Vaccines vs. variants: Israel’s exit from pandemic hangs in balance

Vaccines vs. variants: Israel’s exit from pandemic hangs in balance
A health worker of the Maccabi Health vaccination centre administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine, inside the parking lot of the Givatayim mall in Israel's Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 26, 2021. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 28 January 2021

Vaccines vs. variants: Israel’s exit from pandemic hangs in balance

Vaccines vs. variants: Israel’s exit from pandemic hangs in balance
  • After international airport’s closure, country shuts land crossings to slow spread of COVID-19

JERUSALEM: Israel’s plan to parlay its COVID-19 vaccination drive into an exit from the pandemic next month hangs in the balance as new variants of the virus have spurred an increase in infections, a senior official said on Wednesday.

Highly infectious foreign variants are currently flooding Israeli hospitals with serious cases and the newly developed vaccines have yet to be proven fully effective against them, Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said.

Israel currently leads the world on per capita vaccinations, having inoculated about 30 percent of its population of 9 million with at least one dose.

“We are in a war with very low intelligence (about the enemy),” Kisch, a former fighter pilot, said. “That means that things are changing as we go. The enemy is using different tactics and different methods that we are not fully aware of.”

Israel began vaccinating high-risk groups on Dec. 19 in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicted would provide them with full protection by the end of this month and enable the economy to begin reopening in February.

But despite expanded eligibility criteria for the Pfizer Inc. vaccines and the imposition of a third national lockdown, infections and deaths are surging.

“We’re in an arms race — except it’s not an arms race, it’s a race between vaccination and mutation,” Netanyahu said on Wednesday at a virtual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Governments worldwide “should probably expect the companies that are producing the vaccines at this point to modify their vaccines to accommodate the mutations that they don’t cover now,” said Netanyahu, who is up for reelection on March 23.

Israel’s projections of a vaccine-fueled turnaround last week proved false, Kisch said. Now it is hoping to see in the coming two weeks a reduction in morbidity as well as solid research data showing that the vaccines defeat the variants.

“We are optimistic because, as of now, the knowledge regarding this vaccine is (that it is) effective against them,” said Kisch, a lawmaker in Netanyahu’s Likud party.

If that is correct, that means a delay of only two to four weeks in Israel’s planned exit from the pandemic, he said. If not, Israel could be facing a further delay of six to eight months.

“We’ll have to wait for a new development of a vaccine that will give the answer against this mutation,” Kisch said.

Israel’s Interior Ministry announced on Wednesday that the country’s land crossings with Jordan and Egypt would be closed to travelers, in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The decision follows the shutdown of the country’s international airport, which took effect on Tuesday. 

“To complete the joint efforts to prevent the increase in morbidity, Interior Minister Arye Deri announced that the land crossings will be closed to Israelis and foreigners,” the ministry said in a statement.


Six loyalist fighters killed in Syria arms depot blast: monitor

Six loyalist fighters killed in Syria arms depot blast: monitor
Updated 20 October 2021

Six loyalist fighters killed in Syria arms depot blast: monitor

Six loyalist fighters killed in Syria arms depot blast: monitor
  • It was not initially known what caused the blast

BEIRUT: Six members of a pro-government militia were killed Wednesday in an arms depot blast in the central Syrian province of Hama, a war monitor reported.
Seven other members of the National Defense Forces militia were wounded in the blast, the cause of which remains largely unclear, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.


Kuwait’s emir launches process for amnesty pardoning dissidents

Kuwait’s emir launches process for amnesty pardoning dissidents
Updated 20 October 2021

Kuwait’s emir launches process for amnesty pardoning dissidents

Kuwait’s emir launches process for amnesty pardoning dissidents
  • This could potentially end a months-long standoff with opposition

KUWAIT: Kuwait’s ruling emir on Wednesday paved the way for an amnesty pardoning dissidents that has been a major condition of opposition lawmakers to end a months-long standoff with the appointed government that has paralyzed legislative work.
Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah tasked the parliament speaker, the prime minister and the head of the supreme judicial council to recommend the conditions and terms of the amnesty ahead of it being issued by decree, Sheikh Nawaf’s office said.


Syrian army shelling kills at least 11 civilians

Syrian army shelling kills at least 11 civilians
Updated 20 October 2021

Syrian army shelling kills at least 11 civilians

Syrian army shelling kills at least 11 civilians
  • Among the casualties were several school children

AMMAN: At least 11 civilians died on Wednesday in a Syrian army shelling of residential areas of rebel-held Ariha city, witnesses and rescue workers said.
The shelling from Syrian army outposts, which came shortly after a roadside bomb killed at least 13 military personnel in Damascus, fell on residential areas in the city in Idlib province.
Among the casualties were several school children, witnesses and medical workers in the opposition enclave said.


