GulfNews World

GulfNews World

Telangana’s 13th century Ramappa temple gets World Heritage Site tag

India|: Hyderabad: In a shot in the arm for Telangana, one of its oldest temples has been included in the World Heritage Sites list of UNESCO. Rudreshwara Swamy temple, popularly known as Ramappa temple after its architect, was built about 800 years ago during the reign of Kakatiya King Ganapati Deva. The news about the decision of International Council on Monuments and Sites to include the 13th century temple in the World Heritage Sites list was hailed all over India. The temple, situated in Palampet village in Warangal district, 220 kms from Hyderabad, is famous for its engineering and exquisite design. While a general of Kakatiya dynasty Recharla Senapati Rudrayya had commissioned the temple, famous sculptor of the era Ramappa built the temple working over a period of 40 years. The majestic temple was built on a 6 feet high star-shaped elevated platform and every inch of it, inside as well as outside is covered with intricate designs and sculptures in stones including that of Madanika or Nagini and Ragini. The work on the roof of the temple is also breathtaking in their details. The proposal to accord the WHS tag to the temple evoked an overwhelming support of many countries in the meeting of the International Council including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, Russia, China, Spain, South Africa and Kyrgyzstan. Norway, however, wanted more action by Indian authorities to improve the temple’s landscape and extend its buffer zone and boundaries. “The spiritual and cultural property of the Kakatiya kings has a very special place in the country’s cultural heritage”, Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao said, reacting on the temple getting the tag. Repair and restoration As the vagaries of time and weather have taken a toll on the monument and many parts of it were damaged or demolished, the authorities have now started planning repair and restoration of the building fully using the same material with which the original structure was built. Founder Trustees of Kakatiya Heritage Trust were also elated over the success of their decade long struggle to get global recognition. “We had formed the Trust with the intention of getting the recognition for the temple”, said the founder Trustee BV Papa Rao, a retired IAS officer. The state’s tourism minister T Srinivas Goud said there were 10 more monuments in the state which deserved the tag of World Heritage site. The area where the temple was located had a potential to emerge as an international tourism destination as the beautiful Laknavaram lake was also situated nearby. Another complex of 8 Shiva temples was also located in the same area. As an immediate follow up of the development, Archaeological Survey of India has stepped up the security around Ramappa temple and the state government has also set up a police camp at the temple. Indifferent attitude While the officials of the state department of tourism and archaeology celebrated the victory, which came after persistent efforts of 9 years, the heritage activists pointed out the indifferent attitude of the state administration towards the many other historical monuments and heritage structures in the state. Charminar, the world famous symbol of Hyderabad, has not been able to get into the list though the officials were making efforts for several decades. Even though the teams of experts from UNESCO and other agencies visited the monuments many times, authorities could not satisfy them of meeting all the required parameters to get the tag. Apart from the more than 430-year-old Charminar, the 800-year-old Golconda Fort in Hyderabad was also in the race for the World Heritage Site tag, but the international agency was not happy with the maintenance of the monuments as well as their surroundings. Heritage activists say that the illegal structures and encroachments around the two historic monuments, including an illegal temple adjacent to Charminar, were standing in the way of getting the WHS tag. Despite court orders and campaigns by activists, the government has failed to take any action to clear the encroachments.

GulfNews World

73% of Bihar population has COVID-19 antibodies: Survey

India|: Patna: The Indian state of Bihar has reported the prevalence of antibodies against the deadly COVID-19 in 73% of its population, following the fourth serological survey conducted in June this year. The survey was conducted in six districts of the state by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). Bihar hopes the prevalence of antibodies in a large percentage of its population will enable it to reach herd immunity soon. “Herd immunity”, also known as ‘population immunity’, is the indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection, experts say. The World Health Organisation (WHO) supports achieving ‘herd immunity’ through vaccination, not by allowing a disease to spread through any segment of the population as that would result in unnecessary cases and casualties. Health officials said the recent sero survey was conducted in six districts of Bihar during which around 3,000 blood samples were collected and later sent to the National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai for tests. The health experts were surprised when they found antibodies present in 73% of the population. Six districts sampled The six districts of Bihar sampled among total 70 across 21 states in India included Buxur, Madhubani, Arwal, Begusarai, Muzaffarpur and Purnia, located in various parts of the state. Of them, the south-western district of Buxur reported the highest sero-positivity of 83%, followed by 77.1% in Madhubani (a northern Bihar district), 73.7% in Arwal (a south-central Bihar district), 72.7% in Begusarai (a central Bihar district), 65.3% in Muzaffarpur (a north Bihar district close to Patna) and 65% in Purnia district located in eastern part of Bihar. “A sero-positivity rate of 73% is a good sign for Bihar. This means that only 27 per cent people are now susceptible to contracting coronavirus,” said Dr CM Singh, head of the Community and Family Medicine at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Patna. According to him, a sero-positivity of over 70-80% helps to develop herd immunity but since coronavirus is mutating very fast there is a possibility of the masses getting re-infected. “However, in case of re-infection, the symptoms will be mild in 73% of the population who reported prevalence of antibodies,” said Dr Singh. Good development Another health expert Dr SN Sharma too described it as a good development. “In such a situation, even if the third wave of COVID-19 comes, the infection won’t spread fast and the number of deaths will also be fewer,” said Dr Sharma, a senior microbiologist. Health officials said the sero-positivity rate in Bihar has increased after the spread of coronavirus infections in the state. In the first survey conducted between May 17 and May 20 last year when India faced the first wave, the cumulative sero-positivity was found at 0.7%. During the second survey conducted between August 21 and August 26 last year, the sero-positivity rate reached 7%, while during the third survey undertaken between December 20 and December 20 last year, the sero-positivity rate jumped to 24%, health officials informed. The fourth survey in the state was conducted between June 20 and June 25 this year when the second wave was on the wane. The main objective of the survey was to ascertain the prevalence of antibodies in the people. WHO says the percentage of people who need to be immune in order to achieve herd immunity varies with each disease. For example, herd immunity against measles requires about 95% of a population to be vaccinated. The remaining 5% will be protected by the fact that measles will not spread among those who are vaccinated. For polio, the threshold is about 80%. “The proportion of the population that must be vaccinated against COVID-19 to begin inducing herd immunity is not known,” said a WHO report. The WHO added this is an important area of research and will likely vary according to the community, the vaccine, the populations prioritised for vaccination, and other factors.

