New EU COVID-19 vaccine setback as AstraZeneca announces shortfall

New EU COVID-19 vaccine setback as AstraZeneca announces shortfall
The AstraZeneca announcement was another blow for EU leaders, who have already faced criticism for the stumbling start to the jab drive on the hard-hit continent. (Reuters)
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Updated 14 March 2021

New EU COVID-19 vaccine setback as AstraZeneca announces shortfall

New EU COVID-19 vaccine setback as AstraZeneca announces shortfall
  • Mass vaccinations are considered critical to ending the pandemic
  • Pharmaceutical company’s image had already taken a hit over blood clot fears

LONDON: The European Union was faced with another setback in its coronavirus vaccination program after AstraZeneca announced a shortfall, as countries across the world tried to step up their COVID-19 immunization drives.
The pharmaceutical company’s image had already taken a hit with several countries suspending the rollout of its vaccine over blood clot fears, though the World Health Organization said there was no reason to stop using it in the fight against the pandemic.
Mass vaccinations are considered critical to ending the pandemic, which has claimed more than 2.6 million lives globally, and the AstraZeneca announcement was another blow for EU leaders, who have already faced criticism for the stumbling start to the jab drive on the hard-hit continent.
“AstraZeneca is disappointed to announce a shortfall in planned COVID-19 vaccine shipments to the European Union ... despite working tirelessly to accelerate supply,” the firm said Saturday.
It had previously warned of shortfalls from its European supply chain due to lower-than-expected production output, and was hoping to compensate by sourcing shots from its global network.
“Unfortunately, export restrictions will reduce deliveries in the first quarter, and are likely to affect deliveries in the second quarter,” the company said.
AstraZeneca’s shot is among the cheapest available, and forms a bulk of deliveries to poorer nations under the WHO-backed Covax initiative, which aims to ensure the equitable global distribution of vaccines.
The supply issues added to the firm’s troubles, with some countries including Denmark, Norway and Iceland suspending use of its shot over concerns over side effects such as blood clots.
The WHO, which said its vaccines advisory committee was examining the safety data, stressed that no causal link has been established between the clots and the jab. AstraZeneca has also insisted that the shot is safe.
Global coronavirus infections are approaching 120 million and even as nations around the world ramp up vaccinations, social distancing and movement restrictions are being used at varying levels to counter the spread of COVID-19.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex did not rule out a new lockdown in the region that is home to the capital Paris, describing the situation as “on a razor’s edge,” while the head of Germany’s disease control agency warned that “the third wave has already started” there.
Italy had already announced new restrictions on Friday, with schools, restaurants, shops and museums ordered to close across most regions.
In Africa, Tunisia and Ethiopia both launched vaccination campaigns on Saturday, but Ethiopian officials flagged an alarming rise in cases too.
The drives are crucial in reviving the global economy, which was battered by the pandemic as most travel was curbed and people forced to stay home with no nation spared the impact.
Millions were left jobless in the United States, the world’s biggest economy, and those who could not work from home had to balance the risk of COVID-19 with the need to make ends meet.
For Matt Valentin, who worked at a cafe in the state of Michigan, the job became an increasingly anxiety-ridden environment last year as the pandemic worsened.
“It went from ‘get these drinks and orders done as fast as possible’ to ‘do all of that, and try not to bring a deadly virus home to your vulnerable family,’” the 21-year-old said.
After a much-criticized start to its vaccination program, the United States has accelerated the rollout of shots, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying 100 million doses have been administered.
That is just less than a third of the total given worldwide so far.
There was also a sign of recovery at American airports, which saw their largest number of passengers in a year.
Just over 1.35 million travelers were checked in at US airports on Friday, the most since March 15 last year, according to the Transportation Safety Administration.
And hopes for international travel were boosted as officials said Australia and Singapore were working to create a travel bubble as early as July, which would allow travelers between the two countries to avoid quarantine.


