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UK regulator approves Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine

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UK regulators have approved the use of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, which is cheaper and easier to distribute than some rivals and could in time offer a route out of the pandemic for large parts of the world.

The UK government said it would follow a new immunization strategy for the vaccine, which will prioritize giving the first in a series of two vaccine doses to as many people as possible, before administering a second dose up to 12 weeks later.
This will apply to both the newly approved Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine which is already being administered.
“This is important because it means that we can get the first dose into more people more quickly and they can get the protection the first dose gives you,” UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News on Wednesday.
“The scientists and the regulators have looked at the data and found that you get what they call ‘very effective protection’ from the first dose. The second dose is still important — especially for the long-term protection — but it does mean that we will be able to vaccinate more people more quickly than we previously could.”
The UK is the first country to approve the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, which will be rolled out there from January 4. The news represents a glimmer of hope for the UK at a time when its health services are struggling to cope with soaring infection rateslinked to a new, more contagious variant of the virus.
The approval comes weeks after the country became the first in the world to start inoculating its citizens with the rival Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. Margaret Keenan, 91, received her second dose of that vaccine on Wednesday, three weeks after she became the first patient outside of clinical trials to receive it.
The Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine has the potential swiftly to protect millions more people around the world as and when other nations’ regulators grant approval.
AstraZeneca has promised to supply hundreds of millions of doses to low and middle-income countries, and to deliver the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis to those nations in perpetuity.
The vaccine is significantly cheaper than others which have been approved and, crucially, it would be far easier to transport and distribute in developing countries than its rivals since it does not need to be stored at freezing temperatures.
Hancock said Wednesday that the UK had 100 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on order, which, combined with 30 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, would be enough to vaccinate the entire UK adult population.
The country already has 530,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine ready to begin inoculations on Monday, he told the House of Commons. “Today’s news means that everyone who wants one can get a vaccine,” Hancock said, adding that AstraZeneca is due to supply millions more doses from the beginning of February.
Earlier, Hancock told Sky News the NHS was “standing ready to deploy, at the sort of pace that is needed to be able to help us to get out of this pandemic by the spring.”
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that the vaccine’s approval was “truly fantastic news — and a triumph for British science.” He added: “We will now move to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible.”

‘No corners cut’

The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is coming under increasing pressure as Covid-19 cases soar in many regions. The UK recorded a further 53,135 coronavirus cases on Tuesday, breaking its daily record since the pandemic began for a second day in a row.
More areas of England were move into the toughest level of restrictions from Thursday, amid attempts to limit the spread of the new, more infectious variant. Three-quarters of England’s population will be under the strict rules, which mandate the closure of all non-essential retail, gyms, close-contact services such as hair salons, and all hospitality venues.
Hancock told the House of Commons that more than 21,000 people were currently in hospital with coronavirus in England. “Unfortunately this new variant is spreading across most of England,” he warned.
Some scientists have called on the government to impose even tougher restrictions to rein in the virus’ spread, such as delaying children’s return to in-person teaching in schools next year or imposing a full national lockdown.
Authorities declared a major incident Wednesday in the county of Essex, northeast of London, in response to “significant growing demand” on local hospitals after a surge in coronavirus cases there.
Dr. June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) — the UK regulatory body — told a televised Downing Street briefing Wednesday that the newly approved Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine could save “tens of thousands” of lives.
And she insisted that the public could have every confidence in its safety, effectiveness and quality.
“Our teams of scientists and clinicians have very carefully, methodically and rigorously reviewed all the data on safety, on effectiveness and on quality as soon as they have become available, and have done so around the clock, looking at all the tests and trials … no corners, whatsoever, have been cut,” she said.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told the briefing that “we can expect that the amount of vaccine available for use in the UK will substantially increase, very very soon. This increase in the vaccine supply will in turn allow a much higher rate of vaccine deployment across the UK, to all parts of the country.”
He added that the second vaccine dose was still important “because it may impact on the duration of protection.”
Both approved vaccines will be used across the UK, Lim said. “To facilitate rapid deployment within a mass vaccination program, and to avoid substantial vaccine wastage, it may be that in certain settings, one vaccine is offered in preference over another,” he said, adding that the deployment of both vaccines would allow for “rapid and high levels of vaccine uptake” across the country.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine can be kept at refrigerator temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit) for at least six months.
Moderna’s vaccine has to be stored at minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit) — or at refrigerator temperatures for up to 30 days — and the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has to be stored at minus 75 degrees Celsius (minus 103 degrees Fahrenheit), and used within five days once refrigerated at higher temperatures.
The vaccines are based on different technology. AstraZeneca’s offering — like Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine and Russia’s Sputnik V — uses an adenovirus to carry genetic fragments of coronavirus into the body.

