Vague strategies lead the race for COVID vaccine

Vaccines are dummies that work by tricking your immune system into thinking that it’s being attacked by a virus. The immune system then churns out antibodies that are honed to that virus. That way, if someone is exposed to that virus in the future, the body can quickly squash it out before it makes them sick. Triggering such immune response takes two main components: a bit of the virus so the body knows what it’s looking for and some kind of irritant to stir the immune system into action against that viral bit. If someone just put purified protein under your skin, nothing would happen. You have to get the immune system kicked up that’s where irritants come into play. Some basic approaches scientists are throwing at the virus are:

  • GENE-BASED VACCINES- Gene-based vaccines are the much-hyped underdog in the race to create a coronavirus vaccine. Most of the vaccine candidates that grabbed headlines or sent the stock market soaring are gene-based. Gene-based vaccines instead of directly delivering bits of the virus to the immune system for target practice, give the body tools to make them on its own. The vaccines are made up of pieces of genetic material, either mRNA or DNA, that encode the instructions for making the protein which when enters cells, read the instructions and churn out copies of the protein for the immune system to rally against. These types of vaccines are relatively easy for companies to make once they know the genetic sequence they’re targeting But despite their simplicity and decades of work, gene-based viruses are still largely experimental, at least for people. Moderna and Pfizer have gene based vaccine.
  • INACTIVATED VIRUS- Scientists take a virus and kill it with heat or radiation thereby rendering it harmless, but still recognizable by the immune system. A handful of Chinese companies are developing coronavirus vaccines using this method. One company, Sinovac, showed that its vaccine could protect monkeys from COVID-19. Human trials are ongoing. Because these types of vaccines have been around for decades, therefore scientists understand them well. Because these vaccines contain the whole (but non-replicating) virus, they’re good irritants for the immune system. Unlike gene-based vaccines, though, inactivated virus vaccines are hard to make. Manufacturers have experience with them, but they have to grow and then zap massive amounts of virus. Therefore it’s a slow process.
  • ADENOVIRUS VECTOR VACCINES- A whole, live vaccine is one of the best ways to create long-lasting immunity. That’s the strategy used to make vaccines for the measles and the chickenpox. They’re made from live but heavily weakened versions of the viruses. The viruses are so weak that they don’t make you sick, but they still make your body think it’s infected and set off the immune system. But it takes a long time to alter a virus so that it becomes weak and safe enough to be used as a vaccine, therefore to speed things up, vaccine developers aren’t even attempting to do that with the entire coronavirus. Instead, some teams are inserting sections of the coronavirus gene into weakened, live versions of other viruses. These viruses are called adenoviruses, Because this vaccine is based on a weakened, but a living virus, the immune system mounts a strong response against it. Even though live virus vaccines are regularly used, the adenovirus platforms are still experimental. Also, some people might have seen the adenovirus before so the vaccine wouldn’t work for them. University of Oxford is working on Adenovirus vector.
  • PROTEIN SUBUNIT VACCINES- Protein subunit vaccines directly deliver the specific bit of the virus scientists want people to develop antibodies against (rather than the gene for the protein). For the coronavirus, in most cases, that’s the spike protein. These vaccines contain copies of the spike protein and a bit of something to stimulate the immune system. Scientists are familiar with this approach, and it’s worked well for other diseases. Because these vaccines only use a piece of a virus, they sometimes aren’t able to push the body to generate a strong enough immune response, even with a good irritant built-in. Therefore people often need multiple shots to build up enough immunity to the disease which is a challenge during this pandemic. Because creating enough vaccines to give each person one-shot is already a challenge.

There’s a long history in vaccinology of trying multiple approaches to the same end goal because no one knows which strategy or which vaccine candidate will work best. You can’t speed that the process of testing vaccines. Because tests have to be conducted on a large group of people and researchers have to wait to see if someone actually develops immunity to disease after they’re given a trial vaccine They also have to watch for any safety concerns, either short-term side effects or long term. Speeding up the authorization process of a vaccine is a dangerous task because there are no guinea pigs to experiment on. It is a gamble with too much on stake. Rather we should cross our fingers and hope for the best.

Are online classes being able to replace traditional classrooms?

With the rise of the pandemic and the extended lockdown, educational institutions have been prompted to shift towards online teaching. While initially digital classrooms seem to be a great alternative, whether it can successfully replace traditional classroom teaching is a question yet to be answered. Online teaching has also posed a threat to students belonging to the economically backward sections of the society. In a country like India, a great percentage of students do not have the access to such means or find it difficult to avail those options.

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According to survey findings there is a noticeable change in behavior and habits following the forced lockdown among the school goers. The sleep cycle and sleeping pattern of nearly 50 per cent children have been disturbed. It also indicates that 13 per cent of children have no regular pattern of sleeping. As a result, 67 per cent of parents think that their child’s screen time has gone up by at least 50 per cent during the lockdown. Increased screen time is known to severely affect concentration levels and leading to insomnia and other sleep disorders. The fear of pandemic has affected children in the worst way, nearly 40 per cent of the children who were surveyed, have been known to have mental health and unaddressed anxiety issues.