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COVID-19: Pandemic of the unvaccinated, and what it means

Dubai: If you've had your double dose of COVID vaccines, and perhaps even a “booster” shot, you’re extremely lucky — 98.9% of people in less-developed countries have yet to get even their first shot. Today, there's solid proof that approved coronavirus jabs are safe and effective. Vaccines embody human advancement. Various clinical data sets now show vaccines help prevent severe infections. Giant scientific strides  More than 18 months since the pandemic first erupted, experts and clinicians’ understanding about the threat has advanced tremendously. There are today at least 19 vaccines approved against COVID-19. Health authorities had also approved monoclonal antibody (mAb) therapies proven to help patients from age 12 and above who had encountered severe COVID, the same drug given to Donald Trump, and which he later trumpeted as a COVID-19 "cure". Moreover, antiviral drugs, as well as the game-changing dexamethasone, have become part of standard care of COVID-19 patients. Vaccines vs vaccinations Vaccines have advanced much, but they do not solve a pandemic; rather, it’s vaccinations that do. The world now faces a huge challenge as only 1.1% of people in less-developed countries have received even their first shot. Image Credit: Our World in Data / Vijith Pulikkal / Gulf News A powerful anti-vax lobby hyperactive on social media embodies human folly. Combined with the highly transmissible Delta variant, this folly turns into a double punch. Add to that the uneven distribution of vaccines — 78% of the world is yet to get even the first dose — is a another serious challenge. The pandemic response, so far, has been defined by and within national borders. The virus, however, knows no bounds. Given the “pan” — all — nature of the threat ("demic" is Greek for people), the WHO has warned that only an immediate collective action, and the level of avoidance for risk of transmission, will decide our future. Yet, at the moment, given the "triple whammy" hammering the world, getting to the desired future seems an insurmountable task. Image Credit: Seyyed dela Llata / Gulf News The WHO has warned that only an immediate collective action, and the level of avoidance for risk of transmission, will decide our future. Yet, at the moment, given the "triple whammy" hammering the world, getting to the desired future seems an insurmountable task. The 'triple whammy' In the face of this “triple whammy” — the growing power of the anti-vax camp, viral mutation and vaccine shortfalls in less developed countries — could end up dulling our edge over the virus. Consider the following: Today (July 27, 2021), more than halfway through 2021: Only 13.8% of the world is fully vaccinated, according Our World in Data. Most of them belong to the 10 countries that have roped in more than 70% of the COVID-19 shots. That means more than 86% of the world’s inhabitants are yet to have even the first dose (as of this writing). 27.2% of the world population has already received at least one dose of the vaccine. An estimated 3.89 billion doses had been administered globally. 32.03 million are now administered each day. But only 1.1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose. I think one can make a reasonable assumption, based on the level of virus in the nasopharynx, that it would be less likely that that vaccinated breakthrough person would transmit compared to an unvaccinated person. Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases What do scientists say about the implication of these numbers? Scientists and doctors are convinced vaccinations are the only way out of the coronavirus pandemic. In the US, in particular, they were vehement in the criticism of people who refuse vaccinations and the general vaccine hesitancy after data showed that 99% of deaths last month had been among unvaccinated Americans. One important point to know: Vaccinated people with asymptomatic infections have “considerably less” virus in their nasal passages when compared to unvaccinated people with asymptomatic infections, Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House briefing on July 17. “I think one can make a reasonable assumption, based on the level of virus in the nasopharynx, that it would be less likely that that vaccinated breakthrough person would transmit compared to an unvaccinated person,” Fauci added. What’s the lowdown on the threats to unvaccinated people? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on Friday that more than 97% of people hospitalised with COVID-19 hadn’t received vaccines. The US is now dealing with a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at Friday’s briefing of the White House COVID-19 Response Team. “Our biggest concern is we are going to continue to see preventable cases, hospitalisations and sadly deaths among the unvaccinated. We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage because unvaccinated people are at risk, and communities that are fully vaccinated are generally faring well,” Walensky said. Only around 150 of the more than 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May were of fully vaccinated people. That is about 0.8 per day, or five deaths per day on average. Image Credit: Vijithg Pulikkal / Gulf News “Each COVID-19 death is tragic, and those happening now are even more tragic because they are preventable,” said Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator. Infectious disease experts worry that unvaccinated people could become “variant factories” since variants evolve in the body of a person infected with the coronavirus. If there are fewer infections, the chances of mutants are also less. “Unvaccinated people are potential variant factories,” William Schaffner, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told CNN. “The more unvaccinated people there are, the more opportunities for the virus to multiply,” he added. “When it does, it mutates, and it could throw off a variant mutation that is even more serious down the road,” Schaffner said. His concerns were echoed by Vivek Cherian, an internal medicine physician in Baltimore, US. How dominant is the Delta variant? It is able to infect vaccinated people? Studies show vaccines continue to prevent fully immunised people from becoming severely ill. Clinical data, at least from India and the US, underlines the value of vaccination and the need to continue with COVID-appropriate behaviour (masks, social distancing, good hygiene practices). Genome sequencing of recent samples from across India and the US shows the Delta variant continues to be the dominant lineage behind new COVID-19 infections. However, the data suggests a strong correlation between vaccination and lesser severity — that means the jabs offer a high level of protection, according to the Indian SARS-CoV2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG). The Delta variant — which has high transmissibility and is more virulent as compared to others — contributed to a majority of clinical cases in vaccine breakthrough (infections post vaccination). Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal / Gulf News But very few cases needed hospitalisation, a latest study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) shows. Only 9.8% cases required hospitalisation and fatality was as low as 0.4%. In the UK, new research suggests that two doses of Pfizer's or AstraZeneca's vaccine are 88% and 67% effective, respectively, at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 from the Delta variant. Given the Delta variant, what’s the worst that could happen? “The worst-case scenario is if Delta mutates into something completely different, a completely different animal, and then our current vaccines are even less effective or ineffective,” Cherian told the Business Insider last month. Vaccine hesitancy: Why is it high, what is the ultimate result? “Health misinformation has cost us lives,” said Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general, at a recent briefing. Last week, Murthy issued a surgeon general’s warning about misinformation online and urged social media companies to do more to combat the spread of conspiracies. Vaccine hesitancy is at the heart of the problem as viral mutations continue. Misinformation and conspiracy theories have resulted in a poor vaccination rate in the US, a country with adequate supplies of vaccines. Hesitancy is highest among rural residents, Republicans and those with a high school education or less, according to ABC News/Washington Post’s latest poll. “Even though we have a surplus amount of vaccines at this time, we are only seeing 50% to 55% completely vaccinated patients,” Vino K. Palli, a specialist in emergency medicine, internal medicine and urgent care, told the Associated Press. “The scientific data has honed in on one thing — vaccines are effective in preventing hospitalisations, ICU admissions, ventilations and deaths,” he added. “There are people who still doubt the severity of COVID-19 and the effectiveness of the vaccine … This is still a serious illness. The vaccines are highly protective against these severe outcomes. This is real,” William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Centre at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the Washington Post. “The fact that only 0.8% of COVID-19 deaths are in the fully vaccinated should persuade those people still hesitant about vaccination,” says Hugh Cassiere, medical director of Respiratory Therapy Services at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York. ‘BREAKTHROUGH’ INFECTIONS Breakthrough infection is the infection of a fully-vaccinated person. It tends to be rare, and happens among older people or those who are immunocompromised because the shots may be less effective for them. Scientists say that while COVID-19 cases are surging, it's not due to 'breakthrough infections'; and point to new data showing that 99% of deaths and 97% of hospitalisations are among the unvaccinated. So yes, you can get COVID-19 after being vaccinated. But it's different from getting COVID-19 as an unvaccinated person: Your body is equipped with defenses it didn't have before. More importantly, it means this: your body does not go back at its immunological square one after a "breakthrough". Therefore, "breakthroughs" are only notable because they're rare. For example, of the 160 million people vaccinated in the US, just 3,733 were subsequently hospitalised for severe COVID-19 infection, and 791 have died. That doesn't mean vaccines don't work. Of the 273 who died OF COVID on July 26, 2021 across America, 273 were unvaccinated. Breakthroughs don't mean vaccines don't work. The numbers show it's the opposite that's true. In a July 25, 2021 update, Public Health England (PHE) estimates good vaccine effectiveness for both Alpha and Delta. The UK mostly uses AstraZeneca shots. A new pre-print study published in medRxiv server on vaccine efficacy using clinical data on 800 patients from US Flu VE Network (February 1 to May 28, 2021), shows mRNA shots reduce symptomatic confirmed COVID-19 by 91% in the fully vaccinated group, vs. 75% among the partially vaccinated. Another in France suggests high efficacy of mRNA vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern. Do vaccines become less effectively against new viral strains? New strains haven’t blunted the vaccines, although their efficacy is reduced. A study published in Nature on July 8, 2021 shows that individuals who are fully vaccinated (two doses) generated a neutralising response against Delta (B.1.1.617) in 95% of cases. Researchers led by Delphine Planas of the Virus and Immunity Unit, Department of Virology, Institut Pasteur in Paris, stated though that titres among fully vaccinated individuals were 3 to 5-fold lower against Delta than Alpha. They explained that this shows one thing: Delta variant spread is associated with an escape to antibodies targeting non-receptor binding domain (RBD) and RBD Spike epitopes. Image Credit: File “What we’re seeing is that these variants don’t seem to affect T-cell immunity all that much and they [the T-cells] seem to be as effective in recognising these variants as they do the original virus,” Galit Alter, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said. “What that means is that we actually have very important backup mechanisms built into our vaccines that will continue to provide protection against these newly emerging variants,” she said in a report in the Harvard Gazette. Is a return to 'normal' possible? Countries with robust vaccination programmes have been able to reduce the rate of transmission. And that’s enough reason to be optimistic. When a sufficient percentage of a country’s population is inoculated to achieve herd immunity, a return to the normal is possible. The UK and some US states that have opened up are some examples of this, though it remains unclear whether a fresh outbreak would lead to new lockdowns.

