Moscow police vow to suppress weekend Navalny protests

Police officers stand guard while waiting for a wagon carrying opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Khimki, outside Moscow. (AFP)
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Updated 22 January 2021

Moscow police vow to suppress weekend Navalny protests

  • ‘Attempts to hold unsanctioned public events … will be regarded as a threat to public order and immediately suppressed’

MOSCOW: Russian police on Friday said they would crackdown on opposition protests in support of the jailed opposition politician Alexei Navalny at the weekend.
“Attempts to hold unsanctioned public events, as well as any provocative actions on the part of their participants, will be regarded as a threat to public order and immediately suppressed,” Moscow police said in a statement.


UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

Updated 24 February 2021

UK to launch vaccine trials on COVID-19 variants in summer

  • The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs

LONDON: British clinical trials of vaccines against new variants of COVID-19 will start in the summer to prepare updated jabs for the autumn if variants evade the current inoculations, the Oxford University vaccine group’s lead researcher has told the UK Parliament.

Prof. Sarah Gilbert said her team is producing an initial group of vaccines against new variants that are at least partially resistant to the current jabs being rolled out.

The new versions of the vaccine are being produced in case COVID-19 variants substantially evade immunity provided by the current jabs.

A small trial in South Africa found that a variant that emerged there, and which has since arrived in the UK, is partially resistant to the Oxford vaccine.

Vaccines from Novavax and Johnson & Johnson also appear less effective against the South African variant.

“We need to make preparations so that everything is in place, if it turns out that we do need to do it,” Gilbert told British MPs.

“Currently, the plans are to be ready for an immunization campaign in the autumn, so before going into the winter season we’d have a new variant vaccine available if it turns out that’s what’s going to be required,” she added.
“If we see the emergence of a new strain very close to that date, it’s going to be difficult to go through this whole process, because we do need to conduct a clinical study and get regulatory approval, in time to be vaccinated before the winter.”
Gilbert said trials are underway to judge whether mixing vaccines will provide better protection against COVID-19 by stimulating the immune system in different ways.
The Oxford vaccine group is also looking at producing nasal spray and pill alternatives to the standard inoculation.
 


EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19

Updated 24 February 2021

EU mulls vaccination passports to resurrect tourism after COVID-19

  • Some governments, like those of Greece and Spain, are pushing for a quick adoption of an EU-wide certificate for those already inoculated so that people can travel again
  • Earlier in February, Greece and Israel signed a deal to ease travel restrictions to Greece for Israelis with proof of COVID-19 vaccination

BRUSSELS: European Union leaders will agree on Thursday to work on certificates of vaccination for EU citizens who have had an anti-COVID shot, with southern EU countries that depend heavily on tourism desperate to rescue this summer’s holiday season.
Lockdowns to slow the pandemic caused the deepest ever economic recession in the 27-nation bloc last year, hitting the south of the EU, where economies are often much more dependent on visitors, disproportionately hard.
With the rollout of vaccines against COVID-19 now gathering pace, some governments, like those of Greece and Spain, are pushing for a quick adoption of an EU-wide certificate for those already inoculated so that people can travel again.
However, other countries, such as France and Germany, appear more reluctant, as officials there say it could create de facto vaccination obligation and would be discriminatory to those who cannot or will not take a jab.
France, where anti-vaccine sentiment is particularly strong and where the government has pledged not to make them compulsory, considers the idea of vaccine passports as “premature,” a French official said on Wednesday.
Work is needed on the details, including whether it should be in digital form, be accepted globally and at what stage of the two-step inoculation process it should be issued.
“We call for work to continue on a common approach to vaccination certificates,” a draft statement of the leaders video-conference seen by Reuters said, without setting a time-frame for a result.
Officials said the EU was working with the International Air Transport Association, which is keen to revive air travel, and with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Health Organization.
But travel with certificates also raised legal questions, officials said, because those last in line for vaccinations could argue their freedom of movement was unjustly restricted by the often months-long queues.
EU officials also point out there is no guidance yet from the WHO and EU agencies whether people who have received two shots of the COVID-19 vaccine can still carry the coronavirus and infect others, even if no longer vulnerable themselves.
It was also not clear if people could be infectious having already fought off the coronavirus themselves, for how long they remained immune and if they too should get certificates.
“There are still many things we don’t know,” a senior official from one of the EU countries said. “We need more time to come to a common line.”
But time is short for countries in the south, where the hospitality sector needs to know what it should prepare for in the coming months. Despite the official stance that all EU governments want to solve the issue together, some might decide to move faster individually.
Earlier in February, Greece and Israel signed a deal to ease travel restrictions to Greece for Israelis with proof of COVID-19 vaccination.


