Categories
World News

India's Aug 15 deadline for a Covid-19 vaccine criticised, safety concerns raised

NEW DELHI – In its effort to accelerate development of a vaccine against Covid-19, the Indian government is facing criticism for binding itself with a near-impossible deadline.

A letter issued by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on July 2 said an indigenously developed vaccine – for which human trials are yet to start – is meant to be ready for public use by Aug 15.

This deadline is unusually tight, even when compared to the accelerated timeline international vaccine initiatives have adopted amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Some of the vaccine development efforts that began several months ago are currently in the third and final stage of testing on humans.

This institutional rush in India has alarmed many who fear it could lead to corners being cut, even compromising the vaccine’s safety.

The ICMR, India’s apex regulatory body for biomedical research, has partnered with Bharat Biotech International Limited (BBIL) to develop the vaccine under the name Covaxin.

A strain of the novel coronavirus is used, which was isolated by the National Institute of Virology, itself a part of ICMR’s network. It is one of two indigenously developed vaccine candidates that are about to begin human trials.

Development of the other vaccine candidate has been done by Indian pharmaceutical company Zydus Cadila.

ICMR’s July 2 letter was sent by its director-general, Dr Balram Bhargava, to hospitals participating in phase one and phase two trials.

The hospitals were asked to start enrolling participants “no later than July 7” and the vaccine was described as “one of the top priority projects which is being monitored at the topmost level of the government”.

“Kindly note that non-compliance will be viewed very seriously,” the letter added.

This has prompted criticism from several quarters, including the Indian Academy of Sciences which described the announced timeline as “unfeasible” and “without precedent”.

“This timeline has raised unrealistic hope and expectations in the minds of our citizens,” it added in a July 5 statement.

Dr Amar Jesani, editor of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, told The Straits Times that while one can speed up certain processes – such as regulatory reviews and recruitment of participants – scientific and ethical standards of research must not be diluted in haste.

“You cannot rush through the scientific and ethical process. If you do so, it is possible that your vaccine may fail or even cause more harm than benefit,” he said.

The deadline contravenes the time frame laid out in the trial protocol on the ICMR’s clinical trials registry. According to it, recruitment of participants was scheduled to start on July 13 and the entire duration of trials for Covaxin is listed as 15 months.

Dr Krishna Ella, BBIL’s chairman and managing director, had even told Indian media last month that he expected phase one and phase two trials to finish by October this year.

“How do you reduce a 15-month time frame to one that is just a month and a quarter? There has to be a method in madness too. What happened with ICMR was that there was no method in its madness,” Dr Jesani added.

The letter’s sternly worded directive, according to him, also risks compromising the independence of ethical and scientific review committees at the participating institutions, which are meant to independently approve the trial protocol and oversee its conduct.

The Aug 15 deadline has raised eyebrows also because it coincides with the date of India’s independence, a day that is commemorated each year with an address from the country’s prime minister during which he or she traditionally lists the government’s key achievements and priorities.

An indigenous vaccine, if available by then, will come in handy for the Narendra Modi-led government that is keen to convince it has the pandemic under control.

India, in fact, has failed to slow down the outbreak despite a hastily imposed lockdown that has been described as the world’s strictest.

The country has registered more than 720,000 Covid-19 cases and is currently third on the list of countries with the most infections.

The ICMR released a subsequent statement on Saturday to argue that the letter was aimed at cutting unnecessary red tape without bypassing any necessary process.

But controversy re-emerged the day after, when a statement from the Ministry of Science and Technology was edited to remove mention of a time frame for the development of an Indian vaccine, including a reference that no vaccine against the novel coronavirus could be ready before 2021.

Dr Chandrashekhar Gillurkar, director of the Nagpur-based Gillurkar Multispeciality Hospital that is one of the sites chosen for the Covaxin trial, told The Straits Times that ICMR’s letter had worried him and that only initial conclusions of the vaccine’s safety and efficacy can be drawn in around four weeks from the trial’s commencement.

“The full trial is something that will take time and should not be unduly hurried. We should follow the process laid out in the trial protocol, keeping in mind its safety procedures,” he added.