Phone call shows brother pleading with Texas hostage-taker

Phone call shows brother pleading with Texas hostage-taker
Updated 5 sec ago

Phone call shows brother pleading with Texas hostage-taker

Phone call shows brother pleading with Texas hostage-taker
LONDON: A British man who held four people hostage in a Texas synagogue ranted against Jews and American wars in countries like Afghanistan.
This happened as his brother pleaded with him to give up and free the captives, a recording of the conversation shows.
In the expletive-filled recording posted on the website of The Jewish Chronicle, 44-year-old Malik Faisal Akram said he was “bombed up” and equipped with “every ammunition” as he talked to his brother Saturday from inside Congregation Beth Israel in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville.
Gulbar Akram urged his brother to lay down his weapons and return to his children alive.
“You don’t need to do this. Why are you doing this?” he said. “Just pack it in. You’ll do a bit of time, and then you’ll get out.”
“These guys you’ve got there, they’re innocent people, man,” he said.
In response, Akram became increasingly agitated and said he hoped US authorities would take notice of the Jewish hostages and agree to his demand that they release Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of trying to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan.
Akram said he had prayed about the attack for two years. He said he was ready to become a martyr and that his children shouldn’t cry at his funeral.
“I promised my brother when I watched him on his deathbed that I’d go down as a martyr,” he said at one point. One of his younger brothers, who contracted COVID-19, died a few months ago.
“I’ve come to die, G, OK?″ the hostage-taker told his brother. “I’ve prayed to Allah for two years for this ... I’m coming back in a body bag.”
Saturday’s 10-hour standoff at the synagogue ended after the last hostage ran out of the synagogue and an FBI SWAT team rushed in. Akram was killed, though authorities have declined to say who shot him.
In a webinar Thursday hosted by the Anti-Defamation League, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the agency understands that such acts are terrifying to the entire Jewish community.
“This was not some random occurrence. It was intentional. It was symbolic, and we’re not going to tolerate antisemitism in this country,” Wray said.
The FBI continues to search phones and other devices as it investigates why Akram targeted this particular synagogue, Wray said.
The Chronicle said the recording was part of a longer 11 1/2-minute recording that it obtained from a “security source.” The Associated Press was not able to independently confirm the authenticity of the recording, but experts believe it to be genuine.
Meanwhile, British police said Thursday that they have arrested two people in connection with the hostage-taking.
Counter Terrorism Police North West said one man was arrested Thursday in Birmingham and another in Manchester. They were being held for questioning and have not been charged.
The police did not disclose details about the two people. British police do not release names and details of detainees until they are charged.
On Sunday, police arrested two British teenagers in Manchester as part of the investigation. The teens were Akram’s sons, two US law enforcement officials told AP. They were later released without charge.
Malik Faisal Akram was from Blackburn, an industrial city in northwest England. His family said he had been “suffering from mental health issues.”
He entered the United States on a tourist visa about two weeks earlier and spent time in Dallas-area homeless shelters before the synagogue attack.
The FBI has called the incident “a terrorism-related matter” targeting the Jewish community.
British media, including the Guardian and the BBC, have reported that Akram was investigated by the domestic intelligence service MI5 as a possible “terrorist threat” in 2020. But authorities concluded that he posed no danger, and the investigation was closed.
The White House said Tuesday that Akram had been checked against US law enforcement databases before entering the country but raised no red flags.

France to ease Covid restrictions starting Feb. 2

France to ease Covid restrictions starting Feb. 2
Updated 43 min 38 sec ago

France to ease Covid restrictions starting Feb. 2

France to ease Covid restrictions starting Feb. 2
  • Implementation of a "vaccine pass" starting Monday to enter restaurants, cinemas and other public venues would allow an easing of tighter rules
  • In a second stage, nightclubs that have been shut since December will be allowed to reopen on February 16

