World not prepared for another pandemic: Moderna chairman

World not prepared for another pandemic: Moderna chairman
Moderna co-founder Noubar Afeyan, screen right, speaks to Advanced Tomorrow (ATOM) chairman Armen Sarkissian during the ATOM 2023 Singapore Summit at the National University of Singapore on Dec. 4, 2023. (NUS)
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Updated 07 December 2023
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World not prepared for another pandemic: Moderna chairman

World not prepared for another pandemic: Moderna chairman
  • Dr. Noubar Afeyan speaks at Advanced Tomorrow 2023 Singapore Summit
  • Development of Moderna’s vaccine against COVID-19 was matter of ‘luck’

SINGAPORE: The world is not prepared to face another pandemic, the co-founder and chairman of Moderna said, as insufficient attention was being paid globally to health system resilience.

Dr. Noubar Afeyan, a biochemical engineer who co-founded the US-based drugmaker in 2010, was speaking at the Advanced Tomorrow 2023 Summit held in Singapore on Dec. 3 to 6.

Organized and co-hosted by the Advanced Tomorrow, or ATOM, initiative and Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine of the National University of Singapore, the meeting of global political, business, and academic leaders focused on the future of healthcare amid geopolitical changes and technological advancements.

During a discussion on the ability of health systems to prepare for shocks and global disruptions such as the global outbreak of coronavirus in 2020, Afeyan, whose company’s COVID-19 vaccine became the second one to get cleared for use in the US, said the quick release of jabs may have given “the wrong impression” of resilience.

“We got lucky, because it so happened that this virus was amenable to an intervention that the company that I co-founded, Moderna, had developed a technology for,” he said.

A similar technology was developed by Pfizer, whose vaccine against COVID-19 was the first to receive a green light from the US Food and Drug Administration. But the fact that what both companies worked on at the time ended up being useful in addressing the coronavirus outbreak was accidental and will not help if the next health crisis is caused by a completely different pathogen.

“There will be other threats, for example, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that this technology is not going to work for,” Afeyan added. “We have no good solutions for that right now. So, if there’s a major bacterial outbreak through the food system, through any other means, we’d be really gambling that we can come up with something quickly.”

The problem with preparedness was in both attention and funding worldwide being directed not toward long-term health security but to short-term solutions.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of attention paid to resilience because resilience always gathers momentum after there’s been a failure,” Afeyan said. “As soon as the failure is forgotten, resilience goes out of the window.”

Dr. Armen Sarkissian, former president of Armenia and theoretical physicist who chairs ATOM, said on the sidelines of the Singapore conference that current approaches were like betting on an uncertain outcome, with success depending only on luck.

“We are at a crossroads of a huge number of problems. One problem, for example, is the resistance to antibiotics ... We were lucky that 100 years ago, by accident again, (Scottish physician and microbiologist) Mr. (Alexander) Fleming found penicillin, but we have overused penicillin and related drugs,” Sarkissian told Arab News.

He noted that it was necessary to pay more attention to health security and realize that in the 21st century the ongoing climate crisis and the related problems of food security and water scarcity were not the only ones, with a possible health crisis likely to be even bigger than the former.

“We on this planet need definitely, first of all, a holistic approach to our health. Secondly, raising awareness, money, and support to health-related research — biological, biophysical sciences, and so on — and to accelerate the process to find solutions to many possible problems that we are going to face,” he said.

“It’s time that we look inside ourselves, care about ourselves alongside the planet. So, I will put together, with climate care, healthcare, climate security with health security. And the international community has to come together, under the United Nations, in the form of a COP (the Conference of the Parties, which is the annual Climate Change Conference), and we’ll see what we can do together.”


India names four astronauts for first human space flight

India names four astronauts for first human space flight
Updated 20 min 26 sec ago
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India names four astronauts for first human space flight

India names four astronauts for first human space flight
  • Uncrewed test flights into space scheduled for 2024-25
  • Astronauts are Indian Air Force pilots who underwent training in Russia

NEW DELHI: India announced on Tuesday the names of four astronauts who will take part in the Gaganyaan mission — the country’s first human space flight program.

Having become the fourth nation ever to soft-land a spacecraft on the moon in August last year, India aims to put an astronaut on the lunar surface by 2040.

The Indian Space Research Organization, the state-run agency spearheading the program, aims to launch the mission in 2024-2025.

