UN urges warring parties to halt fighting for vaccinations

A lab worker holds a vial of Johnson & Johnson's Janssen coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine candidate in an undated photograph. (Johnson & Johnson/Handout via REUTERS)
A lab worker holds a vial of Johnson & Johnson's Janssen coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine candidate in an undated photograph. (Johnson & Johnson/Handout via REUTERS)
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Updated 27 February 2021

UN urges warring parties to halt fighting for vaccinations

UN urges warring parties to halt fighting for vaccinations

UNITED NATIONS: The UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution Friday demanding that all warring parties immediately institute a “sustained humanitarian pause” to enable the unhindered delivery of COVID-19 vaccines and the vaccination of millions of people in conflict areas.
The British-drafted resolution, cosponsored by 112 countries, reiterated the council’s demand last July 1 for “a general and immediate cessation of hostilities” in major conflicts on the Security Council agenda, from Syria and Yemen to Central African Republic, Mali and Sudan and Somalia.
It expressed concern that an appeal for cease-fires in all conflicts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, which was first made by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on March 23, 2020, “was not fully heeded.”
Britain’s UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward, the current council president, announced the result of the email vote because the council has been meeting virtually, saying the resolution “will help bring vaccines to 160 million people in conflict areas or displaced by conflict.”
“This is a first step,” she stressed, and it will require further international efforts.
But Woodward said the large number of cosponsors and unanimous council approval are “a strong testament to the international commitment to seeing this happen.”
“Obviously each of these situations will require further negotiations at country and even at field and local level,” she said. “and we’ve asked the secretary-general to report back where they encounter barriers in this.”
The resolution adopted Friday recognizes “that armed conflicts can exacerbate the COVID-19 pandemic, and that inversely the pandemic can exacerbate the adverse humanitarian impact of armed conflicts, as well as exacerbating inequalities.”
It also recognizes “the role of extensive immunization against COVID-19 as a global public good for health in preventing, containing, and stopping transmission, of COVID-19 and its variant strains, in order to bring the pandemic to an end.”
The Security Council stressed that “equitable access to affordable COVID-19 vaccines” authorized by the World Health Organization or regulatory authorities “is essential to end the pandemic.”
It also stressed “the need for solidarity, equity, and efficacy” in vaccinations.
And it called for donations of vaccines from richer developed nations to low- and middle-income countries and other countries in need, including through the COVAX Facility, the ambitious WHO program to buy and deliver coronavirus vaccines for the world’s poorest people.


Hostage policemen released by TLP religious party after government negotiations

Hostage policemen released by TLP religious party after government negotiations
Updated 35 min 38 sec ago

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.


Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists
Updated 18 April 2021

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists
  • Warning comes amid fears that new, India variant could become dominant
  • Virologist: “We’re still early on in the lifetime of this virus as a human pathogen”

LONDON: Humanity is engaged in an “arms race” with the coronavirus Sars-CoV-2, and its capacity to adapt and evolve remains unknown and should not be underestimated, scientists have warned.
“I think it’d be a brave person to say that the virus is nearing the end of its evolutionary route and can’t go any further,” Prof. Deenan Pillay, a virologist at University College London, told The Independent.
“We’re still early on in the lifetime of this virus as a human pathogen. It normally takes many years for viruses, once they cross the species barrier, to really optimize themselves to be able to replicate well within humans.”
Pillay’s warning comes amid fears that a new strain of Sars-CoV-2, known as the India variant — which has caused a surge in the number of cases of COVID-19 — could become a dominant global strain in the coming weeks.
The India variant is known to carry two mutations that could reduce the efficacy of a number of COVID-19 vaccines.
Whilst that has not yet occurred, the nature and speed at which the virus has mutated thus far, including in the form of the South African and UK variants, has caused alarm among the scientific community that the positive impact of vaccine rollouts could be undone in the near future.
Specifically, scientists worry about Sars-CoV-2’s ability to alter spike proteins, used to attach onto human cells, through mutations.
The spike proteins, referred to by Pillay as “keys” to entering human receptor cells, are the mechanism through which most of the world’s successful COVID-19 vaccines look to attack the virus, by training various immune system responses to identify them. 
One such mutation, E484K, has been found in the South Africa and UK variants. The India variant carries a similar mutation, E484Q.
The fear is that by altering their proteins, these variants could render them less visible to the immune system of vaccinated people, making it harder to ward off infection.
Aris Katzourakis, professor of evolution and genomics at Oxford University, said beyond altering the spike protein, mutations such as E484K could “unlock a whole load of other mutations elsewhere in the spike” that have not yet been identified by scientists, with unknown repercussions for the severity of the virus.
“E484K took about 12 months before it became something we cared about. Presumably, 12 months from now, there’ll be another one or two that are just as important,” he told The Independent. 
Prof. Stephen Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, said he believes that rather than continue to mutate indefinitely, there “will be a limit on how far the spike protein can evolve. But I’m not sure we can accurately determine what that limit may be at this point.”