Source: Read Full Article

Categories
World News

Russia will impose counter-sanctions on UK: Kremlin

MOSCOW (AFP) – Moscow will apply counter-sanctions against Britain, the Kremlin said on Tuesday (July 7), after London blacklisted Russian officials for their alleged involvement in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

“We can only regret such unfriendly measures,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

“Obviously the principle of reciprocity will be applied,” he added, without elaborating.

The 25 Russians included on the sanctions list drawn up by Britain’s Foreign Office were included for their alleged involvement in the death of Magnitsky.

Magnitsky, a tax consultant for British financier William Browder, died in prison of untreated illness in 2009 after accusing Russian officials of tax fraud of US$230 million (S$320 million).

Russian officials to be targeted by the sanctions include Mr Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the powerful Investigative Committee that reports directly to President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian Embassy in London on Monday denounced the sanctions, saying the country’s legal system was “independent” of the executive authorities and “guided by law alone”.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday that the sanctions were targeting individuals involved in “some of the most notorious human rights violations of recent years”.

Britain also sanctioned a number of individuals from Saudi Arabia and North Korea.

London has accused Russia of “destabilising” activities including the 2018 chemical attack that almost killed former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

Russia has rejected accusations that officers from its GRU military intelligence agency used a powerful nerve agent to poison Mr Skripal in retribution for his work with British and other Western spy services.

Source: Read Full Article

Categories
World News

Ghana launches Covid-19-inspired fashion prints

A Ghanaian wax-print company has launched a new line of designs inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“[We] put a positive twist on a negative phenomenon” Stephen Badu, from Ghana Textiles Printing (GTP), told BBC Focus on Africa radio.

The new fabrics have symbols like padlocks, keys and planes to reflect some of the measures implemented to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Wax prints are popular in Ghana, many office workers wear them on Fridays.

Two of Ghana’s main metropolitan areas were in lockdown in April – and nationwide there was a ban on public gatherings and the closure of borders.

Restrictions have since been eased – though strict social-distancing measures are in place, especially in churches – and it is a criminal offence not to wear a face mask in public.

The West African nation has reported more than 20,000 cases of Covid-19, with at least 129 people dying from the virus.

“We are a business that tells stories and we tells our stories through our designs,” Mr Badu, GTP’s marketing director, said.

“We believe that it is going to leave a mark in the history of the world, and it’s important that generations that come after us get to know that once upon a time, such a phenomenon occurred.”

Some of the new GTP designs have glasses on them – similar to the signature ones worn by Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo, who has been giving regular updates on the virus.

“He has iconic spectacles that he wears and when you watch him on television that is what stands out,” Mr Badu said.

“Another design shows a symbol of a plane, it indicates that during the lockdown one of the measures that Ghana took was to close the borders, so no flights,” he added.

In 2004, the government started a campaign to get people to wear national dress on Fridays to support the local textile industry, yet a lot of the fabric worn is not made by African firms

Ghana Textiles Printing, despite its name, is owned by Dutch company Vlisco.

But Mr Badu said the new designs were all about Ghanaians telling their own history.

“The designs which we print now are all originated by Ghanaians and printed by Ghanaians, so behind every design we produce it’s our value systems, our sense of art, and how we communicate,” he said.

You may also be interested in:

Source: Read Full Article

Categories
World News

Covid-19 pandemic to spark biggest retreat for meat consumption in decades

GENEVA (BLOOMBERG) – The pandemic is poised to usher in the biggest retreat for global meat consumption in decades.

Per capita consumption this year is set to fall to the lowest in nine years and the 3 per cent drop from last year represents the biggest decline since at least 2000, according to data from the United Nations.

Meanwhile, analysts across the globe are predicting declines not just per capita, but also for overall demand in their regions.

That’s a dramatic turnaround for an industry that has come to rely on steady growth.

Notably, the shift is happening in every major market, including in the US, where it is predicted that per capita meat consumption won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until at least after 2025.

There’s a swirl of factors contributing to the change.

