UK authorizes Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for emergency use

UK authorizes Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for emergency use
Britain on Wednesday said it had approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use across the country. (File/AFP)
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Updated 02 December 2020

UK authorizes Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for emergency use

UK authorizes Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for emergency use
  • The vaccine remains experimental while final testing is done
  • Hancock said Britain expects to begin receiving the first shipment of 800,000 doses “within days,'' and people will begin receiving shots as soon as the NHS gets the vaccine

LONDON: British officials authorized a COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use on Wednesday, greenlighting the world’s first shot against the virus that’s backed by rigorous science and taking a major step toward eventually ending the pandemic.
The go-ahead for the vaccine developed by American drugmaker Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech comes as the virus surges again in the United States and Europe, putting pressure on hospitals and morgues in some places and forcing new rounds of restrictions that have devastated economies.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which licenses drugs in the UK, recommended the vaccine could be used after it reviewed the results of clinical trials that showed the vaccine was 95% effective overall — and that it also offered significant protection for older people, among those most at risk of dying from the disease. But the vaccine remains experimental while final testing is done.
“Help is on its way,'' British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC, adding that the situation would start to improve in the spring.
“We now have a vaccine. We're the first country in the world to have one formally clinically authorized but, between now and then, we've got to hold on, we've got to hold our resolve," he said.
Other countries aren’t far behind: Regulators in the United States and the European Union also are vetting the Pfizer shot along with a similar vaccine made by competitor Moderna Inc. British regulators also are considering another shot made by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
Hancock said Britain expects to begin receiving the first shipment of 800,000 doses “within days,'' and people will begin receiving shots as soon as the National Health Service gets the vaccine.
Doses everywhere are scarce, and initial supplies will be rationed until more is manufactured in the first several months of next year.
A government committee will release details of vaccination priorities later Wednesday, but Hancock said nursing home residents, people over 80, and healthcare workers and other care workers will be the first to receive the shot.
Pfizer said it would immediately begin shipping limited supplies to the UK — and has been gearing up for even wider distribution if given a similar nod by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a decision expected as early as next week.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla called the UK decision “a historic moment.”
“We are focusing on moving with the same level of urgency to safely supply a high-quality vaccine around the world,” Bourla said in a statement.
While the UK has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, enough for 20 million people, it’s not clear how many will arrive by year’s end. Hancock said the UK expects to receive “millions of doses" by the end of this year, adding that the actual number will depend on how fast Pfizer can produce the vaccine.
One concern about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is that it must be stored and shipped at ultra-cold temperatures of around minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit), adding to the challenge of distributing the vaccine around the world.
Pfizer says it has developed shipping containers that use dry ice to keep the vaccine cool. GPS-enabled sensors will allow the company to track each shipment and ensure they stay cold, the company says.
“Pfizer has vast experience and expertise in cold-chain shipping and has an established infrastructure to supply the vaccine worldwide, including distribution hubs that can store vaccine doses for up to six months," the company said in a statement.
The company also says it has agreed to work with other vaccine makers to ensure there is sufficient supply and a range of vaccines, “including those suitable for global access.”
Every country has different rules for determining when an experimental vaccine is safe and effective enough to use. Intense political pressure to be the first to roll out a rigorously scientifically tested shot colored the race in the US and Britain, even as researchers pledged to cut no corners. In contrast, China and Russia have offered different vaccinations to their citizens ahead of late-stage testing.
The shots made by US-based Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech were tested in tens of thousands of people. And while that study isn’t complete, early results suggest the vaccine is 95% effective at preventing mild to severe COVID-19 disease. The companies told regulators that of the first 170 infections detected in study volunteers, only eight were among people who’d received the actual vaccine and the rest had gotten a dummy shot.
“This is an extraordinarily strong protection,” Dr. Ugur Sahin, BioNTech’s CEO, recently told The Associated Press.
The companies also reported no serious side effects, although vaccine recipients may experience temporary pain and flu-like reactions immediately after injections.
Final testing must still be completed. Still to be determined is whether the Pfizer-BioNTech shots protect against people spreading the coronavirus without showing symptoms. Another question is how long protection lasts.
The vaccine also has been tested in only a small number of children, none younger than 12, and there’s no information on its effects in pregnant women.