The astronauts — Indian Air Force pilots Gp. Capt. P. Balakrishnan Nair, Gp. Capt. Ajit Krishnan, Gp. Capt. Angad Pratap and Wg. Cdr. S. Shukla — were introduced to the public by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

“They are not just four names or four human beings, they are the four powers that are going to take the aspirations of 1.4 billion Indians to space. An Indian is going to space, after 40 years. This time, the time is ours, the countdown is ours and the rocket is also ours,” he said.

“We are witnessing another historic journey at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre.”

Modi was referring to Rakesh Sharma — the only Indian citizen to travel in space, who flew aboard Soyuz T-11 on April 3, 1984, as part of the Soviet Interkosmos program.

Like Sharma, the four astronauts have also undergone training at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Zvezdnyi Gorodok near Moscow.

The Gaganyaan mission, estimated to cost over $1 billion, began in 2006 with the aim of developing the technology needed to launch crewed orbital spacecraft into low Earth orbit.

The first crewed flight is expected after three uncrewed ones this and next year. Two or three of the astronauts will be launched to an orbit of 400 km for three days and brought back to Earth — landing in Indian sea waters.

If the mission is successful, India will become the fourth nation to conduct independent human spaceflight after Russia, the US and China.

Before it sends an astronaut to the moon, India’s space agency also intends to start a space station program.

“By 2035, India will have its own space station in space that will help us study the unknown expanses of space,” Modi said.

“This is the beginning of a new era, where India is continuously expanding its space in the global order and this is clearly visible in our space program.”

The Gaganyaan mission adds to India’s status as an emerging space superpower, building on a historic success in August 2023, when it landed the moon rover Chandrayaan-3 on the lunar surface, becoming the first country to land near the lunar south pole and the fourth to land on the moon — after the US, Russia, and China.

Weeks after the soft-landing, India launched the Aditya-L1 spacecraft, which in January reached Lagrange point — 1.5 million km from the Earth — where it can orbit the sun at the same rate as the Earth and observe the photosphere and chromosphere to study solar wind particles and magnetic fields.

To date, the US is the only other country to have explored the sun with the Parker Solar Probe launched in 2021.


NATO chief: Alliance has no plans to send troops to Ukraine

NATO chief: Alliance has no plans to send troops to Ukraine
Updated 27 February 2024
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NATO chief: Alliance has no plans to send troops to Ukraine

NATO chief: Alliance has no plans to send troops to Ukraine
  • NATO as an alliance provides Ukraine only non-lethal aid and support
  • The idea of putting boots on the ground has so far been taboo

BRUSSELS: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the military alliance has no plans to send combat troops into Ukraine amid reports that some Western countries may be considering putting boots on the ground in the war-ravaged country.
Stoltenberg said that “NATO allies are providing unprecedented support to Ukraine. We have done that since 2014 and stepped up after the full-scale invasion. But there are no plans for NATO combat troops on the ground in Ukraine.”
Ahead of a trip to Paris on Monday, where top officials from over 20 countries discussed options to increase help for Ukraine, Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico said that some are weighing whether to strike bilateral deals to send troops to Ukraine to help it fend off the Russian invasion.
Fico said that his government is not planning to propose to send Slovak soldiers, but did not provide details about what countries might be considering such deals, or what the troops would do in Ukraine.
Parliament speaker Peter Pellegrini also said that Slovakia won’t deploy troops there.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala also declined to comment, but he underlined that “the Czech Republic certainly doesn’t want to send its soldiers to Ukraine.”
Prime Minister Donald Tusk also said on Tuesday that “Poland does not plan to send its troops to Ukraine.”
While ruling out NATO military action, Stoltenberg said “that this is a war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine, blatantly violating international law. According to international law, Ukraine of course has the right to self-defense, and we have the right to support them in upholding that right.”
NATO as an alliance provides Ukraine only non-lethal aid and support like medical supplies, uniforms and winter equipment, but some members send weapons and ammunition bilaterally or in groups. Any decision for the organization to send troops would require unanimous support from all member countries.
The idea of putting boots on the ground has so far been taboo, particularly as NATO seeks to avoid being dragged into a wider war with nuclear-armed Russia. However, Ukraine’s backers have gradually provided more hi-tech and long-range weapons since Russia invaded two years ago.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that sending Western troops on the ground in Ukraine should not be “ruled out” in the future, as Russia’s full-scale invasion grinds into a third year.
“We will do everything needed so Russia cannot win the war,” the French leader said after hosting the gathering in Paris. While he underlined that “there’s no consensus today” to send a combined force, he also said that “nothing can be ruled out.”
The conference was held just after France, Germany and the UK each signed 10-year bilateral security agreements with Ukraine in a signal of long-term backing as Kyiv works to shore up Western support.
European nations are worried that the US will dial back support, as aid for Kyiv is held up in Congress. They also have concerns that former President Donald Trump might return to the White House and change the course of US policy on the continent.
Several European countries, including France, expressed support Monday for an initiative launched by the Czech Republic to buy shells for Ukraine outside the European Union, participants at the meeting said.
Macron said that a new coalition will be launched to deliver medium and long-range missiles. France announced last month the delivery of 40 additional long-range Scalp cruise missiles.
In an interview last week, Stoltenberg did not oppose the idea that Ukraine be allowed to use Western weapons to strike targets in Russia. Some countries have placed restrictions on the use of materiel they provide, asking that it be used only inside Ukraine.
“It’s for each and every ally to decide whether there are some caveats on what they deliver,” Stoltenberg told Radio Free Europe. But, he said, Ukraine’s right to self-defense “includes also striking legitimate military targets, Russian military targets, outside Ukraine.”
Also Monday, Sweden cleared its final hurdle to becoming a NATO member.


