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Wednesday February 28th, 2024

B.1.1.7: To lock down or not?

DESERTED: Colombo’s usually crowded Galle Face beach front is deserted as Sri Lanka is on non-essential Coronavirus holiday.

ECONOMYNEXT – It’s been five days since Sri Lanka announced the detection of B.1.1.7, the highly transmissible UK-variant of COVID-19, within its borders, and opinion seems divided on whether the country should go for another lockdown to prevent an outbreak.

Officially, the government is of the position that Sri Lanka, cash-strapped and debt-ridden, cannot afford an island-wide lockdown. Co-cabinet spokesman Minister Udaya Gammanpila told reporters this morning that no restrictions will be imposed on any part of the country.

“We saw the downfall in the economy [during the first lockdown last year]. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs,” he said.

Census Department data shows at least one hundred thousand job losses at the start of the lockdown in March 2020. Many more in the informal sector lost their livelihoods as a result of the two-and-a-half month quarantine curfew.

“Even if we want to, we don’t have the capacity to impose a lockdown. So the government is trying its best to solve this crisis while keeping the country open,” said Gammanpila.

“The challenge ahead of us is to learn to live with the virus. Under prevailing circumstances, we can continue to keep the country open,” he added.

Prof Neelika Malavige, whose team of researchers detected B.1.1.7 in Sri Lanka, also believes there is no need for a lockdown.

Malavige, Professor in Microbiology at the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, told EconomyNext today that, however, some limit on public events may be advisable.

“The UK variant might spread; it might not. It is absolutely difficult to predict. Asian countries seem to have controlled it; so I don’t think we need to panic. What is important is to limit the functions and stop all unnecessary ones,” she said.

New Zealand, a country that has consistently come out on top in its battle against the pandemic, on Monday announced the detection of B.1.1.7 within its borders, prompting a lockdown in Auckland.

“Even in countries like New Zealand, where there are absolutely brilliant control measures, they did get an outbreak from this. These things happen and that’s how this virus is,” said Malavige.

“It’s true that they went for a lockdown. But I don’t think we can draw parallels between Sri Lanka and New Zealand, economically, in terms of mortality, etc,” she added.

The UK strain – also known as the Kent variant, after the county in which it was first discovered – has been detected in 82 countries including Asian countries such as South Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Singapore, India, Malaysia and Pakistan. The strain is said to be 30 to 70 percent more transmissible and about 30 percent more lethal than others and, according to Sharon Peacock, director of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, is likely to “sweep the world”.

The strain was first observed in Sri Lanka toward end January this year. Researchers at the Jayawardenapura University sequenced 92 samples collected in different parts of the island including a number of quarantine centres. The variant was detected in samples from Colombo, Avissawella, Biyagama and Vavuniya and some of the quarantine facilities. The university told this website last Friday (12) that it is possible that Sri Lanka’s existing B.1.411 strain could’ve undergone de novo mutation owing to its wide and rapid spread in the country. However, Prof Malavige said later that the source is most likely a returnee from overseas.

With Sri Lanka extending its ongoing vaccination of frontline workers to members of the public starting yesterday, calls for a lockdown have been somewhat muted, though speculation persists that one may be around the corner. Army Commander Gen Shavendra Silva yesterday told a private TV station that a lockdown will not be imposed but the government will look at ways in which an outbreak can be prevented.

However, Sri Lanka’s public health inspectors (PHIs) have called for at least a partial lockdown.

“We saw what this variant did to the United Kingdom. It infected millions within 15 days,” PHI Union President Upul Rohana told reporters yesterday.

“The officials must lock down the country and control this situation because we do not know whether the new strain has already spread to other parts of the island,” he said, adding that no test has been conducted to determine the spread of the variant so far.

Meanwhile, President of the Association of Government Medical Laboratory Technologists Ravi Kumudesh claimed there is no systematic identification process of the new variant in Sri Lanka. Kumudesh told EconomyNext that a shortage in facilities in the country’s state-run labs to test for the new variant is a major stumbling block to preventing an outbreak

“We need Next-generation sequencing analysers to identify the new variants of the virus. We do not have such analyzers in any of the state-owned labs apart from the one at the Sri Jayewardenepura University. Not even the National Medical Research Institute has one,” he said.

Without determining the spread of the UK strain, Kumudesh said, it is not practical to impose travel restrictions only in areas where it has been detected. He called for increased testing to determine the extent of its presence in the country.

