Researchers pin hopes on pan-coronavirus vaccine to end the pandemic

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Medics carry out COVID-19 vaccinations during a mass campaign in the Bneid Al-Gar district of Kuwait City on October 11, 2021. (AFP)
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A man receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during a mass vaccination exercise at Wuse market in Abuja, Nigeria on January 26, 2022. (REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde)
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A health worker inoculates a youth with a dose of the Covaxine vaccine at a primary health centre in Hyderabad on January 29, 2022. (Photo by Noah Seelam / AFP)
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A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a mobile vaccine clinic bus at the Grand Bazaar of Tehran, Iran, on Jan. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
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A teenager receives a dose of Russia's Sputnik M (Gam-COVID-Vac-M) COVID-19 vaccine in Krasnodar, Russia, on Jan. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Vitaliy Timkiv)
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Morocco's King Mohammed VI, center, is briefed about a anti-COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing plant being launched by Recipharm Company in Ben Slimane, 50 km south of Rabat, on Jan. 27, 2022. (AP)
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Updated 01 February 2022

Researchers pin hopes on pan-coronavirus vaccine to end the pandemic

  • Current vaccines have reduced the severity of COVID-19 symptoms, but emerging variants remain a challenge 
  • A pan-coronavirus vaccine could be a game-changer, but only if the global distribution gap is addressed

DUBAI: When a handful of pharmaceutical firms began the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines in early 2021, many thought the worst of the pandemic was over. Indeed, the idea of a tangible weapon against the virus that had killed millions and devastated economies worldwide was temporarily empowering.

Within months, a selection of vaccines hit the market, with countries racing to secure enough doses for their populations in the hope of preventing further disruption. More than 9 billion doses later, with about half the global population “fully vaccinated,” it seemed as though the tide was finally turning against the virus and that normal life could soon resume.



Sadly, such optimism would prove short-lived. Although the vaccine roll-out reduced the severity of COVID-19 symptoms, alleviating pressure on hospitals and saving many lives, scientists have struggled to contain mutations of the virus, including the latest highly transmissible omicron variant, which has broken through the vaccine shield.

This has forced pharmaceutical firms to return to the drawing board to consider variant-specific vaccines, an extended booster program to prolong immunity, or even “universal” vaccines that can tackle every variant of the virus. Such a pan-coronavirus vaccine could become publicly available in the not too distant future.

Emmanuel Kouvousis

“I believe a fourth (omicron specific) dose could become available in another six to nine months, as long as the omicron variant is dominant,” Emmanuel Kouvousis, a senior scientific adviser at Vesta Care, told Arab News. “However, if another more disruptive variant emerges, then we need to consider a scenario where we get a booster shot every three months.”

Kouvousis says a change in seasons could help delay the emergence of a new variant as the spread of the virus tends to slow in the spring and summer months. This could offer scientists a window of opportunity to get ahead of new variants.

“Many people ask if there will be a solution to this pandemic, and I say absolutely,” Kouvousis said. “There is huge hope that this pandemic will end, firstly because billions of people have been vaccinated and many others have been persuaded that the only way out of this is through vaccines, and secondly, because of a pan-COVID or ‘universal’ vaccine, which is currently in the testing phase.”

With billions of people already vaccinated, it is hoped that the COVID-19 pandemic will end. (AFP file photo)

Last year, the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases awarded $36.3 million to three academic institutions — Duke University, the University of Wisconsin, and Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital — to research and develop universal vaccines.

“We want a pan-coronavirus vaccine so that you have it on the shelf to respond to the next viral pandemic,” Anthony Fauci, the White House chief medical adviser, told NBC in January.

Separately, he told a Senate committee the development of a universal coronavirus vaccine could help the world tackle the next pandemic. “There’s a lot of investment, not only in improving the vaccines that we have for SARS-CoV-2, but a lot of work ... to develop the next generation of vaccines, particularly universal coronavirus vaccines,” he said at the hearing.

