World ‘can start dreaming of pandemic’s end’

World ‘can start dreaming of pandemic’s end’
People participate in an anti-lockdown demonstration on Saturday amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Birmingham, Britain. (Reuters)
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Updated 06 December 2020

World ‘can start dreaming of pandemic’s end’

World ‘can start dreaming of pandemic’s end’
  • WHO has been sharply criticized for not taking a stronger and more vocal role in handling the pandemic

NEW YORK: The UN health chief has declared that positive results from coronavirus vaccine trials mean the world “can begin to dream about the end of the pandemic,” but he said rich and powerful nations must not trample the poor and marginalized “in the stampede for vaccines.”

In an address to the UN General Assembly’s first high-level session on the pandemic, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned that while the virus can be stopped, “the path ahead remains treacherous.”

The pandemic has shown humanity at “its best and worst,” he said, pointing to “inspiring acts of compassion and self-sacrifice, breathtaking feats of science and innovation, and heartwarming demonstrations of solidarity, but also disturbing signs of self-interest, blame-shifting and divisions.”

The word of caution comes as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended "universal face mask use" indoors and US President-elect Joe Biden said he would scale down his January inauguration ceremony to mitigate the virus risk.

“Vaccines do not equal zero Covid,” said WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan, adding that not everyone will be able to receive it early next year.

“Vaccination will add a major, major, powerful tool to the tool kit that we have. But by themselves, they will not do the job.”

Referring to the current upsurge in infections and deaths, Tedros said without naming any countries that “where science is drowned out by conspiracy theories, where solidarity is undermined by division, where sacrifice is substituted with self interest, the virus thrives, the virus spreads.”

He warned in a virtual address to the high-level meeting that a vaccine “will not address the vulnerabilities that lie at its root” — poverty, hunger, inequality and climate change, which he said must be tackled once the pandemic ends.

“We cannot and we must not go back to the same exploitative patterns of production and consumption, the same disregard for the planet that sustains all life, the same cycle of panic and meddling and the same divisive politics that fueled this pandemic,” he said.

On vaccines, Tedros said: “The light at the end of the tunnel is growing steadily brighter but vaccines must be shared equally as global public goods, not as private commodities that widen inequalities and become yet another reason some people are left behind.”

He said WHO’s ACT-Accelerator program to quickly develop and distribute vaccines fairly “is in danger of becoming no more than a noble gesture” without major new funding.

He said $4.3 billion is needed immediately to lay the groundwork for mass procurement and delivery of vaccines and a further $23.9 billion is required for 2021. That total, Tedros said, is less than one-half of 1 percent of the $11 trillion in stimulus packages announced so far by the Group of 20, the world’s richest countries.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a similar appeal for funding for the ACT-Accelerator at Thursday’s opening of the two-day General Assembly session. 

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that Guterres is frustrated and would have liked see “a much much higher rate of investment by those countries who can.”

Henrietta Fore, head of the UN children’s agency UNICEF, said: “When poor countries started to try to buy vaccines, there were none available or the price was too high.”

UNICEF typically distributes 2 billion vaccine doses a year, she said, and once it can get COVID-19 vaccines, “We’re going to double that next year, so we need all hands on deck.”

US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said three of the six vaccine candidates that the US government has supported have reported promising data and “I have every reason to believe that more good news about vaccines and other countermeasures is on the way.”

US President Donald Trump has formally notified the UN of its withdrawal from WHO, which he has harshly criticized for its response to the pandemic and accused of bowing to Chinese influence.

Azar criticized the lack of “transparent information sharing” about COVID-19 and WHO’s investigation of the virus’ origin. 

But he said he wanted health ministers to know they can count on US cooperation to defeat the virus “with no strings attached,” and stressed that the US “is providing to countries combating the virus more funding, equipment, and support than any other nation.”

Despite years of warnings, WHO’s Tedros said, many countries were unprepared for the pandemic and assumed their health systems would protect their people. 