According to Kumudesh, the sequencing tests done at the Jayawardenapura University do not cover all districts and therefore any decision to not impose a lockdown must not be taken base on those tests alone. He claimed the university labs only sequences samples with S-gene target failure (SGTF) and therefore we might miss the detection of any other variants that may be present in Sri Lanka. SGTF is considered a biomarker to detect the UK variant in samples collected from a community.

Asked to comment on this, Prof Malavige said: “We sequence according to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines in a scientific manner. The epidemiology unit sends us samples from many locations, as and when required according to WHO guidance, which is common sense. We have sequenced 128 viruses vs 245 from India and 15 from Pakistan. Singapore has done 130,” she said.

According to Dr Chandima Jeewandara, Director, Allergy Immunology and Cell Biology Unit, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, whole genome sequencing (WGS) is the definitive test that tell researchers whether the strain has entered Sri Lanka. This is not routinely done but is part of research and surveillance.

“Interestingly, one of the PCR tests used (TaqPath) which looks for three genes in the viral RNA leads to one of three signals being negative for the mutant strain, and this could serve as a clue at the ground level. Labs should report this finding whenever they see it so that such samples can then be confirmed with WGS. Spike gene target failure (SGTF) can serve as a proxy for carriage,” he said, explaining the process.

Jeewandara  is also confident that no other strain is present in Sri Lanka at the moment besides B.1.1.7, the current B.1.411 which was unique to Sri Lanka until it spread to Australia and Singapore recently, and the original B.1.42 strain that entered the country in March last year.

Based on the sequencing done so far, none of the other variants that are spreading in other countries are present in Sri Lanka, he told EconomyNext.

Jeewandara further said no official has contacted the team regarding a nationwide sequencing test to detect B.1.1.7 in other parts of the country. Despite its high transmissibility, he said, following basic health guidelines, wearing two masks at once, maintaining physical distancing and avoiding social gatherings can help prevent an outbreak.

Reported by Chanka Jayasinghe and Himal Kotelawala (Colombo/Feb16/2021)

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Sri Lanka confident of “smoother” IMF second review: State Minister

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s second review for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan would be smoother than the first as the government has implemented many reforms required for the economic recovery, State Finance Minister Shehan Semasinghe said.

An IMF mission will visit Sri Lanka on March 7 and will engage in the review of second tranche of the $3 billion IMF loan for two weeks, he said.

“The second review will commence on the 7th of March, and we are very confident that will be a smoother review than the first review,” Semasinghe told reporters at a media briefing in Colombo on Wednesday (28).

He said the the first review was difficult because of hard policy decisions taken by the government in the initial stages.

The global lender completed the first review of the 48-month Extended Fund Facility (EFF) on December 12 before disbursing $337 million to support the island nation’s economic policies and reforms.

The IMF after the first review said Sri Lanka’s performance under the program was satisfactory while “all but one performance criteria and all but one indicative targets were met at end-June”.

Sri Lanka implemented most structural benchmarks due by end-October 2023, though some with delay. (Colombo/Feb 28/2024)

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Sri Lanka’s religious leaders need to cultivate harmony: Prez

ECONOMYNEXT – The responsibility of cultivating harmony rests significantly on the shoulders of religious leaders, Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said.

“While politicians often pursue power, religious leaders strive to maintain their positions, frequently resorting to the perilous avenues of racism and bigotry. This unfortunate trend has plagued our country since the 1930s, yielding disastrous outcomes,” Wickremesinghe was quoted by his media division as saying at the ‘Religions to Reconcile’ national inter-religious symposium, organized by the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, held today (28) at the Bandaranaike International Conference Hall (BMICH).

“Our nation has endured the bitter consequences of racism and religious extremism, culminating in a devastating conflict.

“With the military conflict resolved, Sri Lanka’s political challenges are now receiving attention, necessitating a renewed focus on coexistence,” Wickremesinghe said, adding that steps are being taken to resolve land disputes, address the issue of missing persons, release certain individuals, and initiate a delimitation of powers.

The President’s speech:

Having acknowledged the intrinsic connection between religion and reconciliation, our nation has endured the bitter consequences of racism and religious extremism, culminating in a devastating conflict. Following the cessation of hostilities, our main objective has been to foster coexistence among all communities.

