Pfizer/BioNTech say vaccine effective against UK, South Africa virus mutations

Pfizer/BioNTech say vaccine effective against UK, South Africa virus mutations
Walgreens Pharmacists prepare Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines at Crown Heights Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, a nursing home facility in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., Dec. 22, 2020. (Reuters)
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Updated 28 January 2021

Pfizer/BioNTech say vaccine effective against UK, South Africa virus mutations

Pfizer/BioNTech say vaccine effective against UK, South Africa virus mutations
  • Pfizer/BioNTech say preliminary findings “do not indicate the need for a new vaccine to address the emerging variants”
  • Companies “prepared to respond” if new strain is shown to be able to evade the immunity of the vaccine

PARIS: The vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech appears to retain its effectiveness against coronavirus mutations in worrying new variants that have emerged recently in Britain and South Africa, the firms said Thursday.
Several new variants — each with a cluster of genetic mutations — have sparked fears over an increase in infectiousness as well as suggestions that the virus could begin to elude immune response, whether from prior infection or a vaccine.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which had previously said it was unlikely that the strain originally found in Britain could escape vaccine protection, said Thursday that early tests suggest their immunization would be similarly protective against the variant in South Africa.
In a statement, the two companies said these preliminary findings “do not indicate the need for a new vaccine to address the emerging variants.”
They said they are “prepared to respond” if a new strain is shown to be able to evade the immunity of the vaccine, adding that they can produce updates to their jab if needed.
The statement comes after US biotech firm Moderna this week announced that lab studies suggest its vaccine should protect against the variants first found in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
The latest Pfizer/BioNTech research, which has not yet been peer reviewed, was carried out by researchers from Pfizer and the University of Texas.
The authors compared the antibodies of 20 people who had received two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine during clinical trials with lab-engineered sets of mutations present in the variants that emerged in Britain and South Africa.
The new variants — along with another linked to Brazil — have mutations to the virus’ spike protein, which enables the virus to latch onto human cells and therefore plays a key role in driving infections.
One mutation in particular — known as E484K and found in the South Africa and Brazil strains but not the one in Britain — has experts particularly worried about immunity “escape.”
The study found that the antibodies were able to neutralize all the sets of mutations tested.
It noted that the effect was “slightly lower” against three mutations in the variant found in South Africa, including E484K.
But the firms said that it was “unlikely to lead to a significant reduction in the effectiveness of the vaccine.”
They said they were looking to test against the full set of mutations in the spike protein of the variant that emerged in South Africa.
A study released last week by researchers in South Africa, which has also not yet been peer reviewed, tested the variant found there against blood plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients.
They found that it was resistant to neutralising antibodies built up from prior infection, but said more research was needed into the effectiveness of other parts of the immune response.
Daily global deaths from Covid-19 topped 18,000 for the first time Wednesday, with vaccines seen as the only real chance of returning to some form of normality.
The German firm BioNTech had already said the messenger RNA technology means it could update the vaccine against new variants within weeks.


UK to toughen Covid-19 entry rules for all arrivals

UK to toughen Covid-19 entry rules for all arrivals
Updated 4 sec ago

UK to toughen Covid-19 entry rules for all arrivals

UK to toughen Covid-19 entry rules for all arrivals
LONDON: Britain will require all arriving passengers to isolate until they can show a negative PCR test against Covid-19 and is restoring a mandate to wear face masks in shops and public transport, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday.
“We now need to go further and implement a new testing regime,” he told a hastily arranged news conference, hours after the government confirmed the first two cases of the new Omicron variant in Britain.
Currently, all Britons and foreigners entering the UK are required to take a PCR test on day two after their arrival.
The new rules add the requirement for isolation pending a negative result, significantly toughening the regime, in a bid to curb the spread of the new strain.
“I very much hope that we will find that we continue to be in a strong position and we can lift these measures again,” Johnson said, promising a review in three weeks, before Christmas.
“But right now this is a responsible course of action,” he said, vowing to protect Britons’ hopes for a more festive Christmas this year as he indicated no further nationwide lockdown is coming.
Johnson added that the mandate for masks, controversially ditched by the government earlier this year, would return, without specifying when the new measures will come into force.

