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Security on high alert in Islamabad ahead of Pakistan Democratic Movement rally

Pakistan|: Islamabad: The Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) in Islamabad have put security on high alert ahead of the opposition parties’ alliance Pakistan Democratic Movement’s (PDM) protest rally scheduled for Tuesday, January 19, outside the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) building. The PDM, an 11-party opposition alliance, had announced earlier this month that it would hold a protest outside the ECP secretariat against delay and slow pace of the foreign funding case against the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). In order to review the security situation and to ensure order in the federal capital during the planned protest by the PDM, Minister for Interior Sheikh Rashid Ahmed has called a meeting of high level officials of police and law-enforcement agencies. At the meeting the inspector generals of police of Islamabad, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Chief Commissioner Islamabad as well as senior officials from other law-enforcement agencies will brief about the security arrangements at the ECP and in the Red Zone of the federal capital. The ECP had approached the Islamabad administration through a letter to the chief commissioner, saying that the PDM should be allowed to protest only in a specific area adjacent to the Constitution Avenue, so that the working of the election supervisor was not affected. According to the Islamabad police, all necessary security measures will be taken to protect life and property of the people as the protest would be taking place in a sensitive area. In the meeting, security and monitoring of all the entrance and exit points to the federal capital will be reviewed and input from the allied departments like Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) will also be taken into consideration. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has also directed his party workers and supporters to join the PMD’s rally to register strong protest to the ECP against the 7-year delay in conclusion of “an apparently simple case.” Party meeting On Saturday the main opposition party in the PDM, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) finalized its strategy for the rally and at a party meeting held at the PML-N Model Town office, it was decided that Marryam Nawaz daughter of Nawaz Sharif will lead a rally from Lahore through Motorway and join the Rawalpindi-based main rally of PML-N at some points. All the party MNAs, MPAs and ticket holders will reach Rawalpindi with their supporters in the shape of rallies to join Marryum Nawaz in Rawalpindi. Meanwhile, the ECP has issued guidelines for its officers and employees in connection with the PDM protest in a notification. According to the guidelines, all employees would be required to produce their office and the Computerized National Identity Cards (CNIC) cards with them on January 19 for security clearance to the Election Commission Secretariat.

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Biden ropes in 20 Indian-Americans in his administration, 17 at key White House positions

