DSI 2020/21 Quarter 3 performance; Research and innovation initiatives to combat Covid-19 pandemic

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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) presented its third quarter performance, achievements and challenges under Covid-19 for the 2020/21 financial year. The Department achieved 59% (20) of the planned output targets and 41% (14) of the planned output targets were not achieved in the quarter under review. Department planned to spend R6.614 billion by end of quarter 3. The actual spending for the period amounted to R5.786 billion (79.5% of the total adjusted budget of R7.278 billion).

The Department also presented on its COVID19 research coordination.

Member’s main concerns included inclusivity; representation; programme delays; failure of the Department to meet targets set; as well as the lack of funding in areas like the Presidential Youth Employment Initiative. They asked for the Department to address the concerns and anxieties surrounding Covid-19 and the vaccine, as well as animals being the source of Covid-19. Issues surrounding the availability of ventilators; accessibility of information on science and innovation beyond academics to reach the everyday person; action from conversations surrounding social ills such as Gender Based Violence (GBV); and the managing of discourse on the promotion of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS).

Meeting report

Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) Third Quarter Performance and Financial Report (Oct – Dec 2020)

Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General, DSI, took the Committee through the presentation. He began by outlining the highlights of the Department’s performance during the quarter including the progress made on the STI Decadal Plan, the STI institutional landscape, bursaries awarded, awards, interns supported, provision of research infrastructure and progress made on COVID19 research.

The Department achieved 59% (20) of the planned output targets and 41% (14) of the planned output targets were not achieved.

DSI’s Performance per Programme:

-Programme one achieved 33% of its targets and 67% of the planned targets were not achieved.

-Programme two achieved 71% of its targets and 29% of the planned targets were not achieved.

-Programme three achieved 56% of its targets and 44% of the planned targets were not achieved.

-Programme four achieved 71% of its targets and 29% of the planned targets were not achieved.

-Programme five achieved 50% of its targets and 50% of the planned targets were not achieved.

Reasons for under achievement:

-Process delays – refers to factors which are outside the control of the DSI and therefore achievement of such targets is mainly dependent on outside circumstances.

-Ineffectiveness of implementers – refers to non-achievement due to deficiencies during the implementation phase.

-Target formulation deficiencies – refers to targets which were not achieved because of variables which were not foreseen during the target formulation phase.

-Since the end of the quarter, the Department has developed an improvement plan, focusing on targets that had not been achieved at the end of the third quarter, to make sure these are achieved by the end of the financial year.

Improvement plan for Q3 unachieved targets:

-Of the 14 output targets that were not achieved during the reporting period, an improvement plan (with clear remedial actions) were developed and implemented.

-Of the 14 output targets that were not achieved during the reporting period an improvement plan (with clear remedial actions) was developed and implemented.

-An analysis of the improvement plan revealed that 92% of the targets are likely to be achieved by end of the financial year

Overall Financial Performance:

-Department planned to spend R6.614 billion by end of quarter three.

-The actual spending for the period amounted to R5.786 billion (79.5% of the total adjusted budget of R7.278 billion)

-This translates to a material variance of R828.1 million or 12.5% of planned expenditure. There was a significant improvement on spending as compared to the last quarter. The variance for the second quarter was 24.7%.

-The DSI has effected virements amounting to R133 million from slow spending activities to those that are having shortfalls. R128 million virement is still awaiting National Treasury approval while R5 million has been approved by the Director-General (DG).

[see presentation attached for details]


The Chairperson asked the DG for clarification on which races the Department is referring to when it uses the word “black”. She praised the DSI for continuing to do good work virtually. She noted that on page nine of the last presentation of the third quarter report, there is a slide referring to webinars and concerns on how to tackle GBV and spoke about a GBV server to be done by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).The public sector works in silos when it comes to addressing social ills so she asked if these entities and webinars will eventually lead to empirical recommendations and take homes as people are tired of hearing government “talk” and would like to see some action being taken.

Referring to page 10, the Chairperson enquired about the six-week Hydrogen Full Cell Training Course which took place on 2 November 2020. She asked what the representation looked like as in the previous year there were discussions around the reprioritisation of the budget and emphasis on the representation when looking at various initiatives to be taken up by the Department and entities in responding to Covid-19. In presentation two, covering the Department’s response to Covid-19 a lot of work has been done in addressing the injustices and inequities of the past. The Committee is unapologetic about the need to ensure that there is representation in all the work done and in doing so, ensuring intersectionality.

