India’s dramatic fall in coronavirus cases leaves experts stumped

India’s dramatic fall in coronavirus cases leaves experts stumped
India is reporting about 11,000 new coronavirus acases a day, compared to a peak of nearly 100,000. (AP)
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Updated 16 February 2021

India’s dramatic fall in coronavirus cases leaves experts stumped

India’s dramatic fall in coronavirus cases leaves experts stumped
  • The country is reporting about 11,000 new cases a day, compared to a peak of nearly 100,000

NEW DELHI: When the coronavirus pandemic took hold in India, there were fears it would sink the fragile health system of the world’s second-most populous country. Infections climbed dramatically for months and at one point India looked like it might overtake the United States as the country with the highest case toll.
But infections began to plummet in September, and now the country is reporting about 11,000 new cases a day, compared to a peak of nearly 100,000, leaving experts perplexed.
They have suggested many possible explanations for the sudden drop – seen in almost every region – including that some areas of the country may have reached herd immunity or that Indians may have some preexisting protection from the virus.
The Indian government has also partly attributed the dip in cases to mask-wearing, which is mandatory in public in India and violations draw hefty fines in some cities. But experts have noted the situation is more complicated since the decline is uniform even though mask compliance is flagging in some areas.
It’s more than just an intriguing puzzle; determining what’s behind the drop in infections could help authorities control the virus in the country, which has reported nearly 11 million cases and over 155,000 deaths. Some 2.4 million people have died worldwide.
“If we don’t know the reason, you could unknowingly be doing things that could lead to a flare-up,” said Dr. Shahid Jameel, who studies viruses at India’s Ashoka University.
India, like other countries, misses many infections, and there are questions about how it’s counting virus deaths. But the strain on the country’s hospitals has also declined in recent weeks, a further indication the virus’s spread is slowing. When recorded cases crossed 9 million in November, official figures showed nearly 90 percent of all critical care beds with ventilators in New Delhi were full. On Thursday, 16 percent of these beds were occupied.
That success can’t be attributed to vaccinations since India only began administering shots in January – but as more people get a vaccine, the outlook should look even better, though experts are also concerned about variants identified in many countries that appear to be more contagious and render some treatments and vaccines less effective.
Among the possible explanations for the fall in cases is that some large areas have reached herd immunity – the threshold at which enough people have developed immunity to the virus, by falling sick or being vaccinated, that the spread begins to slacken, said Vineeta Bal, who studies immune systems at India’s National Institute of Immunology.
But experts have cautioned that even if herd immunity in some places is partially responsible for the decline, the population as a whole remains vulnerable – and must continue to take precautions.
This is especially true because new research suggests that people who got sick with one form of the virus may be able to get infected again with a new version. Bal, for instance, pointed to a recent survey in Manaus, Brazil, that estimated that over 75 percent of people there had antibodies for the virus in October – before cases surged again in January.
“I don’t think anyone has the final answer,” she said.
And, in India, the data is not as dramatic. A nationwide screening for antibodies by Indian health agencies estimated that about 270 million, or one in five Indians, had been infected by the virus before vaccinations started – that’s far below the rate of 70 percent or higher that experts say might be the threshold for the coronavirus, though even that is not certain.
“The message is that a large proportion of the population remains vulnerable,” said Dr. Balram Bhargava, who heads India’s premier medical research body, the Indian Council of Medical Research.
But the survey offered other insight into why India’s infections might be falling. It showed that more people had been infected in India’s cities than in its villages, and that the virus was moving more slowly through the rural hinterland.
“Rural areas have lesser crowd density, people work in open spaces more and homes are much more ventilated,” said Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India.
If some urban areas are moving closer to herd immunity – wherever that threshold lies – and are also limiting transmission through masks and physical distancing and thus are seeing falling cases, then maybe the low speed at which the virus is passing through rural India can help explain sinking numbers, suggested Reddy.
Another possibility is that many Indians are exposed to a variety of diseases throughout their lives – cholera, typhoid and tuberculosis, for instance, are prevalent – and this exposure can prime the body to mount a stronger, initial immune response to a new virus.
“If the COVID virus can be controlled in the nose and throat, before it reaches the lungs, it doesn’t become as serious. Innate immunity works at this level, by trying to reduce the viral infection and stop it from getting to the lungs,” said Jameel, of Ashoka University.


