A South Korean panel of experts said Tuesday that vaccines for the novel coronavirus by U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. showed a more than 95 percent efficacy rate, and the use of the vaccine is not problematic for young people.
The advisory board consisting of outside experts announced its review on the efficacy and safety of the Pfizer vaccines, according to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety. The panel's review is the first step of three separate independent evaluations before the ministry gives the final approval.
The panel advised the ministry to approve Pfizer's two full-dose regimen, saying it showed efficacy on all adults, including those aged between 16 and 17, and elders aged 65 and older.
The panel reviewed Pfizer's clinical trials on 3,448 participants conducted in six countries, with half of them receiving the vaccine and half of them receiving a placebo.
The data showed that the vaccine demonstrated 95 percent efficacy in preventing COVID-19 in those without prior infection seven days or more after the second dose.
The panel said severe reactions were reported in less than 0.6 percent of vaccine recipients, but the rate was within the tolerable rate.
The ministry said the result of the second review will be announced Thursday and the final approval will be announced Friday.
The vaccine by Pfizer will first start being provided to 58,500 health care workers treating COVID-19 patients Saturday.
Pfizer's vaccine is provided under the World Health Organization's global vaccine COVAX Facility project, and the shots will first be given at five state-run vaccination facilities as the products require ultra-cold chain storage.
The authorities plan to further build 120 such facilities at general hospitals, gymnasiums and other kinds of government sites.
Japan is considering lifting the state of emergency declared in six prefectures over the coronavirus pandemic ahead of its scheduled end date on March 7, government sources said Tuesday.
The declaration is likely to be lifted by this weekend in the six prefectures of Aichi, Gifu, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo and Fukuoka due to sufficient improvement in their situations.
Tokyo and its three nearby prefectures, however, are set to remain under the virus emergency until the original end date as their situation has not substantially improved.
Earlier in the day, the governors of Kyoto, Osaka and Hyogo had made a joint request to economic revitalization minister Yasutoshi Nishimura, who is leading the country's response to the pandemic, citing improvements in the number of hospital beds available for COVID-19 patients and the slowing pace of infections.
Aichi Gov. Hideaki Omura also made a similar request, while Gifu Gov. Hajime Furuta indicated that the declaration would ideally be lifted in his prefecture at the same time as Aichi.
Suga is expected to make a decision on the early lifting for the six prefectures at a meeting Wednesday of relevant ministers including Nishimura and health minister Norihisa Tamura based on the latest expert analysis.
If they decide to move forward with lifting the declaration early, they will consult with a panel of health experts on Friday before finalizing the decision at a government taskforce meeting, the sources said.
Suga may also announce at the taskforce meeting his intention to lift the emergency for Tokyo and its three nearby prefectures on March 7 as scheduled.
As a prerequisite for lifting the virus emergency, the situation must have improved from Stage 4, the worst level on the government's four-point scale.
The stages are based on six key indicators, including the weekly number of infections per 100,000 people and the percentage of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients currently available.
As of Sunday, five of the six prefectures have improved to Stage 3 or better in all six metrics. The percentage of hospital beds occupied remains high only in Fukuoka.
While a top government official has said that there should be no reason to oppose lifting the emergency declaration based on the indicators, some Cabinet members are wary of people becoming complacent once it is lifted.
Also read: Japan extending virus emergency
The state of emergency, Japan's second over the pandemic, was initially declared on Jan. 7 for one month, covering Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures.
On Jan. 13, it was expanded to seven other prefectures including the three western areas and later extended through March 7 for 10 of the 11 prefectures.
Under the virus emergency, people are asked to refrain from unnecessary outings and restaurants and bars to close early.
Kyoto Gov. Takatoshi Nishiwaki has said that even if the state of emergency is lifted, the prefecture would continue to ask restaurants and bars to shorten business hours to prevent a resurgence of infections.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday as Muslims protested near the president’s office demanding that the government allow people who die of COVID-19 to be buried instead of cremated.
Sri Lankan Muslims hope Khan will take up the burial issue when he meets his counterparts on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Khan is to meet with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his older brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his two-day visit.
As Khan, the prime minister of Muslim-majority Pakistan, began his visit, about 2,000 protestors gathered near the president’s office in Colombo demanding that burials be allowed for Muslims who die of COVID-19.
Also read: Sri Lanka orders closures to contain virus
“He knows the situation and we think he will take up the issue with the Sri Lanka president and prime minister,” opposition lawmaker Mujibur Rahman said by telephone.
He said the government continues to defy calls for burials despite a pledge two weeks ago by Mahinda Rajapaksa to permit them. So far, the government has not allowed them.
Khan earlier welcomed Rajapaksa’s assurance in a tweet.
Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country where it is customary for Buddhists and Hindus, the second largest religious group, to cremate the dead. Muslims make up about 7% of the country’s 22 million people.
