World Bank fury as Lebanon MPs jump vaccine queue

Abdul Rahman Bizri, head of Lebanon's COVID-19 vaccination committee, talks during a press conference in Sidon, Lebanon February 23, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 23 February 2021

World Bank fury as Lebanon MPs jump vaccine queue

  • $34m aid at risk after presidential entourage ‘given jab in secret’

BEIRUT: Lebanese politicians have been accused of jumping the queue for the coronavirus vaccine, with the World Bank on Tuesday joining a chorus of condemnation and threatening to suspend its multi-million-dollar backing for the country’s vaccination drive.

The controversy erupted after some MPs secretly received the COVID-19 jab in the parliament building — despite not being in priority groups.

Allegations of favoritism mounted after it was revealed President Michel Aoun and his wife were inoculated last Friday by a medical team sent to the Baabda Palace.

The claims added to widespread frustration among Lebanese over delays and breaches of the vaccination campaign.

World Bank regional director Saroj Kumar Jha tweeted that if the allegations were shown to be true, “it would be a breach of the national plan.”

He warned that the bank may suspend financing for vaccines and support for the country’s coronavirus response.

“I appeal to all, I mean all, regardless of your position, to please register and wait for your turn,” Jha added.

The World Bank’s reallocation of $34 million has enabled Lebanon to receive its first two batches of about 60,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses this month. The bank had said it would monitor the vaccine rollout and warned against favoritism.

A number of MPs are believed to have received the vaccine inside the parliament building in breach of an established plan that requires individuals to register through a dedicated platform and then wait for a hospital appointment.

The first stage of vaccination rollout, which entered its 10th day on Tuesday, includes doctors, nurses and paramedics treating virus patients, as well as those over 75 years of age.

The MPs’ breach sparked a furious public response on social media under the hashtag #NoWasta (no favoritism).

Dr. Abdul Rahman Bizri, head of the National Committee for the Administration of the Coronavirus Vaccine, threatened to resign in protest at the breach, but later said he would wait on an official explanation by Wednesday.

Less than two hours later, information was leaked to local media that Aoun, along with his wife and 16 people from his presidential team, was given the vaccine last Friday.

Jha tweeted: “This is not in line with the national plan agreed with (the) World Bank, and we would record it (as a) breach of terms and conditions agreed with us for fair and equitable vaccination. Everyone has to register and wait their turn.”

A leaked list of MPs who secretly received the vaccine showed that many were not in the priority groups.

Among politicians who sought to justify receiving the jab, Anis Nassar said he had registered through the platform and received a phone call from parliament.

“I was not aware of any of violation, and if a violation has taken place, I apologize profusely. Despite that I am not responsible for what happened.”

Parliament Secretary-General Adnan Daher claimed that the vaccinations were supervised by a team from the Ministry of Health and the Lebanese Red Cross.

He claimed the aim was to “help hospitals avoid overcrowding.”

However, the Red Cross said that it had no supervisory or operational role in the vaccination campaign.

“Our teams are present in all vaccination centers exclusively to assist or aid citizens of the age group 75 and over in the event of an emergency,” it explained.

Bizri later told a press conference: “What happened is a terrible thing and must be explained. The World Bank has said there will be consequences. The Ministry of Health committed this mistake and must explain it.”

He added: “This is discrimination.”

Doctors’ Syndicate chief Sharaf Abu Sharaf said that the vaccination rollout “has been slow, chaotic and far from transparent.”

He warned that without an improvement in the rollout, Lebanon “faces a great disaster.”

“We must accelerate the vaccination plan to reach herd immunity,” Abu Sharaf said.


Emirates to digitally verify passengers’ COVID-19 medical records

Updated 4 min 34 sec ago

Emirates to digitally verify passengers’ COVID-19 medical records

  • The IT systems of DHA-approved laboratories will be linked with Emirates’ reservations and check-in systems
  • The latest figures mean that 59.11 percent of the UAE population has received the vaccine so far

