Indonesia approves free COVID-19 vaccine drive by private companies

Indonesia approves free COVID-19 vaccine drive by private companies
A healthcare worker prepares a dose of China's Sinovac Biotech vaccine for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) during the mass vaccination program for the elderly people at a school in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 26, 2021. (Reuters)
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Updated 27 February 2021

Indonesia approves free COVID-19 vaccine drive by private companies

Indonesia approves free COVID-19 vaccine drive by private companies
  • Move part of efforts to speed up inoculation, achieve herd immunity

JAKARTA: The Indonesian government on Friday said it would allow private companies to run coronavirus vaccination programs for workers and families alongside a nationwide drive to expedite efforts in achieving herd immunity.

The country is aiming to inoculate 181.5 million people out of the total 270 million population by year-end.

“The companies will provide the vaccines for free for workers,” Siti Nadia Tarmizi, health ministry spokesperson for the vaccination program, said during a press conference.

Tarmizi added that the ministry’s revised regulation, which serves as the main reference for the vaccination program, was issued on Wednesday to include articles regulating the private sector’s involvement in the vaccination drive.

“The number of vaccines distributed in the private-run program will match the number that the companies requested, and the inoculations will be conducted at private healthcare facilities or the companies’ own facilities,” Tarmizi said.

Additionally, the vaccines used in the program will be different from the free CoronaVac, AstraZeneca, Novavax and Pfizer vaccines that the government has distributed since mid-January.

While initial population targets included health workers, senior citizens, frontline public workers, teachers and lecturers, athletes, journalists, and lawmakers, the general population or those in their productive age will receive their first vaccine jab in April.

The private scheme, which the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce (Kadin) proposed, will require companies to purchase the vaccine from Bio Farma, a state-owned vaccine manufacturer appointed as the sole importer for all jabs that Indonesia procures.

Bio Farma spokesperson Bambang Heriyanto said the company is in discussions with Moderna and Sinopharm to procure vaccines for the private scheme, which has been dubbed “Gotong Royong,” an Indonesian term for mutual cooperation.

“In accordance with its name, this is a mutual cooperation initiative. The government will provide a space for any members of society that will want to assist the government in the vaccination program,” Arya Sinulingga, a spokesperson for the State-Owned Enterprises Ministry, said on Friday.

He added that the private drive will run in parallel with the government’s program and will not alter the existing schedule or priority groups being targeted.

Kadin said that about 7,000 companies had already registered for the vaccination drive as of Saturday.

“The enthusiasm is really high to take part in this program because it is quite costly for the companies to swab test regularly. It is better for the companies to allocate the cost to vaccinate their workers,” Shinta Kamdani Widjaja, Kadin deputy chairwoman, said at a press conference earlier this week.

She dismissed concerns that the program will commercialize vaccines, saying the government would closely monitor the program to avoid any violations of terms and conditions.

“There are also companies that are willing to vaccinate not only their workers, but also their families. It would be difficult for the economy to recover if we don’t achieve the herd immunity target. The business community is ready to support the government in the vaccination drive and economic recovery program,” Widjaja said.

However, opponents of the scheme said the private vaccination drive will “only enable queue jumpers who don’t really need the vaccine compared with the more vulnerable groups, and disregard the principle of equity for all citizens in a vaccination program.”

Dicky Budiman, an Indonesian epidemiologist, said in an online discussion: “There is also no guarantee that we will achieve herd immunity by inoculating 181.5 million people. This could be misleading the public and making them have the wrong expectation.

“This is also prone to make the government, the companies, and the public relax its compliance to the health protocols, testing, tracing and treatment,” Budiman added.

He said that achieving herd immunity is a long-term goal and that the vaccination drive could not stand alone in battling the pandemic without a comprehensive public health approach.

Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia, agreed and said that the private vaccination program focused mainly on economic recovery targets instead of controlling the pandemic.

“It is clear from the start that the government does not view the vaccine as one of the ways to handle the pandemic, but it has been more about economic recovery,” Riono said.


Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 

Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 
Updated 18 April 2021

Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 

Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 
  • Oxford-AstraZeneca, Moderna jabs based on technologies used to develop COVID-19 vaccines
  • HIV estimated to have killed 32m people since it was identified in 1981

LONDON: Two teams of scientists are set to begin trials of HIV vaccines based on technologies used to develop COVID-19 jabs.
Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, which was behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, and US pharmaceutical giant Moderna in partnership with Scripps Research, will use different techniques.
The Oxford team’s HIV vaccine utilizes a modified adenovirus taken from chimpanzees, while the Moderna one is based on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA).
Both methods have been used successfully to stimulate the human immune system against COVID-19 in the past year.
It is hoped that they can be applied to HIV, the disease that leads to AIDS, which has killed an estimated 32 million people since it was identified in 1981 and currently affects 38 million worldwide, with almost 690,000 dying annually.
The Oxford team is set to start the first phase of trials this month on 101 HIV-negative volunteers aged 18-50 from the UK, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. Moderna will launch two mRNA trials later this year.
The location of the trials in Africa is significant; in recent years, treatments have been discovered to allow many people with HIV to live relatively normal lives, but can cost upward of $500,000 in developed countries.
Despite lower prices in developing countries, treatment is still often unaffordable for many African patients.
It is thought that up to half of the infected population on the continent are not even aware of their condition.
Despite the success in developing various COVID-19 vaccines, HIV remains far harder to treat than coronaviruses given its propensity to lie dormant for long periods, mutate more quickly than any other known disease, and imbed itself in patients’ DNA, making it all but impossible to permanently cure.
Oxford University’s Prof. Tomas Hanke told The Times: “The moment you’re infected with a single virus, it diversifies in your body. For the coronavirus there are four main variants we are worrying about around the world. For HIV we have to deal with 80,000.” 
The team at the Jenner Institute will aim to stimulate the production of T-cells — which destroy other human cells already infected with a virus — through its modified adenovirus, ChAdOx-1, designed to train the cells to specifically recognize HIV. 
Hanke said the T-cells could prove HIV’s “Achilles heel,” targeting areas “essential for the virus to survive and, importantly, common to most virus variants around the globe.”
The team hopes that if successful, the vaccine could be used to treat HIV-positive patients as early as August this year.
The Moderna team, meanwhile, believes that mRNA technology might be able to trigger enough B-cells — the part of the immune system that makes antibodies — to prevent HIV from adapting to its host.
This belief is based on a trial by Scripps Research, which found that in a small sample of 48 people given a similar vaccine, 97 percent showed a strong immune reaction against HIV. 
Moderna’s European head Dan Staner told The Times: “I believe that mRNA technology is going to be revolutionary. It could be something spectacular if we were able, in the coming years, to bring a vaccine to treat HIV. Let’s let the science speak in the coming months and years, but I do think the sky’s the limit.”
Scripps Prof. William Schief said: “The rapid development and high efficacy of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine bodes really well for our work on HIV.”


Greece says resolving differences with Turkey may be hard, but not impossible

Greece says resolving differences with Turkey may be hard, but not impossible
Updated 18 April 2021

Greece says resolving differences with Turkey may be hard, but not impossible

Greece says resolving differences with Turkey may be hard, but not impossible
  • The two countries are NATO allies but at odds over many issues
  • Nikos Dendias says it is not possible to hide disputed issues under the rug

ATHENS: Greece cannot ignore its differences with Turkey over territorial disputes in the Mediterranean and other issues but while a solution is difficult, it is not impossible, its foreign minister told a newspaper on Sunday.
The two countries are NATO allies but at odds over many issues, including competing claims over the extent of their continental shelves in the Mediterranean, air space, energy resources and ethnically split Cyprus.
“It is not possible to hide under the rug issues where we have different views and approaches,” Nikos Dendias told Kathimerini newspaper in an interview.
On Thursday, Dendias and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu clashed openly at a joint news conference in Ankara that began with hopes of improved relations but quickly descended into acrimonious accusations from both sides.
It was the first visit by a Greek foreign minister to Turkey since 2015 in an effort to find common ground for a positive agenda of discussions with Ankara.
Dendias told the paper that while the climate during the talks was good, there was no convergence on many issues.
“The issue we face with Turkey is that there is no common denominator regarding the framework of resolving our differences,” Dendias told the paper.
He said Greece’s view is that demarcating its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf with Turkey in the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean must be based on international law.
“I don’t see a toughening of Turkey’s stance on the issues concerning the Aegean and the east Mediterranean. But I do see fixed positions that are beyond international law, which makes resolution prospects difficult but not impossible,” he said.
Dendias said he has invited Cavusoglou to Athens to continue talks and this could help to prepare the ground for a meeting of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.


Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit

Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit
Updated 18 April 2021

Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit

Myanmar junta pardons prisoners, to attend regional summit
  • 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners, are covered by the pardon
  • Among those released Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison were at least three political prisoners who were jailed in 2019

YANGON: Myanmar’s junta on Saturday released more than 23,000 prisoners to mark the traditional new year holiday, including at least three political detainees, and the military leader behind the February coup confirmed he would attend a regional summit later this month.
It wasn’t immediately clear if those released included pro-democracy activists who were detained for protesting the coup. State broadcaster MRTV said that junta chief Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing had pardoned 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners who will be deported from Myanmar. He also reduced sentences for others.
As security forces continued the deadly crackdown, unconfirmed but credible accounts with photos on social media said that three people were killed Saturday in the central city of Mogok, in Myanmar’s gem mining region.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests, government forces have killed at least 728 protesters and bystanders since the takeover. The group says 3,141 people, including ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, are in detention.
Among those released Saturday from Yangon’s Insein Prison were at least three political prisoners who were jailed in 2019. They are members of the Peacock Generation performing troupe who were arrested during that year’s new year celebrations for skits that poked fun at military representatives in Parliament and military involvement in business.
Their traditional style of acting is called Thangyat, a mash-up of poetry, comedy and music with a sharp undertone of satire. Several members of the troupe were convicted under a law banning circulation of information that could endanger or demoralize members of the military. The actors may have drawn the special wrath of the military because they performed in army uniforms.
Several members were also found guilty of online defamation for livestreaming their performances. It’s not clear if all of them were released.
Another freed prisoner was Ross Dunkley, an Australian newspaper entrepreneur sentenced in 2019 to 13 years on charges of drug possession. His release was confirmed by his ex-wife Cynda Johnston, The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported.
Dunkley co-founded the The Myanmar Times, an English-language daily, but was forced to give up his share in it. He became well-known for co-founding or acquiring English-language publications in formerly socialist states that were seeking foreign investment, but was sometimes criticized for doing business with authoritarian regimes.
Early prisoner releases are customary during major holidays, and this is the second batch the ruling junta has announced since taking power.
Following the release of more than 23,000 convicts to mark Union Day on Feb. 12, there were reports on social media that some were recruited by the authorities to carry out violence at night in residential areas to spread panic, especially by setting fires. Some areas responded by setting up their own neighborhood watch groups.
In March, more than 600 people who were imprisoned for demonstrating against the coup were also released from Insein Prison, a rare conciliatory gesture by the military that appeared aimed at placating the protest movement. They were mostly young people caught in sweeps of street rallies while those considered protest leaders were kept locked up.
Neither the military government nor those opposed to it show any signs of backing off. Western nations have tried to pressure the military through diplomatic and economic sanctions with little effect.
Myanmar’s Southeast Asian neighbors, concerned about the prospects for regional instability, are also trying to get the junta to start back on the path to restoring democracy, or at least end its violent repression.
A spokesman for Thailand’s Foreign Ministry in Bangkok said Saturday that junta chief Min Aung Hlaing has confirmed he will attend a summit meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — ASEAN — expected to be held on April 24.
Tanee Sangrat said in a text message to journalists that Brunei, the current chair of the 10-nation body, confirmed it had proposed the date for a meeting at the group’s secretariat in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Indonesia has taken the lead in calling for the special meeting to discuss the crisis in Myanmar.


US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency

US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency
Updated 18 April 2021

US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency

US, China agree to cooperate on climate crisis with urgency
  • The US and China, the world’s Nos. 1 and 2 economy, are the top carbon polluters
  • They pump out nearly half of the fossil fuel fumes that are warming the planet’s atmosphere

SEOUL, South Korea: The United States and China, the world’s two biggest carbon polluters, have agreed to cooperate with other countries to curb climate change, just days before President Joe Biden hosts a virtual summit of world leaders to discuss the issue.
The agreement was reached by US special envoy for climate John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhu during two days of talks in Shanghai last week, the State Department said in a statement Saturday.
“The United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” the joint statement said.
The US and China, the world’s Nos. 1 and 2 economy are thetop carbon polluters. Their cooperation is key to a success of global efforts to curb climate change, but frayed ties over human rights, trade and China’s territorial claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea have been threatening to undermine such efforts.
Kerry’s Shanghai trip marked the highest-level travel to China by a US official since Biden took office in January. From Shaghai, the former secretary of state flew to South Korea for talks.
Biden has invited 40 world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, to the April 22-23 summit. The US and other countries are expected to announce more ambitious national targets for cutting carbon emissions ahead of or at the meeting, along with pledging financial help for climate efforts by less wealthy nations.
It’s unclear how much Kerry’s China visit would promote US-China cooperation on climate issues.
When Kerry was still in Shanghai, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng signaled Friday that China is unlikely to make any new pledges at next week’s summit.
“For a big country with 1.4 billion people, these goals are not easily delivered,” Le said during an interview with The Associated Press in Beijing. “Some countries are asking China to achieve the goals earlier. I am afraid this is not very realistic.”
On whether Xi would join the summit, Le said “the Chinese side is actively studying the matter.”
During a video meeting with German and French leaders Friday, Xi also said that climate change “should not become a geopolitical chip, a target for attacking other countries or an excuse for trade barriers,” though he called for closer cooperation on the issue, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Biden, who has said that fighting global warming is among his highest priorities, had the United States rejoin the Paris climate accord in the first hours of his presidency, undoing the US withdrawal ordered by predecessor Donald Trump.
Major emitters of greenhouse gases are preparing for the next UN climate summit taking place in Glasgow, UK, in November. The summit aims to relaunch global efforts to keep rising global temperatures to below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) as agreed in the Paris accord.
According to the US-China statement, the two countries would enhance “their respective actions and cooperating in multilateral processes, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement.”
It said both countries “are firmly committed to working together and with other Parties to strengthen implementation of the Paris Agreement.”


