Experts sound alarm after India emerges as ‘global epicenter’ for COVID-19

Experts sound alarm after India emerges as ‘global epicenter’ for COVID-19
India has so far administered 85 million doses, more than 90 percent of those the AstraZeneca shot made by the Serum Institute of India. (AP)
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Updated 08 April 2021

Experts sound alarm after India emerges as ‘global epicenter’ for COVID-19

Experts sound alarm after India emerges as ‘global epicenter’ for COVID-19
  • India’s death toll is 166,177 — making it the world’s third-worst-hit nation after the US and Brazil

NEW DELHI: With more than 100,000 coronavirus cases reported across India for three consecutive days, experts on Wednesday feared that the situation would soon “explode” out of control, with the nation of 1.4 billion emerging as the “global epicenter” of the disease.

On Wednesday alone, India recorded 115,736 new infections and 630 deaths, taking its total case tally to 13 million since the outbreak in March last year.

Its death toll is 166,177 — making it the world’s third-worst-hit nation after the US and Brazil — with many experts saying that India was facing the threat of a devastating and deadlier second wave of the virus going forward.

“India is ground zero of coronavirus now,” Dr. Harjit Singh Bhatti, president of the Progressive Medicos & Scientists Forum, told Arab News. “It is an epicenter of the virus in the world, as nowhere else are the cases increasing with such menacing alarm.” 

He blamed the government for its “slow response” in vaccinating the public and “not being stringent” in enforcing anti-COVID-19 protocols.

Dr. Adarsh Pratap Singh, president of the Resident Doctors’ Association of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, said people had become “careless about COVID-19” and that this attitude had led to the rise in cases.

He added that, since authorities were unaware of how many variants COVID-19 had mutated into, it would not take much time for India to become an epicenter if one looked at the current trends.

“India might explode if the corona variant reaches rural areas,” he told Arab News. “Since the mobility of the people has increased, so the cases going up cannot be ruled out.”

As a precautionary measure to contain the spread of the outbreak, local governments began imposing harsh restrictions on the public starting from Wednesday.

New Delhi announced a night curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. for a month after reporting 5,100 new cases on Wednesday – the highest this year.

It also led Delhi High Court to issue an order making it mandatory to wear masks “even if a person is driving alone in a car.”

The situation is equally alarming in the western state of Maharashtra, home to the financial capital Mumbai, which accounts for half of the cases in India.  

On Wednesday Maharashtra registered 55,000 cases, with the state government issuing an urgent appeal for New Delhi to facilitate its hospitals with oxygen supplies.

Several cities in the state, including Mumbai, have been placed under a nightly curfew.

“The situation is very grim now, and we are overstretched in Mumbai,” Dr. Shariva Randive, of Mumbai’s Sion Hospital, told Arab News.

Randive explained that the ongoing vaccination drive and a surge in COVID-19 cases had stressed the medical professionals in the state. 

“The state is trying its best to address the issue, and I am sure with support from the center the state government can tide over the crisis.”

But she feared that the “situation might explode if the vast rural masses are exposed to the pandemic.”

The western state of Gujarat, the northern state of Punjab and the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh are also bearing the brunt of the outbreak, with each state imposing night curfews and strict enforcement of anti-virus measures.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for an emergency meeting on Thursday with the chief ministers of all the states, even as the government blamed the public’s “complacency” for the spike.

“Only because of complacency, the rise in social gatherings, laxity in the corona-appropriate behavior – all these are responsible for the surge in the cases,” Dr. Rajni Kant, from the government’s Indian Council of Medical Research, told Arab News on Wednesday.

He underlined the importance of vaccination and “COVID-appropriate behavior” to counter the menace of the virus.

India launched its vaccination drive on January 16, with 84 million people inoculated as of Tuesday.

“Vaccination is now being expanded, and more and more people are being covered. It is being escalated,” Kant added, expressing his reservations about calling India the “epicenter” of the virus.

“India is a vast country, with a big population that’s why you have a large number. But I am sure, with greater awareness and by following COVID-appropriate behavior, the number will come down.”

Dr. Dorairaj Prabhakaran, from the Public Health Foundation NGO, urged the government not to impose an all-India lockdown but to “follow decentralized measures to deal with the situation.”

A similar appeal was lodged by the National Restaurant Association Of India (NRAI), which said Wednesday that the night curfews threatened the millions of people associated with the food industry.

“We are also very worried about the fate of 7.3 million employees in the food and beverage sector,” said Kabir Suri, NRAI vice president.

He asked the government to provide some “immediate relief reforms to survive this second surge of COVID-19 which is even worse than the first one.”


