Vaccine deliveries rising as delta virus variant slams Asia

Vaccine deliveries rising as delta virus variant slams Asia
A health worker prepares a dose of the BioNtech Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine during a vaccination for seafarers at a stadium in Manila on July 15, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 15 July 2021

Vaccine deliveries rising as delta virus variant slams Asia

Vaccine deliveries rising as delta virus variant slams Asia
  • Vaccine deliveries rising as delta virus variant slams Asia

JAKARTA, Indonesia: As many Asian countries battle their worst surge of COVID-19 infections, the slow-flow of vaccine doses from around the world is finally picking up speed, giving hope that low inoculation rates can increase and help blunt the effect of the rapidly spreading delta variant.
With many vaccine pledges still unfulfilled and the rates of infection spiking across multiple countries, however, experts say more needs to be done to help nations struggling with the overflow of patients and shortages of oxygen and other critical supplies.
Some 1.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine were set to arrive Thursday afternoon in Indonesia, which has become a dominant hot spot with a record high infections and deaths.
The US shipment comes in addition to 3 million other American doses that arrived Sunday, and 11.7 million doses of AstraZeneca that have come in batches since March through the UN-backed COVAX mechanism, the last earlier this week.
“It’s quite encouraging,” said Sowmya Kadandale, health chief in Indonesia of UNICEF, which is in charge of the distribution of vaccines provided through COVAX. “It seems now to be, and not just in Indonesia, a race between the vaccines and the variants, and I hope we win that race.”
Many, including the World Health Organization, have been critical of the vaccine inequalities in the world, pointing out that many wealthy nations have more than half of their populations at least partially vaccinated, while the vast majority of people in lower-income countries are still waiting on a first dose.
The International Red Cross warned this week of a “widening global vaccine divide” and said wealthy countries needed to increase the pace of following through on their pledges.
“It’s a shame it didn’t happen earlier and can’t happen faster,” Alexander Matheou, the Asia-Pacific director of the Red Cross, said of the recent uptick in deliveries. “There’s no such thing as too late — vaccinating people is always worth doing — but the later the vaccines come, the more people will die.”
Vietnam, Thailand and South Korea have all imposed new lockdown restrictions over the past week as they struggle to contain rapidly rising infections amid sluggish vaccination campaigns.
In South Korea — widely praised for its initial response to the pandemic that included extensive testing and contact tracing — a shortage in vaccines has left 70 percent of the population still waiting for their first shot. Thailand, which only started its mass vaccination in early June, is seeing skyrocketing cases and record deaths, and only about 15 percent of people have had at least one shot. In Vietnam, only about 4 percent have.
“Parts of the world ... are talking about reclaiming lost freedoms such as going back to work, opening the cinemas and restaurants,” Matheou told The Associated Press. “This part of the world is far away from that.”
Indonesia started aggressively vaccinating earlier than many in the region, negotiating bilaterally with China for the Sinovac jabs. Now about 14 percent of its population — the fourth largest in the world — has at least one dose of a vaccine, primarily Sinovac. Several countries also have their own production capabilities, including South Korea, Japan and Thailand, but still need more doses to fill the needs of the region’s huge population.
“Both Moderna and AstraZeneca have been really critical in ramping up these numbers and ensuring that the supplies are available,” said UNICEF’s Kadandale, noting that Indonesia plans to have some additional 208.2 million people vaccinated by year’s end and is giving 1 million shots daily. “Every single dose does make a huge difference.”
Many other countries in the region have vaccination rates far below Indonesia’s for a variety of reasons, including production and distribution issues as well as an initial wait-and-see attitude from many early on when numbers were low and there was less of a sense of urgency.
Some were shocked into action after witnessing the devastation in India in April and May as the country’s health system collapsed under a severe spike in cases that caught the government unprepared and led to mass fatalities.
At the same time, India — a major regional producer of vaccines — stopped exporting doses so that it could focus on its own suffering population.
The US has sent tens of millions of vaccine doses to multiple countries in Asia recently, part of President Joe Biden’s pledge to provide 80 million doses, including Vietnam, Laos, South Korea and Bangladesh. The US plans to donate an additional 500 million vaccines globally in the next year, and 200 million by the end of 2021.
“Indonesia is a critical partner for US engagement in Southeast Asia and the vaccines come without strings attached,” said Scott Hartmann, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Jakarta. “We’re doing this with the object of saving lives and ending the global pandemic, and equitable global access to safe and effective vaccines is essential.”
Earlier in the week, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose country is one of the largest financial backers of COVAX, accused Russia and China of using their delivery of vaccines for policy leverage.
“We note, in particular with China, that the supply of vaccines was also used to make very clear political demands of various countries,” he said, without providing specific examples.
There are also growing questions about the effectiveness of China’s Sinovac vaccine against the delta variant of the virus.
Thai officials said that booster doses of AstraZeneca would be given to front-line medical personnel who earlier received two doses of Sinovac, after a nurse who received two doses of Sinovac died Saturday after contracting COVID-19.
Sinovac has been authorized by WHO for emergency use but Indonesia also said it was planning boosters for health workers, using some of the newly delivered Moderna doses, after reports that some of the health workers who had died since June had been fully vaccinated with the Chinese shot.
“We have still found people getting severe symptoms or dying even when they are vaccinated,” Pandu Riono, an epidemiologist with the University of Indonesia, said about the Sinovac shot. “It’s only proven that some vaccines are strong enough to face the delta variant — AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer seem capable.”
While the majority of recent deliveries have been American, Japan was sending 1 million doses of AstraZeneca on Thursday each to Indonesia, Taiwan and Vietnam as part of bilateral deals, and Vietnam said it was receiving 1.5 million more AstraZeneca doses from Australia.
The Philippines is expecting a total of 16 million doses in July, including 3.2 million from the US later this week, 1.1 million from Japan, 132,000 of Sputnik V from Russia, as well as others through COVAX.
Japan is also is sending 11 million through COVAX this month to Bangladesh, Cambodia, Iran, Laos, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and others. Canada this week committed an additional 17.7 million surplus doses to the 100 million already pledged through COVAX, which is coordinated by Gavi, a vaccine alliance.
In addition to distributing some donated vaccines, financial contributions to COVAX also help fund the purchase of doses to distribute for free to 92 low or moderate income nations.
Earlier this month, it took blistering criticism from the African Union for how long it was taking for vaccines to reach the continent, which noted that just 1 percent of Africans are fully vaccinated.
Gavi said the vaccine shortfall so far this year is because the major COVAX supplier, the Serum Institute of India, diverted production for domestic use.
In its latest supply forecast, however, Gavi shows deliveries just beginning a sharp uptick, and still on track to meet the goal of about 1.5 billion doses by year’s end, representing 23 percent coverage in lower and middle income nations, and more than 5 billion doses by the end of 2022.
“It’s better to focus on vaccinating the world and to avoid hoarding doses,” said Matheou, of the Red Cross. “Sharing vaccines makes everyone safer.”