Many countries that have done best dealing with the crisis had experience responding to the outbreaks of SARS, MERS, HINI and other infectious diseases, he said.

WHO has been sharply criticized for not taking a stronger and more vocal role in handling the pandemic.

Tedros told the meeting that “clearly, the global system for preparedness needs attention.”

He said a WHO commission established in September is reviewing international health regulations. WHO is also working with several countries on developing a pilot program in which countries agree to regular and transparent reviews of their health preparedness, he said.

The pandemic also showed the need for a global system to share samples of viruses and other pathogens that cause disease to facilitate development of “medical counter-measures as global public goods” he said, welcoming Switzerland’s offer to use a high-security laboratory to manage a new biobank.

Tedros also backed European Union chief Charles Michel’s proposal for an international treaty under which WHO would monitor the risks of emerging infectious diseases in animals for transmission to humans, ensure alerts of health risks, improve access to health care, and address financing needs. He said this would provide “the political underpinning” for strengthening the global health sector.

The world spends $7.5 trillion on health every year, almost 10 percent of global GDP, Tedros said, but most of that money is spent in rich countries on treating disease rather than on “promoting and protecting health.”

“We need a radical rethink on the way we view and value health,” he said.

“If the world is to avoid another crisis on this scale,” Tedros said, “investments in basic public health functions, especially primary health care, are essential, and all roads should lead to universal health coverage with a strong foundation of primary health care.”


First coronavirus vaccine dose can reduce hospitalization risk by over 90%: Report

First coronavirus vaccine dose can reduce hospitalization risk by over 90%: Report
Updated 01 March 2021

First coronavirus vaccine dose can reduce hospitalization risk by over 90%: Report

First coronavirus vaccine dose can reduce hospitalization risk by over 90%: Report
  • English study comes amid fall in hospital admissions, deaths in country
  • Findings back those of Scottish study released last week

LONDON: A single coronavirus jab can reduce the risk of hospital admission by more than 90 percent, according to a new study.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was shown to be more effective at reducing hospitalization than the Pfizer-BioNTech one.

The report, which is the result of a large-scale English trial, is due to be released this month. It revealed that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is effective at preventing serious illnesses that can result from coronavirus.

The results show that even those aged over 70 are less likely to need hospital treatment after receiving just a single jab.

Health officials created up-to-date efficacy figures by comparing coronavirus hospital admission rates across England in people who have received a first dose in the country’s vaccine rollout, with those who have not.

The new report draws similar conclusions to a study of coronavirus hospital admission rates in Scotland released last week.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that four weeks after an injection, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca jabs reduced the risk of hospital admission by up to 85 percent and 94 percent, respectively.

For people aged over 80 —  the group most at risk of being admitted to hospital —  a single jab can reduce hospitalization risk by 81 percent after four weeks, according to the combined results of the English and Scottish studies.

The head of Oxford University’s vaccine project, Prof. Sarah Gilbert, praised the importance of the real-world data used in the new English study.

“It provides evidence of the high effectiveness of both the Oxford-AstraZeneca and BioNTech-Pfizer vaccines in preventing hospitalization in people over the age of 80 after a single dose, supporting our confidence in using this vaccine in adults of all ages,” she said.

The UK’s world-leading vaccine program has delivered initial jabs to about 20 million people, resulting in rapidly falling hospital admissions and virus deaths across all age groups in the country.


UK urged to reverse huge cuts to Yemen aid

UK urged to reverse huge cuts to Yemen aid
Updated 01 March 2021

UK urged to reverse huge cuts to Yemen aid

UK urged to reverse huge cuts to Yemen aid
  • Plea comes amid UN pledging conference to avert famine
  • Save the Children ‘beyond dismayed’ by reports of Britain’s decision

LONDON: Yemenis and major charities have urged the British government to reconsider reported cuts of up to 50 percent of its support for humanitarian efforts in the war-torn country.

The plea comes as the UN is looking to raise some $3.85 billion from more than 100 governments and donors at a major virtual pledging conference on Monday to avert Yemen’s growing famine.