Americas|: Washington: US President-elect Joe Biden has nominated at least 20 Indian-Americans, including 13 women, to key positions in his incoming administration, a record for the small ethnic community that constitutes one per cent of America's population. As many as 17 of them, including Neera Tanden who has been nominated as the Director of Management and Budget, would be part of the Biden administration in the powerful White House complex. The January 20th inauguration, the 59th in all, where Biden, 78, would be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States is already historic in the making as for the first time ever a woman, Kamala Harris, would be sworn as the Vice-President of the country. Harris, 56, is also the first ever Indian-origin and African-American to be sworn in as the Vice President of the United States. It is also for the first time ever that so many Indian-Americans have been roped into a presidential administration ever before the inauguration. Biden, a Democrat, is still quite far away from filling all the positions in his administration. Topping the list is Tanden, who has been nominated as Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget and Dr Vivek Murthy, who has been nominated as the US Surgeon General. Vanita Gupta has been nominated as Associate Attorney General Department of Justice, and on Saturday, Biden nominated former foreign service official Uzra Zeya as the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights. 'The dedication that the Indian-American community has shown to public service over the years has been recognised in a big way at the very start of this administration! I am particularly pleased that the overwhelming majority are women. Our community has truly arrived in serving the nation,' Indiaspora founder M R Rangaswami told PTI. Mala Adiga has been appointed as Policy Director to the future First Lady Dr Jill Biden and Garima Verma would be the Digital Director of the Office of the First Lady, while Sabrina Singh has been named as the White House Deputy Press Secretary. For the first time, the Indian-Americans nominated for Biden administration include two who trace their roots to Kashmir: Aisha Shah, who has been named as Partnership Manager at the White House Office of Digital Strategy and Sameera Fazili, who would occupy the key position of Deputy Director at the US National Economic Council (NEC) in the White House. White House National Economic Council also has another Indian-American, Bharat Ramamurti, as Deputy Director. Gautam Raghavan, who served at the White House in the previous Obama administration returns to the White House as Deputy Director in Office of Presidential Personnel. Among Biden's inner circle is his top confidant for years Vinay Reddy, who has been named as Director Speechwriting. Young Vedant Patel is all set to occupy a seat in the White House lower press, behind the briefing room, as Assistant Press Secretary to the President. He is only the third-ever Indian American to be part of the White House press shop. Three Indian-Americans have made their way to the crucial National Security Council of the White House, thus leaving a permanent imprint on the country's foreign policy and national security. They are Tarun Chhabra: Senior Director for Technology and National Security, Sumona Guha, Senior Director for South Asia, Shanthi Kalathil: Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights. Sonia Aggarwal has been named Senior Advisor for Climate Policy and Innovation in the Office of the Domestic Climate Policy at the White House and Vidur Sharma has been appointed as Policy Advisor for Testing for the White House COVID-19 Response Team. Two Indian-American women have been appointed to the Office of the White House Counsel: Neha Gupta as Associate Counsel and Reema Shah as Deputy Associate Counsel. Also, for the first time in any administration, the White House would have three other South Asians in key positions -- Pakistani-American Ali Zaidi as Deputy National Climate Advisor White House; Sri Lankan American Rohini Kosoglu as Domestic Policy Advisor to the Vice President and Bangladeshi-American Zayn Siddique: Senior Advisor to the White House Deputy Chief of Staff. During the campaign, Biden had indicated that he would rope in a large number of Indian-Americans. 'As President, I'll also continue to rely on Indian-American diaspora that keeps our two nations together, as I have throughout my career,' Biden had said in his address to the Indian-American community during a virtual celebration of India's Independence Day on August 15, 2020. 'My constituents in Delaware, my staff in the Senate, the Obama-Biden administration, which had more Indian-Americans than any other administration in the history of this country and this campaign with Indian Americans at senior levels, which of course includes the top of the heap, our dear friend (Harris) who will be the first Indian-American vice president in the history of the United States of America,' Biden had said in his video address. Biden and Harris will be sworn in as President and Vice President of the United States during a largely-virtual swearing-in ceremony on January 20. But it won't be a typical inauguration, for several reasons. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and fresh security concerns following a pro-Trump mob breaching the Capitol last week have combined to force some major changes to what is a historical American day.

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Britain invites G7 leaders to Cornish resort for June summit

Europe|: London: Britain announced plans to hold the first in-person meeting of the G7 for nearly two years in June, inviting the leaders of major developed economies to a picturesque seaside village to discuss rebuilding from the pandemic and climate change. Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he wants to use Britain’s presidency of the G7 to forge a consensus that the global economy must recover from the COVID-19 crisis in a pro-free trade and sustainable way. “Coronavirus is doubtless the most destructive force we have seen for generations and the greatest test of the modern world order we have experienced,” he said in a statement. “It is only right that we approach the challenge of building back better by uniting with a spirit of openness to create a better future.” Britain has suffered badly during the health crisis, with the highest death toll in Europe of more than 88,000 people. Third wave But, while a third wave of the virus causes more than 1,000 deaths per day, the country is leading the way on vaccinations having been the first in the world to authorise their use, and hopes to have much of the population protected within months. Last year’s G7 meeting, due to be hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump, was cancelled due to the pandemic, meaning the leaders of Britain, Germany, France, the United States, Italy, Japan, the European Union and Canada have not met in person since the 2019 meeting in Biarritz, France. The Sunday Telegraph newspaper said the British government hoped the event would be the occasion for U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s first trip to Europe after he becomes president on Jan. 20. Tiny resort “I don’t think he will visit anywhere else before the G7, except possibly Canada,” the newspaper quoted an unnamed British government source as saying. Johnson has also invited Australia, India and South Korea to attend. The summit will take place in the tiny resort of Carbis Bay in Cornwall, southwest England - an area now most famous for its beaches and surfing but also home to fishing fleets and once an important mining area. “Two hundred years ago Cornwall’s tin and copper mines were at the heart of the UK’s industrial revolution and this summer Cornwall will again be the nucleus of great global change and advancement,” Johnson said.