Updated advice

Previously, the team developing the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine said it had an “an average efficacy of 70%,” with one dosing regimen showing an efficacy of 90%.
But the experts who gave Wednesday’s Downing Street briefing said a full analysis of the trial data had not borne out the team’s finding that that regimen — in which a half dose was followed by a full dose — was more effective. The MHRA approved the vaccine at two full doses, which has an efficacy of 62%.
Prof. Munir Pirmohamed, chair of the Commission on Human Medicines’ Expert Working Group, said the trial data had led scientists to recommend giving as many people as possible their first dose of vaccine with a second dose following within 12 weeks.
“Because of the design of the trial, some people got second doses at different time intervals. This allowed for an analysis of the effectiveness of the vaccine if you were to be able to delay between 4-12 weeks,” he said. “This showed that the effectiveness was high, up to 80% when there was a three month interval between first and second doses, which is the reason for our recommendation.”
Pirmohamed noted that partial immunity only kicked in 22 days after the first dose and urged people to continue to follow social distancing guidelines even once they have had their first jab.
UK government scientific adviser Professor Calum Semple welcomed what he called a new, “sophisticated approach,” telling Sky News that a “one-dose approach to start with will protect a great many people.” According to Semple, evidence from vaccine trials has shown that a single dose has not only prevented people from getting severe disease, but also has prompted a “very good immune response” in frail and elderly people.
However, some scientists called for greater clarity over the data underpinning the latest vaccine approval and the country’s new immunization strategy.
Dr. Jonathan Stoye, of the Francis Crick Institute, told the UK’s Science Media Centre that important questions remained unanswered, including the real efficacy of the vaccine, how well it worked in older people and whether it prevented transmission between people.
“It remains unclear exactly how much protection is offered, and the regulators are using unpublished data to come to their judgment,” said Dr. Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading.
“When questioned, the regulators floated an efficacy of 70% between 22 days and 12 weeks, but it seems likely that this is a fleeting maximum rather than a consistent level of protection. The vaccine’s efficacy after two doses is 62%, so it looks likely that the higher number would only be very short-lived.
“At a time of increasing rates of infection, hospitalization and death from Covid-19, greater clarity is urgently needed over any risks associated with extending the second dose window to 12 weeks.”
The UK also updated its advice on administration of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine Wednesday.
It now recommends an interval of at least 21 days between the first and second dose, rather than requiring the second dose to be 21 days after the first.
The vaccine can now be considered for use in pregnancy when the potential benefits outweigh the risks, following an individual discussion with every woman, Raine said. Woman who are breastfeeding can now also be given the vaccine, subject to that individual discussion.
The vaccine can also now be given to people with allergies, provided they are not allergic to any of the ingredients in the vaccine, she said.

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Denmark asylum: Law passed to allow offshore asylum centres

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Denmark has passed legislation allowing it to relocate asylum seekers to third countries outside the European Union while their cases are reviewed.

The project, proposed by the Social Democrat-led government, would seek partner countries to run camps and fund agencies along migration routes.

But the European Commission said it had concerns about the law, and a leading NGO said it was irresponsible.