UN: Boat with Rohingya refugees adrift without food, water

Updated 24 February 2021

UN: Boat with Rohingya refugees adrift without food, water

  • The UN and rights groups have said many of the refugees were ill and suffering from acute dehydration
  • Reports said about 90 refugees, including some children, started the journey to seek better lives

DHAKA: A group of Rohingya refugees is adrift in a boat in the Andaman Sea without food or water, the United Nations said Wednesday, as their families worried that many may have already died.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, said it understands that some of the refugees died after the boat left southern Bangladesh about two weeks ago. It said it does not know the boat’s exact current location.
The UN and rights groups including Amnesty International have said many of the refugees were ill and suffering from acute dehydration.
Reports said about 90 refugees, including some children, started the journey to seek better lives. Human traffickers often lure refugees, promising them work in Southeast Asian nations.
More than 1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are living in crowded camps in Bangladesh, including more than 700,000 who fled after Myanmar’s military conducted a harsh counterinsurgency operation in 2017 involving mass rape, murders and the torching of villages.
Authorities in Bangladesh said Tuesday they had no information about any boat that recently carried Rohingya refugees out of Bangladesh’s waters.
“We have no idea,” said Hafizur Rahman, police chief of Teknaf in Cox’s Bazar district.
The UNHCR said the Indian coast guard has sent rescuers to look for the refugees.
“We appreciate the efforts of the Indian coast guard in deploying their search and rescue team,” said Catherine Stubberfield, spokesperson for the UNHCR Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific.
“Given that the refugees are still adrift at sea, immediate disembarkation is absolutely critical to meeting their most basic human needs and ensuring that their safety is no longer threatened,” she said in an email.
P.N. Anup, a spokesman for the Indian coast guard, said he had “nothing to say as of now.”
The mother of a 25-year-old man on the boat said she was worried about his fate.
“Oh Allah, save all of the people that are stuck in the boat including my son with your divine magic. Put them somewhere on the coast of the river. Please fulfill the wishes of my son to go there,” said Nasima Khatun.
“Is my son alive? Has anything happened to him because of hunger? I do not know anything about what my son is doing, how he is surviving. He only took 4 liters of water,” she said.
Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project that monitors the Rohingya crisis, said they had heard at least eight people had died on the boat.
Lewa said they boarded the boat on Feb. 11 to reach Southeast Asia but its engine broke down.
She said the Arakan Project has been unable to contact the refugees for several days.
“We had talked to them. But now they are traceless. They have no water or food, they are drinking sea water and dying,” Lewa said by phone.
Bangladesh is eager to send the refugees in the camps back to Myanmar. Several attempts at repatriation under a joint agreement failed because the Rohingya refused to go, fearing more violence in a country that denies them basic rights including citizenship.


India starts COVID-19 vaccinations for people over 60s from March 1

Updated 24 February 2021

India starts COVID-19 vaccinations for people over 60s from March 1

  • The country began vaccinating its 1.3-billion population last month and plans to inoculate 300 million people by July

NEW DELHI: India plans to expand its vast but faltering coronavirus vaccination program from March 1 by offering jabs to the over 60s, the government said Wednesday.
The country began vaccinating its 1.3-billion population last month and plans to inoculate 300 million people by July, but so far the rollout has been limited to health care workers and other frontline staff.
However, from Monday people over 60 and those over 45 with multiple medical conditions can be vaccinated for free at 10,000 government hospitals and nearly 20,000 private clinics for a charge.
“Those who want to get vaccinations from private hospitals will have to pay. The amount to be paid will be decided and declared by the health ministry within the next three to four days,” Union Minister Prakash Javadekar said after a cabinet meeting.
The vaccination program, one of the world’s largest, has so far seen 12.2 million shots administered, according to the health ministry.
But at the current pace it will take several years to inoculate 300 million people.
The vaccines being used are the AstraZeneca jab, made domestically by Indian giant the Serum Institute, and the homegrown Covaxin developed by Bharat Biotech, which is yet to complete trials.
The makers of Russia’s Sputnik V have also applied for emergency use approval.
The head of Serum, which other poor countries are relying on for supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine, said on Sunday it had been “directed to prioritize the huge needs of India.”
Some regions of the country have seen an uptick in infections in recent weeks including in the western state of Maharashtra, which has imposed new restrictions on gatherings.


Russia’s Lavrov slams West for coronavirus pandemic ‘selfishness’

Updated 24 February 2021

Russia’s Lavrov slams West for coronavirus pandemic ‘selfishness’

  • West criticized for refusing to suspend sanctions in the wake of the global economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus outbreak

MOSCOW: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lambasted the West for failing to unite globally in the fight against the pandemic and its economic fallout, in an address to the UN Human Rights Council on Wednesday.
In his speech to the United Nations’ human rights body, Lavrov criticized the West for refusing to suspend sanctions in the wake of the global economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus outbreak.
“Unfortunately, despite the pandemic and the apparent need to consolidate our efforts, some of our Western counterparts refuse to reconsider their selfish ways and abandon their coercive approaches and unlawful methods of intimidation and pressure,” he said by video link.
He accused Western countries of having a “desire to take advantage of the pandemic to punish ‘undesirable’ governments.”
The European Union this week agreed to impose sanctions on four Russian officials over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
The move has further strained relations between Moscow and the West, which have seen tensions at their highest since the end of the Cold War.
The EU and the United States have hit Russia with a series of sanctions since Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
In recent weeks, Ukraine as well as Latvia, another former Soviet country, have banned a number of pro-Russian television channels.
Lavrov in his speech slammed the moves, describing them as “political censorship.”
“Those who for decades have been preaching about freedom of speech and expression to the whole world are now demonstrating intolerance of alternative views,” he said.
The Russian foreign minister also laid into social media platforms, which he said “openly manipulate public opinion by banning or censoring user content at their own discretion.”
Russia last year cleared the way for regulators to block Internet platforms like Facebook and YouTube if they are deemed to have censored content produced by Russians.