Morocco prepares vaccine campaign, counters online skepticism

Morocco prepares vaccine campaign, counters online skepticism
Morocco hopes to launch an ambitious vaccination campaign against the novel coronavirus by year-end, but its efforts have sparked suspicion and rumors in the country. (File/AFP)
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Updated 02 December 2020

Morocco prepares vaccine campaign, counters online skepticism

Morocco prepares vaccine campaign, counters online skepticism
  • Morocco is hoping to immunize 20 million adults against the Covid-19 illness within three months
  • It will use vaccinations from China’s Sinopharm and a UK-sourced shot developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University

RABAT: Morocco hopes to launch an ambitious vaccination campaign against the novel coronavirus by year-end, but its efforts have sparked suspicion and rumors in the country, hard-hit by the pandemic.
The North African kingdom is hoping to immunize 20 million adults against the Covid-19 illness within three months, using vaccinations from China’s Sinopharm and a UK-sourced shot developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
Health Minister Khalid Ait Taleb told AFP that each country was free to “decree emergency use” of the vaccine of its choice.
Britain on Wednesday became the first country to approve Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine for general use, while the AstraZeneca/Oxford University shot is expected to come onstream soon.
The launch date for the campaign in Morocco “will depend on when the vaccines are certified for use but also on the delivery schedule,” Ait Taleb added.
But even before the campaign began, rumors pushed by skeptics have flooded social media, including a fake “draft law” stating that vaccination would be mandatory in Morocco, forcing the health ministry to issue a denial last month.
And this week, a photo of a young man being hauled away by six police officers, with the caption “official: vaccination campaign launched in Morocco,” was denounced as “fake news” by the Twitter account of the DGSN security service.
Morocco in August signed a deal to take part in clinical tests of a vaccine developed by Chinese company Sinopharm, which has agreed to provide the kingdom with 10 million doses before the end of the year if results are successful.
Even as they await preliminary results of phase three tests, the Moroccan authorities are preparing a “viral retaliation,” Ait Taleb said.
The novel coronavirus has battered Morocco, where daily detected cases are running at above 5,000 per day and recorded deaths from the virus have topped 5,900, in a country of 37 million.
The death rate has been relatively low at around 1.7 percent of recorded cases.
But in the port city of Casablanca, the beating heart of the Moroccan economy, under-staffed hospitals are close to bursting.
Hard-stretched medical staff, on the front lines of the pandemic since March, are showing signs of exhaustion.
But the government is hoping that by mobilizing 12,750 medics from the public and private sectors, military doctors and the Moroccan Red Crescent, it will be able to hit its target for vaccinations.
The first jabs will be reserved for “front line” staff in the health and security services as well as people in vital sectors such as transportation, and at-risk groups including over-65s and those with chronic conditions, the health minister said.
But as the government steps up preparations for the campaign, public sentiment is divided between hope and anxiety.
On social media, “everyone has their own information,” said news website Hesspress.
The rumors began to swirl as soon as the November 9 announcement that King Mohammed VI had given the go-ahead for a “mass immunization operation,” without specifying the timeline or type of vaccine.
Criticisms voiced online have ranged from doubts over the effectiveness of the vaccines to the fear of being “guinea-pigs” — or that the jab could modify the receiver’s DNA.
Traditional media have been hosting experts every day to counter the wave of skepticism and refute what news website Media24 called “eccentric, fanciful criticisms.”
But the Economiste newspaper said news of the vaccine has blown “a gust of optimism” into an economy plunged into recession by the pandemic as well as a punishing drought that has hit the agriculture sector.
In late September, Morocco’s central bank downgraded its already dire forecasts, predicting GDP would shrink by some 6.3 percent in 2020 and forecasting “a slower recovery than expected.”
But for some in the vital tourism sector, facing disaster since the country closed its borders in mid-March, the vaccine finally brings hope of a relaunch.