Pakistan police and rangers taken hostage in anti-France protests

Pakistan police and rangers taken hostage in anti-France protests
Updated 18 April 2021

Pakistan police and rangers taken hostage in anti-France protests

Pakistan police and rangers taken hostage in anti-France protests
  • Rioting has rocked the country since Monday, when the leader of the now-banned TLP was detained in Lahore
  • The protests have paralyzed cities and led to the deaths of six policemen

LAHORE: At least seven Pakistan police officers and special rangers were taken hostage Sunday by supporters of a radical party, officials said, after days of violent anti-France protests.
Rioting has rocked the country since Monday, when the leader of the now-banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) was detained in the second biggest city Lahore after calling for the expulsion of the French ambassador.
The protests have paralyzed cities and led to the deaths of six policemen, prompting the French embassy to recommend all its nationals temporarily leave the country.
“The TLP members are holding five police officers and two rangers hostage,” said Rana Arif, a police spokesman in Lahore told AFP, referring to the country’s paramilitary force.
Firdous Ashiq Awan, a spokeswoman for the Punjab provincial government, said 12 policemen had been abducted and taken to a TLP mosque in Lahore, where hundreds of supporters were gathered.
“Violent groups armed with petrol bombs and acid bottles stormed the Nawankot police station this morning,” she tweeted, adding that six police officers have now died in clashes this week.
TLP leaders say several of the party’s supporters were killed in Sunday’s clashes.
“We won’t bury them until the French ambassador is kicked out,” Allama Muhammad Shafiq Amini, a TLP leader in the city, said in a video statement.
The police would not comment on the reported TLP deaths.
An oil truck was seized and petrol bombs thrown at officers, both Arif and Awan said.
An AFP reporter at the scene said police used tear gas against stone-throwing protesters.
The TLP has been behind an anti-France campaign for months since President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of Charlie Hebdo magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad — an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said party supporters had blocked 191 sites over the past week, with the mosque in Lahore now a gathering point.
“No negotiations are taking place, tried for two-three months but they are not ready to backtrack from their agenda and the government has no other choice but to establish its writ,” he said at a press conference.
Khan’s government has struggled to bring TLP to heel over the years, but this week announced an outright ban against the group — effectively labelling it a terrorist outfit.
Still, on Saturday he suggested the party hadn’t been banned for its ideology, but rather its methods.
“Let me make clear to people here & abroad: Our govt only took action against TLP under our anti-terrorist law when they challenged the writ of the state and used street violence & attacking the public & law enforcers,” he tweeted.
Khan said insulting the prophet hurt Muslims around the world.
“We cannot tolerate any such disrespect & abuse,” he added.
He also said Western governments should treat people who insult the Prophet Muhammad the same as those who deny the Holocaust.
“I... call on Western govts who have outlawed any negative comment on the holocaust to use the same standards to penalize those deliberately spreading their message of hate against Muslims by abusing our Prophet,” Khan tweeted.
Pakistan on Friday blocked social media and instant messaging platforms for several hours to head off major protests.
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in conservative Pakistan, where laws allow for the death penalty to be used on anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Islamic figures.
The French embassy’s call for its nationals to leave Pakistan appears to have gone largely unheeded so far.

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