Experts call out India’s rush to use COVID-19 vaccine

A health worker collects a swab sample from a woman to test for COVID-19 by a road side in Jammu, India, on Monday. India is second behind the US in total coronavirus cases. (AP)
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Updated 10 December 2020

Experts call out India’s rush to use COVID-19 vaccine

  • Government accused of ‘political grandstanding’ in haste to bring vaccine into market

NEW DELHI: The Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine producer, said on Monday that it has applied for emergency use of Covishield, the first vaccine to be made in India for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), even as experts questioned the timing of the move. 

“As promised before the end of 2020 @seruminstindia has applied for emergency use authorization for the first made in India vaccine, COVISHIELD,” Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the SII, tweeted on Monday.

“This will save countless lives, and I thank the Government of India and Narendra Modi for the invaluable support,” he added.

The announcement followed news on Sunday reporting that Pfizer, an American multinational pharmaceutical corporation, had become the first company to apply for emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine in India.

With more than 9.7 million infections and 141,000 deaths reported as of Monday, India is racing against time to contain the outbreak and daily spike in new cases and fatalities.

Experts, however, said the timing of the move is highly suspect, especially since the trial is still not complete.

“If a vaccine is used based on a half-baked trial, it is wrong … I don’t think the third stage of the trial is complete. Safety and infrastructure are two important parts in introducing any vaccine into the market,” Dr. Avinash Bhondwe, a doctor in the western Indian city of Pune, told Arab News.

Bhondwe, who is also a member of the Indian Medical Association, a premier medical body, added: “It is only when the trial is complete that you know about the side effects of the vaccine.”

He cited the example of a 40-year-old man, from the southern Indian city of Chennai, who sought $6 million in compensation from the SII two weeks ago, for developing “serious neurological and psychological symptoms” after taking a trial dose of the Covishield vaccine. The complainant also demanded the testing, manufacturing and distribution of the vaccine to be “stopped immediately.”

“If you approve a vaccine after an incomplete trial, it’s like playing with the lives of the people. This should not happen,” Bhondwe said, before questioning the “existing infrastructure in India to handle the vaccine distribution.”

“Both the Pfizer vaccine and the SII one need ultra-cold storage. In India, we don’t have facilities for ultra-cold storage everywhere,” he explained. 

“Therefore, this rush to bring in vaccines is very dangerous,” he said.

It is a thought echoed by renowned virologist Dr. Jacob T. John, from the Christian Medical College in the southern Indian city of Vellore.

“The rush to bring vaccines into the market is driven by credit and profit, which I feel is not good,” he said, voicing concerns over the SII’s alleged attempts “to suppress the voice of Chennai-based individuals who claim to have suffered serious side effects after taking the vaccine shot.”

“I don’t know how to trust the SII after the incident. My respect for the institute is shattered after they failed to behave properly with the victim,” John told Arab News.

Pfizer and SII officials were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Monday. 

Both the SII and Pfizer’s moves follow Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-city vaccine tour on Nov. 28 to get a “first-hand perspective of the preparations, challenges and roadmap in India’s endeavor to vaccinate its citizens.”

The premier’s tour included a visit to the SII, the Zydus Cadila plant in the western Indian state of Gujarat and the Bharat BioTech company in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad.

John, however, termed the visit a publicity stunt.

“Modi visiting the vaccine companies is just publicity for himself. India has not spent even a single penny in researching for a vaccine, but the Prime Minister of India wants credit for the vaccine,” he said.

Meanwhile, Delhi-based researcher on global health Dr. Anant Bhan drew attention to the lack of studies behind the production of the vaccine.

“Pfizer has done no study in India…If the vaccine is produced in India for Indian people without local (at least bridging) data, it will concern me,” Bhan told Arab News.

“The regulator should have strong control over such vaccines, and everything should be placed in the public domain. How are they addressing safety concerns?” he asked.

Arab News reached out to Dr. Vinod K. Paul, the government’s principal scientific advisor, but he declined to comment.

Bhan also highlighted the fact that the SII data was not in the public domain. 

“They have to explain on what basis they are asking permission to produce the vaccine. We want more transparency and data in the public domain,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bhondwe questioned the silence of the country’s political leadership.

“The prime minister and health ministry officials know everything. They know that the vaccine is still in the trial stage. But they want to show the people that they are doing something. It is political grandstanding,” he said.