Schools and Colleges have set timetable in such a way so that there are breaks in between classes but because of network connectivity issues, students have started logging in earlier, which have lessened the break times. A teacher said in an interview, “In the first month, things were fine but with time students are losing interest and a kind of boredom is setting in even for the bright kids. For students in senior classes or those who will appear for board exams there is pressure from teachers and parents which is taxing.” After attending classes online, many students are also sitting for online tuition or extracurricular activity classes.

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Teachers of many schools have reported that students have become “more subdued” in class and their energy levels have decreased than before. According to psychiatrists and teachers, months of being inside and attending classes from within the screen has made students “fatigued” and “demotivated.” Even students who are academically strong have not been responding in class like before, teachers said. They have observed that the “naughty and mischievous” ones who would always be up to some mischief in classrooms have become “quiet and subdued” during online classes.

Psychiatrist Jai Ranjan Ram said to a newspaper, “Teachers are trying but online classes are not the same as what school was for children. No wonder they are feeling demotivated and fatigued. They have to attend continuous classes on the screen, at times not on laptops but on phones. All this while there is monotony of the same environment. It’s difficult to maintain a sense of well-being. In an online class the nuances of non-verbal communication are completely lost.”

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Sneha Priya S, Co-Founder & CEO of SP Robotic Works, has said, “Covid has proven to be the turnstile for education in India. The current situation has unearthed the immense potential of platforms with experiential and interactive learning which engage children in practical tasks and logical reasoning.”

In a physical classroom, students and teachers would even discuss things not related to academics and eagerly share their experiences. While there are downsides, there are also some positive aspects to it. Educational institutions have been closed for months at a stretch. With online classes there is the possibility to catch up with studies. Many students feel that at least in an online mode there is some form of interaction which helps them in these trying times. Online classes have made possible for students and teachers to get back to their routines within safe conditions. They also provide students with something to look forward to everyday. But amidst the current social conditions, students long to go back to their campuses. As we adjust to the ‘new normal’ many young people who are at the beginning of their career are also uncertain of what challenges they might face in the future.

Exoplanets

Exoplanets are planets that orbit a star other than our sun. The prefix “Exo” comes from the Greek and means outside; these worlds are far, far outside our own solar system. For long they have existed only in fiction and theory. It was thought it is impossible to detect planets light-years away since the relatively tiny worlds would appear billions of times fainter than their parent stars. But with the advent of newer technology and some scientist who were ready to take risks the searches for exoplanets began in the 90s and thereafter the pace of discoveries has been excessively fast. In 1992 astronomers reported the first planet-size masses around a dead star, the pulsar PSR1257+12, which sits 2,000 light-years away. Three years later came news of the first known exoplanet, a Jupiter-like gas giant orbiting its star closer than Mercury circles our sun. That world was detected around the sunlike star 51 Pegasi, a mere 50 light-years from Earth. As of 2020, more than 4000 exoplanets have been discovered and the number of known exoplanets has doubled every 27months. Looking for exoplanets directly into a planet seems implausible because of the luminosity of the parent star. The star is so bright makes it impossible to look for the planet directly. It is like observing an ant on a glowing bulb. A Jupiter-like planet would make a dip of 1%, i.e. blocks 1% of the light coming from its parent star. Also, the distance between the planet and the star also affects the fraction of light getting obstructed by the planet. In the visible range, it is impossible to observe any planet. Also, the planet must be located near the Earth and should be far away from its star in order to distinguish light from the planet and glare of its star. Thus it has many limitations, capable of holding back many discoveries. Almost 10-30 planets have been discovered using Direct imaging out of 4000 discovered.
There are two ways to observe exoplanets, direct, and indirect further there are two ways to indirectly observe exoplanets namely, Doppler and Transit. The Doppler method is a good method for discovering exoplanets. It uses the Doppler effect to analyze the motion and properties of the star and planet. Both the planet and the star are orbiting a common center of mass. This means that the star and the planet gravitationally attract one another, causing them to orbit around a point of mass central to both bodies. It is so because planets don’t revolve around its star rather the center of mass of the binary (planet-star). The transit method, another popular technique, looks for periodic dips in a star’s brightness as an orbiting planet passes in front of—or transits—its star, as seen from Earth. By measuring the amount and frequency of a star’s dimming, astronomers can estimate the orbits and masses of its planets. Additionally, researchers can calculate a planet’s surface temperature from the world’s orbital period and its star’s temperature. Another efficient method is that of Gravitational microlensing, it occurs when one star passes directly in front of a background star, as seen from Earth. The gravitational field of the foreground star acts like a lens, magnifying the light of the background star. If the “lens” star has an orbiting planet, the extra mass amplifies the magnification in a telltale way. AI has become a wonderful partner in finding exoplanets, miraculously confirming 50 exoplanets by sifting through the old data sets that too in the first attempt. With the advent of technology, things have certainly become easier and efficient. The search for exoplanets also helps satisfy the quest for Earth-like planet that could sustain life thus relieving earth from the burden and improving living standards.