1. National Supercomputing Mission

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

The 2020-21 is an important year for India’s National Supercomputing Mission (NSM). The mission was set up to provide the country with supercomputing infrastructure to meet the increasing computational demands of academia, researchers, MSMEs, and startups by creating the capability design, manufacturing, of supercomputers indigenously in India.

Who are nodal agencies for the mission?

A first of its kind attempt to boost the country’s computing power, the National Super Computing Mission is steered jointly by the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) and Department of Science and Technology (DST) and implemented by the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), Pune and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru.

What are the targets of the mission?

The target of the mission was set to establish a network of supercomputers ranging from a few Tera Flops (TF) to Hundreds of Tera Flops (TF) and three systems with greater than or equal to 3 Peta Flops (PF) in academic and research institutions of National importance across the country by 2022. This network of Supercomputers envisaging a total of 15-20 PF was approved in 2015 and was later revised to a total of 45 PF (45000 TFs), a jump of 6 times more compute power within the same cost and capable of solving large and complex computational problems.

Implementation of Supercomputers

With the revised plan in place, the first supercomputer assembled indigenously, called Param Shivay, was installed in IIT (BHU) and was inaugurated by the Prime Minister. Similar systems Param Shakti and Param Brahma were installed at IIT-Kharagpur and IISER, Pune. They are equipped with applications from domains like Weather and Climate, Computational Fluid Dynamics, Bioinformatics, and Material science.

Plans are afoot to install three more supercomputers by April 2020, one each at IIT-Kanpur, JN Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru, and IIT-Hyderabad. This will ramp up the supercomputing facility to 6 PF.

11 new systems are likely to be set up in different IITs, NITs, National Labs, and IISERs across India by December this year, which will have many sub-systems manufactured and microprocessors designed in India which will bring in a cumulative capacity of 10.4 petaflops.

Spreading out the reach to the North-East region of the country, 8 systems with a total Compute Power of 16 PF are being commissioned. 5 indigenously designed systems with three 3 PF computing power will be installed at IIT-Mumbai, IIT-Chennai and Inter-

University Accelerator Centre (IUAC) at Delhi with NKN as its backbone. It also includes an indigenously build 20 PF system at C-DAC, Pune, and a 100 PF Artificial Intelligence supercomputing system. One midlevel 650 TFs system is also to be installed at C-DAC Bengaluru to provide consultancy to Start-ups, SSIs & MSMEs.

Geared to provide Supercomputing facility to about 60-70 institutions Nation-wide and more than thousands of active Researchers, Academicians, and so on, NSM has gathered momentum and is moving fast not only towards creating a computer infrastructure for the country but also to build capacity of the country to develop the next generation of supercomputer experts.

Source: PIB

2. Invest India Business Immunity Platform launched to helping businesses withstand COVID-19

Relevant for GS Prelims

Invest India, India’s national Investment Promotion & Facilitation Agency, under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry has launched The Invest India Business Immunity Platform. The platform, hosted on the Invest India website, is designed as a comprehensive resource to help businesses and investors get real-time updates on India’s active response to COVID-19 (Coronavirus).

What will the Platform do?

This dynamic and constantly updating platform keeps a regular track on developments with respect to the virus, provides latest information on various central and state government initiatives, gives access to special provisions, and answers and resolves queries through emails and on WhatsApp. The Business Immunity Platform (BIP) is the active platform for business issue redressal, operating 24/7, with a team of dedicated sector experts and responding to queries at the earliest. Invest India has also announced a partnership with SIDBI (Small Industries Development Bank of India) for responding and resolving queries for MSMEs.

The platform also includes frequently asked questions on important aspects like locations of COVID-19 testing, special permissions and other location-specific information. The portal also maps and highlights the response mechanism put in place by leading Indian companies such as sanitation of staff vehicles, placing orders in alternate markets, disabling biometric attendance systems, setting up of medical task force, requesting trainees to go home, business continuity plan, barring entry of visitors, suspension of air travel, usage of video-conferencing and tele-conferencing, developing online solutions and other unique initiatives.

