Researchers begin trials of COVID-19 vaccine

Researchers begin trials of COVID-19 vaccine
In this file photo taken on February 10, 2020 Doctor Paul McKay, who is working on an vaccine for the 2019-nCoV strain of the novel coronavirus poses for a photograph using a pipette expresses coronavirus onto surface protein to apply cell cultures, in a research lab at Imperial College School of Medicine (ICSM) in London on February 10, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 23 May 2020

Researchers begin trials of COVID-19 vaccine

Researchers begin trials of COVID-19 vaccine
  • Oxford group could have 1 million doses ready by September if successful
  • The trial, now in its second phase following preliminary testing on a small sample size of 160 patients, will involve people of all age demographics

LONDON: A team of researchers has begun recruiting volunteers for clinical trials of a vaccine against COVID-19, while another team has started work on a treatment that may help critically ill patients recover from the disease.

Research at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University, carried out in conjunction with an organization called the Oxford Vaccine Group, has been ongoing since January, with scientists now looking to recruit in excess of 10,000 people to take part in further trials following preliminary efforts in April.
The trial, now in its second phase following preliminary testing on a small sample size of 160 patients, will involve people of all age demographics — from children older than 5 years to the elderly — to help test the effectiveness of the vaccine, called ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, in a wider variety of people.
The vaccine — which was developed using an altered virus that affects chimpanzees, combined with the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, SARS-CoV-2 — had positive effects in animal trials.
It will now be given to subjects alongside a licensed vaccine, MenACWY, which is used to combat meningitis and blood poisoning, which will serve as a “control comparison.”
It is one of only four major vaccine trials currently taking place worldwide, though over 100 experimental vaccines are known to be in development.
The head of the Oxford Vaccine Group, Prof. Andrew Pollard, said: “The clinical studies are progressing very well, and we are now initiating studies to evaluate how well the vaccine induces immune responses in older adults, and to test whether it can provide protection in the wider population.”
Preparation for mass production of the vaccine is already underway in anticipation of the trial proving successful.
The Oxford team has said it expects to have around a million units of the vaccine ready for use by September should that prove to be the case.
This week, pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca said it had the capacity to make a billion doses of the Oxford vaccine, and had secured an agreement to produce at least 400 million doses.
Meanwhile, scientists working at King’s College, London, as well as the city’s Francis Crick Institute and Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospital, have started clinical trials of a drug called interleukin 7 to test its effects on combating COVID-19.
Interleukin 7 is known to boost a certain kind of human immune system cell, known as a T-cell, which is vital for clearing the body of infection.
A common theme among particularly serious cases of COVID-19 is a low T-cell count, though it is not yet known why. It is hoped that the introduction of the drug to patients suffering low counts may aid their recovery. The Crick Institute’s Prof. Adrian Hayday said: “They (the T-cells) are trying to protect us, but the virus seems to be doing something that’s pulling the rug from under them, because their numbers (in tested patients) have declined dramatically.”
The team believes that as well as boosting T-cell levels in critical patients, the findings of the trial may help develop a “fingerprint test” to check T-cell levels in the blood, which could help identify at an early stage patients at risk of developing more critical symptoms.
The team also hopes it will lead to the development of a treatment specifically aimed at reversing the effects of T-cell decline in COVID-19 patients.
“The virus that has caused this completely earth-changing emergency is unique — it’s different. It is something unprecedented,” said Hayday. “This virus is really doing something distinct, and future research — which we will start immediately — needs to find out the mechanism by which this virus is having these effects.”


Faith communities urged to work together to protect women

Faith communities urged to work together to protect women
Updated 09 March 2021

Faith communities urged to work together to protect women

Faith communities urged to work together to protect women
  • ‘Pandemic has brought forth gender-based violence statistical explosion,’ UN official says at forum attended by Arab News

LONDON: Speakers at the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity’s (HCHF) Women’s 2021 Forum, attended by Arab News, have urged religious communities to work together in tackling gender violence and the coronavirus pandemic.

This came in the wake of the pope’s visit to Iraq to meet Christians and leaders of other faiths, including top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, which several speakers highlighted as an example of the power of cooperation.

Irina Bokova, former director-general of UNESCO, recalled that the HCHF’s establishment came after the signing of a document of human fraternity by the pope and Egypt’s Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb in 2019, which urged “reconciliation of all the world’s citizens for the sake of universal peace.”

Azza Karam, senior advisor on culture at the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), called the document “historic in every possible sense,” on account of it being a “commitment from two leading men of two of the largest religious establishments in the world. The fact that they can reiterate these points in a document in which they commit to the fraternity of humanity in and of itself is a remarkably valuable point.”