She asked if the Department was able to analyse and categorise which programmes can encompass the work the Committee has done, the outcomes of the Department including its international leg and the work South Africa has done on an international level. Key to this portfolio is linking the work of the DSI to ground issues, social issues, legacy and historic inequities. In the second presentation given to the Committee, she said that she appreciates that there is intent by the DSI to ensure that whatever is found in trying to curve Covid-19 is linked to various inequities.

There have been many concerns surrounding the finalisation of the decadal plan. There were clear challenges which led to delay around work of the plan. Was the Department able to maximise the use of online platforms, and address concerns around the possible exclusivity of such platforms in trying to finalise this?

There was a peak in indigenous knowledge systems and its use in responding to Covid-19. At some point there was a mobilisation and then demobilisation due to the overuse and misuse of the IKS or traditional medicines. The Department has a responsibility to educate society on how to use all medicine required. Is there an attempt to curb unfair, and incorrect use of the IKS due to stigmas. The Chairperson said that the Committee wants to see the continuation of excitement surrounding the promotion of the IKS. What then is the role of the Department in managing deception and making sure this knowledge system is protected and moves towards the correct trajectory.

The Presidential Youth Employment Initiative; was meant to benefit 1400 young people, but because there was not enough funding it failed to do this. The question then becomes what is the way forward, considering the huge unemployment issue?

Lastly on the arrival of the vaccine, and the anxiety created by Covid-19 in general; including the fact that people have been contributing to misinformation in society, it is important that the DSI and young scientists continue to try and ease society’s anxieties about receiving the vaccine, and giving the correct/truthful narrative to ensure the safety of citizens.

Prof A Lotriet (DA) began by stating that what stands out the most when looking at the role of Research and Development, is how important it is now during the pandemic as was covered in the presentation. Her concern is around the budget cuts as the latest survey shows a decline in Research and Development investments, specifically spending by Governments. Are there any counter measures being implemented as there does not seem to be a great uptake in terms of the tax consent. How will the Department deal with this because instead of working at 1.5% of the Gross Domestic Product  (GDP) it is actually at 0.75%.

Mr W Letsie (ANC) congratulated Dr Mmboneni Muofhe, the Deputy Director-General (DDG): Technology Innovation, for getting his PHD in management of technology and innovation. Turning his attention to the Director-General, he noted that the Departments original 2020/21 financial year budget increased from R 8.1 billion to R 8.8 billion. This represented (with adjusted inflation) an increase of 3.1 percent. This is the first real increase in the Department budget since the 2015/2016 financial year. However, the special adjustments Department has revised the Department’s budget from that R8.8 billion to R7.36 billion. The second adjustment budget was further decreased from R8.6 billion to R7.28 billion. So how does the Department feel about the fact that the 2020/21 budget decreased by R1.5 billion?

Moving onto questions he asked what are the key successes of the Covid 19 Research and Innovation Programme? He claimed that he heard from Dr Muofhe that Covid-19 emanated from animals. Wikipedia says that this theory is not definitive and the concern is that so may the Department respond to this theory.

He then asked how much has the DSI spent on MSI Covid-19 areas which are; research and innovation, analytics and modeling, international corporation, data generation and management and manufacturing. On page 25 covering the performance indicators of different programmes; the total was 70-something and it only managed less than that. The point he makes is that the Department has achieved less than the standard it set for itself. Covid affected the ability to meet some targets, and other targets were not only dependent on the DSI but on other departments. So how will the Department ensure that it meets the standards it sets for itself. How can the current initiatives;being the development and manufacturing of diagnostic kits or test kit regent, personal protective equipment, sanitizer, and ventilator stimulate the inclusive and sustainable growth of the local biomedical industry. How can STI skills and infrastructure be expanded in critical areas with the spotlight being in digital areas? How will the creation of an inclusive digital economy be fast-tracked and what is the role of the Department and the broader NSI in these efforts? Has international praise from the likes of the World Health Organisation (WHO) been used to increase these efforts.