The responsibility of cultivating harmony rests significantly on the shoulders of religious leaders. It is imperative that we remain mindful of our intentions. While politicians often pursue power, religious leaders strive to maintain their positions, frequently resorting to the perilous avenues of racism and bigotry. This unfortunate trend has plagued our country since the 1930s, yielding disastrous outcomes that require no further explanation.

Take Singapore, for example, where the absence of racism and bigotry has contributed to its rapid development despite its diverse linguistic landscape. With the military conflict resolved, Sri Lanka’s political challenges are now receiving attention, necessitating a renewed focus on coexistence, a topic also being deliberated in Parliament.

Mr. Karu Jayasuriya, served as the Chairman of the Sectoral Oversight Committee on Religious Affairs and Co-Existence when he was serving as the Speaker. This committee was established in response to conflicts involving Muslims in March 2018, as well as incidents in Galle in 2017 and Beruwela in 2014. Various proposals were put forth by these committees to address these issues, and consensus was reached on their implementation. It’s crucial that we uphold this agreement and continue working collaboratively to resolve these challenges.

Towards the close of last year, numerous Buddhist monks and Tamil leaders presented the Himalaya Declaration, a document we are currently adhering to. As we move forward, the final phase entails fostering synergy, particularly through discussions with Tamil political parties and MPs, aimed at addressing lingering issues. Steps have been initiated to resolve the matter of missing persons, with further updates forthcoming in the near future. Additionally, arrangements have been made for the release of certain individuals held in connection with these matters.

The primary concern at present revolves around the fate of the missing persons. To address this issue, we’ve presented and successfully passed a bill in Parliament to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Numerous reports from Disappearance Commissions have been reviewed, and one report authored by Judge A.H.M.D.Nawaz was selected.

Following the approval of the draft for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa pledged his support for these initiatives. Similar assistance is being extended by other nations as well, enabling us to advance these critical endeavours.

Addressing the on-going political challenges, our attention is directed towards resolving land disputes, particularly in regions like Jaffna where tensions persist between villagers and the Wildlife Department. Similar conflicts also arise in areas such as Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Polonnaruwa, and Mahianganaya. We aim to address these issues through inclusive dialogue, involving all concerned parties. Furthermore, I have instructed to proceed in accordance with the 1985 map. Additionally, I anticipate meeting with Tamil MPs in Parliament next week to discuss these matters further. Following consultations with the security forces, agreements have been reached to release more land, providing a pathway forward in our efforts.

Another pressing issue is the delimitation of powers. A key demand is the empowerment of the 3rd list of devolution, with an emphasis on not interfering with police powers at present, leaving them open for future consideration. The Land Act is slated for presentation, and there are no objections to the delegation of other subjects in the 3rd list. However, securing the necessary consensus with other parties in Parliament to achieve a two-thirds majority remains crucial.

Simultaneously, discussions are underway regarding the implementation of the Provincial Board of Education. Proposals have been made to establish provincial professional training institutes in each province. Additionally, plans are underway to appoint provincial-level committees to lead the modernization of agriculture, establish a tourism board, and undertake related initiatives.

Additionally, the work of five provincial ministries is expected to be distributed among twenty ministries. This restructuring cannot simply resemble a general ministry, so officials are currently deliberating on adjusting their structure accordingly.

I eagerly anticipate addressing the final aspect of this matter, the decentralized budget, once all parties have convened. There’s also a call for a secondary board, akin to a Senate, which the government does not oppose. However, such an initiative would need to coincide with the framing of a constitution, potentially requiring a referendum. I also intend to engage in discussions on this topic with other party leaders.

These measures aim to lay the groundwork for a new era in our country. Religious leaders have been entrusted with significant responsibilities in this endeavour. I am confident that further discussions on these matters will yield fruitful outcomes.

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Sri Lanka rupee closes at 310.00/15 to the US dollar

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s rupee closed at 310.00/15 to the US dollar Wednesday, from 310.25/50 on Tuesday, dealers said.

Bond yields were broadly steady.

A bond maturing on 01.02.2026 closed at 10.60/80 percent from 10.60/75 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.09.2027 closed at 11.90/12.00 percent up from 11.80/95 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.03.2028 closed stable at 12.00/15 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.07.2029 closed at 12.20/50 percent from 12.25/50 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.05.2030 closed stable at 12.25/40 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.05.2031 closed at 12.55/75 percent down from 12.60/80 percent.

A bond maturing on 01.07.2032 closed at 12.50/90 percent down from 12.55/13.00 percent. (Colombo/Feb28/2024)

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