Philippines confirms local transmission of UK coronavirus variant

Philippines confirms local transmission of UK coronavirus variant
The Philippines has imposed some of the world’s toughest coronavirus restrictions, including internal travel bans. (Reuters)
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Updated 26 January 2021

Philippines confirms local transmission of UK coronavirus variant

Philippines confirms local transmission of UK coronavirus variant
  • The world is scrambling to contain the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant
  • Philippines’ first case of the British variant was found in a citizen who had traveled from the UAE

MANILA: The Philippines has confirmed domestic transmission of the new, highly contagious British variant of the coronavirus, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte to abandon a plan to allow some minors to go outside their homes.
“Right now, we have local transmission where this individual or these cases with the variant have already infected their community, their family,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told news channel ANC on Tuesday.
The world is scrambling to contain the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, despite travel bans, new lockdowns and a tightening quarantine measures in dozens of countries, amid concerns it could not only be more transmissible, but deadlier.
The Philippine health ministry said the B.1.1.7 variant had spread among 12 people in Bontoc, a mountainous northern province, with 17 such cases in the country.
Its first case of the British variant was found in a Filipino who had traveled from the United Arab Emirates.
Citing the British variant, Duterte said he had scrapped a plan to allow children ages 10 to 14 in low-risk areas to go outside the home starting Feb. 1.
The Philippines, which has imposed some of the world’s toughest coronavirus restrictions, including internal travel bans, has since March last year officially prohibited minors from leaving the home.
“I am afraid because this new strain strikes the young children,” Duterte said late Monday. “They can glue their attention on TV the whole day.”
The government had hoped easing restrictions on children might boost economic activity, after a year when growth is expected to have contracted 8.5 percent-9.5 percent.
With nearly 515,000 coronavirus cases and more than 10,200 deaths, the Philippines is among the worst affected countries in Asia.


Philippines kicks off vaccination campaign

Philippines kicks off vaccination campaign
Updated 15 min 54 sec ago

Philippines kicks off vaccination campaign

Philippines kicks off vaccination campaign
  • Health officials volunteer to take first jabs to tackle low confidence in China drug

MANILA: Filipino officials have expressed optimism that the country would gradually return to its progressive track in curbing the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as the Philippines launched a nationwide vaccination program on Monday.

“No one will be left behind,” said Carlito Galvez Jr., chief implementor of the National Task Force Against COVID-19, during the launch of the campaign at the state-run University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH).

The government aims to inoculate at least 1.4 million health workers this month. It is working to secure 161 million doses of vaccines from various manufacturers.

Besides the 600,000 doses of Sinovac vaccines donated by China on Sunday, Galvez said the country expects to receive 3.5 million doses of AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines from the COVAX facility within the first quarter of this year.

Another 1.5 million doses of the Sinovac vaccines, which are part of the 25 million doses procured by the government, are also expected to be delivered in March.

The vaccination campaign is expected to gather steam in the third and fourth quarter of this year.

Dr. Gerardo Legaspi, head of UP-PGH, was the first Filipino to be vaccinated on Monday, with the event broadcast live via government network PTV-4.

Legaspi expressed hope that by getting inoculated in public, he would encourage other health workers to follow suit. Recent surveys have shown low confidence levels among UP-PGH personnel for the Sinovac vaccine.

Legaspi stressed that the “Sinovac vaccine was safe” and assured his fellow frontliners that the Food and Drug Administration and the Vaccine Expert Panel “will not approve a vaccine for use unless it has been proven safe and effective.”

In a press briefing soon after his vaccination, Legaspi said he “felt like crying as he remembered his friends and colleagues who died of COVID-19.”

He added: “This is not the best vaccine for many, but if you look closely, one will understand why I was the first to volunteer to receive this vaccine.”

Meanwhile, Dr Ma. Dominga Padilla, clinical associate professor at the UP College of Medicine, said several fellow doctors had “turned emotional at the event.”

She added: “There is a lot of false news (about the vaccines), but when it’s the director who gets vaccinated first, that is a very, very strong statement.”

Padilla added that the reason she had volunteered to get vaccinated was “to erase fears of the adverse effects of COVID-19 vaccines,” which would not be possible “unless they see their doctors get vaccinated first.”

Galvez emphasized the importance of vaccinations for the country to return to normalcy.

“We will not return to our normal life if we don’t get ourselves vaccinated. It’s a moral obligation of each of us,” Galvez said.

“Let’s not wait for the best vaccine. There is no such vaccine because the best vaccine is the one that is effective and efficient and has already arrived,” he added.

Simultaneous programs in select hospitals across the capital region, Metro Manila, followed the UP-PGH vaccine rollout.

Meanwhile, several Filipinos welcomed the vaccine initiative as a step in the right direction.

“Finally, the government has started the vaccination program. It is something that should have been done before so that we can return to normal,” Leonard Postrado, a senior PR manager, told Arab News.

“I’m willing to be vaccinated as long as I know that the drug is effective. So yes to vaccination, but no to the Chinese drug that is less effective,” he added.