Pakistan faces unpleasant options amid violent protests over Prophet cartoons published in France

Pakistan faces unpleasant options amid violent protests over Prophet cartoons published in France
Updated 12 min 29 sec ago

Pakistan faces unpleasant options amid violent protests over Prophet cartoons published in France

Pakistan faces unpleasant options amid violent protests over Prophet cartoons published in France
  • In TV address, PM Imran Khan said breaking ties with France in protest against the caricatures will hurt Pakistan more
  • Religious political party TLP has demanded the expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan before April 20

ISLAMABAD AND KARACHI: Unrest has gripped Pakistan since April 12 when Saad Rizvi, leader of the recently outlawed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), was arrested in Lahore for threatening a campaign of civil disobedience against the government unless it expelled the French ambassador over the re-publication last year in France of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.

Violent protests have paralyzed major cities and highways all week, leading to the death of six police officers and injuries to more than 800, according to the government.

Photographs of police officers taken hostage by TLP supporters, with their heads, legs and arms heavily bandaged, have been posted on social media throughout the week.

On Sunday, the TLP said three of its members had been killed in clashes outside its headquarters in the eastern city of Lahore. The religious party also took several police and paramilitary troops hostage, releasing 11 officers in the early hours of Monday following negotiations with the government.

Saad Rizvi (center) leader of the recently outlawed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), was arrested in Lahore for threatening a campaign of civil disobedience. (AFP/File)

The riots have prompted the French embassy to urge its citizens to temporarily leave the country.

Rizvi became leader of the TLP in November after the sudden death of his father, the firebrand cleric Khadim Hussein Rizvi. His party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 federal elections promising to defend the country’s blasphemy laws, which call for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam.

The party has a history of staging protests to pressure the government to accept its demands. In November 2017, Rizvi’s followers staged a 21-day sit-in after a reference to the sanctity of Prophet Muhammad was removed from the text of a government form.

Now the TLP is calling on the government to honor what it says was a commitment made in February to expel the French envoy before April 20 over the publication of the cartoons. Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, insists his government is only committed to debating the matter in parliament.

Traders in Islamabad shout anti-France slogans in a closed market during a nationwide strike to show their solidarity with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). (AFP)

On Monday, Khan said that meeting the TLP’s demands to break diplomatic ties with France would hit Pakistani exports to the EU and lead to poverty, unemployment and inflation.

“The biggest effect (of breaking ties with France) will be that after great difficulty our economy is rising, the large-scale industry is getting up after a long time, people are getting jobs, wealth is increasing in our country, our exports are rising and after a long time, our rupee is strengthening,” Khan said in a televised address to the nation.

He added that breaking ties with France would be tantamount to severing relations with the entire EU.

“Half of our textile exports go to the EU and that will be stopped, resulting in unemployment, devaluation of the rupee, increase in inflation and poverty,” Khan said.

“We will be at loss but this won’t make any difference to France.”

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan said meeting the TLP’s demands to break diplomatic ties with France would hit Pakistani exports to the EU. (AFP/File)

Rather than act unilaterally, Khan said the leaders of Muslim countries should collectively take up the issue of blasphemy with UN and EU.

“We should tell the Western countries that blasphemy to our prophet in the name of freedom of speech hurts us. And if they don’t stop it, we can then collectively do the trade boycott,” he said.

Khan said this was the only way to “achieve the objective” of creating an environment in which no one would dare to disrespect the prophet, and pledged to personally lead such a global campaign to ensure this.

Khan’s address came as the government went into a third round of negotiations with the TLP.

“We believe in negotiations and it’s our policy,” Pir Noorul Haq Qadri, the federal minister for religious affairs, said in a policy statement in the National Assembly on Monday.

“No political, democratic and elected government can afford such things and whatever happened in the past few days is regrettable to everyone.”

On Sunday evening, Fawad Hussain Chaudhry, the information minister, said the government was forced to launch an armed operation against protesters after they kidnapped law enforcement officials.

