Alarm bells sounding louder over outbreak in Turkey

Alarm bells sounding louder over outbreak in Turkey
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People wearing masks to help protect against the spread of coronavirus, visit a public garden. in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. (AP)
Alarm bells sounding louder over outbreak in Turkey
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Coronavirus deaths in Turkey rose to a record for the seventh consecutive day on Sunday and the number of new cases remained high. (File/AFP)
Alarm bells sounding louder over outbreak in Turkey
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Municipality workers disinfect the grounds of the historical Suleymaniye Mosque, in Istanbul. (File/AP)
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Updated 30 November 2020

Alarm bells sounding louder over outbreak in Turkey

Alarm bells sounding louder over outbreak in Turkey
  • Opponents say the government needs to take tougher action
  • "Our health army is under a heavy burden," Health Minister Fahrettin Koca said on Twitter"

ANKARA: The death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic in Turkey has risen for the sixth day in a row and alarm bells are ringing about the capacity of intensive care units across the country to cope.

“Don’t leave your houses this week. We have to be on alert,” Ismail Cinel, the head of the Turkish Society of Intensive Care, warned on Saturday as daily death rates hit a record high for the sixth consecutive day.

Official data from the Health Ministry showed 182 fatalities and 30,103 coronavirus infections in just 24 hours, including asymptomatic ones according to the recently updated counting method used since Nov. 25. The country previously only reported symptomatic cases.

With the new tally, the country suddenly became one of the worst-affected countries on a global level while it was among the least-hit ones four days ago.

The Turkish Medical Association has warned for a long time that the government’s previous count was not displaying the true scale of the contagion, and the medical group estimates there are more than 50,000 new daily cases, far higher than the official figures.

According to Dr. Ergin Kocyildirim, a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon and an assistant professor in the department of cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, the decision to change how cases were reported was not related to the World Health Organization’s joint vaccine distribution program as Turkey does not fit the requirements in terms of gross national income per capita.

“Over the summer Turkey had financial difficulties continuing the lockdown precautions so this forced the government to reopen the economy,” he told Arab News, speaking about the previous method of counting only symptomatic cases.

Kocyildirim does not believe in the transparency of sharing data during the outbreak in Turkey.

“And now Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has promised a free vaccination program. It is clear that Turkey has a management problem in terms of mass distribution projects. Mask distribution became quite a big problem followed by the start of the seasonal flu vaccination program,” he said.

In a much-anticipated move from the scientific world and opposition politicians who were claiming that decisions were taken politically, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finally left the responsibility with the country’s coronavirus scientific advisory board for deciding which measures will be taken in the fight against the worsening pandemic.

“The primary responsibility about the new measures belongs to the scientific advisory board,” he said.

Turkey announced last week new measures to fight the virus, including a partial curfew on weekends from 8 p.m. to 10 a.m.

But the measures were deemed to not go far enough by medical groups concerned about the exhaustion in the Turkish health system fighting the outbreak.

“The course of the pandemic has been interesting in Turkey,” Dr. Mehmet Adin, from Yale University, told Arab News.

“Initially, like everyone else, I thought we were doing a great job. Over the course of the pandemic, particularly in the late summer, alarm bells were ringing so loud. We could have acted upon this, but I think we failed to a large extent.”

According to Adin, frontline staff have been working extraordinarily hard across the country, but this was not enough when dealing with a massive public health problem.

“Policy implementations since early summer were rather loose. The health minister was at the forefront of the war against the virus. The coronavirus task force, the so-called scientific advisory board, fell short, complaining of ‘not knowing the real case numbers,’ although I believe this should not be an excuse,” he said.

Adin said that there was no need to hear the real numbers from officials in an era of massive data flow and communication.

“I, from thousands of miles away, was able to see where it was going. I think the taskforce also fell short of catching up with evolving practices across the scientific community and literature. For example, Plaquenil, an anti-malaria drug that has long been shown to be ineffective in all forms of COVID-19, if not potentially hazardous, is still in use,” he said.