China calls missile launch ‘routine test’ of new technolog

China calls missile launch ‘routine test’ of new technolog
Updated 14 sec ago

China calls missile launch ‘routine test’ of new technolog

China calls missile launch ‘routine test’ of new technolog
  • China’s expansion into hypersonic missile technology and other advanced fields has raised concerns
  • Japan said it would boost its defenses against what it interpreted as a new offensive Chinese weapon

BEIJING: China said Monday its launch of a new spacecraft was merely a test to see whether the vehicle could be reused.
The launch involved a spacecraft rather than a missile and was of “great significance for reducing the use-cost of spacecraft and could provide a convenient and affordable way to make a round trip for mankind’s peaceful use of space,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said.
China’s space program is run by its military and is closely tied to its agenda of building hypersonic missiles and other technologies that could alter the balance of power with the United States.
“China will work together with other countries in the world for the peaceful use of space and the benefit of mankind,” Zhao said.
Zhao’s comments on the test conducted in August came days after China launched a second crew to its space station. Their six-month mission, when completed, will be China’s longest crewed space mission and the three-person crew will set a record for the most time spent in space by Chinese astronauts.
Alongside its space program, China’s expansion into hypersonic missile technology and other advanced fields has raised concerns as Beijing becomes increasingly assertive over its claims to seas and islands in the South China and East China Seas and to large chunks of territory along its disputed high-mountain border with India.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price would not comment on intelligence about the August test but noted the US remained concerned about China’s expansion of its nuclear capabilities, including delivery systems for nuclear devices.
These developments underscore that (China), as we said before, is deviating from its decades-long nuclear strategy based on minimum deterrence,” Price told reporters Monday in Washington.
He said the US was engaging with China about its nuclear capabilities and would continue to maintain the US’s deterrent capabilities against threats to the United States and its allies.
US ally Japan, one of China’s chief regional rivals, said it would boost its defenses against what it interpreted as a new offensive Chinese weapon.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno on Monday called it a “new threat” that conventional equipment would have difficulty dealing with. He said Japan will step up its detection, tracking and shooting-down capability of “any aerial threat.”
China appears to be rapidly pushing development of hypersonic nuclear weapons to gain strike capability that can break through missile defenses, Matsuno said.
He criticized China for increasing its defense spending, particularly for nuclear and missile capabilities, without explaining its intentions.
“China’s rapidly expanding and increased military activity at sea and airspace has become a strong security concern for the region including Japan and the international society,” Matsuno said.
 


Why Afghan refugees might face hurdles in seeking asylum in Scandinavia 

Why Afghan refugees might face hurdles in seeking asylum in Scandinavia 
Updated 58 min 38 sec ago

Why Afghan refugees might face hurdles in seeking asylum in Scandinavia 

Why Afghan refugees might face hurdles in seeking asylum in Scandinavia 
  • Anticipated influx coincides with hardening attitudes toward asylum-seekers in Sweden, Denmark and Norway
  • Housing shortages, street crime and poor integration blamed for Scandinavian coolness toward refugee admissions

COPENHAGEN, Denmark: As Europe braces for a steady influx of Afghan refugees fleeing the resurgence of the Taliban, a recent shift in political rhetoric indicates Scandinavian countries are less willing to help asylum seekers now than they were in 2015, when they offered sanctuary to tens of thousands of displaced Syrians.

More than 123,000 Afghan civilians were evacuated from Kabul airport by US forces and their coalition partners between August 15, when the Taliban seized the capital, and August 31, when the last foreign troops left the country.

