Italian scientists claim world-first coronavirus vaccine breakthrough

An Italian coronavirus vaccine has antibodies generated in mice that work on human cells, according to tests carried out at Rome’s infectious-disease Spallanzani Hospital. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Updated 05 May 2020

Italian scientists claim world-first coronavirus vaccine breakthrough

  • A coronavirus disease (COVID-19) candidate vaccine has neutralized the virus in human cells for the first time

ROME: An Italian coronavirus vaccine has antibodies generated in mice that work on human cells, according to tests carried out at Rome’s infectious-disease Spallanzani Hospital.

Luigi Aurisicchio, CEO of  Takis, the firm developing the medication, said that a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) candidate vaccine has neutralized the virus in human cells for the first time.

“This is the most advanced stage of testing of a candidate vaccine created in Italy,” Aurisicchio told the Italian newsagency ANSA. “Human tests are expected after this summer,” he added.

“According to Spallanzani Hospital, as far as we know we are the first in the world so far to have demonstrated a neutralization of the coronavirus by a vaccine. We expect this to happen in humans too,” said Aurisicchio.


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He explains that Takis is exploring “more interesting technological platforms with LineaRx, an American company.

“We are working hard for a vaccine coming from Italian research, with an all-Italian and innovative technology, tested in Italy and made available to everyone. In order to reach this goal we need the support of national and international institutions and partners who may help us speed up the process.”

Aurisicchio added: “This is not a competition. If we join our forces and skills together we can all win against coronavirus.”

Italian researchers describe the results “encouraging and well beyond expectations.”

After a single vaccination, the mice developed antibodies that can block the virus from infecting human cells, Aurisicchio said.

After observing that the five vaccine candidates generated a large number of antibodies, researchers selected the two with the best results.

Serum was isolated from the antibody-rich blood; it was then analyzed in the virology laboratory of the Spallanzani Institute, one of the most advanced establishments in Europe. The next step now is to understand how much the immune response lasts.

All of the vaccine candidates currently being developed are based on the material genetic of DNA protein “spike”, the molecular tip used by the coronavirus to enter human cells.

They are injected with the so-called “electroporation” technique, which consists of an intramuscular injection followed by a brief electrical impulse, helping the vaccine break into the cells and activating the immune system.

Researchers believe that this makes their vaccine particularly effective for generating functional antibodies against the “spike” protein, in particular in the lung cells, which are the most vulnerable to coronavirus.  

“So far, the immunity generated by most of our five vaccine candidates has an effect on the virus. We expect even better results after the second vaccination,” said Dr Emanuele Marra from Takis.

Marra added that those vaccine candidates could adapt to any COVID-19 evolutions and its possible mutations.

“We are already working on a trial version in case the virus accumulates mutations and becomes invisible to the immune system. For this purpose, we use the same concept we use in developing cancer vaccines,” he said.