The British government has signaled that it is expected to cut its international aid budget as the country reckons with its biggest-ever recession amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK is expected to slash its current 0.7 percent of national income spending on foreign aid projects.

Former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell told the BBC on Monday that cutting aid to Yemen would be “very serious indeed,” and would lead to the “slow, agonizing and obscene process of starving to death” for millions.

A Yemeni aid worker told The Guardian newspaper: “It is hard to describe how heartbreaking the situation in Yemen is right now … Children are dying every day here. It is not a moral decision to abandon Yemen.”

The country’s civil war kicked off in 2014 when Iran-backed Houthi militias seized the capital, leading the internationally recognized government to flee to neighboring Saudi Arabia.

“We are beyond dismayed by reports that the government intends to cut aid to Yemen by a staggering 50 percent. To slash food and medicine to these children as they stand on the brink of famine and a second COVID-19 wave risks many thousands of deaths,” said Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children UK.

“This is one of the first illustrations of the devastating real-life consequences of the UK’s decision to abandon its commitment to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid, and we hope the government will urgently rethink this move in time to avoid tragic consequences for the world’s most vulnerable children.”


2 Americans wanted in Ghosn’s escape in Japanese custody

2 Americans wanted in Ghosn’s escape in Japanese custody
Updated 01 March 2021

2 Americans wanted in Ghosn’s escape in Japanese custody

2 Americans wanted in Ghosn’s escape in Japanese custody
  • American father and son helped former Nissan chairman escape Japan in a box
  • Michael and Peter Taylor, failed to convince US courts to block their extradition

BOSTON: An American father and son wanted by Japan for aiding former Nissan Motor Co. Chairman Carlos Ghosn escape from the country in a box were handed over to Japanese custody Monday, ending their months-long battle to stay in the US
Michael Taylor and his son, Peter Taylor, failed to convince US officials and courts to block their extradition to Japan, where they will be tried on charges that they smuggled Ghosn out of the country in 2019 while the former auto titan was awaiting trial on financial misconduct charges.
The Massachusetts men, who have been locked up at a suburban Boston jail since their arrest in May, were handed over to Japanese officials early Monday, said one of their attorneys, Paul Kelly.
The Taylors’ lawyers had argued the accusations don’t fit under the law Japan wants to try them under and that they would be treated unfairly in Japan and subjected to “mental and physical torture.” They have accused Japan of pursuing the pair in an attempt to save face after the embarrassment of Ghosn’s escape.
Michael Taylor, a US Army Special Forces veteran and private security specialist who in the past was hired by parents to rescue abducted children, has never denied the allegations.
He gave an interview to Vanity Fair magazine for a story last year in which he described the mission in detail. When asked why he did it, he responded with the motto of the Special Forces: “De oppresso liber” or “to liberate the oppressed,” the magazine reported.
Michael Taylor refused to discuss the details of the case in an interview last month with The Associated Press because of the possibility that he will be tried in Japan. But he insisted that his son wasn’t involved and was not even in Japan when Ghosn left.
Ghosn, who became one of the auto industry’s most powerful executives by engineering a turnaround at the Japanese manufacturer, had been out on bail after his November 2018 arrest on charges that he underreported his future income and committed a breach of trust by diverting Nissan money for his personal gain.
Ghosn has denied the allegations and has said he fled to avoid “political persecution.”
Prosecutors have described it as one of the most “brazen and well-orchestrated escape acts in recent history.” Authorities say the Taylors were paid at least $1.3 million for their help.
On the day of the escape, Michael Taylor flew into Osaka on a chartered jet with another man, George-Antoine Zayek, carrying two large black boxes and pretending to be musicians with audio equipment, authorities said. Meanwhile, Ghosn, free on bail, headed to the Grand Hyatt in Tokyo and met up with Peter Taylor, who was already in Japan, authorities say.
The elder Taylor and Zayek met up with the two others at the Grand Hyatt and shortly after, they split up. Peter Taylor hopped on a flight to China while the others got on a bullet train and went back to another hotel near the airport, where Taylor and Zayek had booked a room. They all went in; only Ghosn’s rescuers were seen walking out.
Authorities say Ghosn was inside one of the big black boxes. At the airport, the boxes passed through a security checkpoint without being checked and were loaded onto a private jet headed for Turkey, officials said.
The Taylors had hired lawyers connected to former President Donald Trump, including ex-White House attorney Ty Cobb, in attempt to get Trump to block the extradition before he left office.
In his interview with the AP, Michael Taylor implored President Joe Biden to step in and said he felt betrayed that the US would try to turn him over to Japan after his service to the country. But the Biden administration declined to block the extradition.
Under Trump. the US State Department agreed in October to hand the men over to Japan. But a federal judge in Boston put their extradition on hold shortly after their lawyers filed an emergency petition. The judge rejected their petition in January and the Boston-based 1st Circuit Court of Appeals later denied their bid to put the extradition on hold while they appeal that ruling.
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer last month denied a bid for more time for an appeal, clearing the way for the men to be handed over to Japan.