Karam, though, said a growing movement toward greater religious tolerance and cooperation at higher levels had been curtailed by COVID-19.

“What we see is (an) epidemic of gender-based violence that has taken (on) massive proportions, because we’re talking about a shrinking civil society space (where) those who help those gender-based violence survivors are civic institutions, before the governmental ones step in,” she added.

Karam said problems remain in responding to crises, from the pandemic to gender-based violence, because of a lack of coordination between secular and religious institutions, as well as between organizations belonging to different faiths.

“Civil society institutions are our future. Secular and religious civil spaces often operate in distinction from one other. There are very rare moments when we see a society convene the religious and the secular. What COVID-19 has helped us do is force us to look beyond the parameters and the boundaries of our traditional partnerships,” she added.

“We can’t afford to let the religions respond to humanitarian emergencies separately. We must encourage and support them to work together with one another, and to work with the secular institutions.”

UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem agreed, raising the specter of gender-based violence as an area where religious communities need to do more to help women, especially with rates of violence heightened by the circumstances caused by the pandemic.

“People of faith are called to uphold the values the HCHF represents. My concern is to make clear — there’s a pandemic within a pandemic that began ages and millennia ago. The respect and value of women must start with the girl child who must be encouraged to understand that she is the equal of everyone on the planet, and that her aspirations are important,” she said.

“This pandemic has brought forth a gender-based violence statistical explosion, but long before the pandemic, the truth is that on average one in three females experienced some form of gender-based violence or harassment during her lifetime,” she added.

“The UN … is working deeply with governments … to support responses. The increasing rates of domestic violence have been a challenge, calling on all of us to adapt very quickly,” Kanem said.

“You can imagine if someone is in lockdown, locked in with an abusive partner, the ability to contact someone, have someone visit, have a hotline, can be lifesaving. We’re paying attention to the prevention of violence, and in this sense I think the community of faith has the responsibility to de-stigmatize women and girls who come forward to complain, to say that they’re uneasy or that something is wrong,” she added.

“Girls out of school are much more available for child marriage, the promulgation of female genital mutilation, and other things that can be done to them against their will,” Kanem said, adding that it is “very important for communities, traditional leaders and faith leaders” to do more to stop violence against women.


UK politicians highlight Iran’s ‘appalling’ treatment of women

UK politicians highlight Iran’s ‘appalling’ treatment of women
Updated 08 March 2021

UK politicians highlight Iran’s ‘appalling’ treatment of women

UK politicians highlight Iran’s ‘appalling’ treatment of women
  • Parliamentarians slam ‘brutal theocracy’ at International Women’s Day event attended by Arab News
  • European governments urged to take tougher stance against Tehran

LONDON: British parliamentarians have denounced Iran’s “appalling” treatment of women on International Women’s Day, and urged their government and European counterparts to take a tougher stance against Tehran.

At an online event on Monday hosted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and attended by Arab News, politicians from the UK’s House of Commons and House of Lords — most of them members of the British Committee for Iran Freedom — said women in Iran live as second-class citizens under a system of gender apartheid.

“When I look at what the women of Iran have had to endure in terms of their rights, their health, their roles in society in general, I realize how limited their rights are and how brave they are when they object,” said Amber Rudd, an MP and former Cabinet minister.

“In Iran, women have to endure a religious regime that gives them few rights. They don’t have the freedom to choose how to live their life, to the law, or to welfare benefits to survive.”

She praised the tenacity and courage of Iranian women for the central role they have played in overtly and covertly resisting the regime.

“In Iran, it’s so much more difficult to challenge the regime — difficult, illegal and above all dangerous. But it’s fascinating to see how the women of Iran do fight back,” Rudd added.

Invoking the motto of International Women’s Day 2021, she said Iranian women “choose to challenge.”

Conservative MP Matthew Offord said he believes “women in Iran deserve support and greater international recognition as they take on and challenge the brutal theocracy.”

He added: “This is a regime that treats half of its population, the women, in such an appalling way by depriving them not only of their fundamental right to freedom, but also their dignity. It’s not a regime that can be trusted.”

The politicians had a clear message for the British government: Stand up to Tehran, and do not tolerate the human rights abuses that have been rampant since the Islamic Republic’s inception.

They highlighted various egregious examples of abuses against women committed by Tehran — but the case of Zahra Esmaili, they said, stood out for its cruelty.

Esmaili, a mother of two, was sentenced to death after pleading guilty to murdering her physically and sexually abusive husband — a senior intelligence member.

She took the blame for her daughter, who it is widely believed shot him as he was assaulting her.

