UK scientists warn too early to tell if new COVID-19 variant more deadly

An immunisation nurse fills in forms prior to administering a COVID-19 vaccine to a staff nurse at a temporary hospital in Glasgow, Scotland on January 23, 2021. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 23 January 2021

UK scientists warn too early to tell if new COVID-19 variant more deadly

  • PM Boris Johnson had previously said evidence showed higher mortality rate 
  • Top medics have said it is “too early” to say whether the variant carries with it a higher mortality rate

LONDON: The discovery of a new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) variant in the UK should not alter the response to the pandemic, scientists say, despite fears that it could prove more deadly.
Top medics have said it is “too early” to say whether the variant, thought to be up to 70 percent more transmissible, carries with it a higher mortality rate.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed there was “some evidence” the variant had “a higher degree of mortality” at a press conference on Friday, Jan. 22, with the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, adding it could be up to 30 percent more deadly. 
That came after a briefing by the UK government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) said there was a “realistic possibility” of an increased risk of death.
Prof. Peter Horby, Nervtag’s chairman, said: “Scientists are looking at the possibility that there is increased severity ... and after a week of looking at the data we came to the conclusion that it was a realistic possibility.
“We need to be transparent about that. If we were not telling people about this we would be accused of covering it up.”
But infectious disease modeller Prof. Graham Medley, one of the authors of the Nervtag briefing, told the BBC: “The question about whether it is more dangerous in terms of mortality I think is still open.
He added: “In terms of making the situation worse it is not a game changer. It is a very bad thing that is slightly worse.”
Dr. Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling for the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said he was “quite surprised” Johnson had made the claim.
“I just worry that where we report things pre-emptively where the data are not really particularly strong,” he added.


On Doha deal anniversary, Taliban pushing US for total troop withdrawal

Updated 28 February 2021

On Doha deal anniversary, Taliban pushing US for total troop withdrawal

  • Any move to replace historic accord is ‘doomed to fail,’ militant group warns
  • Demands follow rumors Biden administration looking to ‘review’ deal

KABUL: The Taliban on Sunday demanded that the US complete its troop withdrawal process from Afghanistan by May 1, in line with a historic agreement signed between the two sides in Doha last year

The militant group warned that any move to replace the deal was “doomed to fail.”

“The Islamic Emirate (the name of the Taliban’s former government) is committed on its part to all contents of the agreement and views its implementation as the sole effective tool for resolving the Afghan issue and establishing peace, that shall be realized under the shade of an Islamic system,” it said in a statement.

The demands were issued on the anniversary of the controversial deal that followed almost a year and half of secret talks between the Taliban and US delegates. The insurgent group has said that its fighters had not attacked foreign troops and major Afghan cities since signing the agreement.

“The Islamic Emirate also calls on the other party to the agreement to honor its own commitments towards security and stability in Afghanistan by implementing all parts of the agreement,” the group said.

The Taliban further termed the Doha deal as a “historic accord,” and one that had “created a practical framework for bringing peace and security to Afghanistan.”

It added: “If any other pathway is pursued as a replacement, then it is already doomed to fail.”

The Taliban’s statement follows repeated comments by officials in US President Joe Biden’s administration that Washington will review the deal signed under former President Donald Trump’s watch.

In addition, NATO delivered a recent announcement saying that it would withdraw foreign troops from Afghanistan “when the time was right,” suggesting that the Taliban had not abided by the accord.

Besides US and NATO officials, the Afghan government has also insisted that the Taliban have not severed their relationship with Al-Qaeda, nor reduced violence — two critical components of the Doha deal — allegations that the Taliban have vehemently denied.

While the militant group pushed for the total departure of all foreign troops and overseas contractors by May 1, 2021, the Doha deal also served as a catalyst for the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani’s government to begin intra-Afghan peace talks in Qatar by March 10 last year.

The talks finally began six months later, amid an intensification of violence that both Kabul and the Taliban have blamed on one another.

The crucial negotiations have faced several setbacks — the latest being a plan by Washington to review the deal.

Rahmatuallah Andar, a spokesman for the office of Ghani’s national security advisor, said that the Doha talks had failed to meet expectations.

“Afghans have not gained the expectations they had from Doha deal for peace and security. This agreement so far only has ensured the Taliban’s cease-fire with the US,” he told Arab News.

