NFT of mRNA vaccine research to go on sale

NFT of mRNA vaccine research to go on sale
Dr. Drew Weissman and Dr. Katalin Karikó at the Weissman Lab, University of Pennsylvania. (Penn Medicine)
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Updated 10 July 2022

NFT of mRNA vaccine research to go on sale

NFT of mRNA vaccine research to go on sale
  • The University of Pennsylvania mRNA NFT “ Vaccines for a New Era” will run exclusively online from 15-25 July

LONDON: A new NFT digital asset from the University of Pennsylvania showcases pivotal mRNA research that could lead to life-changing vaccines for COVID-19 and beyond.

Dr. Drew Weissman, a physician and immunologist known for his groundbreaking contributions to RNA biology, and the RNA biochemist Dr. Katalin Kariko developed the modified RNA technology that became a foundational component of BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines for COVID-19.

Now, 18 months later, “Vaccines for a New Era,” the University of Pennsylvania mRNA NFT — non-fungible token — will be released on July 15, a Christie’s press release said.

The digital asset includes a 3D model of the critical technologies that have enabled mRNA vaccines as well as research focused on the discovery and development of mRNA therapeutics for some of the world’s most deadly diseases.

The NFT also features a dynamic video that shows how mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines work, including how the mRNA vaccine enters the body’s cells and stimulates an immune response.

The animated digital art demonstrates mRNA encoding of the SAR-CoV-2 spike protein encapsulated inside lipid nanoparticles and administered as a vaccine, providing protection from the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 disease.

The NFT also includes an explainer, image copies of Penn-owned mRNA patent documents, and an original letter from Dr. Weissman.

The proceeds from the sale of the NFT will be used to further important research at Penn.

While much of the attention focused on how quickly COVID-19 vaccines were developed in response to the pandemic, Dr. Weissman said that it resulted from a career’s worth of research and dedication by him and many other scientists worldwide.

“I laugh because it’s a 25-year overnight success,” Dr. Weissman said.

Initially, he and Dr. Kariko struggled to secure funding for their critical research.

“‘It took over 10 years to get people to recognize the potential of modified mRNA technology for therapeutic and vaccine development,” he said. “But Kati and I weren’t just sitting in a room hoping; we never gave up. The data looked very promising. The feeling that it would someday work and be a useful technology in creating new therapies kept us going.”

Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman together discovered how to modify mRNA to significantly reduce its inherent inflammatory activity.

Dr. Weissman’s lab later developed a delivery technique to package the mRNA in fat droplets known as lipid nanoparticles. These advances contributed to mRNA becoming safer, more effective and more practical for use in vaccines.

When the DNA sequence for the coronavirus was released on Jan. 10, 2020, vaccine developers immediately began to use Dr. Weissman and Dr. Kariko’s modified mRNA technology.

“When we saw that it was a coronavirus, we knew it was the spike protein that would be targeted in a vaccine,” Dr. Weissman said.

The first modified mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, which was initially found to prevent severe disease and death with exceptional efficacy, was an important milestone.

“As a physician, my career aim has always been to contribute to development of technologies and products that help people,” Dr. Weissman said. “So seeing these extremely positive results of the Phase 3 human trials for modified mRNA vaccines against SAR-CoV-2 was an incredible feeling,” he said.

“Art is really important in communicating scientific ideas to the public. It’s a way to introduce people to science, how it works, why it’s so exciting, and its future potential. The COVID-19 vaccine is just one of many potential future products that may benefit from the modified mRNA technology developed at Penn.”

Dr. Weissman and his colleagues are developing a variety of potential future vaccines and therapies, such as a pan-coronavirus vaccine to prevent future pandemics, a universal flu vaccine, as well as vaccines to prevent herpes and malaria, among others.

Dr. Weissman also highlighted the possibility of using mRNA in vaccines to prevent fatal allergies and for gene therapies to treat sickle cell anemia.

The sale of the University of Pennsylvania mRNA NFT: Vaccines for a New Era will run exclusively online from July 15-25.


Germans spot ‘Russian forces’ in Mali after French exit

Germans spot ‘Russian forces’ in Mali after French exit
Updated 6 sec ago

Germans spot ‘Russian forces’ in Mali after French exit

Germans spot ‘Russian forces’ in Mali after French exit
  • German ambassador in Bamako has contacted Mali’s foreign minister about ‘the suspected presence of Russian uniformed forces in Gao’
  • France announced in February that it was withdrawing its troops from Mali after a breakdown in relations with the country’s ruling junta