What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?

Updated 24 min 43 sec ago

What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?

  • Some scientists worry that the mutation, coupled with other existing features of the Delta variant, could make it more transmissible

India said on Wednesday it has found around 40 cases of the Delta coronavirus variant carrying a mutation that appears to make it more transmissible, and advised states to increase testing.
The variant, called "Delta Plus" in India, was first reported in a Public Health England bulletin on June 11.
It is a sub-lineage of the Delta variant first detected in India and has acquired the spike protein mutation called K417N which is also found in the Beta variant first identified in South Africa.
Some scientists worry that the mutation, coupled with other existing features of the Delta variant, could make it more transmissible.
"The mutation K417N has been of interest as it is present in the Beta variant (B.1.351 lineage), which was reported to have immune evasion property," India's health ministry said in a statement.
Shahid Jameel, a top Indian virologist, said the K417N was known to reduce the effectiveness of a cocktail of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies.
As of June 16, at least 197 cases has been found from 11 countries - Britain (36), Canada (1), India (8), Japan (15), Nepal (3), Poland (9), Portugal (22), Russia (1), Switzerland (18), Turkey (1), the United States (83).
India said on Wednesday around 40 cases of the variant have been observed in the states of Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh, with "no significant increase in prevalence". The earliest case in India is from a sample taken on April 5.
Britain said its first 5 cases were sequenced on April 26 and they were contacts of individuals who had travelled from, or transited through, Nepal and Turkey.
No deaths were reported among the UK and Indian cases.
Studies are ongoing in India and globally to test the effectiveness of vaccines against this mutation.
"WHO is tracking this variant as part of the Delta variant, as we are doing for other Variants of Concern with additional mutations," the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement sent to Reuters.
"For the moment, this variant does not seem to be common, currently accounting for only a small fraction of the Delta sequences ... Delta and other circulating Variants of Concern remain a higher public health risk as they have demonstrated increases in transmission," it said.
But India's health ministry warned that regions where it has been found "may need to enhance their public health response by focusing on surveillance, enhanced testing, quick contact-tracing and priority vaccination."
There are worries Delta Plus would inflict another wave of infections on India after it emerged from the world's worst surge in cases only recently.
"The mutation itself may not lead to a third wave in India - that also depends on COVID-appropriate behaviour, but it could be one of the reasons," said Tarun Bhatnagar, a scientist with the state-run Indian Council for Medical Research.


US blocks websites linked to Iranian disinformation

Updated 23 June 2021

US blocks websites linked to Iranian disinformation

  • Justice Department seizes 36 Iranian-linked websites, many of them associated with either disinformation activities or violent organizations
  • Several sites were back online within hours with new domain addresses, sites seized included Press TV, government's English-language TV channel

DUBAI: The US Justice Department on Tuesday blocked some three dozen websites, many of them associated with Iranian disinformation activities, a US government source said, adding an official announcement was expected.
The source in Washington spoke after notices appeared earlier on Tuesday on a number of Iran-affiliated websites saying they had been seized by the United States government as part of law enforcement action.
Iranian news agencies said that the US government had seized several Iranian media websites and sites belonging to groups affiliated with Iran such as Yemen’s Houthi movement.
Some sites later started to display as normal.
The website of the Arabic-language Masirah TV, which is run by the Houthis, read:
“The domain almasirah.net has been seized by the United States Government in accordance with a seizure warrant ... as part of a law enforcement action by the Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement and Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
The site quickly opened up a new, working website at www.almasirah.com.
Iran’s Arabic language Alalam TV said on its Telegram channel: “US authorities shut down Al-Alam TV’s website.”
A US Justice Department spokesperson had no immediate comment. Two US government sources indicated that the Justice Department was preparing an announcement on this issue.
The notices appeared days after a prominent hard-liner and fierce critic of the West, Ebrahim Raisi, was elected as Iran’s new president and after envoys for Iran and six world powers including Washington adjourned talks on reviving their tattered 2015 nuclear accord and returned to capitals for consultations.
Notices also appeared on websites of Iran’s English-language Press TV and Lualua TV, an Arabic-language Bahraini independent channel which broadcasts from Britain.
“In what seems to be a coordinated action, a similar message appears on the websites of Iranian and regional television networks that claims the domains of the websites have been ‘seized by the United States Government’,” Press TV said on Twitter.
Last October, US prosecutors seized a network of web domains which they said were used in a campaign by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to spread political disinformation around the world.
The US Justice Department said then that it had taken control of 92 domains used by the IRGC to pose as independent media outlets targeting audiences in the United States, Europe, Middle East and Southeast Asia.
The semi-official Iranian news agency YJC agency said on Tuesday the US move “demonstrates that calls for freedom of speech are lies.” 