https://gulfnews.com/opinion/op-eds/england-covid-19-restrictions-ease-but-caution-remains-1.80800341 Is herd immunity possible? What should be minimum vaccination rate target? The herd immunity threshold is not a fixed target, experts say, as it could range from 70% to 90% depending on the efficacy of the vaccines. That means, given the 1.1% vaccination rate in poor countries, and only 13.8% is fully vaccinated overall, humanity has a long way to go to deal with SARS-CoV-2.  Why is access to vaccines a major issue? For much of the world, COVID-19 vaccination is a mirage. When a country like Australia struggles to inoculate its residents and have resorted to lockdowns to keep out the virus, the underdeveloped countries have no hope of achieving herd immunity through vaccinations any time soon. Vaccine alliances like Gavi and Novax have been working to supply vaccines to less-affluent countries, but there’s still a long way to go. Wealthy nations, on the other hand, should be able to reach herd immunity faster if they can overcome vaccine hesitancy. Some countries that high vaccination rates would emerge from the pandemic sooner. Based on our current estimates, there's good news, sort of: The combined East+West vaccine production capacity stands at 12.18 billion doses. Image Credit: S UAE ranks first in the world in number of COVID-19 vaccine doses per 100 people What are the major vaccination challenges today? 1. A billion COVID-19 vaccines could kill other health goals Vaccinating at least 60% of the world by March 2022 requires about 4.75 billion vaccine courses, estimates a World Bank report. At present, there are at least 10 vaccines in production line with publicly available research data showing the efficacy of 50% and above against COVID-19. Many countries have adopted these vaccines as this level of efficacy offers sufficient protection against hospitalization and death in case of a COVID-19 infection. So what would be the production requirement? Gavi, the international vaccine alliance, says 14 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines are needed by the end-2021. This is roughly three times the global annual supply of all vaccines combined in the pre-COVID-19 era. Such a massive production gap, specifically focused on one vaccine alone, would invariably have serious knock-on effects on all other healthcare products. This would seriously hamper the future of our ability to successfully battle all other diseases, basic health care and other sectors, to say the least. The cumulative impact of this can be measured only in years to come.  Highlights from a WHO report out earlier in July could gives you an idea about the impact on immunisation programmes alone: Global immunization coverage saw a drop of 6% in year 2020 when it fell to 83%, from 86% the previous year. 23 million children under the age of one year did not receive basic vaccines last year, which is the highest number since 2009 Only 19 vaccine introductions were reported in 2020, less than half of any year in the past two decades. 2. Rich vs poor divide Most rich countries have now vaccinated more than half of their population and are in the process of reopening, although with some setbacks in the face of Delta variant outbreak. Most of the middle and lower-income countries are still struggling with limited access to vaccines while the high-income ones have pre-purchased more than enough vaccines to cover their entire population. Only 1.1 % of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Our World in Data. In Canada, 55.4% of the people have been fully vaccinated while an estimated 71.2% received at least one dose, Reuters says. Corresponding US figures are 49.7% and 57.4%, respectively. Compare this with some of the least vaccinated countries, Liberia or Cameroon where only 0.2% have been fully vaccinated. In Chad, the figure is less than .1 per cent. When will the whole world get vaccinated? At the current pace of immunisation, it will take until the middle of next year to achieve a high level of global immunity and bring the pandemic under control, a Bloomberg report said. With more research and a greater understanding of the coronavirus and its variants, the vaccines can only get better. There’s lingering concern: even if the world manages to end the pandemic, the SARS-CoV-2 will become endemic, possibly with more mutations every year. Much like flu and viral fever. That would mean newer and improved versions of the vaccines each year. So an annual COVID-19 shot could well be the reality. A return to normal could be at least another year away. So it’s not yet time to ditch the mask. Image Credit: Jay Hilotin / Gulf News / Airfinity / Reuters / NPR / The Diplomat / Boston Consulting Group SITUATIONER: Southeast Asia: Struggling with COVID cases and lack of vaccines Hospitals across Southeast Asia from Indonesia to Thailand, Malaysia and Myanmar are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, fuelled by the Delta variant. Unfortunately, most of these countries are still struggling to fully roll out vaccines. Vietnam has vaccinated less than 1 per cent, Thailand around 5 per cent and Indonesia 5.5 per cent, according to Oxford University’s COVID-19 Our World in Data. Government medical contract doctors participate in a walkout strike at Kuala Lumpur Hospital amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia July 26, 2021. Image Credit: Reuters Nearly 10,000 COVID-19 infections are being recorded in Thailand a day and in Vietnam it has surged past 2,000 a day, close to 10 times more than in early June. “Millions of people in Asia are living on the cruel and sharp edge of a global vaccine divide between richer countries that have a steady supply and most nations in Asia that are struggling to access sufficient doses to keep their populations safe. There is mounting evidence that COVID-19 vaccinations are already saving tens of thousands of lives around the world,” said Alexander Matheou Asia Pacific Director, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “It is encouraging that a number of richer countries have made generous pledges and donations of vaccines to countries in Asia in recent weeks,” said Matheou. “We need to speed up the delivery of these lifesaving doses so that we can get them into people’s arms, giving us a genuine shot at containing this pandemic once and for all.” Drugmaker AstraZeneca recently said it was on schedule to meet its commitments for supplying coronavirus vaccines in Southeast Asia, after some initial delays in regional production and delivery. Australia: Just over 11% of the population is fully vaccinated A year and a half into the pandemic, some 13 million Australians are under hard lockdown, with a sluggish immunisation program. Just over 11% of the population is fully vaccinated. The main vaccine in the government's arsenal, developed by AstraZeneca Plc, has been recommended for use only for people aged over 60 due to a remote risk of blood clotting, while a vaccine made by Pfizer Inc has been