UK infections drop about 60% amid vaccinations, lockdown

UK infections drop about 60% amid vaccinations, lockdown
The National Covid Memorial Wall, which commemorates those who have died of coronavirus, on the Thames Embankment opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, April 8, 2021. (AP Photo)
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Updated 08 April 2021

UK infections drop about 60% amid vaccinations, lockdown

UK infections drop about 60% amid vaccinations, lockdown
  • Researchers at Imperial College London found that COVID-19 infections dropped about 60% in March as national lockdown measures slowed the spread of the virus
  • Nonessential shops will be allowed to reopen from April 12, along with hair salons, gyms and outdoor service at pubs and restaurants

LONDON: The UK’s COVID-19 vaccination program is beginning to break the link between infection and serious illness or death, according to the latest results from an ongoing study of the pandemic in England.
Researchers at Imperial College London found that COVID-19 infections dropped about 60% in March as national lockdown measures slowed the spread of the virus. People 65 and older were the least likely to be infected as they benefited most from the vaccination program, which initially focused on older people.
The study also found that the relationship between infections and deaths is diverging, “suggesting that infections may have resulted in fewer hospitalizations and deaths since the start of widespread vaccination.”
The positive news came amid renewed scrutiny of vaccinations that followed revised UK government guidance Wednesday that it will offer people under 30 an alternative inoculation to the AstraZeneca shot where possible. The change followed studies that the shot may be linked to very rare blood clots.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News that the public should reassured by the abundance of caution demonstrated by authorities to make sure the vaccine rollout is as safe as possible.
“What we’ve learned in the last 24 hours is that the rollout of the vaccine is working, we’ve seen that the safety system is working, because the regulators can spot even this extremely rare event — four in a million — and take necessary action to ensure the rollout is as safe as it possible can be,” he said. “And we are seeing that the vaccine is working. It’s breaking the link between cases and deaths.”
Some 31.7 million people had been given a first dose by Tuesday, or just over 60% of the country’s adult population.
But Imperial researchers also urged caution, saying that infection rates leveled off at the end of the study period as the government began to ease the national lockdown and children returned to school. Future rounds of the study will assess the impact that further easing of restrictions has on infection rates.
The next step in lifting England’s third national lockdown is scheduled for April 12, when nonessential shops will be allowed to reopen, along with hair salons, gyms and outdoor service at pubs and restaurants.
The findings are based on data gathered by the 10th round of Imperial College’s Real-Time Assessment of Community Transmission study, which conducts swab tests on a random sample of people across England each month. The latest round tested more than 140,000 people from March 11 to March 30.
Even though Britain has had one of the world’s fastest vaccine rollouts, its death toll from the pandemic is the highest in Europe at over 127,000.


Violence, insecurity threaten Afghan economy as investors flee war-torn country

Violence, insecurity threaten Afghan economy as investors flee war-torn country
Updated 22 min 39 sec ago

Violence, insecurity threaten Afghan economy as investors flee war-torn country

Violence, insecurity threaten Afghan economy as investors flee war-torn country
  • Official says capital flight last year led to almost $1.5 billion in losses

KABUL: Growing insecurity, political instability, and a lack of confidence in Afghanistan’s future has driven hundreds of businessmen out of the country, leading to almost $1.5 billion in losses last year for the already fragile economy, the deputy head of Afghanistan’s Chamber of Commerce and Investment (ACCI) told Arab News on Sunday.
“In 2020 alone, unfortunately, based on our estimates, 1,500 small-scale traders, investors and businessmen left the country because of infighting among government leaders, rising insecurity and corruption,” Khan Jan Alokozai said.
“Our unofficial estimates indicate that there was capital flight of at least $1.5 billion that was sent or taken overseas for investment last year,” he added.
Alokozai traced the investors’ exit to late 2014, when Afghanistan saw a drastic drawdown of US-led troops, resulting in infighting between President Ashraf Ghani and the then chief executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah following allegedly fraudulent elections where both claimed victory.
The power struggle between the two leaders was further exacerbated during the 2019 polls that allowed the Taliban to gain ground, even as regional commanders and self-proclaimed ethnic leaders “pushed for their type of future government.”
It also follows a deadlock in the intra-Afghan peace talks between Ghani’s government and Taliban representatives. The talks began in September last year and have failed to make any progress in the peace process.
Fearing a repeat of events due to internal divisions within the government — which led to the fall of the Moscow-backed communist regime in the 1990s, following the departure of the former Soviet Union’s troops — Alokozai said that a majority of investors had opted to settle in Turkey instead, with “60 percent of the private sector shutting down their activities in Afghanistan in recent years.”
He added: “These traders have bitter experiences from the fall of Dr. Najib (communist-era president), which happened as a result of an internal war, and they want to leave now.
“About 60 percent of the private sector has ended activities in recent years. Factories have closed, and only those involved in businesses such as food and fuel items operate. We had some $15 billion in our annual circulation, but it has dropped to $6 or $7 billion now,” he added.
The losses have trickled down to the tertiary level as well, since most Afghan investors and traders “spend 25 percent of their income on bodyguards and armored vehicles, apart from the losses they incur due to daily violence across the country and the payment of bribes,” Alokozai said.
He cited the example of a leaked video of Minister of Finance Khalid Payenda telling officials that “$1 million is looted from the customs division in the western city of Herat alone every day.”
Alokozai added that recent developments surrounding the deadline for the complete withdrawal of US-led troops from Afghanistan has also affected the market, “not because of the possibility of the return of the Taliban,” but due to fears that the departure could push the country “back into a civil war.”
He said: “There is a big mistrust among leaders and people about the future of the country and anarchy in government. The traders are not afraid of the return of the Taliban. There will be some social restrictions, but overall the Taliban have treated the business community well, because they do not allow corruption and mafia activities.”
Saifuddin Saihoon, a Kabul-based economic expert, agreed, and said that the loss of capital and investors would have a “long-term impact on the economy of Afghanistan,” which has relied on foreign funds since the Taliban’s ouster in the US-led invasion of 2001.
“This causes the economy to slow down, closure of factories and joblessness, and gradually an economic crisis, as well as psychological fears about the future of the country,” Saihoon told Arab News.