The coronavirus economic fallout means consumers are cutting down on grocery bills.

Restaurant shutdowns have hurt demand, since people eat more meat when they dine out.

In China, which accounts for about a quarter of world consumption, there’s growing distrust over animal products after the government suggested a link between imported protein and an outbreak in Beijing.

Disruptions to production, like the plant outbreaks that sparked an industry crisis in the US, also created supply problems that led to less meat eating.

Climate advocates have for years been calling for lower meat consumption.

By some measures, agriculture accounts for more global greenhouse gas emissions than transport, thanks in part to livestock production.

Meat and dairy alone are responsible for as much as 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans.

There are hints of a structural change taking place, with millions eating more plant-based proteins because of environmental concerns.

Meanwhile, the explosion of coronavirus infections at slaughterhouses and processing plants – from the US to Brazil and Germany – have highlighted the industry’s toll on its employees who handle dangerous work for low pay and few benefits.

Yet it is premature to say that fresh public scrutiny over worker conditions will impact demand.

At the same time, now that consumers have gotten more used to cooking at home, that habit could stick, especially as the lockdown-crippled food-service industry is predicted to shrink.

About 2.2 million restaurants worldwide could close, according to consulting firm Aaron Allen & Associates.

The loss of food service is a “major demand shock that will take a long time to recover from,” said Mr Altin Kalo, analyst at Steiner Consulting Group.

Before the pandemic, 50 per cent of all meat was consumed outside of the home in the US, according to Boston Consulting Group.

“If restaurants structurally look different in the future, and the number of out-of-home eating occasions is permanently altered, then I think it’s fair to say there may be less meat consumption” going forward, said Boston Consulting Group’s agribusiness expert Decker Walker.

“People are still going to consume the same amount of calories, but they will do it at home, where the meat percentage is lower.”

This year’s projected decline would also come after a drop in per capita global consumption in 2019, when the African swine fever disease killed millions of hogs in China, boosting retail pork prices and curbing demand.

The losses over two straight years will mean close to a 5 per cent slump in per-capita consumption since 2018, according to data from the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation.

There’s still a chance that total world consumption could rise this year.

That’s because population could be growing at a faster rate than meat production.

Still, per-person reductions mark a turning point for the industry.

EUROPE

In the European Union, pork consumption is expected to fall to a seven-year low in 2020, with beef and chicken also hitting troughs, the US Department of Agriculture forecasts.

The pandemic hit at a time when there were already signs of easing meat demand in parts of the bloc on environmental and animal-welfare concerns.

Germany, home to bratwurst and schnitzel, has become a vegetarian haven, and a survey published by its agriculture ministry in May showed 26 per cent of respondents eat meat or sausage daily, versus 34 per cent in 2015.

“A balanced diet does not include meat and sausages every day,” German Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner said in a statement.

“The number of those who occasionally consciously do without it has increased.”

CHINA

China’s pork consumption this year may drop by about 35 per cent when compared with normal levels, before the pandemic and outbreaks of African swine fever, said Mr Lin Guofa, a senior analyst at Bric Agriculture Group, a Beijing-based consulting firm.

The country accounts for 40 per cent of global pork demand.

Ms Pan Chenjun, a senior livestock analyst with Rabobank, forecasts a similar decline.

Higher prices, lower supply, Covid-19, and food-safety concerns are the major reasons behind the drop, she said in an e-mail.

The nation’s meat imports, which have helped to make up for deficits left from swine fever’s impact, may have peaked in the first half of the year, she said.

“Global supply is full of uncertainty for the rest of the year,” she said.

BRAZIL

Even in Brazil – famous for its barbecues and churrascarias, where slabs of beef are cut at your table’s edge – meat consumption is going through an intense process of change, according to Wagner Yanaguizawa, an analyst at Rabobank Brazil.

The pandemic is accelerating shifts in consumer interest in food safety, traceability and sustainability, he said.

And as the nation becomes the new epicentre of the coronavirus, a deep recession is expected with consequences to consumers’ purchasing power.

