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POST KABUL BLASTS, TALIBAN DECLARE 3-DAY CEASEFIRE

This comes after at least three explosions took place near Sayed-ul-Shuhada High School in the west of Kabul on Saturday afternoon where nearly 63 students were killed.

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Two days after a deadly bombing outside a school in Kabul claimed the lives of over 60 students, the Taliban on Monday announced that they would observe a three-day ceasefire for the festival of Eid.

Mohammad Naeem, a Taliban spokesperson, said that all Mujahideen have been instructed to halt all operations “against the enemy” countrywide. “In order that the Mujahideen again provide a peaceful and secure atmosphere to our compatriots during Eid-ul-Fitr so that they may celebrate this joyous occasion with…,” he tweeted.

“…a greater peace of mind, all Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate are instructed to halt all offensive operations against the enemy countrywide from the first till the third day of Eid,” he said in another tweet.

However, Naeem instructed the Mujahideen to stand ready to robustly protect and defend themselves and their territory if the ‘enemy’ conducts any assault or attack.

“The Mujahideen must not visit enemy areas nor permit entrance of enemy personnel into Mujahideen controlled areas,” he further said.

This comes after at least three explosions that took place near Sayed-ul-Shuhada High School in the west of Kabul on Saturday afternoon. As many as 63 people, all students, were killed in a Kabul school bombing and 150 more were wounded, TOLO News reported citing sources and relatives of victims.

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday condemned the terrorist attack on a school in Kabul and called for a national day of mourning in wake of the incident.

Taking to Twitter, Deputy Interior Minister Sediq Sediqqi said that Ghani has asked the Taliban to abandon the killings of innocent Afghans.

“President Ghani condemns the Kabul terrorist attack with the strongest words, termed a despicable crime against humanity. Calls for a national day of mourning, and asks the Taliban to abandon the killings of innocent Afghans,” he said.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack. The Taliban has denied any involvement in the incident.

“We condemn in strongest terms the killing of civilians in Dashti Barchi, Kabul, as a result of incessant explosions and call for a neutral and transparent investigation,” another Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a tweet.

Amid the ongoing drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan, the war-torn country has seen a spike in the incidents of violence in recent weeks, leading to casualties of Afghan security forces and civilians.

Over 1,000 Taliban terrorists have been killed and wounded in several encounters with the Afghan security forces during this period in Kandahar, Helmand, Farah, Herat and Baghlan provinces, said General Yasin Zia, the Afghan Chief of Army Staff.

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NATHEALTH & ACHE present a gripping discussion on ‘The Evolution of COVID-19 Variants’

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NATHEALTH and American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE), as part of its joint initiative, recently organised an engaging session to hear different perspective from India and US, on the evolution of Covid-19 variants and strategies to better understand their impacts. Moderated by Dr. Harsh Mahajan, President, NATHEALTH & Founder and Chief Radiologist, Mahajan Imaging and comprehensive discussion by two panel speakers Dr. David Perlin, Chief Scientific Officer and Senior Vice President of the Centre for Discovery and Innovation and Prof. K. Srinath Reddy, President, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFl), the session centred around the variants of coronavirus, its impact and ways to tackle it.

It provided an enhanced and well-rounded understanding to the topic at hand. In addition to discussing the current science on Covid 19 variants in U.S and globally, the panel also assessed the mutations embedded in the virus variants, examined the public health implications of covid 19 variants in India and globally and also focused on the way forward.

Molley lowe, Director of content strategy for the American college of healthcare executive (ACHE), welcomed everyone to the webinar and expressed her unique pleasure of having an international audience. She introduced the distinguished panel of speakers of the day.

Dr. Mahajan initiated the session by explaining the need for global collaboration to fight back the pandemic. He said “Researchers and epidemiologists around the world have been predicting various models for the potential spread of Covid-19 pandemic which has devastated world in the last 18 months. Facing a big challenge of continuous mutations of corona virus which make it difficult to predict how the pandemic would unfold in future. Various models give different pictures about loss of lives in upcoming months. Rates of infection and deaths are declining in US, in the last 2 months we have seen devastating surges of the virus in India and other countries.”

He further reinforced the need to have a global collaboration to contain and finally end the current pandemic. He added “while the future of pandemic and its projections remain uncertain, vaccination rates are increasing. Yet there are inequities in vaccination across the globe. Hence, it would be useful to know the most likely outcomes, the best and worst case scenarios to guide local and national decisions those can lead us towards the end of pandemic.”

