Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine appears effective against mutation in new coronavirus variants

Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine appears effective against mutation in new coronavirus variants
The study by Pfizer and scientists from the University of Texas Medical Branch indicated the vaccine was effective in neutralizing virus with the so-called N501Y mutation of the spike protein. (AP)
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Updated 08 January 2021

Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine appears effective against mutation in new coronavirus variants

Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine appears effective against mutation in new coronavirus variants
  • Vaccine effective in neutralizing virus with the so-called N501Y mutation of the spike protein

NEW YORK: Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine appeared to work against a key mutation in the highly transmissible new variants of the coronavirus discovered in Britain and South Africa, according to a laboratory study conducted by the US drugmaker.
The study by Pfizer and scientists from the University of Texas Medical Branch, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, indicated the vaccine was effective in neutralizing virus with the so-called N501Y mutation of the spike protein.
The mutation could be responsible for greater transmissibility and there had been concern it could also make the virus escape antibody neutralization elicited by the vaccine, said Phil Dormitzer, one of Pfizer’s top viral vaccine scientists.
The first results of tests on the variants offer a glimmer of hope while more studies are carried out as Britain and other countries try to tame the more infectious variants which authorities believe are driving a surge in infections that could overwhelm health care systems.
The Pfizer-BioNTech study was conducted on blood taken from people who had been given the vaccine. Its findings are limited because it does not look at the full set of mutations found in either of the new variants of the rapidly spreading virus.
Dormitzer said it was encouraging that the vaccine appears effective against the mutation, as well as 15 other mutations the company has previously tested against.
“So we’ve now tested 16 different mutations, and none of them have really had any significant impact. That’s the good news,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that the 17th won’t.”
Dormitzer said another mutation found in the South African variant, called the E484K mutation, was also concerning.
The researchers plan to run similar tests to establish whether the vaccine is effective against other mutations found in the British and South African variants and hope to have more data within weeks.
The variants are said by scientists to be more transmissible than previously dominant ones, but they are not thought to cause more serious illness.
Scientists said the results of the study would help calm concerns that people will not be protected by vaccines being given to millions of people around the world in the fight against the pandemic, which has killed more than 1.8 million people and roiled economies.
But they cautioned that more clinical tests and data are still needed to come to a definitive conclusion.
“This is good news, mainly because it is not bad news,” said Stephen Evans, professor of pharmacoepidemiology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
“So, yes this is good news, but it does not yet give us total confidence that the Pfizer (or other) vaccines will definitely give protection.”
AstraZeneca, Moderna and CureVac are also testing whether their shots work against the fast-spreading variants. They have said they expect them to be effective, but the timing of those studies are not known.
A senior British lawmaker expressed concerns in an interview on Friday that COVID-19 vaccines might not work properly against the South African variant. He was not responding to questions about Friday’s data.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the one from Moderna, which use synthetic messenger RNA technology, can be quickly tweaked to address new mutations of a virus if necessary. Scientists have suggested the changes could be made in as little as six weeks.
The variant is not the first of the pandemic to emerge and Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh, said these types of study will be needed as they appear.
“It may be necessary to tweak the vaccine over time,” she said.


Made in India: Ministers, officials prefer locally-developed vaccine over AstraZeneca

Made in India: Ministers, officials prefer locally-developed vaccine over AstraZeneca
Updated 03 March 2021

Made in India: Ministers, officials prefer locally-developed vaccine over AstraZeneca

Made in India: Ministers, officials prefer locally-developed vaccine over AstraZeneca
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier opted for an Indian-made COVID-19 vaccine

NEW DELHI: Government ministers and officials were following Prime Minister Narendra Modi lead by opting on Tuesday for an Indian-made COVID-19 vaccine approved without late-stage efficacy data, instead of the AstraZeneca one.
India’s health, foreign and law ministers, and state governors, all flocked to Twitter to express support for the much-criticized Bharat Biotech’s COVAXIN vaccine, after it was administered to Modi on Monday.
“Made-in-India vaccines are 100% safe,” Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said after being inoculated with COVAXIN.
Many state officials and doctors have refused to take COVAXIN before its effectiveness could be proved. Bharat Biotech says it has completed the late-stage trial and results will be out this month.
The company said the endorsement by Modi and other ministers would set an example for other Indians and reduce “vaccine hesitancy.” It is seeking to sell COVAXIN to countries including Brazil and the Philippines.
COVAXIN and the AstraZeneca vaccines were approved by India’s regulator in January. The government has distributed to states a total of 50 million doses of the vaccines but only 12 percent of the 12 million people immunized so far have taken COVAXIN, according to government data.


