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Iran trials own vaccine; S Africa tightens curbs

TEHRAN: A woman receives an injection during the first trial phase of a locally-made Iranian COVID-19 vaccine yesterday. – AFP

TEHRAN/JOHANNESBURG: Iran launched yesterday the first phase of a clinical trial of a vaccine developed in the Islamic Republic, the region’s country hardest hit by the pandemic, state television reported. “The first vaccine against the coronavirus, developed by Iranian researchers, has been unveiled by injecting three people,” the public broadcaster said. The novel coronavirus has killed nearly 55,000 out of more than 1.2 million people infected in Iran, according to health ministry data.

Iran has accused archenemy the United States of hampering its access to vaccines through its tough sanctions regime. State television yesterday broadcast images at the trial launch showing two men and one woman receiving injections in the presence of the health minister and the Iranian vice-president in charge of science and technology. It said the vaccine project was funded by a state-run conglomerate whose president is appointed by the Iranian supreme leader, called the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order or EIKO.

The state TV report said the three volunteers were the daughter of the president of EIKO and two high-ranking officials of the conglomerate. The vaccine will be administered to “56 volunteers” in two doses two weeks apart, according to Iribnews, the state television site, quoting a person in charge of developing the drug. The result would be announced 28 days after the second injection, it said.

Another Iranian vaccine, developed at the country’s Razi Institute, “will receive authorization” for the start of human trials “in the very near future,” said Health Minister Saeed Namaki. Namaki early this month said Iran had “pre-purchased” about 16.8 million vaccine doses via Covax, the mechanism for the equitable distribution of vaccines established by the UN World Health Organization.

Meanwhile, South Africa banned alcohol sales and made masks mandatory in public from yesterday, tightening restrictions after a surge in coronavirus cases as more countries joined in mass vaccination campaigns to beat the pandemic. Nations around the world are struggling with winter spikes in infections that have pushed the global caseload close to 81 million and killed more than 1.77 million, even as the rollout of vaccines gathers pace in North America and Europe.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a ban on selling alcohol and said face masks will be compulsory after his nation became the first in Africa to record one million cases. “We have let down our guard, and unfortunately we are now paying the price,” said Ramaphosa, blaming “super-spreader” social events and an “extreme lack of vigilance over the holiday period” for the spike.

Ramaphosa said data showed “excessive alcohol consumption” leads to an increase in trauma cases reported at hospitals, causing an “unnecessary” strain on public health facilities. Highlighting the renewed virus spread, England’s health officials warned the country was “back in the eye” of the coronavirus storm with as many patients in hospital as during the initial peak in April, and the new strain appearing to be causing the recent upsurge.

National Health Service England figures showed there were 20,426 COVID patients in the country’s hospitals on Monday, compared to the 18,974 peak recorded during the first wave. “Many of us have lost family, friends, colleagues and – at a time of year when we would normally be celebrating – a lot of people are understandably feeling anxious, frustrated and tired,” said NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens.

Across the globe governments are rushing to get vaccines out to try to avoid the kind of economically damaging lockdown restrictions put in place soon after the pandemic first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan a year ago. Argentina and Belarus yesterday launched their vaccination campaigns, both using the Sputnik V shots developed by Russia. The Gam-CovidVac vaccine, nicknamed Sputnik V after the Soviet-era satellite, has come under fire from critics in Russia and abroad because it was registered before the start of large-scale clinical trials.

Other nations are rolling out campaigns with jabs made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, most inoculating vulnerable older residents, care workers and others most at risk. Vaccinations in EU countries started over the weekend, but authorities fear vaccine hesitancy and rejection could hamper those efforts – especially because of misinformation campaigns on social media.

That was not a concern with 75-year-old Jacques Collineau, resident of an old people’s home in Joue-les-Tours, France. “Fear? Fear of what? I’ve been vaccinated for the flu before, now it’s the same thing,” Collineau said as he got the shot on Monday. “We don’t make vaccines to kill people, we make vaccines to try to save them.”

The coronavirus has devastated lives and economies across the globe, but the WHO warned Monday that worse pandemics could be ahead, urging the world to get serious about preparedness. “This is a wakeup call,” WHO emergencies chief Michael Ryan told reporters at a briefing marking a year since the UN agency first learned of the new virus spreading in China. “This pandemic… has spread around the world extremely quickly and it has affected every corner of this planet, but this is not necessarily the big one,” Ryan added. “We need to get ready for something that may even be more severe in the future.”

While huge scientific progress was made to study the virus and develop vaccines at record speed, WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward cautioned that the world was far from ready for the next pandemic. “We are into the second and third waves of this virus and we are still not prepared to deal with and manage those,” he said.

The warnings were backed up by the worrying figures and trends reported worldwide. South Korea, one of the nations hailed for its success during the first months of the pandemic, yesterday logged its highest daily death toll since the beginning of the pandemic as it battled a third wave of infections. India, with the second-biggest caseload in the world, reported the detection of the new coronavirus strain, but officials said the nation’s pandemic guidelines have not changed because of it.

Highlighting the frustration and suffering caused by the crisis, submissions from around the world came in for a Good Riddance Day celebration in New York City. The submissions were printed and then shredded, while the host of the event pulverized a 2020 pinata. When Westbury, New York resident Raul was asked what he wanted to say good riddance to, he responded: “Like anybody else, I want to get rid of the coronavirus. That’s it!” – AFP

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