Seven killed in Rohingya refugee camp attack: police

Seven killed in Rohingya refugee camp attack: police
Updated 8 sec ago

Seven killed in Rohingya refugee camp attack: police

Seven killed in Rohingya refugee camp attack: police
  • The attackers shot dead some victims and stabbed others with knives
BALUKHALI, Bangladesh: Attackers killed at least seven people in an assault Friday on an Islamic seminary in a Rohingya refugee camp on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, police said.
The attackers shot dead some victims and stabbed others with knives, a regional police chief told AFP. The killings came amid mounting tensions after a Rohingya community leader was shot dead outside his office in the camps three weeks ago.

4 killed in Washington state shooting

4 killed in Washington state shooting
Updated 22 October 2021

4 killed in Washington state shooting

4 killed in Washington state shooting

TACOMA, Washington: Four people were killed in a shooting in Tacoma on Thursday afternoon, police said.
The Tacoma Police Department said on Twitter at about 5:30 p.m. that two females and one male had died at the scene and that a male was taken to a hospital with life-threatening injuries.
At about 6:30 p.m., police said on Twitter that the person taken to a hospital had died from his injuries. The victims appeared to be adults, police told The News Tribune.
Police said the shooting happened on the 4200 block of Everett Street, near the city’s Eastside neighborhood.
Police spokeswoman Wendy Haddow told the newspaper that the shootings happened in an alley behind a residence and that at least one victim was found in the street in front of the residence.
Police called it an active scene and asked people to stay away from the area. Detectives and crime scene technicians were at the scene.
No further information was immediately available.