Denmark has repeatedly tightened its immigration policies in recent years.

This follows a peak of more than 21,000 asylum seekers arriving in Denmark in 2015.

MPs voted for the bill by 70 votes to 24.

“If you apply for asylum in Denmark, you know that you will be sent back to a country outside Europe, and therefore we hope that people will stop seeking asylum in Denmark,” said government spokesman Rasmus Stoklund, quoted by Reuters news agency.

The asylum cases would be reviewed in the third country and the applicant could potentially be given protection in that country.

 

But the European Commission was critical of the law.

“External processing of asylum claims raises fundamental questions about both the access to asylum procedures and effective access to protection,” said spokesman Adalbert Jahnz, quoted by Reuters news agency.

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC), a leading NGO, said in a statement that MPs had “effectively voted in the blind”, as the model they had backed did not yet exist.

“The idea to externalise the responsibility of processing asylum seekers’ claims is both irresponsible and lacking in solidarity. We have repeatedly called on the Danish members of parliament to reject this bill,” it said.

The council added that there was now a risk of countries hosting larger numbers of refugees would also opt out.

Denmark recently signed a migration deal with Rwanda leading to speculation that it intends to open a facility there.

Two weeks ago it became the first European country to revoke residence status for more than 200 Syrian refugees.

Danish authorities say parts of Syria are safe enough to return to but the move has sparked protests from activists and community groups.

Last year the UK considered building an asylum processing centre on Ascension Island, a remote territory in the Atlantic Ocean, but decided not to proceed.

Australia has also caused controversy in recent years with its use of camps for processing asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Read from source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-57343572

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Russia to pull troops back from near Ukraine

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After weeks of tension over a build-up of Russian troops close to Ukraine’s border, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has ordered a number of units in the area back to their bases.

The EU estimated that more than 100,000 Russian soldiers had amassed near the border as well as in Crimea, which was seized and annexed by Russia in 2014.

Speaking in Crimea, Mr Shoigu said units on exercise would return to base.

The aims of the “snap checks” had been achieved, he added.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who earlier challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet him in the conflict zone, welcomed the decision to “de-escalate” tensions at the border.

“The troops have demonstrated their ability to provide a credible defence for the country,” the Russian defence minister said, adding that he had instructed the commanders of units from the 58th and 41st armies as well as several airborne divisions to start returning to their permanent bases on Friday and to complete the operation by 1 May.

President Zelensky raised the troop build-up with European leaders last week. Ukraine’s armed forces chief said Russian military units had been moving into the Rostov, Bryansk and Voronezh regions as well as Crimea, while battalion tactical groups were stationed on the border.

Following Mr Shoigu’s announcement, Nato said that any move towards reversing the escalation would be “important and well overdue”. It added that the Western military alliance remained vigilant.

Nato leaders have called a summit in June when Russia will be high on the agenda.

Although Russia has shrugged off the build-up as training exercises in response to “threatening” actions from Nato, it is also said to be planning to cordon off areas of the Black Sea to foreign shipping. Ukraine fears its ports could be affected.

Russia said all along that these were nothing more than military exercises.

But Moscow knew very well that its troop movements close to Ukraine and in annexed Crimea were making a lot of people very nervous: in Ukraine, Europe and in America.

And that was the point.

Moscow may well have been using the build-up of troops to send a signal to Kyiv, Brussels and, especially, to Washington that Russia is a force to be reckoned with.

US President Joe Biden took notice. Last week, he telephoned President Putin and proposed a summit. True, he also imposed a new round of sanctions over Russia’s “malign activity”. But inside Russia these were perceived as not particularly tough.

A reduction in tension, however, does not mean the end of tension. Russia’s defence minister has made it clear that “Russia is taking measures in response to threats from Nato”.

For example, Moscow is planning to block areas of the Black Sea to foreign shipping for six months.

In a state-of-the-nation address on Wednesday, President Putin warned the West against “crossing a red line”.