PARIS: France will begin a gradual lifting of Covid restrictions from February 2 amid “encouraging signs” that the wave of infections due to the omicron variant is ebbing, Prime Minister Jean Castex said Thursday.
Even though authorities registered a record 464,769 new daily cases on Tuesday, Castex said the implementation of a “vaccine pass” starting Monday to enter restaurants, cinemas and other public venues would allow an easing of tighter rules imposed since December.
In a first step, the audience capacity limits for concert halls, sporting matches and other events — 2,000 people indoors, and 5,000 outdoors — will be ended from February 2.
Working from home will also no longer be mandatory for eligible employees, and face masks will not be required outside, Castex told a press conference alongside Health Minister Olivier Veran.
“We are a bit more confident in saying we can relax some of these constraints and let people return to life as normal as possible,” Veran said.
Previously, the health pass could also be obtained with a recent negative Covid test, a possibility the government ended in its bid to convince more people to get Covid jabs — Castex said 93 percent of French adults now had at least one dose.
“Since the announcement of the vaccine pass, one million French people have gotten vaccinated. That’s good, but it’s not enough,” he said, adding that booster shots would be extended to children aged 12 to 17 starting Monday.
In a second stage, nightclubs that have been shut since December will be allowed to reopen on February 16, and standing areas will again be authorized for concerts and sporting events as well as bars.
Eating and drinking will again be allowed in stadiums, movie theaters and public transport on that date.
Castex also said he hoped to be able to ease face mask rules for children in schools after winter vacation breaks in late February.
Some 17,000 classes are currently shut across France after students or staff caught the virus, and parents must get a series of tests for exposed children before they are allowed to return.
The highly contagious omicron variant has sparked a surge in infections, but the number of Covid patients in intensive care has been falling since early January, to around 3,850 people currently.
“We have seen that incidence rates are still rising, but we also know that the omicron variant results in fewer serious cases than the Delta variant,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said earlier Thursday.
“There are hopes the omicron wave could peak soon,” he added.
Castex insisted that studies have shown omicron to be less dangerous than other virus variants, which have prompted several governments worldwide to pull back on restrictions.
The British government said Wednesday that most restrictions would be lifted starting next week, including the requirement for a Covid pass proving vaccination to enter public venues, citing data that showed infections had peaked.
Spain’s government is also pushing to begin treating Covid-19 as any other endemic respiratory virus like seasonal flu — though Castex warned against underestimating the threat from the virus.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also insisted this week that the pandemic was “nowhere near over,” warning that new variants were still likely to emerge.


Indonesia denies rumors of interaction with Israel

Indonesia denies rumors of interaction with Israel
Updated 20 January 2022

Indonesia denies rumors of interaction with Israel

Indonesia denies rumors of interaction with Israel
  • Israeli Army Radio said Monday that a delegation of Indonesian officials had visited Tel Aviv
  • Indonesia has no formal ties with Israel, has repeatedly called for end to occupation of Palestinian territories

JAKARTA: The Indonesian government on Thursday denied reports by Israeli media that officials from the two countries had recently held meetings in Tel Aviv.

Home to the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia has no formal ties with Israel and has repeatedly called for an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and for a two-state solution based on borders before the 1967 war.

Israel’s Army Radio reported on Monday that a delegation of Indonesian officials had visited Tel Aviv to discuss strategies related to the coronavirus pandemic but gave no details about when the meeting had taken place.

Addressing a virtual press conference, Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Teuku Faizasyah, said: “What we can emphasize here is that there was no interaction between officials of the two countries, because we do not have diplomatic relations.”

He pointed out that despite the lack of formal ties, people-to-people interactions had taken place, including Indonesian pilgrims visiting religious sites in Jerusalem.

“But between governments, let me emphasize there are no formal interactions,” he added. “Please differentiate things that are official in nature and business relations or people-to-people, which are out of the government’s hands.”

Faizasyah said Indonesia’s stance on the Palestinian issue remained unchanged and its government was actively working “for Palestinian independence under the frame of a two-state solution.”

Last year, the Israeli ambassador to Singapore said Tel Aviv would be willing to work toward establishing ties with southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority nations — Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei — in the wake of the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco agreeing to normalize relations with Israel under US-brokered deals.

During a visit to Jakarta last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed with Indonesian officials the possibility of normalization, a move Indonesia said it had declined to take.

“Indonesia’s foreign minister conveyed Indonesia’s consistent position toward Palestine, in which Indonesia will always stand with Palestine in the struggle for justice and independence,” Faizasyah said at the time.