He added that the Taliban’s relationship with Afghans was “still confined to killing, terror and horror.”

Andar said: “So far, there is no hope for Afghans in this deal. Even the intra-Afghan talks have been stopped because of the Taliban. If seen from the perspective of Afghanistan, the time has been wasted in the hope of peace, while heavy material and heavy casualties have been inflicted on Afghans.”

Taliban representatives were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Sunday.

However, despite the government blaming the Taliban for a surge in violence and failing to pursue negotiations, Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for the government-appointed High Council of Peace, said that officials are “still hopeful for the peace process.”

He said: “A year on since the Doha deal, we are still hopeful that the opportunity created for peace is not wasted, and that the war ends in Afghanistan and talks are pursued earnestly, so that a political compromise acceptable to all is created.”

On the other hand, Afghan, US and NATO officials have warned that any resumption of serious intra-Afghan talks will require foreign troops to remain in the country until the Taliban end their violent attacks.

The UN said last week that 3,035 Afghan civilians had been killed in 2020 due to a surge in violence since the signing of the Doha deal a year ago — a 15 percent spike from the previous year.

“Since the Doha deal, more than 350,000 Afghans have been internally displaced by the violence,” Abdul Basit Ansari, an advisor for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, told Arab News.

Meanwhile, with the fate of the Doha deal in limbo, some fear an imminent escalation of violence in Afghanistan.

“The US may want to extend the presence of the troops, and the Taliban may oppose it altogether. This will mean fighting and a serious drop in the trust both sides have built in recent years, with so much difficulty,” Taj Mohammad, an Afghan analyst and former journalist, told Arab News.

Tameem Bahiss, an analyst and expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan, agreed, adding that while the US and Taliban have blamed each other for breaching the Doha deal, neither side has come forward to nullify the agreement.

“The Biden administration is ‘reviewing’ the Doha agreement. In the meantime, experts are calling for an extension to the May 1 deadline,” he said.

“It seems very unlikely that the Taliban will agree to an extension. If Biden unilaterally decides to stay past the deadline, this could propel the Taliban to walk away from the negotiation table and pursue power through violent means.”


Filipinos to roll up sleeves as government receives first batch of jabs

Updated 28 February 2021

Filipinos to roll up sleeves as government receives first batch of jabs

  • President Duterte urges public to get vaccinated during nationwide campaign

MANILA: President Rodrigo Duterte has urged Filipinos to get vaccinated during a nationwide campaign after the country received its first batch of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines on Sunday.

The president, along with his Cabinet members, welcomed the delivery of the 600,000 doses of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine, delivered by a Chinese military aircraft, at the Philippine Air Force’s (PAF) Villamor Airbase in Pasay City.

Philippine officials said that with the arrival of the vaccines, the government would formally roll out its inoculation program on Monday to vaccinate two-thirds of the population, or 50 to 70 million Filipinos, by the end of the year.

During a televised ceremony, Duterte urged Filipinos to “set aside their fears” as he vouched for the vaccines’ safety and efficacy.

“These vaccines are backed by science and (were) deliberated on by our Filipino experts. I encourage you to get vaccinated at the soonest possible time, and be our partner in preventing the further spread of this disease,” he said.

The president’s reaffirmation follows reports that many Filipinos, including health workers, lacked confidence in the Chinese vaccine based on data from its late-stage trials, which showed that Sinovac had a lower efficacy than other jabs.

According to the Philippines Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the vaccine is recommended only to healthy individuals aged 18 to 59 years old, but not senior citizens and medical front-liners.

The FDA said local clinical trial data showed that the vaccine had an efficacy rate of 65.3 to 91.2 percent when used on clinically healthy individuals aged 18 to 59, but only 50.4 percent on health workers.

The Department of Health (DOH) and the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group have nevertheless recommended the Sinovac vaccine for health workers.

Duterte called on those being inoculated to continue practising health and safety protocols as the country awaits the final approvals for more vaccines.

“Remember to wear masks, wash hands and observe social distancing. Your cooperation here is key and will undoubtedly save numerous lives along the way,” Duterte said, adding: “With the entire nation’s support, I am confident that we will claim victory over this pandemic.”

The president described the arrival of the Sinovac jabs as another step forward in the nation’s fight against COVID-19, as he thanked China and its people for “the gesture” of friendship and solidarity.