Lastly, the size of Africa’s economy, and the connectedness of its population demands that Africa’s response be unified. How can South Africa as the African Union (AU) chair, further motivate the need for dedicated sustainable investment in STI across the continent. In June last year in a meeting with the DSI, the Committee was told that the AU is currently working on producing local manufacturers. How far is it with that and how many has it produced as it said that the target is at 10 or 11 thousand? Many people have been lost to Covid-19 and others are said to be sharing ventilators. How far is the production of ventilators, and how many have been produced. He then thanked the Department for its efforts.

Ms J Mananiso (ANC) praised the Department for its presentation. She continued and said more needs to be done on slide 72 and 73. Although there is an improvement on youth and women, there needs to be an improvement on persons with disabilities. She complimented the Department for its ability to implement advice from the Committee, and allow the Committee to see its progress. She commented that the DSI needs to strengthen its communications space in terms of the distribution of information as she believes that when issues of science and innovation are discussed, it seems exclusive to academics, professionals and a certain class. The information and language used needs to be more accessible to everyone, so the country as a whole can be knowledgeable about issues of science and innovation.

She then asked about the plans to execute the programmes  that were delayed or paused by Covid-19, now that the country is on level one. She asks that these be submitted to the Committee so that when it meets with the Department, it can see if targets are being met.

Lastly regarding issues of indigenous programs; she said that she is happy and able to see that work in this area is not just ticking a box, there is transformation happening in that space and she commends the good work.

Ms D Sibiya (ANC) says only 33% of programme one’s target was met which is too low. What were the challenges faced causing this. On page 33 the DSI has defected spending amounts to R 133 million from slow spending activities, and the Committee would like reasons for the cause of this. On page 67; there are three public participation programmes which were cut. Was this because of the R53.4 million cut from the budget?

Ms C King (DA) asked about programme three, and what research was done in the run up to Covid-19. Was the Thathapela state-owned corporation used for any research purposes in terms of the vaccine, anything Covid related, and indigenous plants presented. She expressed how impressed she was with the progress of the Department.

Department Response:

Dr Mjwara explained that the classification of “black” encompasses African, Indian and Coloured. On awareness and translating these into actionables, the Department is looking for platforms within Government to have evidence-based policy making for research informed policy. Even with these webinars and some of these initiatives; the DSI will work with the Department of Women, Youth and People with Disabilities to make recommendations of what has come from research. Its main project is to have researched initiatives and provide evidence to some challenges in society. He notes that the establishment of the National Policy Data Observatory has really helped the DSI in that regard especially where other Departments need the research conducted by it  on Covid-19. Through this platform it can share the studies being done by various webinars, and HSRC studies on GBV.

On the issue of representation, the Department has created a framework for transformation and inclusivity. It has eight parameters developed and these include; demographics, spatial planning, impact of the research done, and the framework is almost in the final stages. The Department aims to use this framework to collect data  on the baseline of where it is. So if the research being done does not benefit or impact society; clarity is needed on which area of society is not being reached. A response plan will be developed and will ensure there are targets and indicators that will help this and has been informed by the white paper. The DSI will then come and present the plan in detailed consultations, and share that framework with the Committee.

In terms of the analysis of the work that has been done by different programmes; for example programme four has done work to support Covid-19 and is responsible for setting up the National Response Policy Observatory. It has three legs; first is biomedical, the second leg is social science and humanities leg, and the third leg is economic recovery. Ultimately these legs are covered by each programme allowing the Department to track the work it has done and once it is satisfied with it and can show it to the Committee.

The Department has done a presentation to Cabinet on the direct impact of Covid-19 on society and state, linked to legacy focusing on the role of innovation and economic reconstruction, recovery, and programmes from the presentation. It was well received. Specific indication focused on economic recovery; the social contribution of research, science, and technology, and youth; and how the economy can recover using innovation, re-industrialization and beginning to introduce digitalisation. Dr Mjwara confirmed that the Department is willing to share how it sees the role of innovation post-Covid economic recovery.