Among the scientists working on the vaccine are a team at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Reporting promising results in animals, their version of the universal vaccine is known as the SARS-COV-2-Spike-Ferritin-Nanoparticle (SpFN) vaccine, currently in phase 1 of human trials.

So far, the three-dose vaccine has been tested with two jabs 28 days apart followed by a third shot six months later. Kayvon Modjarrad, co-inventor of SpFN, said in a press statement that the new vaccine uses a harmless portion of the COVID-19 virus to build up the body’s defenses.

This method follows the same used in developing universal flu vaccines, an approach that is different to that used in three of the most popular COVID-19 vaccines today.  

COVID-19 has proved to be tougher than earlier thought, mutating into numerous variants as vaccine experts try to suppress it. (AFP file photo)

Vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna use messenger RNA (mRNA) to teach cells how to make a protein that will trigger an immune response inside the body, thereby building immunity. Meanwhile, others like the Johnson & Johnson vaccine use a harmless rhinovirus to train the immune system to respond to COVID-19.

Despite the huge progress made in vaccine production and distribution over the past year, the coronavirus, with its ever-growing family of variants, all named after letters of the Greek alphabet, continues to defy efforts to find the proverbial silver bullet.

Confidence among the fully vaccinated plummeted in the run-up to the winter holidays after the World Health Organization named omicron a variant of concern. It went on to infect a record number of people within a matter of days, pushing many countries to reimpose containment measures.

As COVID-19 continues to defy international efforts to put it under control, booster shots are being widely administered to maintain immunity. (AFP file photo)

Soon, millions of vaccinated people were informed that they would need a third or even a fourth dose to avoid becoming seriously ill. Even people who have already had the virus have been reinfected with the new variant.

Some countries, such as the UK, are working toward herd immunity, lifting almost all restrictions on travel and public spaces. However, Kouvousis is skeptical that herd immunity can be achieved through mass infection.

“It can only come about through vaccinations and having 90 percent of the world’s population fully vaccinated within a reasonable time span in order to avoid the emergence of new mutations,” he said.

In the meantime, booster shots are being widely administered in developed countries to maintain immunity. But even with a booster, experts say that the public should continue to follow hygiene and social distancing advice.

“The key after getting a booster shot is to wear the mask properly, which very few people do,” Dr. Gregory Poland, founder of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, told Arab News. “The vaccines we have are predominantly disease-blocking and less so infection-blocking.”

Dr. Gregory Poland, founder of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group.

Part of the reason why developing nations are so far behind with the roll-out is the continuing monopolization of vaccine production and distribution by a few key players: AstraZeneca, BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer.

Just 10 percent of the African continent is currently immunized against the virus, leaving a gap for future dominant mutations to arise in these countries. Experts such as Poland want pharmaceutical firms to suspend their patents and share their vaccine formulas with smaller regional outfits, allowing them to produce shots closer to the point of need.

“This is a potentially important strategy,” he said. “Each sovereign nation gets to decide how to organize itself and protect its people. This includes national production facilities of those items critical to the well-being of the population or viable partnerships with other producers of the goods they need.”

To try and meet local demand and bridge the gap, several countries are working on their own generic vaccines and drugs to fight the virus. For instance, India’s first mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine “HGCO19” aims to offer protection against omicron specifically.

The vaccine, developed by Gennova Biopharmaceuticals Ltd., is set to begin human trials in the near future after early studies found the vaccine to be “safe, tolerable and immunogenic.” Similarly, Egypt’s first coronavirus vaccine, called “COVI-VAX,” is in the testing phase.

Meanwhile, the Philippines, which has one of Asia’s lowest vaccination rates, has authorized the use of a recombinant vaccine called “ReCOV” developed in China by Jiangsu Recbio Technology Co., as the country lacks the capacity to develop one of its own.

