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UN to discuss Security Council’s reform agenda today; G-4, Germany, India, South Africa & Japan, to negotiate with single textTIOL wishes All Netizens a Very Happy Republic DayMassive protest against lockdown in Amsterdam; Clash with police after looting stores and triggering blazes; Over 250 arrestedBiden inks order to tighten ‘Buy American’ provision for sourcing goods by Federal GovtCOVID-19 - US detects first case of Brazil variant; bans entry of non-Americans from South Africa, Brazil, UK and 26 EU countriesGovt annonces Padma Awards - Padma Vibhushan to former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe + S P Balasubramaianm + Dr Belle M Hegde + Sudarshan Sahoo + Padma Bhushan to 10 persons including Tarun Gogoi + Sumitra Mahajan + Nripendra Misra + Ram Vilas Paswan + Keshubahi Patel + Padma Shri to 102 persons of repute26 personnel of CBIC get Presidential Awards; Commissioners C P S Bakshi + G Machunlung + Amitesh Bharat Singh + S Thirunavukkarasu also figure in ListCOVID-19 - Global tally about to touch 10 Crore mark + UK’s death count inches close to 100,000GSI to complete 'ambitious' national-level surveys by 2024GST - Provisional attachment of bank account cannot continue where attachment period u/s 83(2) of the CGST Act has lapsed: HCPresident gives nod to Jeevan Raksha Padak awards for 40 personsGST - Confiscation of goods - High Court cannot intervene at SCN stage - assessee directed to file reply to SCN & appear for hearing: HCGST - Provisional attachment of petitioner's cash credit bank account, u/s 74 of SGST Act, is unsustainable; stands lifted: HCKochi Customs seizes FC worth Rs 1.3 Cr and IC worth Rs 45 lakhsWhy Opt for IndusInd Bank Savings Account?Centre releases 13th instalment of Rs 6,000Cr to meet GST shortfallWhetting the budget (App)etiteI-T - Addition on account of revised capital gain under Sec 50C cannot be added to assessee's income, even when his revision petition is barred by limitation : HCAppeal merits re-consideration where dismissed in limine without hearing the assessee: ITATCX - No reversal of Cenvat credit is warranted u/r 6(3)(b) of CCR 2004 upon removal of Spent Sulphuric Acid: CESTAT
Spiky Hairballs of Protein have killed too many of us - Where is Patient zero? - Can Nature be a bio-terrorist?

TIOL - COB( WEB) - 746
JANUARY 14, 2020

By Shailendra Kumar, Founder Editor

WITH the global death count swiftly jogging close to two million mark, the spiky hairballs of protein - the COVID-19, have horrifyingly established their credentials of being ruthless 'killing machine'! Though I am chronically inclined to take a sanguine view that humanity cushioned by the tireless crop of scientists, would one day succeed in defenestrating these 'scary hairballs' light years away from our planet into celestial junkyard but before that, the chimeric virus is going to cause untold miseries not only to humankind but also to all the glorious political and socio-cultural institutions built over the centuries. Yes, I am referring to the body blow engineered against the most imposing symbol of freedom and democracy - the citadel of American parliament - the Capitol Hill. And the assault was egged on by the most 'prized victim' of the pandemic - the about-to-be-impeached American President. Though coronavirus is known to choke the respiratory system in human body but it seems to have desecrated its bailiwick and perhaps 'unthoughtfully' uncorked the 'conspiratorial gland' of the giddy President.

Responding to his vitriolic political outbursts, a large mob of unhinged Trump loyalists swarmed the Congress building like category 5 hurricane! First, the legislators participating in the House proceedings, simply rolled their eyes out of the window glass panes but within minutes, were seen cowering in terror as the mobsters muscled in and violated the doctrine of 'Do Gaj Doori'. They got themselves seated on the soapbox designed for the Speakers. The clock had to run down for hours before the mayhem was corked but the eyes of the friends of US democracy across the world, watching television, literally popped out in horror! And the global political leaders described the abnormally high degree of electoral toxicity of pantomimic Trump as a case of 'snake eating its own tail'!

Even if we skip the profanely quirky saga of Mr Trump, democracy was in retreat throughout 2020 - the golden era of Coronavirus! The utter chaos triggered by COVID-19 enabled many despots and democratically elected leaders to resort to Potemkin exercise in the name of grasping the nettle and deplume their citizens of many basic rights. Though many celebrated democracies, including India, also backslided on many counts but the sharpest decline was seen in China, in particular Hong Kong and Xinjiang province where Uyghurs Muslims are being tethered to Gulag (labour camps). After clamping down with National Security Law, China has stripped Hong Kongers of their civil liberties. A good number of democracy activists, including an American lawyer, were recently shorn of their lethal delusion of being free citizens even before they could wake up and smell the coffee! In a nutshell, if a democracy index is compiled, political leaders of many European, African, Asian and Latin American countries would be splitting their hair for having scored very poorly in 2020!

Let me now slink to the gloomies but predictable development on the pandemic front. Addressing the media persons on the issue of WHO Mission to China to investigate the origin of the pandemic, the WHO Chief recently demonstrated his least expected spine and said that though the Expert Team is ready to visit all the possible places of origin of the virus but China has not been cooperating and holding up the process! As widely expected, China has been negotiating too many restrictions on the movement of the WHO team of 10 globally-applauded experts. Given the scale of highly politicised and conspiratorial background that precedes such a Mission, the 'Wolf Warriors' of the Beijing Diplomatic Corp are genuinely anxious. But if China has nothing to hide, it is morally bound as a member of the WHO to assist international experts in tracing not only the origin of the virus but also detect how did a pathogen found in bats make a Hanuman jump to humans? Was there an intermediary animal which was infected by horseshoe bats, earlier traced to be the origin of SARS virus - cousin of coronavirus?