Next, Dr. David Perlin was invited. He talked about some of the science behind the evolution of generation of SARs COV variants of concerns and what are the concerns we should be worrying about. He addressed questions like what should we know about variants transmission, their health effects and impacts on potential therapies and vaccines? He further explained the process of how any airborne virus like corona attacks the respiratory and immune system. He said “the key to viral infections is binding of the virus to its receptor. We know that when the infected host cell responds to form neutralising antibodies that are directed against the receptor binding domain, so that virus is no longer able to interact with its host cell.”

He additionally explained “In terms of virus variants, we recognise that RNA viruses like SARs CoV2 rapidly generate mutations compared to lower rate of mutations in humans. RNA viruses replicate a million to 10 times to 10 million times more rapidly than humans. Each mutation has potential to change viral properties for the next generation of viruses. The antibodies generated against the receptor binding domains can have one of the 3 possibilities: 1. Leave virus unchanged; 2. Decrease or loss of virus functions leading virus to disappear and 3. Gain of virus functions making it more transmissible and infectious. We are worried about the 3rd possibility. If there’s an increased interaction of the virus with its host, the antibodies don’t bind as readily leading to consequences like mutations can enhance the infection rates, reduce the potential effectiveness of vaccines and natural antibodies or may facilitate reinfection.”

He concluded by saying “virus evolution has been an important component of Covid-19 pandemic; variants of concerns (VOC) like delta are more transmissible, some variants may impede antibody development but can be controlled by existing vaccines and lastly the best way to control VOCs is by broad vaccination.”

The moderator then welcomed Prof. K. Srinath Reddy for his comments on public health implications of Covid-19 variants in India and globally. Prof. Reddy began by appreciating Dr. Perlin’s excellent exhibition of the science of Virology and immunology as it pertains to SARS COVID-19 virus and its variants. In his part, he tried to deal mostly with the public health perspective with a little throwback to evolutionary biology as an additional perspective.

He said “Indeed when variants do come up, one of the biggest questions we ask ourselves particularly when we are looking at the implications it has for public health response is, is it more infectious than the wild virus or any other relevant virulent while any other variant that preceded it, is it more virulent, is it more capable of vaccine evasion or escape and also is it less responsive to therapeutic interventions? While we are trying to answer that, we also have to understand how so many variants are arising in the different parts of the world and of course transmitting themselves with great ease to the other parts of the world.”

He added “We are generally tended to look at the viruses and variants in a very linear fashion but viruses are complex adaptive systems. Joshua Lederberg called the father of microbial genetics wrote a seminal paper in science in 2000, in which he said it is our wits against their genes. So we have to try and overcome their inevitable attempt.” To sum up his talk, he said “our response in terms of public health has to be to protect ourselves from easy entry of virus into our body, to obstruct the virus in terms of its transmission by not allowing super spreader events, vaccinate fast and wide and develop new vaccines with innovations which can match the new virus variants.”

The session was wonderfully wrapped up by addressing some pertinent questions raised by the audience.

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Innovation is spurred when there is a challenge: Vikram Khurana

In an exclusive conversation with NewsX for its special series NewsX India A-List, Vikram Khurana, Chairman of the Toronto Business Development Centre spoke about how they supported India’s fight with the Covid-19 pandemic, their Start-up Visa Programme and more.

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As India is fighting the biggest enemy the world has seen so far, the global community is doing its part vehemently. The Toronto Business Development Centre (TBDC) supported India’s fight with the Covid-19 pandemic by providing 5000 ventilators and other medical supplies. In an exclusive conversation with NewsX for its special series NewsX India A-List, Vikram Khurana, Chairman of the Toronto Business Development Centre spoke about their beneficial initiative and shared his insights with us.

Talking about the initiative, Khurana said, “These ventilators have been donated kindly by the province of Ontario and the province of Saskatchewan. The ventilators are made to survive on their own. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of global relations among the nations. The virus doesn’t recognise any borders; it is evident that it moves freely, in the air. We cannot build any borders around this pandemic unless we’re able to build walls in the air.”

