Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant

Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant
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Updated 09 December 2021

Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant

Pfizer booster study lifts mood over omicron variant

FRANKFURT: Three doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine appear effective against the omicron variant, a lab test indicated — encouraging news, even as Denmark and Britain announced new restrictions to stem surging caseloads.
In preliminary results published on Wednesday, the US and German companies behind one of the world’s foremost shots to combat Covid-19 said a booster generated around the same level of potent antibodies against omicron as is seen after a second dose with the initial strain.
But they warned that “the omicron variant is probably not sufficiently neutralized after two doses.”
The announcement, which has not yet been peer reviewed, was called reassuring by experts, and came as the first independent data from labs around the world emerged, indicating the new mutations are better at evading immunity from infections and vaccines than those before them.
“We still need to be very measured and take a wait and see approach, but I think what we do have is at least encouraging,” virologist Angela Rasmussen of Canada’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization told AFP.
Blood samples from around 20 people who had received two doses of the current vaccine showed on average a 25-fold reduction in neutralising antibodies compared to the early strain of the virus, the companies said.
But they added that another part of the immune response — from T cells — were probably still effective against the new variant, meaning that people with two doses “may still be protected against severe forms of the disease.”
The vaccine-makers are developing an omicron-specific version of the jab, which they hope will be ready by March, but say the decision whether to mass produce it would depend on the variant’s spread.
In Europe, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced she would extend Christmas school holidays, curtail nightlife and urge citizens to work from home as the country fights off a sharp rise in infections.
“The plan is not to have a long closure,” she said, while acknowledging a return to home offices would also be unwelcome for many.
Her British counterpart Boris Johnson likewise brought back guidance to work from home and vaccine passports for venues such as nightclubs and stadiums. The new measures apply to England, and were already in place in Scotland and Wales.
“We must be humble in the face of this virus,” he said, adding that it was “the proportionate and the responsible thing to move to Plan B in England.”
Johnson announced the stringent measures while facing public anger over video footage of his aides joking about an alleged illicit Christmas party at Downing Street during last year’s lockdown.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus meanwhile summed up what scientists have learned about omicron since it was first reported in South Africa in late November.
It evades prior immunity well, and it’s possible it may cause milder disease, he said.
But even if it’s confirmed to be less severe, the variant’s heightened transmissibility — thought to be greater even than the currently dominant Delta strain — mean it could sicken many people.
Pfizer and BioNTech’s news came after other preliminary results from a small study in South Africa suggested there was up to a 40-fold drop in the ability of the antibodies from the same vaccine to neutralize omicron, compared to an early strain.
Willem Hanekom, executive director of the Africa Health Research Institute, which carried out the study, said it was important to be “extraordinarily careful” interpreting the results because they only reflect a laboratory setting, while real-world data was the true test.
Antibody reductions were also seen in studies by German and Swedish researchers, but they varied in magnitude.
omicron counts more than 30 mutations on the spike protein that dots the surface of the coronavirus and allows it to invade cells, and a high degree of immune evasion was widely anticipated.
But the fact that a booster appears to restore high protection was welcomed by many experts, and provides “strong support for the campaign to give three doses of vaccine,” said Charles Bangham, an immunologist at Imperial College London.
While the positive initial assessments of omicron have helped lift the mood, especially among global markets as fears of another economic downturn subsided, the variant’s emergence has highlighted that the fight against the pandemic is far from over.
Covid-19 has officially killed more than 5.2 million people around the world since it was first declared in late 2019, although the true toll is likely to be several times higher.
 


US Coast Guard reports 39 missing from capsized boat off Florida

This handout image, provided by the US Coast Guard on January 25, 2022, shows a capsized vessel approximately 45 miles east of Fort Pierce inlet, Florida. (AFP)
This handout image, provided by the US Coast Guard on January 25, 2022, shows a capsized vessel approximately 45 miles east of Fort Pierce inlet, Florida. (AFP)
Updated 26 January 2022

US Coast Guard reports 39 missing from capsized boat off Florida

This handout image, provided by the US Coast Guard on January 25, 2022, shows a capsized vessel approximately 45 miles east of Fort Pierce inlet, Florida. (AFP)
  • Incidents of overturned or interdicted vessels crowded with people, many of them Haitians or Cubans seeking to reach the United States, are not uncommon in the waters off Florida