restricted to over-40s due to limited supply. Under mounting pressure, PM Scott Morrison said on Wednesday (July 21, 2021) that he took responsibility for both "regrettable" delays in the country's vaccination rollout, but also for the solutions to make up for lost ground. "Those delays are regrettable, we all know they're the result of many factors," Morrison told reporters in Canberra. "I take responsibility for the problems that we have had, but I am also taking responsibility for the solutions we're putting in place and the vaccination rates that we are now achieving." He said his government has asked its independent expert panel, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, to relax its conservative advice on the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Africa: Slowest vaccination rate Customers sit on chairs at Maponya Mall as South Africa starts to relax some aspects of a stringent nationwide lockdown due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 5, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters Among all the continents, Africa has the slowest vaccination rate. Some African countries have yet to start mass vaccination campaigns. COVID-19 caused a severe socio-economic impact in Africa, which led to GDP contraction in 2020. For example, South Africa, the most affected country on the continent, experienced the sharpest decline, at -7%, followed by Central Africa at minus 2.7%. The pandemic also hit most of Africa’s key economic sectors. Nigeria, the continent’s leading oil-exporting country, witnessed a sharp drop in crude oil trade in 2020, while the shrinking number of tourist arrivals led to a loss of over 12 million jobs in Africa’s travel and tourism sector. The number of people living in extreme poverty was estimated to increase by around 30 million in 2020, according to Statista. As of July 24, 2021, Seychelles posted the highest coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination rate in Africa, with 142 doses were administered per 100 individuals. Since the population of Seychelles is extremely small, below 100,000 inhabitants, the country managed to vaccinate a large part of the population in a limited period. In continental Africa, Morocco had a vaccination rate of 58 doses per 100 people, the highest number of inoculations. In South Africa, the vaccination rate reached only 10.6 per 100 population. A hospital worker in Nigeria receives one of the country's first coronavirus vaccinations, using the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and provided through the global COVAX initiative, at Yaba Mainland hospital in Lagos. Image Credit: AP The continent uses several types of vaccines. African nations are both purchasing new doses and receiving them from other countries. Donations came from all over the world, such as China, the UAE, India, and Russia. The UN-led COVAX initiative already provided Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech doses to some African countries. Within this program, the continent would receive a total of 600 million doses by December 2021, to vaccinate 60% of the African population by June 2022. Moreover, the start of the vaccination campaign has also been an occasion for intra-African solidarity. Senegal has, for instance, donated vaccines to the Gambia, while in January 2021, Algeria announced that it would have shared its supply with Tunisia. According to the supply forecast made in March 2021, the African continent would receive around 600 million doses of vaccines against the coronavirus (COVID-19) by the end of 2021 under the COVAX initiative. The UN’s COVAX program aims at providing vaccines to all countries of the world. The objective is to at least immunise the most-susceptible population in each country, including the elderly and the health care workers. Latin America, Caribbean Just 15% of people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been fully vaccinated, with some countries like Honduras and Haiti yet to reach even 1% inoculation. Cases are accelerating in much of Central America and on smaller Caribbean islands, while cases and deaths are spiking in Cuba and hot spots persist in Amazonian regions of Colombia and Peru. The Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) has warned that the only way to stop a spike in coronavirus cases is through vaccination. With nearly 4.7 million doses, Uruguay has the highest COVID-19 vaccination rate. As of July 2021, the South American country reported having administered 134.24 doses per 100 inhabitants. The country has had 380,584 cases and 5,936 deaths. Indigenous take part in a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Manaus, Brazil on June 19, 2021. Brazil has passed the milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 victims. Image Credit: AFP Nicaragua, on the other hand, registered 6.27 doses per 100 population. But its COVID-19 figures have also remained low – 9,108 cases and 194 deaths.  Brazil has — and continues to have — one of the world's worst outbreaks, driven by new variants, low vaccinations and misinformation. About 18 per cent of Brazil’s population has been fully vaccinated. But the country has had 19.7 million COVID-19 cases and 551,000 deaths. “Everything that you should not do, Brazil has done,” said professor Pedro Hallal, an epidemiologist leading Brazil’s largest COVID-19 study, told BBC. The average number of new daily cases in Brazil remains above 37,000 cases, as per Our World in Data. Similar to Colombia and Brazil, Argentina’s recent devastating wave of COVID-19 has finally begun to subside even as the country continues to record a high number of cases and deaths. Last week, the country passed the grim milestone of 100,000 coronavirus fatalities. US and Canada Canada had a sluggish start with vaccinations. But as of July 19, more than 49% of eligible people in Canada were fully vaccinated, and 70% had received at least one dose of vaccine, according to figures from the Our World in Data project. The rates in the United States are about 48% and 55.5%, respectively. The pace of US vaccinations has spiked significantly in the first six months of 2021, but remained relatively flat in recent weeks. Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister, gives a thumbs up before receiving a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine with his wife Sophie Grgoire Trudeau, left, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Friday, April 23, 2021. Image Credit: Bloomberg In a renewed push, President Joe Biden asked employers to set up clinics at work and to offer paid time off for workers to get vaccines. After a sharp drop in virus cases, the highly contagious Delta variant is now fueling infections among the unvaccinated. Outbreaks have emerged in some parts of Texas, Arkansas and Missouri. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated the country could be ready to accept fully-vaccinated US citizens and permanent residents across its border for non-essential travel from mid-August.