“Consumption of all animal proteins should fall amid lower income, but beef will definitely suffer more,” said Mr Caio Toledo, risk management consultant and livestock head at StoneX.

Brazil is the world’s third-largest beef consumer.

Production costs will rise over the long term along with land prices, while more companies should look to curb their environmental impact and shift away from deforestation to increase pastureland, he said.

Eventually, that will make beef eating a luxury for consumers in different parts of the world, Mr Toledo said.

THE U.S.

American ranchers have been expanding their livestock herds in anticipation of a demand boom from China, where earlier pork shortfalls had sent prices soaring.

But while shipments have increased, it’s never been the bonanza that farmers were hoping for.

Now that demand is falling both domestically and around the world, the US could be left with a meat glut that pressures farmer profits.

Declines in the restaurant industry are a big part of the painful picture, said Mr Will Sawyer, an animal protein economist at farm lender CoBank ACB.

“That food-services disruption globally really hurt us across the board, whether it’s exports or domestically,” he said.

Researchers at the University of Missouri’s Food & Agricultural Policy Research Institute, predict this year’s per capita meat consumption will decline for the first time since 2014.

And the measure is forecast to keep falling through at least 2025.

“We find ourselves in an environment today, and probably for the next 12 months, where meat supply, not just in the US, but probably on a global basis, is in excess of demand,” Mr Sawyer said.

Read the latest on the Covid-19 situation in Singapore and beyond on our dedicated site here.

Get The Straits Times app and receive breaking news alerts and more. Download from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store now.

Source: Read Full Article

Categories
Politics

Calgary city council committee to hold public hearing on systemic racism

A Calgary city council committee is holding a public hearing Tuesday to give people the opportunity to speak about systemic racism.

The meeting comes as a result of the demonstrations that occurred last month in the city, which involved thousands of people.

Council voted unanimously last month to support an anti-racism motion with six calls to action, which included holding a public hearing.

“This is step one to respond to what the protestors throughout the world and specifically the protestors here in Calgary are protesting,” said Coun. Gian Carlo Carra, who is chair of the Committee on Community and Protective Services.

Speaking to 770 CHQR, he said it’s important for council members to listen and learn from what people have to say.

“That’s the ongoing existence of structural racism, and in some cases, institutional racism, and in some cases, actual racism in the hearts and minds of individuals,” he said.

Source: Read Full Article

Categories
Business

U.S. hiring races to record high in May, layoffs abate

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. hiring surged to a record high in May and layoffs declined as businesses reopened, but the signs of improvement in the labor market have been overshadowed by a resurgence in COVID-19 cases that has forced some enterprises to shut down again.

The Labor Department said on Tuesday in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS, hiring accelerated by 2.4 million jobs to 6.5 million, the highest level since the government started tracking the series in 2000. The hiring rate jumped to an all-time high of 4.9% from 3.1% in April.

The report followed on the heels of news last Friday that the economy created a record 4.8 million jobs in June. Nonfarm payrolls have rebounded after a historic plunge of 20.787 million in April as the labor market reeled from the closure of businesses in mid-March to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

But the upswing in hiring has been overtaken by record spikes in new COVID-19 infections in large parts of the country, including Arizona and the highly populated states of California, Florida and Texas, which have forced several jurisdictions to scale back or pause reopenings, and send some workers back home.

Hiring in May was driven by the accommodation and food services industry. There were also increases in the healthcare and social assistance and construction businesses.

Layoffs and discharges tumbled 5.9 million to 1.8 million in May. The accommodation and food services industry accounted for the bulk of the decline in layoffs. There were also decreases in the retail sector.

The layoffs and discharge rate dropped to 1.4% from 5.9% in April. The layoffs rate hit a record high of 7.6% in March.

The government also reported that job openings, a measure of labor demand, increased 401,000 to 5.4 million on the last business day of May. The job openings rate rose to 3.9% from 3.7% in April.

Source: Read Full Article

Categories
Business

Coronavirus pain drives Big Oil's dash for record debt

LONDON (Reuters) – The world’s top oil and gas companies locked in cheap borrowing rates to raise a record amount of debt in the second quarter of 2020 and boost cash reserves as a buffer against a collapse in revenues because of COVID-19.