South Korea empowers nurses as doctors’ strike continues

South Korea empowers nurses as doctors’ strike continues
Updated 27 February 2024
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South Korea empowers nurses as doctors’ strike continues

South Korea empowers nurses as doctors’ strike continues
  • Major hospitals struggling to provide services after thousands of junior medics handed in their resignation
  • Nurses will now be allowed to perform some medical procedures previously reserved for doctors

SEOUL: South Korea granted nurses new powers and legal protections Tuesday and launched an investigation into a patient’s death, as hospital chaos caused by striking trainee doctors entered a second week.
Major hospitals are struggling to provide services after thousands of junior medics handed in their resignation and stopped working last week to protest against government plans to sharply increase medical school admissions in the face of a rapidly aging society.
The government said Tuesday it would launch an investigation after a patient died of a cardiac arrest in an ambulance after struggling to find a hospital.
Emergency services contacted seven different hospitals but “were told there were no trainee doctors,” the daily JoongAng Ilbo reported.
“The government is conducting an on-site probe with related agencies into the death,” Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said.
The mass work stoppage has also resulted in cancelations and postponements of surgeries for cancer patients and C-sections for pregnant women, with the government raising its public health alert to the highest level over the fallout.
Nurses will now be allowed to perform some medical procedures previously reserved for doctors, and offered immunity from any potential lawsuits linked to their new scope of work, Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said.
“This pilot program will legally protect the nurses who are filling the medical vacuum created by trainee doctors’ walkouts at hospitals,” Park said.
The government said it needed to protect nurses as there were currently some “grey area” as to what medical treatments could be performed by which staff, at a time when nurses were “shouldering the workload” due to the strike.
The administrations of each hospital can work with nurses to decide which tasks they can perform.
The government has set a Thursday ultimatum for doctors to return to work, saying that legal action — including prosecution and the suspension of medical licenses — will be taken against those who refuse.
“We urge the trainee doctors to return to medical fields as soon as possible,” Park said.
Kim Sung-ju, the head of Korean Cancer Patients Rights Council, said that delays in chemotherapy and surgeries were happening in all university hospitals near the Seoul metropolitan area.
“We will thoroughly investigate all potential legal grounds and hold those responsible accountable if those with severe illnesses suffer severe damage,” Kim said.
Doctors are restricted from strikes by South Korean law, but the medics have said they have no option but to stop working to show their fierce opposition to the government’s plan.
Seoul says it has one of the lowest doctor-to-population ratios among developed countries, and the government is pushing hard to admit 2,000 more students to medical schools annually, starting next year.
Junior doctors say the reforms are the final straw in a profession where they already struggle with tough working conditions. They also argue that the over-reliance on trainees in the current health care system is not reasonable or fair.
But President Yoon Suk Yeol said Tuesday that “medical reform cannot be subject to negotiation or compromise.”
“No reasons can justify acts that hold lives and health of the people hostage,” he said at a meeting.
Polls suggest up to 75 percent of the South Korean public supports the increase in medical school admissions.


