Will 2022 bring COVID-19 herd immunity or more lockdowns and travel bans?

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As more of the world develops greater immunity, either through infection or vaccination, there will be more pressure on the virus to mutate, with no guarantees that future variants will be less severe. (AFP)
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As more of the world develops greater immunity, either through infection or vaccination, there will be more pressure on the virus to mutate, with no guarantees that future variants will be less severe. (AFP)
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Updated 12 January 2022

Will 2022 bring COVID-19 herd immunity or more lockdowns and travel bans?

  • With omicron taking the shine off New Year celebrations, experts are undecided whether the worst of the pandemic is over
  • Many governments are developing a tolerance for high rates of infection in hopes of achieving herd immunity

DUBAI: For many, New Year’s Eve festivities were marred by concerns over the latest COVID-19 variant, omicron, and the resulting stresses of PCR tests, flight cancellations and uncertainty over possible lockdowns.

One popular meme that did the rounds over the holidays captured the pervasive sense of deja vu with the punchline: “The year 2022 is pronounced 2020 too,” hinting at a return to the stringent restrictions of two years ago.

The words quickly proved prophetic. Several countries have implemented partial and even full lockdowns after omicron sent the number of coronavirus infections to record highs, while others have tightened restrictions on indoor gatherings and travel.

As a result, the commercial aviation sector has taken another financial hit, with more than 8,000 flights canceled worldwide. Events, concerts and social gatherings planned to mark the new year were also disrupted.

Chaos created by the newly dominant variant, and news of potentially more transmissible, vaccine-resistant strains appearing in France, Israel and Cyprus, has many people wondering whether it is time to surrender to the idea of herd immunity.

“Herd immunity, if it exists, can be achieved in two ways. One, through widespread infection, or two, through widespread vaccination,” Dr. Richard Kennedy, co-director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, told Arab News.

Wary of imposing further restrictions and undermining economic recovery, several governments are showing tolerance for high rates of infection, perhaps in the hope of achieving herd immunity. But as the well-worn phrase puts it, hope is not a strategy.

“Relying on widespread infection is an incredibly bad idea,” Kennedy said. “Infection causes symptomatic disease, hospitalization, death and leads to more variants. In fact, the only time variants can arise is when someone is infected.” 




Dr. Richard Kennedy. (Supplied)

He added: “The combined cost in terms of human lives, human suffering and societal disruption is simply not worth it. Especially when this route also has a greater chance of prolonging the pandemic or making it worse, depending on the characteristics of the variants that will inevitably arise.”

Indeed, as more of the world develops greater immunity, either through infection or vaccination, Kennedy says, there will be more pressure on the virus to mutate, with no guarantees that future variants will be less severe. 

“This virus is a microscopic parasite that needs human cells to survive and reproduce,” he said. “It doesn’t have feelings or emotions. It doesn’t care if you live or die once infected. It simply does what it is genetically programmed to do.”

Nevertheless, there is a selective advantage for milder variants to become dominant. If a viral strain kills a patient quickly, the time window for it to transmit to other hosts may be too brief, thereby threatening its own survival.

By contrast, slow-burners such as omicron “do an excellent job of infecting someone, reproducing and spreading to new victims,” Kennedy said.

Experts say governments should not be complacent about omicron. The World Health Organization has given warning that it is wrong to describe the variant as “mild” as it is still “hospitalizing people and killing them.”

Although the virus is not under any particular pressure to become more or less aggressive right now, there certainly seems to be an incentive for new variants to be more transmissible — as seen with omicron.




Caption

The US reported 1.35 million new coronavirus infections on Monday, the highest daily total for any country in the world. The record in new cases came the same day as the country saw the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients hit an all-time high.

In Saudi Arabia, daily cases more than doubled in just two days in the first week of January, pushing authorities to again enforce mask wearing in public spaces and reimpose preventive measures at the Great Mosque of Makkah for Umrah pilgrims.