“The government believes in negotiations but can’t be blackmailed,” he said. “The operation was started after police and Rangers personnel were kidnapped ... Imran Khan has the strongest affection with the prophet and he has talked about this at every (national and global) forum.”

Earlier on Sunday, police spokesperson Arif Rana said the operation against the TLP had been halted as the attackers were armed with petrol bombs and a tanker with 50,000 liters of petrol.

By Sunday evening, the situation was “at a standstill,” he said, with protesters sitting on roadsides with sticks and petrol bombs in their hands and law enforcement standing guard.

Last week, the interior ministry said it was moving to have the TLP party banned for attacking police and paramilitary troops and disrupting public life during its protests. The interior ministry’s decision has been approved by the federal cabinet but needs to be ratified by the Supreme Court for the TLP to be officially dissolved.

In October 2020, protests broke out in several Muslim countries, including Pakistan, over France’s response to a deadly attack on a teacher who showed his pupils cartoons mocking Prophet Muhammad during a civics lesson. French President Emmanuel Macron has defended the caricatures as freedom of expression.

During last year’s protests in Pakistan, the government negotiated with the TLP and met a number of its demands, including an agreement to hold a parliamentary debate on whether or not to expel the French ambassador.

The agreed deadline to hold that debate expires on April 20.

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Albanian man with knife wounds 5 at mosque in Tirana

Albanian man with knife wounds 5 at mosque in Tirana
Updated 19 April 2021

Albanian man with knife wounds 5 at mosque in Tirana

Albanian man with knife wounds 5 at mosque in Tirana
  • Police said Albanian man, 34, wound five people with knife attack in mosque in Tirana
  • Man was arrested by police that haven’t disclosed any motive for the attack

TIRANA: An Albanian man with a knife attacked five people Monday at a mosque in the capital of Tirana, according to police.
A police statement said Rudolf Nikolli, 34, entered the Dine Hoxha mosque in downtown Tirana about 2:30 p.m. and wounded five people with a knife.
Police reacted immediately and took him into custody.
The five wounded, all men aged from 22 to 35, were taken to a hospital and police said they are not in life-threatening situations.
Police have not disclosed any motive for the attack. They and prosecutors are investigating the case.
Ahmed Kalaja, imam of the mosque, said the armed man attacked worshipers and staff, and added he hoped it was “not a terrorist attack.”
The mosque at the time was filled with believers during the fasting month of Ramadan.
Albania’s 2.8 million people are predominantly Muslim with smaller Christian Catholic and Orthodox communities that have gotten along well with each other.
Police said Nikolli was from the northern town of Burrel and his religious background was not yet clear.


Hostage policemen released by TLP religious party after government negotiations

Hostage policemen released by TLP religious party after government negotiations
Updated 19 April 2021

Hostage policemen released by TLP religious party after government negotiations

Hostage policemen released by TLP religious party after government negotiations
  • Second round of negotiations to take place Monday morning
  • Security was beefed up in capital Islamabad overnight with heavy contingents of police

ISLAMABAD: Eleven security personnel taken hostage on Sunday by the banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) religious party during police clashes in Lahore were released in the early hours of Monday morning following the first round of negotiations with the government, interior minister Sheikh Rasheed said in a video announcement on Twitter.
Rioting by the rightwing group has rocked the country since Monday last, after TLP chief Saad Rizvi was arrested in Lahore a day after he threatened the government with rallies if it did not expel the French envoy to Islamabad over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) published in France last year.
The protests paralyzed major cities and highways, leading to the deaths of six policemen, according to the government, with thousands of TLP workers under arrest, police say. The riots also prompted the French embassy to recommend all its nationals temporarily leave the country last week.
“Talks have started with the TLP. The first round of negotiations went well and the second round will take place after sehr,” Rashid said.
“They [TLP] have released 11 abducted policemen hostages and have gone into the Rehmatul Lil Alameen Mosque. The police have also stepped back,” he said.


