- The United Kingdom has become the first western country to approve a coronavirus vaccine after giving Pfizer’s vaccine the go-ahead.
- Prime Minister Boris Johnson said vaccinations will start next week. Health care workers and those in elderly care homes are expected to get priority.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin also ordered that doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine be given in the country next week, though many are still skeptical of Russia’s vaccine due to a lack of transparency and data.
- In the U.S., Moderna and Pfizer will likely get approval in the next few weeks, and Vice President Mike Pence has told states to get ready to distribute. The timing in the states is crucial as health officials are warning that the coronavirus threat to Americans is at a historic high.
U.K. Greenlights Pfizer
The United Kingdom became the first western country to greenlight a coronavirus vaccine Wednesday after approving one created by Pfizer and BioNTech.
Pfizer said its vaccine is 95% effective and has also begun the process of seeking Food and Drug Administration approval in the U.S. If all goes well, it should be authorized in the next two weeks. Across the pond, the review was done by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which said that the vaccine met its high standards.
“A dedicated team of MHRA scientists and clinicians carried out a rigorous, scientific and detailed review of all the available data and have concluded that the vaccine meets high standards of safety, quality and effectiveness,” the agency said in a statement.
“I’m really pleased to say that the UK is now one step closer to providing a safe and effective vaccine to help in the fight against COVID-19 – a virus that has affected each and every one of us in some way – and in helping to save lives,” MHRA’s Chief Executive Dr. June Raine added.
The U.K., like much of Europe, is recovering from a staggering increase of cases in the fall, which reached their peak sometime in November. The country has so far seen over 1.6 million cases and suffered 59,000 deaths.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the vaccine will be made available across the U.K. next week. Priority will likely go to staff and residents at elderly care homes, medical workers, and those above the age of 80. However, since the vaccine needs to be stored in extreme subzero temperatures, doses will likely be given out from hospitals first as those are among the few locations with the means to store them.
Russian Vaccine and Skepticism
The U.K. was not the only country making vaccine progress on Wednesday. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered doses of their Sputnik V vaccine to be distributed next week. Russia approved their vaccine before trials were completed, eventually claiming a 92% efficacy rate. While some health officials are optimistic about it, and countries like Brazil, Mexico, India, and Egypt have bought doses, others remain skeptical.
Critics often cite a lack of transparency between Russia and the public about their trials as well as a lack of data.
“The sample is too low to claim any percentage of efficacy,” Enrico Bucci, an Italian biologist told CBC News.
Others are concerned that Russia was aiming to win a vaccine race, putting speed ahead of everything else. John Moore, a vaccine researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College told Science Mag that the FDA would never approve a vaccine with the limited information of Sputnik V.
“Why is Russia doing this?” Moore asked. “It’s the international vaccine race. They want to be seen to be keeping up with their competitors in other countries. It’s clearly a rushed out announcement.”
“But it doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” he continued.
Others have also raised questions about why Putin himself has not taken the vaccine, especially considering his claims that his own daughter already has. Russian officials say the president cannot take an “uncertified” vaccine, but it is unclear what the difference between a certified vaccine and an approved vaccine is.
U.S. Vaccine Updates
The United States is also making strides towards approving a vaccine. On Monday, Moderna started the process of seeking FDA authorization with their vaccine, which touts a 94.1% efficacy rate. The FDA is set to meet to discuss Pfizer’s vaccine next week and Moderna’s the week after.
As the potential for a vaccine in the states inches closer, Vice President Mike Pence said that vaccine distribution could begin this month.
“We strongly believe the vaccine distribution process could begin as soon as the week of December 14,” he said while speaking to the White House Coronavirus Task Force on Monday. “With this morning’s news that Moderna is joining Pfizer in submitting an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), we continue to be on pace.”
As far as who will get it first in the U.S., the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted 13-1 on Tuesday to recommend that healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities get vaccinated first.
The need for a vaccine has never been greater. Daily case reports are increasing significantly and the country is seeing spikes like never before. So far, there have been 13.7 million cases and 270,000 lives lost.
On Wednesday, multiple news outlets obtained reports the White House Coronavirus Task Force sent to states warning of a dire state.
“The COVID risk to all Americans is at a historic high,” the report said. “We are in a very dangerous place due to the current, extremely high COVID baseline and limited hospital capacity.”
“If state and local policies do not reflect the seriousness of the current situation, all public health officials must alert the state population directly,” it added.
On top of this, the report said that anyone over the age of 65 or anyone with significant health conditions should not enter any indoor spaces with unmasked people as it poses an “immediate risk to your health.” It also said that anyone under 40 who traveled for Thanksgiving should assume they became infected.
“Most likely, you will not have symptoms; however, you are dangerous to others and you must isolate away from anyone at increased risk,” the report warned.
See what others are saying: (BBC News) (The Independant) (CNN)
Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders
Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.
Azovstal Waves the White Flag
Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.
A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.
The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.
It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.
Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.
Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.
Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.
Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands
After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.
The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.
Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.
The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.
The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.
It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.
See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)
Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls
Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.
Hundreds Make It Out Alive
A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.
People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.
The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.
Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.
“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”
63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.
“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.
Putin’s Plans Go Poorly
In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.
On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.
The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”
Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.
After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.
“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.
On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.
Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.
The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”
“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.
Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.
See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)
Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished
The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.
Settlers Get Ready to Move in
On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.
“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.
The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.
The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.
In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”
“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.
In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.
Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land
On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.
Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.
The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s
“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”