Many of those who fled were taken to emergency processing centers in Spain, Germany, Qatar and Uzbekistan. The UN has warned that up to half a million Afghans could flee their country by the end of the year, with many looking to Europe as a potential sanctuary.

Afghans desperately try to board a departing US military cargo plane at Kabul Airpoirt in September when the Taliban sized control of the country. (AFP file photo)

However, attitudes in the once welcoming Scandinavian states of northern Europe appear to have changed over the past six years, with the people there increasingly reluctant to open the doors to asylum-seekers.

“We will never go back to 2015. Sweden will not find itself in that situation again,” Stefan Lofven, Sweden’s prime minister, told the national daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter on Aug. 18, three days after the Taliban seized Kabul.

Indeed, as the situation in Afghanistan again brings the issue of European asylum policy to the fore, attitudes across Scandinavia appear to be hardening.

“Denmark first went down the nationalist-populist road, followed by Norway,” Swedish socialist MP Ali Esbati, who long predicted Sweden would follow suit, told Arab News.

“This is due in part to many people in Sweden feeling that we did what we could in 2015, and that we took the responsibility that a rich country should take while other countries did not.”

Even before the Taliban regained control in Afghanistan, more than 550,000 people in the country were forced to flee their homes this year due to fighting, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. In addition to the deteriorating security situation, Afghans have also been contending with a severe drought and food shortages, leading to huge levels of internal displacement.

In 2020 almost 1.5 million Afghans fled to Pakistan and about 780,000 to Iran, according to UNHCR. Germany was third on the list of destinations, with 180,000 Afghans heading there, while Turkey took in 130,000.

Following the fall of Kabul, by early this month about 125,000 Afghans had applied for asylum in Turkey, 33,000 in Germany and 20,000 in Greece.

French authorities have indicated they will accept some refugees but have not specified how many. German authorities also did not specify a number but Chancellor Angela Merkel said 40,000 people still in Afghanistan might have the right to seek asylum in Germany.


Read the first part of the report: No country for asylum-seekers 


The UK said it will take in 5,000 Afghans this year as part of a scheme to resettle 20,000 over the next few years. Austria, Poland and Switzerland said they will not accept any Afghan refugees and have been actively bolstering border security to prevent attempts to enter the countries illegally.

As for Scandinavia, the picture is unclear. Having earned praise for accepting thousands of Syrians at the height of the European refugee crisis in 2015-16, authorities in Sweden, Norway and Denmark appear less willing to bear the burden this time. In fact, the governments of the three nations have not guaranteed even those Syrians already granted asylum the right to remain.

Housing shortages and rising crime levels have led to a hardening of attitudes in Scandinavian countries, including Sweden. (AFP)

This increasingly unwelcoming attitude appears to have developed for a number of reasons, including a shortage of housing and a feeling of embitterment toward other EU member states who have failed to accept their share of responsibility for refugees.

A rise in crime is also a factor. In Sweden, for example, first- and second-generation migrants are overrepresented in crime statistics. While the Swedish National Council on Crime Prevention has repeatedly cautioned that there is a difference between correlation and causation, immigration and crime are nevertheless now inextricably linked in the minds of many voters.

The same is true in Denmark. In Copenhagen, social media influencer and political hopeful Hussain Ali said it is time to break with the cultural trait of “berøringsfrygt,” which translates as a “fear of touching” sensitive topics.

Fans greet and fist-bump Hussain Ali (left), with Copenhagen City Hall in the background. (Supplied)

Ali, a Dane of Iraqi heritage, is running for a seat in the city assembly on a conservative ticket. His impassioned social media posts railing against the failures of integration regularly attract thousands of likes. He recently suggested that all non-citizens convicted of crimes should be deported.

“There are so many young people who live in a bubble of resentment toward Denmark because they feel alienated,” he told Arab News. “They are stuck between Danish culture and the culture of their parents’ home countries.

