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China Arrests Leaders Behind Massive Fake Vaccine Scam

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  • Chinese authorities have arrested at least 70 people connected to a series of COVID-19 vaccine scams.
  • The scams are believed to have started as far back as August and involved falsely claiming that syringes filled with saline solution or mineral water were vaccines.
  • A leader behind one of the criminal rings appeared in court on Monday and is accused of helping his group profit nearly $3 million from fraudulent vaccines.
  • At least 600 of his vaccines were sent to Hong Kong and shipped internationally, although it’s currently unknown exactly where those counterfeits were sent.

Catching Counterfeits

Since August of last year, China has been dealing with a particularly malicious aspect of the coronavirus epidemic: counterfeit vaccines.

Over the last week, Chinese authorities have released more information regarding the scams, which involved various groups and individuals. At least 70 people have been arrested over their links to providing fake vaccines.

While the counterfeits vary in some respects, they’re all largely made up of just saline solution or mineral water in a syringe. Some of these were given to the public at make-shift clinics. Others were sold privately or were sent abroad. There were even some attempts to sell these counterfeit vaccines to hospitals.

One group alone, according to court documents released on Monday, made a profit of nearly $3 million. That group’s leader was arrested and was only identified as “Kong.”

Investigators said he researched the packaging of real vaccines in order to better pass off his 58,000 counterfeits, of which at least 600 were sent to Hong Kong and shipped abroad. It’s currently unknown exactly where those counterfeits were shipped to.

Vaccine Concerns

On Monday, Chinese authorities vowed to further crackdown on vaccine scams, although many believe there more pressing vaccine issues worthy of attention. Notably., the country is struggling to meet vaccination goals.

The country had planned to vaccinate 100 million people to-date, but so far has only managed to vaccinate around 40 million. Despite this shortfall, the pandemic is widely considered to be under control in the country, which has employed draconian lockdown measures and intense contact tracing.

All of this comes amidst doubts about the efficacy of China’s two vaccines, made by Sinovac and Sinopharm. Both were initially claimed to be around 78% effective, but trials in Brazil and other countries have found Sinovac’s to be around 58%. That vaccine is currently used in Turkey and China, with the Brazilian rollout paused after its findings.

Sinopharm, China’s first vaccine backed by the state has issued assurances that its 78% efficacy is true.

See what others are saying: (BBC) (Tribune India) (Global Times)

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Death Toll in Myanmar Surpasses 50 People as Police Continue To Use Live Ammunition

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  • At least 50 people have died across Myanmar since the start of the coup on Feb. 1, with Wednesday being the single largest loss of life to date after 38 were shot by security forces.
  • Despite the danger, tens of thousands of citizens continue to take to the streets to protest the coup and demand the restoration of democracy in Myanmar.
  • The U.N. Security Council is due to meet Friday to discuss how to deal with the situation in Myanmar in response to calls for a solution from nations and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Growing Violence Across Myanmar

Over the weekend, security forces in Myanmar killed 18 anti-coup protesters and wounded at least 30 more. Across the subsequent three days, that number rose considerably.

According to the U.N., at least 38 people were killed on Wednesday alone.; making it the bloodiest day of the coup so far and raising the overall death toll to over 50. Exact number are difficult to find, as the chaos on the ground precludes outlets from confirming accounts of possibly more deaths.

The violence has occurred across the country, with the deaths largely being tied to the use of live ammunition by security forces. The demonstrations, and the response to them, have been widely captured on camera. Some of the most shocking scenes are of police passing a BA-53 (a Burmese Army variant of the HK G3 military rifle) to fire into protesters.

Despite the death, tens of thousands of citizens continue to take to the streets to protest the coup and demand the restoration of democracy in Myanmar. Thursday morning saw thousands in the streets who attended vigils for those slain on Wednesday, an increasingly common ritual for the prior day’s deaths.

Sanctions May Not Work

The United States has tried to get neighboring countries to join it and the European Union in sanctioning the Burmese military, but few Southeast Asian countries wanted to sign on, which gives the Burmese military breathing room as most of its diplomatic and trade relations are with neighboring countries.

At the U.N., Security Council members are due to meet on Friday to discuss calls from countries and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to stop the coup and the escalating crackdowns against protesters. However, it’s unclear what more they can do. Sanctions against specific military leaders are often ineffective, yet sanctions on the country as a whole would affect the everyday people they’re trying to support.

Other options include direct intervention, but Justine Chambers, Associate Director of the Myanmar Research Center at the Australian National University, pushed back against this, telling The New York Times, “Unfortunately I don’t think the brutality caught on camera is going to change much.”

“I think domestic audiences around the world don’t have much of an appetite for stronger action, i.e. intervention, given the current state of the pandemic and associated economic issues.”

While it’s unclear what more the international community can do, it’s quite likely that violence will continue in Myanmar as citizens try to peacefully restore democracy.