A Filipino resident receives a booster jab in Manila on Jan. 27, 2022 amidst rising COVID-19 infections driven by Omicron variant. (Maria Tan / AFP) 

While still in its second phase of clinical trials, preliminary studies show that ReCOV has a sufficient neutralization effect on COVID-19 variants such as omicron and its earlier delta iteration.

Distribution has also been a major issue for hard-to-reach communities in the developing world. Shipping firms such as DHL have played a pivotal role in delivering vaccines, carting some 1.85 billion doses to 174 countries to date. But unless local authorities handle the cargo correctly on arrival, shots can be wasted.

“Vaccines are high value, extremely sensitive, and temperature-controlled items,” Fatima Ait Bendawad, head of DHL Global Humanitarian Logistics Competency Center in Dubai, told Arab News. “Any misstep in the logistics chain would result in potential loss of lives because the vulnerable can’t get to them on time.”

For Kouvousis, the problem is not entirely confined to the matter of production or distribution. In many cases, vaccination campaigns have proved slow or ineffective owing to the poor state of medical institutions in developing nations.

“The major players have the infrastructure to produce what is needed for the whole world,” Kouvousis said. “But some countries don’t have the infrastructure, the facilities or the education to use them effectively.”

After two years of ups and downs in the fight against the pandemic, the emergence of a pan-coronavirus vaccine would be a global game-changer. However, unless production and distribution are streamlined and enough people are administered shots in a short space of time, the opportunity to end the pandemic this year could yet be missed.

British PM Boris Johnson resigns amid Conservative Party revolt

Updated 07 July 2022

British PM Boris Johnson resigns amid Conservative Party revolt

  • Eight ministers, two secretaries of state resigned a few hours earlier
  • Conservatives will now have to elect a new leader, which could take two months

ISLAMABAD: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced he was resigning from office on Thursday, after a revolt within the Conservative Party and desertion from ministers who said he is no longer fit to remain in office.  

With eight ministers, including two secretaries of state, resigning in the last two hours, an isolated and powerless Johnson was set to bow to the inevitable and declare his resignation.  

After days of battling for his job, Johnson had been abandoned by all but a handful of allies after the latest in a series of scandals broke their willingness to support him. 

In June 2020, he was fined for breaking lockdown rules by attending a gathering on his birthday. During the first lockdown in the UK, he also apologized for going to a “bring your booze” party in the Downing Street garden.  

However, his botched handling of a British MP who was accused of groping two men in a drunken state is what triggered resignations from government ministers and allies.  

“I am sad to be giving up the best job in the world,” Johnson said in a press statement from 10 Downing Street in London. 

The Conservatives will now have to elect a new leader, a process that could take about two months. The British prime minister said he would give as much support as he can to his successor. 

“To that new leader, I say I will give you as much support as I can,” said Johnson.  

Johnson was seen as a contemporary British politician, much opposed to the conventional Conservatives. His achievements include winning two terms as mayor of London, normally a Labour stronghold, and helped convince millions to back Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum. 

He became prime minister in July 2019 without winning an election but went on to register a landslide victory four months later.  

Finland amends law to bolster Russia border fence

Updated 07 July 2022

Finland amends law to bolster Russia border fence

  • Finland reversed decades of military non-alignment by seeking membership in NATO in May
  • As it stands, Finland’s borders are secured primarily with light wooden fences

HELSINKI: Finnish parliament passed legislation Thursday to build stronger fences on its border with Russia, as the country seeks to join NATO following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Finland reversed decades of military non-alignment by seeking membership in the military alliance in May, formally starting the process to join this week.
Fearing that Moscow could use migrants to exert political pressure, the new amendments to Border Guard Act facilitate the construction of sturdier fences on the Nordic country’s 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) eastern border with Russia.
The aim of the law is to “improve the operational capacity of the border guard in responding to the hybrid threats,” Anne Ihanus, a senior adviser at the interior ministry, said.
“The war in Ukraine has contributed to the urgency of the matter,” she added.
As it stands, Finland’s borders are secured primarily with light wooden fences, mainly designed to stop livestock from wandering to the wrong side.
“What we are aiming to build now is a sturdy fence with a real barrier effect,” Sanna Palo, director of the Finnish border guards’ legal division, said.
“In all likelihood, the fence will not cover the entire eastern border, but will be targeted at locations considered to be the most important,” Palo said.
The new law makes it also possible to close border crossings and concentrate asylum seekers at specific points, in the event of large-scale crossover attempt.
Helsinki also passed amendments to Emergency Powers Act to make the definition of “emergency” better take account of various hybrid threats.

