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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)

International

Petition Calls for Ban on Sexualized Fanfiction in South Korea

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  • A petition circulating across South Korea calls for sexualized fanfiction depicting K-pop stars and other real people to be outlawed and classified as sex crimes.
  • The petition particularly focuses on the way male stars are depicted in same-sex relationships and argues that they often feature people who are minors.
  • A similar petition was submitted last week to President Moon Jae-in; however, it focused on deep fakes. Because both petitions have over 200,000 signatures, they will need to be addressed by President Moon.

K-Pop Fanfiction Causes Chaos

A petition began circulating across South Korea this week demanding that “real person slash” fanfiction works be outlawed and charged as sex crimes.

“Real person slash” refers to a specific form of fanfiction that most often features sexualized versions of K-pop stars and other real people.

In particular, the petition focuses on the way male stars are depicted in same-sex relationships and the age of some of the people being portrayed. The petition notes, “due to the nature of the profession of idols, whose average age is young, many of the victims are still minors or children.”

The petition was submitted to the Blue House, South Korea’s version of the White House, and currently has over 200,000 signatures. It received a big boost in attention after K-pop star Nancy, from the group Momoland, was secretly filmed by a member of her agency while she was changing backstage. This person then doctored some of the images and uploaded them online.

While Nancy’s case isn’t hand-drawn fanfic, it did fuel outrage at what’s seen as an ineffective approach towards sex crimes in the country. Signers of this petition believe that these fanfics fall into the same category of likely illegality as deep fakes.

Deep Fakes Also Being Targeted

Additionally, just last week deep fakes – which often feature k-pop stars – had its own petition submitted to the president last week with over 300,000 signatures.

Because both petitions have over 200,000 signatures, they will need to be addressed by President Moon Jae-in

For years South Korea has struggled with secret cameras, deep fakes, revenge porn, and more violent sex crimes, such as the infamous Nth Room case that saw certain stars filming themselves having sex with women against their consent.

See What Others Are Saying: (CNA) (The Korea Herald) (South China Morning Post)

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Italy Begins Largest Mob Trial in Decades

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  • Italian prosecutors have started their trial against more than 320 defendants linked to the  ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.
  • The charges range from murder and drug trafficking to extortion and money laundering.
  • The case is so large, high-profile, and potentially dangerous that the government built a bunker for the event in Calabria, the home territory of the ‘Ndrangheta.
  • Details uncovered could deliver a massive blow to organized crime in Italy and potentially across the world as the ‘Ndrangheta has major dealings in Europe, Australia, and the Americas.

Hundreds of ‘Ndranghetisti Facing Charges

A major mob trial kicked off in Italy Wednesday involving more than 320 defendants who are part of or associated with the ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate.

In addition to these defendants going on trial, 90 others have elected for a fast-tracked trial elsewhere in Calabria.

While this is a massive affair, it’s still not the country’s largest mob-related trial in history. That happened in the ’80s against the Cosa Nostra from Sicily.

The trial is so high-profile and potentially dangerous that the government built a bunker for the event in Calabria, close to the home territory of the ‘Ndrangheta.

The court is looking at many charges against the defendants, including extortion, drug and arms trafficking, money laundering, and Mafia association – a term used in Italy’s penal code for members of organized crime.

Breaking Into the Family

Investigators hope that the trial will show just how entrenched organized crime is in the territory, as it’s believed that the ‘Ndrangheta has dealings with local politicians and businessmen. These dealings are believed to not only stem from their illicit activities but also from their legitimate businesses that were initially funded via crime-related funds. Either way, the trial is seen as a major blow for the group.

The organization is made up of multiple groups of tight-knight families that are all interconnected. For years investigators have tried to get more information on the group but following the arrest and prosecution of Luigi Mancuso, a boss in the ‘Ndrangheta, investigators finally had a way to look more closely at 12 families who make up part of the ‘Ndrangheta.

During their investigation police and prosecutors managed to turn some members of those families and use them as informants. They are expected to take the stand as witnesses during the trial. In total, prosecutors hope to put bring out over 900 witnesses.

