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Sri Lanka thanked for suspending cremation of Muslim COVID-19 victims

Asia|: Abu Dhabi: The Secretary-General of the Muslim World League, Sheikh Dr. Mohammad bin Abdul Karim Al Issa, appreciated the response of the Sri Lankan government to a request not to cremate the bodies of Muslim COVID-19 victims, in accordance with Islamic teachings. In a phone call with Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dinesh Gunawardena, Al Issa affirmed that the gesture serves to strengthen the close relationship between the Muslim World League and the Sri Lankan government. Sri Lanka’s controversial policy to cremate the bodies of coronavirus victims has outraged Muslims, for whom cremation is forbidden. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government claimed that burying deceased victims of COVID-19 could contaminate groundwater, despite World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines that stipulate burials are safe and pose no risk during the pandemic. Sri Lanka’s Chief Epidemiologist Sugath Samaraweera said an expert committee warned the government that burials could contaminate the island nation’s high water table. Several Muslim and Catholic families, health professionals and religious leaders have challenged the Supreme Court’s ruling on cremations, requesting evidence that burials contaminate groundwater. The court, however, has dismissed all such petitions. In December last year, the forced cremation of a 20-day-old infant without the consent of the family prompted nationwide anger. Both of the baby’s parents tested negative for COVID-19. There have also been instances of cremation where authorities later acknowledged the deceased victim did not have the disease. Such cases have not only enraged Sri Lanka’s minority groups but have also exposed the religious and ethnic fault lines in the country. Rights activists say the Sri Lankan government has adopted various policies that discriminate against Muslim and Tamil minorities. Last year, four UN special rapporteurs appealed to the Sri Lankan government, stating that the cremation policy violated the right to freedom of religion. They called on the government to combat attempts to instigate religious hatred and violence. Muslims comprise about 10% of Sri Lanka’s population of 21 million, but they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, according to the Sri Lanka Muslim Council.

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COVID-19: Biden sees faster US vaccine timeline as pharma giants join forces

Americas|: New York: President Joe Biden said Tuesday the United States would have enough vaccine for its entire adult population by the end of May, as he announced a deal for pharma giant Merck to produce the shot developed by rival Johnson & Johnson. “This is the type of collaboration between companies we saw in World War,” said Biden in announcing the pharmaceutical accord. “We’re now on track to have enough vaccine supply for every adult in America by the end of May,” said the US leader — who previously targeted late July to amass sufficient doses to inoculate all Americans. “That’s progress. Important progress. But it is not enough to have the vaccine supply,” Biden said, stressing that a “wartime effort” still lay ahead to administer the vaccines once acquired. Merck will use two of its facilities to “produce drug substance, formulate and fill vials of J&J’s vaccine,” according to a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) statement. Biden’s administration will leverage the Defense Production Act to provide an initial $105 million for Merck to convert and equip its facilities to safely manufacture the vaccine, the statement said. The J&J vaccine is the third to receive US regulatory approval for emergency use, but the first that requires a single shot as opposed to two jabs. Biden also said Johnson & Johnson’s own vaccine manufacturing facilities “will now begin to operate 24/7” — at the administration’s urging. HHS said this would enable J&J to deliver close to 100 million doses to the United States by end May — instead of June as previously pledged. J&J said in a statement it was “pleased” to work with Merck, which will “enhance our production capacity so that we can supply beyond our current commitments.” Boosting capacity Biden’s remarks came moments after Texas Governor Greg Abbott lifted a state mask mandate and authorized business to open the state “100 percent.” But “now is not the time to let up,” warned the president, calling on Americans to keep following social distancing protocols and wearing a mask even as new coronavirus cases fall and more are vaccinated. “Great news, but stay vigilant,” Biden said. “It’s not over yet.” The J&J shot appears slightly less protective than Pfizer and Moderna’s regimes, which have an efficacy of around 95 percent against all forms of Covid-19. But all three have been shown to fully protect against hospitalizations and death. White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said Monday the federal government aims to distribute 3.9 million doses of the new vaccine this week — “the entire J&J inventory.” A major vaccine producer in its own right, Merck had begun work on coronavirus vaccines, but abandoned those efforts in January, saying the immune responses that were “inferior” to successful Covid-19 vaccines. The agreement between Merck and J&J follows on the heels of an accord between Pfizer/BioNTech and French pharma giant Sanofi, which plans to produce 125 million doses at a factory in Frankfurt, Germany after Sanofi’s own vaccine candidate fell short.

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COVID-19: UK extends furlough scheme by 5 months, gives more help to self-employed

Europe|: London: Britain will extend its huge job-protecting furlough programme by five months until the end of September and expand parallel support for the self-employed, finance minister Rishi Sunak is due to announce in a budget speech on Wednesday. Workers covered by the furlough scheme — currently about one in five private-sector employees — will continue to receive 80 per cent of their salary for hours not worked. But employers will have to start contributing to the cost as the economy reopens from lockdown, paying 10 per cent of the hours their staff do not work in July, rising to 20 per cent in August and September, the ministry said. “Our COVID support schemes have been a lifeline to millions, protecting jobs and incomes across the UK,” Sunak was due to say in his budget speech to parliament, according to excerpts sent to media by the finance ministry. “There’s now light at the end of the tunnel with a roadmap for reopening, so it’s only right that we continue to help business and individuals through the challenging months ahead — and beyond.” The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) had been due to expire at the end of April, raising fears of a sharp jump in unemployment at a time when the economy is still likely to be struggling under the weight of coronavirus restrictions. The Confederation of British Industry welcomed the move. “Extending the scheme will keep millions more in work and give businesses the chance to catch their breath as we carefully exit lockdown,” CBI chief economist Rain Newton-Smith said. The CJRS will cost £70 billion (Dh360 billion) between its launch in March last year during the onset of the pandemic and the end of April, according to estimates made last month by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Sunak is also due to announce on Wednesday that a further 600,000 self-employed workers will become eligible for government support. Until now the government had only allowed applications from workers who were self-employed in the 2018-19 tax year, but eligibility for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) will be expanded to those who first reported being self-employed in 2019-20. A fourth SEISS grant for the self-employed will be available from next month worth 80 per cent of three months’ average trading profits up to £7,500 in total, and details of a fifth grant would be provided on Wednesday, the ministry said.