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Door-to-door COVID-19 vaccination drive begins in Pakistan’s Punjab province

Pakistan|: Islamabad: Pakistan’s province of Punjab has launched a door-to-door coronavirus vaccination campaign in high-risk districts as the country is dealing with the highly contagious Delta variant. The campaign has been initiated in five populated districts of the province - Lahore, Rawalpindi, Faisalabad, Gujranwala and Multan. In Lahore, Punjab Health Minister Prof Yasmin Rashid launched the vaccination drive. She said the five districts have reported the highest number of deaths and positive cases which is why the Punjab government has launched the door-to-door drive in these districts to vaccinate the maximum population. Nearly “13 million have been vaccinated in Punjab so far,” she said adding nearly 350,000 people were getting the jab daily. Mobile health teams and volunteers have been assigned the task to convince and vaccinate 40 per cent population of four districts, including Lahore, Faisalabad, Multan and Gujranwala, and 70 per cent of Rawalpindi by August 14. As many as 566 teams in Faisalabad, 528 teams in Lahore, 356 in Rawalpindi, 224 in Gujranwala and 250 in Multan, have been formed to facilitate people to get vaccinated at their homes. Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar ordered the health department to accelerate the vaccination drive and urged the citizens to get themselves vaccinated to protect their lives. Pakistan’s coronavirus tally has passed the grim milestone of 1 million cases. At least 39 deaths and 3,262 new cases of infection were reported in the last 24 hours. Around 23,000 have lost their lives to the coronavirus in the country. Pakistan has so far administered 25.5 million vaccine doses.

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Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to strengthen economic ties

Pakistan|: Islamabad: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have agreed to expand the time-tested partnership by developing economic linkages during the Saudi foreign minister’s visit to Islamabad. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, who is on a one-day visit to Pakistan, said that the two sides had “very fruitful discussions” on bilateral matters. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia would explore new opportunities “to expand that relationship beyond traditional areas…into much broader investment and cooperation.” Prince Faisal said his government would encourage businessmen of both countries to explore opportunities for investment in areas such as technology. Later in the day, Saudi foreign minister called on Prime Minister Imran Khan who stressed to explore new avenues of cooperation and strengthen economic partnership in diverse areas including trade, investment and energy. Discussing regional issues, PM Khan emphasised the need for constructive engagement among the Afghan parties to reach a negotiated political settlement, which was critically important for peace and stability in the region. Addressing a joint press conference, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that the two countries have established the Saudi-Pakistan Supreme Coordination Council (SPSCC) focused on enhancing economic partnership to take the decades-old relationship to a new level. The forum would help “create economic linkages through enhancement of bilateral trade and promotion of investments.” FM Qureshi also highlighted the transformational CPEC project and vast opportunities for Saudi investors in the special economic zones (SEZs). The two sides agreed to closely work to further strengthen bilateral relations with a particular focus on trade, investments, energy, the environment, and culture. Regional and international issues were also discussed, especially the Afghanistan situation. Travel restrictions and COVID-19 Pakistani foreign minister also took up the issue of over 400,000 Pakistani workers stranded back home due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and vaccine issues. “They are facing challenges… the travel restrictions and the issues of vaccination,” he said. Saudi foreign minister said his country is working to ease travel restrictions. Prince Faisal also appreciated the contributions of the Pakistani community towards the development of Saudi Arabia, adding that the Saudi government had given COVID-19 jabs to 1.7 million Pakistani workers. Over two million Pakistani workforce in Saudi Arabia contributed $7 billion of the total $29 billion remittances the country received in the last fiscal year.

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Pakistan’s Shehroze Kashif, 19, becomes youngest person to summit K2

Pakistan|: Islamabad: A 19-year-old Pakistani has become the youngest person to summit K2, the world’s second highest mountain, the Alpine Club of Pakistan said on Tuesday. Shehroze Kashif reached the 8,611 metre (28,251 foot) summit at 8.10am on Tuesday. Kashif, who began climbing in his early teens, scaled the world’s 12th highest mountain, 8,047-metre (26,400 foot) Broad Peak, at the age of 17. In May, he became the youngest Pakistani to scale Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. He now holds an additional record as the youngest person to have summitted K2 and Everest. Several of Pakistan’s youngest climbers have been on K2 in recent days. Sajid Ali Sadpara, who in 2019 became the youngest to climb K2 at the age of 20, is part of an expedition there to find the body of his father, who went missing along with two other climbers in February. On Monday, sherpas affixing ropes for climbers about 300m below an obstacle known as the Bottleneck discovered the bodies of Muhammad Ali Sadpara of Pakistan, Iceland’s John Snorri and Chile’s Juan Pablo Mohr. The same day, Samina Baig, 30, said she was abandoning an attempt to summit the mountain because of dangerous conditions. Baig became the youngest Pakistani woman to scale Mount Everest in 2013. On Sunday night the body of Scottish climber, Rick Allen, 68, was recovered after he was swept away by an avalanche while attempting to traverse a new route on K2’s southeastern face. Earlier this month, Kim Hong-bin, 57, a South Korean Paralympian, went missing after falling from the nearby Broad Peak.

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COVID-19: Over 75,000 Indian kids lost at least one parent, apex court told

India|: New Delhi: The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has informed the Supreme Court that more than 75,000 children have either lost one parent or became an orphan during the COVID-19 pandemic and are in need of care and protection. In an additional affidavit, the child rights body said the number of children who have lost either their mother or father or both parents between April 1, 2020, to July 23, 2021, is based upon the information uploaded on “Bal Swaraj” portal up to July 23. The child rights body said total of 75,320 children have become orphans or lost either parent amid the pandemic, and this also includes 247 children, who were abandoned. It said that of all the children affected due to the pandemic, those in the age group 8-13 years were the highest, at 29,886. Elaborating on data collected from various states, the NCPCR said in Maharashtra, 13,589 children were affected, followed by Odisha 6,562 and Andhra Pradesh 6,210. The affidavit said: “In some cases, while examining the data, the Commission has observed that the schemes/benefits being given to the child or his/her family were inadequate and the Commission observed that there could be other government implemented schemes under which the child or his family/guardian could get benefits.” The NCPCR said it is presently in the process of examining data, which has been uploaded by the states/UTs on the Bal Swaraj portal for purpose of ensuring that all benefits for which each child is entitled are being given adequately. “Wherever there is some discrepancy or lacunae being identified by the NCPCR, a letter is being issued to the concerned district authority to rectify the discrepancy and to ensure care and protection to the child,” it said in the affidavit. The child rights body said that it is pertinent to mention, until and unless the individual childcare plan of each child is prepared and orders of the Child Welfare Committee are passed, the clear picture regarding needs and requirements of these children are difficult to examine. The affidavit was submitted in the suo motu case taken up by the top court in connection with spread of Covid-19 in children protection homes. The case was initiated in March 2020, and in this year, amid the second wave, the top court took note of the issue of children who became orphans during the pandemic. It has appointed advocate Gaurav Agarwal as amicus curiae in the matter.