WASHINGTON: Rescue crews searched waters off Florida’s Atlantic shore on Tuesday for 39 people reported missing by a survivor found clinging to a boat that capsized in what the US Coast Guard called a suspected human smuggling attempt gone awry.
The survivor told authorities after his rescue that he had left the Bahamas’ Bimini islands, about 50 miles (80 km) east of Miami, in a boat with 39 other people on Saturday night, the Coast Guard said in a statement posted on Twitter.
According to the survivor, the group’s vessel capsized when it hit rough weather about 45 miles (72.4 km) east of Fort Pierce Inlet, off Florida’s Atlantic coast about midway between Miami and Cape Canaveral, but no one was wearing a life jacket, the Coast Guard said.
A good Samaritan found the man perched on the mostly submerged hull of the overturned boat on Tuesday morning and rescued him before reporting the incident to the Coast Guard, which dispatched multiple cutter vessels and aircraft to search the area.
“This is a suspected human smuggling venture,” the Coast Guard said in its statement. The nationality of those who were aboard has yet to be determined, a Coast Guard spokesperson, Petty Officer Jose Hernandez, said.
In another migrant crossing attempt, 32 people were rescued from a capsized vessel last Friday west of Bimini, which has become frequent transit point for sea-going smugglers, Hernandez said.
Incidents of overturned or interdicted vessels crowded with people, many of them Haitians or Cubans seeking to reach the United States, are not uncommon in the waters off Florida.
In May of 2021, 12 Cuban migrants perished and eight others were rescued after their boat flipped over off Key West, Florida.
At least 557 Cuban migrants in all have been picked up at sea by the Coast Guard since the start of the current fiscal year in October, in addition to nearly 7,400 Cubans interdicted during the previous five years, according to the agency.
Vessel crossings of Haitian migrants have likewise grown more frequent as Caribbean island nation deals with economic and political crises, as well as gang-related kidnappings. The Coast Guard said it has intercepted at least 159 Haitian nationals so far this fiscal year.
Last week, 90 people were repatriated to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, following rescue and interdiction of three illegal voyages across the Mona Passage near Puerto Rico.


What’s known about ‘stealth’ version of omicron?

A health worker prepares to collect swab samples to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus from a participant of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games at the parking lot of a hotel in Beijing on January 25, 2022. (AFP)
A health worker prepares to collect swab samples to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus from a participant of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games at the parking lot of a hotel in Beijing on January 25, 2022. (AFP)
Updated 26 January 2022

What’s known about ‘stealth’ version of omicron?

A health worker prepares to collect swab samples to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus from a participant of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games at the parking lot of a hotel in Beijing on January 25, 2022. (AFP)
  • Doctors also don’t yet know for sure if someone who’s already had COVID-19 caused by omicron can be sickened again by BA.2

WASHINGTON: Scientists and health officials around the world are keeping their eyes on a descendant of the omicron variant that has been found in at least 40 countries, including the United States.
This version of the coronavirus, which scientists call BA.2, is widely considered stealthier than the original version of omicron because particular genetic traits make it somewhat harder to detect. Some scientists worry it could also be more contagious.
But they say there’s a lot they still don’t know about it, including whether it evades vaccines better or causes more severe disease.
WHERE HAS IT SPREAD?
Since mid-November, more than three dozen countries have uploaded nearly 15,000 genetic sequences of BA.2 to GISAID, a global platform for sharing coronavirus data. As of Tuesday morning, 96 of those sequenced cases came from the US
“Thus far, we haven’t seen it start to gain ground” in the US, said Dr. Wesley Long, a pathologist at Houston Methodist in Texas, which has identified three cases of BA.2.
The mutant appears much more common in Asia and Europe. In Denmark, it made up 45 percent of all COVID-19 cases in mid-January, up from 20 percent two weeks earlier, according to Statens Serum Institut, which falls under the Danish Ministry of Health.
WHAT’S KNOWN ABOUT THIS VERSION OF THE VIRUS?
BA.2 has lots of mutations. About 20 of them in the spike protein that studs the outside of the virus are shared with the original omicron. But it also has additional genetic changes not seen in the initial version.
It’s unclear how significant those mutations are, especially in a population that has encountered the original omicron, said Dr. Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
For now, the original version, known as BA.1, and BA.2 are considered subsets of omicron. But global health leaders could give it its own Greek letter name if it is deemed a globally significant “variant of concern.”
The quick spread of BA.2 in some places raises concerns it could take off.
“We have some indications that it just may be as contagious or perhaps slightly more contagious than (original) omicron since it’s able to compete with it in some areas,” Long said. “But we don’t necessarily know why that is.”
An initial analysis by scientists in Denmark shows no differences in hospitalizations for BA.2 compared with the original omicron. Scientists there are still looking into this version’s infectiousness and how well current vaccines work against it. It’s also unclear how well treatments will work against it.
Doctors also don’t yet know for sure if someone who’s already had COVID-19 caused by omicron can be sickened again by BA.2. But they’re hopeful, especially that a prior omicron infection might lessen the severity of disease if someone later contracts BA.2.
The two versions of omicron have enough in common that it’s possible that infection with the original mutant “will give you cross-protection against BA.2,” said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, an infectious diseases expert at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Scientists will be conducting tests to see if antibodies from an infection with the original omicron “are able to neutralize BA.2 in the laboratory and then extrapolate from there,” he said.
HOW CONCERNED ARE HEALTH AGENCIES?
The World Health Organization classifies omicron overall as a variant of concern, its most serious designation of a coronavirus mutant, but it doesn’t single out BA.2 with a designation of its own. Given its rise in some countries, however, the agency says investigations of BA.2 “should be prioritized.”
The UK Health Security Agency, meanwhile, has designated BA.2 a “variant under investigation,” citing the rising numbers found in the UK and internationally. Still, the original version of omicron remains dominant in the UK
WHY IS IT HARDER TO DETECT?
The original version of omicron had specific genetic features that allowed health officials to rapidly differentiate it from delta using a certain PCR test because of what’s known as “S gene target failure.”
BA.2 doesn’t have this same genetic quirk. So on the test, Long said, BA.2 looks like delta.
“It’s not that the test doesn’t detect it; it’s just that it doesn’t look like omicron,” he said. “Don’t get the impression that ‘stealth omicron’ means we can’t detect it. All of our PCR tests can still detect it.”
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF?
Doctors advise the same precautions they have all along: Get vaccinated and follow public health guidance about wearing masks, avoiding crowds and staying home when you’re sick.
“The vaccines are still providing good defense against severe disease, hospitalization and death,” Long said. “Even if you’ve had COVID 19 before — you’ve had a natural infection — the protection from the vaccine is still stronger, longer lasting and actually ... does well for people who’ve been previously infected.”
The latest version is another reminder that the pandemic hasn’t ended.
“We all wish that it was over,” Long said, ”but until we get the world vaccinated, we’re going to be at risk of having new variants emerge.”