Greece opens two more ‘closed’ migrant camps

Greece opens two more ‘closed’ migrant camps
Updated 27 November 2021

Greece opens two more ‘closed’ migrant camps

Greece opens two more ‘closed’ migrant camps
  • The 'closed' camps feature barbed wire fencing, surveillance cameras, x-ray scanners and magnetic doors and gates remain closed at night
  • Greece was the main point where more than one million asylum seekers — mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans — entered Europe in 2015

KOS, Greece: Greece on Saturday opened two more of its new “closed” migrant camps that have been criticized by rights groups for their restrictive measures.
“A new era is beginning,” Minister of Migration Notis Mitarachi said announcing the opening of the camps on the islands of Leros and Kos.
“We are extricating our islands from the migration problem and its consequences,” he said. “The images that we all remember from 2015-2019 are now in the past.”
Greece was the main point where more than one million asylum seekers — mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans — entered Europe in 2015 and its islands in the Aegean Sea are the main port of call from people arriving via Turkey in search of a better life in Europe.
The crisis in Afghanistan has prompted fears of a new migration wave.
The “closed” camps feature barbed wire fencing, surveillance cameras, x-ray scanners and magnetic doors and gates remain closed at night.
They also have many features, like running water, toilets and more security, that were absent from the previous facilities that became infamous for their living conditions.
Greece inaugurated the first such camp on the island of Samos in September and plans to open two more, on the islands of Lesbos and Chios.
The EU has committed 276 million euros ($326 million) for the new camps.
But NGOs and aid groups have raised concerns about the new camps’ structure in isolated places and residents’ confinement, saying that the movement of people in the camps should not be restricted.
According to latest UN estimates, there are currently around 96,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Greece.


South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government

South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government
Updated 27 November 2021

South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government

South Africa ‘punished’ for detecting Omicron Covid variant: Government
  • The ministry pointed out that new variants had been discovered in other parts of the world

JOHANNESBURG: South Africa complained Saturday that it is being “punished” for detecting a new Covid-19 variant Omicron which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern” and is more transmissible than the dominant Delta strain.
The decision by a number of countries around the world to ban flights from southern Africa following the discovery of the variant “is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” the foreign affairs ministry said in a statement.
“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it said.
The ministry pointed out that new variants had been discovered in other parts of the world.
“Each of those cases have had no recent links with Southern Africa, but the reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in Southern Africa,” it said.
Israel and Belgium announced after South Africa that they also had detected cases of Omicron.
Government insisted that South Africa’s “capacity to test and its ramped-up vaccination program, backed up by a world-class scientific community should give our global partners the comfort that we are doing as well as they are in managing the pandemic.”
With more than 2.95 million cases and 89,783 deaths, South Africa is the worst-hit country in Africa by the pandemic.


World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

Intensive care nurses treat patients severely ill with Covid-19 disease in the Corona intensive care unit at the University Hospital in Halle/Saale on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP)
Intensive care nurses treat patients severely ill with Covid-19 disease in the Corona intensive care unit at the University Hospital in Halle/Saale on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP)
Updated 27 November 2021

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

Intensive care nurses treat patients severely ill with Covid-19 disease in the Corona intensive care unit at the University Hospital in Halle/Saale on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. (AP)
  • Scientists are still learning about the variant, first identified at the start of this week
  • Several countries, including in the Gulf, institute travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa

BRUSSELS: Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the world raced Friday to contain a new coronavirus variant potentially more dangerous than the one that has fueled relentless waves of infection on nearly every continent.
A World Health Organization panel named the variant “omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the predominant delta variant, which is still a scourge driving higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the United States.
“It seems to spread rapidly,” U.S. President Joe Biden said of the new variant, only a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving gatherings for millions of American families and the sense that normal life was coming back at least for the vaccinated. In announcing new travel restrictions, he told reporters, “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.”
Omicron's actual risks are not understood. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.
In response to the variant's discovery in southern Africa, the United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the European Union in restricting travel for visitors from that region, where the variant brought on a fresh surge of infections.
The White House said the U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning Monday. Biden said that means “no travel” to or from the designated countries except for returning U.S. citizens and permanent residents who test negative.
Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied. But a jittery world feared the worst after the tenacious virus triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe.
“We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.
Omicron has now been seen in travelers to Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, as well as in southern Africa.
There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said. The WHO panel drew from the Greek alphabet in naming the variant omicron, as it has done with earlier, major variants of the virus.
Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear how much of a public health threat it posed. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.
Fears of more pandemic-induced economic turmoil caused stocks to tumble in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly dropped more than 1,000 points. The S&P 500 index closed down 2.3%, its worst day since February. The price of oil plunged about 13%.
“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. Members of the 27-nation EU have experienced a massive spike in cases recently.
Britain, EU countries and some others introduced their travel restrictions Friday, some within hours of learning of the variant. Asked why the U.S. was waiting until Monday, Biden said only: "Because that was the recommendation coming from my medical team.’’
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to “be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travelers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”
She warned that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months."
“It’s a suspicious variant," said Frank Vandenbroucke, health minister in Belgium, which became the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant. “We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”
Omicron has yet to be detected in the United States, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government's top infectious disease expert. Although it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, "we don’t know that for sure right now,” he told CNN.
Speaking to reporters outside a bookstore on Nantucket Island, where he was spending the holiday weekend, Biden said the new variant was "a great concern” that “should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations."
He called anew for unvaccinated Americans to get their widely available doses and for governments to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines so they can be more rapidly manufactured around the world.
Israel, one of the world's most vaccinated countries, announced Friday that it also detected its first case of the new variant in a traveler who returned from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation. Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials were looking into the travelers' exact vaccination status.
After a 10-hour overnight trip, passengers aboard KLM Flight 598 from Capetown, South Africa, to Amsterdam were held on the edge of the runway Friday morning at Schiphol airport for four hours pending special testing. Passengers aboard a flight from Johannesburg were also isolated and tested.
“It’s ridiculous. If we didn’t catch the dreaded bug before, we're catching it now,” said passenger Francesca de’ Medici, a Rome-based art consultant who was on the flight.
Some experts said the variant's emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Fewer than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.
“This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point,” said Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Britain’s University of Southampton. He urged Group of 20 leaders "to go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their commitments to share doses.”
The new variant added to investor anxiety that months of progress containing COVID-19 could be reversed.
“Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley of foreign exchange broker Oanda.
The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged any travel bans on countries that reported the new variant. It said past experience shows that such travel bans have “not yielded a meaningful outcome.”
The U.S. restrictions will apply to visitors from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. The White House suggested the restrictions will mirror an earlier pandemic policy that banned entry of any foreigners who had traveled over the previous two weeks in the designated regions.
The U.K. banned flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries and announced that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
Canada banned the entry of all foreigners who have traveled to southern Africa in the last two weeks.
The Japanese government announced that Japanese nationals traveling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodations for 10 days and take three COVID-19 tests during that time. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals. Russia announced travel restrictions effective Sunday.

