Afghanistan’s red gold ‘saffron’ termed world’s best

Afghanistan’s red gold ‘saffron’ termed world’s best
Workers harvest saffron flowers in a field in Herat province, Afghanistan. (AFP)
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Updated 22 December 2019

Afghanistan’s red gold ‘saffron’ termed world’s best

Afghanistan’s red gold ‘saffron’ termed world’s best
  • Afghan farmers who previously grew poppies, raw material for opium and heroin, now cultivate saffron

KABUL: For decades Afghanistan has earned worldwide notoriety for its production of drugs. However, in recent years, local farmers have turned to the cultivation of saffron, a far more lucrative crop that has been recognized as the best globally for eight successive years, officials said on Saturday.

The war-ravaged country last year produced more than eight metric tons of the plant, described by some analysts as “red gold.” One kilogram of saffron sells locally for at least $1,200 and in world markets it can even be traded for $4,000, officials said, while the price of opium can fetch far less, apart from being an illegitimate trade.

The saffron cultivated and produced in Afghanistan has been recognized as the best in the world in quality for the eighth consecutive year, a member of the Saffron Producers Union in Kabul told a news conference.

“Every year, there is an improvement in saffron cultivation and production, and this improves the quality of our saffron,” said Bashir Ahmad Rashidi, head of the union.

According to the union, the quality and taste of the Afghan saffron were evaluated at an institution in Belgium and the local saffron’s color and taste made it the best worldwide.

Iran and India have been among the top producers of saffron while Afghanistan with its 6.3 percent output holds third position, Akbar Rustami, spokesman for the ministry of agriculture, told Arab News.

“We are talking about tens of millions of dollars of income for farmers, growers and a big boost for the economy of the country,” he said.

Shafi Samim, an economic expert, said: “Afghanistan’s saffron has earned global fame, it is called “red gold” and has become one of the country’s top items of exports.”

He said that 23 out of 34 provinces in Afghanistan that had grown poppies, the raw material for opium and heroin, now cultivate saffron, with Herat being in the vanguard of production.

Abdul Saboor Rahmani, head of the agriculture department of Herat, told Arab News that the province produced seven tons of saffron last year.

“More and more farmers now grow saffron, because its financially beneficial and is not haram like drugs.”

Hajji Ibrahim, a saffron dealer in Herat, said that people in some areas of only one of the 15 districts of Herat now grow opium while the rest cultivate saffron both because of its income and due to Islam, which has forbidden drugs.

“Saffron has given Afghanistan a good name in world markets; farmers in many parts of Afghanistan now have turned to it,” he told Arab News.

The private sector has played a major role in the production of the lucrative plant, which has found its way into markets such as Europe and Saudi Arabia, officials said.

Apart from its saffron, Afghanistan’s fruits and nuts, especially pine nuts, have in recent years made it to global markets, providing hundreds of millions of dollars for the country.

Last month it struck a deal with China to export thousands of pine nuts as part of a multibillion-dollar agreement.


UK’s vaccine approval raises world’s hopes for COVID-19 fight 

Updated 55 min 32 sec ago

UK’s vaccine approval raises world’s hopes for COVID-19 fight 

UK’s vaccine approval raises world’s hopes for COVID-19 fight 
  • Light at the end of the tunnel as Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine wins UK regulatory body’s approval
  • Rollout next week raises hopes of ending pandemic and rebuilding economies by mid-2021

LONDON: The news that Britain has approved the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer/BioNTech has raised expectations that other countries could also begin immunizations in the near future and slowly bring the curtain down on a pandemic that disrupted the global social and economic order like no other event in living memory.

Trials have shown that the Pfizer/BionTech shot offers 95 percent protection against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which to date has infected 64 million people worldwide and killed nearly 1.5 million since it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

The approval by Britain’s medicines regulator, MHRA, means a mass vaccination campaign could begin in the UK as early as next week, with the first 800,000 doses distributed to the elderly and most vulnerable as a priority. The government has already ordered some 40 million doses — enough to vaccinate 20 million people.

Recipients will be given two injections, spaced 21 days apart, with immunity developing after the first dose. Its full effect kicks in around a week after the second booster. Scientists say the side effects are mild and tend to last no more than a day or two. Pfizer/BioNTech has priced the vaccine at around $19.50 per dose, or $39 per patient.

“With 450 people dying of COVID-19 infection every day in the UK, the benefits of rapid vaccine approval outweigh the potential risks,” Andrew Hill, senior visiting research fellow in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Liverpool, told Reuters news agency.

The messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine itself is truly revolutionary, taking a small fragment of genetic code from COVID-19 to train the body’s immune response to recognize the virus. Until Wednesday, nothing like it had been approved for use in humans.