Infections in the UAE have risen steadily since early December, when case numbers were as low as 50 per day. The number of daily positive cases (in a population of 10 million) is now regularly crossing the 2,500 mark, placing pressure on testing centers and prompting more people to seek booster jabs.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, the number of daily COVID-19 cases has crossed the 1,000 threshold in Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. Qatar has reintroduced remote learning at schools and colleges, while a ban on public events has been imposed in Kuwait.

Even as omicron infections explode regionwide, Dr. Abdullah Algaissi, a virologist and assistant professor at Saudi Arabia’s Jazan University College of Applied Medical Sciences, is confident that GCC countries have efficient systems in place to resist emerging coronavirus strains.

All GCC countries are close to, or have passed, the 70 percent vaccination mark, thereby lowering the susceptibility rate of their populations to severe illness caused by the virus, he said.




Dr. Abdullah Algaissi. (Supplied)

“GCC governments have controlled three waves of COVID-19 better than other regions, and it will be the same with omicron,” Algaissi told Arab News.

“We can expect to see the number of cases increase, and eventually we might see a high number of deaths, but the overall effect of omicron will be lower in the GCC than in other countries.”

Algaissi is confident the omicron wave will be short-lived and that the worst of the pandemic is over.

“My theory is that it will be downgraded to an endemic disease, meaning the disease becomes less of a concern because fewer people will be susceptible to it and we will have the tools to deal with it,” he said.

The distribution of a “universal COVID-19 vaccine” — now in the testing phase — will be critical to eliminating all variants, thereby hastening the transition from pandemic to epidemic, Algaissi said. 

“We can predict certain mutations in the virus, and in a few years we may have a vaccine that can protect us from any variant that may emerge in the future, similar to the universal flu vaccine,” he said.

Algaissi does not rule out a new vaccine-resistant strain emerging from populations with low vaccination rates, resulting in a fifth wave. However, he thinks any subsequent COVID-19 wave will be brief. 

Kennedy, of the Mayo Clinic, is less sanguine about the future, cautioning that the world may struggle to fend off the novel coronavirus and its assorted mutations for years to come.

“The human race had a window of opportunity to contain and eradicate this virus. That window is rapidly closing if it is not closed already. We now have to find a way to live with the constant presence of SARS-CoV-2,” he said, using the scientific name for the novel coronavirus.

While the future remains uncertain, Kennedy predicts progress through new vaccines and antivirals, variant-specific vaccines and better treatment options, but also expects major setbacks.

“Because of human nature, most countries have had disjointed, intermittent and rapidly changing responses. This has reduced the effectiveness of these control measures.”




Progress through new vaccines and antivirals offers hope amid uncertainties over the raging pandemic. (AFP)

In practical terms, what this means is that with the resumption of international travel, a country with a high vaccination rate surrounded by neighbors with low vaccination rates is still going to experience problems. Which is why improvements in the distribution of vaccines to the developing world will be paramount.

“This is a global issue that requires a global solution,” said Kennedy. “When we talk about herd immunity, we must interpret that to mean global herd immunity. Nothing short of that will end the pandemic.”

However, he sees a future in which large segments of the population, far from rising to this challenge, continue “to ignore logic, facts and common sense.”

Kennedy said politics would continue to drive each countries’ response, and striking a stark cautionary note, added: “We will see individual countries cobbling together a unique pandemic response that is driven in part by facts and science and in part by emotion and public perception.”

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Sudan arrests Communist Party figures as thousands protest coup

Updated 19 May 2022

Sudan arrests Communist Party figures as thousands protest coup

  • Thousands of protesters took to the streets, mainly in Khartoum but also elsewhere, to again call for civilian rule in the latest rally against the October coup

KHARTOUM: Sudanese security forces arrested leading anti-coup figures on Thursday, their party said, during protests by thousands against last year’s military takeover.

“Security forces raided the house of the political secretary of the Sudanese Communist Party Mohammed Mukhtar Al-Khatib,” the party said in a statement.

Another leading party member was also arrested at Khartoum airport, and the two men were taken to an “unknown location,” the party said.

The arrests came despite a pledge by coup leader Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan to free political detainees to set the stage for talks among Sudanese factions.

Last month, authorities released several anti-coup civilian leaders arrested in a crackdown.