Kremlin critic Navalny could ‘die any minute’: doctors

Kremlin critic Navalny could ‘die any minute’: doctors
In this Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021 file photo, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a cage in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia. (AP)
Updated 18 April 2021

Kremlin critic Navalny could ‘die any minute’: doctors

Kremlin critic Navalny could ‘die any minute’: doctors
  • Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh, who accompanied him when he collapsed on a plane after the poisoning in August, said the situation was critical again

MOSCOW: Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny risks cardiac arrest at “any minute” as his health has rapidly deteriorated, doctors warned Saturday, urging immediate access to Russia’s most famous prisoner.
On March 31, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent went on hunger strike to demand proper medical treatment for back pain and numbness in his legs and hands.
On Saturday, US President Joe Biden added his voice to a growing international chorus of protest at the treatment of the activist, describing his situation as “totally unfair.”
Navalny, 44, was imprisoned in February and is serving two-and-a-half years on old embezzlement charges in a penal colony in the town of Pokrov around 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Moscow.
Navalny’s personal doctor Anastasia Vasilyeva and three more doctors including cardiologist Yaroslav Ashikhmin have asked prison officials to grant them immediate access.
“Our patient can die any minute,” Ashikhmin said on Facebook on Saturday, pointing to the opposition politician’s high potassium levels and saying Navalny should be moved to intensive care.
“Fatal arrhythmia can develop any minute.”
Navalny barely survived a poisoning with the Novichok nerve agent in August which he has blamed on the Kremlin. His doctors say his hunger strike might have exacerbated his condition.
Having blood potassium levels higher than 6.0 mmol (millimole) per liter usually requires immediate treatment. Navalny’s were at 7.1, the doctors said.
“This means both impaired renal function and that serious heart rhythm problems can happen any minute,” said a statement on Vasilyeva’s Twitter account.
The doctors said he had to be examined immediately “taking into account the blood tests and his recent poisoning.”

Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh, who accompanied him when he collapsed on a plane after the poisoning in August, said the situation was critical again.
“Alexei is dying,” she said on Facebook. “With his condition it’s a matter of days.”
She said she felt like she was “on that plane again, only this time it’s landing in slow motion,” pointing out that access to Navalny was restricted and few Russians were aware of what was actually going on with him in prison.
On Saturday, responding to reporters’ questions about Navalny’s plight, Biden responded: “It’s totally, totally unfair, totally inappropriate.”
More than 70 prominent international writers, artists and academics, including Jude Law, Vanessa Redgrave and Benedict Cumberbatch, have called on Putin to ensure that Navalny receives proper treatment immediately.
Their appeal was published late Friday by France’s Le Monde newspaper.
Navalny’s team had earlier announced plans to stage what they said would be “modern Russia’s biggest protest.”
Navalny’s allies said they would set a date for the protest once 500,000 supporters had registered with a website. As of 2230 GMT Saturday, more than 450,000 people had signed up.
Yarmysh on Saturday urged more Russians to sign up, saying that a big rally could help save Navalny’s life.
“Putin only reacts to mass street protests,” she added.
Earlier this week, Navalny’s wife Yulia, who visited him in the penal colony, said her husband now weighed 76 kilograms (168 pounds) — down nine kilograms since starting his hunger strike.
On Friday, Russian prosecutors asked a court to label Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and the network of his regional offices “extremist” organizations in a move that would outlaw them in Russia and could result in jail time for their members.
“The darkest times are beginning for free-thinking people, for civil society in Russia,” said Leonid Volkov, the head of Navalny’s regional offices.