DUBAI: Emirates has signed an agreement with the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) to digitally verify passengers’ medical records, as part of the UAE’s efforts to revive the travel industry following the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The IT systems of DHA-approved laboratories will be linked with Emirates’ reservations and check-in systems so the airline can verify passengers’ health information related to COVID-19 infection, testing and vaccination.
The project will start immediately, Emirates said on Thursday.
The agreement was signed by Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Emirates’ chairman and chief executive, and DHA director general, Awadh Al Ketbi.
“Dubai is a leading global air transport hub, as well as one of the world’s most progressive cities in the area of e-government services,” Sheikh Ahmed said. “It’s a natural step to combine our capabilities to implement digital verification of COVID-19 medical records, which will also enable contactless document verification at Dubai Airport. This will tremendously improve the traveler experience, as well as the reliability, efficiency and compliance with entry requirements imposed by destinations around the world.”
The initiative came as the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention announced on Thursday that a further 84,573 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been given in the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of doses administered to 5,846,036. 
The latest figures mean that 59.11 percent of the UAE population has received the vaccine so far.

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Bahrain’s crown prince calls Israel PM on Iran nuclear talks

Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 13 min 54 sec ago

Bahrain’s crown prince calls Israel PM on Iran nuclear talks

  • The statement marks the first response from a Gulf Arab leader to President Joe Biden’s announcement earlier this month

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: Bahrain’s crown prince spoke with the Israeli prime minister on Thursday about the return to nuclear talks with Iran, Bahrain’s state-run news agency reported, as the US administration tries to revive the tattered 2015 nuclear accord.
Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, also the country’s prime minister, stressed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “the importance of the participation of regional countries in any negotiations on the Iranian nuclear file” to support “security and stability in the region,” according to the official Bahrain News Agency.
The statement marks the first response from a Gulf Arab leader to President Joe Biden’s announcement earlier this month that he was seeking a return to nuclear negotiations with Iran. Nearly three years ago, former President Donald Trump abandoned the landmark accord and reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran. His withdrawal was welcomed by Gulf nations and Israel, Iran’s foes in the region that are most directly threatened and staunchly opposed the deal.
The sheikhdoms in the Arabian Gulf, along with Israel, were excluded from the last nuclear negotiations and remain highly skeptical of Iran’s intentions. They have indicated they would only be open to a deal if it included limits on Iran’s non-nuclear activities, including missile development and support for rebel groups and militias in the Middle East. A main reason Trump gave for withdrawing from the nuclear deal was that it did not address those issues.
In Thursday’s call, the Bahraini crown prince urged that any nuclear negotiations with Iran “include broader issues,” without elaborating.
The readout from Israel made no mention of Washington’s outreach to Tehran. It said only that the crown prince repeated his invitation for Netanyahu to visit Bahrain once the pandemic allows and that the kingdom is interested in investing jointly with other countries in a vaccine production factory planned to be located in Israel.
Following the United Arab Emirates, the island kingdom of Bahrain normalized relations with Israel last fall, an agreement forged out of mutual enmity for Iran.

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Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party MPs targeted in legal barrage

Updated 25 February 2021

Turkey’s pro-Kurdish party MPs targeted in legal barrage

  • The government accuses the Peoples’ Democratic Party of ties to Kurdish militants
  • The legal bids will first be handled by a parliamentary commission
ISTANBUL: Turkey’s parliament is set to consider legal bids to lift the immunity from prosecution of 21 pro-Kurdish MPs, applying more pressure on a political party targeted in a years-long crackdown and that now faces calls for its closure.
The government accuses the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), parliament’s third largest, of ties to Kurdish militants and stepped up its accusations after Turkish captives were killed in Iraq earlier this month.
The HDP in response criticized President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK Party (AKP) for using a failed military rescue mission to target it politically and to sow ethnic division, and the European Union has expressed concern over the legal moves.
AKP Parliament Speaker Mustafa Sentop told reporters on Thursday it was “saddening” for parliament to have to deal with so many dossiers with such charges, including “manslaughter,” “spreading terrorist propaganda” and “provoking hatred.”
State-owned Anadolu news agency said 20 HDP deputies and one from an affiliated party were among 25 targeted by the cases. The HDP, which has 56 members in the 660-seat assembly, denies links with Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants.
The legal bids will first be handled by a parliamentary commission which will decide whether to put them to a vote in the general assembly. The timing of the process was unclear.
Nine of the HDP deputies were accused in connection with protests triggered by a Daesh militant attack on the Syrian town of Kobani in 2014. The subsequent protests in Turkey led to the deaths of 37 people.
Ankara said this month in Iraq’s Gara region the PKK executed 13 prisoners, including Turkish military and police personnel, during an army operation meant to rescue them. The PKK said the captives died during clashes.
HDP co-leader Pervin Buldan, one of those accused over the Kobani protests, said this week the government had sought to make political capital out of the Gara operation.
“They began to attack the HDP from all directions. Each day the ‘shut down the HDP’ chorus continues to cause uproar, show enmity toward Kurds and spread the hatred climate,” she said.
Erdogan’s nationalist allies have repeatedly called for the HDP’s closure over links to the PKK, which Turkey, the EU and United States designate a terrorist group. The PKK has waged an insurgency in the mainly Kurdish southeast Turkey since 1984 and more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
The crackdown on the HDP in recent years has included the arrests of thousands of party officials and members, while dozens of its elected mayors and lawmakers have been ousted.
EU foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano said earlier this week the EU was “gravely concerned” about continuing pressure on the HDP, including “what seem to be politically motivated judicial proceedings.”