The Communist Party members were detained following a trip to Juba, South Sudan where they met with rebel leader Abdel Wahid Nour who has refused to sign a landmark 2020 peace deal with the Sudanese government, according to the party statement.

They also visited rebel-held areas in South Kordofan controlled by Abdelaziz Al-Hilu, who also abstained from the 2020 deal, it said.

Thousands of protesters on Thursday took to the streets, mainly in Khartoum but also elsewhere, to again call for civilian rule in the latest rally against the October coup led by Gen. Burhan, according to AFP correspondents.

The pro-democracy Central Committee of Sudan Doctors said security forces fired tear gas “in large quantities” to quell the protests.

Regular mass demonstrations have rocked Sudan since the coup which derailed a fragile political transition set in motion after the 2019 ouster of longtime autocrat Omar Bashir.

Demonstrations have been met by a violent crackdown which has so far killed at least 95 protesters and wounded hundreds of others, according to medics.

The UN, along with the African Union and regional bloc IGAD, have been pushing to facilitate Sudanese-led talks to resolve the crisis after the northeast African country’s latest coup.

UN special representative Volker Perthes in late March said the country was heading towards “an economic and security collapse” unless its civilian-led transition was restored.

The military leader threatened to expel Perthes for alleged “interference” in the country’s affairs.


Trawling Iraq’s threatened marshes to collect plastic waste

Updated 19 May 2022

Trawling Iraq’s threatened marshes to collect plastic waste

  • The swamps, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are one of the world’s largest inland deltas

CHIBAYISH: Iraq’s vast swamplands are the reputed home of the biblical Garden of Eden, but the waterways are drying out and becoming so clogged with waste their very existence is at risk, activists warn.

“For 6,000 or 7,000 years the inhabitants have protected the marshes,” said Raad Assadi, director of Chibayish Organization for Ecotourism, who this week began work on a boat to try to clear some of the worst areas of trash.

“But we have reached a stage where the marshes are threatened with extinction.”

The swamps, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are one of the world’s largest inland deltas.

The wetlands barely survived the wrath of dictator Saddam Hussein, who ordered they be drained in 1991 as punishment for communities protecting insurgents and to hunt them down.

But after Saddam was toppled, Iraq pledged to preserve the ecosystem and provide functional services to the marshland communities, and they were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016 both for their biodiversity and their ancient history.

Tourists have returned, but one of the main visible sources of pollution in the area are visitors who throw away their “plastic waste,” said Assadi.

After decades of brutal war, Iraq lacks structures for the collection and disposal of waste, and 70 percent of its industrial waste is dumped directly into rivers or the sea, according to data compiled by the UN and academics.

A team of 10 joins the boat, cruising the maze of narrow waterways to collect the piles of plastic bottles filling the channels, and erecting signs urging people to “respect our land,” and not to litter.

But it is far from the only threat: Iraq’s host of environmental problems, including drought and desertification, threaten access to water and livelihoods across the country.

The UN classifies Iraq “as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world” to climate change, having already witnessed record low rainfall and high temperatures in recent years.

The water level of the marsh is falling, a phenomenon accentuated by repeated droughts and by the dams built upstream of the two rivers, among Iraq’s upstream neighbors, Turkey and Iran.

“There is a threat to this ecosystem, which has significant biodiversity,” said French ambassador Eric Chevallier, at the launch on Thursday of the French-funded boat project.

Chevallier called for “much greater mobilization, Iraqi and international, to meet all the challenges” that a heating planet is causing.

A string of sandstorms in recent weeks have blanketed Iraq, with thousands needing medical care due to respiratory problems.

The Middle East has always been battered by dust and sandstorms, but they have become more frequent and intense in recent years.

The trend has been associated with overuse of river water, more dams, overgrazing and deforestation.

The rubbish collectors are not the only unusual team in the marshes: earlier this year, the Iraqi Green Climate Organization launched a veterinary ambulance to help farmers treat their water buffalo.