On the decadal plan; the Department is willing to share with the Committee whenever it is ready, the direction being taken. It is proposing that in order for science, technology and innovation to have the pervasive impact required, the DSI must work closely with other departments. To do so, it has three specific proposals; the first one is that the financing of the system must not be the budget of the Department of Science and Innovation alone. It needs to come from departments nationally and provincially like the model used in Brazil. It also proposes that the Minister of DSI meet with Ministers that have Departments with SGI intensive activities, agree on what size of their budgets they want to earmark for covering the innovations that the NSI has been doing, and can do going forward. That amongst others, is on the governance agenda and finance setting will address issues on the R&D survey and 1.2 %.The Department has set out in the decadal plan which sectors money should come from, to get to the 1.5% of the budget.

Another proposal is an inter-portfolio Committee presentation which will contain what the economic recovery will be premised on; what it will look like; and how Departments can ensure that the STI budgets from their Portfolio Committees are earmarked. These are codified in the decadal plan to be taken to the Ministerial and Cabinet meeting in two-week’ time. The Department has to be very innovative around the budget it has and deploy it as well as it can. The foundation it is laying for the next five years; using this budget is reasonable, but not enough.

On the anxieties surrounding the vaccine, Dr Mjwara said that the DSI is part of the Ministerial Committee and there are three work streams it is working on. The first work stream looks at the capability to develop and manufacture vaccines. The second, is the DSI supporting the Department of Health in the roll out of vaccine and monitoring the research. The third, is the overall monitoring and oversight of the vaccine as a whole: called implementation. The Department is also looking into the efficacy of the vaccine on people who have been vaccinated to ensure that it is having the desired effect. The Department will share the progress it is making on these fronts at a more appropriate time.

On the issue of 59% of indicators being a very low number; what the Department has done is develop a recovery plan for programmes that have low targets and time. It is tracking these now almost on a monthly basis at Exco to ensure it does not go below 80%. On the growth of biomedical industry skills in future areas; the Department, with the agreement of the chair has a well-defined plan on economic recovery in the decadal plan on digital economy called “New Sources of Growth”. The two Departments are now finalizing what is called “The Innovation and Abled Recovery” with the skills supported. This Department, and the Department of Higher Education are refining this initiative and will share progress at an appropriate time.

Responding to the issue of ventilators, Dr Mjwara shared that 22 000 were produced and this was confirmed by the Department of Trade Industry and Competition (DTIC) shared with the DSI in a meeting with the National Advisory Council. The DTI shared that it is developing a full export plan of these ventilators to the rest of the continent, as per the Africa Free-Trade Agreement. The Department will send a detailed breakdown in a letter to the Chairperson. Only 22 000 ventilators were produced; as at the time of production there was no anticipation of the second wave, but to produce these now should not be a problem.

The Department acknowledges that public engagement and awareness is a weak point. Yet, the National Research Foundation (NRF) Act has been amended to set up a well structured programme on public engagement on public activities. On the new Annual Performance Plan (APP) being finalised; the Department has asked for this area to be strengthened. It has learnt a lot through Covid-19 on how to get the public excited about science and how effective it can be on peoples’ lives.

On the topic of mitigating delays of programmes, the Department will respond in writing. The decline of 33% was mainly because of lockdown. So, these issues have been reprioritised and the Department is on track to meet that target. The slow spending varies. Some programmes are new and it takes time for them to be fully functional to absorb resources given to them. The Department will try and manage this, and ensure it gets early signals to alert them. The DG and the Accounting Officer will redirect the funds where there is slow spending.

Prof Yonah Seleti, Acting Deputy Director-General: Research and Development Support, DSI, commented about the excitement around the vaccines due to media reports, and initially because of the Malagasy discovery. The work done in Malagasy was the result of the training the Department’s scientists gave to them in bio-prospecting research. When heat was given to the Department; it was assumed that it was not paying much attention to what was going on. In fact the Department has made tremendous progress by using Covid-19 as an opportunity to improve the IKS work. The bio-prospecting work and advance to creating a sub-committee under the South Africa Earth Products Society will allow indigenous medicine to receive attention and processes to be approved.

From the reports it can be seen that clinical research, and infrastructure is being set up within the system. For example medicines will be tested almost to market level at the University of the Free State. It is trying to get scientifically proven medicine into the market which is a lot of progress. It also found a link from testing and industry and there is also cooperation with ITC, and small enterprises on how to roll out the production of medicines. Either it is agricultural inputs or manufactured inputs. There is a value chain that is being created and strengthened. There is also continuing work on IKS awareness going on in all provinces, just the Western Cape that is waiting. There has been progress even during Covid-19.