Fourth executive jailed in Britain’s Iraq oil bribery case

Fourth executive jailed in Britain’s Iraq oil bribery case
Paul Bond was sentenced to nearly four years in jail at London's Southwark Crown Court. (File/AFP)
Updated 01 March 2021

Fourth executive jailed in Britain’s Iraq oil bribery case

Fourth executive jailed in Britain’s Iraq oil bribery case
  • Paul Bond, 68, will spend 3 and a half years in jail for helping to pay bribes of more than $900,000
  • Unaoil paid more than $17 million in bribes to secure contracts worth $1.7 billion for itself and its Western clients

LONDON: A former sales manager of Dutch energy services company SBM Offshore was sentenced on Monday to three-and-a-half years in jail after being convicted by a London jury of bribing public officials to win oil contracts in post-occupation Iraq.
Paul Bond, 68, was found guilty of two counts of bribery after a retrial at London’s Southwark Crown Court on Wednesday. His sentencing hearing was delayed after the judge developed COVID-19 symptoms and self-isolated.
Bond is the fourth executive convicted after a five-year Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigation into Monaco-based consultancy Unaoil, which uncovered bribes of more than $17 million to secure contracts worth $1.7 billion for Unaoil and its Western, blue-chip clients.
Bond had denied wrongdoing.
Prosecutors had said that Unaoil employees worked on behalf of SBM Offshore and with Bond to pay more than $900,000 in bribes to Iraqi public officials at Iraq’s South Oil Company and the Ministry of Oil to win a $55 million contract for offshore mooring buoys by skewing a competitive tender in their favor.
Basil Al Jarah, Unaoil’s former Iraq partner, was last year sentenced to three years and four months in jail after pleading guilty to five bribery counts in 2019. Unaoil’s former territory managers for Iraq — Ziad Akle and Stephen Whiteley — received five and three-year sentences respectively.
The SFO investigation originally centered on the prominent Ahsani family, which ran Unaoil. However, failed extradition attempts culminating in a clash in Italy with US prosecutors over the extradition of Saman Ahsani in 2018 scuppered the British agency’s attempts to pursue prosecution in Britain.
In October 2019 Saman Ahsani and his brother Cyrus pleaded guilty in the United States to being part of a 17-year scheme to pay millions of dollars in bribes to officials in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. Their father and Unaoil founder, Ata Ahsani, has not been prosecuted.
SBM Offshore, which has declined to comment, was fined $238 million by the US Department of Justice in 2017 under a deferred prosecution agreement.