India emerges as Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trading partner

India emerges as Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trading partner
Updated 26 January 2022

India emerges as Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trading partner

India emerges as Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trading partner
  • The partnership is contributing significantly to the two nations’ economic progress

The 75th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations between India and Saudi Arabia has seen commercial ties between the two strategic partners rise to new heights. According to the General Authority of Statistics, for the first three quarters of 2021, India was Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trading partner.

India’s Department of Commerce found that for the current financial year (April-November), trade between the two countries was $24.9 billion, an increase of 94 percent over the same period last year. It is especially heartening to note that current trends suggest that bilateral trade will surpass pre-pandemic levels. Another achievement worth mentioning is that India is well on its way to achieving its global export target of $400 billion set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Specifically, Indian exports to Saudi Arabia will comfortably exceed the set target.

Despite the pandemic's causing a halt in the physical movement of high-level business and trade delegations between the two countries which was expected after the establishment of the Strategic Partnership Council during Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in October 2019, the momentum of engagement has been sustained via virtual platforms.

The Economic and Investment Pillar of the Council, co-chaired by the Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman and the Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal, has already seen meetings at the senior official level and also under each of the four Joint Working Groups: Industry and Infrastructure; Agriculture and Food Security; IT and Technology; and Energy.

There have also been several positive developments on the investment side. Some 745 Indian companies are registered as joint ventures or 100 percent owned entities in the Kingdom as of October 2021. These figures stretch across sectors and amount to cumulative invested capital of around $2 billion. Saudi investments in India have seen a big jump over the last two years, especially after the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to India in February 2019 which raised Saudi investments in India to $100 billion. Significant investments include the investments of the Public Investment Fund into Reliance Retail Ventures and Reliance Jio.

India remains a top-tier investment destination, and is on its way to becoming a top-three global economy with a nominal GDP of $8-9 trillion by 2030.

To further promote foreign investments in India, various programs, such as Production Linked Incentive Schemes and the National Single Window System have been launched. The India Investment Grid, an online portal showcasing investment opportunities across India, can be accessed at https://indiainvestmentgrid.gov.in.

Both the Embassy of India in Riyadh and the Consulate General in Jeddah have continued to organize several B2B events through a virtual format which bolsters trade and investment in various sectors. Events so far have included cooperation in IT, pharmaceuticals, fruits and vegetables, spices, gems and jewelry, home decor and handicrafts; all have attracted a positive response from the Saudi business community.