Eswatini bans protests as African mediation begins

Eswatini bans protests as African mediation begins
Updated 22 October 2021

Eswatini bans protests as African mediation begins

Eswatini bans protests as African mediation begins
  • At least 30 health workers were treated for gunshot injuries, the nurses’ union said
  • At least 30 people have died since June in some of the worst unrest in the southern African country’s history

MANZINI, Eswatini: Africa’s last absolute monarchy Eswatini on Thursday banned protests as regional mediators landed in the kingdom amid rumbling pro-democracy demonstrations.
A demonstrator died in hospital on Thursday from gunshot wounds suffered the day before when security forces opened fire on a protest, according to unions.
At least 30 health workers were treated for gunshot injuries, the nurses’ union said.
Railways workers led new protests on Thursday in the kingdom formerly known as Swaziland.
“Due to the spate of violent cases during protests, I have stopped all city and town municipals from issuing permits to hold protests,” Public Works Minister Prince Simelane told a news conference.
Internet access was limited, with Facebook completely shut off for a second day.
“Images that are coming from Eswatini are very disturbing indeed, and we can see that the political temperature is very hot,” Jeff Radebe, head of the mediators sent to the country by the 16-nation Southern African Development Community, told South Africa’s public broadcaster.
The Swaziland Democratic Nurses Union said in a statement that nurses and other workers who had converged on a public park in Mbabane, “were met with unprecedented show of force by the police and the army.”
“They were brutally dispersed and scattered all over the capital. As they were running, they were shot with live ammunition.”
The 30 injured were among more than 80 reported hurt on Wednesday in pro-democracy protests that have flared nationwide.
Radebe said the kingdom’s “issues are very complex,” and the team was “going there with an open mind, ensuring that we hear all views, so that at the end of the day the people of Eswatini... come up with a lasting solution.”
The latest flare-up in demonstrations has run for more than two weeks, spearheaded by students, civil servants and transport workers.
King Mswati III is Africa’s last absolute monarch, who enjoys flaunting his wealth and showering his 15 wives with lavish gifts.
Yet he rules over one of the poorest countries in the world, where nearly two-thirds of the population lives in poverty and a quarter of adults have HIV.

In a statement, the Communist Party of Swaziland said the situation at the largest government hospital in Mbabane on Wednesday resembled a “war zone.”
Hospital floors were “drenched in blood,” said the party, adding that police “invaded the hospital, shooting even nurses as they attended to the injured, worsening the situation.”
The nurse’s union said security forces kept shooting at nurses into the evening, even as they were traveling to work night shifts at hospitals.
“Clearly these blood-thirsty imbeciles, brood of vipers are hell-bent to kill nurses and the nation in defense of an ailing government,” the union said, calling on members not to treat any injured soldiers or police.
Five high-school students arrested during protests were arraigned on terrorism charges on Thursday for their role in the democracy push. Prosecutors accused them of burning down a police post.
At least 30 people have died since June in some of the worst unrest in the southern African country’s history.
 


Biden says US would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked

Biden says US would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked
Updated 22 October 2021

Biden says US would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked

Biden says US would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked

BALTIMORE, Maryland: US President Joe Biden said on Thursday the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense and had a commitment to defend the island China claims as its own territory.
“Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” Biden said at a CNN town hall when asked if the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense.
Biden said people should not worry about Washington’s military strength because “China, Russia and the rest of the world knows we’re the most powerful military in the history of the world,“
“What you do have to worry about is whether or not they’re going to engage in activities that would put them in a position where they may make a serious mistake,” Biden said.
Military tensions between Taiwan and China are at their worst in more than 40 years, Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said this month, adding that China will be capable of mounting a “full-scale” invasion by 2025.
China claims Taiwan as its own territory, which should be taken by force if necessary. Taiwan says it is an independent country and will defend its freedoms and democracy.