“I tell them that if they brought their anti-social attitude back to Syria, for example, they would not last more than a minute without being punished. In the Middle East, you respect your elders — that’s part of their heritage that their parents should be teaching them.

“They are also creating damaging stereotypes and prejudice. Many of my friends are judged based on their skin color. People make assumptions about me at first sight.”

INNUMBERS

123,000 - Afghan civilians evacuated from Kabul airport, August 15-31.

1,200 - Afghans deported from the EU in the first half of 2021.

While some might consider Ali a firebrand or an upstart, his message has clearly struck a chord with many. When he walks around Copenhagen he is regularly fist-bumped by young supporters. But not all of the attention he receives is positive.

As he sat outside a kebab shop during our interview, a young man who appeared to have an immigrant background shouted at him: “You’ve sold your soul.” Ali tensed up but remained seated.

“That guy is probably just frustrated and stuck in a situation where he doesn’t have an outlet for his creativity and ambition, despite all the opportunities in Denmark,” he said later.

Syrian refugees react to Denmark's decision to repatriate, initiating a sit-in in front of Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark. (AFP File/Getty Images)

Although the hardening of attitudes in Sweden and Norway has been less marked than it has been in Denmark, the mood is clearly swinging in a similar direction.

“The trajectory is quite typical, really,” said Esbati, the Swedish MP. “First a nationalist-populist party starts banging its one-issue drums on migration.

“Then it gets some sort of breakthrough in the media and in elections, followed by the conservative parties moving toward the (nationalist-populist) position. And finally the social-democrats and other left-leaning parties shift over time in the same direction.”

On June 23, the Swedish parliament approved a new immigration bill that makes temporary residency permits the norm, just like the Danish system.

Danish flags wave in the spire of the Danish Parliament building in Copenhagen. Denmark has gone down the nationalist-populist road, rejecting asylum seekers from Afghanistan. (AFP file photo)

“We need an entirely new political (framework) in order for people to be included in society and to settle in,” Maria Malmer Stenergard, an immigration-policy spokesperson for the conservative Moderate Party, said during a recent appearance on national radio. “We have to start by decreasing immigration.”

As European states wrestle with their collective consciences about how best to balance their duty to protect vulnerable civilians with a desire to preserve their national identities, the growing appeal of the populist right in Scandinavia and elsewhere can only reduce the options available to Afghans who are too frightened to return home.

The stories of Syrians with firsthand experience of the welcome mat being pulled out form under them do not inspire confidence.

Hamid and Sama Al-Samman were threatened by Syrian regime at the end of 2011 for giving food, clothes and blankets to internally displaced families in their native Damascus.

“I knew we’d get in trouble,” Sama said. “But I couldn’t not help those families.”

Hamdi Al-Samman arrived in Denmark in October 2014 after fleeing the Syrian regime. (Supplied)

She added that she began sleeping in her clothes in case the family had to flee in the middle of the night. When the situation became untenable in January 2013, the couple took their three children to Egypt.

From there, Hamid, an electrician by trade, headed to Europe, arriving in Denmark in October 2014.

“We chose Denmark because it would take just one year for the children and me to join him,” Sama said. “In Sweden, the family reunification process would take longer.”

Hamdi found work easily and, since joining him, Sama has been studying Danish so she can work in the preschool education system. Their daughter, Noor, who is in her final year of high school, wants to become an architect.

“Denmark has an amazing emphasis on education,” said Sama. “Our children have opportunities here that they would never have in Syria. Our daughter has opportunities because of gender equality.”

The family’s relief was short-lived, however. In January this year, Mette Frederiksen, Denmark’s prime minister, said her goal is to reduce the number of asylum-seekers to zero. A few months later, the Al-Sammans were informed that their temporary residency permits will not be renewed. They are appealing against the decision.