FBI probe shows amount of chemicals in Beirut blast was a fraction of original shipment

FBI probe shows amount of chemicals in Beirut blast was a fraction of original shipment
Updated 29 min 55 sec ago

FBI probe shows amount of chemicals in Beirut blast was a fraction of original shipment

FBI probe shows amount of chemicals in Beirut blast was a fraction of original shipment
  • Questions remain unanswered, including how a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate was left unsafely stored in the capital for years
  • The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, killing more than 200 people

WASHINGTON: The amount of ammonium nitrate that blew up at Beirut port last year was one fifth of the shipment unloaded there in 2013, the FBI concluded after the blast, adding to suspicions that much of the cargo had gone missing.
As the first anniversary approaches on Aug. 4, major questions remain unanswered, including how a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate — which can be used to make fertilizer or bombs — was left unsafely stored in a capital city for years.
The blast was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, killing more than 200 people, wounding thousands, and devastating swathes of Beirut.
The FBI’s Oct. 7, 2020 report, which was seen by Reuters this week, estimates around 552 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded that day, much less than the 2,754 tons that arrived on a Russian-leased cargo ship in 2013.
The FBI report does not give any explanation as to how the discrepancy arose, or where the rest of the shipment may have gone.
In response to a detailed request for comment, an FBI spokesperson referred Reuters to the Lebanese authorities.
FBI investigators came to Beirut after the blast at Lebanon’s request.
A senior Lebanese official who was aware of the FBI report and its findings said the Lebanese authorities agreed with the Bureau on the quantity that exploded.
Many officials in Lebanon have previously said in private they believe a lot of the shipment was stolen.
The ammonium nitrate was going from Georgia to Mozambique on a Russian-leased cargo ship when the captain says he was instructed to make an unscheduled stop in Beirut and take on extra cargo.
The ship arrived in Beirut in November 2013 but never left, becoming tangled in a legal dispute over unpaid port fees and ship defects. No one ever came forward to claim the shipment.
The senior Lebanese official said there were no firm conclusions as to why the quantity that exploded was less than the original shipment. One theory was that part of it was stolen. A second theory was that only part of the shipment detonated, with the rest blown out to sea, the official said.
The FBI report said “an approximate amount reaching around 552 metric tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in warehouse 12.”
It noted the warehouse was large enough to house the 2,754 ton shipment, which was stored in one-ton bags, but added “it is not logical that all of them were present at the time of the explosion.”


Tunisian security forces arrest MP who criticized president

Tunisian security forces arrest MP who criticized president
Updated 34 min 27 sec ago

Tunisian security forces arrest MP who criticized president

Tunisian security forces arrest MP who criticized president
  • Parliamentarian Yassin Ayari’s wife said security arrested him for criticizing Tunisian President on Facebook

TUNIS: Tunisian security forces arrested a member of parliament at his home on Friday, his wife said, after he criticised President Kais Saied on Facebook and called his seizure of governing powers a coup.
Yassin Ayari, who represents a small party in parliament, has previously expressed frequent criticism of Saied, who on Sunday dismissed the prime minister, froze parliament for a month and said he was taking over executive authority.
Neither the security forces nor the judiciary were immediately available for comment on his arrest.
Ayari's wife, Cyrine Fitouri, said by phone that about 20 men in plain clothes who introduced themselves as members of a presidential security unit had raided their home earlier on Friday and used violence as they detained him.
"They took him forcefully while his mother was shouting," she said, adding that they had told the family not to film them as they took him away.
Saied on Thursday said he would uphold freedoms and rights of Tunisians as the United States urged him to return the country to "the democratic path" and key civil society groups said he must uphold the constitution.
His actions appear to have widespread popular support in Tunisia, where years of misgovernance, corruption, political paralysis and economic stagnation have been aggravated this year by a deadly surge in COVID-19 cases.
When he announced his seizure of governing powers on Sunday he also said he would take over public prosecutions and lifted the immunity of parliament members.
The judiciary, which has declared its political independence, said this week it had previously opened investigations into three political parties that have opposed Saied, and has now started investigations into several lawmakers.


Cyprus to vaccinate children aged 12-15 to beat virus

Cyprus to vaccinate children aged 12-15 to beat virus
Updated 30 July 2021

Cyprus to vaccinate children aged 12-15 to beat virus

Cyprus to vaccinate children aged 12-15 to beat virus
  • Health Minister Michalis Hadjipantelas announced that vaccination for children aged between 12 and 15 starts Monday
  • Over 20 per cent of Cypriot teenagers aged 16-17 have received a vaccine shot