Roy Gascon, a trader whose business was disrupted by the pandemic, agreed: “As a small business owner, we are definitely excited about the vaccine. This will give the local government units and the national government the go signal to reopen all establishments and allow customers to come in and buy our products once again.”

Another businessman, Robert Cua, said he was willing to be inoculated with the Chinese vaccine.

However, he pointed out that for everything to return to normal, the government needed to procure 200 million doses of vaccines for its population of more than 100 million.

Duterte on Sunday said that he would begin easing community quarantine restrictions across the country once the campaign was launched.

“The earlier we can hasten the (vaccination) the better, and the only way to do it is to open the economy and for businesses to regroup,” he said.


Kashmiris say identity under attack after ‘pheran’ crackdown

Kashmiris say identity under attack after ‘pheran’ crackdown
Updated 18 min 20 sec ago

Kashmiris say identity under attack after ‘pheran’ crackdown

Kashmiris say identity under attack after ‘pheran’ crackdown
  • The pheran is worn by Kashmiris as an extra layer of protective clothing during the harsh winter month

NEW DELHI: There is no crackdown on a traditional Kashmiri robe, officials told Arab News on Monday, amid claims that people wearing it are being rounded up and frisked in response to two policemen being killed by someone alleged to have hidden a gun under his robe.

The pheran is worn by Kashmiris as an extra layer of protective clothing during the harsh winter months, and residents of the valley have said that security forces are discouraging them from wearing the garment.

The unarmed officers were killed in a busy market in Srinagar on Feb. 19, and the attack came two days after the owner of a popular eatery was murdered in the city. The assailant in this incident was also wearing a pheran.

Police and paramilitary troops have been carrying out checks in the market, with similar exercises reported from other parts of the valley.

However, Divisional Commissioner Pandurang K. Pole denied there was a crackdown or ban on Kashmiri item of clothing.

“There is no written order from any government authorities to ban the pheran,” he told Arab News. “See the markets and tourist places. They are full of the public, and there is no crackdown as such. What crackdown are you referring to?” 

But residents said security forces were asking people to “keep the pheran in hand.”

“The pheran is our traditional dress, and it protects us from winter,” Srinagar-based businessman Aijaz Ahmad told Arab News. “By asking people not to wear the pheran and keep it in hand, the government expresses distrust toward people. How can you expect to normalize the region by constantly attacking people’s sensitivities?”

Everything came to a standstill and people got stuck for hours when security forces launched a crackdown, said Khurshid Ahmed Shah, who is president of the Maharaj Market Association of Srinagar.

“Market is already down, and such moves further drive people away from the market,” he told Arab News. “They hesitate to come out. You understand how hurt people feel when you ask them not to carry pheran, or you suspect pheran-wearing people. It’s like we are going back to the old days of the 1990s, when such crackdowns and disapproval for wearing the pheran were pervasive.”

People’s worries about an anti-pheran campaign have increased since a right-wing group associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) called on the government to ban the garment.

“The militants have carried out most of the attacks in Kashmir while wearing phiran, which should be banned in public places and government functions,” Rakesh Bajrangi, a leader of the Bajrang Dal group in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region, said on Feb. 21.

Bajrangi did not deny his statement when contacted by Arab News, but refused to elaborate on the topic.

However Srinagar-based BJP spokesperson Manzoor Bhat justified the security response. “Who invited the crackdown?” he told Arab News. “Who killed the policemen? If you don’t allow the situation to stabilize, then the crackdown is bound to happen to bring peace in the region.” 

He said that Kashmiri police were trained and kept people’s sensitivities in mind but, when someone was frisked, security personnel would also check pherans.

Student activist Nasir Khuehani was last week travelling from Bandipora district to Sopore town in the valley when he was stopped at eight places in the 40-kilometer long journey.

He was asked to step out of the car, remove his pheran and walk a distance at each stop.

“I had all the identity cards,” he told Arab News. “I have good contacts in the region. Still, I was frisked this way. Imagine what would have been happening to local people.”

The valley’s top security officials were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News.

The situation in Kashmir has been volatile since Aug. 5 2019, when New Delhi scrapped the region’s constitutional autonomy and withdrew exclusive territorial rights for Kashmiris.

Despite the lifting of the lockdown that followed for several months and the restoration of internet services in the region, the area remains heavily militarized. Daily activities are curtailed due to security restrictions.

“Post-August 5, there has been a massive crackdown on life as a whole,” a spokesperson for the valley-based pro-India People’s Democratic Party, Syed Suhail Bukhari, told Arab News. “The recent crackdown in the valley goes back to the old days of the 1990s, when such a crackdown was normal in the name of curbing militancy. The larger question is not about the pheran, but the pervasive sense of distrust that Kashmiris have developed toward the government. The distrust keeps on multiplying with each order of the government. People see that they are being disempowered every day.”

Srinagar-based political analyst Zareef Ahmad Zareef said the government was not making “any efforts” to win people’s trust. “You cannot have peace unless you reach out to the people,” he added.


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.