Splainer

Friday, November 26 2021


Dive In

 

The increasing pressure on Africa's wildlife and wild spaces as a result of human population presents a huge challenge for conservationists, as it does the world over.

That’s what Prince William said while handing out prizes to leading conservationists from African nations at a ceremony. The two lines triggered swift outrage as various commentators and groups accused him of racism—demanding population control of Black Africans while producing three kids of his own. While William did not specifically say the words “population growth,” he has directly criticised Africa’s rising numbers in the past, underlining “a staggering increase of three and a half million people per month.” That was in 2017—just before his son Louis was born. 

 

Coming up soon: We are very excited to announce our next Ask Me Anything session with the brilliant Manu Pillai—the author of some of the most articulate and fascinating books on Indian history including ‘Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore’, and most recently ‘False Allies: India’s Maharajahs in the Age of Ravi Varma’. You surely have lots of questions to ask him! Reminder: You are the interviewers in our format. Time/Date: 6:30 pm on Saturday, November 27, via Zoom. Sign up here for one of the limited slots.


Stuff to check out: On the latest episode of the splainer podcast ‘Press Decode’, the splainer team looks at the repeal of the farm laws—and discusses whether restaurants’ ‘no stag’ policies discriminate against gay men with their guest Sandip Roy. That’s a must-listen! Be sure to head over to the IVM website, Spotify or Apple Podcasts to listen to it.

 
Big Story

Worries over a new coronavirus variant

The TLDR: A new variant detected in South Africa has a dizzying number of mutations—and is being described as “horrific” by some experts. But we still don’t know enough about this version to figure out how it behaves. Here’s what we know so far.

 

A quick guide to variants

What are variants: A ‘mutation’ is different from a ‘variant’—which in turn is different from a ‘strain’, and here’s how

  • This coronavirus—Sars-Cov-2—is a strain of a larger family of coronaviruses, which includes other strains such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) that caused severe respiratory illnesses in the past.
  • Now, viruses spread by replicating themselves at an astonishing speed. 
  • So when a virus produces a copy of itself, there are routine changes and sometimes ‘copying errors’—and that may cause changes in a protein molecule's behaviour.  
  • These ‘errors’ can make a virus weaker, more harmful—or have no effect at all. The changes are called ‘mutations’.
  • When a virus undergoes significant types of mutations that causes it to behave differently from the original virus, then it becomes a variant.

 

Why we have new variants: The longer the pandemic stretches, the more opportunities the virus has to keep replicating itself. As infections spread, variants typically evolve in immuno-compromised patients who are ill over a long period of time, as The Atlantic explains:

 

“The variants may have evolved in immunocompromised patients who were infected with the virus for months. Normally… ‘your immune system is going to town on it. It’s really trying to beat it up.’ But immunocompromised patients mount weaker immune responses. ‘It becomes almost like a training course for how to live with the human immune system,’ she says. That may be why these variants have so many new mutations at once, as if a year or two of evolution has been compressed into months. This is probably quite rare, but with tens of millions of infections around the globe, rare things will show up.”

 

Variants of concern: Not all variants are a cause of worry. Scientists only pay attention when a variant shows that it is more infectious or more likely to cause severe disease. These are called ‘variants of concern’—and there are four right now: Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

 

Ok, tell me about this new variant…

The name: It is called B.1.1529, but will likely receive a Greek name like the others soon. The variant likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immuno-compromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient. 

 

The location: The variant was first spotted in Botswana, where three cases have now been sequenced. It was also spotted in one case in Hong Kong—in a traveller returning from South Africa. The most cases have been detected in South Africa—but the reporting varies wildly on the exact number. Euro News says there are 22 confirmed cases. Reuters cites “100 specimens,” while BBC News puts the number at 77. But they all agree that the spread is the heaviest in the province of Gauteng—where it accounts for 90% of the cases. And scientists say it “may already be present in most provinces" in the country.

 

The mutations: The variant has 50 mutations in total—of which 32 are in its spike protein. Any changes in the spike protein are worrying because that’s the part of the virus targeted by vaccines—to block the virus from entering the human cell. And of these 32 changes, 10 are in the exact bit—“receptor binding domain”—that helps the virus attach itself to the cell. In comparison, the highly infectious Delta variant has only two mutations in this location. 

 

Umm, that sounds worrying…

 

 
Headlines that matter

An apple crisis in Kashmir

Early snowfall caused by climate change is decimating the harvest this year in the state—where 80% of India’s apples are grown. Farmers will likely lose half their crops in the third straight year of disastrous harvests. Researchers have warned that Kashmir’s orchards are likely to become unsustainable in the next few years due to extreme weather in the Himalayas. 


The government is pushing farmers toward high-density, imported varieties—but that means that local varieties may not be available for much longer. Also this: making the shift is so expensive that many are planning to quit growing apples entirely. Watch a distraught farmer try and save his apples here. (The Guardian)

 

An interesting scientific breakthrough 

Say hello to ‘living ink.’ Scientists created a new kind of ink from microbes—E.coli, to be specific. And they put it in a 3D printer, created all sorts of shapes—and then remixed the ink with other microbes that had been engineered to perform specific tasks. The result: 

 

“In one therapeutic test, the printed ink released the anticancer drug azurin when exposed to a chemical. In another test, the printed ink successfully trapped the toxic chemical BPA, suggesting that the material could potentially remove harmful contaminants from its surroundings.”


This is when science gets so far ahead of us that all we can say is ‘wow!’. And then we actually look at it and go ‘huh?’ (New York Times)

 

Spotify’s new video play

The music streaming platform is jumping on the TikTok bandwagon—and testing a video feed to its app. It’s available under a new fourth tab in the navigation bar labelled ‘Discover’. (The Verge)

 

North Korea bans leather coats

The news out of this country grows more bizarre with each passing day. The latest bit of insanity: The government has banned all citizens from wearing leather trench coats. The reason: 

 

“The police respond to the complaints, saying that wearing clothes designed to look like the Highest Dignity’s is an ‘impure trend to challenge the authority of the Highest Dignity.’ They instructed the public not to wear leather coats, because it is part of the party’s directive to decide who can wear them.”


‘Highest Dignity’ being one of the many titles held by President Kim Jong Un. (Radio Free Asia)

 
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In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • Krishna and Radha's monsoon romance 

 

Weekend Advisory 

  • Good stuff to watch this weekend
  • A list of good reads
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