In the meantime, the number of seriously ill patients and fatalities is also increasing, while cities such as Istanbul are facing their “third peak.”

“You can change reality by your actions, but it is very hard to do so by your rhetoric,” Adin said, adding that evidence-based policy implementation was required when dealing with a pandemic.

“We know from our experience that one needs to act fast and know that every minute counts. All public measures, lockdowns and policies need to be implemented based on regional numbers and scientific evidence. Given the partial lockdowns and age-specific curfews, about which I have doubts about their effectiveness, the primary goal seems to be mitigation,” he said.

According to Adin, the Turkish government cannot put out a fire by extinguishing it partially — or fighting it at night and then letting the fire explode during the day.

“You need to fight consistently and reasonably if you want to distinguish this fire. The virus is not going anywhere, and obviously herd immunity is a utopia until there is nationwide vaccine deployment,” he said.


How the Arab region can catch up with the future of food

A guest uses a mobile phone to take a video of a meal featuring a nugget made from lab-grown chicken meat during a media presentation in Singapore, the first country to allow the sale of meat created without slaughtering any animals, on December 22, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
A guest uses a mobile phone to take a video of a meal featuring a nugget made from lab-grown chicken meat during a media presentation in Singapore, the first country to allow the sale of meat created without slaughtering any animals, on December 22, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 21 sec ago

How the Arab region can catch up with the future of food

A guest uses a mobile phone to take a video of a meal featuring a nugget made from lab-grown chicken meat during a media presentation in Singapore, the first country to allow the sale of meat created without slaughtering any animals, on December 22, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Investors seek regulatory environment that promotes innovations like plant-based alternatives and cellular agriculture
  • Saudi Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al-Saud, founder and CEO at KBW Ventures, wants tech start-ups to solve the sustainability challenge

DUBAI: Lab-grown meat may sound like an unpalatable sci-fi concoction, but thanks to new innovations in cellular agriculture, combined with growing consumer demand for sustainable alternatives, test-tube T-bones could soon be on the menu.

Threats to global food systems and agriculture have come to the fore since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted regional value chains, heightening awareness about the importance of public health and regulation of new scientific techniques.

For the Middle East in particular, the crisis has been a wake-up call for policymakers acutely aware they have fallen behind in the food sciences — a gap that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now hopeful they can close.

“Food science is definitely something that’s missing here,” Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al-Saud, founder and CEO of KBW Ventures, said during a recent virtual panel discussion on “The Future of Food: New Tastes, New Priorities, New Technologies.”

Vegetarian alternatives to burgers and sausages, revived by start-ups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger, are enjoying a certain enthusiasm that meat giants also want to enjoy. (AFP/File Photo)

“We’ve voiced it a bunch of times and we are actually working with the UAE government to establish some sort of ecosystem to develop that.”

The panel discussion, organized as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (Jan. 18-21), examined how the world’s food needs have evolved over recent decades from hunger prevention to tackling obesity, and how they must adapt to face new realities.

“Fifty years ago, food science was created for food safety. It was not created for food health,” Gabrielle Rubenstein, co-founder and chief executive of the US private equity firm Manna Tree, told the panel.

“They were just trying to feed the world and mass produce, but we didn’t know that it would cause cancer or obesity.”

Today, the cost of treating chronic diseases caused by obesity in the US is equivalent to roughly 9 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), while 70 percent of deaths are caused by lifestyles linked to poor diet.

This undated handout from Eat Just released on December 19, 2020 shows a nugget made from lab-grown chicken meat at a restaurant in Singapore, which became the first country to allow meat created without slaughtering any animals to be sold. (AFP/File Photo)

Solutions could lie in the new scientific innovations led by start-ups. The missing ingredient, according to Rubenstein, is scalability. “This is something that we all need to work on together,” she said. “The only way we can do that is by scaling innovation knowledge and research. It’s not necessarily about getting food into the hands of the country — what’s totally missing is knowledge in innovation.”