What is the need of platform?

While COVID-19 continues to disrupt normal life, the impact of this crisis on businesses across the country is being continuously assessed. The government, for its part, has issued timely guidelines for businesses. Business owners have been trying to grasp what these guidelines mean for their businesses. Realizing the uncertainty that the Corona crisis has caused among businesses, the platform was launched on 21st March,2020.

Source: PIB

3. Hydroxychloroquine is recommended for very specific cases — here’s why it’s no silver bullet

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

Hydroxychloroquine, a drug that has existed for several decades, could see a resurgence of demand, after the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on Monday recommended its use as a post-exposure prophylactic (preventive medicine) against the novel coronavirus disease.

Last week, US President Donald Trump had said a hydroxychloroquine-azithromycin combination could be a “game changer” in the fight against COVID-19.

What is known about hydroxychloroquine’s efficacy in COVID-19 patients?

Hydroxychloroquine (not to be confused with anti-malaria drug chloroquine) is an oral drug used in the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. On March 19, an article in The Lancet Global Health explored its therapeutic and prophylactic properties. “Notably, the drug shows antiviral activity in vitro against coronaviruses, and specifically, SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-2]. Pharmacological modelling based on observed drug concentrations and in vitro drug testing suggest that prophylaxis with hydroxychloroquine at approved doses could prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection and ameliorate viral shedding.” It also mentioned clinical trials currently under way in China on whether the drug can be used for treatment.

In a note for physicians on the therapeutic options for COVID-19, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says: “Hydroxychloroquine is currently under investigation in clinical trials for pre-exposure or post-exposure prophylaxis of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and treatment of patients with mild, moderate, and severe COVID-19. In the United States, several clinical trials of hydroxychloroquine for prophylaxis or treatment of SARS-CoV-2 infection are planned or will be enrolling soon.”

The CDC says both hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine have in vitro activity against SARS-CoV, SARS-CoV-2, and other coronaviruses, with hydroxychloroquine having higher potency against SARS-CoV-2. “A study in China reported that chloroquine treatment of

COVID-19 patients had clinical and virologic benefit versus a comparison group, and chloroquine was added as a recommended antiviral for treatment of COVID-19 in China…”

What has India recommended?

The National Taskforce for COVID-19 has recommended hydroxychloroquine for prophylaxis in case of asymptomatic healthcare workers involved in the care of suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 and asymptomatic household contacts of laboratory confirmed cases. The new guidelines say: “Hydroxy-chloroquine is found to be effective against coronavirus in laboratory studies and in-vivo studies. Its use in prophylaxis is derived from available evidence of benefit as treatment and supported by pre-clinical data… The following recommendation… is based on these considerations, as well as risk-benefit consideration, under exceptional circumstances that call for the protection of high-risk individuals.”

Doctors in the private sector are, however, cautious. “ICMR guidelines are very specific for specific people. We have to limit it to them. It cannot become something that everybody uses,” said Dr S Chatterjee, consultant at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals.

 “As infection spreads there would be many more cases maybe for the next couple of months. You cannot give chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to anybody and everybody… We don’t know whether it is effective, we are only extrapolating available data. Also if it becomes something everybody takes, there would be stock issues too… Let more evidence emerge on its efficacy before we take a call,” Dr Chatterjee said.

So, should you stock the drug?

The short answer is, no. If you suspect you have contracted the infection, you should visit a doctor. You must not attempt to self-medicate. Even the government’s guidelines on hydroxychloroquine say the drug has to be given only on the prescription of a registered medical practitioner.

What combination did Trump speak of?

The combination is hydroxychloroquine with azithromycin, a commonly used antibiotic. On Saturday, following a press conference in which he endorsed the combination, Trump tweeted: “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine. The FDA has moved mountains – Thank You!…”

While the roles of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in management of COVID-19 are still open questions for the scientific community, the azithromycin-hydroxychloroquine combination is part of an upcoming multicountry trial anchored by the WHO in the fight against COVID-19.