The dash for debt piles pressure on company balance sheets and the issue is particularly acute for BP (BP.L) and Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L). Already burdened by high levels of borrowing, they also face the disruption of a major shift towards renewables and low-carbon.

The world’s top seven energy firms – BP, Shell, Exxon Mobil (XOM.N), Chevron (CVX.N), Equinor (EQNR.OL), Total (TOTF.PA) and Eni (ENI.MI) – raised $60 billion in debt in the quarter, nearly half of the $132 billion in oil and gas sector borrowing over the period, Refinitiv data showed.

BP, which had $78.5 billion in debt by the end of March, raised the most at nearly $16 billion, using for the first time hybrid bonds that place less strain on the balance sheet as the principal is not required to be repaid. (Graphic: The great debt rush, here)

Oil majors’ revenues are expected to drop sharply in the second quarter after movement restrictions to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 led to a steep drop in fuel consumption.

Benchmark Brent crude LCOc1 averaged below $30 a barrel in the second quarter when it hit the lowest in two decades.

Exxon, the largest U.S. oil company, is expected to report a second consecutive quarterly loss, while Shell said its fuel sales in the second quarter fell by around 40%.

COVID RECOVERY?

The coronavirus crisis has battered oil company shares, which underperformed the broader indexes, as concerns over their ability to withstand the short-term shock added to uncertainty linked to the world’s shift to renewable power.

The share price drop dealt a double blow to the companies as the ratio of their debt to total market size, known as gearing and an indicator of financial health, is set to rise.

Higher gearing can impact a company’s credit ratings and increase its cost of borrowing.

Jason Kenney, analyst at Santander, said oil majors were likely to see debt levels spike in 2020.

“This is not necessarily all bad given the current low interest rates and the chance to increase liquidity cheaply,” Kenney said.

“That said, gearing and leverage levels will likely move out of target ranges before moving back to more usual levels over the coming years.” (Graphic: Big Oil’s rising debt IMG, here)

The debt crisis coincides with Shell and BP’s plans to shift from fossil fuels in the coming decades, details of which they are expected to unveil later this year.

BP acted to reduce its debts with the $5 billion sale of its petrochemical business in late June, helping it reach its $15 billion asset disposal target.

But the strain on its balance sheet could lead its CEO Bernard Looney to cut the company’s dividend when it reports its second quarter results on Aug. 4.

Redburn analyst Stuart Joyner said he expects BP to reduce its dividend by 33%.

Although the debt levels of BP and its rivals are set to rise, the companies do not face severe distress with current oil prices of above $40 a barrel, Joyner said.

“As long as you believe that there is some sort of recovery from COVID, there is no problem with the debt,” Joyner said.

Source: Read Full Article

Categories
World News

Russia charges space chief's aide Ivan Safronov with treason

The former journalist is accused of passing military secrets to an unnamed NATO power.

Russian security forces have arrested a former journalist who works as an aide to the head of Russia’s space agency on treason charges, accusing him of passing military secrets to an unnamed NATO power.

Footage released by the FSB security service on Tuesday showed Ivan Safronov being arrested outside his Moscow flat by armed plain-clothes agents who searched him before putting him into a van.

Safronov, who has covered military affairs for two national newspapers, faces up to 20 years in jail if found guilty.

His trial is expected to be held behind closed doors because of its sensitive nature.

Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, said the case against Safronov was not linked to his work as a media adviser to Dmitry Rogozin, the agency’s director-general. Safronov started work there in May.

Rogozin told the TASS news agency Safronov did not have access to secret information.

The FSB Security Service accused Safronov of working for an unnamed foreign intelligence service.

“Safronov, carrying out tasks for one of the NATO countries’ intelligence services, gathered and handed over to its representative state secrets and information about military-technical cooperation and about the defence and security of the Russian Federation,” the FSB said in a statement.

Lawyer Oleg Eliseyev said Safronov was at the FSB’s detention facility, but he had not yet been given any access to his client.