Alongside the Committee in Durban the Department is looking at recognition of prior learning, and this is how the work of traditional healers will be recognised. There are three provinces that are ready for the roll out: Kwa-Zulu Natal, North West and Limpopo. This is not on the radar of the media, but work and progress is being made. When it is appropriate; the Department will alert the public, such as at the launch of the registration system of indigenous knowledge.

Mr Imraan Patel,Deputy Director-General: Socio-Economic Innovation Partnerships, DSI, said that on the Presidential Youth Empowerment Initiative; the current target and indicator was not initially set out in the APP signed in February 2020. It came about as a result of the Employment Stimulus Programme introduced by the Presidency after the country started feeling the impact of the pandemic. So the process took a long time to submit the proposals to be evaluated. 

The DSI submitted proposals for four interventions; targeting graduates in three instances, and another to provide experiential learning experiences for people at artisan level P1 and P2. The programmes are at the HSRC, and they plan to take on 1000 young people for a health promotions agent’s project. The second one is enviro champs which is around using graduates to do environmental data collection. The third one is working with the Water Research Commission(WRC); by taking 400 graduates and providing them with work experience both in a research and technical environment. The fourth one was building on an existing experiential learning program, where people are provided with work integrated learning opportunities using technology stations, and technology authorisation programs.

12 of these programmes received funding of R 45 million, but the actual cost was just over R63 million. An intense engagement with implementing agencies had to take place to see where the Department could cut back on the budget, and modification could take place while ensuring it reaches a wider group of people, but also more concentrated. The Department looked at cutting costs and saving, by looking at other programs that were not effective. By December it found an arrangement where the programmes can continue at the scale they were intended, and the target is set to reach 18 50 young people in this financial year. The initial target was 1 700 but the Department was able to get an additional mark.

This is partly why it was not able to get the 1 400 that it thought it would get on board by December. Other challenges encountered in running this programme have been shared with Presidency and others. A key question is how does one select beneficiaries. The Department has set up competitive processes with 400 spots to be taken from the WRC programme. A couple of thousand applications were received. In terms of the HSRC programme; it received about 5 000 applications for 1 000 spots. The Department is looking for creative ways of interviewing all these people. The Department is also in regular touch with other entities. So far 400 WRC people are on board and have been deployed. 300 enviro champs are on board. There are some delays with the 1 000 health promotion agents but about 300-400 are on board (to be confirmed). Finally, the experiential learning program is on board. The Department is certain it will reach the annual target of 1 700.

Mr Dean Du Toit, Deputy Director- General: International Cooperation and Resources, DSI, said that due to Covid being a serious pandemic requiring international response, the Department has been very efficient in engaging in a whole range of partnerships with international activities. These encompass three key objectives. The first is to enable the sharing of experience and expertise as opportunities to learn from each other. Second to attract fellow investment international funding to supplement our own funding. Thirdly; efforts to play a role in science diplomacy to strengthen international co-operation.

On the first objective, the Department had an intense series of dialogues across the world. As mentioned by the DG in the presentation, there is a huge portfolio of joint research and innovation projects which South Africa is co-funding with partners across the world. The BRICS portfolio was mentioned and this is happening with the European Union (EU), and covers a whole range of activities to better understand the spread of Covid-19.

On the second objective, the Department has succeeded in attracting more than R100 million; largely from the EU for investment in various Covid-19 initiatives implemented in the National sphere of innovation. This is largely the result of a big programme called the European Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership.

In terms of the third objective, focus has been on Africa and how efforts of the AU and the Southern African Development Community (SADCcan be bolstered, and by partnering with other international partners the Department has launched the African National Rapid Grant fund with a total budget of more than R100 million. There is a R50 million South African investment which has leveraged an additional amount of R85 million. Through the NRF, the Department is supporting more than 80 projects in 20 different African countries covering a whole range of themes using science innovations.

As for the indigenous knowledge portfolio the Department had the duty to respond through international co-operation to Covid-19, but it has also opened new exciting opportunities for South Africa to further enhance its profile on the global scene.

