Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists

Humanity is engaged in an “arms race” with the coronavirus, and its capacity to evolve should not be underestimated, scientists have warned. (File/AFP)
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Updated 18 April 2021

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists

  • Warning comes amid fears that new, India variant could become dominant
  • Virologist: “We’re still early on in the lifetime of this virus as a human pathogen”

LONDON: Humanity is engaged in an “arms race” with the coronavirus Sars-CoV-2, and its capacity to adapt and evolve remains unknown and should not be underestimated, scientists have warned.
“I think it’d be a brave person to say that the virus is nearing the end of its evolutionary route and can’t go any further,” Prof. Deenan Pillay, a virologist at University College London, told The Independent.
“We’re still early on in the lifetime of this virus as a human pathogen. It normally takes many years for viruses, once they cross the species barrier, to really optimize themselves to be able to replicate well within humans.”
Pillay’s warning comes amid fears that a new strain of Sars-CoV-2, known as the India variant — which has caused a surge in the number of cases of COVID-19 — could become a dominant global strain in the coming weeks.
The India variant is known to carry two mutations that could reduce the efficacy of a number of COVID-19 vaccines.
Whilst that has not yet occurred, the nature and speed at which the virus has mutated thus far, including in the form of the South African and UK variants, has caused alarm among the scientific community that the positive impact of vaccine rollouts could be undone in the near future.
Specifically, scientists worry about Sars-CoV-2’s ability to alter spike proteins, used to attach onto human cells, through mutations.
The spike proteins, referred to by Pillay as “keys” to entering human receptor cells, are the mechanism through which most of the world’s successful COVID-19 vaccines look to attack the virus, by training various immune system responses to identify them. 
One such mutation, E484K, has been found in the South Africa and UK variants. The India variant carries a similar mutation, E484Q.
The fear is that by altering their proteins, these variants could render them less visible to the immune system of vaccinated people, making it harder to ward off infection.
Aris Katzourakis, professor of evolution and genomics at Oxford University, said beyond altering the spike protein, mutations such as E484K could “unlock a whole load of other mutations elsewhere in the spike” that have not yet been identified by scientists, with unknown repercussions for the severity of the virus.
“E484K took about 12 months before it became something we cared about. Presumably, 12 months from now, there’ll be another one or two that are just as important,” he told The Independent. 
Prof. Stephen Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, said he believes that rather than continue to mutate indefinitely, there “will be a limit on how far the spike protein can evolve. But I’m not sure we can accurately determine what that limit may be at this point.”


Terror charges laid against attack suspect in Canada

Updated 14 June 2021

Terror charges laid against attack suspect in Canada

  • Police allege the incident was a planned and premeditated attack targeting Muslims
  • Nathaniel Veltman also faces one count of attempted murder due to terrorism activity

LONDON/ONTARIO: Prosecutors laid terrorism charges Monday against a man accused of driving down and killing four members of a Muslim family in London, Ontario.
The prosecution said Nathaniel Veltman’s four counts of first-degree murder constitute an act of terrorism and prosecutors have upgraded those charges under Canada’s criminal code.
Police allege the incident was a planned and premeditated attack targeting Muslims.
Veltman also faces one count of attempted murder due to terrorism activity.
The upgraded charges were laid as Veltman made a brief court appearance via video Monday morning. He has yet to enter a plea.
Salman Afzaal, 46, his 44-year-old wife Madiha Salman, their 15-year-old daughter Yumna and her 74-year-old grandmother, Talat Afzaal were killed while out for an evening walk on June 6.
The couple’s nine-year-old son, Fayez, was seriously injured but is expected to recover.


Philippines suspends decision to scrap troop pact with United States

Updated 14 June 2021

Philippines suspends decision to scrap troop pact with United States

  • Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin says suspension would be for a further six months

MANILA: The Philippines has suspended for the third time its decision to scrap a two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States, its foreign minister said on Monday.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin said the suspension would be for a further six months while President Rodrigo Duterte “studies, and both sides further address his concerns regarding, particular aspects of the agreement.”
The Philippines is a treaty ally of the United States, and several military agreements are dependent on the VFA. Duterte last year notified Washington he was canceling the deal, which came amid outrage over a senator and ally being denied a US visa.


France’s army chief Lecointre steps down, replaced by General Burkhard

Updated 14 June 2021

France’s army chief Lecointre steps down, replaced by General Burkhard

  • General Francois Lecointre’s retirement was widely expected

PARIS: France’s chief of staff of the armed forces, General Francois Lecointre, is stepping down to retire and will be replaced by General Thierry Burkhard, the French Presidency said in a statement on Sunday.
Burkhard was up to now army’s chief of land staff. Lecointre’s retirement was widely expected.
The announcement comes after President Emmanuel Macron announced a drawdown in Mali which will take several months of planning.