NICOSIA: Cyprus decided Friday to expand its Covid-19 vaccination rollout to cover children aged 12 to 15, as authorities tackle a fourth wave of coronavirus.
Health Minister Michalis Hadjipantelas announced that vaccination for children aged between 12 and 15 would start Monday.
“The vaccination will be voluntary and with the necessary consent of the parents or legal guardians,” he said.
“Already several European Union countries, such as France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, and Greece, vaccinate children aged 12-15 to achieve greater protection of the population,” he told reporters.
Children will be vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine (Pfizer or Moderna).
Over 20 percent of Cypriot teenagers aged 16-17 have received a vaccine shot.
“The only way to stop new aggressive Covid-19 variants is to vaccinate,” said Hadjipantelas.
Cyprus is experiencing a new surge in cases, peaking at 1,152 on 15 July.
The surge is blamed on the more potent Delta variant and a low vaccination rate among the under 30s.
In a bid to contain the spike, the cabinet decided Friday that unvaccinated visitors and tourists staying longer than seven days will need to take a PCR test after a week’s stay.
Currently, there are no restrictions on vaccinated tourists entering the country.
The island has endured three national lockdowns in the past 16 months, and the government is trying to avoid another one to save the economy.
Hospitals have postponed all non-emergency operations as Covid wards reach capacity.
The health ministry said Cyprus has inoculated 73 percent of the eligible population with a first jab, and 64 percent are fully vaccinated.
The target is to reach “herd immunity” of 80 percent by the end of August.
Government-controlled southern Cyprus has registered over 100,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection and 416 deaths since the pandemic reached its shores in March 2020.
Wearing face masks and social distancing are compulsory.


Lebanon president ready to answer questions on Beirut blast

Lebanon president ready to answer questions on Beirut blast
Updated 30 July 2021

Lebanon president ready to answer questions on Beirut blast

Lebanon president ready to answer questions on Beirut blast
  • Many Lebanese are angry that nearly a year after the incident, no senior official has yet been held responsible

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun told the country’s public prosecutor on Friday he was ready to give a statement about last year’s port blast in the capital Beirut if needed.
“No one is above the law no matter how high up, and justice can only be achieved through the specialized judicial branches that provide guarantees,” Aoun told prosecutor Ghassan Ouidat during a meeting, according to a statement released by the president’s office.
The Aug. 4 explosion at the port, caused by a huge quantity of ammonium nitrate stored unsafely for years, killed over 200 people, injured thousands and destroyed large swathes of the capital.
A probe into the blast led by judge Tarek Bitar has been hindered over the past month as requests sent to parliament and the government to lift immunity and enable questioning of several top officials were either declined or stalled.
Many Lebanese are angry that nearly a year after the incident, no senior official has yet been held responsible.
Influential parliament speaker Nabih Berri said on Thursday the legislature was ready to lift the immunity of its members to allow for questioning but did not detail when or how this would be done.


Israel’s president gets third COVID-19 shot, urges boosters for over-60s

Israel’s president gets third COVID-19 shot, urges boosters for over-60s
Updated 30 July 2021

Israel’s president gets third COVID-19 shot, urges boosters for over-60s

Israel’s president gets third COVID-19 shot, urges boosters for over-60s
  • Israel was a world leader in the vaccination rollout, and around 57 percent of the 9.3 million population has been double-vaccinated

JERUSALEM: Israeli President Isaac Herzog received a third shot of coronavirus vaccine on Friday, kicking off a campaign to give booster doses to people aged over 60 as part of efforts to slow the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant.
Herzog, 60, received a booster dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv. He said he was proud to launch the booster vaccination initiative “which is so vital to enable normal circumstances of life as much as possible in this very challenging pandemic.”
The president was accompanied by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who urged the importance of booster shots in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and pledged that Israel would share all the information it gleaned from the initiative.
“Israel is a pioneer in going ahead with the third dose for older people of the age of 60 and above. The fight against the COVID pandemic is a global fight. The only way we can defeat COVID is together,” Bennett said.
The booster campaign, with shots administered by health maintenance organizations, will effectively turn Israel into a testing ground for a third dose before approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
On the eve of the booster rollout Bennett said Israel had already given 2,000 immunosuppressed people a third dose with no severe adverse events.
His government hopes that stepped up inoculation efforts will help avoid further costly lockdowns.
Israel was a world leader in the vaccination rollout, and around 57 percent of the 9.3 million population has been double-vaccinated. Many seniors got their first shots in December, January and February as they were regarded as the most vulnerable sector of the population.
But since the emergence of the Delta variant, the health ministry has twice reported a drop in the vaccine’s efficacy against infection and a slight decrease in its protection against severe disease.
Daily new infections have spiked to more than 2,000, up from a handful of cases per day a few months ago and about 160 people are currently hospitalized with severe symptoms.