Biden hopes ceasefire, hostage deal to pause Israel-Hamas war can take effect by next Monday

Biden hopes ceasefire, hostage deal to pause Israel-Hamas war can take effect by next Monday
Updated 27 February 2024
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Biden hopes ceasefire, hostage deal to pause Israel-Hamas war can take effect by next Monday

Biden hopes ceasefire, hostage deal to pause Israel-Hamas war can take effect by next Monday
  • Negotiations are underway for a ceasefire between Israel, Hamas to allow for release of hostages in Gaza 
  • Israel has killed over 29,000 Palestinians since October 7, according to Gaza Health Ministry figures

NEW YORK: President Joe Biden said Monday that he hopes a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that would pause hostilities and allow for remaining hostages to be released can take effect by early next week.
Asked when he thought a ceasefire could begin, Biden said: “Well I hope by the beginning of the weekend. The end of the weekend. My national security adviser tells me that we’re close. We’re close. We’re not done yet. My hope is by next Monday we’ll have a ceasefire.”
Biden commented in New York after taping an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”
Negotiations are underway for a weekslong ceasefire between Israel and Hamas to allow for the release of hostages being held in Gaza by the militant group in return for Israel releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. The proposed six-week pause in fighting would also include allowing hundreds of trucks to deliver desperately needed aid into Gaza every day.
Negotiators face an unofficial deadline of the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan around March 10, a period that often sees heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
Meanwhile, Israel has failed to comply with an order by the United Nations’ top court to provide urgently needed aid to desperate people in the Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch said Monday, a month after a landmark ruling in The Hague ordered Israel to moderate its war.
In a preliminary response to a South African petition accusing Israel of genocide, the UN’s top court ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in the tiny Palestinian enclave. It stopped short of ordering an end to the military offensive that has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe.
Israel denies the charges against it, saying it is fighting in self-defense.
Nearly five months into the war, preparations are underway for Israel to expand its ground operation into Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost town along the border with Egypt, where 1.4 million Palestinians have sought safety.
Early Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the army had presented to the War Cabinet its operational plan for Rafah as well as plans to evacuate civilians from the battle zones. It gave no further details.
The situation in Rafah has sparked global concern. Israel’s allies have warned that it must protect civilians in its battle against the Hamas militant group.
Also Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh submitted his government’s resignation, and President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to appoint technocrats in line with US demands for internal reform. The US has called for a revitalized Palestinian Authority to govern postwar Gaza ahead of eventual statehood — a scenario rejected by Israel.
In its Jan. 26 ruling, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to follow six provisional measures, including taking “immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance” to Gaza.
Israel also must submit a report on what it is doing to adhere to the measures within a month. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said late Monday that it has filed such a report. It declined to share it or discuss its contents.
Israel said 245 trucks of aid entered Gaza on Sunday. That’s less than half the amount that entered daily before the war.
Human Rights Watch, citing UN figures, noted a 30 percent drop in the daily average number of aid trucks entering Gaza in the weeks following the court’s ruling. It said that between Jan. 27 and Feb. 21, the daily average of trucks entering was 93, compared to 147 trucks a day in the three weeks before the ruling. The daily average dropped to 57, between Feb. 9 and 21, the figures showed.
The rights group said Israel was not adequately facilitating fuel deliveries to hard-hit northern Gaza and blamed Israel for blocking aid from reaching the north, where the World Food Program said last week it was forced to suspend aid deliveries.
“The Israeli government has simply ignored the court’s ruling, and in some ways even intensified its repression,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.
The Association of International Development Agencies, a coalition of over 70 humanitarian organizations working in Gaza and the West Bank, said almost no aid had reached areas in Gaza north of Rafah since the court’s ruling.
Israel denies it is restricting the entry of aid and has instead blamed humanitarian organizations operating in Gaza, saying large aid shipments sit idle on the Palestinian side of the main crossing. The UN says it can’t always reach the crossing because it is at times too dangerous.
In some cases, crowds of desperate Palestinians have surrounded delivery trucks and stripped them of supplies. The UN has called on Israel to open more crossings, including in the north, and to improve the process.
Netanyahu’s office said that the War Cabinet had approved a plan to deliver humanitarian aid safely into Gaza in a way that would “prevent the cases of looting.” It did not disclose further details.
The war, launched after Hamas-led militants rampaged across southern Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking roughly 250 people hostage, has caused vast devastation in Gaza.
Nearly 30,000 people have been killed in Gaza, two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry which does not distinguish in its count between fighters and noncombatants. Israel says it has killed 10,000 militants, without providing evidence.
Fighting has flattened large swaths of Gaza’s urban landscape, displacing about 80 percent of the territory’s 2.3 million people, who have crammed into increasingly smaller spaces looking for elusive safety.
The crisis has pushed a quarter of the population toward starvation and raised fears of imminent famine, especially in the northern part of Gaza, the first focus of Israel’s ground invasion. Starving residents have been forced to eat animal fodder and search for food in demolished buildings.
“I wish death for the children because I cannot get them bread. I cannot feed them. I cannot feed my own children!” Naim Abouseido yelled as he waited for aid in Gaza City. “What did we do to deserve this?”
Bushra Khalidi with UK aid organization Oxfam told The Associated Press that it had verified reports that children have died of starvation in the north in recent weeks, which she said indicated aid was not being scaled up despite the court ruling.
Aid groups say deliveries also continue to be hobbled by security issues. The French aid groups Médecins du Monde and Doctors Without Borders each said that their facilities were struck by Israeli forces in the weeks following the court order.