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India: Mother beaten by police in UP, son commits suicide

India|: Baghpat (Uttar Pradesh): Ten policemen in Uttar Pradesh's Baghpat have been relieved of their duties after a 22-year-old man - the son of a local RSS leader - allegedly ended his life by hanging when his mother was roughed up and their house ransacked by police, following a brawl at a Covid vaccination camp in the district, officials said on Tuesday. Superintendent of Police, Baghpat, Abhishek Singh said 10 policemen of Binauli police station have been relieved of their duties and attached to police lines. Akshay, a son of a local RSS leader, had taken his mother to a vaccination centre, set up by the Health Department in a primary school in Ranchhad village, to get her vaccinated against Covid on Monday. He wanted to get her the jab first instead of standing in queue, and cited her age as the reason. This led to an altercation with police and one of the policemen allegedly slapped Akshay and got into a scuffle. Later, policemen raided the family's house and broke chairs and a window of the car and also vandalised a tractor, the family claimed. When the women of the house protested, they were insulted. Akshay's mother Madhu, her sister-in-law Kamlesh and Dharamveer Singh of the village were taken into custody and brought to the police station. A case was also filed against Akshay. Upset over this, Akshay allegedly committed suicide by hanging himself, the family said. After the news of the suicide reached the villagers, they held a demonstration demanding that a case be lodged against policemen. It was only after senior police officials pacified them that they allowed police to take the body for post-mortem on Tuesday morning. A case was filed against five policemen, including police station in-charge Chandrakant Pandey, SSI Udham Singh Talan, head constable Salim and constables, Ashwani and Murli, under Section 306 (abetment of suicide) and other relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code, police said. The SP said Akshay had assaulted the police personnel due to which there was chaos in the camp. A report was also filed against Akshay at the Binauli police station for obstructing government work as well as for assault. Policemen in large numbers have been deployed in the village to maintain law and order.

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British Museum to restore objects damaged in Beirut blast

Europe|: London: The British Museum will restore eight ancient glass artefacts damaged in last year’s Beirut port explosion, the London cultural institution announced on Tuesday. The glass vessels were shattered after 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port caused a blast that devastated the city on August 4, 2020. Workers will piece together hundreds of glass fragments at the British Museum’s conservation laboratories in London with funding from The European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF). “These objects hold immense historical, artistic and cultural significance. Their return to their rightful form is a powerful symbol of healing and resilience after disaster,” said TEFAF chairman Hidde van Seggelen. The artefacts were held in a case displaying 74 Roman, Byzantine and Islamic-era glass vessels in the American University of Beirut’s Archaeological Museum, located 3.2 kilometres (two miles) from the blast. The explosion caused them to shatter into hundreds of pieces, which were mixed with broken glass from cabinets and windows. Only 15 vessels were deemed salvageable and eight safe to travel to London for restoration. Sandra Smith, head of collection care at the British Museum, explained that glass reconstruction is a “delicate process” as shards move out of shape and have to be drawn back under tension. The vessels, dating back to the first century BC, document the evolution of glass-production technology in Lebanon, with two thought to have been imported from Syria or Egypt. The works will temporarily go on display at the British Museum before returning to Beirut. Director Hartwig Fischer said the British Museum’s “expertise and resources” would allow the artefacts to be saved and “enjoyed in Lebanon for many more years to come”. The August 2020 blast killed more than 200 people, caused millions of dollars’ worth of damage and forced the Lebanese government to resign, exacerbating the country’s health and economic crises.

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End of Britain’s COVID-19 pandemic might be near, epidemiologist says

Europe|: London: The end of Britain’s COVID pandemic could be just months away as vaccines have so dramatically reduced the risk of hospitalisation and death, Imperial College epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said on Tuesday. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is betting that he can get one of Europe’s largest economies firing again because so many people are now vaccinated, a decision which marks a new chapter in the global response to the novel coronavirus. The number of new daily COVID-19 cases has fallen each day for the six last days, though Johnson has stressed the pandemic is not over. “We’re not completely out of the woods but the equation has fundamentally changed,” Ferguson, whose early 2020 modelling of the virus’s likely spread alarmed governments across the world at the outset of the pandemic, told the BBC. “The effect of vaccines has been huge in reducing the risk of hospitalisation and death and I think, I’m positive that by late September, October time we will be looking back at most of the pandemic.” British COVID data shows that a recent spike of infections earlier in July has so far not led to a vast increase in deaths, which fell to just 14 on Monday, though the number of COVID patients in British hospitals has risen to 5,238. Johnson’s decision to lift regulations in England on July 19 in favour of restarting an economy damaged by a series of on-off lockdowns since March 2020. If it pays off, Britain’s example could offer a way out of the pandemic, though Johnson’s gamble could be derailed by the possible emergence of a variant capable of resisting vaccines - or if ill people overwhelm the health service. By October, Britain will “still have COVID with us, we’ll still have people dying from COVID, but we’ll put the bulk of the pandemic behind us,” Ferguson said. Britain has one of the highest official death tolls in the world, 129,460, though daily new cases, which in the current wave peaked at 54,674 on July 17, have fallen to 24,950 on Monday.

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COVID-19 curbs to end in Australian state of Victoria on Wednesday

Oceania|: Canberra / Sydney: Australia’s Victoria state said on Tuesday it will lift a strict lockdown after curtailing the spread of COVID-19, but neighbouring New South Wales faces an extension of restrictions after daily new cases spiked to a 16-month peak. More than half of Australia’s near 26 million population has been in lockdown in recent weeks after an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant took hold in the New South Wales capital of Sydney and spread to three states. New South Wales reported 172 COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, up from 145 a day earlier, with at least 60 spending time in the community while infectious. New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said a decision whether to extend the five-week lockdown will be taken this week. But with less than 13% of the state’s population fully vaccinated, curbs are expected to remain. “We know we’ve put in the hard yards for five weeks and we don’t want to waste all the good work that we’ve done by opening too early and then having the virus spread again,” Berejiklian told a media conference. In contrast, Victoria state said most restrictions imposed on July 15 will be removed from Wednesday after recording just 10 infections of people already in quarantine. “All in all, this is a good day,” Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters in Melbourne. Victoria’s 5 million residents will now be allowed to leave home freely and schools will reopen, though households will not be permitted to have visitors. South Australia said it will also lift a lockdown on Wednesday after it recorded zero COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours. Lockdowns have raised the prospect of Australia recording its second recession in as many years, though Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Tuesday talk of this was premature. Frydenberg said last week the country’s A$2 trillion ($1.5 trillion) economy is expected to shrink in the latest GDP figures, with lockdowns costing about A$300 million daily. Easing lockdowns will soften the economic toll, but New South Wales is Australia’s biggest state economy and accounts for about a third of national output. Vaccine rollout criticised Swift contact tracing, tough social distancing rules and lockdowns have helped Australia to keep its COVID-19 numbers low, with just under 33,100 cases and 920 deaths since the pandemic first appeared in early 2020. The outbreak in Sydney, however, has seen a wave of hospitalisations and 10 deaths in recent weeks. New South Wales said 169 people are in hospital with the virus, of which 46 are in intensive care. Amid heightened concerns about a spate of hospitalisations of younger people, Australia has urged people to take AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine after struggling to secure enough supplies of Pfizer’s inoculations. Authorities had previously recommended only over 60s should take the AstraZeneca shot after rare but serious blood clotting cases. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told the BBC Australia’s vaccine rollout has been “a colossal failure” because the government failed to buy enough vaccines. “It’s the biggest failure of public administration I can recall,” Turnbull said. Faced with being unable to secure a Pfizer vaccine until at least September, tens of thousands of people have opted to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine - though many others have said they will wait. “I’m kind of opposed to getting AstraZeneca due to the information that was provided earlier about the blood clots,” said Rebecca Carlisle, who works in human resources in Sydney. “I’m not willing to get AstraZeneca.”

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Six police killed in border battle between Indian states

India|: Guwahati: The chief minister from the northeastern Indian state of Assam on Monday accused police from a rival state of killing six of his security forces in a rare internal border clash. The leaders of Assam and neighbouring Mizoram, which have been wrangling about their border for decades, blamed each other for the deadly violence. Tensions have been building between the two states since last month when officials in Mizoram alleged that Assam police had taken over a border post. Monday’s clash took place near the town of Vairengte. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said on Twitter that six Assam police had “sacrificed their lives while defending constitutional boundary of our state”. His Mizoram counterpart Zoramthanga did not confirm the deaths but said in a statement that shots were fired after a 200-strong police force from Assam “forcibly crossed” a duty post. Zoramthanga, who uses only one name, also claimed the Assam police had damaged vehicles and assaulted unarmed civilians, including a tourist couple. He said Assam police had opened fire at their Mizoram counterparts, who fired back. Both ministers staged a social media campaign to make their cases, sharing videos showing civilians armed with batons clashing with police, cars and vans overturned and another with a couple in a car with broken windows and windscreen. Federal Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah sought to end the tensions that built up last month and Indian media said he had called the two ministers again Monday to try to end the violence. Mizoram was a part of Assam until 1972 when it was split up. Mizoram became a state in its own right in 1986. Mizoram says the area claimed by Assam has been used by its people for more than 100 years, but the Assamese insist that a large chunk of land has been forcibly seized. Both states are ruled by regional parties allied with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Borders between the seven states in the region are not clearly demarcated, leading to regular disputes over land and assets.

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Bodies of three missing climbers spotted on Pakistan’s K2

Pakistan|: Islamabad: The bodies of three mountaineers who died during a winter expedition on Pakistan’s K2 have been found months after they went missing while scaling the world’s second-highest peak, officials said Tuesday. The remains of Pakistani mountaineering legend Muhammad Ali Sadpara, Iceland’s John Snorri and Juan Pablo Mohr from Chile were spotted Monday near “the bottleneck” - a narrow gully just hundreds of metres from the summit. “We are now focusing on a strategy to bring the bodies to a point from where they could be airlifted,” Ayaz Shagri, an official with the Alpine Club of Pakistan, said. “The bodies of the mountaineers are intact and frozen,” Shagri added, saying the climbers’ remains were at an altitude of 7,800 metres (25,600 feet). “It is very difficult to bring the dead bodies down from this high altitude,” said Karrar Haidri, also from the Alpine Club, adding that the military was helping with the operation. The trio lost contact with K2’s base camp in early February, sparking a massive rescue effort that included military helicopters and planes. Sadpara’s son Sajid is in the team coordinating the recovery effort, Shagri added. The discovery of the bodies followed the death on Sunday of Scottish climber Rick Allen, who was killed after being hit by an avalanche. With Pakistan’s borders open and few other places to go due to the coronavirus pandemic, the country’s summer climbing season is attracting a large number of alpinists. Known as “the savage mountain”, K2 has harsh conditions - winds can blow at more than 200 kilometres per hour (124 miles per hour) and temperatures can drop to minus 60 degrees Celsius. Unlike the world’s highest peak Mount Everest, which has been scaled by thousands of climbers young and old, K2 is much less travelled.

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India: Teenager allegedly killed for being in love, cremated in front of girlfriend’s house

India|: Patna: A teenager who was brutally killed for being in love was cremated in front of the house of the accused in Bihar, triggering tension in the area. A heavy police force has been deployed at the village to calm the tension even as the police have arrested the main accused. According to reports, Saurabh Kumar, 17, a resident of Muzaffarpur district, had gone to meet his girlfriend on Friday evening when the family members caught him. Subsequently, the boy was tied to a tree and badly beaten with sticks and iron rods until he fell unconscious. The boy’s genitals were also chopped by the accused, police said. The victim was immediately rushed to a local private hospital and his family members informed but he succumbed to the injuries. Angry over his death, the victim’s family members attacked the house of the accused on Saturday and performed the funeral of the youth in front of the main entrance of the house belonging to his girlfriend. All the family members of the girl are absconding after the incident. Video footage showed an angry mob inside the house of the prime accused Sushant Pandey, brother of the girl, and later burning a funeral pyre in front of the main door. A heavy police force has been deployed at the village after the boy’s cremation. The police have arrested three people, including the prime accused, in connection with the incident. “Prima facie, the boy was killed over an alleged love affair. He was beaten and his genitals were cut off. Post mortem is being done and further details about the injuries will be revealed after the report comes,” local Muzaffarpur district superintendent of police Rajesh Kumar told the media on Sunday. He added an investigation was already underway. The victim’s father Manish Kumar alleged the girl and the boy had been talking to each other for some time and wanted to marry but the girl’s family was totally against it. According to him, the girl’s family called his son to their house and killed him. “After his death, the girl’s brother called me to his house and forced me to sign a statement saying Saurabh was handed over to us alive at the point of a gun,” the father of the deceased alleged.

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Biden, Al Kadhimi seal deal to end US combat mission in Iraq by year-end