Young Pakistani inventor invents ‘smart shoes’ to help blind people

Young Pakistani inventor invents ‘smart shoes’ to help blind people
Updated 18 October 2021

Young Pakistani inventor invents ‘smart shoes’ to help blind people

Young Pakistani inventor invents ‘smart shoes’ to help blind people
  • Wasiullah, 17, says he entered world of innovation by repairing and fixing damaged battery-operated toys

PESHAWAR: A young inventor from Pakistan’s northwest has designed “smart shoes” for visually impaired people that warn them with a sound or vibration about any obstacle on their path within a radius of 120 cm.
Hailing from the Swat Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Wasiullah, the 17-year-old inventor, told Arab News he had entered the world of innovation by repairing and fixing damaged battery-operated toys.
“Visually impaired people will no longer need walking sticks or guides after smart shoes acquire popularity,” Wasiullah, who goes by a single name, said. “The shoes are fixed with an ultrasonic sensor and Arduino board to keep blind people safe while they are walking. Such individuals can get a prior notification of any looming hindrance.”
Local physics teacher Muhammad Farooq said Wasiullah was his most brilliant student and that he had planned to design a new type of a wheelchair to help visually impaired people navigate their surroundings, but that he could not do it due to financial constraints.
Budget restrictions did not stifle his inventiveness, though, and when he designed the shoes earlier this year, it was reward for his perseverance.
“I still believe he has the potential to emerge as a leading scientist if he gets proper coaching and opportunity,” Farooq said.
One such opportunity, which would also help Wasiullah afford higher education in the field of science, could be introducing his invention to the market.
“Smart shoes for visually impaired people are available in foreign countries,” Farooq said. “But their prices are beyond the reach for many in this country. The government should own the project because the shoes Wasiullah has made are comparatively cheaper.”
Mian Sayed, a social activist from Swat, has seen Wasiullah’s smart shoes and is positive that they could even become an export product.
“I knew Wasiullah, who is one of the brilliant students (who) can bring laurels for the country,” Sayed added. “The shoes invented by him can even be exported if the project is owned by the government.”
Wasiullah said a pair of his smart shoes could cost about 4,500 rupees ($26), but he would not be able to finance production himself as he also needs to finance his college studies.
An opportunity may come from the local government.
Sajid Shah, head of the provincial directorate general of science, told Arab News the shoes will soon be evaluated by experts.
“After evaluation by our scientists,” he said, “our department will promote the project of smart shoes invented by Wasiullah for commercial purposes.”

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Philippines seeks to complete restoration of Marawi before end of Duterte’s term

Philippines seeks to complete restoration of Marawi before end of Duterte’s term
Updated 18 October 2021

Philippines seeks to complete restoration of Marawi before end of Duterte’s term

Philippines seeks to complete restoration of Marawi before end of Duterte’s term
  • Duterte inaugurated the reconstructed Grand Mosque of Marawi