The azithromycin-hydroxychloroquine combination has sometimes been administered to COVID-19 patients in the US, the CDC says. In a small study in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents published on March 17, French scientists reported: “Twenty cases were treated in this study and showed a significant reduction of the viral carriage at D6-post inclusion compared to controls, and much lower average carrying duration than reported of untreated patients in the literature. Azithromycin added to hydroxychloroquine was significantly more efficient for virus elimination.”

Simply put, the combination did reduce the viral load but the size of the study is too small to draw a definitive conclusion.

Source: The Indian Express

4. The Maoist trap: On killing of security personnel in Sukma

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Internal Security

The attack by Maoist extremists in Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district on Saturday, that killed 17 security personnel and injured 15, including two critically, presents a grim picture on how poorly India continues to fare on this front.

There was intelligence that Maoists were going to assemble at Elmagunda village, which is dominated by the Peoples’ Liberation Guerrilla Army Battalion 1. Accordingly, security forces, comprising District Reserve Guards, Special Task Force, numbering 500, were dispatched into the forests to deal with the emergent situation.

Details of the attack

In retrospect, despite the intelligence, they did not encounter even one Maoist and began their journey back, in two groups, to their camps at Chintagufa and Burkapal, not more than six kilometres apart as the crow flies. The smaller contingent, numbering 100, headed to Burkapal, encountered fire six kilometres from the base camp and they duly returned it.

The Maoists retreated and fired again and the security forces fired and followed till they had been lured into an open area in hilly terrain where the Maoists, some 350 of them, had the advantage of numbers, line of fire as well as height, a classic ambush. The Maoists then picked off their targets. The other much larger group, not more than three kilometres away, also came under diversionary fire that kept them pinned down.

Points to ponder

1. The real story is still to emerge, but it is odd that in the battle that began about noon and lasted five-and-a-half daylight hours, reinforcements could not be sent to hapless personnel.

2. It can be surmised that at the very least those who got ambushed did not know the terrain or the tactics enough.

3. It is yet to be convincingly explained how as many as 400 personnel so near did not rush to aid their uniformed brethren. Was it a leadership or assessment issue? Was there a communication breakdown? Was the initial intelligence properly vetted or was it bait? Was this entire operation properly supervised?

It is remarkable, too, that helicopters were able to evacuate the wounded afterwards. So complete was the rout that even though the security forces said they took down some Maoists, there is not much physical evidence to support this claim. It is also significant that as many as 13 of the dead security forces were locals from Sukma district, many of them surrendered Maoists. And unfortunate that many of them bled to death waiting for assistance. There is a lot to answer for but it seems that despite dedicated training the security forces get for just these eventualities, the Maoists are able to improvise and come out on top, smarter, nimbler, and many steps ahead.

Source: The Hindu

5. An Expert Explains: ‘Coronavirus tests needed, but each country has priorities’

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

As India begins to discover its first cases of community transmission of the novel coronavirus, the number of infections is expected to shoot up very rapidly. Two days ago, the government decided to test all patients with severe respiratory disease in hospitals across the country, expanding the net beyond only those with recent overseas travel and contact histories.

Several experts have argued that India’s testing has been inadequate, and that the virus may be spreading widely outside the selected group.

What would be an adequate number of tests for any country?

COVID-19 is a barely three-month-old disease, and there is not enough data to recommend an adequate number for testing. What we need to understand is that testing is not a treatment, nor is it sustainable to test every suspected case, let alone every individual. In most cases, we test in order to decide on clinical management of the case. We also test because we need to identify if the infections are occurring through travellers and migrants or whether community transmissions have started. Tests are also used to ascertain levels and transmission trends of the infections within a population in order to decide intervention strategies like self-isolation, social distancing and quarantine procedures. Outcomes of testing also directly feed into a nation’s response, health strategy, and governance policies. Collectively, they help to break the chain of transmission.

We have to realise that in an epidemic-like situation for a highly infectious disease, when transmission happens rapidly, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get ahead of the curve simply by testing more and more people. However, we do need to test as many people as we can. This was stressed by the WHO Director-General, who said his key message was to “test, test, test or we will be fighting a fire blindfolded”.