Americas|: Washington: US President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi sealed an agreement on Monday formally ending the US combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021, but US forces will still operate there in an advisory role. The agreement comes at a politically delicate time for the Iraqi government and could be a boost for Baghdad. Al Kadhimi has faced increasing pressure from Iran-aligned parties and paramilitary groups who oppose the US military role in the country. Biden and Al Kadhimi met in the Oval Office for their first face-to-face talks as part of a strategic dialogue between the United States and Iraq. “Our role in Iraq will be ... to be available, to continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with ISIS [Daesh terror group} as it arises, but were not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission,” Biden told reporters as he and Kadhimi met. Did you know? * The US troop presence has stood at about 2,500 since late last year when then-President Donald Trump ordered a reduction from 3,000. * The Iraqi government in 2017 declared victory over the Daesh terror group, which is now a shell of its former self. Still, it has shown it can carry out high-casualty attacks. * Last week, the group claimed responsibility for a roadside bombing that killed at least 30 people and wounded dozens in a busy suburban Baghdad market. * The US mission of training and advising Iraqi forces has its most recent origins in President Barack Obama’s decision in 2014 to send troops back to Iraq. * The move was made in response to the Daesh group’s takeover of large portions of western and northern Iraq and a collapse of Iraqi security forces that appeared to threaten Baghdad. Obama had fully withdrawn US forces from Iraq in 2011, eight years after the US invasion. There are currently 2,500 US troops in Iraq focusing on countering the remnants of Daesh. The US role in Iraq will shift entirely to training and advising the Iraqi military to defend itself. The shift is not expected to have a major operational impact since the United States has already moved toward focusing on training Iraqi forces. Still, for Biden, the deal to end the combat mission in Iraq follows decisions to carry out an unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan and wrap up the US military mission there by the end of August. Together with his agreement on Iraq, the Democratic president is moving to formally complete US combat missions in the two wars that then-President George W. Bush began under his watch nearly two decades ago. A US-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003 based on charges that then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction. Saddam was ousted from power, but such weapons were never found. In recent years, the US mission was focused on helping defeat IDaesh terrorists in Iraq and Syria. “Nobody is going to declare mission accomplished. The goal is the enduring defeat of ISIS [Daesh],” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of Al Kadhimi’s visit. The reference was reminiscent of the large “Mission Accomplished” banner on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier above where Bush gave a speech declaring major combat operations over in Iraq on May 1, 2003. “If you look to where we were, where we had Apache helicopters in combat, when we had US special forces doing regular operations, it’s a significant evolution. So by the end of the year we think we’ll be in a good place to really formally move into an advisory and capacity-building role,” the official said. US diplomats and troops in Iraq and Syria were targeted in three rocket and drone attacks earlier this month. Analysts believed the attacks were part of a campaign by Iranian-backed militias. The senior administration official would not say how many US troops would remain on the ground in Iraq for advising and training. Al Kadhimi also declined to speculate about a future US drawdown, saying troop levels would be determined by technical reviews. Al Kadhimi, who is seen as friendly to the United States, has tried to check the power of Iran-aligned militias. But his government condemned US air strikes against Iran-aligned fighters along its border with Syria in late June, calling it a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. In remarks to a small group of reporters after the talks, Al Kadhimi stressed that his government was responsible for responding to such attacks. He acknowledged that he had reached out to Tehran to address them. “We speak to Iranians and others in an attempt to put a limit to these attacks, which are undermining Iraq and its role,” he said. The United States plans to provide Iraq with 500,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine under the global COVAX vaccine-sharing program. Biden said the doses should arrive in a couple of weeks. The United States will also provide $5.2 million to help fund a UN mission to monitor October elections in Iraq. “We’re looking forward to seeing an election in October,” said Biden.

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California, NYC to require employees to get COVID-19 vaccine

Americas|: California and New York City announced Monday that they would require all government employees to get the coronavirus vaccine or face weekly COVID-19 testing, and the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first major federal agency to require health care workers to receive the shot. Meanwhile, in a possible sign that increasingly dire health warnings are getting through to more Americans, vaccination rates began to creep up again, offering hope that the nation could yet break free of the coronavirus if people who have been reluctant to receive the shot are finally inoculated. The announcements are the "opening of the floodgates'' as more government entities and companies impose vaccine mandates after nationwide vaccination efforts "hit a wall,'' said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health. "Some people find mask mandates annoying, but the reality is they're temporary. We can't do them forever,'' he said. "Vaccine mandates have to be one of the major paths moving forward because they get us closer to the finish line. Mask mandates just buy you a little more time.'' In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all municipal workers _ including teachers and police officers _ will be required to get vaccinated by mid-September or face weekly COVID-19 testing, making the city one of the largest employers in the US to take such action. California said it will similarly require proof of vaccination or weekly testing for all state workers and millions of public- and private-sector health care employees starting next month. The VA's move came on a day when nearly 60 leading medical and health care organizations issued a call through the American Medical Association for health care facilities to require their workers to get vaccinated. Elsewhere, St. Louis became the second major city to mandate that face masks be worn indoors, regardless of vaccination status, joining Los Angeles in re-imposing the orders. "For those who are vaccinated, this may feel like punishment, punishment for doing the right thing,'' St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, a Democrat, said Monday. "I've heard that, and I feel that frustration.'' President Joe Biden should "lead by example'' and impose further mandates on the federal workforce and in public venues where the government has jurisdiction, including in planes, trains and federal buildings, said Dr. Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner. "We need vaccine mandates and vaccine verification,'' she said. "We're well past the time for the Biden administration to get on board with this. What we're doing is not working. Doing more of the same is not the answer here.'' The administration has so far recommended that unvaccinated people keep wearing masks indoors, but top officials over the weekend said they are considering recommending that the vaccinated also wear them indoors. "We're going in the wrong direction,'' Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union.'' Wen, who is also an emergency physician and a professor at George Washington University, said public health experts have worried for months about this very scenario. "We were worried the honor system would not work, the unvaccinated would be behaving as if they're vaccinated, and people would think the pandemic is over," she said. "That's precisely what has happened, and it's incredibly frustrating." The US should not have been caught off guard after watching the delta variant ravage India in May and then land in the United Kingdom, Israel and other highly vaccinated nations with force last month, added Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at Yale's School of Public Health. "We have learned multiple times to not take anything for granted with COVID,'' he said. Jha said Americans should brace for another rough few months of COVID, which has already claimed nearly 611,000 lives in the U.S. "I really thought this would be a fabulous summer, but I underestimated the misinformation campaign that was coming,'' he said Monday. "What were the chances that after more than half a million Americans dead, that one-third of the country would still not want to end the pandemic?" Vaccinations ticked up over the weekend, with about 657,000 vaccines reported administered Saturday and nearly 780,000 on Sunday, according to CDC data. The 7-day rolling average on Sunday was about 583,000 vaccinations a day, up from about 525,000 a week prior. Public health experts on Monday said the uptick in vaccinations is encouraging but warned that it's far too early to say if millions of unvaccinated people are finally overcoming their reticence. "I wish I could say yes, but I honestly don't know,'' said Ko. "There is a lot of ground to cover.'' The US is around 67% immune from COVID-19 when prior infections are factored, but it will need to get closer to 85% to crush the resurgent virus, Jha said. "So we need a lot more vaccinations. Or a lot more infections,'' he said. The seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the country shot up over the past two weeks, from more than 19,000 on July 11 to nearly 52,000 on July 25, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Health experts said they are hopeful that the prominent conservative and Republican voices that have spent months casting doubt on the vaccination effort are finally willing to help move the needle. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise and other Republicans on the GOP Doctors Caucus held a press conference at the Capitol late last week imploring their constituents to lay lingering doubts aside. Fox News host Sean Hannity declared on his popular show: "It absolutely makes sense for many Americans to get vaccinated. I believe in science. I believe in the science of vaccinations.'' Facebook also needs to do a better job cleaning up misinformation on its social media platform, Jha said. And the Food and Drug Administration needs to fully approve the COVID-19 vaccines, which currently have emergency approval. That final step will give more companies greater confidence to impose vaccine mandates, he suggested. "FDA approval matters a lot,'' Jha said. "It's absurd at this point. The safety and efficacy of these drugs has been well-documented.''