With hospitalizations up, France weighs return to masks

Updated 4 sec ago

With hospitalizations up, France weighs return to masks

NICE, France: Tourism is booming again in France — and so is COVID-19.
French officials have “invited” or “recommended” people to go back to using face masks but stopped short of renewing restrictions that would scare visitors away or revive antigovernment protests.
From Paris commuters to tourists on the French Riviera, many people seem to welcome the government’s light touch, while some worry that required prevention measures may be needed.
Virus-related hospitalizations rose quickly in France over the past two weeks, with nearly 1,000 patients with COVID-19 hospitalized per day, according to government data. Infections are also rising across Europe and the United States, but France has an exceptionally high proportion of people in the hospital, according to Our World in Data estimates.
French government spokesperson Olivia Gregoire has said there are no plans to reintroduce national regulations that limit or set conditions for gathering indoors and other activities.
“The French people are sick of restrictions,” she said Wednesday on channel BFMTV. “We are confident that people will behave responsibly.”
France’s parliamentary elections last month resulted in President Emmanuel Macron losing his majority in the national legislature, while parties on the far right and the far left that had protested his government’s earlier vaccine and mask rules gained seats.
After the prime minister this week recommended that people resume wearing masks on public transportation, commuter Raphaelle Vertaldi said, “We need to deal with the virus, but we can’t stop living because of it.”
Vertaldi, who was boarding a train in Boussy-Saint-Antoine south of Paris, said she opposed mandatory mask use but would cover her mouth and nose again, if the government requires it.
Hassani Mohammed, a postal worker in Paris, didn’t wait for the government to decide. He masks up before his daily commute. With his wife recovering from surgery and two children at home, he does not want to risk contracting the coronavirus a third time.
“I realized that the pandemic does not belong to the past,” Mohammed said.
Masks have been contentious in France. Early in the pandemic, the French government suggested masks weren’t helpful. It ultimately introduced some of Europe’s toughest restrictions, including an indoors and outside mask mandate that lasted more than a year, along with strict lockdowns.
A Paris court ruled Tuesday that the French government failed to sufficiently stock up on surgical masks at the start of the pandemic and to prevent the virus from spreading. The administrative court in Paris also ruled that the government was wrong to suggest early on that that masks did not protect people from becoming infected.
The government lifted most virus rules by April, and foreign tourists have returned by land, sea and air to French Mediterranean beaches, restaurants and bars.
In the meantime, French hospitals are struggling with long-running staff and funding shortages. Local officials are contemplating new measures, including an indoor mask mandate in some cities, but nothing that would curb economic activity.
French tourism professionals expect a booming summer season despite the virus, with numbers that may even surpass pre-pandemic levels as Americans benefit from the weaker euro and others rediscover foreign travel after more than two years of a more circumscribed existence.
On the French Riviera, a slow economic recovery began last summer. But with attendance at gatherings still capped, social distancing rules and travel restrictions in place a year ago, most visitors to the area were French.
A tour guide and electric bicycle taxi driver in Nice described her joy at seeing foreign visitors again. During France’s repeated lockdowns, she transported essential workers, and took people to hospitals, to care for elderly relatives or for PCR tests.
Now, passengers on her bike from the US, Australia, Germany, Italy or beyond reach for the hand disinfectant taped to the barrier between the passenger and driver’s seats. She said she still diligently disinfects the bike before each ride, “like it’s 2020.”
A retired couple from the UK visited France this week on their first trip abroad since pandemic travel restrictions were lifted. They started with a cruise down the River Rhône – face masks were mandatory on the ship — and ended with a few days on the Mediterranean.
“It’s been delightful from start to finish,” said Ros Runcie, who was in Nice with her husband, Gordon. “Everyone is so pleased to see you, everyone is really polite and nice to visitors.”
Sue Baker, who was traveling with her husband, Phil, and the Runcies, observed: “It feels very much like pre-2020.”
Asked about the possible return of French mask rules, Phil Baker said, “Masks are a bit uncomfortable, especially in the heat.”
But his wife added, “If it means we can still go on a holiday, we’ll put them back on without hesitation.”

UN urges world action to cut 1.3 million road deaths in half

Updated 02 July 2022

UN urges world action to cut 1.3 million road deaths in half

UNITED NATIONS: The UN General Assembly’s first high-level meeting on road safety called Friday for global action to cut the annual toll of nearly 1.3 million deaths and 50 million injuries in traffic crashes by at least half by decade’s end.
The political declaration adopted by consensus on the final day of the two-day session says traffic deaths and injuries not only cause widespread suffering for loved ones but cost countries an average of 3 percent to 5 percent of their annual gross domestic product.
It says that “makes road safety an urgent public health and development priority.”
The delegates urged all countries to commit to scaling up efforts and setting national targets to reduce fatalities and serious injuries as called for in the Global Plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021-2030.
Addressing Thursday’s opening session, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that road accidents are the primary cause of death globally of young people ages 5 to 29, and that nine out of 10 victims are in low- and middle-income countries.
“Road fatalities are closely linked to poor infrastructure, unplanned urbanization, lax social protection and health care systems, limited road safety literacy, and persistent inequalities both within and between countries,” he said. “At the same time, unsafe roads are a key obstacle to development.”
The UN chief called for “more ambitious and urgent action to reduce the biggest risks — such as speeding, driving under the influence of alcohol or any psychoactive substance or drug, failure to use seatbelts, helmets and child restraints, unsafe road infrastructure and unsafe vehicles, poor pedestrian safety, and inadequate enforcement of traffic laws.”
He urged increased spending on improving infrastructure and implementing “cleaner mobility and greener urban planning, especially in low- and middle-income countries.”
The UN Road Safety Fund, which was established in 2018 to help cut road deaths and injuries in low- and middle-income countries, held its first pledging event Thursday and said 16 countries and private sector donors had pledged $15 million.
The fund said it is financing 25 high-impact projects in 30 countries and five regions around the world and more money is needed.
Jean Todt, the UN special envoy for road safety, said, “More funding can and must be channeled toward road safety solutions to stop the senseless loss of lives still occurring on our roads each and every day.”
General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid said Friday that “in most countries, investments in road safety remain underfunded.”
Some countries don’t have “the resources or the know how to design safer roads or vehicles, or to inculcate safe road use behavior,” he said, which is why the declaration calls for delivering road safety knowledge to all road users in the world.


