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Skepticism Emerges After Russia Approves First Covid-19 Vaccine

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  • Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia has developed a coronavirus vaccine, and officials in the country anticipate that tens of thousands of people will receive it in the next few months.
  • Russia is planning a mass rollout of the vaccine in October, with teachers and healthcare workers having the ability to volunteer to get it even sooner.
  • However, health officials are concerned that Russia rushed through the vaccine process, as the vaccine has not been through Phase 3 trials. That months-long process involves testing thousands of individuals and is considered essential in developing a vaccine.
  • Others have also expressed skepticism over the vaccine as Russia has yet to release data from its initial clinical trials.

Russia Announces Vaccine

President Vladimir Putin announced Tuesday that Russia has developed a coronavirus vaccine, prompting concerns from health officials who believe the country’s process in doing so was rushed and lacked crucial tests. 

“A vaccine against coronavirus has been registered for the first time in the world this morning,” Putin said while delivering the Tuesday announcement. “I know that it works quite effectively, it forms a stable immunity.”

The vaccine, which has been dubbed “Sputnik V,” was developed by The Gamaleya Institute and was funded by the Russian Direct Investment Fund. Officials say there could be a mass rollout for it in October, but prioritized individuals like teachers and healthcare workers could volunteer to get it sooner. Tens of thousands are expected to receive the vaccine in the next few months. One of his daughters has already received it.

“Of course, what counts most is for us to be able to ensure the unconditional safety of the use of this vaccine and its efficiency in the future. I hope that this will be accomplished,” Putin added in his address. 

As the Associated Press explained, this vaccine uses a different virus, the common cold-causing adenovirus, and modifies it to carry genes for the “spike” protein that coats the coronavirus. Scientists in China and the U.K. are working on a similar vaccine.

However, Russia approved the vaccine before it ever went through Phase 3 trials, which is a crucial step that involves administering the vaccine to thousands of people. Phase 3 trials could last for months, and while Russia said they will be conducting them and doing trials in countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and maybe Brazil, the vaccine will still be offered to volunteers who want it in the meantime. 

Health Officials Express Concern

Health experts fear that distributing the vaccine before Phase 3 results are in could be dangerous. They fear Russia was racing to be the first country to offer up a vaccine, as Putin has previously said he wanted one by September. 

According to the AP, human trials started back in June with 76 volunteers, half of which were injected with a liquid vaccine and the other half given on in the form as a soluble powder. Some of those volunteers were recruited from the military, prompting concerns that they may not have been volunteers at all, and were actually pressured into participating. 

“Normally you need a large number of people to be tested before you approve a vaccine. I think it’s reckless to do that if lots of people haven’t already been tested,” Peter Kremsner, an expert at Germany’s University Hospital in Tuebingen told Reuters.

Kremsner was not alone, other health officials told Reuters that releasing a vaccine at this stage is “unethical” and could lead to the pandemic only being worsened. On top of this lack of testing, Russia has also not released any data from its initial clinical trials. 

“It is not possible to know if the Russian vaccine has been shown to be effective without submission of scientific papers for analysis,” Keith Neal, a specialist in the epidemiology of infectious diseases at Britain’s Nottingham University said in a statement. 

Vaccine Response from U.S. Leaders

Even before Russia touted its new vaccine, there were concerns about how the country was developing it. While testifying to Congress in July, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he was worried about a lack of testing. 

“I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing the vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone,” he said. “Because claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing is, I think, problematic at best.” 

Since Russia’s announcement, other U.S. officials have also expressed their fears. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar criticized the pace at which it was produced while speaking with Good Morning America on Tuesday. 

“The point is not to be first with a vaccine, the point is to have a vaccine that is safe and effective for the American people and the people of the world,” he said. “We need transparent data, and it’s gotta be Phase 3 data.” 

Azar’s remarks line up with statements recently made by Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn.

“Let me assure you that we will not cut corners,” Hahn said while speaking to the American Medical Association on Monday. “All of our decisions will continue to be based on good science and the same careful deliberative processes we have always used when reviewing medical products.”

Vaccine Hesitancy in the United States

Releasing a vaccine too early could lead to a number of consequences. Say the process was rushed and the vaccine is ineffective or dangerous, it could lead to people being too nervous to get one when it is actually safe to do so. Reservations about a coronavirus vaccine are widespread, and go further than just the usual anti-vaxx crowd. 