He explained about the organisation that facilitated the supply of ventilators in collaboration with Air Canada. TBDC is the oldest business incubator in Canada that support entrepreneurs with all their needs. While talking about giving rise to 9 Unicorns, Khurana said, “Our current focus is on India. We think that there is a great amount of innovation and start-ups coming from India.”

He also threw light on their Start-up Visa Programme, which is extremely helpful for young and new entrepreneurs. Khurana continued, “While there is a great discussion on brain drain, there is not as much discussion on business expansion. Start-ups that grow internationally become multi-national. To facilitate this, Canada started the Start-up Visa in 2013. It essentially allows entrepreneurs to move with their families, be closer to their markets, and access technology and sources easily. Currently, about 2500 entrepreneurs from all over the world migrate to Canada under this program.”

“Innovation does not go to sleep, and innovation is spurred when there is a challenge,” he said when asked about some innovations he saw during the pandemic by Indians. Khurana pointed out that one of the most considerable collateral damage of Covid-19 has been on seniors citizens. Khurana applauded several start-ups helping to solve the problem faced by senior citizens and start-ups to find vaccine sites by diverting and balancing traffic among those vaccine sites. He mentioned the fact that most of the time, entrepreneurs executed these initiatives without concern of making money which is a very noble way of entrepreneurs giving back to society.

Khurana talked about the collaboration with Air Canada that made this initiative a success. “Many people of the crew were Indians living in Canada for a while and have roots in India like Captain Rash Pal who piloted the aircraft that carried those ventilators along with many other supplies with great pride. Every member of the team took great pride and went above and beyond to make this happen,” he said.

Talking about the world being caught flat-footed by the virus, Khurana said, “There are a lot of lessons learned on the fly”. He concluded the conversation by talking about having a front window view of great ideas coming from all around and the dominance of AI, data modelling, and machine learning in the area of innovation.

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Self-executing crypto contracts: The advent of smart law

Relying on a distributed consensus model, smart contracts have the DNA of blockchains and run on platforms similar to cryptocurrencies. These technology-enabled innovations in law are being watched closely as they make contracts more reliable, simultaneously making it difficult to evade execution.

Brijesh Singh and Khushbu Jain

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Smart contracts enable the execution of trustworthy transactions and agreements between anonymous parties and without the need for a legal system. Smart Contracts will bring in changes, not as fast as some predict, but will surely change the way we are used to working, as per Kai Schiller, author of the German blog blockchainwelt.de.

You would have heard of blockchains. In our last two articles, we spoke about Non-fungible Tokens and Ransomware attacks, this one is the third in the series concerning blockchains. Apart from cryptocurrencies and NFTs, there is a much more serious and beneficial application of this technology, namely smart contracts.

SMART CONTRACTS VS (TRADITIONAL) CONTRACTS

We are aware as to what entails a traditional legal contract — a document that details an agreement that parties execute with an expectation of being legally binding with a structure that includes offer, acceptance, consideration, and date with the parties signature. The endgame is Judicial Enforcement. Whereas, smart contracts bypass and ignore the legal mode and judicial enforcement is not their endgame. In contrast, smart contracts are computer programs filled with clauses “if/then” laying out every eventuality and obligation. These computer programs, once created and formally accepted by both parties, can be self-enforcing, running in the cloud. Continuous monitoring of key performance metrics determines when one of the “if/then” clauses suddenly switches from false to true, triggering automatic enforcement. Through auto-enforcement, smart contracts can add efficiencies for many kinds of agreements. This includes rental, intellectual property, financing, shipping, and manufacturing contracts.

First proposed in the 1990s by Nick Szabo, the concept of smart contract entails contract clauses written in computer programs. These are to be automatically executed as and when predefined conditions are met. Smart contracts are stored, replicated, and updated in distributed blockchains with logic consisting of transaction status. The integration of blockchain technology with smart contracts has made the dream of a “peer-to-peer market” come true.

LEGAL STATUS

For an enforceable legally binding contract, the common law requires four elements to be present: (a) offer; (b) acceptance; (c) consideration and (d) intentions to create legal relations. The law takes a wider approach and will enforce any promise in whatever form it is in, if the above criteria are met and if there are no vitiating factors such as misrepresentation or duress to taint the contract. Practically a contract concludes upon the agreement of a future contractual performance, which then generates rights and obligations for all parties.