Minneapolis police officer convicted in George Floyd’s death awaits federal sentencing

Updated 07 July 2022

Minneapolis police officer convicted in George Floyd’s death awaits federal sentencing

  • Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pleaded guilty to the federal civil rights charges in December

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is due to be sentenced in federal court on Thursday for violating the civil rights of George Floyd, a year after a state court sent him to prison for more than two decades for murdering Floyd in an arrest.
Chauvin pleaded guilty to the federal civil rights charges in December in the US District Court in St. Paul, Minnesota, a decision that averted a second trial but almost certainly extended his time behind bars.
Chauvin, who is white, admitted he violated Floyd’s right not to face “unreasonable seizure” by kneeling on the handcuffed Black man’s neck for more than 9 minutes in a murder captured on cellphone video that horrified people around the world.
A state court has already sentenced Chauvin to 22-1/2 years in prison for intentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. People sentenced to prison for felonies in Minnesota are usually released on parole after serving two-thirds of their sentence.
Chauvin’s guilty plea to the federal charges came as part of an agreement with prosecutors that said he would face between 20 and 25 years in federal prison.
In that agreement he admitted for the first time that he was to blame for Floyd’s death.
Floyd could be seen in videos pleading for his life before falling still on the road beneath Chauvin’s knee. A medical examiner ruled the police restraint stopped Floyd from being able to breathe.
Federal prosecutors have asked Judge Paul Magnuson to sentence Chauvin to 25 years, a sentence that would run concurrently with the state one.
Floyd’s murder sparked one of the biggest protest movements seen in the United States, with daily marches to decry racism and brutality in US policing. Chauvin was helping three colleagues to arrest Floyd in May 2020 on suspicion Floyd had used a fake $20 bill when buying cigarettes.
The three other former police officers who worked to arrest Floyd — Tou Thao, J. Alexander Keung and Thomas Lane — were found guilty in the same federal court in February of violating Floyd’s rights. They are yet to receive a sentencing date.

Russian defense ministry says warplane hit Ukrainian troops on Snake Island

Updated 07 July 2022

Russian defense ministry says warplane hit Ukrainian troops on Snake Island

  • Russian forces withdrew from Snake Island in the Black Sea on June 30

Russia’s defense ministry said on Thursday that a Russian warplane struck Ukraine’s Snake Island in the Black Sea overnight, shortly after Ukrainian troops claimed to have raised their flag over the island.
Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian President’s chief of staff, posted a video on Telegram on Thursday of three soldiers raising a large Ukrainian flag on the island, from which Russian forces withdrew on June 30.

Boris Johnson quits as UK prime minister - but not straight away

Updated 4 min 29 sec ago

Boris Johnson quits as UK prime minister - but not straight away

  • ‘The process of choosing that new leader should begin now. And today I have appointed a cabinet to serve, as I will until a new leader is in place’

LONDON: Scandal-ridden Boris Johnson announced on Thursday he would quit as British prime minister after he was abandoned by ministers and most of his Conservative lawmakers.

Bowing to the inevitable as more than 50 ministers quit and lawmakers said he must go, an isolated and powerless Johnson spoke outside his Downing Street to confirm he would resign.

“The process of choosing that new leader should begin now. And today I have appointed a cabinet to serve, as I will until a new leader is in place,” Johnson said.