Explosion hits Dutch COVID-19 testing center, no injuries — police

Explosion hits Dutch COVID-19 testing center, no injuries — police
Updated 03 March 2021

Explosion hits Dutch COVID-19 testing center, no injuries — police

Explosion hits Dutch COVID-19 testing center, no injuries — police

AMSTERDAM: Dutch police on Wednesday said a coronavirus testing location north of Amsterdam appeared to have been intentionally targeted after an explosion went off at the location before the site opened.

The blast in the town of Bovenkarspel, 55 km north of the capital, shattered windows but caused no injuries, police from the province of North Holland said in a statement.

They said they had cordoned off the area to investigate.

The explosive “must have been placed” there, police spokesman Menno Hartenberg told Reuters, adding that “something metal” had caused the explosion.

“We don't know yet exactly what exploded, the explosives experts must first investigate,” Hartenberg said.

“What we're saying is that something like that doesn't just happen by accident, it has to be laid,” he spokesman said.


Pakistan Senate election kicks off as Imran Khan’s ruling party looks for majority

Pakistan Senate election kicks off as Imran Khan’s ruling party looks for majority
Updated 03 March 2021

Pakistan Senate election kicks off as Imran Khan’s ruling party looks for majority

Pakistan Senate election kicks off as Imran Khan’s ruling party looks for majority
  • Imran Khan’s coalition does not have a majority in the Senate, needed to pass key legislation

ISLAMABAD/KARACHI: The ruling party of Prime Minister Imran Khan and his political allies will seek to wrest control of Pakistan’s Senate from opposition parties on Wednesday in indirect elections to 37 seats in the 104-member upper house of the country’s parliament.
Though his party won the 2018 general election, Khan’s coalition does not have a majority in the Senate, needed to pass key legislation – including legal reforms sought by global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and money laundering watchdog the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
“They have difficulty in legislating, and many laws are stuck,” Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, head of the independent research organization PILDAT, said.
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), which translates into Pakistan Movement for Justice, has 12 seats in the Senate, and the two main opposition parties Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) have 12 and 25 seats each.
PTI is looking to go up to 25 seats after the elections, and, along with other coalition parties and independents, have a slender majority in the Senate.
The electoral college for the Senate elections, which are held every three years on half of the chamber’s strength, comprises Pakistan’s four provincial assemblies and the lower house of parliament.
With opposition parties controlling the Senate, the government has had to pass interim legislation through Presidential Ordinances, which expire in 120 days.
The government’s legislators and allies in the lower house of parliament will vote on making Khan’s finance minister, Abdul Hafiz Sheikh, a senator. The result could show how much confidence there is in the administration.
“It could determine who has a majority in parliament... it will be an embarrassment for the government, and could even lead to seeking a fresh vote of confidence,” Mehboob said.
The lead up to the potentially pivotal election has been marked by the government and opposition charging each other with seeking votes through unfair means.


Daesh claims responsibility for attack on media workers in eastern Afghanistan

Daesh claims responsibility for attack on media workers in eastern Afghanistan
Updated 03 March 2021

Daesh claims responsibility for attack on media workers in eastern Afghanistan

Daesh claims responsibility for attack on media workers in eastern Afghanistan
  • Daesh fighters targeted three female employees of a television station

Daesh claimed responsibility for an attack that killed three female media workers in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday evening.
The militant group, which has a presence in Afghanistan, said its fighters had targeted the three female employees of a television station in the eastern city of Jalalabad, according to SITE Intelligence group.
Three women who worked for Enikas TV aged between 18 and 20 had died and a fourth was critically injured after being shot on their way home from work, Afghan officials had said.


Emotional scenes as UN General Assembly hears of human rights abuses in Syria

Emotional scenes as UN General Assembly hears of human rights abuses in Syria
Updated 03 March 2021

Emotional scenes as UN General Assembly hears of human rights abuses in Syria

Emotional scenes as UN General Assembly hears of human rights abuses in Syria
  • Daughter tells how her father disappeared nearly eight years ago after he was arrested; calls for justice for all victims of Syrian regime
  • Verdict of German court that jailed a regime agent sends message to Assad that those who commit such crimes cannot hide, envoy says