“I said it before, and I will say it again: COVID-19 vaccines should be treated as a global public good and made available to all, rich and poor alike. No nation — no people — should be left to suffer the ravages of this pandemic for whatever reason," he said, adding that the government had welcomed the delivery of the vaccines with “high hopes of finally ending the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.

“The delivery of this first batch, I hope, will serve as a guarantee to everyone that we are taking a big step in our efforts to overcome this health crisis ... we cannot afford to waste time or resources in the distribution of these vaccines because we are dealing with precious lives,” Duterte said.

He expressed his gratitude to Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian and said he intended to “make a short visit to China just to shake hands with President Xi Jinping and personally thank him for the donation.”

Meanwhile, another batch of vaccines comprising 525,600 doses of AstraZeneca from the COVAX facility led by the World Health Organization was also due to arrive on Monday.

According to the DOH, as of Sunday, the Philippines had reported more than 576,000 infections, including 12,318 deaths, the second-highest totals in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.


Internet disruption reported in southeast Iran amid unrest

Updated 28 February 2021

Internet disruption reported in southeast Iran amid unrest

  • Crowds with light arms and grenade launchers descended on Kurin checkpoint near Iran’s border with Pakistan on Thursday
  • The Iranian government previously has cut off internet access and cellphone service in tense times

DUBAI: Iran’s impoverished southeast has been experiencing wide disruptions of internet services, experts said, as unrest gripped the remote province after fatal border shootings.
Several rights groups reported in a joint statement that authorities shut down the mobile data network in the restive province of Sistan and Balochistan, calling the disruptions an apparent “tool to conceal” the government’s harsh crackdown on protests convulsing the area
The reports of internet interference come as Iranian authorities and semiofficial news agencies increasingly acknowledge the turmoil challenging local authorities in the southeast — a highly sensitive matter in a country that seeks to repress all hints of political dissent.
Starting Wednesday, the government shut down the mobile data network across Sistan and Balochistan, where 96% of the population accesses the internet only through their phones, rights groups said, crippling the key communication tool.
After four days of unverified “localized regional network disruptions” amid the protests, NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access, confirmed a new disruption to internet connectivity in the province beginning late Saturday.
“This is Iran’s traditional response to any kind of protest,” Amir Rashidi from Miaan Group, a human rights organization that focuses on digital security in the Middle East, told The Associated Press on Saturday. “Shutting down the internet to block news and pictures getting out makes (authorities) feel more comfortable opening fire.”
The week saw a series of escalating confrontations between police and protesters. Crowds with light arms and grenade launchers descended on Kurin checkpoint near Iran’s border with Pakistan on Thursday, Abouzar Mehdi Nakhaie, the governor of Zahedan, the provincial capital, said in comments carried by Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency. The violence killed one policeman, he added.
Earlier this week, protesters attacked the district governor’s office and stormed two police stations in the city of Saravan, outraged over the shootings of fuel smugglers trying to cross back into Iran from Pakistan on Monday. The border shootings and ensuing clashes killed at least two people, the government said. Many rights activists in the area reported higher death tolls without offering evidence.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, vowed Friday to investigate the deaths. Officials insisted that calm had returned to the streets.
The Iranian government previously has cut off internet access and cellphone service in tense times. In the fall of 2019, for instance, Iran imposed a near nationwide internet blackout as anti-government protests sparked by an increase in fuel prices roiled the capital of Tehran and other cities. Hundreds were reportedly killed in the crackdown nationwide.
Given that authorities targeted the mobile network and not the landline in Sistan and Balochistan, the disruption likely wouldn’t appear on regular network data, said Mahsa Alimardani, researcher at Article 19, an international organization that fights censorship. The area already suffered from unreliable internet connections.
"This targeted shutdown was very intentional because they knew the realities of this province,” where people are poor and use cheap phones as opposed to computers, Alimardani said.
Sistan and Balochistan is one of most unstable and least developed parts of Iran. The relationship between its predominantly Sunni residents and Iran’s Shiite theocracy long has been fraught. A low-level violent insurgency in Sistan and Balochistan involves several militant groups, including those demanding more autonomy for the region.
The area also lies on a major trafficking route for drugs and petrol, which is highly subsidized in Iran and a key source of income for smugglers.