Victim of London terror attack will return to rehabilitating prisoners

Victim of London terror attack will return to rehabilitating prisoners
Updated 42 min 10 sec ago

Victim of London terror attack will return to rehabilitating prisoners

Victim of London terror attack will return to rehabilitating prisoners
  • Stephanie Szczotko was stabbed by Usman Khan at a rehabilitation event for prisoners
  • ‘I’ve always enjoyed support work and helping people, so I want to carry on with that’

LONDON: A criminology graduate who was injured during the 2019 Fishmonger’s Hall attack in London has said she will return to rehabilitating prisoners.

Stephanie Szczotko, 26, was stabbed in the arm by Usman Khan during his murderous spree at a rehabilitation event for prisoners on license. 

Khan, 28, killed two of his victims — Jack Merritt, 25, and Saskia Jones, 23 — both of whom were workers from the Learning Together initiative, a rehabilitation scheme backed by Cambridge University.

The terrorist, who was shot dead on London Bridge by a firearm officer, was wearing a fake suicide vest.

Szczotko, from Bath in the west of England, visited prisons on behalf of the initiative during her criminology degree, and attended the Fishmonger’s Hall event as an alumni of the group.

She has remained an advocate of prisoner rehabilitation and restorative justice efforts, saying the attack “didn’t really change my opinion.”

She added that many of the ex-offenders at the event put themselves in harm’s way by challenging Khan as he started his rampage. 

“I’ve always enjoyed support work and helping people, so I want to carry on with that — maybe working with youth offenders,” Szczotko said.

The inquest into the deaths of Merritt and Jones starts on Monday. Witnesses will give evidence as the inquest seeks to establish what, if anything, the security services and the police knew ahead of the attack.


Official says Chinese vaccines’ effectiveness is low

Official says Chinese vaccines’ effectiveness is low
Updated 11 April 2021

Official says Chinese vaccines’ effectiveness is low

Official says Chinese vaccines’ effectiveness is low
  • Chinese vaccines “don’t have very high protection rates,” said the director of the China Centers for Disease Control

BEIJING: In a rare admission of the weakness of Chinese coronavirus vaccines, the country’s top disease control official says their effectiveness is low and the government is considering mixing them to give them a boost.
Chinese vaccines “don’t have very high protection rates,” said the director of the China Centers for Disease Control, Gao Fu, at a conference Saturday in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
Beijing has distributed hundreds of millions of doses in other countries while also trying to promote doubt about the effectiveness of Western vaccines.
“It’s now under formal consideration whether we should use different vaccines from different technical lines for the immunization process,” Gao said.
The effectiveness rate of a coronavirus vaccine from Sinovac, a Chinese developer, at preventing symptomatic infections has been found to be as low as 50.4% by researchers in Brazil. By comparison, the vaccine made by Pfizer has been found to be 97% effective.
Beijing has yet to approve any foreign vaccines for use in China, where the coronavirus emerged in late 2019.
Gao gave no details of possible changes in strategy but mentioned mRNA, a previously experimental technique used by Western vaccine developers while China’s drug makers used traditional technology.
“Everyone should consider the benefits mRNA vaccines can bring for humanity,” Gao said. “We must follow it carefully and not ignore it just because we already have several types of vaccines already.”
Gao previously raised questions about the safety of mRNA vaccines. He was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying in December he couldn’t rule out negative side effects because they were being used for the first time on healthy people.
Chinese state media and popular health and science blogs also have questioned the safety and effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine, which uses mRNA.
As of April 2, some 34 million people have received both of the two doses required by Chinese vaccines and about 65 million received one, according to Gao.
Experts say mixing vaccines, or sequential immunization, might boost effectiveness rates. Trials around the world are looking at mixing of vaccines or giving a booster shot after a longer time period. Researchers in Britain are studying a possible combination of Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines.


Philippines to ease some tough COVID-19 restrictions from Monday

Philippines to ease some tough COVID-19 restrictions from Monday
Updated 11 April 2021

Philippines to ease some tough COVID-19 restrictions from Monday

Philippines to ease some tough COVID-19 restrictions from Monday
  • Metro Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite will be placed under a less restrictive community quarantine status until April 30
  • The Philippines is battling one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Asia

MANILA: Strict COVID-19 lockdowns in the Philippines capital and four adjacent provinces will be eased from April 12, a spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte said on Sunday.
Metro Manila and the provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna and Cavite will be placed under a less restrictive community quarantine status until April 30, spokesman Harry Roque told a virtual briefing.
Roque gave the briefing from hospital where he is being treated for COVID-19. He gave no details on which restrictions will be eased but said details would be released on Monday.
The Philippines is battling one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Asia, with hospitals in the capital overwhelmed amid record daily infections, while authorities face delays in delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.
On Sunday, the Department of Health recorded 11,681 new COVID-19 cases and 201 more deaths, bringing the country’s tallies to 864,868 confirmed infections and 14,945 fatalities.
New cases have surge in recent weeks, surpassing 15,000 on April 2, most of those in the congested capital.
Last week, Duterte canceled a weekly televised address and a meeting with his coronavirus task force as some of his staff and security detail were found to be COVID-19 positive.
Roque and Duterte’s defense minister, Delfin Lorenzana, also tested positive.
Roque said the government will work to increase the number of COVID-19 beds in health care facilities and free up more room in hospitals.
Under the current quarantine classification for Manila and surrounding areas, non-essential movement is banned, along with mass gatherings and dining in restaurants, with longer-than-usual curfews also in place since March 29.
The reimposition of strict lockdowns has raised concerns the economy will take longer to recover from last year’s worst slump on record.