Reunited 74 years after India-Pakistan split, brothers hope to spend rest of life together

Reunited 74 years after India-Pakistan split, brothers hope to spend rest of life together
Updated 20 January 2022

Reunited 74 years after India-Pakistan split, brothers hope to spend rest of life together

Reunited 74 years after India-Pakistan split, brothers hope to spend rest of life together
  • Partition in 1947 following India’s independence from Britain triggered one of the biggest forced migrations in history
  • Brothers Sikka and Sadiq Khan, who remained on opposite sides of India-Pakistan border, were reunited last week

PHULEWALA: In August 1947, as British India was being partitioned into two independent states, Sikka Khan’s father and elder brother, Sadiq, left Phulewala village — which became the Indian part of Punjab — and returned to their paternal village of Bogran, which became part of Pakistan. 

Just two-years-old at the time, Sikka was too young to go and stayed behind in India with his mother. The family was to be reunited soon. The parents only wanted to wait until it was safe for the toddler to travel. 

But the promise of being together again was cut short by a bloody orgy of violence and communal rioting that marred one of the biggest forced migrations in history. Following the partition in 1947, about 15 million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, fearing discrimination and violence, swapped countries in a political upheaval that cost more than a million lives. 

It was in these circumstances that Sikka and Sadiq lost their father, mother — who committed suicide when she found out about her husband's death — and the bond that was only restored last week. 

“I told you we would meet again,” Sikka, 76, said through tears, as he embraced his 84-year-old brother when they met in Kartarpur, Pakistan on Jan. 10.

Kartarpur is a border city where Pakistan, in late 2019, opened a visa-free crossing to allow Indian Sikh pilgrims access to one of the holiest sites of their religion, Gurdwara Darbar Sahib. After the partition, the site found itself on the Pakistani side of the hastily drawn-up border.

The brothers’ reunion did not last long, as each of them had to return to their countries. For the past seven decades, cross-border visits have been limited by tensions and conflict.

“It was an emotional moment for us, and I could not believe that I was meeting my brother and his family,” Sikka told Arab News in Phulewala village, where he has remained since 1947. 

“Life has given me the opportunity to reunite with my brother and I don’t want to live without him,” he said. “I need the company of my brother more than ever before. I want to live the rest of my life with my elder brother.”

They got in touch in 2019, when Pakistani YouTuber Nasir Dhillon visited Bogran village, where Sadiq still lives, and heard his story. He shared the footage on social media and soon received a message from Jagsir Singh, a doctor in Phulewala, who connected him to Sikka. 

The YouTuber and the doctor helped the brothers meet virtually.

“The brothers for the first time saw each other over a video call two years ago,” Singh told Arab News. “Since then, they have remained in touch with each other through WhatsApp.” 

They have been talking to each other at least 15 minutes every day, but it took them two years to meet in person as even the visa-free Kartarpur corridor was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic until late last year.   

“The opening of the Kartarpur corridor in November last year allowed us the opportunity to organize the meeting between the brothers,” Singh said. 

When he arrived in Kartarpur on Jan. 10, Sikka, who does not have his own family, was accompanied by a dozen villagers from Phulewala. 

“For me, my village has been family,” he said, as he chatted to Sadiq through a video call. “Now I want to go to Pakistan and live with my elder brother for some time. I hope the Pakistani government gives me a visa.” 

Sadiq, too, wants to go to his birthplace.   

“I want to meet Sikka in his village,” he said during the video call with his brother. “We want to live together and make up for the time we have lost.”


Taliban storm Kabul apartment, arrest activist, her sisters

Taliban storm Kabul apartment, arrest activist, her sisters
Updated 20 January 2022

Taliban storm Kabul apartment, arrest activist, her sisters

Taliban storm Kabul apartment, arrest activist, her sisters
  • A Taliban statement appeared to blame the incident on a recent women's protest, saying insulting Afghan values will no longer be tolerated
  • The activist, Tamana Zaryabi Paryani, was among about 25 women who took part in an anti-Taliban protest on Sunday against the compulsory Islamic headscarf