UK’s Sunak says vaccine passport idea might help the economy

Updated 28 February 2021

UK’s Sunak says vaccine passport idea might help the economy

LONDON: British finance minister Rishi Sunak said the idea of giving people vaccine passports or certificates to allow them to enter venues or events might be a way to help the country and its economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
“Obviously it is a complicated but potentially very relevant question for helping us reopen those parts of our country like mass events,” Sunak told BBC television on Sunday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week that the government would hold a review to consider the scientific, moral, philosophical and ethical questions about using vaccine certificates for people who have received a coronavirus shot, which could help entertainment and hospitality venues reopen.


Myanmar police crack down on protests for second day; two dead, several hurt

Updated 28 February 2021

Myanmar police crack down on protests for second day; two dead, several hurt

  • Two dead as police crack down
  • UN envoy says he will fight on

Myanmar police shot and killed two protesters on Sunday and wounded several as they cracked down in a bid to end weeks of demonstrations against a Feb. 1 military coup, a doctor and a politician said.
Police opened fire in the town of Dawei, killing one and wounding several, politician Kyaw Min Htike told Reuters from the southern town. The Dawei Watch media outlet also said at least one person was killed and more than a dozen wounded.
Police also fired in the main city of Yangon and one man brought to a hospital with a bullet wound in the chest had died, said a doctor at the hospital who asked not to be identified. The Mizzima media outlet also reported that death.
Police and the spokesman for the ruling military council did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.
Myanmar has been in chaos for a month since the army seized power and detained elected government leader Aung San Suu Kyi and much of her party leadership, alleging fraud in a November election her party won in a landslide.
The coup, which stalled Myanmar’s progress toward democracy after nearly 50 years of military rule, has brought hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets and drawn condemnation from Western countries, with some imposing limited sanctions.
In Yangon, several people, some bleeding heavily, were helped away from protests, images posted earlier by media showed.
It was not clear how they were hurt, but media reported live fire. The Myanmar Now media group said people had been “gunned down” but did not elaborate.
Police also threw stun grenades, used tear gas and fired into the air, witnesses said.
Junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing has said authorities have been using minimal force to deal with the protests.
Nevertheless, at least five protesters have died in the turmoil. The army said a policeman has been killed.
The crackdown appears to indicate a determination by the military to impose its authority in the face of widespread defiance, not just on the streets but more broadly in areas such as the civil service, municipal administration, the education and health sectors and media.

’RUNNING’
Police were out early on Sunday, taking positions at main protest sites in Yangon as protesters, many clad in protective gear, began to congregate, witnesses said.
They moved swiftly to break up crowds.
“Police got out of their cars and started throwing stun grenades without warning,” said Hayman May Hninsi, who was with a group of fellow teachers in Yangon. They fled to nearby buildings. “Some teachers got hurt running.”
Doctors and students in white lab coats fled as police threw stun grenades outside a medical school elsewhere in the city, posted video showed.
Police in the second city, Mandalay, fired guns into the air, trapping protesting medical staff in a city hospital, a doctor there said by telephone.
Saturday brought disturbances in towns and cities nationwide as police began their bid to crush the protests with tear gas, stun grenades and by shooting into the air.
State-run MRTV television said more than 470 people had been arrested on Saturday. It said police had given warnings before using stun grenades to disperse people.

’INSTIL FEAR’
Youth activist Esther Ze Naw said people were battling to overcome the fear they had lived with for a long time.
“This fear will only grow if we keep living with it and the people who are creating the fear know that. It’s obvious they’re trying to instil fear in us by making us run and hide,” she said. “We can’t accept that.”
The police action came after state television announced that Myanmar’s UN envoy had been fired for betraying the country after he urged the United Nations to use “any means necessary” to reverse the coup.
MRTV said he had been fired in accordance with civil service rules because he had “betrayed the country” and “abused the power and responsibilities of an ambassador.”
The ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, was defiant. “I decided to fight back as long as I can,” he told Reuters in New York.
UN Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews said he was overwhelmed by the ambassador’s “act of courage,” adding on Twitter, “It’s time for the world to answer that courageous call with action.”
Myanmar’s generals have traditionally shrugged off diplomatic pressure. They have promised to hold a new election but not set a date.
Suu Kyi’s party and supporters said the result of the November vote must be respected.
Suu Kyi, 75, spent nearly 15 years under house arrest during military rule. She faces charges of illegally importing six walkie-talkie radios and of violating a natural disaster law by breaching coronavirus protocols.
The next hearing in her case is set for Monday.