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UK aviation sector calls for urgent support amid travel curbs

Europe|Aviation|: London: The UK’s aviation sector needs urgent government support if it is to survive another lengthy period of travel restrictions to curb surging coronavirus infections in the country, according to industry leaders. On Saturday, Karen Dee, the chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, urged the UK government to set out plans for how airports will survive financially during the crisis. “Airports are currently keeping their infrastructure open to support vital and critical services, such as post, freight, emergency services, military and coastguard flights, as well as to help keep the lights in the UK on through supporting flights to offshore oil, gas and wind operations,” Xinhua news agency quoted Dee as saying to the Guardian newspaper. “Airports are doing so while running on empty - there is only so long they can run on fumes before having to close temporarily to preserve their business for the future,” she said. “Government needs to help cover airports’ operational costs by, for example, urgently providing relief from regulatory, policing, air traffic and business rates costs in the current and the coming tax year.” Heathrow Airport lost its status as Europe’s busiest airport as it recorded a loss of 1.5 billion pounds ($2.04 billion) in the first nine months of 2020 due to Covid-19. Passenger numbers between July and September 2020 were down by more than 84 per cent compared with the same period in 2019, leading the west London hub to be overtaken by Paris Charles de Gaulle as the busiest in Europe. Tim Alderslade, the chief executive of Airlines UK, which represents all UK registered airlines, said that if by Easter the restrictions are not lifted, the industry will be “in a really difficult place”. Easter is a Christian holiday which falls on April 4 this year. Paid back “Easter is a date that we have got in mind as to when we can start to have an aviation sector again because if we don’t start to bring in revenue to the sector, we are going to be in a really difficult place indeed because we have now had pretty much 12 months without any revenue coming in, which is just not sustainable and airlines are effectively staying in business by taking on billions of pounds of debt, which will need to be paid back,” Alderslade said. On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that Britain will close all travel corridors to the country from 4 a.m. on Monday in a bid to keep out new coronavirus variants. The new measure means that travellers entering the country must have proof of a negative Covid-19 test in previous 72 hours. Anyone arriving in Britain must quarantine for 10 days or they have the choice of doing an extra test on day five to shorten the isolation, Johnson said. England is currently under the third national lockdown since the outbreak of the pandemic in the country. Similar restriction measures are also in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The UK has so far reported a total of 3,325,642 coronavirus cases and 87,448 deaths.

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Gunmen assassinate two Afghan women judges in Kabul ambush