KABUL, Afghanistan: The Taliban stormed an apartment in Kabul, smashing the door in and arresting a woman rights activist and her three sisters, an eyewitness said Thursday.
A Taliban statement appeared to blame the incident on a recent women’s protest, saying insulting Afghan values will no longer be tolerated.
The activist, Tamana Zaryabi Paryani, was among about 25 women who took part in an anti-Taliban protest on Sunday against the compulsory Islamic headscarf, or hijab, for women. A person from the neighborhood who witnessed the arrest said about 10 armed men, claiming to be from the Taliban intelligence department, carried out the raid on Wednesday night.
Shortly before she and her sisters were taken away, footage of Paryani was posted on social media, showing her frightened and breathless and screaming for help, saying the Taliban were banging on her door.
“Help please, the Taliban have come to our home . . . only my sisters are home,” she is heard saying in the footage. There are other female voices in the background, crying. “I can’t open the door. Please . . . help!”
Associated Press footage from the scene on Thursday showed the apartment’s front door, made of metal and painted reddish brown, dented and left slightly ajar. The occupants of a neighboring apartment ran inside their home, not wanting to talk to reporters. An outer security door of steel slats was shut and padlocked, making it impossible to enter Paryani’s apartment.
The witness said the raid took place around 8 p.m. The armed men went up to the third floor of the Kabul apartment complex where Paryani lives and began pounding on the front door ordering her to open the door.
When she refused, they kicked the door repeatedly until it opened, the witness said. “They took four females away, all of them were sisters,” the witness said, adding that one of the four was Paryani, the activist.
The witness spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing Taliban reprisal.
The spokesman for the Taliban-appointed police in Kabul, Gen. Mobin Khan, tweeted that Paryani’s social video post was a manufactured drama. A spokesman for the Taliban intelligence, Khalid Hamraz, would neither confirm nor deny the arrest.
However, he tweeted that “insulting the religious and national values of the Afghan people is not tolerated anymore” — a reference to Sunday’s protest during which the protesters appeared to burn a white burqa, the all-encompassing traditional head-to-toe female garment that only leaves a mesh opening for the eyes.
Hamraz accused rights activists of maligning Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers and their security forces to gain asylum in the West.
Since sweeping to power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed widespread restrictions, many of them directed at women. Women have been banned from many jobs, outside the health and education field, their access to education has been restricted beyond sixth grade and they have been ordered to wear the hijab. The Taliban have, however, stopped short of imposing the burqa, which was compulsory when they previously ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.
At Sunday’s demonstration in Kabul, women carried placards demanding equal rights and shouted: “Justice!” They burned a white burqa and said they cannot be forced to wear the hijab. Organizers of the demonstration said Paryani attended the protest, which was dispersed after the Taliban fired tear gas into the crowd of women.
Paryani belongs to a rights group known as “Seekers of Justice,” which organized several demonstrations in Kabul, including Sunday’s. The group’s members have not spoken publicly of her arrest but have been sharing the video of Paryani.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized the crackdown, saying that since taking over Afghanistan five months ago, the Taliban “have rolled back the rights of women and girls, including blocking access to education and employment for many.”
“Women’s rights activists have staged a series of protests; the Taliban has responded by banning unauthorized protests,” the watchdog said in a statement after Sunday’s protest.
The Taliban have increasingly targeted Afghanistan’s beleaguered rights groups, as well as journalists, with local and international television crews covering demonstration often detained and sometimes beaten.
Also Thursday, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement asking the Taliban to investigate a recent attack on a documentary film maker Zaki Qais who said two armed men, who identified themselves as Kabul police officials, entered his home and beat him. One tried to stab him, according to Steven Butler, the CPJ’s Asia program coordinator.
“Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers must immediately launch an investigation to identify and bring to justice those who attacked journalist Zaki Qais,” said Butler. “The Taliban’s continued silence on these repeated attacks on journalists undermines any remaining credibility of pledges to allow independent media to continue operating.”
Last week the CPJ sought information on an attack on another Kabul-based journalist, Noor Mohammad Hashemi, deputy director for the nonprofit Salam Afghanistan Media Organization, who was beaten up by three unidentified men.