Governments turn tables on ransomware gang REvil by pushing it offline

Governments turn tables on ransomware gang REvil by pushing it offline
Updated 22 October 2021

Governments turn tables on ransomware gang REvil by pushing it offline

Governments turn tables on ransomware gang REvil by pushing it offline
  • Law enforcement and intelligence cyber specialists were able to hack REvil's computer network infrastructure, obtaining control of at least some of their servers
  • One person familiar with the events said that a foreign partner of the US government carried out the hacking operation that penetrated REvil's computer architecture

The ransomware group REvil was itself hacked and forced offline this week by a multi-country operation, according to three private sector cyber experts working with the United States and one former official.
Former partners and associates of the Russian-led criminal gang were responsible for a May cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline that led to widespread gas shortages on the US East Coast. REvil's direct victims include top meatpacker JBS. The crime group's "Happy Blog” website, which had been used to leak victim data and extort companies, is no longer available.
Officials said the Colonial attack used encryption software called DarkSide, which was developed by REvil associates.
VMWare head of cybersecurity strategy Tom Kellermann said law enforcement and intelligence personnel stopped the group from victimizing additional companies.
"The FBI, in conjunction with Cyber Command, the Secret Service and like-minded countries, have truly engaged in significant disruptive actions against these groups,” said Kellermann, an adviser to the US Secret Service on cybercrime investigations. “REvil was top of the list.”
A leadership figure known as "0_neday," who had helped restart the group's operations after an earlier shutdown, said REvil's servers had been hacked by an unnamed party.
"The server was compromised, and they were looking for me," 0_neday wrote on a cybercrime forum last weekend and first spotted by security firm Recorded Future. "Good luck, everyone; I'm off."
US government attempts to stop REvil, one of the worst of dozens of ransomware gangs that work with hackers to penetrate and paralyze companies around the world, accelerated after the group compromised US software management company Kaseya in July. 
That breach opened access to hundreds of Kaseya's customers all at once, leading to numerous emergency cyber incident response calls.

Decryption key
Following the attack on Kaseya, the FBI obtained a universal decryption key that allowed those infected via Kaseya to recover their files without paying a ransom.
But law enforcement officials initially withheld the key for weeks as it quietly pursued REvil's staff, the FBI later acknowledged. 
According to three people familiar with the matter, law enforcement and intelligence cyber specialists were able to hack REvil's computer network infrastructure, obtaining control of at least some of their servers.
After websites that the hacker group used to conduct business went offline in July, the main spokesman for the group, who calls himself "Unknown," vanished from the internet.
When gang member 0_neday and others restored those websites from a backup last month, he unknowingly restarted some internal systems that were already controlled by law enforcement.
“The REvil ransomware gang restored the infrastructure from the backups under the assumption that they had not been compromised,” said Oleg Skulkin, deputy head of the forensics lab at the Russian-led security company Group-IB. “Ironically, the gang's own favorite tactic of compromising the backups was turned against them.”
Reliable backups are one of the most important defenses against ransomware attacks, but they must be kept unconnected from the main networks or they too can be encrypted by extortionists such as REvil.
A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council declined to comment on the operation specifically.
"Broadly speaking, we are undertaking a whole of government ransomware effort, including disruption of ransomware infrastructure and actors, working with the private sector to modernize our defenses, and building an international coalition to hold countries who harbor ransom actors accountable," the person said.
The FBI declined to comment.
One person familiar with the events said that a foreign partner of the US government carried out the hacking operation that penetrated REvil's computer architecture. A former US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the operation is still active.
The success stems from a determination by US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco that ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure should be treated as a national security issue akin to terrorism, Kellermann said.
In June, Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General John Carlin told Reuters the Justice Department was elevating investigations of ransomware attacks to a similar priority.
Such actions gave the Justice Department and other agencies a legal basis to get help from US intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense, Kellermann said.
"Before, you couldn't hack into these forums, and the military didn't want to have anything to do with it. Since then, the gloves have come off."