The government has required cremation of all people who die from COVID-19, saying the virus in human remains could contaminate underground water.
Muslims and non-Muslims have protested the rule over the past year, calling it unscientific and insensitive of Muslim religious beliefs. The United Nations and the United States have also raised concerns with the government.
The World Health Organization and Sri Lankan doctors’ groups have said COVID-19 victims can either be buried or cremated.
Sri Lanka has reported 80,516 coronavirus cases, including 450 deaths.
With violence spiking, Afghanistan’s warring sides have returned to the negotiation table, ending more than a month of delays amid hopes that the two sides can agree on a reduction of violence - and eventually, an outright ceasefire.
Taliban spokesman Dr. Mohammad Naeem tweeted Monday night that talks had resumed in the Middle Eastern State of Qatar, where the insurgent movement maintains a political office. There were no details other than the atmosphere was “cordial”, a commitment that negotiations should continue and an announcement that the first item of business will be setting the agenda.
When talks ended abruptly in January, just days after beginning, both sides submitted their wish lists for agendas. The task now is for the two sides to sift through the respective wish lists, agree on items to negotiate and the order in which they will be tackled.
The priority for the Afghan government, Washington and NATO is a serious reduction in violence leading to a cease fire. The Taliban have said it is negotiable, but until now have resisted any immediate cease fire.
Washington is reviewing the February 2020 peace deal the previous Trump administration signed with the Taliban that calls for the final withdrawal of international forces by May 1. The Taliban have resisted suggestions of even a brief extension, but a consensus is mounting in Washington for a delay in the withdrawal deadline.
There is even a suggestion of a smaller intelligence - based force staying behind that would focus almost exclusively on counter-terrorism and an increasingly active and deadly Islamic State affiliate, headquartered in eastern Afghanistan.
But neither Washington nor NATO has yet to announce a decision on the fate of an estimated 10,000 troops, including 2,500 American soldiers, still in Afghanistan. The Biden administration has emphasized a political solution to the protracted Afghan conflict, retained Zalmay Khalilzad, the man who negotiated the U.S. peace deal with the Taliban and until now avoided any definitive statements about the road forward.
The resumption in talks in Doha follows on the heels of a blizzard of diplomatic activity including a steady stream of officials to Pakistan and its powerful Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. Pakistan is seen as critical to getting the Taliban back to the table but also to pressing the insurgent movement __ whose leadership is headquartered in Pakistan __ to reduce violence in Afghanistan .
Just this past week the U.S. Central Command head Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie was in Islamabad, as was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Afghan envoy, Zamir Kabulov and Qatar’s foreign ministry’s special envoy Dr Mutlaq Bin Majed Al Qahtani. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s special envoy Umar Daudzai is expected in Islamabad on Wednesday.
While details of the meetings have been sketchy, Afghanistan featured prominently and officials familiar with the talks said a reduction of violence and eventual cease fire dominated discussions.
Pakistan, which also still hosts 1.5 million Afghan refugees has repeatedly said the only solution in Afghanistan is political and has previously been credited with getting the Taliban to the negotiating table.
The latest diplomatic activity in Islamabad also coincidentally comes as Pakistan is being discussed at a meeting underway this week in Paris of the Financial Action Task Force probing terrorism financing and money laundering. Pakistan is currently on a so-called grey list, the last step before a black listing which would seriously erode the country’s ability to borrow money.
Few analysts expect Pakistan to be blacklisted, which so far includes only Iran and North Korea, but Islamabad is pressing hard to be removed from the grey list. While Pakistan has allies, like China, among the 37-member countries that make up FATF, Russian and U.S. support is critical to being removed from the grey list.
Still the issues ahead for Taliban and Afghan government are thorny ones and it isn’t immediately clear whether any country has sufficient influence with either side to force a peace deal that will last.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has flatly refused an interim administration, and his critics accuse him of wanting to hold on to power. Meanwhile, a Taliban official says they want a “new Islamic government” that would not include Ghani, but refused to give details of this government and whether it would even include elections. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
In an open letter to the American people last week, the Taliban’s lead negotiator in the U.S./Taliban deal, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar urged compliance with the deal, promised rights for men and women “based on Islamic law” without stipulating, vowed not to interfere in any other nation, and also vowed to end the world’s largest crop of poppies, which produces opium used in the production of heroin.
The shooter shouted “Victory to Lord Ram,” the Hindu god, before pulling the trigger that sent a bullet into Muhammad Nasir Khan’s left eye.
Khan placed his trembling hand on his bloody eye socket and his fingers slipped deep into the wound. At that moment, Khan was sure he would die.
Khan ended up surviving the violence that killed 53 others, mostly fellow Muslims, when it engulfed his neighborhood in the Indian capital 12 months ago.
But a year after India's worst communal riots in decades, the 35-year-old is still shaken and his attacker still unpunished. Khan says he's been unable to get justice due to a lack of police interest in his case.
“My only crime is that my name identifies my religion,” Khan said at his home in New Delhi's North Ghonda neighborhood.
Many of the Muslim victims of last year's bloody violence say they have run repeatedly into a refusal by police to investigate complaints against Hindu rioters. Some hope the courts will still come to their help. But others now believe the justice system under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government has become stacked against them.
Adding to the sense of injustice is that accounts from Muslim victims as well as reports from rights groups have indicated that leaders of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and the New Delhi police force tacitly supported the Hindu mobs during the fevered violence.
New Delhi police did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but they insisted last year that their investigation had been fair and that nearly 1,750 people had been booked in relation to the riots — half of them Hindus. Junior Home Minister G. Kishan Reddy has likewise told Parliament that police acted swiftly and impartially.
But a letter one senior police officer sent to investigators five months after the riots appeared to suggest them they go easy on Hindus suspected of violence, prompting criticism from the Delhi High Court.
Communal clashes in India are not new, with periodic violence breaking out ever since the British partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. But in the last seven years, observers say, religious polarization fueled by the Hindu nationalist base of Modi’s party has further deepened the fault lines and raised tensions.
Many believe the catalyst for last year's riots was a fiery speech by Kapil Mishra, a leader from Modi’s party. On Feb. 23, 2020, he gave police an ultimatum, warning them to break up a sit-in by demonstrators protesting against a new citizenship law Muslims say is discriminatory, or he and his supporters would do it themselves.
When his supporters moved in it triggered pitched street battles that quickly turned into riots. For the next three days, Hindu mobs rampaged through streets hunting down Muslims — in some cases burning them alive in their homes — and torching entire neighborhoods, including shops and mosques.
Mishra rejects the idea that he's responsible for the riots, calling the claims “propaganda” to cover up the “pre-planned genocide of Hindus by Muslims.” On Monday, he said his party had no links to the violence, but added, “what I did last year I will do it again if needed,” referring to his speech hours before the riots started.
Many in the area's Hindu community accuse Muslims of starting the violence in a bid to make India look bad.
A year on, many Muslim victims of the riots are still cowering in fear of further bloodletting. Hundreds have abandoned their gutted homes and moved elsewhere. Those who chose to stay have fortified their neighborhoods with metal gates in case of more mob attacks. Many say they fear those responsible will never be held to account.
“Everything has changed since the riots,” Khan said. “I think I am slowly losing all my hopes of justice.”
Khan spent 20 days recovering in the hospital after being shot. Since then, he has been on a search for justice that he says has been impeded by police at every turn.
Khan’s official police complaint, seen by The Associated Press, named at least six Hindus from his neighborhood whom he said participated in the violence.
“The accused still come to my home and threaten me with killing my entire family,” Khan said in the complaint, adding that he was willing to identify them in court.
His complaint was never officially accepted.
Police, however, filed a complaint on their own. It gave a different version of events and places Khan at least a kilometer (0.6 mile) from where he was shot, suggesting he was injured in the crossfire between the two clashing groups. It didn't identify his attackers.
The stories of many other Muslim victims follow a similar pattern. Police and investigators have dismissed hundreds of complaints against Hindu rioters, citing a lack of evidence despite multiple eyewitness accounts.
They include a man who saw his brother fatally shot, a father of a 4-month-old baby who witnessed his home being torched and a young boy who lost both his arms after Hindu mobs threw a crude bomb at him.
Now, many make weekly trips to lawyer Mehmood Pracha’s office, hoping for justice. Very few have seen their attackers put behind bars. Many others are still waiting for their cases to be heard in court.
Pracha, a Muslim, is representing at least 100 riot victims for free. He said there were multiple instances in which police were provided videos of Hindu mobs, many with links to Modi’s party, “but it seems that police were eager to implicate Muslims” in the riots.
He said in many cases Muslims were also “threatened to withdraw their complaints.”
“The police have acted as partners in crime,” Pracha said.
Multiple videos of the riots seen by the AP show police egging on Hindu mobs to throw stones at Muslims, destroying surveillance cameras and beating a group of Muslim men — one of whom later died.
Multiple independent fact-finding missions and rights groups have documented the role of police in the riots.
In June 2020, Human Rights Watch said “police failed to respond adequately” during the riots and were at times “complicit” in attacks against Muslims. It said authorities “failed to conduct impartial and transparent investigations.”
On a recent night, Haroon, who goes by one name, said he was “still scared of going out in the evening.”
He saw his brother Maroof fatally shot by his Hindu neighbors during the riots. The police never identified the accused in his complaint despite multiple eyewitnesses.
In turn, Haroon said, he was threatened by the police and the accused to withdraw his complaint.
“We were alone then and we are alone now,” he said nearly in tears as his dead brother's two children sat beside him.
Haroon looked at them and said: “I don’t know what to do.”