This announcement came as a huge relief to publics, businesses and governments worldwide after months of lockdown measures, crippling pressure on health services and grinding economic turmoil. It is also expected to calm anxiety and stress as families and individuals forced to remain indoors and separated from loved ones see the first glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again,” Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said in his remarks lauding the approval.

Pfizer/BioNTech announced the success of its phase three advanced trials in early November — a remarkable feat given it only began work 10 months ago. Vaccine development can take up to a decade under normal circumstances.

Since then, US pharmaceutical giant Moderna and the UK’s Oxford University/AstraZeneca team have unveiled their own workable vaccines — a reassuring sign that the virus can be fought on multiple fronts.

Although the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is highly effective, it is also expensive, must be stored in special boxes packed in dry ice at -70 C, and can only be kept in a fridge for five days once delivered. For developing countries, the high cost and logistical challenges could prove prohibitive. If more vaccine approvals follow in the coming days and weeks, governments will likely shop around for the best deal.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson wearing a face mask because of the coronavirus pandemic leaves number 10 Downing Street in central London on December 2, 2020, to take part in the Prime Minister Question (PMQs) session in the House of Commons. (AFP)

The Moderna vaccine, which uses the same mRNA model employed by Pfizer/BioNTech, had an equally impressive efficacy rate (95 percent) in phase three trials. Better yet, it is stable at normal refrigerator temperatures of 2-8 C for up to 30 days, and can be stored for months at -20 C.

The Oxford team has found a lower-cost alternative with an average of 70 percent effectiveness but which can be stored at fridge temperature. The vaccine, which adapts a chimpanzee virus that is harmless to humans to train the immune system, may prove a far more practical option for developing countries.

Although this is all positive news, experts have repeatedly cautioned that the world should not expect the pandemic to be fixed overnight. Production, distribution and repairing the economic damage caused by the lockdowns will take several months assuming no new, unforeseeable problems crop up.

“Distribution of the vaccines across the whole of the globe means that there will be a substantial time lag before COVID-19 is truly tamed, with more and greater personal and economic losses along the way,” Dr. John C. Hulsman, president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, said in a recent oped for Arab News.

The UK news has raised expectations that other countries could also begin immunizations in the near future and slowly bring the curtain down on a pandemic that disrupted the global social and economic order like nothing else in living memory. (AFP/File Photo)

“It is estimated it will take until the end of next summer (August or September) before the virus is fully under control and the world can begin to breathe again and return to normal. Even then, humanity will not yet be out of the woods, as it is unclear how long the immunity the vaccines offer will last.”

Several countries, including some in the Middle East, are involved in talks with leading companies and research institutes engaged in various phases of trials. The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, is engaged in preparatory talks with countries on ways to ensure prompt and fair distribution of successful vaccine candidates. 

Many nations, including Arab countries with strong relations with potential producer states, began talks earlier this year with a view to obtaining a vaccine. “I know that most ministries of health have had talks with Moderna and AstraZeneca to book their quantities,” Belal Zuiter, senior consultant at Cambridge Pharma Consultancy in London, told Arab News in August. “I think the Arab world will have enough doses within the first two or three months after a vaccine is produced.”

On Nov. 27, Saudi Pharmaceutical Industries and Medical Appliances Corp. (SPIMACO) signed an agreement with German biopharmaceutical company CureVac to supply and distribute a coronavirus vaccine in the Kingdom. The CureVac vaccine successfully passed the first phase of clinical trials with more than 90 percent effectiveness in early November.

A Saudi and German pharmaceutical deal signed in November includes the possibility of extending the supply and distribution rights to the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. (AFP/File Photo)

The agreement includes the possibility of extending the supply and distribution rights to the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman.

“Saudi Arabia will be one of the first countries to receive the vaccines,” Abdullah Al-Assiri, assistant deputy minister for preventive health, said during an interview on Saudia TV in early November. Saudi health officials have previously announced plans to offer free vaccinations by the end of 2021 to 70 percent of residents who have not contracted the virus.

Incidentally, several Arab countries were among those that formally expressed their interest in participating in the COVAX facility, described as an “insurance policy” to access COVID-19 vaccines. The mechanism is designed to guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to the world’s largest and most-diverse vaccine portfolio.

“The idea behind COVAX is just to make sure all countries, whether rich or middle-income or low-income, will be able to access at least enough supplies of the vaccine for priority groups,” Dr. Abdinasir Abubakar, head of Infectious Hazard Management Unit at WHO’s Cairo office, told Arab News earlier.

Once a vaccine has been approved by regulatory agencies and/or prequalified by WHO, the COVAX facility will then purchase these vaccines to try and initially provide doses for an average of 20 percent of each country’s population, focusing on healthcare workers and the most vulnerable groups.

The goal is to deliver 2 billion doses by the end of 2021.

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Twitter: @RobertPEdwards