Next pandemic could be more lethal than COVID-19, Oxford vaccine creator says

Next pandemic could be more lethal than COVID-19, Oxford vaccine creator says
Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic must not be squandered. (File/AFP)
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Updated 06 December 2021

Next pandemic could be more lethal than COVID-19, Oxford vaccine creator says

Next pandemic could be more lethal than COVID-19, Oxford vaccine creator says

LONDON: Future pandemics could be even more lethal than COVID-19 so the lessons learned from the outbreak must not be squandered and the world should ensure it is prepared for the next viral onslaught, one of the creators of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine said.
The novel coronavirus has killed 5.26 million people across the world, according to Johns Hopkins University, wiped out trillions of dollars in economic output and turned life upside down for billions of people.
"The truth is, the next one could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both," Sarah Gilbert said in the Richard Dimbleby Lecture, the BBC reported. "This will not be the last time a virus threatens our lives and our livelihoods."
Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, said the world should make sure it is better prepared for the next virus.
"The advances we have made, and the knowledge we have gained, must not be lost," she said.
Efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic have been uneven and fragmented, marked by limited access to vaccines in low-income countries while the "healthy and wealthy" in rich countries get boosters, health experts say.
A panel of health experts set up by the World Health Organisation to review the handling of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has called for permanent funding and for greater ability to investigate pandemics through a new treaty.
One proposal was for new financing of at least $10 billion a year for pandemic preparedness.
The COVID-19 outbreak was first detected in China in late 2019. Vaccines were developed against the virus in record time.
Gilbert said the omicron variant's spike protein contained mutations known to increase the transmissibility of the virus.
"There are additional changes that may mean antibodies induced by the vaccines, or by infection with other variants, may be less effective at preventing infection with omicron," Gilbert said.
"Until we know more, we should be cautious, and take steps to slow down the spread of this new variant." 


US Democrats eye new strategy after failure of voting bill

US Democrats eye new strategy after failure of voting bill
Updated 21 January 2022

US Democrats eye new strategy after failure of voting bill

US Democrats eye new strategy after failure of voting bill
  • Biden conceded this week that updating the electoral bill may be Democrats’ best opportunity to pass voting legislation through a 50-50 Senate, where much of his agenda has stalled

WASHINGTON: Democrats were picking up the pieces Thursday following the collapse of their top-priority voting rights legislation, with some shifting their focus to a narrower bipartisan effort to repair laws Donald Trump exploited in his bid to overturn the 2020 election.
Though their bid to dramatically rewrite US election law failed during a high-stakes Senate floor showdown late Wednesday, Democrats insisted their brinksmanship has made the new effort possible, forcing Republicans to relent, even if just a little, and engage in bipartisan negotiations.
The nascent push is focused on the Electoral Count Act, an 1887 law that created the convoluted proces s for the certification of presidential election results by Congress. For more than 100 years, vulnerabilities in the law were an afterthought, until Trump’s unrelenting, false claims that voter fraud cost him the 2020 election culminated in a mob of his supporters storming the Capitol.
An overhaul of the Gilded Age statute could be Democrats’ best chance to address what they call an existential threat to American democracy from Trump’s “big lie” about a stolen election. But with serious talks only beginning in the Senate and dwindling time before this year’s midterm elections, reaching consensus could prove difficult.
“We know history is on the side of voting rights, and we know that forcing leaders to take stands will ultimately move the ball forward,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday.
Just weeks ago, many Democrats were adamant that updating the Electoral Count Act was no substitute for their voting legislation. Updating the 1887 law, they pointed out, would do nothing to counter the Trump-inspired push in 19 states to make it more difficult to vote.
They still hold that position, but after the defeat of their marquee elections bill, they are running out of options. Meanwhile, Trump loyalists are girding for the next election, working to install sympathetic leaders in local election posts and, in some cases, backing political candidates who participated in the riot at the US Capitol.
Biden conceded this week that updating the electoral bill may be Democrats’ best opportunity to pass voting legislation through a 50-50 Senate, where much of his agenda has stalled.
“I predict to you they’ll get something done,” Biden told reporters Wednesday.
Any legislation would have to balance Democrats’ desire to halt what they view as a GOP plan to make it more difficult for Black Americans and other minorities to vote with Republican’s entrenched opposition to increased federal oversight of local elections.
“What other things could be put in there?” said South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat and a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “I want to deal with more than just counting the votes for the president. I want to be sure that we count the votes for everybody else. So voter nullification like they’re doing in Georgia, I think it can be addressed.”
Republicans involved in the effort to update the Electoral Count Act acknowledge that the bill would need a wider focus.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is holding bipartisan talks with Republican Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Mitt Romney of Utah, as well as Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
“It’s such a needed thing,” said Manchin, who added that the narrower scope was “the first place” Democrats “should have started.”
Manchin and Sinema effectively tanked Democrats’ marquee bill Wednesday, joining Republicans in voting against a rule change that would have allowed the party’s voting legislation to pass with a simple majority.
Collins has proposed new protections for poll and elections workers, some of whom received chilling threats to their safety after the 2020 election. She has also called for more funding for local elections. Manchin wants harsh criminal penalties for those convicted of intimidating or threatening poll and election workers.
“It’s a heavy lift, but if we continue to get people to talk there’s a path,” said Tillis, who said tensions over the Democrats’ failed voting bill will need to cool before coalition building can seriously begin. “We are going to have to have more Republicans get on board because there are going to be protest votes.”
But at its core, many Republicans want any legislation to primarily focus on the Electoral Count Act.
“This is directly related to Jan. 6,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Thursday. “It needs fixing.”
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy on Thursday called it “an old piece of law, so you can always modernize it.”
The bipartisan House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection is also working on a proposal.
As Trump’s legal appeals and efforts to pressure state and local officials ran out of steam, he began to focus on Mike Pence, who presided over the certification in Congress of the Electoral College results. Trump spent days in a futile bid trying to convince Pence that the vice president had the power to reject electors from battleground states that voted for Biden, even though the Constitution makes clear the vice president’s role in the joint session is largely ceremonial.
Separately, he encouraged Republican lawmakers to take advantage of the low threshold to lodge objections to the outcome. Even after rioters fought in brutal hand-to-hand combat with police as they lay siege to the Capital on Jan. 6, 147 Republican lawmakers later voted to object to Biden’s win.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, is working on a bill that would shore up several key vulnerabilities in the Electoral College process.
Any legislation should make clear the vice president holds only a ceremonial role, limit the scope of Congress’ involvement in the certification of the election and narrow the grounds for raising an objection to a state’s results, according to a summary provided by his office.
Civil rights activists don’t object to the revisions. But they question the value of the effort if Republican-controlled states can still enact voting restrictions.
“It doesn’t matter if your votes are properly counted if you cannot cast your vote in the first place,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who is also pastor at the church Martin Luther King Jr. once led.