Polling on the subject shows scattered numbers, but most indicate that many are uninterested or paranoid when it comes to a COVID-19 vaccine. An August Gallup poll found that if a free FDA approved vaccine were ready today, one in three Americans would still refuse it. Polling from Yahoo and YouGov shows that back in May, 55% of U.S. adults planned on getting vaccinated, but by the end of July, that fell to 42%.

See what others are saying: (Washington Post) (Wall Street Journal) (Business Insider)

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Wealthy Canadian Couple Posed as Motel Workers To Jump Vaccine Queue

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  • Rodney Baker, the CEO of a Canadian casino company, resigned this week after he and his wife were caught traveling to a remote area in Yukon that is home to many indigenous people to jump the coronavirus vaccine queue.
  • The two allegedly posed as motel workers and were given the first dose of the vaccine but raised suspicions when they asked to be taken straight to the airport immediately afterward. 
  • Both individuals received two fines, one for failing to self-isolate and a second for failing to follow their signed declarations, adding up to $1,150 each.
  • The White River First Nation is calling for stiffer penalties, saying the small fine would be meaningless to the wealthy duo. For reference, the former CEO was paid a salary of more than $10.6 million in 2019.  

Couple Dupes Local Healthcare Workers

Like many other countries, officials in Canada have been working hard to ramp up COVID-19 vaccinations. In the Yukon territory specifically, health workers have been giving priority to remote communities with elderly and high-risk populations, as well as limited access to healthcare.

One of those areas is Beaver Creek, which is home to many members of the White River First Nation. However, Beaver Creek is now making headlines after two wealthy Vancouver residents traveled there to jump ahead in the vaccine queue.

The two culprits were identified as 55-year-old Rodney Baker, president and CEO of Great Canadian Gaming Corp, and his wife, 32-year-old actress Ekaterina Baker.

They reportedly flew from Vancouver to Whitehouse, then chartered a private plane to the remote community. Afterward, they went to a mobile clinic where they were able to receive the Moderna vaccine after saying they were new hires at a nearby motel.

Their presence raised suspicions given how small the population is in Beaver Creek, but the two raised even more eyebrows when they asked to be taken straight to the airport after receiving their doses.

Workers from the vaccination clinic checked with the motel and alerted law enforcement when they learned that the Bakers had lied about working there.

The couple was stopped just as they were preparing to fly back to their luxury condo in downtown Vancouver. According to CBC, both individuals received two fines, one for failing to self-isolate and a second for failing to follow their signed declaration, adding up to $1,150 each.

Indigenous Community Responds

“We are deeply concerned by the actions of individuals who put our Elders and vulnerable people at risk to jump the line for selfish purposes,” the White River First Nation’s Chief Angela Demit said in a Facebook statement addressing the situation.

She also told The Washington Post that she wants to see stiffer penalties for the couple because the relatively small fines would be “essentially meaningless” for such wealthy individuals. For reference, Mr. Baker’s annual compensation in 2019 was reported to be more than $10.6 million.

Janet Vander Meer, the head of the White River First Nation’s coronavirus response team, also called the incident, “another example of ongoing acts of oppression against Indigenous communities by wealthy individuals that thought they would get away with it.”

“Our oldest resident of Beaver Creek, who is 88 years old, was in the same room as this couple. My mom, who’s palliative, was in the same room as this couple,” she told Globalnews.ca. “That’s got to be jail time. I can’t see anything less. For what our community has been through the last few days. The exhaustion. It’s just mind-boggling.”

To prevent situations like this in the future, a spokesman for the Yukon government said it would implement new requirements for proving residency in the territory.

As far as the Bakers, Rodney resigned from his role at Great Canadian this week. A spokesperson for the company, which is currently the subject of a separate money-laundering probe, says it “has no tolerance for actions that run counter to the company’s objectives and values.”

See what others are saying: (CBC) (The Washington Post) (Yukon News)

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International

Protests Erupt Across the Netherlands Over COVID-19 Curfew

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  • For the third night in a row, Dutch police clashed with protesters and rioters in ten cities across the Netherlands.
  • The protests are a result of frustrations over the 9:00 p.m. – 4:30 a.m. curfew the country imposed to help stop the spread of coronavirus.
  • Rioters looted across major cities and even burned down a coronavirus testing site. So far, 184 people have been arrested and thousands have received fines for their participation.
  • The Prime Minister has said that when possible, the curfew would be the first safety measure to go, but he also made it clear that those rioting over it were criminals and will be treated as such.