Most UN Security Council members demand Taliban rescind decrees oppressing women, girls

Most UN Security Council members demand Taliban rescind decrees oppressing women, girls
Updated 27 February 2024
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Most UN Security Council members demand Taliban rescind decrees oppressing women, girls

Most UN Security Council members demand Taliban rescind decrees oppressing women, girls
  • 11 of 15 council members insist on Afghan women’s equal participation in public, political, economic and social life
  • The Taliban government has not been recognized by any country in the world since the group seized power in 2021

UNITED NATIONS: More than two-thirds of the UN Security Council’s members demanded Monday that the Taliban rescind all policies and decrees oppressing and discriminating against women and girls, including banning girls education above the sixth grade and women’s right to work and move freely.

A statement by 11 of the 15 council members condemned the Taliban’s repression of women and girls since they took power in August 2021, and again insisted on their equal participation in public, political, economic, cultural and social life — especially at all decision-making levels seeking to advance international engagement with Afghanistan’s de facto rulers.

Guyana’s UN Ambassador Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett read the statement, surrounding by ambassadors of the 10 other countries, before a closed council meeting on UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ conference with more than 25 envoys to Afghanistan on Feb. 18-19 in Qatar’s capital, Doha.

Afghan civil society representatives, including women, participated in the Doha meeting, which the council members welcomed. The Taliban refused to attend, its Foreign Ministry saying in a statement that its participation would be “beneficial” only if it was the sole and official representative for the country at the talks.

While the Taliban did not attend the meetings, UN political chief Rosemary DiCarlo did meet with Taliban officials based in Doha, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. DiCarlo also briefed council members at Monday’s closed meeting.

The Taliban have not been recognized by any country, and the UN envoy for Afghanistan last year warned the de facto rulers that international recognition as the country’s legitimate government will remain “nearly impossible” unless they lift the restrictions on women.

The 11 council nations supporting the statement — Ecuador, France, Guyana, Japan, Malta, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, South Korea, Switzerland, United Kingdom and United States – underscored that there can only be sustainable peace in Afghanistan if its political process is inclusive and the human rights of all Afghans are respected including women and girls.

Four Security Council nations didn’t sign on to the statement – Russia, China, Mozambique and Algeria.

Secretary-General Guterres told reporters in Doha that among participants — also including representatives of the European Union, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — there was “total consensus” on requirements for Afghanistan to be integrated into the international community.

To reach this “endgame,” he said, Afghanistan must not be “the hotbed of terrorist activities that impact other countries,” its institutions must include diverse groups including Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pashtuns and Hazaras, and human rights must be respected especially the rights of women and girls.

Guterres said to a certain extent there is currently “a kind of situation of the chicken and the egg.”

“On one hand, Afghanistan remains with a government that is not recognized internationally and, in many aspects, not integrated in the global institutions and in the global economy,” he said. “And on the other hand, there is in the international community a perception that inclusivity has not improved; that the situation of women and girls and human rights in general has in fact deteriorated in recent times.”

The secretary-general said one objective of the meeting with the envoys was “to overcome this deadlock” and develop a roadmap in which the international community’s concerns and the Taliban’s concerns are “taken into account simultaneously.”

A Security Council resolution asked Guterres to appoint a UN envoy after consultations with all parties, member states, the Taliban and others.

Guterres said the participants decided he should initiate consultations “to see if there are conditions to create a UN envoy that might be able not only to have a coordinating role in relation to the engagements that are taking place but that can also work effectively with the de facto authorities of Afghanistan.”

“I will initiate immediately those consultations,” the UN chief said.