See what others are saying: (AP) (Reuters) (New York Times)

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Saudi Arabia To Require Vaccine for Hajj Pilgrims

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  • Saudi Arabia will require all pilgrims participating in the Hajj this year to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to local media.
  • The Hajj is a pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are required to take at least once in their lifetime if they are physically or financially able to.
  • Many believe the inoculation requirement may help allay suspicions over vaccines within certain Muslim communities.
  • Those suspicions have persisted despite Muslim leaders clarifying that there are no theological problems with taking any of the COVID-19 vaccines available.

COVID-19 Vaccines for Pilgrims

Saudi Arabia’s health ministry will only allow people vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend the Hajj this year, according to local outlet Okaz.

The Hajj is a mandatory pilgrimage to Mecca for all Muslims at least once in their lifetime – assuming they are physically and financially able to. However, requiring a vaccine before taking part in the Hajj isn’t a new thing. In fact, Saudi Arabia already has a list of necessary vaccinations for pilgrims.

For a virus that is among the most virulent in recent history and requiring a COVID-19 vaccine makes sense, especially since the Hajj is among the most densely populated events in the world.

In an effort to combat COVID-19, Saudi Arabia has also introduced restrictions over how many pilgrims can come to Mecca for the first time in modern history.

Requiring the COVID-19 vaccine to partake in the Hajj will likely have the added benefit of allaying fears about COVID-19 vaccines in Muslim communities, which account for nearly 2 billion people in the world. While Muslims overall support vaccinations and their religious leaders openly support vaccination efforts, some do doubt vaccines for either political reasons or religious ones.

Changes in Vaccine Hesitancy

Suspicions have arisen due to recent history, notably after Osama bin Laden was located through a vaccine program that acted as a front for the C.I.A. That incident led to a wider-anti vaccine movement in parts of Pakistan that have seen vaccine clinics burned to the ground.

Others are worried over more religious concerns, such as whether the vaccines are Halal, which is roughly the Muslim version of Kosher. To that, most major vaccines say that they are Halal and contain no animal products, such as Pfizer’s, Moderna’s, and AstraZeneca’s,

While other possibly non-Halal vaccines, such as Sinovac’s, have been given the okay from major Islamic authorities, such as Indonesia’ Ulema Council.

The concerns over whether a vaccine is Halal or not may be mute as most imams and Islamic councils have clarified that such dietary restrictions are trumped by the need to save human lives.

While the Health Ministry’s statement is for 2021, it’s possible that the decision will last beyond that based on the pandemic’s progress.

See what other are saying: (Al Jazeera) (The Hill) (Middle East Eye)

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E.U. and U.S. Sanction Russian Officials Over Navalny Detention

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  • The E.U. and U.S. coordinated new sanctions against seven Russian officials tied to the current fate of activist and Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
  • More efforts are expected to follow, with officials claiming that 14 Russian entities tied to the manufacturing of Novichok – the rare nerve agents that supposedly poisoned Navalny – are the next to be sanctioned.
  • Despite the sanctions, Biden’s administration hopes to be able to work with Russia on other world issues, such as nuclear arms in Iran and North Korea.
  • Navalny himself isn’t likely to benefit from the sanctions as he’s serving a 2.5-year prison sentence in one of Russia’s most notorious penal colonies.

Coordinated Efforts by E.U. and U.S.

The U.S. and E.U. both announced coordinated sanctions against Russia Tuesday morning over the poisoning, arrest, and detention of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

In particular, seven senior officials are targeted by the sanctions.

  • Federal Security Service Director Aleksandr Bortnikov
  • Chief of the Presidential Policy Directorate Andrei Yarin
  • First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office Sergei Kiriyenko
  • Deputy Minister of Defense Aleksey Krivoruchko
  • Deputy Minister of Defense Pavel Popov
  • Federal Penitentiary Service director Alexander Kalashnikov
  • Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov.

Both the E.U. and U.S. also plan to add fourteen entities that are involved in making the extremely deadly Russian nerve agent Novichok.

First Step For Biden

These sanctions are the first such action by the Biden administration against Russia and seem to be a tone shift from the previous administration. The Trump administration was considered relatively soft on Russia and only enacted a few sanctions over election interference, which were only softly enforced.

One U.S. official, according to NBC News reportedly said, that “today is the first such response, and there will be more to come.”

“The United States is neither seeking to reset our relations with Russia nor are we seeking to escalate,” the official went on to add.

The man at the center of all this, Alexei Navalny, has been an outspoken critic of Putin who was arrested when he returned to Russia from Germany after being treated for Novichok poisoning.

He was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison over alleged fraud crimes and is reported to have been sent to one of Russia’s worst penal colonies outside of the city of Pokrov to serve out his term.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (NPR) (NBC News)

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