Speaking to reporters after the order for troops to return to base, Mr Putin said as far as bilateral relations were concerned “we are ready to welcome the president of Ukraine at any time that is convenient for him”, but in Moscow.

However, he stressed if Mr Zelensky wanted to discuss eastern Ukraine, then he should first meet the leaders there.

Conflict in eastern Ukraine broke out in 2014, after the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. Russian-backed troops captured large areas of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and declared them both peoples’ republics.

There have been a number of breaches of a ceasefire in the east in recent weeks. A Ukrainian soldier was fatally wounded in shelling on Thursday, in what Ukrainian forces said was a deliberate violation of the ceasefire. Some 14,000 people have died since the conflict began.

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European Parliament meeting assess migrant workers conditions in Gulf region

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By Lailuma Sadid

Qatar is the first county that brings changes into it’s landmark reforms in the Gulf.

The first country in the gulf region is Qatar who introduces a non-discriminatory minimum wage, which is part of a series of landmark reforms to the country’s labour laws. Success in the GCC countries depend on having solid labour laws that are linked to international standards and convections and the implementation of these laws. If the law isn’t good enough then the implementation will be a non-starter.  Mr Houtan addedd.

He said that the collaboration of some international and national organisations brought up really solid laws. They are not being perfectly implemented at once since all revolutionary changes in the labour market takes time and if they happen overnight, it’s not sustainable he added.

In the mean time he also mentions how these labor laws benefit both employers and employees.

Indeed, these laws allow employers to find more local workers with the same skills at a lower cost and employees to be more satisfied because they benefit from a greater power to negotiate and discuss. It’s a win- win situation. The wage issue is a common issue acrosse the GCC region , he said.

According to Mr. Houtan  access to Justice variesfrom  country to country. It is very common to hear that an employee who has worked for the past six months is only paid for the last three months of his work and according to some this is fair and justice has been done. This is no rocket science, this is not justice.

He said: No worker should go a day without being paid or receive their salary a day late. This matter is serious and needs to be more focused on. To overcome this problem, we have the structures in place in the regions that are working, although they need to be improved. They work because everyone comes together, with the support of the European  Unions, trade union and employers etc.

According to Mr. Houtan, That’s is success model that we need to replicate across the GCC countries. In addition, it is obvious that we should not denigrate the importance of Labour inspection and occupational safety and health. It has to be considered as a priority.

Also, another very important point is engaging with the private sector which is key, the role is fundamentally important.

Of course the trade unions as well as the government, the ministry of Labour have been really keen pushing forward the agenda but if the employers don’t play ball again it will be a very slow progress.

The key word for him is coordination and cooperation between different organizations to achieve successful changes in the GCC countries.

Hassan AL-Thawadi is representing of Qatar Ambassador in this meeting, he said:Qatar’s commitment to improving labour related matters and improving lives is constant. The commitment is intrinsic to our national values.

The commitment is intrinsic to our national values enshrined in our constitution and ais the key tenants to our Islamic principles. He added

Mr. Hassan said, these reforms combined with bolstered enforcement mechanisms including electronic based wage protection system demonstrates a commitment to sustainable long-term change that I mentioned previously however we acknowledge that there is a long journey ahead of us and more needs to be done as of the case in every nation of the world. In some countries still not possible to change employers without permission in other countries, but in Qatar it is possible.

Mark from European Delegation, with the contribution for workers to the numbers is only 500,000 workers 50 years ago and 25 million demanded today for the whole Peninsula. However, much more needs to be done to ensure access to dignified living and working conditions of Migrant workers and their families.

In addition to the basic minimum monthly wage of 1000 Qatari riyals 275 $, the legislation ensures that employers must pay allowances of at least 300 and 500 QAR for food and accommodation respectively, if they do not provide them.

Legislation passed last year provided for a six-month transition period for employers to prepare for the new minimum thresholds. First country in the region is Qatar to introduce a non-discriminatory minimum wage, which is part of a series of landmark reforms to the country’s labor laws.

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