US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch

Updated 19 May 2022

US military review of civilian casualties in Syria flawed, claims Human Rights Watch

  • NGO accuses defense department of “refusal to hold itself accountable for civilian deaths” 
  • US Congress needs to urgently address the military’s handling of civilian harm, says HRW Washington director

LONDON: Internal US military reviews of operations resulting in civilian harm remain “fundamentally” flawed and require urgent redress despite pledges made last year, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
On Tuesday, the US Department of Defense released a public summary, but not the full report, of an airstrike it conducted against Syria in 2019 in which it acknowledged faults for the handling of the operation but found no one accountable.
Sarah Yager, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said: “It’s disappointing but not surprising the DOD has once again refused to hold itself accountable for civilian deaths.”
She added: “In addition to resolving obvious flaws in its investigative process, the US military should publish the full review, as a show of respect to the victims’ families and to prevent future abuses.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin initiated the review after a November New York Times article condemned an initial investigation for its failure to acknowledge that dozens of civilians had been killed by the strike on Baghouz in March 2019 and alleged individuals within the DOD had sought to cover up the extent of civilian harm.
Despite Austin’s intervention and pledge to create a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, HRW said this latest review failed in its commitments to transparency, lacked information from witnesses, used “an overly elastic definition of combatants” and did not provide amends for the civilians harmed.
The NGO claimed the DOD classified all adult males as combatants, regardless of their participation in hostilities, contravening international humanitarian law standards on distinguishing between civilians and combatants; relied on incorrect Syrian allies, rather than properly verifying information received; and provided no evidence of interviews with people outside the US military.
In a statement, HRW said: “Instead, it appears that the military reviewers relied upon the same incomplete information in the review that they relied upon to conduct the airstrike.”
Yager pointed to the failure to investigate as proof that the US Congress needed to intervene to urgently address the military’s handling of civilian harm.
“We had high hopes for Secretary Austin’s commitments earlier this year to reform, but the many missteps in this inquiry leave us deeply concerned that the US military hasn’t gotten the memo,” she said.


Outrage, shock among Fatah members over Birzeit University student election loss

Updated 19 May 2022

Outrage, shock among Fatah members over Birzeit University student election loss

  • Crushing defeat prompts calls for inquiry amid claims movement ‘is filled with mercenaries and intruders’
  • PA ‘leading us from defeat to defeat,’ says Fatah official after Hamas activist bloc takes control of student council

RAMALLAH: The crushing defeat of the Fatah-backed bloc in Birzeit University student council elections this week has caused shock and outrage among members and supporters of the movement, which is aligned with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In the wake of the defeat, one of its heaviest, Fatah says it will form a committee to study the cause of the loss and draw lessons.

The Fatah bloc’s rivals, a Hamas-linked activist group, won a landslide victory in the poll at the flagship West Bank university on Wednesday, a result that some observers believe signals a possible shift in Palestinian public opinion.

The loss is believed to be Fatah’s biggest since its defeat by Hamas in the 2005 legislative elections. 

Fatah has led the Palestinian struggle since its launch in 1965 and formed the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority since its establishment in 1994.

However, the Fatah bloc gained the lowest number of votes and seats since the start of the university elections in 1996, prompting the head of the Fatah movement in Ramallah and Al-Bireh, Muwafaq Suhwail, to resign.

Other members of the Fatah leadership in Ramallah are expected to quit in coming days amid demands for an inquiry into the defeat.

Suhwail called for an investigation into the election result, claiming the movement was filled with “mercenaries and intruders.”

Hamas, meanwhile, said that its victory sends “a message to the Palestinian Authority that security coordination will not bring rights to the Palestinian people.”

The group said that the “broad support confirms that it has become a leader of the national project, and resistance has become the choice of the Palestinian people.”

The Fatah loss will discourage the PA from organizing legislative or presidential elections of any kind from now on. The last legislative elections were scheduled in early 2005.

Hamas’ Al-Wafaa’ Islamic bloc won the Birzeit University election by a large margin, claiming 28 seats on the student council, the first time its candidates have gained control of the body. The Fatah movement won just 18 seats.

Fatah is reportedly trying to distance itself from the PA.