South Korea to resume wider use of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, exclude people under 30

South Korea to resume wider use of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, exclude people under 30
Updated 11 April 2021

South Korea to resume wider use of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, exclude people under 30

South Korea to resume wider use of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, exclude people under 30
  • South Korea on Wednesday suspended providing the AstraZeneca shot to people under 60
  • Risks of coronavirus are far worse than the rare possibility of side effects from the vaccines

SEOUL: South Korean authorities said on Sunday they will move ahead with a coronavirus vaccination drive this week, after deciding to continue using AstraZeneca PLC’s vaccine for all eligible people 30 years old or over.
South Korea on Wednesday suspended providing the AstraZeneca shot to people under 60 as Europe reviewed cases of blood clotting in adults.
People under 30 will still be excluded from the vaccinations resuming on Monday because the benefits of the shot do not outweigh the risks for that age group, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said in a statement.
Three vaccinated people in South Korea are reported to have developed blood clots, with one case determined to be correlated to the vaccine, Choi Eun-hwa, chair of the Korea Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, told a briefing.
That case was a type of blood clot considered less serious than the type being examined by European authorities, she said.
For most people, the risks of coronavirus are far worse than the rare possibility of side effects from the vaccines, Choi said, adding that the best way to end the pandemic was to vaccinate everyone who can receive it.
But she said, “the benefits are not as great for those under 30 years old, so we will not recommend the AstraZeneca vaccine for them.”
The AstraZeneca shot’s benefit-to-risk ratio rises the older people get as the risk of serious harm due to vaccination falls and ICU admissions prevented by vaccination rise sharply, according to the University of Cambridge’s Winton Center for Risk and Evidence Communication.
The drugmaker has said its studies have found no higher risk of clots because of its vaccine, millions of doses of which have been administered worldwide. The World Health Organization has said the benefits outweigh the risks.
Global controversy over the efficacy and side-effects of some COVID-19 vaccines has caused some delays in South Korea’s vaccination campaign, which kicked off in late February with the goal of reaching herd immunity in November.
The second-quarter vaccination program includes special disability school teachers and vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities and the homeless, the KDCA said.


Philippines, US defense chiefs hope to resume joint military drill

Philippines, US defense chiefs hope to resume joint military drill
Updated 11 April 2021

Philippines, US defense chiefs hope to resume joint military drill

Philippines, US defense chiefs hope to resume joint military drill
  • The US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III reiterated the importance of the two countries’ Visiting Forces Agreement

MANILA: Philippine and US defense chiefs on Sunday expressed hopes to resume the joint “Balikatan” military exercise that was canceled last year, as they discussed the situation in the South China Sea.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III also discussed in a telephone conference recent developments in regional security, according to a statement issued by Lorenzana’s department.

“Both are looking forward to the conduct of Exercise Balikatan,” the statement said.

Their conversation comes just days after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, also in a phone call, expressed their shared concerns about Chinese vessels, which Manila believes are manned by militia, in the South China Sea.

The Philippines has protested against the presence of the Chinese boats inside its 200-mile exclusive economic zone at Whitsun Reef in the strategic waterway, repeatedly asking China to move the vessels away.

Chinese diplomats, however, have said the fishing boats were just sheltering from rough seas and no militia were aboard.

Austin, during the telephone conference, reiterated the importance of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries, while Lorenzana committed to discussing the matter with President Rodrigo Duterte.

In February, Duterte said he had not made a decision yet on the future of the two-decade-old troop deployment agreement with the United States.

The VFA provides the legal framework under which US troops can operate on a rotational basis in the Philippines.

Relations between the United States and its former Asian colony have been complicated since 2016 when Duterte, who has repeatedly made statements condemning US foreign policy while befriending China, rose to power.

Duterte has said the United States must pay more if it wants to maintain the VFA, which he unilaterally canceled last year in an angry response to an ally being denied a US visa.

The VFA’s withdrawal period has been twice extended, creating what Philippine officials say is a window for better terms to be agreed.

Lorenzana likewise sought the assistance of Austin in expediting the delivery of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by US pharmaceutical and biotechnology company Moderna that the Philippines has ordered.

Austin “would look into the issue and bring it to the attention of the office concerned,” the statement said.