13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media

13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media
Updated 20 October 2021

13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media

13 killed in Damascus army bus bombing: state media
  • Images released by SANA showed a burning bus

DAMASCUS: A bomb attack on an army bus in Damascus killed at least 13 people Wednesday in the bloodiest such attack in years, the SANA state news agency reported.
“A terrorist bombing using two explosive devices targeted a passing bus” on a key bridge in the capital, the news agency said, reporting an initial casualty toll of 13 dead and three wounded.
Images released by SANA showed a burning bus and what it said was a bomb squad defusing a third device that had been planted in the same area.
Damascus had been mostly spared such violence in recent years, especially since troops and allied militia retook the last significant rebel bastion near the capital in 2018.


Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists
Updated 20 October 2021

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists

Those who want to stop Beirut port blast probe are involved in the crime, say activists
  • Civil society members stage a sit-in outside the Justice Palace to show ‘solidarity with the judiciary’

BEIRUT: Tarek Bitar, the judge leading the investigation into the August 2020 port explosion, resumed investigations on Tuesday after being notified by the Lebanese Civil Court of Cassation of its second decision to reject the request submitted by the defendant in the case of MP Ali Hassan Khalil.

Normal service resumed at the Justice Palace in Beirut after a long vacation. The Lebanese army guarding roads leading to the palace and Ain Remaneh, which was the arena of bloody events on Thursday, over protests to dismiss Bitar from the case. The repercussions of these events have affected the political scene, its parties and the people.

Civil society activists under the auspices of the “Lebanese Opposition Front” staged a sit-in outside the Justice Palace to show “solidarity with the Judiciary carrying out its national duties and support for Judge Bitar to face the threats.”

Speaking on behalf of the protestors, activist Dr. Ziad Abdel Samad said: “A free and sovereign state cannot exist without a legitimate authority, judiciary and justice.”

Abdel Samad urged “the defendants to appear before Judge Bitar, because the innocent normally show up and defend themselves instead of resorting to threats.”

“We have reached this low point today because of a ruling elite allied with the Hezbollah statelet, protected by illegal arms.

“They want to dismiss Judge Bitar in all arbitrary ways and threats because he has come so close to the truth after they managed to dismiss the former judge, hiding behind their immunities because they know they are involved in the crime.”

Abdel Samad claimed that “those making threats are involved in the crime.”

Regarding the Tayouneh events that took place last week, he said: “They took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully, as they claimed, but they almost got us into a new civil war as a result of the hatred and conspiracies against Lebanon.”

Lawyer May Al-Khansa, known for her affiliation with Hezbollah, submitted a report at the Lebanese Civil Court of Cassation against the leader of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, Judge Bitar and “all those who appear in the investigation to be involved, accomplices or partners in crimes of terrorism and terrorism funding, undermining the state’s authority, inciting a strife, and other crimes against the law and the Lebanese Constitution.”

Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah on Monday night waged an unprecedented campaign of accusations and incitement against the Lebanese Forces party and its leader.    

Nasrallah accused them of being “the biggest threat for the presence of Christians in Lebanon” and said they were “forming alliances with Daesh.”

In a clear threat to Geagea and his party, Nasrallah bragged in his speech of having “100,000 trained fighters,” calling on Christians to “stand against this murderer.”

Nasrallah accused Bitar of “carrying out a foreign agenda targeting Hezbollah in the Beirut port crime” and of “being supported by embassies and authorities, turning him into a dictator.”

During the parliamentary session on Tuesday, no contact was made between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces. However, a handshake was spotted between the Lebanese Forces’ MP Pierre Abu Assi and the Amal Movement’s MP Hani Kobeissi.

Minister of Culture Mohammed Mortada, who represents Hezbollah, said “Hezbollah’s ministers will attend the ministerial session if Prime Minister Najib Mikati calls for one, but the justice minister and the judiciary must find a solution to the issue of lack of trust in Bitar.”

Several calls were made on Monday night between different political groups to prevent escalation and calm the situation.

Efforts are being made to reach a settlement that allows Bitar to keep his position and for defendants in the Beirut port case — who are former ministers and MPs — to be referred to the Supreme Judicial Council for prosecution.

Elsewhere, parliament dropped the proposal of a women’s quota ensuring female participation through  a minimum of 26 seats.

It passed a move to allow expats to vote for the 128 MPs and dropped the decision to allocate six additional seats representing them.

The parliament’s decision angered Gebran Bassil, who heads the Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc. Following the parliamentary session, Bassil referred to “a political game in the matter of expats’ right to vote, which we will not allow to happen.”