Ukraine army accuses Russia of firing phosphorus bombs on Snake Island

Updated 01 July 2022

Ukraine army accuses Russia of firing phosphorus bombs on Snake Island

  • Russian air force SU-30 planes twice conducted strikes with phosphorus bombs on Zmiinyi island
  • The Russian defence ministry on Thursday described the retreat as "a gesture of goodwill"

KYIV: Ukraine’s army accused Russia of carrying out strikes using incendiary phosphorus munitions on Snake Island Friday, just a day after Moscow withdrew its forces from the rocky outcrop in the Black Sea.
“Today at around 18:00... Russian air force SU-30 planes twice conducted strikes with phosphorus bombs on Zmiinyi island,” it said in a statement, using another name for Snake Island.
The Russian defense ministry on Thursday described the retreat as “a gesture of goodwill” meant to demonstrate that Moscow will not interfere with UN efforts to organize protected grain exports from Ukraine.
The Ukrainian army on Friday accused the Russians of being unable to “respect even their own declarations.”
Its statement was accompanied by a video that showed a plane drop munitions at least twice on the island, and what appeared to be white streaks rising above it.
Phosphorus weapons, which leave a signature white trail in the sky, are incendiary weapons whose use against civilians is banned under an international convention but allowed for military targets.
Ukraine has accused Russia of using them several times since it invaded its neighbor in late February, including on civilian areas, allegations Moscow has denied.
Ukraine claimed the Russians were forced to retreat from the island after coming under a barrage of artillery and missile fire.
Snake Island became famous after a radio exchange went viral at the start of the war, in which Ukrainian soldiers respond using bad words to a Russian warship that called on them to surrender.

Taliban chief pardons members of former administration in rare public appearance

Updated 01 July 2022

Taliban chief pardons members of former administration in rare public appearance

  • Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada joined religious, tribal leaders at first loya jirga since Taliban takeover of Afghanistan
  • Gathering took place after number of ex-administration officials returned to Kabul following months of exile abroad

KABUL: The reclusive Taliban chief on Friday pardoned members of Afghanistan’s former Western-backed administration during a rare public appearance and joined thousands of religious and tribal leaders gathered in Kabul from throughout the country. 

Some 3,500 representatives, including members of minorities, arrived in the Afghan capital on Thursday for the first loya jirga since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year, a grand assembly traditionally held by Afghans to reach a consensus on important political issues. 

The conference took place after a number of former administration officials returned to Kabul following months of exile abroad and declared readiness to serve the country. 

In Friday’s speech at the meeting’s venue, the Loya Jirga Tent at Kabul’s Polytechnic University, Taliban Supreme Leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada said he had pardoned them but did not see their future in the country’s administration. 

“I don’t hold them accountable for their past actions,” he told the loya jirga participants, the state-run Bakhtar News Agency reported. 

“But amnesty doesn’t mean including them in the government.” 

Most high-ranking officials left the country after its Western-backed government collapsed when the Taliban seized power in August, following the withdrawal of US-led forces after two decades of war. 

Akhundzada has been the Taliban ultimate authority since 2016. Rarely seen in public, he has long kept a low profile. His last public appearance was in Kandahar city during Eid prayers in May, but the congregation could not see him and only heard his voice. 

His direct appearance before the loya jirga participants was confirmed by government spokesmen and Abdul Wahid Rayan, the chief of Bakhtar News Agency. 

“He sat on the stage facing the audience and gave his speech,” Rayan told Arab News. 

During the Kabul gathering, Akhundzada called on investors to return to the country and gave them security assurances, saying that dependence on foreign aid could not revive the country’s economy. 