A delegation from Saudi Arabia also visited the Indusfood Exhibition organized by the Trade Promotion Council of India in the National Capital Region earlier this month. The delegation explored opportunities in the food sector, which is a priority sector of trade between the two countries. The Saudi India Business Network, a forum of Saudi and Indian entrepreneurs and professionals with chapters in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam, has also been actively engaging in various initiatives under the aegis of the Embassy. We appreciate the support extended by the Saudi Authorities and Chambers of Commerce towards making these initiatives successful.

As we mark the 73rd Republic Day of India on Jan. 26 this year, there is little doubt that socio-economic partnership between our two countries will continue to strengthen, contributing significantly to the two nations' economic progress.

  • Asim Anwar is Second Secretary (Economic and Commercial) at the Embassy of India in Riyadh.

Indonesia, Singapore sign key defense, extradition agreements

 Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo during their annual leaders' retreat at the Indonesian island of Bintan in Riau, Indonesia. (Reuters)
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo during their annual leaders' retreat at the Indonesian island of Bintan in Riau, Indonesia. (Reuters)
Updated 25 January 2022

Indonesia, Singapore sign key defense, extradition agreements

 Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo during their annual leaders' retreat at the Indonesian island of Bintan in Riau, Indonesia. (Reuters)
  • The agreements were signed during President Joko Widodo and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s annual leaders’ retreat
  • Lee said they represent a ‘major step forward’ in bilateral relations

JAKARTA: Indonesia and Singapore signed on Tuesday a series of agreements covering extradition, defense and airspace management in what is seen as a “major step forward” in relations between the two Southeast Asian neighbors.

The deals were signed by senior cabinet ministers following a meeting between President Joko Widodo and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Indonesia’s Bintan island as part of their annual leader’s retreat.

“Today, our bilateral relations take a major step forward,” Lee said during a joint press statement aired on Indonesia’s State Secretariat YouTube channel.

Both countries agreed to realign the boundary of their respective flight information regions while further strengthening cooperation and fostering closer interaction between their armed forces through a defense cooperation agreement.

“Going forward, we hope that the cooperation in law enforcement, aviation safety, as well as defense and security of the two countries will continue to be strengthened based on the principle of mutual benefit,” Widodo said.

Fitri Bintang, a researcher at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Jakarta, told Arab News that today’s milestones are “signs of maturing relations” between Indonesia and Singapore.

The two countries also inked an extradition agreement, under which they can grant the extradition of fugitives for a comprehensive list of offenses committed up to 18 years ago.

“The extradition treaty will enhance cooperation in combating crime and send a clear, positive signal to investors,” Lee said.

Indonesian Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly said in a statement that the extradition treaty will act as a deterrent for criminals in Indonesia and Singapore.

“If the two countries ratify the extradition treaty soon, then the law enforcement agencies of both countries can make use of this treaty to prevent and combat transnational crimes like corruption and terrorism,” he added.

Indonesia has already signed similar treaties with other countries in the region, including Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea and China.

Indonesia and Singapore must now conclude their respective domestic processes to ratify and bring the agreements into force, which for these three agreements in particular, officials agreed must occur simultaneously.


London stabbing victim named as Yasmin Chkaifi

London stabbing victim named as Yasmin Chkaifi
Updated 25 January 2022

London stabbing victim named as Yasmin Chkaifi

London stabbing victim named as Yasmin Chkaifi
  • Yasmin Chkaifi was stabbed to death Monday
  • Her ex-partner who stabbed her was also killed when a passing car struck him

LONDON: Police had named a woman who died Monday as a result of a brutal stabbing on the streets of London as Yasmin Chkaifi.

Mother-of-one Chkaifi died alongside her ex-partner, Leon McCaskre, 41, who was hit by a car.

Police have said McCaskre stabbed Chkaifi to death and was then hit by a car, killing him.

There are reports that the car hit McCaskre in an attempt to stop the attack on Chkaifi.

Police confirmed they were both from Maida Vale, London, and had previously been in a relationship.

A 26-year-old man arrested at the scene was arrested by police on suspicion of murder, but is said to be cooperating with authorities and has been released on bail.

Detective Chief Inspector Neil Rawlinson, of the force’s Specialist Crime Command, said: “We are gaining a clearer idea of what happened at the scene thanks to information supplied by the public and by reviewing CCTV.

“Firstly, it is apparent that members of the public bravely tried to intervene to stop the attack and their actions were very courageous.

“We are speaking to the families of those concerned and doing all we can to support them at this terrible time.

“We can now confirm that both the deceased were previously known to each other and there are no outstanding suspects.

“A man, who was the driver of a car, has been arrested and bailed for a very serious offense and we must carry out a full investigation, looking at all the circumstances.”