid patients.

Source: The Indian Express

2. Global Minimum tax

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

The Pillar Two proposal was the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) plan to plug the remaining Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) issues and provide jurisdictions the right to “tax back” where other jurisdictions have either not exercised their primary taxing right or have exercised it at low levels of effective taxation. The move intends to achieve minimum effective taxation of more than 10%, possibly up to 15%, given the latest proposal put forward by the United States. The objective is to minimise tax incentives and ensure that companies choose to be situated in a particular country based on other commercial benefits.

In its recent proposal, the U.S. sought to impose a global minimum tax on foreign income earned by U.S. corporations. The proposal is perhaps intended to disincentivise American companies from inverting their structures due to the increase in the U.S. corporate tax rate. The proposal is similar to Pillar Two, except for the rate of the effective minimum tax. While the OECD was considering a 10-12% rate, the U.S. proposed a 21% rate. This caused pushback from countries such as Ireland, which made a case for fiscal autonomy for smaller jurisdictions to compete with larger economies. The U.S. is now discussing a floor of 15% for the minimum tax rate despite the fact that it may have difficulty securing Congress support if the floor is too low. Even at 15%, it is unclear whether Ireland would agree, given its 12.5% marginal rate, thereby impacting a European Union-wide adoption of the 15% rate.

India has been part of the Pillar Two discussions and has not objected in principle to the proposal. The proposal, along with the increased tax bill for U.S. companies, may benefit the Indian revenue department. The tax department might benefit even at a 10% rate since the proposal would cover offshore structures set up by Indian companies.

Pillar Two acts as a set of controlled foreign corporation rules, where, for instance, if an Indian-headquartered multinational corporation (MNC) has an entity in Singapore or the Netherlands through which global operations are run, and its income from global operations is not taxed at an effective rate of 10% or 15%, then it can be taxed in India. The State of Tax Justice report of 2020 notes that India loses over $10 billion in tax revenue due to the use of offshore structures, particularly through investments made by Indian residents through Mauritius, Singapore and the Netherlands. This is supported by the overseas direct investment (ODI) data from 2000 to 2021 published by the Reserve Bank of India, where the cumulative ODI for the period primarily went through Singapore, Mauritius, the U.S., the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Start-ups and large Indian conglomerates commonly use offshore structures for conducting global operations. Revenue from such operations is often retained offshore and not repatriated to India. Tax advantages incentivise such structures, due to which taxes on such income are not paid in India. Once these proposals are implemented, Indian companies would have to pay additional taxes on their offshore structures to the extent that the effective rate of tax is lower than the global minimum tax rate.

Other major factors

With tax incentives neutralised, countries may have to compete on other factors like better regulatory regimes, ease of doing business, access to global talent, among others. The U.S. proposal indicates that the country is pushing the OECD to swiftly achieve consensus on the global minimum tax rate, in the absence of which the U.S. proposes to apply its domestic law version of Pillar Two at a rate of 21% (which may now be 15%).

Several countries have taken a different approach to the rate of global minimum tax. While France and Germany have expressed support, the EU has raised concerns regarding the high rate proposed by the United States. Countries have stated that the proposal infringes upon their tax sovereignty and that the fight against unfair tax competition should not become a fight against competitive tax systems. Given that the U.S. is now pushing for a 15% rate, the fate of Pillar Two will depend on whether this proposal is acceptable to other countries.

The U.S. appears keen on closing the negotiations around the 15% floor, which should also benefit India. Presumably, the remaining obstacles to gaining a consensus are the issues with Pillar One. As economies struggle amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the necessity of encouraging trade and economic activity should be prioritised over disagreements on tax allocations. A tax-related trade war or entrenchment of unilateral levies may further harm both global and national economies.

Source: The Hindu

3. The restrictions on government servants before and after retirement

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

With a notification dated May 31, the Centre has amended its pension rules putting new restrictions of officials of intelligence and security organisations after retirement. A look at various restrictions on government servants while in service and after retirement.

What is new?