Afghanistan has been facing an economic and humanitarian disaster since the Taliban takeover, which prompted the US and other donor states to cut off financial assistance, freeze the country’s $10 billion assets, and isolate it from the global banking system. 

“I ask businessmen to come to Afghanistan without any fear and invest in making factories, because foreign aid will not help boost our economy,” Akhundzada said. 

The loya jirga was called by the Taliban to forge national unity, as unacknowledged by foreign governments they have been under mounting pressure to form an inclusive government to win international recognition. 

Prof. Naseer Ahmad Nawidy, political science lecturer at Salam University in Kabul, said Akhundzada’s speech had delivered, “clear messages about tolerance, unity, obedience, and solidarity to members of the Taliban while acknowledging their sacrifices.” 

He told Arab News: “This is promising and will boost the confidence of the Taliban about their leadership.” 

However, he added that no perspective was provided about the country’s future, including “women’s rights, girls’ education, economic opportunities, utilizing technical expertise of all Afghans in governance, and optimism to the youth.” 

WHO: Monkeypox cases in Europe have tripled in last 2 weeks

Updated 01 July 2022

WHO: Monkeypox cases in Europe have tripled in last 2 weeks

  • “Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” Kluge said
  • More than 5,000 monkeypox cases have been reported from 51 countries worldwide

LONDON: The World Health Organization’s Europe chief warned Friday that monkeypox cases in the region have tripled in the last two weeks and urged countries to do more to ensure the previously rare disease does not become entrenched on the continent.
Dr. Hans Kluge said in a statement that increased efforts were needed despite the UN health agency’s decision last week that the escalating outbreak did not yet warrant being declared a global health emergency.
“Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” Kluge said.
To date, more than 5,000 monkeypox cases have been reported from 51 countries worldwide, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kluge said the number of infections in Europe represents about 90 percent of the global total, noting that 31 countries in the WHO’s European region have now identified cases.
Kluge said data reported to the WHO show that 99 percent of cases have been in men — and that the majority of those have been in men that have sex with men. But he said there were now “small numbers” of cases among household contacts, including children. Most people reported symptoms including a rash, fever, fatigue, muscle pain, vomiting and chills.
Scientists warn anyone who is in close physical contact with someone who has monkeypox or their clothing or bedsheets is at risk of infection, regardless of their sexual orientation. Vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women are thought to be more likely to suffer severe disease.
About 10 percent of patients were hospitalized for treatment or to be isolated, and one person was admitted to an intensive care unit. No deaths have been reported.
Kluge said the problem of stigmatization in some countries might make some people wary of seeking health care and said the WHO was working with partners including organizers of pride events.
In the UK, which has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa, officials have noted the disease is spreading in “defined sexual networks of men who have sex with men.” British health authorities said there were no signs suggesting sustained transmission beyond those populations.
A leading WHO adviser said in May that the spike in cases in Europe was likely tied to sexual activity by men at two rave parties in Spain and Belgium, speculating that its appearance in the bisexual community was a “random event.” British experts have said most cases in the UK involve men who reported having sex with other men in venues such as saunas and clubs.
Ahead of pride events in the UK this weekend, London’s top public health doctor asked people who have symptoms of monkeypox, like swollen glands or blisters, to stay home.
WHO Europe director Kluge appealed to countries to scale up their surveillance and genetic sequencing capacities for monkeypox so that cases could be quickly identified and measures taken to prevent further transmission. He said the procurement of vaccines “must apply the principles of equity.”
The main vaccine being used against monkeypox was originally developed for smallpox and the European Medicines Agency said earlier this week it was beginning to evaluate whether the shot should be authorized for monkeypox. The WHO has said supplies of the vaccine, made by Bavarian Nordic, are extremely limited.
Some countries including the UK and Germany have already begun vaccinating people at high-risk of monkeypox; the UK recently widened its immunization program to offer the shot to mostly men who have multiple sexual partners and are thought to be most vulnerable.
Until May, monkeypox had never been known to cause large outbreaks beyond Africa, where the disease is endemic in several countries and mostly causes limited outbreaks when it jumps to people from infected wild animals.
To date, there have been about 1,800 suspected monkeypox cases including more than 70 deaths in Africa. Vaccines have never been used to stop monkeypox outbreaks in Africa.
The WHO’s Africa office said this week that countries with vaccine supplies “are mainly reserving them for their own populations.”