New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits

Updated 23 June 2021

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits

  • The country’s response has been among the most effective in the world and the isolated nation of 5 million people has recorded just 26 COVID-19 deaths.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: After enjoying nearly four months without any community transmission of the coronavirus, New Zealanders were on edge Wednesday after health authorities said an infectious traveler from Australia had visited over the weekend.
New Zealand has taken a zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic and continues to pursue an elimination strategy.
The country’s response has been among the most effective in the world and the isolated nation of 5 million people has recorded just 26 COVID-19 deaths. But its vaccination campaign has been far slower than in most developed countries, with just 13 percent of the population having gotten their first dose.
Although there were no immediate cases confirmed as a result of the traveler’s visit from Sydney to New Zealand’s capital Wellington, authorities were asking people at more than a dozen locations to self-isolate for two weeks and get tested.
They also imposed physical distancing requirements in the Wellington region and restricted crowd sizes to 100 from Wednesday evening through Sunday.
“I’m confident that if we do all the things we have done in the past, if people do what is asked of them, we will reduce the risk,” said Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health.
Bloomfield said the traveler was linked to a Sydney outbreak of the more contagious Delta variant that originated in India.
The outbreak in Australia’s largest city has grown to 31 cases and led to a tightening of restrictions
It began last week when a Sydney airport limousine driver tested positive. He was not vaccinated and is suspected to have been infected while transporting a foreign air crew.
Residents living in the worst-affected parts of Sydney have been told they can only travel outside the city for essential reasons. Authorities have also made masks compulsory outside homes and limited the number of household visitors to five.
New Zealand has stopped quarantine-free travel from the Australian state of New South Wales for at least three days.
New Zealand and Australia opened a quarantine-free travel bubble in April, although it has been temporarily halted several times as Australia has dealt with small community outbreaks.
Health authorities said the traveler had visited New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa as well as a number of restaurants, stores and tourist spots. Te Papa announced it was closed and would provide updates as the situation unfolded.
Health authorities said the traveler visited Wellington from Saturday through Monday before returning to Australia and testing positive for COVID-19. They said four close contacts of the traveler were self-isolating and had all tested negative for the virus.


Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda

Updated 23 June 2021

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda

  • The United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern about escalating human rights abuses