Violence Over Coronavirus Curfew

The Netherlands faced riots and protests over coronavirus curfews and lockdown measures for the third night in a row.

The protests raged across ten cities, including major ones such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague. Authorities say that 184 people have been arrested so far, and thousands have received fines for their participation.

Protesters are particularly upset with an ongoing curfew in the country that puts restrictions on travel between 9:00 p.m.- 4:30 a.m.. It’s meant to slow the spread of the virus by preventing nightlife activities; however, critics have questioned just how effective those measures actually are.

Beyond the skepticism, the Netherlands is also facing a spread of misinformation about COVID-19, leading many to downplay how dangerous it is.

Last night’s protests led to violence with police, as well as a COVID-19 testing site being burnt to the ground. Wider Dutch society has been shocked by the violence since protests of this nature are relatively rare in the nation.

Mayors across the country vowed to introduce emergency measures that are intended to help deal with the protests.

Coping With the Virus

Regarding the curfew itself, the government has refused to budge on the issue. When responding to last night’s violence, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that when possible, the curfew would be the first safety measure to go. Still, he also made it clear that those rioting over it were criminals and will be treated as such.

The Netherlands had managed to maintain the virus relatively successfully, six months ago, it had among the lowest new daily cases in Europe, with around 42 daily new cases in July. That all changed in September when cases began to rise dramatically, peaking of 11,499 daily new cases on Dec. 24.

Source: Google Coronavirus Statistics

Due to the imposed restrictions, cases began to fall again, although they are still far higher than they were in the summer of 2020.

See What Others Are Saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (NPR)

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Thousands Protest in Russia Demanding Release of Putin Foe Alexei Navalny

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  • Russia faced some of the largest protests it has seen in recent years after thousands took to the streets Saturday demanding the government release opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
  • Russian authorities declared the protests illegal and detained more than 3,500 people from more than 100 cities, including Navalny’s wife.
  • The government also released a statement addressing Navalny by name for the first time, attempting to discredit claims he has made, including the idea that President Vladimir Putin has a billion-dollar villa on the Black Sea coast.

Largest Russian Protests in Recent History

Russia experienced some of its largest protests in years Saturday after opposition figure Alexei Navalny called for demonstrations to be held following his arrest.

Supporters demanded Navalny’s release but also called for an end to perceived rampant corruption in the Russian state.

Tens of thousands took to the streets and clashed with police in more than 100 cities, with independent monitors claiming that 3,500 people were detained by police. Among those detained was Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s wife, who was targeted by authorities during the protests. She is reported to have been released by Russian media agencies such as TASS.

Despite Russian authorities declaring the protests illegal and warning of repercussions for those who attend, the protests managed to reach a wide range of people. According to the New York Times, over ⅓ of protesters in Moscow said they had never protested before.

Despite the movements current popularity, it may be difficult to turn the popular, anti-Putin movement into something more.The protesters span a broad range of the political spectrum, from far-left communist and anarchist groups to nationalists and libertarians, meaning that while they dislike Putin and the corruption in the Russian government, they agree on little else.

Changing the Message

The protests unveiled a new shift in how Russian authorities deal with Navalny. In the past, authorities and state-backed media never mentioned him by name in order to downplay him; however, that changed this weekend.

Newscasters aired multiple programs to discredit him and paint him as a tool of the West, while Putin denied Navalny’s claims that he has a secret, billion-dollar villa on the coast of the Black Sea. Based on his salary of $133,000 a year, Putin would only be able to afford a single home in Russia. However, there is speculation that due to corruption and embezzling, Putin is likely the actual richest person alive.

Regarding Navalny himself, he’s still in jail pending court proceedings on Feb. 2. If those go poorly for Navalny, he could be in prison until the mid-2020s, but he is more concerned about his immediate future.

In a video to supporters prior to the protests, he made it clear that he has no intention of committing suicide. That statement was likely made due to the fact that many Russian dissidents seem to die via suicide, with much speculation about whether or not that was actually the case.

See what others are saying: (New York Times) (Business Insider) (Associated Press)

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