Asia|: Kabul: Gunmen shot dead two Afghan women judges working for the Supreme Court during an early morning ambush in the country's capital Sunday, officials said, as a wave of assassinations continues to rattle the nation. Violence has surged across Afghanistan in recent months despite ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and government - especially in Kabul, where a new trend of targeted killings aimed at high-profile figures has sown fear in the restive city. The latest attack comes just two days after the Pentagon announced it had cut troop levels in Afghanistan to 2,500, the fewest in nearly two decades. The attack on the judges happened as they were driving to their office in a court vehicle, said Ahmad Fahim Qaweem, a spokesman for the Supreme Court. "Unfortunately, we have lost two women judges in today's attack. Their driver is wounded," Qaweem told AFP. There are more than 200 female judges working for the country's top court, the spokesman added. Kabul police confirmed the attack. Afghanistan's Supreme Court was a target in February 2017 when a suicide bomb ripped through a crowd of court employees, killing at least 20 and wounding 41. In recent months, several prominent Afghans - including politicians, journalists, activists, doctors and prosecutors - have been assassinated in often brazen daytime attacks in Kabul and other cities. Afghan officials have blamed the Taliban for the attacks, a charge the insurgent group has denied. Some of these killings have been claimed by the rival jihadist Islamic State group. Earlier this month the US military for the first time directly accused the Taliban of orchestrating the attacks. "The Taliban's campaign of unclaimed attacks and targeted killings of government officials, civil society leaders & journalists must... cease for peace to succeed," Colonel Sonny Leggett, spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan, said on Twitter. The targeted killings have surged despite the Taliban and Afghan government engaging in peace talks in the Qatari capital of Doha. The Taliban carried out more than 18,000 attacks in 2020, Afghanistan's spy chief Ahmad Zia Siraj told lawmakers earlier this month. On Friday, the Pentagon announced it had cut troop levels in Afghanistan to 2,500 as part of its deal with the Taliban to withdraw all troops from the country by May 2021. That deal was struck in return for security guarantees from the insurgents and a commitment to peace talks with the Afghan government.

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Pfizer reassures Europe over deliveries of coronavirus vaccines as pandemic surges

Europe|: Paris: Pharma giant Pfizer tried to ease concerns in Europe about deliveries of its coronavirus vaccine as nations across the world doubled down on restrictions to fight the rampaging pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic is showing no signs of slowing down, with infections surging past 94 million and more than two million deaths, and Europe among the hardest-hit parts of the world. Worries have grown that delays in the delivery of Pfizer-BioNTech shots could hamper a European vaccine rollout which has already faced heavy criticism across the continent. Work is ongoing at the Pfizer plant in Belgium to increase capacity, and the firm and its German partner BioNTech said Saturday it would allow them to “significantly” scale up vaccine production in the second quarter. Deliveries would be back to the original schedule to the EU from January 25, they pledged. Mass vaccinations Several Nordic and Baltic countries have described the situation as “unacceptable”, while Belgium’s vaccination strategy task force condemned a lack of consultation by Pfizer over the deliveries as “incomprehensible”. France, which crossed 70,000 Covid-19 deaths on the weekend, is set to begin a campaign to inoculate people over 75 from Monday. Russia plans to begin mass vaccinations the same day. Despite the rollout of vaccines, countries still have few options but to rely on movement and distancing restrictions to control the spread of the virus. Curbs will be tightened in Italy and Switzerland from Monday, while Britain will require testing of all international arrivals.

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India hails 'life saving' COVID-19 vaccine rollout

India|: New Delhi: India's COVID-19 vaccination drive had a successful start with more than 190,000 people receiving their first jabs and no one hospitalised for major side effects, the health ministry said, but reports emerged about concerns over the homegrown vaccine. Authorities have given emergency-use approval for two vaccines - Oxford-AstraZeneca and the homegrown "Covaxin", which has yet to complete its Phase 3 trials - and plans to immunise some 300 million people in the country of 1.3 billion by July. Frontline workers such as hospital staff, people over 50 and those deemed to be at high risk due to pre-existing medical conditions are on the shortlist to receive the vaccines. Also read COVID-19: Bharat Biotech to pay compensation if Covaxin causes side effects PM Narendra Modi launches India's vaccination drive against COVID-19 India’s new COVID-19 cases per million among lowest in the world: Government "We have got encouraging and satisfactory feedback results on the first day," Health Minister Harsh Vardhan told his state counterparts on Saturday. "This vaccine will indeed be a 'Sanjeevani' (life saver)" in the fight against the virus, he added. The health ministry said "no case of post-vaccination hospitalisation" had been reported, although local media said a security guard at the country's top-ranked public hospital, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi, had developed an allergic reaction shortly after getting his shot. A doctors' representative body at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in New Delhi wrote a letter asking for the Oxford-AstraZeneca "Covishield" vaccine to be supplied instead of Covaxin to allay any fears. "The residents are a bit apprehensive about the lack of complete trial in case of Covaxin and might not participate in huge numbers thus defeating the purpose of vaccination," said the letter addressing the hospital's medical superintendent, seen by AFP. "We request you to vaccinate us with Covishield, which has completed all stages of trial before its rollout." Pathologist Arvind Ahuja told AFP at the hospital on Saturday that he shared some of the concerns. "I hope when the data comes out, it is good. Ideally, they should have waited for one month at least as then we would have known better about its efficacy," the 45-year-old said. Vaccine hesitancy has emerged as a major concern, with a recent survey of 18,000 people across India finding that 69 percent were in no rush to get a shot. Leading scientists and doctors have called on authorities to release efficacy data about Covaxin to boost confidence about the vaccine. Covaxin recipients on Saturday had to sign a consent form that stated its "clinical efficacy... is yet to be established". Officials had hoped to inoculate 300,000 people on Saturday but said glitches with an app used to coordinate and monitor the process meant not all potential recipients were alerted. India has the world's second-largest known caseload with more than 10.5 million coronavirus infections and over 152,000 deaths so far.