Esmaili died of a heart attack in February after witnessing 16 hangings before her own. Security forces, her lawyer said, hung her body anyway.

Maryam Rajavi, head of the NCRI, said Esmaili’s case is shocking but not surprising. “The number of women executed during (President Hassan) Rouhani’s term has reached 114, making Iran the world record holder in executing women,” she added.

“The regime wants to preserve its rule through repression. However, Iranian women play critical roles in challenging the regime and pushing for its overthrow. Women are Tehran’s prime victims, and they therefore have greater motivation to end this regime.”


Forum calls for action on plight of women, female refugees during pandemic

Forum calls for action on plight of women, female refugees during pandemic
Updated 08 March 2021

Forum calls for action on plight of women, female refugees during pandemic

Forum calls for action on plight of women, female refugees during pandemic
  • Ex-head of UNESCO highlights ‘unprecedented obstacles’ faced by women
  • UAE minister discusses country’s pandemic response, female empowerment

LONDON: The former director-general of UNESCO on Monday urged the world to do more to alleviate the plight of female refugees suffering as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking at the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity’s Women’s 2021 Forum, attended by Arab News, Irina Bokova said: “Women are facing increasing social economic and safety challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic — from vulnerable refugees to working mothers. Women are facing unprecedented obstacles that threaten to reverse years of progress toward women’s rights.”

She added: “We know that the impact of crises are never gender neutral, and COVID-19 is no exception. When we talk about refugees, it’s a crisis within a crisis. We know that in many camps … displaced persons are mostly women and girls, who are at risk because of gender-based violence and lack of hygienic facilities.”

Bokova said: “There’s a need for a lot more funding. There’s a need for political action. Over 8 million refugee children are no longer able to go to school. Part of this I’d say is (due to a) dramatic increase in forced, early and child marriages. We have to take all this into account when we talk about our response to the COVID-19 crisis.”

Ambassador Susan Esserman, former US assistant secretary of commerce and deputy trade representative, highlighted the risk faced by women and girls at the hands of human traffickers, which she said had been heightened by the pandemic.

“Sex and labor trafficking thrives on human misery and vulnerability. Isolation is a tactic used by traffickers to control their victims. While lockdowns are vitally necessary for public health, traffickers have taken advantage of the increased isolation, driving trafficking further underground and putting victims at even greater risk,” she said.

“During economic crises, traffickers prey on and seek to exploit those most desperate for income, shelter, food, housing and security. And during this pandemic, critical government services that would ordinarily support victims have been extraordinarily limited at the exact time there has been a surge in demand for those services. With school closures, children and adolescents have been spending more time on the internet, and have become more vulnerable to trafficking.”

Noura Al-Kaabi, the UAE’s minister of culture and youth, highlighted her country’s response to the pandemic in the context of measures meant to keep women and children secure.

“Talking about how the pandemic has affected us — especially working mothers, with online learning — it’s clear there are many disruptions, with job losses, economic slowdowns across the world, while the impact on some sectors may be far larger than others. We don’t have any comprehensive and precise data on the impact of the pandemic yet on the (female) workforce,” she said.

“The UAE has a strong legal framework to ensure that women aren’t disadvantaged in any way in the job market. In 2018, the UAE Cabinet approved a law on equal wages and salaries for women and men. This covers both private and public sectors,” she added. 

“The most important decision concerning women in the job market was allowing mothers with children at age 6 or below to work remotely from home. The decision included husbands of working women in the medical sector — it’s a joint effort, and it’s crucial for us to strike that balance.”

Al-Kaabi also reflected on her country’s progress on female empowerment more generally. “After the 2019 elections, women comprised half of the Federal National Council members. In the IMF (International Monetary Fund) World Competitiveness Yearbook 2020, the UAE ranked first in the female parliamentary representation index, and more than a third of UAE diplomats are female,” she said.

“I’ll give you just quick percentages: Fifty percent of women (make up) the Parliament; we have 66 percent … in the public sector; we have 75 percent in the healthcare sector; 50 percent worked in the Mission of Hope, the Mars mission, and leading that mission was a great scientist — a woman; we have nine (female) ministers; and of course we have a lot of wonderful graduates in … STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) — more than 70 percent of these in the UAE are women,” she added.

“This is a country that is going to celebrate our 50th (anniversary) by the end of this year, and it’s so crucial and important that we double down on such efforts.”