Safronov previously worked as a journalist for the daily newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti, and former colleagues took to social media to decry his detention.

Remarks from the Kremlin

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he did not believe the charges against Safronov were related to his previous work as a journalist, which he praised.

“But, unfortunately, such accusations have been made. We know that our counter-intelligence service has a lot of work, many concerns, and they are doing a very good job,” said Peskov.

Citing a legal source, TASS reported last year that prosecutors wanted to bring a civil case against Kommersant for disclosing an unspecified state secret.

The Russian online news portal the Bell said at the time that an article which Safronov had worked on had subsequently disappeared from Kommersant’s site.

The article, which remains unavailable, said Egypt had signed a deal with Russia to buy more than 20 Sukhoi SU-35 fighter jets.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo subsequently threatened Egypt with sanctions if it went ahead with the purchase.

Safronov said he was forced to quit Kommersant last year after the newspaper’s publishing house took issue with an article which suggested that the chairwoman of the upper house of parliament might leave her post.

Source: Read Full Article

Categories
World News

Israel pushes back creation of sovereign wealth fund as gas revenue trickles in

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel has pushed back the creation of a sovereign wealth fund because tax revenue from natural gas has not yet hit the minimum needed to begin investing, and fund managers have not yet been chosen, Bank of Israel Deputy Governor Andrew Abir said on Tuesday.

Israel discovered huge deposits of natural gas in the east Mediterranean a decade ago and major production began in 2013.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said tens of billions of dollars raised from taxing natural gas sales would be invested abroad via a sovereign wealth fund, with proceeds brought home for education, welfare and other services.

The fund, aimed at staving off an overheated currency from the sudden explosion in national wealth — known as the Dutch disease — was supposed to begin in 2018, but political turmoil and a slower stream of revenue have caused delays.

The minimum needed to begin investing – 1 billion shekels ($290 million) – will not be reached before the end of 2021, said Abir.

“Part of that is because the companies involved were able to offset some of the tax against the investments that they have made and it slowed down the process,” he told Reuters.

At a parliamentary hearing on Tuesday, Abir said political stalemate with three elections in 2019 and 2020 had also delayed the formation of a committee to oversee the fund.

He said tax income may not be released for wealth fund investments, to be managed by the central bank, until 2023.

Abir’s predecessor, Nadine Baudot-Trajtenberg, who spearheaded efforts to form the fund, has said the central bank will likely take bigger risks with the gas money than with its $147 billion in forex reserves.

“It will have a higher-risk profile like simple assets, like stocks and corporate bonds,” she said.

Source: Read Full Article

Categories
World News

Greece relocates group of young refugees to Portugal

ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece moved 25 unaccompanied minors from overcrowded migrant camps to Portugal on Tuesday as part of a relocation programme to EU countries.

The boys, all aged between 15 and 17, had lived in refugee camps on outlying Greek islands. They have no relatives in Europe.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees fleeing conflict and poverty countries used Greece as a springboard to European countries in 2015 and 2016, when an EU-brokered accord with Turkey all but halted the flow, trapping many in Greece.

At least 5,200 migrant children from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa currently live in Greece, many of them in harsh conditions.

Tuesday’s transfer was part of a voluntary plan to relocate minors from Greek camps to other European countries amid concerns about the impact of the coronavirus on vulnerable groups.

“Europe is doing its duty for those who have the greatest need, and require protection,” said Irene Agapidaki, special secretary responsible for unaccompanied minors at the Greek migration ministry.

She was speaking from Athens airport after bidding farewell to the children.

Another group of 25 children is expected to fly from Athens to Finland on Wednesday. Greece is in the process of relocating about 1,600 unaccompanied minors who have no family members in Europe. Some have already been sent to other countries

Deputy migration minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos said that in addition to relocating minors, authorities were also pursuing a voluntary return scheme for individuals who were in camps on the Greek islands and who had arrived by Jan. 1 2020.

Koumoutsakos said financial incentives were being offered to those interested in returning home. “We expect the first flight in this complex project to be to Iraq in coming weeks,” Koumoutsakos said.

Source: Read Full Article