Universities in the UAE, for instance, currently do not offer PhDs in food science, leaving regional startups whose goal is to create the foods of the future at a disadvantage. Rubenstein’s company wants to change that. “Let’s take our scholar model and give this to you so that the next generation are food scientists,” she said.]

One interesting takeaway from the pandemic is the shift in consumer preferences towards healthier and more sustainably produced food. Experts believe technology and regulations will have to adapt quickly to respond to these changing demands.

“We are going through what is probably the most challenging time we have gone through in the last 20 years,” Prince Khaled said. “And from my point of view, it is the most important thing that has happened to us because it has shifted people’s attention towards what their priorities are.”

Responding to these new demands, retailers are already allocating more shelf space to the likes of Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and other plant-based alternatives as shoppers cut back on animal products.

FASTFACT

Cultured cells

*Singapore became the first country in the world in Dec. 2020 to approve a commercial meat product made from cultured animal cells for human consumption.

Scientists have gone a step further, exploring the revolutionary possibilities of cellular agriculture — the production of proteins, fats and tissues using lab-grown cell cultures that would otherwise have come from the slaughterhouse.

In Dec. 2020, San Francisco-based alternative protein company Eat Just announced its cultured chicken product has been approved for sale in Singapore — the first time a commercial meat product made from cultured animal cells has been approved for human consumption.

“I hail Singapore for the enormous courage that it took to just start regulating cellular agriculture,” Prince Khaled said. “This didn’t happen coincidentally during this pandemic. We’ve seen a lot of the issues that this current pandemic has driven towards; it has opened people’s eyes to the zoonotic diseases that are out there.”

High concentrations of livestock are potential breeding grounds for epidemics. Indeed, scientists believe the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic originated in animals sold at a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan before making the jump to humans.

Experts believe moving away from the mass farming of meat, eggs and dairy could not only reduce the risk of future zoonotic outbreaks but also reduce pressure on the environment.

Prince Khaled wants to see companies working in cellular agriculture and plant-based proteins demonstrate how they can address food and land scarcity. “Now’s the time to actually find solutions,” he said.

The panel discussion, “The Future of Food: New Tastes, New Priorities, New Technologies,” organized as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (Jan. 18-21), examined how the world’s food needs have evolved over recent decades from hunger prevention to tackling obesity. (Supplied)

With an estimated 9.7 billion people to feed by 2050, companies involved in these projects will have to play a role in the drafting of regulations. Much will also depend on what governments choose to subsidize.

“At the end of the day, the future is definitely going to be solved through people like these panelists — people who have the money, the backing and the investors to do it,” Prince Khaled said.

“But, more importantly, it’s a match made in heaven when you have the entrepreneurs who share that vision with you. We invested in a company that ships organic seeds to people to grow in-house. These aren’t going to solve world problems or world hunger, but collectively, that’s the only real way we’re going to be able to do something about this.”

The regulatory environment will have to move with the times to ensure a smooth transition. Singapore is currently leading the way, with its food agency working closely with start-ups.

“I’m from California and I’ve been in Singapore for a few years, but I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Max Rye, chief strategist at TurtleTree Labs, a Singapore-based biotech company founded in 2019 with the aim of producing lab-grown dairy products.

“We meet with the agency on a very regular basis. They ask questions about how we can work together to get our products to the market, and that’s not what I’m used to hearing,” he said.

Lab-grown meat from the US is presented in the Disgusting Food Museum on December 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (AFP/File Photo)

By contrast, in the US much of that discussion would revolve around food safety and toxicology, he said.

“If there was any recommendation, it would be just to work much closer with your startups,” Rye said. “These types of companies are trying to solve the much bigger problems around climate change among (issues).”

KBW Ventures recently increased its investment in TurtleTree Labs and Prince Khaled has joined the firm as an official adviser. He also holds investments in the California-based company Beyond Meat.

Prince Khaled agrees that a nourishing environment from a regulatory standpoint will be crucial.

“The thing that struck me with Singapore is that this is a breakthrough when it comes to regulatory approvals,” he said. “I’m really hopeful the US, and the Middle East, will follow suit.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek