Israel Shares Vaccine Data With Pfizer

Israel has sped ahead of any other country in its vaccine rollout, with more than 2 million people out of a total of 9.3 million already having received the first vaccination. In exchange for access to so many doses so early, Israel agreed to share data with Pfizer, a move some in Israel says raises privacy concerns.As much of the world scrambles to acquire enough vaccines for their respective populations, Israel already has secured enough doses for its entire population of 9.3 million people. According to media reports, Israel has paid well above the going rate for the Pfizer vaccines, hoping to be able to open the Israeli economy sooner.Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein says that as part of the deal, Israel also has offered to share epidemiological data with Pfizer.  “What we promised them, and we do keep the promises you can see, that if we get the vaccine, we’ll be very efficient,” said Edelstein. “We’ll vaccinate big numbers of the Israeli population, a huge proportion of the Israeli population very soon. And Pfizer will be able to see how it influences the level of disease in Israel, the possibility to open the economy, different aspects of social life, whether there are any effects of the vaccination.”COVID Cases Rise in Israel Despite Successful Vaccine RolloutCountry to begin another tight lockdownPreliminary data from the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have received two shots of the vaccine show 98% efficacy and no risk of transmission of the virus. That’s good news for Pfizer. Edelstein says the information that will be shared will be aggregate data, not individual data.“We made it quite clear to Pfizer that we at any stage are not going to share any personal data, no private information about anyone vaccinated,” said Edelstein. “But let’s just say for the sake of the example, we will know how many people with heart diseases had been vaccinated and whether there were any effects, any unfortunate cases, and so on and so forth.”While the Health Ministry released parts of its agreement with Pfizer, other parts remained secret. Privacy Israel, an advocacy group, said it was concerned about the handling and security of private information. Other analysts said that sharing the information, even anonymously, could put people’s privacy at risk.Nadav Davidovitch, the head of the school of public health at Ben Gurion University, says he understands these concerns but believes Pfizer will be careful with the data it receives.“The current vaccination campaign raises several ethical issues. Many people are preoccupied with the question of privacy, and I think this is something important,” said Davidovitch. “And I know for sure that Israel is not going to give identified clinical data to Pfizer. On the other hand, it’s extremely important to have the experience of Israel be submitted both to the World Health Organization and Pfizer in an unidentified way, so we can learn the lessons from Israel.”Israel has socialized medicine, with all Israelis being members of one of four HMOs. All medical records are digitized, making it easy for the HMOs to track the effect of the vaccines. Most Israelis say despite privacy concerns, they are happy to be among the first in the world to be vaccinated. 

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Brazil Launches COVID-19 Vaccine Program for Hard Hit Indigenous People

Indigenous people in Brazil’s rainforest are getting their long awaited first doses of a vaccine against the coronavirus, which has infected thousands in their community and killed hundreds of others. The Brazilian military flew medical workers and 1,000 doses of the CoronaVac Chinese vaccine into the Amazon rainforest on Tuesday and began vaccinating the indigenous people, who celebrated the arrival of the vaccine. Isabel Ticuna, one of the people in her village to get inoculated said, “the vaccination is so important for all of our indigenous community, for all the villagers. It was this that we were waiting for.” The coronavirus pandemic has taken a tremendous toll on Brazil’s indigenous people because a large part of the population does not have immediate access to a medical facility. The coronavirus has killed 926 indigenous people in Brazil and infected more than 46,000, according to a tribal umbrella organization called Articulation of Indigenous People of Brazil.  So far, Brazil has confirmed more than 8,500,000 cases and 210,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University COVID Resource Center. 

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Growing Swarms of Locust Converging on Kenya Threaten Crops

Kenya is under siege again by swarms of maturing desert locusts that threaten to ruin farmers’ crops and pastures. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a statement the locusts are swarming across seven counties, nearly double the number of counties impacted a week ago. The latest locust invasion in Kenya comes as the FAO warns the 28 anti-locust aircraft assembled by East African countries to wipe out the pest is in jeopardy of being grounded because of a lack of funding. The FAO told its humanitarian partners Tuesday that some $38.8 million in additional funding will be needed to keep the planes in the air through June over East Africa and Yemen. At least one farmer in northern Kenya is taking matters into his own hands to get rid of swarms by banging a stick against a can, hoping the noise will cause the pests to move on and spare his crops. 

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South Africa Coronavirus Cases Decline, But New Variant Spreading Quickly

South Africa is reporting both good and bad news in the battle against the coronavirus, seeing a decline in confirmed cases along with the spread of a new, more infectious strain of the virus.  First, the good news from South Africa’s health minister, Dr. Zweli Mkhize. The nation is still experiencing its second wave of the virus, but in the past week, Mkhize said, South Africa saw a 23% decline in confirmed cases.   “It has been encouraging to know that, despite the mutations, we are still able to protect ourselves with the armor that we have established,” he said in a statement released Tuesday. “This week has seen some promising signs of decline in transmission – yesterday we noted a 23% decrease in new cases nationally compared to 7 days prior. This could be attributable to many factors, including enhanced physical distancing facilitated by lockdown regulations. We must thank South Africans for adhering to the regulations, difficult and frustrating as it may be.” And now for the more concerning news. The head of the nation’s coronavirus task force, epidemiologist Dr. Salim Abdool Karim, says the recently detected, more infectious variant of the virus, known as 501.V2, is spreading quickly in South Africa.Healthcare workers tend to a patient at a temporary ward set up during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, January 19, 2021.“Its affinity and its ability to bind to the human cell is now stronger,” he said in a briefing late Monday. “And that’s what enables it to become a more efficient virus in the way it transmits …. So this drastic change that we’re seeing is being driven by a virus that certainly, biologically looks like it can attach to human cells more efficiently.”  But, he adds, scientists haven’t concluded that this variant is more severe. In fact, he said, current data suggests it is not.  And he quickly allayed fears that the 1.5 million vaccine doses expected to land in South Africa by February won’t work on this new strain.    “I will not even attempt to speculate on that matter,” he said. “I’ll wait for the data. And certainly, we have no empirical evidence yet on whether vaccines are effective against this variant. Those studies are still under way.”  And, in a rare departure from science, Dr. Karim took a moment to talk politics, urging against calling this mutation the “South Africa variant.” When researchers first spotted this new variant, they were careful not to call it that in scientific papers. He explained why this matters.   “There are variants across the world,” he said. “And even if they were found in one country, we don’t even know if that’s where they originated from, and they will rapidly spread to many countries. The B.1.1.7 is now in almost 50 countries. The  501.V2 is already available in more than 10 countries. Just like how we objected when the U.S. president called SARS-Cov-2 ‘the China virus,’ we should not call this variant by its country, we should call it by its name.”  So what does all this new science mean for the average South African? Not much, doctors said. Their basic guidance remains the same: prevent transmission by staying home if you can, distance from others, wash your hands and always wear a mask in public.   

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Serbia Becomes First European Country to Use Chinese COVID Vaccine for Mass Rollout

Hundreds of members of Serbia’s military lined up on Tuesday in their camouflage uniforms at an exhibition hall in Belgrade where nurses injected them with a Chinese-made vaccine against COVID-19.
Last week Serbia received one million doses of Chinese Sinopharm’s COVID-19 vaccine, becoming the first European country to start a mass inoculation program with it.
Serbia is vaccinating essential workers such as police officers, teachers and soldiers after last month starting to treat the elderly in care homes and medical workers with its supplies of vaccines developed by Pfizer and BioNTech , and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.
Belgrade maintains close ties with Beijing and Chinese companies have invested billions of euros in Serbia, mainly in infrastructure and energy projects.
Defense minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said over 700 members of the military, including himself had been vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine.
“I have been inocculated with the Chinese vaccine which we completely trust … I’ve said I will get the same vaccine as our troops,” Stefanovic told reporters.
More than 20,000 Serbians have been vaccinated so far since the mass inoculation began in late December.
Over the weekend, President Aleksandar Vucic said Serbia expects to get another 250,000 doses of the Sputnik vaccine and 20,000 doses of Pfizer vaccines in the coming days.
In the Western Balkan region, inoculation has started only in Serbia and Albania, while Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia have not yet received supplies of any vaccine.
China approved the shot developed by Sinopharm’s BIBP in late December, its first COVID-19 vaccine for general public use. No detailed efficacy data has been released, but BIBP has said the vaccine is 79.34% effective based on interim data.
In Serbia, which has a population of about 7 million, 3,771 people have died from COVID-19 and 347,111 fell ill with it.

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Australia Says COVID-19 Threat Likely to Keep International Border Closed in 2021 

Australia has said it could keep its external borders closed for the rest of 2021 because of the coronavirus. 28,721 coronavirus cases have been reported in Australia since the pandemic began. 909 people have died, according to the Health Department.Australia closed its international borders to foreign travelers in March. It’s been a key part of the nation’s COVID-19 strategy, along with mass testing, sophisticated contact tracing and strict lockdowns.  FILE – Travelers wait in line at a Virgin Australia Airlines counter at Kingsford Smith International Airport, amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Sydney, Australia, March 18, 2020.The cautious response to the pandemic has been mostly successful. There are estimated to be 203 active coronavirus cases in Australia, and airlines had hoped overseas travel would resume as early as July. But that is unlikely, according to the head of the health department, professor Brendan Murphy. He was asked by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. if the nation’s international border controls would be relaxed this year. “The answer is probably no,” he said. “I think we will go most of this year with still substantial border restrictions even, you know, if we have a lot of the population vaccinated. We do not know whether that will prevent transmission of the virus and it is likely that quarantine will continue for some time. So, I think at the moment we have got this light at the end of the tunnel — the vaccines. So, we are going to go as safely and as fast as we can to get our population vaccinated and then we will look at what happens.” An inoculation campaign is set to begin in Australia next month. Citizens, permanent residents and some foreign nationals with exemptions are allowed to enter Australia if they complete a 14-day hotel quarantine at their own expense. However, there are strict quotas on the number of travelers allowed to return home because of capacity constraints within the hotel system and concerns about the spread of the highly contagious British strain of coronavirus.Tennis player Latisha Chan of Taiwan (C) leaves the hotel for a training session in Melbourne on Jan. 19, 2021, while quarantining for two weeks ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament.This month, authorities have granted entry to about 1,200 tennis players, staff and officials for the Australian Open. Under biosecurity guidelines, players are allowed to train at dedicated venues for a few hours each day. But several recent arrivals have tested positive to the virus, forcing dozens of players to be confined to their hotel rooms for two weeks. Australia created a so-called travel bubble with neighboring New Zealand late last year, but it only operates one-way with inbound flights to Australia.  The border closures have hit the tourism industry hard. In 2019, more than 9 million overseas tourists visited Australia. The education sector, once popular with Chinese and Indian students, has also been badly damaged by Australia’s travel ban on most foreign nationals. Australians wanting to travel overseas must have government permission. 
  

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California First in US to Post More than 3 Million Total COVID-19 Cases    

California has become the first U.S state to post more than 3 million total coronavirus cases.  As of Tuesday, the western state, home to 40 million residents, has 3,015,644 confirmed infections, including 33,724 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. According to the Associated Press, it took California 292 days from the first confirmed infection on January 25 to November 11 of last year to reach 1 million infections.  The state has since undergone a dramatic surge of new infections that has pushed health care systems to the verge of collapse, recording 2 million cases by Christmas Eve — a space of 44 days — and reaching the 3 million mark in less than 30 days. The grim milestone comes as California’s mass vaccination efforts have hit a major roadblock.  A vile of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is seen at an ambulance company in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., an. 9, 2021.The state’s epidemiologist Sunday recommended that providers stop using a batch of the Moderna vaccine after some recipients had to seek treatment for  possible severe allergic reactions.   The incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will reverse a decision by President Donald Trump to lift coronavirus-related travel bans on most non-U.S. citizens arriving from much of Europe and Brazil, beginning January 26.    “This action is the best way to continue protecting Americans from COVID-19 while enabling travel to resume safely,” Trump said in a statement released by the White House.  However, President-elect Joe Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, responded a few minutes later on Twitter, saying: “On the advice of our medical team, the administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26. In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”   On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26. In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
— Jen Psaki (@jrpsaki) FILE – A worker in a protective suit is seen at the closed seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, Jan. 10, 2020.Experts in South Africa say a new variant of novel coronavirus first detected in that country late last year is 50% more contagious than the original version.  The experts say the new strain, dubbed 501Y.V2, binds stronger and more readily to human cells. The South Africa strain is one of several new strains discovered around the world that has aggravated the spread of the virus, which now stands at just over 95.6 million total infections worldwide, including over 2 million deaths. In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga vowed Monday to forge ahead with preparations to hold the Tokyo Olympics this summer, despite a surge in coronavirus infections in the country.    “We will press ahead with preparations, with determination of building watertight anti-infection measures and holding an event that can bring hope and courage to the world,” Suga said in a speech to Parliament.     A recent surge in cases in Japan has forced the government to close its borders to nonresident foreigners and to declare a state of emergency in the capital, Tokyo.      Recent media polls in Japan show about 80% of the Japanese public think the Olympics will not or should not be held this year.     The Tokyo Olympics have been postponed once because of the pandemic, having originally been scheduled for summer 2020.  

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Powerful 6.4 Magnitude Earthquake Strikes Western Argentina

A powerful 6.4 magnitude earthquake hit San Juan Province in Argentina late Monday night, according to early reports from the U.S. Geological Survey.  A series of aftershocks, with a lower magnitude than the quake also occurred.  The U.S. Tsunami Warning System said the earthquake in west central Argentina did not pose a tsunami threat and no warning was posted.  Initial reports indicate the quake, which hit at a shallow depth of 10 kilometers beneath the epicenter near Pocito, Argentina, had the potential to damage buildings and infrastructure, but there were no immediate reports of widespread damage.  

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WHO Chief: World on Brink of ‘Moral Failure’ Over COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

The head of the World Health Organization says the world is “on the brink of a moral catastrophic failure” for its unequal sharing of COVID-19 vaccinations. Addressing a WHO executive board meeting in Geneva on Monday, Executive Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it is “not right that younger, healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers and older people in poorer countries.”  “More than 39 million doses of vaccine have now been administered in at least 49 higher-income countries. Just 25 doses have been given in one lowest-income country — not 25 million, not 25,000 — just 25,” he said.  Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, speaks during the 148th session of the Executive Board on the coronavirus disease outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland, January 18, 2021. (Christopher Black/WHO/Handout)Tedros said if rich countries do not share COVID-19 vaccines with poor countries, “this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods.” He said that ultimately, a “me-first approach” in distributing vaccines “will only prolong the pandemic.” Later Monday, the White House confirmed that U.S. President Donald Trump had lifted coronavirus-related travel bans on most non-U.S. citizens arriving from much of Europe and Brazil, beginning January 26. “This action is the best way to continue protecting Americans from COVID-19 while enabling travel to resume safely,” Trump said in a statement released by the White House. However, President-elect Joe Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, responded a few minutes later on Twitter, saying: “On the advice of our medical team, the administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26. In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19.” New guidelines by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, set to take effect January 26, will require all air passengers entering the U.S. to provide a negative COVID-19 test before boarding their flight. FILE – A batch of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine arrives at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan, January 11, 2021.Also Monday, an independent panel reviewing the global handling of the COVID-19 pandemic criticized both the World Health Organization and China for their response to the virus.  The panel of experts led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said in an interim report that WHO should have declared an international emergency sooner than it did on January 30. The panel also said China could have applied public health measures more strongly in January. The panel will present its completed report in May. Earlier Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga vowed to forge ahead with preparations to hold the Tokyo Olympics this summer, despite a surge in coronavirus infections in the country.  “We will press ahead with preparations, with determination of building watertight anti-infection measures and holding an event that can bring hope and courage to the world,” Suga said in a speech to Parliament. FILE – A banner for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is seen behind a traffic sign, following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Tokyo, Japan, March 23, 2020.A recent surge in cases in Japan has forced the government to close its borders to nonresident foreigners and to declare a state of emergency in the capital, Tokyo.  Recent media polls in Japan show about 80% of the Japanese public think the Olympics will not or should not be held this year. The Tokyo Olympics have been postponed once because of the pandemic, having originally been scheduled for summer 2020. In the Czech Republic, health officials say the fast-spreading coronavirus variant first identified in Britain has been detected in the country. Health Minister Jan Blatny said the variant accounts for about 10% of the samples tested. He did not say how many samples were genetically sequenced. Several variants of the coronavirus have been detected around the world, including ones first identified in Britain, South Africa and Brazil. Health officials in Brussels say the variant first detected in Britain has begun spreading in Belgium following more cases reported there.  “The variant has settled into our country,” virologist Marc Van Ranst told HLN network.  “Like in other nations, it is getting traction,” he added. FILE – Vaccines are stored in a freezer following the delivery of the first part of the Moderna vaccine to be administered against the novel coronavirus, Covid-19, are emptied at the ZNA Middelheim hospital in Antwerp, Belgium, January 15, 2021.In Switzerland, authorities have placed two hotels in the skiing resort town of St. Moritz under quarantine and ordered all guests to be tested for the coronavirus after a person tested positive for the coronavirus variant first identified in South Africa. In Italy, officials reported that the country’s daily caseload of coronavirus infections dropped below 10,000 on Monday. Officials confirmed 8,825 new cases. French health officials began a campaign Monday to vaccinate people older than age 75. They say more than half a million people have registered to get the first of two vaccine shots by mid-February. Chinese officials Monday recorded more than 100 new cases for the sixth consecutive day. Reuters news agency reported more than 29 million Chinese are now under strict lockdown to control the spread of the virus. In the United States, the death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 398,000, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University, the highest toll in the world. Brazil and India follow the United States in COVID-19 deaths with more than 209,000 and 152,000, respectively.   Brazil approved two vaccines for emergency use against the coronavirus Sunday as some of its hospitals grappled with an oxygen shortage. 

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Watchdog Agency: Energy Sector Needs to Decrease Methane Emissions

Oil and gas companies are not doing enough to decrease the release of methane gases, a main source of planet-heating emissions, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in a new report released Monday.  In 2020, the fuel industries emitted about 5% of all global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, the IEA report said. The energy sector is the second-largest emitter of methane worldwide, following agriculture, according to the IEA’s Methane Tracker. The agency noted that methane emissions have decreased by 10% in the past year, but added it is mostly because of a decrease in economic activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. The IEA estimated that between 2020 and 2030, emissions will need to decrease by more than 70%, reaching levels of around 20 metric tons per year.  Driving down methane emissions would be among some of the most “cost-effective and impactful actions” governments can take to fight climate change, the Paris-based agency said.  “The immediate task now for the oil and gas industry is to make sure that there is no resurgence in methane emissions, even as the world economy recovers, and that 2019 becomes their historical peak,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol said. The report listed the lack of information around methane as one of the reasons governments have failed to address emissions. Despite having a much shorter atmospheric lifetime than carbon dioxide, methane absorbs much more energy throughout the 12 years it stays in the atmosphere, the report stated. “Alongside ambitious efforts to decarbonize our economies, early action on methane emissions will be critical for avoiding the worst effects of climate change,” Birol said. “There has never been a greater sense of urgency about this issue than there is today.” The Russian and American oil and gas industries were by far the largest emitters of methane in 2020, followed by those of Iran, Turkmenistan and Iraq, according to the IEA. 

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