The government has amended the CCS Pension Rules-1972. Under amended Rule-8(3)(a), officials retired from certain intelligence and security establishments will not be allowed to write anything about their organisation without permission. It says: “No government servant, who, having worked in any intelligence or security-related organisation included in the Second Schedule of the RTI Act, shall, without prior clearance from the Head of the Organisation, make any publication after retirement, of any material relating to and including: (i) domain of the organisation, including any reference or information about any personnel and his designation, and experience or knowledge gained by virtue of working in that organisation; (ii) sensitive information, the disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state, or relation with a foreign state or which would lead to incitement of an offence.”

The Second Schedule of the RTI Act covers 26 organisations including the Intelligence Bureau, R&AW, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, CBI, NCB, BSF, CRPF, ITBP and CISF.

What are the existing provisions?

The pension of government servants is already subject to their conduct after retirement. Rule 8 of the CCS Pension Rules says: “Future good conduct shall be an implied condition of every grant of pension and its continuance… The appointing authority may, by order in writing, withhold or withdraw a pension or a part thereof, whether permanently or for a specified period, if the pensioner is convicted of a serious crime or is found guilty of grave misconduct… The expression ‘grave misconduct’ includes the communication or disclosure of any secret official code or password or any sketch, plan, model, article, note, document or information… which was obtained while holding office under the Government so as to prejudicially affect the interests of the general public or the security of the state.”

Why amend the rules then?

Sources in the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) said this was in process for around four years after the Committee of Secretaries recommended it. It was approved recently and notified on May 31. They said the move was prompted by concerns arising out of the fact that some high-profile retired officers had written books on their tenure, and some of these had revealed information.

What restrictions are government employees under while in service?

Rule 7 of the CCS Conduct Rules restricts government servants from resorting to or abetting any form of strike or coercion.

Rule 8 restricts them, except with government sanction, from owning or participating in the editing or management of any newspaper or other periodical publication or electronic media. If they publish a book or participate in public media, they “shall at all times make it clear that the views expressed by him are his own and not that of Government”.

Rule 9 restricts a government servant from making statements of fact or opinion in writing or in a telecast or a broadcast “which has the effect of an adverse criticism of any current or recent policy or action of the Central Government or a State Government”

Rule 9 of the CCS Pension Rules says that if any government official has committed any misconduct and retires, he or she may face departmental proceedings only until four years of the date of committing that misconduct.

Is a retired government servant restricted from taking up employment?

Rule 26, Death-cum-Retirement Benefits Rules, restricts a pensioner from any commercial employment for one year after retirement, except with previous sanction of the central government. Non-compliance can lead the central government declaring that the employee “shall not be entitled to the whole or such part of the pension and for such period as may be specified”.

This cooling-off period was two years until 2007, when an amendment reduced it to one year.

What about political activity while in service?

The Conduct Rules bars government servants from being associated with any political party or organisation, and from taking part or assisting any political activity. An amendment on November 27, 2014 added a few clauses to Rule 3(1), one of which said, “Every government employee shall at all times maintain political neutrality” and “commit himself to and uphold the supremacy of the Constitution and democratic values”. Incidentally, the RSS is among the “political” organisations listed by the Centre from time to time.

But don’t government servants join politics after retirement?

There is no rule to stop government servants from joining politics after their retirement. In 2013, the Election Commission had written to the DoPT and Law Ministry, suggesting a cooling-off period for bureaucrats joining politics after retirement, but it was rejected. The Legislative Department of the Ministry of Law advised “that any such restriction (against officials joining politics or contesting polls)… may not stand the test of valid classification under Article 14 of the Constitution of India”. And the DoPT told the EC that its suggestions “may not be appropriate and feasible.”

Among many examples in the Centre and the states, former Union Home Secretary R K Singh, who retired on June 30, 2013, joined the BJP on December 14, 2013, has twice been elected Lok Sabha MP since then, and is a Union Minister of State. Aparajita Sarangi, former Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Rural Development, took voluntary retirement on November 16, 2018, joined the BJP on November 27 that year, and is now a Lok Sabha MP.

Source: The Indian Express