However, the movement’s supporters blame the election loss on the authority’s mistakes, as well as its policies regarding Israel and Palestinian citizens.

In an online post, former Hamas minister Mohammed Al-Barghouti wrote: “It is no longer convincing at all to try to convince people, especially university students, that the Palestinian Authority is one thing and the Fatah movement is another, especially since the head of the Fatah movement — the president of the Palestinian Authority — and the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization is the same president.”

Al-Barghouti said that all the “negatives and misfortunes of the PA are borne and paid for by the Fatah movement.”

In return, he said “all the privileges and benefits of the PA go to a few beneficiaries, most of whom are not from the Fatah movement and have never been among its cadres.”

Fatah needs to take bold decisions and develop a well-thought-out structure if it wants to restore its image and build confidence, he said.

One of the leaders of the Fatah movement in the West Bank, Walid Assaf, a former head of the Wall and Settlement Resistance Commission, wrote: “When the successful are held accountable, and the failures are rewarded, the price will be heavy on Fatah and the national project.”

Ahmed Ghuneim, a prominent Fatah leader in East Jerusalem, told Arab News: “Fatah cannot continue in this way. It is time for a decisive and courageous decision to be taken to stop this collapse and that the central committee bears responsibility for the weakness of Fatah.”

He added: “We in Fatah are paying the price for the failed decisions in the political, governmental, organizational and economic performance of the Palestinian Authority and leadership. This leadership knows and realizes that it is a problem, but they insist that they remain in power and lead us from defeat to defeat.”

However, Lt. Gen. Jibril Rajoub, Fatah central committee secretary-general, told Arab News that a committee meeting on Saturday will review the defeat and take necessary decisions.

“Our experience with this leadership is that they do not assess any loss, and if that happens, they do not take measures but blame the lower levels of the movement for their mistakes.”

Nasser Al-Kidwa, the former Palestinian foreign minister dismissed from Fatah by Abbas after criticizing the PA leader’s policies, told Arab News from his home in France: “The votes that went to Hamas do not necessarily mean that they support its policy, but rather to punish Fatah, which deserves punishment because it has committed enough mistakes to turn Palestinian public opinion against it.”


Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s Nordic enlargement fuels row ahead of June summit

Updated 19 May 2022

Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s Nordic enlargement fuels row ahead of June summit

  • Ankara accuses Finland and Sweden of harboring terror groups
  • Erdogan’s personal concern is staying in power ahead of looming elections in 2023 amid a troubled economy, analyst tells Arab News

ANKARA: Turkey’s opposition to NATO’s decision to open accession talks with Finland and Sweden has sparked debate about concessions Ankara might extract to greenlight membership for the two Scandinavian countries — the biggest change in European security architecture for decades. 

Any country seeking to join NATO requires consensus approval from its 30 members, with the next NATO summit in Madrid coming in late June. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that Ankara, a NATO member since 1952 and possessing the alliance’s second largest military, does not support membership for Finland and Sweden, accusing both countries of harboring terror groups.  

Turkey has told allies that it will say no to Sweden and Finland’s NATO applications, Erdogan said in a video posted on his Twitter account on Thursday.

“This move, which has poured cold water on expectations about Finland and Sweden’s ‘historic’ accession to the military alliance, was not really a surprise,” said Paul Levin, director of Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies.

Turkey has long criticized Sweden’s policy of turning a blind eye to the presence of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party on its soil despite being classified as terrorist group by the US and EU.  

However, for Levin, what Erdogan wants in return has a number of possible interpretations. 

“Sweden’s policy against the PKK and its Syrian Kurdish YPG offshoot in northern Syria was an issue of concern not only for the ruling government in Turkey, but also for the national security establishment for a long time. In that respect, the disagreement over this critical issue has been a widely-shared sentiment,” he told Arab News. 

Finland and Sweden have imposed arms embargoes since 2019 over Turkey’s cross-border operation into Syria against Syrian Kurdish militants. Contacts between top Swedish officials and YPG leaders have been condemned by Ankara.

But, for Levin, there is always a domestic political dimension behind such decisions in Turkey. 