Mandela’s granddaughter likens Iran’s oppression of women to apartheid South Africa

Mandela’s granddaughter likens Iran’s oppression of women to apartheid South Africa
Updated 08 March 2021

Mandela’s granddaughter likens Iran’s oppression of women to apartheid South Africa

Mandela’s granddaughter likens Iran’s oppression of women to apartheid South Africa
  • Dlamini-Mandela: ‘Women of Iran in their fight for freedom, justice and gender equality — thank you’
  • She spoke at event, attended by Arab News, marking International Women’s Day

LONDON: Nelson Mandela’s granddaughter has compared the plight of women in Iran to that of black women living under apartheid in South Africa.

Speaking at an event on Monday hosted by the National Council of Resistance of Iran and attended by Arab News, Zamaswazi Dlamini-Mandela lauded the integral role that women have played for years in opposing the regime and its theocratic dictatorship.

“It’s indeed paradoxical to imagine that while the Iranian constitution adopted following the Islamic Revolution in 1979 proclaims equality for men and women under Article 20, the reality is since the revolution, Shariah laws have been used to oppress, subjugate, humiliate, abuse, undermine and strip the women of Iran of their dignity — just like apartheid did to the black women of South Africa,” she said.

Dlamini-Mandela, following in her grandfather’s footsteps, has become a campaigner for human rights both within South Africa and globally. The plight of Iranian women specifically “is close to my heart,” she said.

“More than 150 notable women feminists are languishing in prison (in Iran) simply because they’re demanding equal rights for the women in their struggle against apartheid,” she added.

“Their sacrifice has contributed to the fight against the regime, but earned them the same brutal treatment as the men received at the hands of the apartheid government, such as 90-day detentions, house arrests and exposure to emotional trauma.”

The Iranian regime “finds its toughest enemies amongst women,” she said. “I’ll speak on behalf of all the women who fought, struggled and suffered to rid South Africa of apartheid: Women of Iran in their fight for freedom, justice and gender equality — thank you.”


UK foreign aid cuts may not get parliamentary vote

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to comment on whether the cut would be subject to a vote. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
A spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to comment on whether the cut would be subject to a vote. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
Updated 08 March 2021

UK foreign aid cuts may not get parliamentary vote

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to comment on whether the cut would be subject to a vote. (Shutterstock/File Photo)
  • Implications for Yemen said to be behind growing opposition among MPs
  • Charities, campaign groups considering legal action against British govt

LONDON: A controversial reduction in UK overseas aid may not be voted on in Parliament, potentially exposing the government to legal action.

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to comment on whether a cut in the aid budget from 0.7 percent of national income — a precedent established in a 2015 law — would be subject to a vote.

However, the spokesperson claimed that the proposed cut to 0.5 percent of national income was permitted by the law, the 2015 International Development Act.

The reduction in spending was announced by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, who claimed in last year’s spending review that it was necessary following Britain’s economic battles in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The spokesperson said: “The government is acting compatibly with the International Development Act, which explicitly envisages that there may be a circumstance where the 0.7 percent target is not met.

READ MORE

The UK government is planning to cut its aid programs to some of the world’s poorest countries by as much as two thirds between 2021 and 2022, according to a leaked Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) report. More here.

“We are looking at (a potential vote) carefully, and the foreign secretary will inform the house on how we intend to proceed in due course.”

The UK is the only G7 country to propose cutting its foreign aid budget this year. A leaked Foreign Office report revealed that Britain is considering slashing its aid budget to countries in grave need of assistance, including Lebanon by 88 percent, Syria by 67 percent, Libya by 63 percent and Somalia by 60 percent.

Most notably, cuts to UK aid to war-torn Yemen, which is battling a serious humanitarian crisis, are said to be behind growing opposition to the wider cuts in Parliament.

It would see a decline from £164 million ($233.36 million) to £87 million in urgent aid to the famine-hit country.

The proposal has been slammed by figures including UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who called it a “death sentence for millions of people.”

In a rare intervention, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the decision means that UK officials have decided to “balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen.”

Last week, Johnson blamed the pandemic for the aid cuts, saying it was the right decision given the “current straitened circumstances.”

Mark Lowcock, former head civil servant at Britain’s Department for International Development, said the aid cut to Yemen would “cause many more deaths” and “damage the international reputation of the UK.”

Should the cut enter the House of Commons for a vote, the government could lose because of a rebellion by MPs. The cut is also likely to face significant pushback in the House of Lords.

But if it is passed without a vote, it could still lead to legal action against the government. Charities and campaign groups would likely seek a judicial review into the legality of the aid cut in relation to the International Development Act.

The act does include concessions in case of adverse economic circumstances, but charities believe the proposals set out by Sunak will fail to meet the conditions to follow through with the cut.

Late last year, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the government had sought legal advice and was told that if the UK did not return to the 0.7 percent norm “in the immediate foreseeable future,” legislation would be required.