 


Ethiopia’s Abiy at the battlefront vows to ‘bury the enemy’, UN sounds alarm on hunger

In this image made from undated released by the PM of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed is seen dressed in military uniform speaking to a television camera at an unidentified location in Ethiopia. (AP)
In this image made from undated released by the PM of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed is seen dressed in military uniform speaking to a television camera at an unidentified location in Ethiopia. (AP)
Updated 27 November 2021

Ethiopia’s Abiy at the battlefront vows to ‘bury the enemy’, UN sounds alarm on hunger

In this image made from undated released by the PM of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed is seen dressed in military uniform speaking to a television camera at an unidentified location in Ethiopia. (AP)
  • The war has exacted a huge humanitarian toll, with the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) saying Friday that the number of people requiring food aid in the country’s north had surged to more than nine million

ADDIS ABABA: Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed vowed Friday to “bury the enemy” in his first message from the battlefront according to state media, as the UN warned the year-long conflict has left millions short of food.
As Tigrayan rebels report major territorial gains, claiming this week to have seized a town just 220 kilometers (135 miles) from Addis Ababa, international alarm over the escalating conflict has deepened, with foreign countries urging their citizens to leave.
State media reported Wednesday that Abiy, a former lieutenant-colonel in the military, had arrived at the front line to lead a counter-offensive against the rebels, handing regular duties to his deputy.
In an interview shown Friday on the state-affiliated Oromia Broadcasting Corporation channel, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner said he was certain of achieving victory against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) rebel group.
“Until we bury the enemy... until Ethiopia’s independence is confirmed, we won’t reverse course. What we want is to see an Ethiopia that stands while we die,” he said.
He added that the military had secured control of Kassagita and planned to recapture Chifra district and Burka town in Afar region, which neighbors Tigray, the TPLF’s stronghold.
“The enemy doesn’t have the standing to compete with us, we will win,” he said.
The interview was broadcast hours after the government announced new rules Thursday against sharing information on battlefield outcomes that was not published by official channels, a move that could bring sanctions against journalists.

The war has exacted a huge humanitarian toll, with the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) saying Friday that the number of people requiring food aid in the country’s north had surged to more than nine million.
Hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine as aid workers struggle to deliver urgently-needed supplies to desperate populations in Tigray, Amhara and Afar.
The WFP said the situation had sharply deteriorated in recent months, with an estimated 9.4 million people facing hunger “as a direct result of ongoing conflict,” compared with around seven million in September.
“Amhara region — the frontlines of the conflict in Ethiopia — has seen the largest jump in numbers with 3.7 million people now in urgent need of humanitarian aid,” WFP said.
“Of the people across northern Ethiopia in need of assistance, more than 80 percent (7.8 million) of them are behind battle lines.”
This week, aid workers were able to distribute food in the Amhara towns of Dessie and Kombolcha for the first time since they were captured by the TPLF nearly a month ago, the WFP said, adding that it was only granted access to its warehouses last week.
The risk of malnutrition has also increased across the three regions, with screening data showing rates between 16 and 28 percent for children, it said.
“Even more alarmingly, up to 50 percent of pregnant and breastfeeding women screened in Amhara and Tigray were also found to be malnourished.”
Fighting has also damaged more than 500 health facilities in Amhara, the UN’s humanitarian agency OCHA said late Thursday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken “expressed grave concern about worrying signs of military escalation” in Ethiopia during a telephone conversation with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on Friday.
He also “emphasised the need to urgently move to negotiations” on the conflict, according to a statement from the State Department.

As the war has dragged on, the government has stepped up its use of air power against the TPLF — one of the areas where it enjoys a military advantage.
On Friday the TPLF and a hospital official reported two air strikes in Tigray’s capital Mekele.
Dr. Hayelom Kebede, research director at Mekele’s Ayder Referral Hospital, told AFP the bombings occurred at 9 am (0600 GMT) and 12:30 pm, with the first one destroying two homes.
“Still waiting for the casualty report,” he said.
Sources told AFP the first strike hit close to the house of a rebel commander and near a hill with an anti-aircraft machine gun.
Much of the conflict-affected zone is under a communications blackout and access for journalists is restricted, making battlefield claims difficult to verify.
Abiy’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum said she had “no information” about any drone strikes in Mekele, which was recaptured by the rebels in June before they expanded into Amhara and Afar.
The war erupted in early November 2020 when Abiy deployed troops into Tigray, bringing to a head a long-simmering row with the TPLF, the region’s ruling party.