Dr Muofhe responded to the question on the representation of graduates trained on the installation and maintenance of fuels. The learners were all black learners recruited predominantly from TVET colleges and former technicians. In terms of gender, out of the total 15 that graduated eight were women and seven were men. He stated that the Department has started another cohort, where six of ten are women and the remaining four are men. Now the programme has reached a point where Universities want to work with all partners to sign a long-term agreement.

On the issue of vaccine anxieties, the DSI is working with other government departments, including the Government Communication and Information Systems, to communicate with the public, as anxieties were caused by misinformation on what the vaccine will do to people. The Departments has created a platform of engagement with GCIS where weekly engagements will take place discussing facts around the vaccines. There are also webinars with WHO, CBC SA and the Minister of Tourism to inform society on the facts of science and its impact on the economy. Regular interviews have also been conducted to provide a level of clarification.

On the issue of the budget which was reprioritised and its usage; there were other initiatives to be covered like the allocation of resources to help the work being done by the space agency. As well as support to spaza shops which required the mapping of spaza shops throughout the country; data showing which spaza shops were in existence before the announcement, and those created because of the announcement. This data was collated through remote sensing- using satellite data. That funding was not enough, so there was an announcement of an additional R25 million that is needed to provide surveillance work. The Department has managed to deploy those resources and it’s clear that the scientific community is being effective.

On the origin of the virus; there seems to be a consensus that this virus came from animals. There is no clarity yet on what animal is responsible, but there has been debate on the actual point of spill over. Whether it was caused by a leak or escape from a lab or coming from a work market, the fact -finding mission work, rules out a leak or escape from the lab. Due to it behaving like a virus from animals, that particular hypothesis still holds.

The role of Caterpillar (CAT) in vaccine manufacturing, and IKS is still to be presented on and will clarify the pharmaceutical readiness of South Africa. However, CAT is registered as an additive and hasn’t been registered as a company. Nothing being done now is happening in the context of CAT. Even if it was in existence; it wouldn’t be involved in vaccines, it would focus on the chemical  Application Programming Interfaces used in drugs and not biological products like vaccines. So IKS is working with various Councils and Universities to cover the question of who is involved in vaccine production.

Closing Remarks:

The Chairperson concluded this section of the meeting by thanking the DSI, and saying that the Committee’s questions have been sufficiently covered. She then clarified that the commitment of the Portfolio Committee to ensure it gets regular updates from the Department on its Covid response is a long-standing commitment, that is why this agenda item has been brought to the forefront and questions were asked about the budget. She mentioned that there is a continued concern surrounding the budgetary cuts and reprioritisation of the budget especially on the programme of research and development. There is analysis and monitoring on whether the Department will sustain this going into the future concerning the budget cuts. Other concerns surrounding the IKS Act and acknowledging the work done around Covid-19, the Chairperson recommended that the suggestion of forming an inter-portfolio committee or a joint initiative with other portfolio committees be executed. This would be helpful when looking into the science and innovation budget, and those earmarked for research and development.

Mr Buti Manamela, Deputy Minister Higher Education, Science and Technology, greeted Members, thanked the Chairperson; and acknowledged that the DG and all the DDGs had everything covered.

The Chairperson added that the Committee should consider the recommendation of finalising the decadal plan and make strides towards that. Issues around awareness of innovation and science; questions on ventilators; the Department supporting universities, other departments, and additional parties’ and its work around Covid-19 can be considered offline. The presentation on representation can be accommodated and making time for it should be discussed at a later stage.

Adoption of minutes:

The minutes dated 10 February 2021. 12 February 202, 16 February 2021, 17 February 2021, 19 February 2021 and 23 February 2021, 2 March 2021 and 3 March 2021 were adopted.

The minutes dated 24 February 2021 were adopted with amendments - Mr Litsie made a note that under the heading “Resolutions” in that meeting; it says there was an oversight visit to be done at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). This is to afford universities sufficient time to respond to issues raised by the Committee. It was made clear in that meeting that the Committee wanted TUT to give a detailed response on operations so that there can be proper oversight, and this must be added under the heading “Resolutions” for the sake of accuracy.

The Chairperson said CPUT will have its own bullet, separate from TUT on issues to be overseen. The minutes were then adopted.

The Chairperson thanked Members and the meeting was adjourned.

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