The lingering question of whether smart contracts carry the same legal validity as traditional contracts warrant a definitive and authoritative answer, instead, it instigated a never-ending debate amongst academics and practitioners.

TECH, FUNCTIONALITY

Imagine a self-executing contract that digitally enforces, verifies, and facilitates the performance or negotiation of a contract. Blockchain technology and its distributed nature are used to foster transaction credibility between contracting parties without the necessity of third parties as exhibited in regular contracts.

There are several steps involved in a blockchain-based smart beginning with agreement identification, defining setting conditions, scripting the business logic, encryption with blockchain, execution and processing on event triggers, and finally updating the network status.

Thus contractual performance obligations are memorialised in code using a strict and formal programming language, then they are executed by members of a blockchain-based network. Once a smart contract is triggered via a transaction by one of the parties, the smart contract itself acts as the parties’ agent that is deputised to assist the parties with their arrangement.

The code of the smart contract is stored on each miner’s computer and each smart contract is assigned a blockchain-based address. Parties can initiate a smart contract by sending digitally signed “transactions” to the smart contract’s address. The transactional record is stored on the blockchain, the saved record then triggers the smart contract’s execution. Owing to the consensus-based distributed architecture the smart contract’s code is run by all miners supporting the network simultaneously. The transaction in this case is a record that includes the variables necessary for the code to run, along with a digital signature of the sending party.

ERROR IN CODE — RISK EXPOSURE:

Smart contracts also suffer from material shortcomings. Any vulnerability or even an error in the code may bring consequences. And one such example is when the DAO raised more than $150 million, an individual discovered a loophole in the code and diverted almost $70 million worth of ether and it was observed that the hacker did not maliciously hack the code, but rather used the terms of the existing smart contracts to accomplish something others later found objectionable, i.e. the diversion of their money. Thus, it is evident that the systemic risks exposed by the DAO hack have fuelled the argument that raises several concerns about the functionality of smart contracts. Broadly speaking — the hack reveals that the foundational characteristics which make smart contracts attractive ought to be questioned.

RELATION WITH CRYPTOCURRENCY

Centralised form of transactions may have a single point of failure that has been solved by using blockchain technology, which provides a peer-to-peer transaction without the need of a third party. The Bitcoin decentralised cryptocurrency, released in 2009, has generated great interest in blockchain technology applications. The blockchain technology that used to be applied only for bitcoin peer-to-peer transactions has been also usable for other purposes, such as smart contracts.

In the last few years, there has been significant development in technology related to blockchain-based smart contracts that have been accumulating over the years. It ranges from various platforms that facilitate blockchain-based smart contracts, applications that utilise smart contracts and tools in developing blockchain-based smart contract applications.

While a cryptocurrency is used as a secure medium of exchange due to the use of strong cryptography for ensuring verifiability of asset transfer, control of unit creation and even evasion of regulations as well as oversight by governments across the world, smart contracts are self-executing contracts that utilise blockchain technology to digitally enforce, verify, or facilitate the performance or negotiation of a contract.

COSTS AND ADVANTAGES

Smart contracts provides for many benefits as compared to the traditional contracts: (a) Speed as smart contracts use software code that automates tasks that are typically accomplished manually; (b) Enhanced Accuracy as due to automated transactions the probability of manual error is reduced; (c) Cost-Effective as less human intervention, fewer intermediaries and thus less cost: (d)Auto-enforcement as Smart contracts are unique in their enforceability since these clauses are embedded in the applicable software itself; (e) Reducing risks. Smart contracts cannot be arbitrarily altered once they are issued due to the immutability of blockchains. All the transactions stored and replicated are traceable and auditable.

Despite the advantages mentioned hereinabove, the enforceability of more subjective obligations such as ensuring commercially reasonable efforts is affected by the inherently digital nature of smart contracts.  

SMART CONTRACT AND ONLINE DISPUTE RESOLUTION

The dispute arising out of smart contract demand for non-judicial remedy systems that are cross-jurisdictional, extra-legal, and efficient hence the smart Developers and Entrepreneurs are swiftly moving to create solutions for resolving smart contract disputes and accordingly reliance over online dispute resolution systems in the blockchain. Generally, Online Dispute Resolution models have been online arbitration, AI-powered resolutions, and crowd-sourced dispute resolution. It is no surprise, especially given this history of resorting to extra-legal resolutions, that developers have turned to online arbitration for resolving blockchain disputes. 