After days of battling for his job, the scandal-plagued Johnson had been deserted by all but a handful of allies after the latest in a series of scandals broke their willingness to support him.

“His resignation was inevitable,” Justin Tomlinson, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, said on Twitter. “As a party we must quickly unite and focus on what matters. These are serious times on many fronts.”

The Conservatives will now have to elect a new leader, a process which could take weeks or months.

A snap YouGov poll found that defense minister Ben Wallace was the favorite among Conservative Party members to replace Johnson, followed by junior trade minister Penny Mordaunt and former finance minister Rishi Sunak.

Many said he should leave immediately and hand over to his deputy, Dominic Raab, saying he had lost the trust of his party.

Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said he would call a parliamentary confidence vote if the Conservatives did not remove Johnson at once.

“If they don’t get rid of him, then Labour will step up in the national interest and bring a vote of no confidence because we can’t go on with this prime minister clinging on for months and months to come,” he said.

The crisis comes as Britons are facing the tightest squeeze on their finances in decades, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with soaring inflation, and the economy forecast to be the weakest among major nations in 2023 apart from Russia.

It also follows years of internal division sparked by the narrow 2016 vote to leave the European Union, and threats to the make-up of the United Kingdom itself with demands for another Scottish independence referendum, the second in a decade.

Support for Johnson had evaporated during one of the most turbulent 24 hours in recent British political history, epitomised by finance minister, Nadhim Zahawi, who was only appointed to his post on Tuesday, calling on his boss to resign.

Zahawi and other cabinet ministers had gone to Downing Street on Wednesday evening, along with a senior representative of those lawmakers not in government, to tell Johnson the game was up.

Initially, Johnson refused to go and seemed set to dig in, sacking Michael Gove — a member of his top ministerial team who was one of the first to tell him he needed to resign — in a bid to reassert his authority.

One ally had told the Sun newspaper that party rebels would “have to dip their hands in blood” to get rid of Johnson.

But by Thursday morning as a slew of resignations poured in, it became clear his position was untenable.

“This is not sustainable and it will only get worse: for you, for the Conservative Party and most importantly of all the country,” Zahawi said on Twitter. “You must do the right thing and go now.”

Some of those that remained in post, including defense minister Ben Wallace, said they were only doing so because they had an obligation to keep the country safe.

There had been so many ministerial resignations that the government had been facing paralysis. Despite his impending departure, Johnson began appointing ministers to vacant posts.

“It is our duty now to make sure the people of this country have a functioning government,” Michael Ellis, a minister in the Cabinet Office department which oversees the running of government, told parliament.

The ebullient Johnson came to power nearly three years ago, promising to deliver Brexit and rescue it from the bitter wrangling that followed the 2016 referendum.

Since then, some Conservatives had enthusiastically backed the former journalist and London mayor while others, despite reservations, supported him because he was able to appeal to parts of the electorate that usually rejected their party.

That was borne out in the December 2019 election. But his administration’s combative and often chaotic approach to governing and a series of scandals exhausted the goodwill of many of his lawmakers while opinion polls show he is no longer popular with the public at large.

The recent crisis erupted after lawmaker Chris Pincher, who held a government role involved in pastoral care, was forced to quit over accusations he groped men in a private member’s club.

Johnson had to apologize after it emerged that he was briefed that Pincher had been the subject of previous sexual misconduct complaints before he appointed him. The prime minister said he had forgotten.

This followed months of scandals and missteps, including a damning report into boozy parties at his Downing Street residence and office that broke COVID-19 lockdown rules and saw him fined by police over a gathering for his 56th birthday.

There have also been policy U-turns, an ill-fated defense of a lawmaker who broke lobbying rules, and criticism that he has not done enough to tackle inflation, with many Britons struggling to cope with rising fuel and food prices.

“It should have happened long ago,” Labour’s Starmer said. “He was always unfit for office. He has been responsible for lies, scandal and fraud on an industrial scale.”