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United Kingdom Becomes First Western Country To Vaccinate Citizens

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  • The U.K. officially began vaccinating its people Tuesday, just one week after the government approved Pfizer’s vaccine. Those over the age of 80 in long term care are getting it first, with healthcare workers likely soon to follow.
  • The first person to get it was 90-year-old Margaret Keenan who celebrates her 91st birthday next week. She said it was the “best early birthday present” as she can soon see her family once again. She also encouraged others to get the vaccine.
  • In the U.S., ahead of a Thursday advisory committee meeting, the FDA has said that the Pfizer vaccine appears to be safe and effective. Experts believe this is promising and could mean approval is just around the corner.
  • Meanwhile, a report from the New York Times alleged that the Trump Administration turned down the opportunity to get more doses of the Pfizer vaccine back in July.

U.K. Begins Administering Vaccine

The hope that a coronavirus vaccine could start to bring the world back to normal heightened on Tuesday as the United Kingdom began administering Pfizer and BioNTech’s shot for the first time.

The U.K. approved Pfizer’s vaccine on Wednesday, just weeks after the company announced that its vaccine is 95% effective. The vaccine requires two doses, and people over the age of 80 who are either hospitalized or have upcoming outpatient appointments in the U.K. are first in line. Nursing home workers, healthcare workers and other vulnerable people will likely follow before it gets in the hands of the general public. 

The first person to get it in the U.K. was grandmother Margaret Keenan, who will turn 91-years-old next week. 

“I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against COVID-19,” she said to reporters in the hospital. “It’s the best early birthday present I could wish for because it means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the New Year after being on my own for most of the year.”

“My advice to anyone offered the vaccine is to take it – if I can have it at 90, then you can have it too,” she added.

The second person to get the vaccine was an 81-year-old named William Shakespeare. He was likewise pleased to be vaccinated and thanked the hospital staff who made it possible. 

The U.K. is the first western country to begin vaccinating its citizens against COVID-19. So far, the pandemic has sickened 67.8 million people across the globe and taken the lives of over 1.5 million.

U.S. FDA Says Pfizer Vaccine is Safe and Effective

In the U.S., which accounts for roughly one-fifth of the world’s cases with 15 million, progress is also being made on the vaccine front. On Thursday a vaccine advisory committee is scheduled to meet and discuss Pfizer’s vaccine. Ahead of that meeting on Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration said the vaccine is both safe and effective. 

The advisory committee will decide whether or not to recommend the shots for emergency approval, and the FDA will make their choice at some point after that. So far, experts believe the chance of approval is promising, as the FDA noted that the vaccine’s efficacy rate is consistent across people of all ages, genders, races and among people with underlying health issues. 

The FDA also said that the vaccine is 50% effective within one week after the first shot. It reaches the 95% rate after the second. 

So far, side effects include fatigue, fever, headaches and joint or muscle pain. There were also four cases of Bell’s Palsy for those who got the vaccine in the trials, a condition that causes weakness in facial muscles. One of those patients recovered in a week’s time and there is currently no evidence supporting that the vaccine is the cause of this. Still the FDA will likely recommend follow up research on the matter. 

With all the documents the FDA submitted Tuesday, Dr. Greg Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group in Rochester, Minnesota told NBC News he could “see absolutely no reason why this emergency use authorization would not be granted.”

Trump Passed on More Doses for the U.S.

Doses of the vaccine are expected to go out by the end of the year to healthcare workers and other vulnerable groups. However, on Monday, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration passed on the opportunity to secure access to more doses of Pfizer’s vaccine. 

Back in July, the company offered the U.S. government the chance to lock in supplies beyond their nearly $2 billion deal that included 100 million doses, which is enough to vaccinate 50 million people. That offer could have given the U.S. between 100 to 500 million more doses, enough for another 50 to 250 million people.

Despite the fact that Pfizer warned the administration that the demand would surely exceed the supply of the vaccine, the deal was never made. The Times noted this begs questions about the possibility that the U.S. let other countries jump ahead in the vaccine line. Right now, the bulk of the vaccine supply has been claimed by other wealthy countries like Canada and the U.K.

White House officials are denying the details of the report, telling reporters on Tuesday that it is “false” and explaining that they are “in the middle of negotiations right now and can’t talk publicly about it.” Officials maintained that the vaccine will be available to all Americans who want it. 

On Tuesday, Trump is also holding a vaccine summit where he will sign an executive order prioritizing American’s access to vaccines before the U.S. helps other countries. While the logistics of the order are unclear, it will reportedly aim to make sure vaccine doses are not shipped abroad until all U.S. needs are met. 

See what others are saying: (NPR) (NBC News) (New York Times)

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New Zealand Considers Banning Cigarettes For People Born After 2004

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  • New Zealand announced a series of proposals that aim to outlaw smoking for the next generation with the hopes of being smoke-free by 2025.
  • Among the proposed provisions are plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and possibly prohibit the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products to anyone born after 2004; effectively banning smoking for that generation.
  • Beyond that, the level of nicotine in products will likely be significantly reduced, setting a minimum price for tobacco and heavily restricting where it can be sold.
  • The proposals have proven to be popular as one in four New Zealand cancer deaths are tobacco-related, but some have criticized them as government overreach and worry a ban could lead to a bigger and more robust black market.

Smoke Free 2025

New Zealand announced sweeping new proposals on Thursday that would effectively phase out the use of tobacco products, a move that is in line with its hopes to become a smoke-free country by 2025.

Among a number of provisions, the proposals include plans to gradually increase the legal smoking age and bar anyone born after 2004 from buying tobacco products. Such a ban would effectively end tobacco sales after a few decades. The government is also considering significantly reducing the level of nicotine allowed in tobacco products, prohibiting filters, restricting locations where tobacco products can be purchased, and setting a steep minimum price for tobacco.

“We need a new approach.” Associate Health Minister Dr. Ayesha Verral said when announcing the changes on Thursday. 

“About 4,500 New Zealanders die every year from tobacco, and we need to make accelerated progress to be able to reach [a Smoke Free 2025]. Business-as-usual without a tobacco control program won’t get us there.”

The proposals received a large welcome from public health organizations and local groups. Shane Kawenata Bradbrook, an advocate for smoke-free Maori communities, told The Guardian that the plan “will begin the final demise of tobacco products in this country.” 

The Cancer Society pointed out that these proposals would help combat health inequities in the nation, as tobacco stores were four times more likely to be in low-income neighborhoods, where smoking rates are highest.

Not Without Flaws

The proposals weren’t completely without controversy. There are concerns that a complete ban could bankrupt “dairy” store owners (the equivalent to a U.S. convenience store) who rely on tobacco sales to stay afloat. 

There are also concerns that prohibition largely doesn’t work, as has been seen in other nations with goods such as alcohol or marijuana. Many believe a  blanket ban on tobacco will increase the incentive to smuggle and sell the products on the black market. The government even acknowledged the issue in a document outlining Thursday’s proposals. 

“Evidence indicates that the amount of tobacco products being smuggled into New Zealand has increased substantially in recent years and organised criminal groups are involved in large-scale smuggling,” the document said.

Some are also concerned about how much the government is intervening in people’s lives.

“There’s a philosophical principle about adults being able to make decisions for themselves, within reason,” journalist Alex Braae wrote. 

The opposition ACT party also added that lowering nicotine content in tobacco products could lead to smokers smoking more, a particular concern as one-in-four cancer cases in New Zealand are tobacco-related.

See what others are saying: (Stuff) (Independent) (The Guardian)

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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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