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 21 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.”


Expert hired to pursue British far-right activist Tommy Robinson over £2m debt

Tommy Robinson, Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is the founder and former leader of the English Defence League. (Reuters/File Photo)
Tommy Robinson, Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is the founder and former leader of the English Defence League. (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 21 January 2022

Expert hired to pursue British far-right activist Tommy Robinson over £2m debt

Tommy Robinson, Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is the founder and former leader of the English Defence League. (Reuters/File Photo)
  • The founder of the English Defence League, was ordered last year to pay £100,000 to Syrian refugee Jamal Hijazi after falsely accusing the teenager of assaulting schoolgirls
  • He also owes lawyers £1.5 million plus interest in legal costs, along with debts to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, a former business partner and a local council

LONDON: An independent insolvency expert has been hired to recover an estimated £2 million ($2.72 million) owed by British far-right figure Tommy Robinson, before a looming deadline in March.

Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is the founder and former leader of the English Defence League. In July last year, he was ordered by a judge to pay £100,000 to Syrian refugee Jamal Hijazi after he falsely accused the teenager of assaulting female classmates. In addition to the damages, he owes lawyers £1.5 million in legal costs, plus interest.

Hijazi, now 18, fled Homs in Syria and was living in northern England in October 2018 when he was filmed being attacked and bullied at a school in the town of Huddersfield. When the footage went viral, Robinson produced two videos in which he falsely stated that the Syrian teenager was “not innocent and he violently attacks young English girls in his school.”

A libel case was brought against him and last July the High Court in London found his claims to be untrue and awarded damages to Hijazi.

Robinson also owes money to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, a former business partner and the local council in Barrow-In-Furness in North West England.

The anti-fascist activist group Hope not Hate believes the EDL founder might have access to as much as £3 million in assets, including property, investments, donations and money from book sales, as well as a home in Bedfordshire belonging to his former wife that is estimated to be worth £1.2 million.

The group is running a fundraising campaign to cover the costs of the independent insolvency expert, Heath Sinclair of Richard Long & Co., hired to recover the money.

Robinson declared bankruptcy in March last year. Sinclair has until March 3, when Robinson will exit bankruptcy, to find any assets or cash he might be hiding. After then it could become more difficult to recover the money he owes.


UN adopts resolution against Holocaust denial

UN adopts resolution against Holocaust denial
Updated 21 January 2022

UN adopts resolution against Holocaust denial

UN adopts resolution against Holocaust denial
  • The Israeli-proposed text was developed with the help of Germany and co-sponsored by several dozen of the 193 states that make up the UN
  • The resolution "rejects and condemns without any reservation any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part"

UNITED NATIONS, United States: The UN General Assembly on Thursday adopted a non-binding resolution calling on all member states to fight against Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism, especially on social media.
The Israeli-proposed text was developed with the help of Germany and co-sponsored by several dozen of the 193 states that make up the United Nations.
Iran, however, expressed opposition to the resolution, stating that Tehran dissociated itself from the text.
The resolution “rejects and condemns without any reservation any denial of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part,” according to the text.
The Holocaust saw the genocide of six million European Jews between 1939 and 1945 by the Nazis and their supporters.
The text “commends” countries that preserve sites of former Nazi death camps, concentration camps, forced labor camps, execution sites and prisons during the Holocaust.
It also urges UN members to develop educational programs “to help to prevent future acts of genocide” and calls on states and social media companies to “take active measures to combat anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial or distortion.”
In a statement, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, welcomed the “historic resolution,” which had been negotiated for several months.
The text “for the first time, gives a clear definition of Holocaust denial, calls on countries to take steps in the fight against anti-Semitism,” and demands for social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to fight the “hateful content” on their platforms.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, in a joint statement welcomed the resolution, which they said served as proof that the international community “speaks with one voice” on the subject.
A resolution in 2005 designated January 27 as an international day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust.
Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, additionally welcomed the passage of the resolution.
“Holocaust distortion is so dangerous because, quite plainly, it misrepresents essential facts of history in order to legitimize past and present misdeeds,” said its director Dani Dayan.
“The Holocaust carries substantial relevance for many vital contemporary issues. Denying and distorting the uniqueness and unprecedented aspects of events is not only detrimental to the memory of the Holocaust but to that of other atrocities and genocides as well,” he added.


Phone call shows brother pleading with Texas hostage-taker

Phone call shows brother pleading with Texas hostage-taker
Updated 20 January 2022

Phone call shows brother pleading with Texas hostage-taker

Phone call shows brother pleading with Texas hostage-taker
  • 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 Dallas
  • Gulbar Akram urged his brother to lay down his weapons and return to his children alive

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.