NEW YORK: “My name is Wafa Ali Mustafa and I have not heard from my father, Ali Mustafa, for 2,801 days — almost eight years ago, when he was forcibly disappeared by the Syrian regime.”
The atmosphere in the UN General Assembly Hall changed as Mustafa spoke. She was one of three representatives of civil society who briefed members during a high-level panel discussion of the human rights situation in Syria, in particular the torture and disappearance of detainees. It came as the 10th anniversary of the start of conflict, on March 15, 2011, approaches.
“My mom, two sisters and me have never been told why he has been taken away from us or where he is being held. We just don’t know,” Mustafa said in a quavering voice. Her father is a human rights activist who took part in protests against oppression by the regime.
A journalist and activist, Mustafa told how she was herself detained in 2011 at the age of 21 “for daring to dream of a free and just Syria.” She has spent the 10 years since her release “demanding justice against the Assad regime and other groups who continue to use detention as a weapon of war.”
Mustafa graduated from university in Berlin last year. Her education meant everything to her father and yet she admitted she often finds herself wondering, like many other Syrians, whether everything she does is pointless.
“I wondered this morning, is there a point in addressing all of you today? All Syrians wonder the same,” she told the General Assembly.
However, she said that on the day she sees her father again he will ask her what she had been doing during all these years. “He will ask what we all have been doing,” she added.
Mustafa’s testimony follows the publication of a report by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, which concluded that thousands of detainees have been subjected to “unimaginable suffering” during the war, including torture, death and sexual violence against women, girls and boys.
The Security Council tasked the commission with investigating and recording all violations of international law since the start of the conflict. It began when the regime launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters during the “Damascus Spring.” Since then, 400,000 people have died and millions have been forced from their homes.
“At least 20 different, horrific methods of torture used by the government of Syria have been extensively documented,” the investigators wrote in their report.
“These include administering electric shocks, the burning of body parts, pulling off nails and teeth, mock executions, folding detainees into a car tire, and crucifying or suspending individuals from one or two limbs for prolonged periods, often in combination with severe beating.”
The three-person panel investigated more than 100 detention facilities in Syria. Their findings are based on more than 2,500 interviews over the past 10 years. They concluded that none of the warring parties in Syria have respected the rights of detainees. Tens of thousands of people remain unaccounted for, missing without a trace.
“One decade in, it is abundantly clear that it is the children, women and men of Syria who have paid the price when the Syrian government unleashed overwhelming violence to quell dissent,” commission chairman Paulo Pinheiro told the General Assembly.
“Opportunistic foreign funding, arms and other support to the warring parties poured fuel on this fire that the world has been content to watch burn. Terrorist groups proliferated and inflicted their ideology on the people, particularly on women, girls and boys, as well as ethnic and religious minorities and dissenting civilians.”
He added: “Pro-government forces have deliberately and repeatedly targeted hospitals and medical facilities, decimating a medical sector prior to the arrival of the most catastrophic global pandemic in a century.
“The use of chemical weapons has been tolerated, the free flow of humanitarian aid instrumentalized, diverted and hampered — even with Security Council authorization.”
Representatives of more than 30 UN member states addressed the General Assembly. Most were united in calling for justice for the victims of the conflict and for the perpetrators to be held accountable. Without this, they agreed, a national reconciliation will be impossible.
The sentencing by a German court last week of former Syrian secret agent Eyad Al-Gharib to four-and-a-half years in prison, on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity, was hailed as historic.
He had been accused of rounding up peaceful anti-government protesters and delivering them to a detention center where they were tortured. The verdict marked the first time a court outside Syria has ruled on state-sponsored torture by members of the Assad regime.
Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s permanent representative to the UN, said the verdict of the Koblenz state court sends a clear message to Assad that “whoever commits such crimes cannot be safe anywhere.” He added that “Assad’s state has turned the cradle of civilization into a torture chamber.”
The German envoy added that he deplores the “inhumane” decision by China and Russia in July 2020 to veto a UN resolution calling for two border crossings between Turkey and Syria to remain open so that humanitarian aid could be delivered to millions of civilians in the northwest of Syria.
Barbara Woodward, the UK’s permanent representative to the UN, said that each of the 32 instances of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against civilians constitutes a war crime. She vowed that Britain “will respond more robustly to any further use of chemical weapons” by the regime.
Only Russia defended the Assad regime. Stepan Kuzmenkov, senior counsellor at the Russian mission to the UN, dismissed Tuesday’s meeting, saying it was based on “accusations, lies and conjecture.”
He said the Syrian regime is being attacked because its “independence cause does not suit a number of Western countries who continue to promote practices of using force, or the threat of force, in international relations.”
Kuzmenkov criticized his UN colleagues for “not talking about the real problem: terrorism” and for “using human rights discourse to resolve short-term political goals.” He reiterated Moscow’s stance that unilateral sanctions are to blame for the suffering in Syria.
At no point in his remarks did he mention the subject at hand: torture in Syrian prisons.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry’s report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on March 11.
Despite all the misery, pain and loss during the prolonged conflict, Syrians still cling to hope for a better future.
“Assad’s Syria is a torture state enabled by some members of this assembly — but it will become my home again,” Mustafa told the General Assembly.
“Who am I to say there is no hope? Who are you to say that?”