“These negotiations were held successfully by the Punjab government. We hope that the second meeting after sehr will also be successful and matters will be amicably resolved with the TLP,” he added.
Earlier, on Sunday evening, Information Minister Fawad Hussain Chaudhry said in a statement the government believed in negotiating but wouldn’t be blackmailed.
“The government believes in negotiations but can’t be blackmailed,” he said.
“The operation was started after police and Rangers personnel were kidnapped. The state can’t be blackmailed by a proscribed armed outfit. [Prime Minister] Imran Khan has the strongest affection with the Prophet (PBUH) and he has talked about this at every forum.”
Earlier on Sunday, a police spokesman, Arif Rana, said the operation against the TLP had been halted as the attackers were armed with petrol bombs and a tanker with 50,000 liters of petrol.
By Sunday evening, he said the situation was “at a standstill” with protesters sitting on roadsides with sticks and petrol bombs in their hands and law enforcement personnel standing guard.
Last week, the interior ministry said it was moving to have the TLP party banned for attacking law enforcement forces and disrupting public life during its protests. The interior ministry’s decision has been approved by the federal cabinet but needs to be ratified by the Supreme Court for the TLP to be dissolved.
Talking to the media in Islamabad on Sunday, Ahmed said no negotiations were underway with the TLP.
“We tried to negotiate for two, three months with them but in vain. They are not ready to retreat from their agenda, so the government is left with no option but to establish the writ of the state,” the minister said.
Security was heightened overnight in the capital, Islamabad, the DIG operations tweeted Sunday evening.
In October 2020, protests broke out in several Muslim countries over France’s response to a deadly attack on a teacher who showed cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils during a civics lesson.
During similar protests in Pakistan, the government negotiated with the TLP and met a number of its demands, including that it would debate expelling the French ambassador in parliament.
A deadline to make that parliamentary move expires on April 20.


Thailand reports 1,390 new coronavirus infections, 3 new deaths

Thailand reports 1,390 new coronavirus infections, 3 new deaths
Updated 19 April 2021

Thailand reports 1,390 new coronavirus infections, 3 new deaths

Thailand reports 1,390 new coronavirus infections, 3 new deaths
  • Three deaths were reported

BANGKOK: Thailand reported 1,390 new coronavirus cases on Monday, slowing from six days of record highs, amid a third wave of infections in the Southeast Asian country.
Three deaths were reported. The new cases took the total number of infections to 43,742, with 104 deaths.


France restricting travel from 4 countries to curb variants

France restricting travel from 4 countries to curb variants
Updated 19 April 2021

France restricting travel from 4 countries to curb variants

France restricting travel from 4 countries to curb variants
  • Along with the mandatory quarantine, France is requiring more stringent testing for the coronavirus

PARIS: France is imposing entry restrictions on travelers from four countries — Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Brazil — in hopes of keeping out especially contagious coronavirus variants, the government has announced.

The restrictions include mandatory 10-day quarantines with police checks to ensure people arriving in France observe the requirement.  Travelers from all four countries will be restricted to French nationals and their families, EU citizens and others with a permanent home in France.

France previously suspended all flights from Brazil. The suspension will be lifted next Saturday, after 10 days, and the new restrictions “progressively” put in place by then, the government said. 

The flight suspension for Brazil will be lifted followed by “drastic measures” for entering France from all four countries, plus the French territory of Guiana, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

The four countries “are the most dangerous in terms of the number of variants that exist and in the evolution of the pandemic in these countries,” Le Drian said Saturday on the France 3 television station.

The list of countries subject to tougher border checks could be extended, he said.

Under the new restrictions, travelers must provide an address for where they plan to observe the 10-day confinement period and police will make visits and fine those who are found in violation, the government said.

Along with the mandatory quarantine, France is requiring more stringent testing for the coronavirus. 

Travelers must show proof of a negative PCR test taken less than 36 hours instead of 72 hours before they boarded a flight, or a negative antigen test less than 24 hours

France has reported the deaths of 100,00 people in the COVID-19 pandemic.

A variant first identified in England spread to continental Europe and is now responsible for about 80 percent of the virus cases in France, while the variants first seen in Brazil and South Africa make up less than 4% of French infections, Health Minister Olivier Veran said last week.