Mystery shrouds the origin of COVID-19. But it has to be zeroed in if the world is to prepare for more such future pandemics. If the origin of COVID-19 is not discovered by the scientific community on account of geopolitical rivalry, a dark cavern would always remain in the playbook of virology and future researchers will have no means to provide effective vaccine against such viruses. The issue assumes much greater significance in the light of what WHO Emergencies Chief Mike Ryan recently said about COVID-19 - "It has affected every corner of this planet. But this is not necessarily the big one." He also emphasized that the coronavirus is merely a 'wake-up call'! For the larger audience, the million-dollar quiz is - What exactly is he hinting at? Does WHO possess certain sensitive information which prompted its senior functionary to utter a word of caution for the global political leaders? Or, is it merely a red herring?

As per my peripheral and latitudinal understanding which perhaps matters the most to 99.9 per cent of world population, the three scenarios which emerge out of the avoidable controversies are - 1) If COVID-19 is a natural virus, there should be exemplary global cooperation to trace its origin and its flight to human from animal; 2) If not natural, is it a lab-made synthetic virus which was designed as part of germ-warfare military paradigm being pursued by China and it mistakenly escaped out of the poorly-enforced safety protocols?; 3) Or, it is a natural virus on which Wuhan-based bio-labs were experimenting for noble or profane reasons but the virus swung out of their safety net?

There is no wiggle room for politics in finding truth in all the three scenarios. Hunkering down to dig out the truth is critical for survival of mankind on this planet. Keeping such an objective in mind, all the political leaders should stop gabbing and speculating about the origin and the investigators should be granted ungated access to all the contextual locations. China has, with monotonous consistency, been parroting a teleological argument that the virus is a curse from the Nature! If the virus is an offspring of the Nature, China should not act angsty and dirty its global image by floating implausible theories that the virus was imported from Europe through imported frozen packaged food consignments. It has also pathologically acted to eliminate all such researchers, journalists and scientists who initially shared some scientific insights into the origin of the virus. Thirdly, China has overzealously launched a diplomatic clean-up operation to trace the virus outside its borders into Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar where diverse varieties of wild animals including bats, are found. China is also not coy about obstructing media persons daring to visit the mine shafts in Southern China where a large population of horseshoe bats reside and their guano may have zoonotic traces of the virus! Fourthly, China has also prevented its scholars and scientists from looking into the origin of COVID-19. Fifthly, China has also set up a high-voltage task force headed by none but Mr Xi Jinping and no content can be made public or shared without its approval. If the Task Force has a fair objective then it should facilitate international scientists to plumb the depth of the pandemic. It should also share scientific findings arrived at through various local research sponsored by the Chinese Govt.

Since China has, with vim and vigour, been firewalling all efforts to trace the natural source of the virus, here springs up the second and third propositions - the virus may be natural but it probably escaped from the Wuhan lab accidently or it is a lab-designed one? Based on extensive research done during SARS epidemic in 2003 and MARS in 2012, the community of virologists, zoonoticists and other domain experts are of the view that since horseshoe bats populate dark caves in Yunnan province in Southern China, the enigma gets parked here - how can the virus travel over 1000 km to Wuhan and that too, without leaving behind any sick person and also not infecting anyone along its path!

A plausible explanation is that these dangerous viruses were already available in the Wuhan lab - the only BSL-4 lab in China. A BSL-4 lab is a maximum security biosafety-level-four facility where research is done on most dangerous pathogens. America is reported to have as many as 11 such labs where 'problems' have been reported in the past. The Wuhan lab is situated at a stone's throw from the Huanan Wet Market where COVID-19 was first found. The fact that inspired by America which had funded several bio-germ warfare research programmes known as gain-of-function research, and to add bio-muscle to its military sinews, China had indulged in riskier research relating to viruses of corona family. It also had sampled bat species from every corner of Southeast Asia - very large reservoir of viruses in its lab. But since it did not have highly-skilled and trained technicians to run it safely, there was always a possibility for an accident and COVID-19 virus may have got leaked. The presence of an animal meat market in the vicinity may have aided it to identify a host where it might have mutated before riding a human incubator! This can be one of the 'parsimonious' explanations of what might have happened. And such a theory is being speculated in the scientific community across the globe.

And the last proposition that it can be a synthetic virus, is also not poppycock! Scientists have come to the conclusion that bat virus RaTG13 (named after a specific type of bat from Tongguan, in 2013) comes closest to the human virus but the spike protein of the bat virus is different from the human spike protein which enables it to infect human tissues more efficiently and also faster. Where did such a protein come from in human virus? This is a trillion-dollar puzzle which needs to be demystified by finding the intermediary animal which may have carried the virus from bat to human. Though pangolins were thrown in the ring by China as a possible intermediary but most scientists tend to treat it as red herring. In a nutshell, the global scientific community has not yet accepted any of the three propositions elaborated in this Column and is keen to investigate and piece together evidences to trace the path of the virus and then come up with accurate prognoses about future pandemics. If it is found to be a natural virus then let's conclude that the Nature is the most lethal bio-terrorist the mankind would have to deal with at regular intervals!