French ex-president Sarkozy handed jail term for corruption

French ex-president Sarkozy handed jail term for corruption
Updated 01 March 2021

French ex-president Sarkozy handed jail term for corruption

French ex-president Sarkozy handed jail term for corruption
  • The jail sentence includes two years suspended and the remaining year can be served at home with an electronic bracelet
  • The conviction sets a new low-point in the tumultuous political career of the right-winger who remains a dominant political figure in France

PARIS: Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was found guilty of corruption on Monday and handed a three-year prison sentence, in a ruling that deals a major blow to any lingering political ambitions.
The jail sentence includes two years suspended and the remaining year can be served at home with an electronic bracelet, the court ruled, meaning Sarkozy will not end up behind bars over this case.
The judge found the 66-year-old had formed a “corruption pact” with his former lawyer and friend Thierry Herzog in order to convince a judge, Gilbert Azibert, to obtain and share information about a legal investigation.
“The facts for which Nicolas Sarkozy is guilty are particularly serious having been committed by a former president who was the guarantor of the independence of the judiciary,” the judgment read.
Sarkozy, a one-term president from 2007-2012, announced an appeal several hours after the verdict, with his lawyer calling the findings “extremely severe” and “totally unfounded and unjustified.”
The conviction sets a new low-point in the tumultuous political career of the right-winger who remains a dominant political figure in France, admired by fans for his tough talk on crime and immigration.
It is also likely to undermine any attempted comeback to frontline politics — an ambition he has denied, but which has been promoted by many supporters ahead of 2022’s presidential election.
Wearing a dark suit and tie, Sarkozy showed no emotion as the sentence was read out and he left court without commenting to waiting journalists.
“What a senseless witchhunt, my love Nicolas Sarkozy,” his wife, former supermodel and singer Carla Bruni, posted on Instagram, next to a picture of the couple embracing. “The fight goes on, the truth will come out. #injustice.”
Only one other modern French president, Sarkozy’s political mentor Jacques Chirac, has been convicted of corruption.
Chirac, who did not attend proceedings in 2011 due to ill health, received a two-year suspended sentence over the creation of ghost jobs at the Paris city hall to fund his party when he was mayor.
The verdict on Monday was based on extensive wiretaps of private conversations between Sarkozy and his lawyer in 2014 during which they discussed helping a judge, Gilbert Azibert, obtain a desirable job in Monaco.
In return the judge delivered information about a judicial investigation into Sarkozy’s dealings with billionaire L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt amid allegations that she had handed over envelopes stuffed with cash for campaign financing.
Sarkozy was eventually cleared over his dealings with Bettencourt and has maintained his innocence throughout.
He told the court during his latest trial he had “never committed the slightest act of corruption.”
While reading out her sentence, judge Christine Mee said Sarkozy had “used his status as a former president... in order to favor a magistrate to serve his personal interests.”
On March 17, the ex-president is scheduled to face a second trial over accusations of fraudulently overspending in his failed 2012 re-election bid.
He has also been charged over allegations he received millions of euros from Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi for his 2007 election campaign.
And in January, prosecutors opened another probe into alleged influence-peddling by Sarkozy over his advisory activities in Russia.
The guilty verdict on Monday is a further blow to Sarkozy’s center-right allies in the Republicans party who are struggling to coalesce around a single candidate ahead of next year’s presidential election.
Polls currently show centrist President Emmanuel Macron edging the election, followed by far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
“The severity of the punishment is absolutely out of proportion,” the head of the Republicans party, Christian Jacob, complained on Twitter.
He took aim at the specialized financial crimes prosecutors’ office which pursued Sarkozy, as well as his closest political ally while in power, former prime minister Francois Fillon.
Fillon, whose 2017 bid for the presidency was torpedoed by corruption charges, was convicted in June last year of creating a fake parliamentary job for his wife.
Political scientist Pascal Perrineau said that Sarkozy had been happy to let speculation about another tilt at the presidency in 2022 take off because it helped rehabilitate his image.
“Now it will be a lot more complicated,” he said.
On social media, some users shared previous comments from the pugnacious son of a Hungarian immigrant known for his tough-on-crime rhetoric.
In 2015, Sarkozy spoke out against arrangements that make it possible to convert short prison sentences into non-custodial punishments, which he will benefit from if he fails with his appeal.
“I want there to be no arrangements for sentences of more than six months,” he said.