New Zealand’s Ardern pans mosque attacks film amid backlash

Updated 14 June 2021

New Zealand’s Ardern pans mosque attacks film amid backlash

  • The US-backed film ‘They Are Us’ has sparked an intense backlash among New Zealand Muslims
  • Jacinda Ardern says filmmakers had not consulted her about the movie

WELLINGTON: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday criticized a planned movie about her response to the 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks as poorly timed and focused on the wrong subject.
The US-backed film “They Are Us” has sparked an intense backlash among New Zealand Muslims, with community leaders slamming the project for pushing a “white savior” narrative.
Ardern said the attacks – when a white supremacist gunman ran amok at two mosques during Friday prayers, killing 51 and seriously injuring another 40 – remained “very raw” for many New Zealanders.
She said filmmakers had not consulted her about the movie, which is set to star Australia’s Rose Byrne as the center-left leader.
“In my view, which is a personal view, it feels very soon and very raw for New Zealand,” Ardern told TVNZ.
“And while there are so many stories that should be told at some point, I don’t consider mine to be one of them – they are the community’s stories, the families’ stories.”
One of the movie’s producers, Philippa Campbell, quit the project in the wake of Ardern’s comments, saying she regretted the shock and hurt it had caused.
“I now agree the events of March 15, 2019, are too raw for film at this time and do not want to be involved with a project that is causing such distress,” she said in a statement.
Ardern won widespread praise for her empathetic and inclusive handling of the attacks, the worst mass shooting in modern New Zealand history, including wearing a scarf when meeting mourners.
The movie’s title references a line from a speech she gave in the immediate aftermath of the atrocity when she pledged to support the Muslim community and tighten gun laws.
A petition from the National Islamic Youth Association calling for the production to be shut down has gathered more than 60,000 signatures.
The association said the proposed film “sidelines the victims and survivors and instead centers the response of a white woman.”
It said the Muslim community had not been properly consulted about the project, which has been scripted by New Zealand writer Andrew Niccol.
“Entities and individuals should not seek to commercialize or profit from a tragedy that befell our community, neither should such an atrocity be sensationalized,” association co-chair Haris Murtaza said.
Muslim poet Mohamed Hassan said the filmmakers needed to focus on members of the community that bore the brunt of the attacks, not use them as props in a feel-good story about Ardern.
“You do not get to tell this story. You do not get to turn this into a White Savior narrative. This is not yours,” he tweeted.
The attacker, Australian self-declared white supremacist Brenton Tarrant, was jailed for life without parole last year, the first time a whole-of-life term has been imposed in New Zealand.


Ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on trial; critics say charges bogus

Updated 14 June 2021

Ousted Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on trial; critics say charges bogus

  • Aung San Suu Kyi’s prosecution poses the greatest challenge for the 75-year-old and her National League for Democracy party since February’s military coup

BANGKOK: Myanmar’s ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi was set to go on trial Monday on charges that many observers have criticized as attempt by the military junta that deposed her to delegitimize her democratic election and cripple her political future.
Suu Kyi’s prosecution poses the greatest challenge for the 75-year-old and her National League for Democracy party since February’s military coup, which prevented them from taking office for a second five-year term following last year’s landslide election victory.
Human Rights Watch charged that the allegations being heard in a special court in the capital, Naypyitaw, are “bogus and politically motivated” with the intention of nullifying the victory and preventing Suu Kyi from running for office again.
“This trial is clearly the opening salvo in an overall strategy to neuter Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy party as a force that can challenge military rule in the future,” said Phil Robertson, the organization’s deputy Asia director.
The army seized power on Feb. 1 before the new lawmakers could be seated, and arrested Suu Kyi, who held the post of special counsellor, and President Win Myint, along with other members of her government and ruling party. The coup reversed years of slow progress toward more democracy for Myanmar.
The army cited the government’s failure to properly investigate alleged voting irregularities as its reason for seizing power – an assertion contested by the independent Asian Network for Free Elections and many others. Junta officials have threatened to dissolve the National League for Democracy for alleged involvement in election fraud and any conviction for Suu Kyi could see her barred from politics.
The junta has claimed it will hold new elections within the next year or two but the country’s military has a long history of promising elections and not following through. The military ruled Myanmar for 50 years after a coup in 1962, and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years after a failed 1988 popular uprising.
The military’s latest takeover sparked nationwide protests that continue despite a violent crackdown that has killed hundreds of people. Although street demonstrations have shrunk in number and scale, the junta now faces a low-level armed insurrection by its opponents in both rural and urban areas.
Suu Kyi is being tried on allegations she illegally imported walkie-talkies for her bodyguards’ use, unlicensed use of the radios and spreading information that could cause public alarm or unrest, as well as for two counts of violating the Natural Disaster Management Law for allegedly breaking pandemic restrictions during the 2020 election campaign, her lawyers said Sunday.
“All these charges should be dropped, resulting in her immediate and unconditional release,” said Human Rights Watch’s Robertson. “But sadly, with the restrictions on access to her lawyers, and the case being heard in front of a court that is wholly beholden to the military junta, there is little likelihood she will receive a fair trial.”
Government prosecutors will have until June 28 to finish their presentation, after which Suu Kyi’s defense team will have until July 26 to present its case, Khin Maung Zaw, the team’s senior member, said last week. Court sessions are due to be held on Monday and Tuesday each week.
Two other more serious charges are being handled separately. Suu Kyi is charged with breaching the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which carried a maximum 14-year prison term, and police last week filed complaints under a section of the Anti-Corruption Law that states that political office holders convicted for bribery face a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a fine.
Although Suu Kyi faced her first charge just days after the coup, she was not immediately allowed to consult with her lawyers. Only on May 24, when she made her first actual appearance in court, was she allowed the first of two brief face-to-face meetings with them at pre-trial hearings. Her only previous court appearances had been by video link.
A photo of her May 24 appearance released by state media showed her sitting straight-backed in a small courtroom, wearing a pink face-mask, her hands folded in her lap. Alongside her were her two co-defendants on several charges, the former president as well as the former mayor of Naypyitaw, Myo Aung.
The three were able to meet with their defense team for about 30 minutes before the hearing began at a special court set up inside Naypyitaw’s city council building, said one of their lawyers, Min Min Soe. Senior lawyer Khin Maung Zaw, said Suu Kyi “seems fit and alert and smart, as always.”