Relying on a distributed consensus model, smart contracts have the DNA of Blockchains and run on platforms similar to cryptocurrencies. These technology-enabled innovations in law are being watched closely as they make contracts more reliable simultaneously making it difficult to evade execution.

The ‘autonomous’ nature of these contracts does not require a third party to evaluate execution and even obviates the need to engage lawyers and experts to estimate execution in a granular fashion.

Despite obvious advantages, blockchain-based technologies have not shown great success as a business model. There are serious concerns about the non-green nature of computing needed to run the blockchains and some security issues which have cropped up despite the self-healing nature of blockchain nodes.

Ethereum has been an excellent example of a platform based on blockchains for smart contracts and the evolution of standards as well as tools for developing applications and utilities will pave the way for wider acceptance of these innovations. On the whole, the world is watching these innovations with caution filled with expectations.

Brijesh Singh, IPS, is an author and IG Maharashtra. Khushbu Jain is an advocate practising before the Supreme Court and a founding partner of law firm Ark Legal. They can be contacted on Twitter: @brijeshbsingh and @advocatekhushbu. The views expressed are personal.

Ethereum has been an excellent example of a platform based on blockchains for smart contracts and the evolution of standards as well as tools for developing applications and utilities will pave the way for wider acceptance of these innovations.

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We take pride in trying our best to save lives: Marina Shaikh & Nandini Singh Jhabua

Marina Shaikh and Nandini Singh Jhabua from The Rising World Foundation recently joined NewsX on its special series NewsX India A-List to share how they helped thousands of people across India during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The Rising World Foundation (RWF) is a not-for-profit charitable organisation dedicated to relieving the impact of Covid-19 on India’s most vulnerable communities. Marina Shaikh, Founder of The Rising World Foundation, and Nandini Singh Jhabua, Communications Director of The Rising World Foundation recently joined NewsX for its special series NewsX India A-List to speak on how they helped thousands of people across India during the second wave of the pandemic.

Marina, an experienced social organiser and philanthropist with international experience began the conversation and said, “I was in Brussels since 2017 when I found this organisation and it was my work with the international development committee in the European Parliament that gave me much understanding of what kind of work I wanted to do basically. I did a lot of public service projects and worked a lot with the international government. But I also realised that I wanted to come back and serve the people of my own country and hence The Rising World Foundation was formed.”

Nandini threw light on their collaboration and said, “Marina and I belong to Madhya Pradesh, our families are two generation’s friends and we grew up together. We both always liked community service as children. I remember we used to always plan that we’re going to do something and serve a community in a way that we wanted to, especially to the needy, to the marginalised community.”

Through her work with Marina and the RWF, Nandini hopes to combine her two greatest passions: her family’s connection to tribal art forms and giving back to the community. Talking about how the foundation operated and helped the community at large, Marina said, “The rural is our target. Rural communities in Madhya Pradesh is what we have been targeting and recently we have started with a fundraiser for oxygen supplies in Madhya Pradesh.”

“We have been working on that lately, as we got a lot of calls from a lot of villages that we have been working in for the past whole year. We started a fundraiser with Milaap. We hope a lot more people can contribute to this cause and you know help the state,” she added.

Elaborating on the working of RWF, Nandini said, “We have been working for the past year and a half ever since Marina started the NGO in 2015. The pandemic hit us and at that time we weren’t sure how would we start, we were immediately started relief works. Between Marina and I, we covered five different states along with Madhya Pradesh.”

“It was amazing the kind of work we have done along with drives including the educational, agricultural drives and breast cancer awareness drive. It was really nice that we were able to reach out to almost over 1 lakh people with information, mask sanitisers, hygiene kits, so I think we have made a tremendous difference in these five states,” she added.

Marina told us about her on-ground experiences during the devastating second wave of the Covid pandemic, “It’s extremely intimidating going to hospitals and distributing to their families, food and hygiene kits for women. It’s been very intimidating with whole new black fungus. I mean I’m glad that we’re doing whatever we can and yeah it’s very tough for us. We are trying our best to save lives and I take pride and say it’s alright to just go out. Somebody has to do it.”

Talking about their ongoing fundraiser, Marina said, “We have people who supported us from across the world. We have received about 20 lakhs and our target was 30 lakhs. We have already donated 26 oxygen concentrators to various districts in Madhya Pradesh.”