Facebook’s recommendation algorithm amplifies military propaganda and other material that breaches the company’s own policies in Myanmar following a military takeover in February, a new report by the rights group Global Witness says.
A month after the military seized power in Myanmar and imprisoned elected leaders, Facebook’s algorithms were still prompting users to view and “like” pro-military pages with posts that incited and threatened violence, pushed misinformation that could lead to physical harm, praised the military and glorified its abuses, Global Witness said in the report, published late Tuesday.
That’s even though the social media giant vowed to remove such content following the coup, announcing it would remove Myanmar military and military-controlled pages from its site and from Instagram, which it also owns. It has since enacted other measures intended to reduce offline harm in the country.
Facebook said Tuesday its teams “continue to closely monitor the situation in Myanmar in real-time and take action on any posts, Pages or Groups that break our rules.”
Days after the Feb. 1 coup, the military temporarily blocked access to Facebook because it was being used to share anti-coup comments and organize protests. Access was later restored. In the following weeks, Facebook continued to tighten its policies against the military, banning all military entities from its platforms and saying it would remove praise or support for violence against citizens and their arrest.
“Once again, Facebook shows that it’s good at making broad sweeping announcements and bad at actually enforcing them. They’ve had years to improve their work in Myanmar but once again they are still failing,” said Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist and whistleblower who found evidence of political manipulation in countries such as Honduras and Azerbaijan while she worked there.
The struggle between the military regime that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government and those opposing it has sharpened in recent months.
Soldiers and police have killed hundreds of protesters. Last week, the United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern about escalating human rights abuses after reports that a group opposed to the junta may have executed 25 civilians it captured and allegations that troops had burned down a village.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, had over 22.3 million Facebook users in January 2020, more than 40 percent of its population, according to social media management platform NapoleonCat.
“What happens on Facebook matters everywhere, but in Myanmar that is doubly true,” the report says. As in many countries outside the Western Hemisphere, mobile phones in Myanmar often come pre-loaded with Facebook and many businesses do not have a website, only a Facebook page. For many people in the country, Facebook effectively is the Internet.
On March 23, just before the peak of military violence against civilians, Global Witness said it set up a new, clean Facebook account with no history of liking or following specific topics and searched for “Tatmadaw”, the Burmese name for the armed forces. It filtered the search results to show pages, and selected the top result — a military fan page whose name translates as “a gathering of military lovers.”
Older posts on this page showed sympathy for Myanmar’s soldiers and at least two advertised for young people to join the military — but none of the newer posts since the coup violated Facebook’s policies. However, when Global Witness’s account “liked” the page, Facebook began recommending related pages with material inciting violence, false claims of interference in last year’s election and support of violence against civilians.
A March 1 post, for instance, includes a death threat against protesters who vandalize surveillance cameras.
“Those who threaten female police officers from the traffic control office and violently destroy the glass and destroy CCTV, those who cut the cables, those who vandalize with color sprays, (we) have been given an order to shoot to kill them on the spot,” reads part of the post in translation, according to the report. “Saying this before Tatmadaw starts doing this. If you don’t believe and continue to do this, go ahead. If you are not afraid to die, keep going.”
Facebook said its ban of the Tatmadaw and other measures have “made it harder for people to misuse our services to spread harm. This is a highly adversarial issue and we continue to take action on content that violates our policies to help keep people safe.”
Global Witness said its findings show that Facebook fails to uphold the “very basics” of its own guidelines.
“The platform operates too much like a walled garden, its algorithms are designed, trained, and tweaked without adequate oversight or regulation,” said Naomi Hirst, head of the digital threats campaign at Global Witness. “This secrecy has to end, Facebook must be made accountable.”


Kobe Bryant’s widow to settle lawsuit over deadly crash

Updated 23 June 2021

Kobe Bryant’s widow to settle lawsuit over deadly crash

  • The former NBA star, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and six other passengers were killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2020
  • The settlement agreement would end legal action against the pilot's estate and the helicopter company

LOS ANGELES: Kobe Bryant’s widow has agreed to settle a lawsuit against the pilot and owners of the helicopter that crashed last year, killing the NBA star, his daughter, Gianna, and seven others.
Vanessa Bryant, her children and relatives of other victims filed a settlement agreement notice Tuesday with a federal judge in Los Angeles but terms of the confidential deal weren’t disclosed.
If approved by the court, the settlement — first announced by KABC-TV — would end a negligence and wrongful death lawsuit filed against the estate of the pilot and the owner and operator of the helicopter that crashed into a hillside on Jan. 26, 2020.
Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six other passengers were flying from Orange County to a youth basketball tournament at his Mamba Sports Academy in Ventura County. The helicopter encountered thick fog in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles.
Pilot Ara Zobayan climbed sharply and had nearly broken through the clouds when the Sikorsky S-76 helicopter banked abruptly and plunged into the Calabasas hills below, killing all nine aboard instantly before flames engulfed the wreckage.
The others killed were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter’s basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna’s teammates.
The National Transportation Safety Board released a report in February that blamed pilot error for the crash. The NTSB said a series of poor decisions led Zobayan to fly blindly into a wall of clouds where he became so disoriented he thought he was climbing when the craft was plunging.
The agency also faulted Island Express Helicopters Inc. for inadequate review and oversight of safety matters.
The settlement agreement would end legal action against Zobayan’s estate, Island Express Helicopters Inc. and its owner, Island Express Holding Corp. The suit alleged the companies didn’t properly train or supervise Zobayan and that the pilot was careless and negligent to fly in fog and should have aborted the flight.
Island Express Helicopters has denied responsibility and said the crash was “an act of God” it couldn’t control. It countersued two Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers, saying the crash was caused by their “series of erroneous acts and/or omissions.”
The settlement agreement wouldn’t include the countersuit against the federal government.