If successful, this could be a massive blow to organized crime in Italy and potentially across the world as the ‘Ndrangheta has major dealing in Europe, Australia, and the Americas.

See What Others Are Saying: (ABC News) (LA Times) (Chicago Tribune)

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Hundreds Sickened By Mysterious Illness in India

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  • A mystery illness has hospitalized over 500 people in India and is linked to one death. While most people have recovered and been discharged from the hospital, under 100 people are still being treated.
  • Health officials believe that it is not a viral infection and that it is not tied to the coronavirus pandemic. One official told The Washington Post that it is a “point source epidemic,” but no one knows what is causing it.
  • Blood tests showed patients had high levels of lead and nickel and officials are trying to find what is behind that. Some are also pointing to pesticides used in mosquito treatment as a potential cause behind the outbreak.
  • Still, health officials are puzzled, and the situation comes while India currently trails the United States as the country with the most coronavirus cases. This mystery outbreak is also occurring in one of the hardest-hit states.

Mystery Illness in India

Health officials are still looking for what might be causing a mysterious illness that has sickened hundreds of people this month in India. 

The unidentified illness has put over 500 people in the hospital and taken one life. Most patients have been discharged and recovered but under 100 are still being treated. The disease was first reported on Sunday, and new instances have gone down since the start of the week.

The outbreak started in the state of  Andhra Pradesh. Symptoms range from nausea to anxiety to loss of consciousness, and in some cases, seizures. Some reports say the patient who died suffered from a seizure. Others note they may have fallen as well.

Many patients describe the sickness as hitting them quickly and suddenly as they were going about their day. Some got foggy vision, sore eyes, or incredibly tired before passing out. Many woke up in the hospital and were left with a gap in their memory. 

While the cause of this disease is unknown, health officials do not believe it is tied to the coronavirus in any way as no patients have tested positive. The illness is also not believed to be a viral infection of any kind. 

“What has been established by experts is that this is a case of acute intoxication of toxins. It is not chronic in nature. This is all we know for now,” one high-ranking official told The Washington Post. 

Because cases are already slowing significantly, some believe it might have stemmed from an isolated source or event. 

“This is a point source epidemic,” another official told the Post. “Whatever happened, occurred for one particular day and some people got affected. The number of new patients has dropped.”

Potential Causes

What that source or event may have been remains a mystery that officials are eager to solve. So far, no commonalities have been found between the patients as they all live in different places, are of different ages, and do not test positive for other kinds of illnesses that could be causing or contributing to this outbreak. Clues are beginning to emerge, though. 

One medical official told Al Jazeera that high lead and nickel levels were found in the blood tests of patients. So far, ten have been tested and another 30 will be tested shortly. At first officials thought these levels may have been a result of water contamination, but after water tests were conducted, neither lead nor nickel were found. 

Water contamination as a whole has not been ruled out though. 

“Health experts suspect that excessive use of bleaching powder and chlorine in sanitation programmes as part of Covid-19 prevention measures may be the cause of water contamination,” the Health Minister of Andhra Pradesh told the Indian Express. “This is just one of the causes we are exploring.”

Another theory at play stems from the fact that organochlorines, which are used as pesticides in mosquito control, were found in some water samples. One of the federal legislators in the state believes that the sickness could be tied to that. A public health director confirmed to Al Jazeera that “it is one of the possibilities.”

Timing With COVID-19

Still, all these ideas simply remain possibilities and officials have far more questions than they have answers about this situation. Health officials from the country and the World Health Organization have established a presence in Andhra Pradesh to get to the bottom of the situation.

The timing of this outbreak is unfortunate as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread through India. While daily cases are much lower than they were when it peaked in September in the country, it still remains an issue. 

India is behind the United States in seeing the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases, totaling 9.7 million infections. Around 141,000 people have died in the country. In August, their outbreak was the fastest growing in the world. Andhra Pradesh is among the hardest-hit states in the country. 

Hope is on the horizon as India, like many other countries, could be on track to approve a vaccine within weeks. According to Reuters, health officials will prioritize 300 million people, including healthcare workers, policemen, and those above the age of 50.

See what others are saying: (Al Jazeera) (Indian Express) (Washington Post)

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