However, all countries have limits to their capacity to test. Diagnostic prowess, trained manpower, lab infrastructure, all are limited. Countries, therefore, have to define their priorities based on their local risk assessments. And that is what they seem to be doing. We should remember that what holds true for Singapore or South Korea might not hold true for India.

In the current situation, I find the advice from Professor Graham Medley (professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) the most pertinent: “Act like you are infected, not just avoiding infections.” People should act like they have already tested positive for COVID-19, and then follow all the instructions that an infected person is being asked to follow, to the maximum extent possible: isolation, social distancing, minimal contact with other people.

What exactly is a ‘testing kit’ for COVID-19? What is in it?

There is no composite ‘kit’ as of now. What we refer to as a “kit” is actually a bunch of chemicals and biochemicals that are required at different stages of testing, which include nucleic acid extraction and amplification. These chemicals and biochemicals usually do not come together, and have to be procured separately.

The presence of a virus is detected by looking for unique identifiers in a given sample. In the present case, we look for genetic material that we know are unique to this virus. The tests vary according to the particular genetic material that we are looking for. The WHO has published a list of several such tests in use in various countries. No one test is technically superior to another. Each of them is equally reliable. Countries are free to adopt any of these tests. The choice usually depends on factors like what works in the hands of a specific lab in terms of specificity, sensitivity, and logistics, including ease of availability of the chemicals required. The current molecular assays usually take between four and six hours to give the final result.

India has placed an import order for 1 million testing kits. What can be a realistic timeline for delivery?

There is no dearth of manufacturers who produce and supply the high-quality chemicals required in these tests, but they may not have the capacity to cater to the unprecedented and unexpected global demand volumes. I guess there would be a backlog of orders in most countries. For example, orders for these chemicals during ‘peace-time’ would materialise within 48 to 72 hours. Currently, however, it might take longer.

Can’t these chemicals be produced by Indian companies?

Indian companies already manufacture these chemicals. In fact, most research labs that perform molecular assays in India would have these chemicals; they are not uncommon at all. But the labs may not have them in the amounts they are currently required. Similarly, Indian companies that make these chemicals may be facing production issues. In my opinion, the bottleneck right now is of scale. Small manufacturers may not be in a position to supply such huge amounts.

The second issue is that of quality. With large and established players, quality is usually assured, but such quality assurances may not be readily available with suppliers that start production to address this new situation. Regulatory processes should be introduced to tackle this.

The third issue is that of cost. The bigger and established players can probably provide the chemicals for cheaper than small manufacturers can.

How much do these tests cost?

The overall cost of the test would include the cost of materials that are required for the testing, as well as the cost incurred on lab infrastructure, technical expertise, and logistics. It would vary from country to country.

Many new tests are entering the market on a daily basis. These include molecular and serological assays; even artificial intelligence. These new tests will definitely drive down costs. However, the tests will need to be fit-for-purpose. Such analyses are already under way on a global level for all relevant new kits and assays.

Has India delayed roping in private hospitals and labs for testing?

This is a novel disease, and we are all learning more and more with each passing day. Most countries began their COVID-19 incidence handling through their public health systems, and later drew in the private sector. In India, the initial testings were done by ICMR and their approved labs. ICMR also provided reagents, primers and probes, controls, testing protocol and guidance to its approved labs, possibly also testing material for the time being, training and software.

I should point out a very important factor regarding handling and processing of this virus in the laboratory. Sars-CoV-2 is currently categorised as a hazard group 3 (HG-3) organism that poses severe disease risk. As a result, certain stages of sample handling need to occur within appropriate containment facilities, which might not readily be available at all diagnostics labs. Also, while many private hospitals and laboratories in India may be able to meet the generic quality standards, their competency to perform COVID-19 specific assays would need to be approved and monitored on an ongoing basis.

Source: The Indian Express

Q. Why do think that the situations of great epidemic are testing times of human values? How governance is essential at these times to maintain faith in humanity? Explain with examples (15 marks, 250 words)

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