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U.K Approves Pfizer’s COVID-19 Vaccine

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  • 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)

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Egypt Seizes Ship That Blocked Suez Canal Until Owners Pay Nearly $1 Billion

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  • Egyptian authorities seized the Ever Given, a mega-ship that blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month, after a judge ruled Wednesday that the owners must pay $900 million in damages.
  • The ship was seized just as it was deemed fit to return to sea after undergoing repairs in the Great Bitter Lake, which sits in the middle of the Suez Canal.
  • The vessel’s owners said little about the verdict, but insurance companies covering the ship pushed back against the $900 million price tag, saying it’s far too much for any damage the ship actually caused.

Ever Given Still in Egypt

An Egyptian court blocked the mega-ship known as the Ever Given from leaving the country Wednesday morning unless its owner pays nearly $1 billion in compensation for damages it caused after blocking the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month.

The Ever Given’s ordeal started when it slammed into the side of the canal and became lodged, which caused billions of dollars worth of goods to be held up on both sides of the canal while crews worked round the clock to free the vessel. An Egyptian judge found that the Ever Given becoming stuck caused not only physical damage to the canal that needed to be paid for but also “reputational” damage to Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, will need to pay $900 million to free the ship and the cargo it held, both of which were seized by authorities after the ship was transported to the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the canal to undergo now-finished repairs. Shoei Kisen Kaisha doesn’t seem to want to fight the judgment in court just yet. It released a short statement after the ruling, saying that lawyers and insurance companies were working on the claims but refused to comment further.

Pushing Back Against The Claim

While Shoei Kisen Kaisha put in a claim with insurers, those insurance companies aren’t keen on just paying the bill. One of the ship’s insurers, UKP&I, challenged the basis of the $900 million claim, writing in a press release, “The [Suez Canal Authority] has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300 million claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300 million claim for ‘loss of reputation.’”

“The grounding resulted in no pollution and no reported injuries. The vessel was re-floated after six days and the Suez Canal promptly resumed their commercial operations.”

It went on to add that the $900 million verdict doesn’t even include payments to the crews that worked to free the ship, meaning that the total price tag of the event could likely be far more for Shoei Kisen Kaisha and the multiple insurance companies it works with.

See what others are saying: (Financial Times) (CNN) (The Telegraph)

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Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

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  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

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Greta Thunberg To Skip U.N. Climate Change Conference, Citing Vaccine Inequality

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  • Young environmental activist Greta Thunberg will not attend the U.N.’s climate change conference set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland this November.
  • “Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem,” the 18-year-old tweeted Friday, adding, “Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions.”
  • Since rollouts began late last year, 40% of vaccines have been administered in wealthy and Western countries, according to The Washington Post.
  • Scientists have warned that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.

Thunberg Points To Vaccine Inequality

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has said she is skipping the UN’s climate change conference.

The COP26 summit is set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland in November, but 18-year-old Thunberg told BBC she won’t attend because she’s concerned about the impact COVID-19 will have on attendance.

In a Twitter thread Friday, she responded to a headline about her plans to miss the summit.

“Of course I would love to attend…But not unless everyone can take part on the same terms. Right now many countries are vaccinating healthy young people, often at the expense of risk groups and front line workers (mainly from global south, as usual…),” she wrote.

“Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem.”

“Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions,” the teen continued.

Thunberg went on to say that if the summit is delayed, it doesn’t mean urgent action should too.

“We don’t have to wait for conferences nor anyone or anything else to dramatically start reducing our emissions. Solidarity and action can start today,” she added before noting that digital alternatives for the conference would also be insufficient.

“High speed internet connection and access to computers is extremely unequal in the world. In that case we would lack representation from those whose voices need to be heard the most when it comes to the climate crisis,” she wrote.

Data on Global Vaccine Distribution Efforts

According to The Washington Post, nearly 20% of people in the United States are now vaccinated, but many other countries are unlikely to hit that same metric by the end of the year, even with international assistance through the Covax program.

Current projections predict it could be years before developing countries distribute enough doses to come close to herd immunity, which scientists say requires inoculating around 70-80% of a population.

Since rollouts began late last year, enough shots have been distributed to fully vaccinate about 5% of the world’s population, but The Post reported that the vast majority have been administered in wealthy and Western countries.

Around 40% of vaccines have been given in 27 wealthy nations that include only 11% of the world’s population, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

That’s pretty concerning because scientists also warn that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.

Thunberg’s comments are a blow for U.K. organizers, who have already postponed the conference once from last November because of the pandemic. Even now, there has been speculation that it could be delayed again this year.

Thunberg would not play a formal role at the conference but her decision not to attend is a significant symbolic moment.

At COP25, the young climate change activist gave a headline speech and she typically attends major climate events of this nature. On top of that, reports say this summit was slated to be one of the most consequential climate conferences since the 2015 Paris accord.

On the agenda for this year’s conference discussions were country-level plans for cutting carbon emissions, along with progress on the Paris agreement and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

See what others are saying: (Insider) (CNBC) (The Washington Post)

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