On a concluding note, Nandini mentioned how one can reach out and support the ongoing cause of RWF, “They can DM us and follow The Rising World Foundation. We hope every individual put the tools they need to thrive. The sky is vast the opportunities are limitless. Come out and support us to help us in every way to save lives, as many as we can.”

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A FATHER’S LOVE IS LIKE AN UNENDING TRIP OF JOY AND HAPPINESS

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Whenever we talk about God, One word that always resonates with it is father. Whether it’s our dad, brother, son, or any other father figure, these men need to know what a huge difference their presence makes in society.

Many of us are lucky to have our dad by our side. But for others who lost their fathers, this day is a painful reminder that their dad is no longer around. I hope they’re able to find peace during these testing times and if it makes any better, your dad will always be watching over you from the sky to keep you warm and protected.

Several atrocities came in where others left me midway. But it is my father who has always grabbed my hand and tirelessly crossed the other side with me. In every sphere of my life, I wouldn’t have become self-reliant without his blessings and constant support. His never forgetting life lesson made me who I am today. 

Here’s a part of him left in his diary, which I discovered on his bookshelf after he passed away. Unfortunately, the diary pages were left blank. That made me a bit curious. Why didn’t he write anything? By the time I flipped to the last page, I got to know what he wanted me to become. There was a crumpled piece of paper on the last page. Therein, it was written, “I know you would search for it someday. I just want to tell you one thing that you were born to rule the world and I can’t wait to see you conquer everything you touch upon from up here. I love you to the core, my strongest child.” – Your One and only Daddy

Losing a father is devastating. So, grieve as much as you want and cry and sulk but then think about your father’s hopes and dreams about you, he’d never want to see his little child so distressed. So collect the broken pieces of your heart and stand tall for him. You will discover this new strength that resides in you. Sharing photos and memories, and taking part in meaningful activities centred around your father’s life and tradition, will make this a more meaningful day for you.

And for the lucky ones who have the angels called dad around, here’s what can you do to make his day memorable: 

SPEND TIME WITH HIM 

Make his presence felt. You would certainly not like to see him neglected on this occasion. Spend little time with your dad on Father’s Day thanking God for the blessing of their presence; pray for their strength and guidance.

GATHER AROUND WITH FAMILY

A father loves to see all his family together. Make sure to plan a get-together on this occasion so that your father enjoys quality time with the family. Plan for a retro event along with homemade food that he loves so that he feels overjoyed and special. 

REMEMBRANCE

One of the most important things is to remember him forever. Not to forget that he made you feel jubilant whenever you felt gloomy. It is rightly said, “Encourage one another and build each other up.” And Father’s Day is a chance for us to make that happen. 

Lift their spirits, celebrate their joyous moments, and remind them how much they’re appreciated every single day. Remember his life mantra, do not exaggerate things, and always show your affection. 

Though it can be difficult — especially if your loss is sudden or recent — remembering dad openly and together will help your appreciation for your father grow. And you will be comforted as you hear the things that others remember most about your dad — stories you’ve never heard before or forgotten.

On this Father’s day where the world is a bit helter-skelter due to Covid-19, spend some quality time with your father. As you never know what would happen in the future. Cherish these moments because these moments would last forever in your memories. No matter how you reach out, your encouragement is sure to make this Father’s Day one they’ll always remember.

The writer is president, Purush Aayog.

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Genome surveillance for pandemic disaster preparedness

Covid-19 has ushered in a new digital era and is rewiring the world’s perspective to genomic science and sensibilities to personal data privacy in public health management.

Suravi Sharma Kumar

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Besides uncovering the gaps in healthcare infrastructure, the pandemic has thrown up the lack of a data-driven ecosystem and culture in the country at various levels of the healthcare system. In today’s world, as much we appreciate the potential of genome science, we need to know that it’s a resource-intensive work around quality data (input, storage, and analysis). Over the last few decades, the strong ties between DNA and Computer Science have revolutionised genomics technologies. At this juncture, about Covid genome sequencing we must know that we are now in an era of rapid (and cheaper) sequencing. But today the ability to determine DNA sequences is starting to outrun the ability of researchers to store, disseminate, and analyse data. Genome studies need pre and post-sequencing data management to make sense of the genome mapping and work towards the epidemiological goals. Genomic surveillance is the best we can do to track the virus and prepare public health defence measures against it. The importance of this aspect of pandemic management can be ignored only to our detriment in the face of the third wave/ future waves. 