BERLIN: German soldiers in Mali spotted several dozen suspected Russian security forces in the city of Gao just as the last French soldiers left the country, the German government said Wednesday.
The German ambassador in Bamako has contacted Mali’s foreign minister about “the suspected presence of Russian uniformed forces in Gao,” said a foreign ministry spokesman.
Gao is home to a contingent of German soldiers, not far from the former base occupied by the French.
A Russian presence in the city would be a development “that changes the mission environment,” the spokesman said, adding that the government was also discussing the matter with the United Nations.
France announced in February that it was withdrawing its troops from Mali after a breakdown in relations with the country’s ruling junta. That ended a near 10-year deployment against extremist groups that pose a growing threat in West Africa.
The arrival of Russian paramilitaries in the country on the invitation of the government was a key factor in France’s decision to pull its military forces out.
The last French soldiers left Mali on Monday.
Germany’s government was also aware of an aircraft being used by Malian armed forces that “could possibly be an aircraft that was handed over by Russia,” said a defense ministry spokeswoman.
“We have received information that about 20 to 30 persons who were not associated with the Malian armed forces were seen loading and unloading this aircraft in a hangar” on Monday, the spokeswoman said.
The government is “intensively investigating” these reports, which concern a “training and ground combat aircraft of the L-39 type,” she said.
Germany on Friday said it had stopped reconnaissance operations and helicopter transport flights in Mali until further notice after Bamako denied flyover rights to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA.
But MINUSMA resumed contingent rotations from Monday under new approval procedures.
MINUSMA — the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali — was launched in 2013 to help one of the world’s poorest countries cope with a bloody extremist campaign.
It is one of the UN’s biggest peacekeeping operations, with 17,609 troops, police, civilians and volunteers deployed as of April, according to the mission’s website.


First drought, now downpours as storms slam France, England

First drought, now downpours as storms slam France, England
Updated 17 min 56 sec ago

First drought, now downpours as storms slam France, England

First drought, now downpours as storms slam France, England
  • Winds over 100 kph (60 mph) were recorded at the top of the Eiffel Tower during a flash flood Tuesday
  • In southern France, thunderstorms overnight and Wednesday flooded the Old Port of Marseille

PARIS: After a summer of drought, heat waves and forest fires, violent storms are whipping France and have flooded Paris subway stations, snarled traffic and disrupted the president’s agenda.
Winds over 100 kph (60 mph) were recorded at the top of the Eiffel Tower during a flash flood Tuesday, and similar winds were forecast Wednesday in the southeast.
Hail hammered Paris and other regions in Tuesday’s sudden storm. Rainwater gushed down metro station stairwells and onto platforms, and cars sloshed along embankments where the Seine River broke its banks.
In southern France, thunderstorms overnight and Wednesday flooded the Old Port of Marseille and the city’s main courthouse and forced the closure of nearby beaches.
Thunderstorms also appeared in southern England on Wednesday, drenching London tourists and residents after a summer of unusually warm and sunny weather.
The national weather service issued storm warnings for Wednesday and Thursday, advising people to stay alert for possible flooding and power outages.
As scattered storms swept across Belgium on Wednesday, one flooded parts of the historic town of Ghent following weeks of unrelenting drought.
Much of Western Europe has experienced a season of extreme weather that scientists link to human-made climate change.
Amid the storm warnings, French President Emmanuel Macron postponed an event Wednesday on the French Riviera to mark the 78th anniversary of a key Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France. It was rescheduled for Friday.
The dramatic downpours put an end to weeks of historic heat that left much of France parched, rivers dry and dozens of villages without running water.
Across much of Europe this summer, a series of heat waves has compounded a critical drought, creating prime wildfire conditions.
Rainfall in recent days has eased the burden on firefighters facing France’s worst fire season in the past decade, though emergency authorities said scattered wildfires continued to burn Wednesday in southwest France.


Taliban kill one of their ex-leaders from minority Hazara community

Taliban kill one of their ex-leaders from minority Hazara community
Updated 17 August 2022

Taliban kill one of their ex-leaders from minority Hazara community

Taliban kill one of their ex-leaders from minority Hazara community
  • Mawlawi Mahdi was shot dead by Taliban forces near the border with Iran as he attempted to flee the country
  • The Hazara, native to Afghanistan’s central mountains, are the country’s largest mainly Shiite ethnic group

KABUL: The Taliban killed one of their former leaders who was known as the first commander of the group hailing from the minority Shiite Hazara community, officials confirmed on Wednesday, adding that he had rebelled against the de facto government.
Mawlawi Mahdi was shot dead by Taliban forces near the border with Iran as he attempted to flee the country, the defense ministry said in a statement.
Mahdi’s appointment as a commander some years ago was touted as an example of the Taliban’s changed on stance on minorities. He was in the spotlight after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in the wake of the pullout of western forces last year.
The Taliban are hard-line followers of the Sunni branch of Islam, and were previously almost exclusively associated with the Pashtun ethnicity. More recently, the group had sought to include members of other ethnicities and some Shiites.
The Hazara, native to Afghanistan’s central mountains, are the country’s largest mainly Shiite ethnic group. After the Taliban formed a government last year, Mahdi was given the post of intelligence chief in a central province.
The origins of the breach between Mahdi and the Taliban have not been made public, but as far back as June, the defense ministry had spoken of a clearance operation against rebels in northern Afghanistan.
The defense ministry on Wednesday described Mahdi as a the “leader of the rebels” in a district in the northern province of Sar-e-Pol.
A Taliban source told Reuters that Mahdi had fallen out with the Taliban and had revolted against the group’s leadership.
The statement said he was killed in Herat close to the border with Shiite majority Iran, where he was trying to flee.
Reuters was not able to contact representatives of Mahdi for comment.