India in crisis as hospitals run out of beds and oxygen for COVID-19 patients

India in crisis as hospitals run out of beds and oxygen for COVID-19 patients
Updated 36 min 59 sec ago

India in crisis as hospitals run out of beds and oxygen for COVID-19 patients

India in crisis as hospitals run out of beds and oxygen for COVID-19 patients
  • More than 260,000 new cases and more than 1,500 deaths recorded on Sunday, setting a new national record

NEW DELHI: An alarming spike in COVID-19 cases has created a crisis across India, particularly in the capital, New Delhi, recording more than 25,000 cases — about one in three of those tested — in the past 24 hours, according to official data.
The situation in New Delhi, which has a population of more than 20 million people, forced Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to write to the federal government seeking more hospital beds. Several health care facilities have said they can no longer accommodate patients, leading to a rise in fatalities due to lack of space, oxygen cylinders and drugs.
“The situation in Delhi is very grim,” Kejriwal wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
He asked the PM to “earmark 7,000 beds out of 10,000 in the federal government-run hospitals in Delhi” for COVID-19 patients to “tide over the crisis.”
“There is an acute dearth of oxygen in Delhi, and it should be supplied immediately,” Kejriwal added.
On Sunday, India registered a record single-day rise of 261,500 coronavirus infections taking the nationwide case total to almost 1.48 million.
More than 1,500 people died from the coronavirus disease on Sunday alone, another record for the nation of 1.39 billion, bringing the national toll to 177,168 deaths.
Several residents in New Delhi said that most private and government hospitals had run out of beds with many patients desperate to get admitted to hospital.
“Since yesterday evening I have been trying to admit my sister in a hospital but seven or eight hospitals I reached refused admission,” Tabish Jamal, a Delhi resident, told Arab News on Sunday.
“My sister’s oxygen level is dipping, and she needs immediate medical intervention, but it’s a grim scenario. We are so helpless,” she said, adding that “a small nursing home with basic facilities” had admitted her sister, but “we are getting desperate.”
Lucknow, the capital of the eastern state of Uttar Pradesh, is also facing a bleak scenario with media reports saying that people were “waiting in hordes to be admitted to hospitals,” with at least 50 seen queueing outside the King George’s Medical University, the city’s main facility.
“It’s a grim scenario in the city and around Lucknow,” Kulsum Mustafa, a senior journalist in Lucknow, said on Sunday.
She accused the government of “hiding the exact figures and not showing the true picture.”
“The fact is that there is not only an acute shortage of beds and oxygen, but the testing facilities are minimal too,” Mustafa said.
India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh reported close to 27,550 cases on Sunday making it the second-worst affected area, after the western state of Maharashtra, which had registered more than 67,000 patients in the past 24 hours.
Meanwhile, in the western state of Gujarat, which is PM Modi’s home state, officials reported scenes of “chaos at most hospitals” in the capital city of Ahmedabad.
“Ahmedabad city, like other places in India, is facing a shortage of oxygen, hospital beds and important medicines such as Remdesivir,” Dr. Mona Desai, chief of Ahmedabad Medical Association, said on Sunday.
“With the new variant of coronavirus, the oxygen level starts to dip very soon, and the state is not prepared to supply oxygen to all. The timely intervention of oxygen is important; otherwise, vital organs fail,” she added.
On Sunday, Gujarat registered nearly 10,000 cases, which Desai said is “not the real figure.”
“The death toll is high this time, but the government data is not showing that. I don’t know why they hide the data.”
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said that the “oxygen production is being doubled.”
“Oxygen production is being diverted from industrial to medical use. The center is providing additional ventilators to the states,” he told a press conference on Sunday.
He said that Maharashtra, with Mumbai as its capital, would get 1,121 ventilators, Uttar Pradesh 1,700, Jharkhand 1,500, Gujarat 1,600, Madhya Pradesh 152 and Chhattisgarh 230.
Experts and medical practitioners, however, questioned the “sincerity of the government” in fighting the pandemic.”
“It’s more than one year, and the government is not ready to face the challenges posed by a coronavirus,” Mustafa said, adding before questioning the “rationale of allowing the Hindu festival Kumbh to take place in this year.”
The Kumbh Mela is a month-long festival that takes place once every 12 years, with organizers expecting a footfall of 150 million Hindus — equivalent to the population of Russia — to converge on the northern state of Uttarakhand for a ritual dip in holy waters at four dedicated sites this year.
So far, 5 million people have visited the sacred sites since the festival began on April 1.


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.