Data generated from whole-genome sequencing is huge (in terabytes) and demands computational capabilities to manage it. Analysed genomic information requires to be combined with clinical/ epidemiological inputs that in turn can yield insights on the virus that can be used in public health interventions. The sequencing process needs a high level of laboratory infrastructure that is expensive. As India had spent very little per capita on healthcare before the pandemic, there is a lot needing investment/funding for the India genome project. The funding/investment, I believe should be through public and private involvement considering the immense capability of the Indian private sector in Genome Informatics when pitted against the public sector.

The convergence of biology and computing is necessary for this relatively obscure technology. Essentially a biologist and a programmer should work closely to facilitate the development of tools and systems that can solve a biological question. Many public health laboratories may not have the right bioinformatics capability (Kelly F. Oakes on Comments to Author, 2017) and data management resources for large scale public health projects. Also, Database management and big data analytical capabilities may not be in alignment with some of the public sector institutes’ objectives which are mostly around teaching and human resource capacity building in Biotechnology and microbial research. 

As we know detecting mutations/variations can identify the cause of outbreaks: the virus behaviour — the fast-spreading or the immune escaping variants — guide public health policies, and even find a drug/cure or inform vaccine researchers. To detect genome variations, millions or billions of data points have to be analysed through computational techniques — pattern analysing algorithms, mathematical models, image processing and so on. 

Apart from the public sector regional labs identified by the Genetic Consortium, there are Indian genomics companies in the private sector that have world-class capabilities. And apart from these, the IT giants of India, have one or two genomics labs each, and with state-of-the-art infrastructure handling liquid biopsies and doing work mostly in NGS (Next-generation Sequencing). These genome science labs of IT corporate houses are adept at preparing data files and computational techniques besides performing the steps of gene/ whole-genome sequencing. I believe, these capabilities in India’s IT sector can contribute to the country’s Covid scene by directly contributing to laboratory research work for its R&D experience in the field. This I believe will enable the delivery of standardised genomic data meeting international quality requirements; thereby catching up with the required GISAID or GenBank data contribution requirement for the country. 

In a well-designed PPP (Public-Private-Partnership) model, these Genomic labs in the private/corporate sector will be able to provide not only the required lab infrastructure for genome sequencing (or mapping) but also the much-required strong digital capabilities to complement the process and thereby support NCDC (National Centre for Disease Control). Authorities should find ways to incorporate these labs with high infrastructure that are not licensed for clinical use but have been contributing to high-level research work in tandem with renowned cancer hospitals and oncologists for their skill and include them in the genome surveillance efforts for the greater public good. The Bioinformatics capability of the Indian IT sector will be able to transform the genomic surveillance scenario of the country, thereby helping in pandemic preparedness.

As we know, by now India should have sequenced more than five million samples to have a good understanding of the virus and its strains, but so far 11,047 sequences have been performed (of the 1.4 million samples sequenced worldwide) according to GISAID. Currently, less than 0.05% of positive cases in India are subjected to such mapping while the recommended number is 5% of all samples. On the other hand, few countries (like the UK, the US, Belgium) have been doing whole genomic sequencing in real-time to inform/update the public health response system.

Unavailability of metadata along with Covid samples sent for genome evaluation is another concern which I believe is for data privacy or ethics issues. The authorities should address this the soonest and enable the collection of complete relevant epidemiological data (demographic, clinical and laboratory) through public health workers in the right format, and share it — anonymised or as-is with patient consent with the laboratories where the samples are sent for analysis. At this point, we must also remember that life sciences or healthcare data are always un-structured unlike other branches of science, and data scientists often find biological data technically trickier to organise. Readying the data for research use itself may be a struggle and may necessitate the use of high-end techniques like natural language processing.

The Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a new digital era and is rewiring the world’s perspective to genomic science and sensibilities to personal data privacy in public health management. Governments around the globe are imposing new digital surveillance tools to track and monitor individuals for the new norms of Covid etiquettes as well as the morphology of the virus for variations to bolster defences against the novel virus. 

The writer is a medical doctor (pathologist) and holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of London. The views expressed are personal.

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