Iran: UN investigator lacks authority to comment on downing of Ukrainian plane

Updated 25 February 2021

Iran: UN investigator lacks authority to comment on downing of Ukrainian plane

  • Agnes Callamard: No concrete evidence the plane was targeted intentionally but Iran had not proven it was accidental
  • ‘... by issuing an immature and impetuous text ... she may have been promised a new job positions’

DUBAI: Iran dismissed as “immature” a statement by a UN investigator that inconsistencies in its explanation of the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane last year raised questions over whether the act was intentional, Iranian media said on Thursday.
All 176 people aboard the Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, most of them Canadian, were killed when the plane crashed shortly after takeoff en route from Tehran to Kiev on Jan. 8, 2020.
Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said on Tuesday she had found no concrete evidence the plane was targeted intentionally but that Iran had not proven it was accidental.
After denying blame for three days, Iran’s Guards said they had shot it down by mistake while under high alert for a possible attack. Hours earlier it had attacked US targets in Iraq in retaliation for Washington’s killing of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, with a drone strike five days before.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Callamard’s “sphere of activity has nothing to do with these regulations and frameworks. Rather, her unwarranted involvement might not have a constructive impact on the legal procedures as well.”
Callamard, who carried out a six-month investigation into the case under her global mandate, said on Tuesday that Iran had not replied to her detailed queries. She is stepping down from the independent post at the end of March, a year early in the six-year term, to take another job, officials said.
Khatibzadeh accused her of rushing out her statement.
“Maybe one of the reasons of this unwarranted haste is her resignation from her post as special rapporteur, and by issuing an immature and impetuous text ... she may have been promised a new job positions,” Iran’s state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying.
“Accordingly, some charges have been levelled against the Islamic Republic of Iran without any valid evidence and documents.”
In December, Khatibzadeh said an indictment would be issued in less than a month against “those whose negligence caused the accident”. But Iran’s military court, which is handling the case, has yet to publicly announce it.

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Egypt authorizes Sputnik, AstraZeneca virus jabs

Updated 25 February 2021

Egypt authorizes Sputnik, AstraZeneca virus jabs

  • The agency had previously given emergency authorization for the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine and the AstraZeneca jab produced in India
  • Russia’s sovereign wealth fund RDIF said Egypt is the 35th country Sputnik V
CAIRO: Egypt’s pharmaceutical authority on Wednesday approved the use of the Sputnik V and AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines, a month after the North African country kicked off its inoculation campaign.
The drug body had “provided emergency authorization for the use of the two vaccines, Sputnik V, and AstraZeneca... imported from South Korea,” it said in a statement on its Facebook page.
The agency had previously given emergency authorization for the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine and the AstraZeneca jab produced in India and marketed under the name Covishield, it added.
Russia’s sovereign wealth fund RDIF said in a statement that “Egypt is the 35th country in the world to approve Sputnik V.”
Egypt began its Covid-19 immunization program on January 24, becoming one of the first countries in Africa to vaccinate its citizens, with a doctor and a nurse receiving the Sinopharm jab.
The Arab world’s most populous country, with over 100 million people, received its first batch of the Sinopharm vaccine in December, and its first doses of the Anglo-Swedish AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine at the end of January.
Egypt has officially registered more than 179,000 cases of the novel coronavirus and over 10,400 deaths.
Health officials have warned that low testing rates mean the real number could be at least 10 times higher.