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COVID-19: New tighter rules come into force in Scotland

Europe|: Edinburgh: New tighter Covid-19 restrictions came into force in Scotland with changes for takeaway outlets, and click and collect shopping. Under the new curbs which came into force on Saturday, customers buying takeaway food and coffee are no longer allowed inside premises, staff must serve from a hatch or doorway, Xinhua news agency reported. Now only retailers selling essential items - clothing, footwear, baby equipment, homeware and books - can provide click and collect services. Customer collections can only be made outdoors, with staggered pick-up times to avoid queues. The changes are among six new rules announced by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon earlier this week in an attempt to drive down the region’s infection rate. She has expanded on the rules that were initially implemented by law on January 5, telling the Scottish Parliament that the new restrictions are “regrettable” but are a “means to an end”. More than half of all cases in Scotland have been blamed for the new variant of the virus, prompting Sturgeon to tell Parliament that it “makes it far more difficult to get the R number back below 1, without severe restrictions”. Spreading in the country The R number, or the coronavirus reproduction number, is one of many indicators scientists use to determine how fast Covid-19 is spreading in the country. If the R number is above one, it means the number of cases will increase exponentially. Britain’s R number is estimated at between 1.2 and 1.3, compared with last week’s one and 1.4, the British government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said on Friday. Scotland also recorded its highest death figure from coronavirus since May 2020 in the week ending January 10. England is currently under the third national lockdown since the outbreak of the pandemic in the country. Similar restriction measures are also in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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Britons lament ‘UK variant’ label as coronavirus strain spreads around the world