US to withhold billions of dollars from Taliban over Al-Zawahiri

US to withhold billions of dollars from Taliban over Al-Zawahiri
Updated 17 August 2022

US to withhold billions of dollars from Taliban over Al-Zawahiri

US to withhold billions of dollars from Taliban over Al-Zawahiri
  • Officials: Al-Qaeda leader’s presence in Afghanistan eroded confidence that $3.5bn would not fund terror
  • UN warns 6.6m Afghans face famine this winter without urgent humanitarian intervention

LONDON: Billions of dollars being held by the US will not be transferred to Afghanistan after Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul on July 31.

Al-Zawahiri’s presence in Afghanistan meant Washington does not have “confidence” that the country’s central bank “has the safeguards and monitoring in place to manage assets responsibly,” said Tom West, the US special representative for Afghanistan.

“Needless to say, the Taliban’s sheltering of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri reinforces deep concerns we have regarding diversion of funds to terrorist groups.”

The US has held around $3.5 billion intended for Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover of the country last year.

Afghanistan’s economy has struggled since the withdrawal of coalition forces in August 2021, with officials negotiating with US representatives for ways to alleviate the situation.

But West said the US does not see returning funds to the country as a “near-term option” as the Taliban cannot provide guarantees that the money will not be used to fund terrorism.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price, though, said Washington would find alternative, humanitarian uses for the funds to help ease the suffering of ordinary Afghans. 

“The idea that we have decided not to use these funds for the benefit of the Afghan people is simply wrong. It is not true,” he added.

“Right now we’re looking at mechanisms that could be put in place to see to it that these $3.5 billion in preserved assets make their way efficiently and effectively to the people of Afghanistan in a way that doesn’t make them ripe for diversion to terrorist groups or elsewhere.”

US President Joe Biden in February ordered that $7 billion being held by the US for Afghanistan be split between humanitarian aid for the country, and 9/11 victims and their families.

Al-Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden, who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, was killed last month in a drone strike while standing on the balcony of a house in which he was living in the center of Kabul.

His presence in Afghanistan was a “gross violation” of an agreement struck with Washington for the Taliban not to permit terrorist organizations to operate in the country, the US said.

A UN Security Council report earlier this year said the Taliban takeover had allowed “greater freedom” for foreign fighters to live and operate in the country.

The UN’s humanitarian coordinator and deputy special representative for Afghanistan, Ramiz Alakbarov, said the country faces “pure catastrophe” due to its precarious economic state, with 6.6 million people threatened with famine this winter and 24 million in need of humanitarian aid.

He added that poverty is forcing Afghans to make desperate decisions such as “the selling of organs, and the selling of children,” and that despite many spending as much as 90 percent of their income on food, he was still seeing evidence of severely malnourished children nationwide.

Erin Sikorsky, director at the US-based Center for Climate and Security, told the Daily Telegraph: “Poor governance by the Taliban will make things worse. It is likely Afghanistan will see more internally displaced people going forward, as disruptions to ... agriculture intersect with other security risks.”

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Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media

Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media
Updated 17 August 2022

Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media

Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa will return next week — local media
  • Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the first Sri Lankan president to quit mid-term, is temporarily sheltering in Thailand
  • Rajapaksa has made no public appearances or comment since leaving Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa will return to the island nation next week after fleeing in July amid mass protests, local broadcaster Newsfirst reported on Wednesday, citing a former ambassador.
Udayanga Weeratunga, a former Sri Lankan envoy to Russia who is related to Rajapaksa, said he will arrive in Sri Lanka on Aug. 24, Newsfirst reported.
Rajapaksa, the first Sri Lankan president to quit mid-term, is temporarily sheltering in Thailand, after fleeing Sri Lanka on a military plane to the Maldives and then spending weeks in Singapore.
He resigned from office soon after arriving in Singapore, facing public anger over his government’s handling of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.
Rajapaksa has made no public appearances or comment since leaving Sri Lanka. Reuters was not able to immediately contact him or Weeratunga.
The office of Rajapaksa’s successor, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who suggested last month that the former president refrain from returning to Sri Lanka in the near future, did not immediately respond for a request for comment.
“I don’t believe it’s the time for him to return,” Wickremesinghe told the Wall Street Journal in an interview on July 31. “I have no indication of him returning soon.”