“Erdogan’s personal concern is staying in power ahead of the looming elections in 2023 amid a troubled economy,” he said. 

“Playing hardball with the West is likely to appeal (to a) domestic audience and consolidate stronger public support that needs nationalistic motivations.”

However, Levin is not convinced Turkey’s opposition to NATO enlargement will persuade Washington to approve Turkey’s request in October to buy 40 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters, and approximately 80 modernization kits for its current warplanes, which the US has so far refrained from doing.

“The presence of (the) Russian-made S-400 defense system on Turkish soil renders the acquisition of the F-35 aircraft impossible because of the interoperability problems. I’m not sure that the US Congress can approve the sale of other modernization kits as well because it can be considered as a concession against Turkey’s blackmail,” he said.  

On Wednesday, Swedish Minister for Defense Peter Hultqvist held meetings with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin in Washington, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met with his US counterpart Antony Blinken in New York. 

Cavusoglu also held recent talks with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts in Berlin. 

“Negotiations are going on to reach a diplomatic resolution,” Levin said. 

“But, I don’t expect that Sweden (will) give some kind of public concessions on human rights that could drive the ruling Social Democrats into (a) corner ahead of the parliamentary elections in September.”

Sweden currently has six sitting Kurdish members of parliament.

“Giving up the Kurdish cause by extraditing 33 people accused of terrorism charges in Turkey will not play well with the Swedish government, as the country hosts a wide Kurdish diaspora,” Levin added.  

Turkey wants the Nordic duo to stop supporting Kurdish militant groups on their soil, to refrain from having contact with PKK members, and to lift bans on arms sales to Turkey.   

For Karol Wasilewski, director of actionable analytics at Warsaw-based agency NEOŚwiat, Turkey wants to show its NATO allies that it is dead serious when it says that its security interests, particularly its sensitivity about PKK and YPG issues, should be respected. 

“For a long time, and not without reason, Turkey has had a feeling that the approach of its allies to its security interests does not correspond to the country’s contribution to the alliance’s security,” he told Arab News.

But Wasilewski thinks that the problem will be solved with negotiations between Turkey, Sweden and Finland, with the support of the US and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. 

“Perhaps Erdogan’s statement that Turkey can’t agree on membership for countries that sanction Turkey was a signal of area where the compromise could be made,” he said.

“Turkey would definitely drive a hard bargain, but I find it very difficult to imagine that this would translate to a hard veto.

“Turkey is well aware of the benefits that Finish and Swedish membership to NATO would bring, and that blocking the enlargement would result in immense pressure from the rest of (the) member countries. And Turkey simply can’t afford a strong backlash from the West.”  

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, thinks that Turkey’s main objection to the Nordic expansion of NATO is rooted in existing PKK fundraising networks in Sweden, and Sweden’s public ties with YPG officials.  

“Following closed-door conversations, Sweden could take measures to satisfy Turkey’s sensitivities,” he told Arab News. 

Stoltenberg also made it clear that Turkey’s concerns will be addressed in a way that does not delay the membership process. 

Cagaptay thinks that there are several explanations about Erdogan’s hardline rhetoric on NATO enlargement. 

“He decided to up the ante to publicly embarrass Stockholm to get concrete steps,” Cagaptay said.  

“There is also a Russian angle, where one veto inside NATO against Nordic expansion would make Russian President Vladimir Putin extremely happy.

“On the US side, Erdogan also signals that his objection to the NATO enlargement may be lifted if Biden convinces Sen. Bob Menendez in lifting his objections against Turkish defense exports,” Cagaptay added.

The US continues its active diplomacy addressing Turkey’s objections, as US national security advisor Jake Sullivan said on Wednesday.

“Turkey’s concerns can be addressed. Finland and Sweden are working directly with Turkey. But we’re also talking to the Turks to try to help facilitate,” he said.

According to Cagaptay, this latest crisis, besides showing Turkey to be akin to a Russian ally inside NATO, has helped Erdogan to again project his global strongman image domestically. 

“At the end of the day, he will write a narrative of the political war he has waged against Europe, and will be emerging a winner of this fight,” he said.