Europe|: London: Britain is in the difficult position of not only facing the world’s highest per capita coronavirus death toll but also being implicated - by labeling, at least - as the source of a highly contagious version of the virus now spreading around the world: the feared “U.K. variant.” “WHO calls for more intensified measures to fight UK coronavirus variant,” CNN announced. “Warnings of huge new spike in US covid-19 cases as UK variant spreads,” wrote the New Scientist. “U.K. variant found in Ohio,” reported Cleveland.com. A year ago, as the coronavirus began spreading from Wuhan, China, on its way to becoming a global pandemic, there was pushback against maligning China or its hard-hit city with the labels like “China virus” or “Wuhan virus.” President Donald Trump waved away those concerns - and added “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” to his descriptors. There hasn’t yet been the same pushback for the “U.K. variant.” It’s one of a number of mutations being called after the place where they were detected. The others include the “South African variant” and the “Brazilian variant.” But the variant first detected in Britain is making the most news. On Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted it would become the dominant strain in the United States within two months. Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s top emergencies official, acknowledged that the geographical names can be a problem. Naming system “It’s really important that when people call it the ‘U.K. variant’ or ‘South African variant’ that we aren’t assigning values to these countries, these countries aren’t the cause of this problem,” he said at a recent news conference. Instead, he said, “they should be commended and lauded” for investing in the systems that allow this kind of monitoring. The WHO told The Washington Post it is planning a new naming system without reference to country names, to be announced “soon.” The technical name for the variant first identified in Britain is “B.1.1.7.” That may be a tough one to use on the nightly news. But Andrew Rambaut, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh and one of the authors of a paper that called for the current lineage naming system, explained that a lot of information is packed in there. “B” refers to the original variant observed in Wuhan in early 2020. “B.1” is associated with the big outbreak in Italy and central Europe last spring. “It tells you something about the history,” Rambaut said. Asked if, when talking to colleagues, he says “B point one point one point seven,” he laughed. No, he said, just “B one one seven.” He admitted that, initially, he used a geographic label. “We called it ‘the Kent one,’ because that’s where we first saw it,” he said. “But we tried hard not to, because it becomes meaningless very, very quickly. You say ‘U.K. variant,’ when it’s actually now 50 countries in the world.” Virus genomes Sharon Peacock, chair of Covid-19 Genomics U.K. Consortium, a world leader in sequencing the changing mutations of the coronavirus, said one problem with naming variants after localities is that where they first emerge and where they are discovered might be very different. Since Britain is sequencing more virus genomes than anywhere else, many of the variants now and in the future might be “discovered” here, even if they arose somewhere else and arrived via international travelers. “The more you sequence, the more you find,” Peacock said. “First detected doesn’t mean first emergent.” She agreed that the terminology can be confusing. Even she and her colleagues sometimes stumble and refer to the “South African” or “Brazilian” variant. Jeffrey Barrett, lead covid-19 statistical geneticist at the Sanger Institute, which is sequencing about 10,000 genomes of the coronavirus each week, said devising a naming scheme “is not a totally easy problem.” It makes sense for scientists to use a technical system at first, he said, “because you don’t know how the virus is going to change and grow when you start out,” and naming thousands of mutations distinct, snappy names wouldn’t be helpful. But if a variant of concern does emerge, like B117, “you end up getting these kind of mouthful names, and inevitably you slip into trying to say something that is at least recognizable.” Stephen Mawdsley, a historian at the University of Bristol, said the WHO was “quite right” to come up with a new naming system, as names linked with countries are “not helpful.” “Such terms are problematic and only serve to stigmatize national groups and limit cooperation,” he said. “Indeed, contagious diseases - especially ones that can cause pandemics - are an international problem and need to be framed accordingly.” The 1918 influenza was also widely known as the “Spanish flu,” a label loathed by Spain. It didn’t originate there. Mawdsley said some historical sources suggest American soldiers may have brought it to Europe during World War I. But Spain was the first country to report it - and has been trying to distance itself ever since. Not pointing fingers Cate Newsom, managing director at Evviva Brands, said “covid” has worked well as a name, as it’s “neutral, it’s not pointing a finger at anybody.” Likewise, she said, it would be good to “have some kind of system in place to avoid this kind of scenario where it’s attributed to a place . . . like storms or hurricanes, that’s a much more neutral systemic approach. Nobody blames women named Katrina for a storm.” She said those devising naming systems should be mindful that if the names are too much of a mouthful, the public will shorten them. “It needs to be something short enough that people can remember, three syllables, preferably two,” she said, noting that already, “corona has become ‘rona for many.” B117 was detected in late autumn and began to raise flags in late November and early December, when scientists saw it spreading quickly in the southeast of England. It’s up to 70 percent more transmissible, and it is one of the reasons behind the current lockdown in England. The naming debate isn’t limited to place of origin. Should these new discoveries be referred to as variants, strains, mutants, shifts, drifts? “I understand the confusion. Of course, they are viruses, but they are not new viruses,” said Massimo Palmarini, director of the MRC Center for Virus Research at the University of Glasgow, in a webinar with science journalists on Friday. “We were just joking earlier on that if you put 20 virologists in a room, we will all have slightly different terms, our preferred terms that we use. But the consensus term is variants.”