MANILA: Four years after pro-Daesh militants captured Marawi, leading to months of fighting with the Philippine Army that reduced the city to ruins, the chief reconstruction official said on Monday the restoration process should be completed by the end of President Rodrigo Duterte’s term in June.
The siege of the lakeside town on the island of Mindanao began on May 23, 2017, and lasted five months, leaving more than 1,100 people dead. It was the military’s toughest and longest conflict since the Second World War.
Marawi suffered widespread damage during the fighting, which forced more than 100,000 residents from their homes in the predominantly Muslim city, according to International Committee of the Red Cross estimates.
“The Task Force Bangon Marawi, along with its 56 implementing agencies, remains on track in completing all infrastructure projects included in the master development plan within the term of President Rodrigo Duterte,” Maj. Gen. (Retd.) Eduardo Del Rosario, head of Task Force Bangon Marawi, an inter-agency task force in charge of reconstruction, told Arab News.
“Rehabilitation of public infrastructures in the city is now 75 to 80 percent complete,” he added.
As Marawi marked the fourth anniversary of its liberation from the Daesh-affiliate militant Maute group on Saturday, Duterte inaugurated the reconstructed Grand Mosque of Marawi.
“This place holds historical and cultural significance in the lives of the Maranaos, who will rejoice as a nation as the Grand Mosque of Marawi brings hope to our Muslim brothers and sisters,” the president said, as the mosque reopened for public use.
So far five of the city’s 30 mosques have been rebuilt, according to Del Rosario, who said the reopening of the Grand Mosque was a symbol of the Duterte administration’s “full commitment to rehabilitate Marawi.”
During the mosque’s reopening, Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao MP Zia Alonto Adiong said the end of the 2017 conflict in Marawi had “left behind so much death and destruction,” but added its residents had been determined to “rise from the ashes of war” and rebuild their communities.
“I am hopeful that in our lifetime, we will see the rise of a better Marawi, a Marawi City with stronger and more resilient communities as its core foundation,” Adiong said.
But the majority of the displaced still cannot return to their homes. Most are living with relatives, while others remain stuck in evacuation centers.
Del Rosario was unable to say whether their houses would be restored by the end of Duterte’s term.
While the reconstruction task force was created in 2017, the city’s rehabilitation has been a process marred by delays.
“The people of Marawi all wish to go home,” Mindanao Party List Representative Amihilda Sangcopan said after the reopening of Grand Mosque, as she called for the restoration of houses to be fast-tracked. “Let us give them the chance to feel the normalcy of life back, a life they used to have four years prior.”


Father of MP’s suspected killer ‘despises terrorists’ after run-ins with Al-Shabaab

Father of MP’s suspected killer ‘despises terrorists’ after run-ins with Al-Shabaab
Updated 18 October 2021

Father of MP’s suspected killer ‘despises terrorists’ after run-ins with Al-Shabaab

Father of MP’s suspected killer ‘despises terrorists’ after run-ins with Al-Shabaab
  • Ali Harbi Ali, 25, accused of stabbing David Amess to death on Friday
  • His father faced death threats from extremists while working for Somali government

LONDON: The father of the suspect accused of murdering British MP David Amess is said to “despise terrorists” after being targeted himself with death threats by Somali extremists.
Ali Harbi Ali, 25, from London, is being held by police over the suspected murder of Amess on Friday.
Ali is estranged from his parents, the Daily Mail reported, and his father Harbi Ali Kullane is said to “despise terrorists” after his time working alongside the Somali prime minister before coming to the UK in 1996.
A security source told the Daily Telegraph that Kullane was himself involved in countering extremist narratives while working with the Somali government.
The source said: “He was quite involved in countering Al-Shabaab’s message in his role as comms director, and he received death threats from them for doing so, which is common for anyone involved in a high-profile position in the government.”
Ali was referred to Britain’s counterterrorism program five years ago after his teachers noticed his views becoming increasingly radical.
Estranged from his family, the young man was enamored with hate preacher Anjem Choudary, who had himself been jailed on terrorism-related charges until recently.
Choudary’s videos, his former friends told The Sun, turned Ali from a “popular pupil into an extremist.”
Kullane has reportedly been in contact with British security services, who are analyzing Ali’s phone and looking for an explanation as to his movements and thought processes ahead of the sudden attack.
Officials are reportedly not yet clear on why the man chose Amess as the target, but a government insider told the Daily Telegraph: “He was unlucky. He was not targeted because of his political party. David Amess was not specifically targeted.”
Amess, 69, was stabbed 17 times during the attack, which took place during his surgery — weekly open meetings in which politicians meet their local constituents.
The attack has raised questions in Britain over the effectiveness of its de-radicalization program Prevent, which was already under review after a string of other terrorist incidents.
There have also been concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions to daily life might have radicalized more individuals, as people are spending more time alone and online.
“Counter-terror police and MI5 have been concerned for some time that once we emerged out of lockdown there would be more people out on the streets and more targets for the terrorists,” a security source told the Daily Telegraph.